Is opting out trendy?

I have a few friends with whom I always have the most interesting and inspiring conversations. I meet them every now and then for lunch, after which my mind is always bubbling with ideas for blog posts, and I was lucky enough to see one of those friends just a few days ago.

This particular friend has also opted out and in. We had a conversation about ‘opting on’ and the blog post I wrote not too long ago. I told her how interesting it has been because after sharing with the world that I myself plan to opt on again, I have gotten so many really positive reactions.

And it’s true, I have gotten comments and messages from people – both from the academic world and from the business world – who have told me how happy they are that I am opting on. Although I’ve been thrilled by these reactions, I also find them extremely interesting. Especially since most of them seem to just be happy in general rather than specifically for me.

I’ve been thinking about what that might mean. I think maybe for academics there is a frustration regarding the way many things work in academia and the fact that someone is critical of it might be intriguing to them. But what about non-academics? They don’t have a bone to pick with the academic system. Maybe it’s just the thought of someone doing their own thing on their own terms and breaking free from predetermined paths that appeals to them?

Judging from the reactions people who opt out generally get from others this is probably true. Many wistfully say that they think the person opting out is brave and that they wish they could do it too, although I speak for many when I say that bravery often doesn’t have anything to do with it when you opt out. Opting out is often just something you feel like you have to do.

So my friend and I were discussing this and suddenly she says that opting out is, after all, quite trendy. It’s not the first time I’ve heard that, but it just seems so strange to me because opting out and in is not an easy thing to do. It isn’t something people do lightly. It’s usually a result of some kind of crisis that pushes a person to make such a big change. Without the push and a feeling that continuing that way they have just isn’t an option, they are generally not able to leap into the unknown, which opting out often is.

Still, opting out is romanticized, especially in the media. We have a romantic notion of what it is like and think that people who opt out do so bravely and happily in order to opt in to their dreams, where they can be the best versions of themselves. Although that sounds wonderful, that doesn’t necessarily provide us with a realistic picture of what is really going on.

So one of the things I came to think of when lunching with my good friend, was that if that is true, that opting out has become trendy, and if it is something that people not only long to do but think that they should do in order to be happy, then that is really quite troubling. Because since opting out is hard, and really isn’t something that most people do just because it is so hard, aren’t we setting people up for disappointment by creating a trend that really isn’t very easy to adopt even if we wanted to?

This actually goes hand in hand with the notion that happiness is something that we should strive for in order to be just that – happy. The problem is that if you search for happiness it is always going to elude you. I want to be happy as much as anyone else, but happiness is the result of other things. It is a result of a meaningful life filled with meaningful relationships and activities.

If we always dream of something else, we will never be happy with what we have. So instead of making opting out trendy, maybe we should rather focus on making being happy with what we’re doing now cool? Just as it is okay to opt out if that is what you need to do, it also needs to be okay to like your job and your life just the way it is.

So on that note, I’m going to stop here. In front of me I have a cup of coffee. The cup was a birthday gift from my husband and it very appropriately says, ‘Love what you do’. Pretty good advice if you ask me.

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Keep your reminders

As I write this, I’m sitting at my desk looking at a flower in a glass bottle. A flower that is the sole survivor of a wilted birthday bouquet I got about a week ago. It wasn’t the prettiest flower in the bouquet, but on my desk it looks quite stunning, and it serves as a reminder of all the relaxing days I had over my summer break.

I had a wonderful vacation. I managed quite well to stay off my work email, email in general actually. I wasted time frivolously and extravagantly, sat around drinking coffee, engaging in good conversation, and taking in the beautiful scenery without checking my watch or being stressed about all the things I should be doing. And that was probably the best part of my vacation, wasting time, or rather using it any way that I wanted.

I had time to think and, as you may know if you read my blog post from a few weeks ago, I imagined exciting futures and new beginnings. Now, however, I’m back at my desk, working on on-going projects and faced with a long to-do list, as always. As I’m getting sucked in to the drudge of everyday life, I easily forget my thoughts and plans for the future. Still just abstract and fleeting, they so easily get pushed into the background and forgotten, and if I’m not careful I’ll forget I had the thoughts in the first place.

So I keep reminders. One is the flower. Another is one of my silk paintings that I’ve decided to keep for myself. When I painted it, I experimented with a style and technique I came up with myself and created something unlike I had ever painted before. The concept became an instant hit and it reminds me of how anything can happen and that everything is possible. It hangs on the wall in my living room and I can see it from several points in my house, and every time I see it, I remember.

Because I tend to forget. I tend to get caught up and sucked in. I get so busy that I forget my plans on opting on. And if I do, I won’t. Opt on that is.

So the painting literally jogs my memory every time I see it and inspires me to keep going and work on making my dreams and plans reality. Because the truth is, they won’t happen by themselves. I need to make them happen.

