Two things you need to do to change your life

The one question I get asked most often is, how does one do it? If you want to opt out, how do you figure out what it is you want to do instead and how do you take the step?

Unfortunately there is no easy answer, no recipe or magic formula to follow. However the good news is that there are things you can do.

First of all, you have to be prepared to step out of your comfort zone. If you continue the way you have within the safe realm of what you know, things will most likely not change. The other day I stumbled across an article that really hit the nail on its head. It argued that you have to do things that make you uncomfortable to find happiness and success (and it also listed what these uncomfortable things are).

Those of you who know me, and are familiar with my writing, know that I find this constant search for happiness problematic to say the least. Happiness and success are a result of something else, of doing something meaningful and something you love. We tend to love what we are good at and become good at what we love, simply because being good at something tends to be fun and if you really like doing it you generally throw yourself into it with gusto, which tends to lead to success. And research has shown that the constant search for happiness, which seems to have become a societal obsession of sorts, actually makes people less happy and less fulfilled. So they continue searching and end up in a vicious circle.

So how to we know what we love if we haven’t found it yet? To find out, here are two things you should do:

  1. You have to put yourself out there and explore. That means talking to people. Tell people that you’re looking, ask them what they do, find out more about what kinds of things, activities, and jobs there are. It’s hard to imagine anything other than what we know. That was certainly true for me before I opted out; I couldn’t really imagine working in any other way than I always had. Without talking to people and exploring you don’t even know what you don’t know. But if you reach out to find out more, worlds you didn’t even know existed will open up and you will find new activities, lifestyles, and forms of work to try.
  2. Don’t wait until you have it all figured out. I’m a very private person and this was a mistake I used to make a lot. I used to never talk about my thoughts and dreams until I had it figured out. I guess I was worried I would seem stupid or something if things didn’t turn out the way I had planned. However, I think it’s safe to say that everyone understands that plans are only plans and that they can change. The risk of waiting to tell people, or to take steps before you have everything figured out and ready, is that you may never figure it out unless you talk to people. This is related to the previous point on putting yourself out there.

What this means is, you don’t have to leap right away. You can start small while you’re still figuring it out. You might want to try something on the side, and then if that doesn’t work or you realize you don’t like it as much as you thought you would you can stop doing that and try something else. And remember: don’t stop exploring just because you don’t find your thing right away. Contrary to popular belief, when it comes to life, there is no such thing as a quick fix. You’ll get there; you just need to give it time.

And one more thing, don’t forget what Brené Brown says: you don’t need to negotiate your right to be anywhere with anyone. You are the one who decides that.

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The discipline of a master procrastinator

I’ve never really thought of myself as disciplined. I’m actually a master procrastinator. Sometimes it can inexplicably take me forever to get around to doing something – inexplicably because the things that don’t get done are usually really not a big deal. They wouldn’t necessarily take very long to do at all if I just got around to them.

So imagine my surprise when people started telling me they really admired my discipline. It all started when I was on maternity leave with my first child and taking social psychology classes. Since I was living abroad without a network of friends and relatives to help, I couldn’t leave my baby and actually go to class, but I would study the literature at home and then go to the university to take the exams. And this is what I did: I would spend time with the baby in the morning and when I put her down for her nap I would devour as much of the course literature as I could until she woke up. Then I would spend time with her again until her next nap and then I was off again to the world of group dynamics, prejudice, dialogue, disorder… you name it I was reading it. I was tired and my house was literally a mess, but I loved every minute. Studying social psychology was something I had wanted to do for a long time, but it also provided a pretty good counterweight to the sometimes lovely and oftentimes uneventful days at home with a baby.

I was told that I was amazing, so disciplined.

Another time I heard this was when I was working on my PhD at home in a different country than the university where I was enrolled, and also finished within the designated time. People would wonder how I had the discipline. Some people talked about how they would never be able to write a doctoral dissertation at home because they would get too distracted. Well, the discipline part really wasn’t that hard. After I enrolled as a PhD student, my job was suddenly to read again and think, as much as I possibly could. The things that might have distracted me at home, were things like laundry and dirty dishes and other never ending tasks that, to be honest, I didn’t want to do anyway. No, I didn’t feel particularly disciplined; I was just doing what I really wanted to do.

The other day I attended an event where I heard Paul Auster being interviewed. What an interesting man. Paul Auster, when asked about having the discipline to write every day, said that he always thinks that’s an irrelevant question. Because it’s not a matter of discipline, it’s a matter of wanting or not wanting to do what you do. If you really love what you do, discipline isn’t an issue.

So what do we learn from this? Well, maybe if you like what you do you don’t have to worry about discipline, but if you have to force yourself to do what you’re supposed to be doing, maybe you don’t really want to do it in the first place?