“Keep going, keep going, keep going”

I have learned something important during the past year. I’ve learned that when an opportunity presents itself, you should just jump on board, even if it seems crazy. Because if it seems like a fun thing you might like, it probably isn’t crazy at all, it’s just that your self-doubt is telling you that it isn’t something you ‘do’. And that is one of the things I have learned. That just because you don’t usually do something it doesn’t mean it isn’t your thing. It just means you haven’t discovered that it could be your thing because you haven’t been ‘crazy’ enough to try.

I’ve been there. I’ve had Doubt sitting on my shoulder whispering loudly into my ear. I haven’t tried things I might like because how could I <insert here something you’ve always dreamed of doing> since I’m not formally trained, I’m really not that talented, there is so much competition in that area, I already have a job…. or all of the above. But this year I’ve tried things. I’ve jumped on board and I’ve ignored my self-doubt, even though it’s there. And it’s true, we all doubt ourselves at times, all of us.

One was of course my silk painting. By now it has snowballed into something quite exciting simply because I allowed myself to just go with it. And honestly, I still don’t know where it will lead, but it has gone from being a private hobby to becoming something of a small side business.

Another is a project that I’m working on right now, which I am really excited about. It’s still too early to talk about, but let me just say that it’s an idea that presented itself and I decided why not give it a try. I never really thought it was something I would be able to do, but I’m finding I’m better at it than I thought and not only that, I’m really enjoying it, despite many moments of doubt. And let me tell you, there have been many.

But the only way the crazy opportunities can lead anywhere – the only way you will succeed – is if you keep going despite the doubt. Last week I read Talking as Fast as I Can by Lauren Graham (a seriously fun and feel-good read, by the way) and she talks about this. She talks about what the secret to success is, to accomplishing a lot, and this is how she sums it up:

“Ignore the doubt – it’s not your friend – and just keep going, keep going, keep going.”

This, my friends, is my new mantra.

Impossible! Or is it?

It never ceases to amaze me how hard it is to question what we take for granted. I notice this in my everyday life when I feel stuck. When I’ve organized my life or my routines in a certain way, I become so used to them that imagining a different way to go about things is surprisingly hard.

Let me give you an example. About a year ago I started painting more again, after years of really not painting very much. A friend wanted to buy a few paintings, which really inspired me and before I knew it, it had snowballed into a second job. I desperately needed a place to set up a painting studio, and I wanted to do this in my home but there was just no space. Every inch of our house was pretty much taken, not to mention all the rooms with enough natural light. So it seemed like a mission impossible. I did finally set up a table in a corner of a room where I painted for the first few months. However, this space was completely inadequate. It was cramped and the light was pretty bad. Every once in a while I would carry what I was working on outside to check how the colors really looked. Not to mention how unergonomic the space was, my back was not happy!

But I was stumped. There was just no other space to set up my paints.

Well, in this situation what usually happens to me is that it takes a while but eventually I start considering the impossible. I need that one moment when I realize maybe the impossible could be possible after all.

The solution eventually came to me. I have a study at home where I write and my desk is actually a dining room table with a lot of space for piles and piles of books and papers. But my study was absolutely off limits. I mean, my research and writing! That’s my job. It’s how I make a living. There is no room in my study for anything else.

But then one day I thought, or is there?

In a moment of clarity I realized that if I turned my desk 90 degrees there would be room to extend it (it has a built-in extension) and not only would I have space to write on it but to paint too! My study could be a combined study-studio! Not only that, it has plenty of natural light.

It was like an epiphany. What had just been impossible was suddenly the solution and I set about rearranging my stuff right away. I made room in my bookshelf for the piles and now only keep what’s absolutely necessary on the table. And it’s perfect. I no longer have to carry paintings in and out of the house to see what they really look like and my back is also thanking me.

But symbolically the change meant even more. My second job got a place of its own in my study-studio and suddenly it became a very real part of what I do. It’s actually quite mind blowing and opened up even more possibilities in my mind. Who knows where this will lead? Maybe the minor rearranging of furniture will turn out to have a much greater effect than I ever imagined?

The point is, in my mind the impossible became possible. This particular story is about my painting, but it works for just about anything. Think about it: are you stuck with no imaginable way forward? If you think it is impossible you might just need to ask yourself, or is it?

Pretty darned great

I have always loved to read. Books have been a huge part of my life every since I was little. My parents read and my sisters read. They read to themselves and they read to me. And after I learned to read I started reading too just as much as they did. We always had books at home and it was one thing we were allowed to indulge in as much as we wanted. Not at the dinner table, however, but my sisters and I would still constantly try to sneak in books to read on the sly under the table because we just couldn’t put them down. And we always got caught but still never stopped trying the same trick over and over again.

Growing up with books, I always thought that the single most awesome thing must be to write a book. I never really though I would because it seemed like an unattainable dream that was just granted very few special people. Little did I know that one day this would actually happen to me.