But I also have to say, procrastination really isn’t such a bad thing. It’s not the enemy of productivity, nor the opposite of discipline. There is a study that shows that procrastinators are, in fact, more creative than people who don’t procrastinate. I mean if you think about it, maybe procrastination is a way for creative people to allow themselves a break to actually reflect. We don’t generally get a lot of time to reflect in society, even though we know that you need to have time to reflect to actually be able to create.

So on that note, I think I’ll have a cup of coffee and procrastinate for a while. No discipline needed for that either.

100 reasons

My opting out and in journey has been going on for years now. I usually say it began in 2009 when I left my job in consulting to work on my PhD, but really it started way before that. It had been going on in my head, more or less consciously, for years, as I would ponder whether or not this was it or if there was some other lifestyle out there for me.

And I have to say, despite the ups and downs of academic life, I don’t regret my decision at all. I love doing research – more that I realized I would when I jumped – and although there is a lot of uncertainty regarding the future, I’m thoroughly enjoying where I am right now and have faith that when the time comes (read: when my funding ends) one step will lead to the next and new opportunities will appear.

This blog has been an important part of my journey. As I’ve negotiated my terms with myself and others, and thought about what compromises I am and am not willing to make; the opting out blog has been a space where I have been able to do things my way. I have been the one who has decided what to write, when to write it, and how to go about it.

To me the blog is about opting out on several levels. I write about my research around opting out and anything related to that, and I write about my own opting out experiences. But part of doing it on my own terms is that I don’t only limit my posts to opting out. I opt to also write about other things, things that I think are important or things that I have been thinking about, and I do so in whatever way I please. Having this ability to be the one to decide all this has been both liberating and empowering. It has been my breathing space and the one place that has been all mine to do with as I please.

About a year ago, I was asked to think about my blog, about what and how I write and who I write for – my audience. These questions were a part of a larger process and were definitely relevant. The thing is though, that as I was asked to analyze my blog, I started to find it more and more difficult to write my posts. From having had a situation where texts just flowed from my head through my fingers onto the screen whenever ideas came to me, writing suddenly became a chore and just one more thing on my to-do list. I continued writing anyway because I wanted to keep updating my blog regularly, if not for myself then for my readers, but it sort of stopped being fun.

Well, I’ve been thinking about this and I’ve come to the conclusion that not everything has to or even should be analyzed and quantified. I could probably be more strategic in my writing, but what good would that do me if takes all the fun out of it and kills my creativity? So my conclusion is that this particular blog needs to be left alone, as it plays an important role for me just the way it is. Besides, I do believe that if I write what I feel like writing and it makes me happy, my posts will inevitably be better and more interesting to read.

So I’m going to keep writing what I want to write, when I want to, and for as long as it brings me joy. Besides, this is my 100th blog post. That if anything is 100 reasons to continue.

Do what inspires you

I started working on my second book yesterday. Last week I had been thinking about what the main areas of research are for my current research project on men opting out and I realized, as I jotted down a list of bullet points, that it kind of looked like a possible table of contents.

Well I’ve been mulling this over for a few days now and yesterday morning I just felt super inspired. All of a sudden I just knew what my first sentence was going to be. I could barely wait until I got back from driving my kids to school and I needed to write it down before I forgot it. I threw my jacket on the extra chair in my office and I barely had time to sit down at my desk before I started writing.

After my first sentence I hesitated for a second. I haven’t even published my first book yet; I’m still checking the proofs before it can go to print. I’m also working on a paper and a book chapter, both of which have deadlines within the next week or so. I have other papers that need to be written once I have submitted these and I have a bunch of theses to read through and evaluate… And what do I do? I start working on the one thing that I don’t have to get done any time soon. Writing a book based on my men opting out research is in my research plan, but the project doesn’t end until 2019.

But still, this is what I started working on. Because right then, in that instant, I felt inspired and I knew exactly how I wanted to start my book. I knew what story I wanted to tell. So I sat down and produced the first two pages in about half an hour.

When I think about it, this is what I usually do. Despite looming deadlines and long to do lists, if I feel inspired to do something else work-related (especially if it involves writing, because no matter what, I always have things to write), I just put everything else on hold and do that (unless of course it’s a matter of life and death or a student graduating or something because then I will put my inspiration on hold and just get on with it). Because doing what inspires me and really having flow feels so great and gives me so much energy that the inspiration and energy I get from that spills over on to everything else I have to do.

And needless to say, yesterday was one of the most productive days I have had in a long time. I was, and continue to be, so excited about this new book that everything I did yesterday, I did with focus and drive. And it all felt more fun, more meaningful and just easier.

Note to self: when in doubt, do whatever inspires you the most.

My five-minute diary

A friend of mine challenged me about a month ago. She challenged me to start keeping a five-minute diary. Apparently the five-minute diary is an established concept where you at bedtime, and possibly also in the morning I can’t really remember, spend five minutes writing down positive thoughts or the positive things you’ve experienced during the day. Just quick bullet points. The reason she suggested it was that I was talking about how when thing are very hectic, and let’s face, in this day and age they mostly are, I feel like everything I experience during the day just disappears from my consciousness. I may be very present in the moment but then when I move on and start doing something else it almost feels like it never was. So she suggested writing these things that I wanted to remember down in order not only to be able to actually remember them, but also to give me a chance to reflect.

Well, it sounded like a good idea to me so I accepted the challenge, but a modified version of it. I don’t like the idea of just writing down positive thoughts. I’m interested in all my thoughts and experiences, whether positive or negative or something else. It is not only the positive that is meaningful. Without reflecting over the whole range of emotions I experience, I don’t think I would ever grow as a person, and honestly I think it would make life kind of boring. Besides I find that it is especially in the contradictions that real learning and development takes place. It is in those moments that you actually learn something about yourself.

This constant striving for positivity that you see all over the place gets to me. Sometimes I see 365 days of positivity challenges circulate, sometimes it’s three positive things per day seven days in a row. Positivity is positively all the rage in this day an age. It actually stems from the positive psychology movement that came about at the end of the 1990’s about the time motivational speaking became so popular. Positivity became the answer to career success, to health, to life. However, although being positive is a good thing in many situations, and I would say I’m generally pretty optimistic myself, there really isn’t a lot of empirical evidence to support that positive psychology really works. On the contrary, it is argued that striving for constant positivity can, instead of leading to success, actually make people feel like failures when they just can’t live up to expectations and be positive all the time because they are experiencing the whole range of emotions, which is natural and necessary in life. (See The search for happiness for more on why this is problematic.)*

So I accepted the challenge, but with modifications. I said that instead of listing only positive things, I would write down the three most important things or thoughts that I experienced each day. And that is what I’ve been doing almost every evening for the past month or so. Sometimes I forget, but mostly I don’t. It doesn’t take long although I sometimes have trouble sticking to only three points, so I’ve discarded that rule. I write as many points as I want; sometimes it’s three and sometimes it’s more, but I don’t think I’ve ever written more than five or six. Sticking to bullet points is actually quite liberating because it keeps it short and I don’t try to outdo myself composing well-written diary entries, which I wouldn’t have the energy to do every evening. Sometimes my points are work related, often not. Sometimes it’s just something beautiful that I’ve seen or an interesting thought I’ve had. Sometimes I write about positive things or things I’m thankful for, sometimes it’s things I’m frustrated or feeling very ambiguous over. I don’t spend a lot of time analyzing these thoughts as I keep it short, so I’m a bit unsure of what the long run benefits are going to be, but for the moment at least it feels meaningful. This five-minute diary gives me a chance to reflect over the day, and remember the things worth remembering. And capture time in a notebook.

So thank you my friend! I’m pretty sure I would never have come up with this myself.

 

* I can also recommend one of my favorite books: Psychobabble: Exploding the Myths of the Self-Help Generation by Stephen Briers. Or if you’re really interested: Virtues and Vices in Positive Psychology: A Philosophical Critique by Kristján Kristjánsson (available on Google books)

Sometimes you need to fail in order to succeed

A few days ago I found out that I didn’t get a job I applied for. For a while it seemed very promising and I was already mentally preparing to accept this job and considering the practicalities I needed to figure out in order to do that. But then I came second, so alas, no job.

Writing this I realize what a long way I have come. Not too long ago I wouldn’t have breathed a word to anyone that I was applying for a job much less announced globally that I didn’t get it like I’m doing now. I just wouldn’t have broadcasted my failure. Only it wasn’t a failure. It was actually a very good process for me. First of all it made me really think about what I want to do and what I can imagine myself doing. And I realized that I could actually imagine myself going back and working in an organization again. My own opting out and in experience continues to evolve, it is not static, and like so many people I have interviewed I also realize that the choices I made when I opted out weren’t forever. So that was good to really have a chance to think about my situation, my terms, and what I want to do. Also, although I would have been very happy to have gotten the job, I’m actually also very happy to be able to continue living the life I’m living right now the way I do. So what initially felt like a waste of energy since it didn’t really lead anywhere was actually quite meaningful. And besides, as an academic I deal with a lot of rejection all the time so in a way I’m kind of getting used to it. Scary as that may sound.

But this question of success and failure is interesting. I’ve decided to make a point of sharing my failures and rejections, because it’s important that people know that everyone experiences failures, and actually the people who are very successful usually are because they worked very hard and failed over and over until they succeeded. Their secret is they didn’t give up.

We have a very low tolerance for failure in our society, and organizations especially aren’t very forgiving, which is extremely unfortunate. The thing is, it is from our mistakes and failures that we learn and develop and if we’re terrified of making mistakes, and as a result maybe even getting laid off, we won’t ever dare do anything out of the ordinary or take any risks, which is bad both for personal and organizational development and learning. As inventor Regina Dugan says, “We can’t both fear failure and make amazing new things.”

But overcoming the fear of failure isn’t very easy in this day and age. Zygmunt Bauman talks about something he calls the fear of disposability – a fear of being expendable, of becoming redundant – which is a direct result of the constant flux that is our reality in this fast-changing economy. Organizations and individuals alike need to stay lean and flexible in order to survive the ever more competitive global market. Well, it’s a viscous circle if you ask me.

So what do we do about it? Well like so many other things, this too is organizationally driven. If organizations become more forgiving, they will help create a more forgiving culture, where we can be more accepting of failure. And not only that, I’m convinced that these very organizations will be the big winners in the long run, because people – their employees – will dare and have the space to be more creative, and they will make amazing things, as Dugan says. But in the meantime, I think we should just all become more forgiving as individuals, of ourselves and of each other. And we should be more open about sharing both successes and failures, and not just instagrammable versions of ourselves and our lives.

Go ahead surprise yourself!

Last week I actually celebrated one year as a blogger! I almost missed it, then I noticed and I thought whatever. But then I reconsidered and decided no this needs to be celebrated! There are many reasons; one being that I have a whole year worth of texts collected which is a pretty great achievement. Although writing is one of the main things I do in my job, producing texts can be hard, sometimes downright painful. But here I’ve managed to produce about 70 pages worth of blog posts somewhat effortlessly. Except for a couple of times this fall when I was completely bogged down with work, I haven’t really had to struggle at all to get my thoughts down for The Opting Out Blog. I’m not sure exactly why. I think it’s because I mostly write when ideas come to me. If possible I stop everything and jot them down on anything handy, like a napkin or a receipt, so I don’t generally sit and stare at my screen thinking I should but I can’t. Also, since this is my blog I can write about anything I want, so whatever comes to me is what gets posted. My blog posts don’t get reviewed and accepted or rejected by anyone, nor do they need to meet any particular standards, and that takes some of the pressure off. But despite that, or maybe because of that, I think some of my posts are among the most clearly communicated texts I’ve produced (and my blog has probably helped me with my academic writing as well). But still, I have to add that it’s not that I don’t feel any pressure at all. I do because I have readers and all of a sudden I’m not doing this just for me, I also don’t want to disappoint you. So there is some pressure, which is actually good because it’s what makes me want to keep writing and posting.

So that’s one reason to celebrate. Another reason is that I’ve kept at it for a year, and I’ve found a medium that I really enjoy. I think I’m generally quite tenacious, which I actually didn’t think about myself before. I used to think I was the kind of person who gets easily bored, but it’s not true. I guess I just hadn’t found my thing. At a certain point this fall, I did sort of wonder if my blog is getting old. In this culture of constant reinvention, do I need to reinvent The Opting Out Blog after only a year, because is a year actually a really long time in this age of short-termism and quick fixes? And what would that be? And then I started getting new readers, especially in South America, which is very exciting as this is a continent where my blog really hasn’t been very widely read. And I realized no, as long as I think this is fun, I’m going to keep doing what I want to. It’s my blog after all.

And that brings me to the thing that I think deserves to be celebrated the most: the fact that I actually am a blogger. It’s something that I have been struggling to make a part of my identity because I just haven’t seen myself as a blogger. I don’t know what I think blogging really is, but apparently I’ve had an idea that it is something different than what I’m doing. But funny as it may sound, I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that not only do I have a blog, I also am a blogger. The thing is, I never, ever thought that about myself. I never thought I would blog; the thought of being that public scared the hell out of me. I was telling a friend about this the other day and she said, “and yet you started, how did that happen?” And really, looking back it’s beyond me. How did I sit down, create a blog and actually start publishing posts, which I was so completely terrified of doing? I don’t really know, but I did. I think the most important thing was that I got so much support and encouragement from friends, and I just jumped. So that is definitely the biggest reason to celebrate this one-year anniversary: I managed to surprise myself. I’m doing something I honestly never thought I would, much less like, and it turns out I love it and it makes my life so much richer. So in the spirit of dishing out feel good advice (which I try to avoid, but hey I’m celebrating here), go surprise yourselves! You might just find out you’re capable of things you never dreamed of. And besides, you never know, you might even have a passion out there just waiting to be discovered!