Even as I started doing research and planning a book based on that research, I still sort of felt that writing and publishing a book was the ultimate thing. Then one day I started writing a book proposal and it became the first step in quite a long and slow process. The book contract was a long time coming, and then after I finally submitted my manuscript, there was the slow and sometimes tedious and frustrating process of copywriting, cover design, checking indexes… and the process was so slow that that somewhere along the way publishing a book no longer seemed like it was going to be the magical thing I thought it would be.

It actually turned out to be more of a non-event than anything else to tell you the truth. I had been notified of an approximate publishing date of the hardback, but then months in advance noticed by accident that my book was actually already available for pre-order through numerous online bookstores. Since it was an academic book (even though I made sure to write it in a way that made it accessible to anyone, so anyone could enjoy it) the first hardback version was also so expensive that I realized that few people would actually be prepared to spend that much money on a book – even a good book if I may say so myself. I have filled it with stories of women who have opted out and in, and made it a good read, but still. So that was quite disappointing, although I was learning a lot about publishing.

But I had a more affordable paperback version in my contract. I was happy about that since I know I have readers who are interested in the book. But it seemed so far away. And it really was a long wait. So long that I was starting to wonder whether or not I would actually be able to muster the energy to even get excited about it when the time finally came.

Well guess what. Last week I received news that the paperback version is going to be published in August. It is set at an affordable price, which I am absolutely thrilled about, because, as I said, my intention was all along to write a book about opting out and in that was accessible to a wider audience. And you know what? Now that it is finally happening, it sure feels pretty darned great.

So check out my book: Opting Out and In: On Women’s Careers and New Lifestyles by Ingrid Biese

You can already preorder it. Click here for more information.

My time

Time is an interesting concept. As time passes, we think of the minutes and hours that make up the day as progressing in a linear fashion at regular intervals. We often think these minutes and hours, days, weeks and years are definitive of time, but they aren’t. They don’t define time; they measure it. They are neat units created to measure the passage of time; a tool invented to help us think about where we have been, what we are doing, and where we are going. But they are a man-made construct and just one way to view time.

There is actually a lot of interesting research on time. For example in her book, No Time: Stress and the Crisis of Modern Life, Heather Menzies talks about differences between clock time and calendar time on the one hand and reflective multiple time on the other where experiences, expectations, and stress come together and create situations that, for women especially, can be overwhelming. Julia Kristeva has introduced a concept she calls women’s time, which she sees as cyclical rather than linear and chronological. Others have argued that the linear notion of time with a distinct orientation towards the future is, in fact, a capitalist notion, where time and space are reduced to units that can be divided and measured. And we do like to measure things.

But theory aside, I think anyone can see how the passage of time can be cyclical. Life seldom moves forward in a timely fashion but happens more in waves and things come back and haunt us as history repeats itself. Time will sometimes move so slowly if feels as if it is standing still, and sometimes it will gallop forward in giant leaps depending on who you are, where you are, and what you are doing. And the most mindboggling notion of all is when the pace of time can simultaneously be so vastly different for different people. Time that snails its way forward for one person might at the same time be fast and fleeting for another.

Personally, I have thought a lot about time lately. The reason is that many people have recently told me how great it is that I seem to have so much time to do what I love. They’re referring to my painting, which has recently evolved from being a private hobby to a more public endeavor thanks to my Instagram account. I love to paint and it brings me such joy and inspiration, and works as a wonderful counterbalance to other things that fill my life. If I could, I would probably paint much more than I do now, but I don’t because I have a job that I want to keep and family and friends who I don’t want to neglect. So I confine my painting to my free time.

The thing about these comments regarding me being lucky to have so much time to paint is that they are often followed by a wistful remark about how they wish they also had extra time to do something they love. However the truth is, although I have a lot of freedom as a researcher in how I plan my time, I really don’t think I necessarily have that much more time than anyone else. As I said, I have my job, my family and my friends; and I have obligations that compete for my time and attention. But I really want to paint so I do it anyway every chance I get, which is often on a Saturday or Sunday morning, still in my pajamas. I take moments whenever I can.

You see, when you really want to do something, when you feel like you have to, suddenly you find the time because you make time. Your priorities might change and what you didn’t have time for before creates time for itself and becomes a space where time stands still. Sometimes this space in time is five minutes, sometimes an hour, I never really know. But it is my time and when I come back to the bustle of family, work, and household chores, it’s like I’ve been away on a mental vacation. And coming back is good, especially knowing that in the evening or the next morning I’ll be back in my time and space again, vacationing up to my elbows in paint.

Providing employees with control over where, when, and how they work can have a positive effect on both productivity and culture. Here is what you need to think about.

The one thing that all people who opt out and in seem to have in common is the issue of control. Control over their lives and their time is what they lack before opting out, and control is what they look for in their new lifestyles and solutions for work. Control over where, when, and how they work.

This can mean different things to different people. Some people like to work in an office, others don’t. Some people like to work for long stretches at a time and others can’t. Some people fare better when they can work in small bursts and intertwine different areas of life in a more seamless way. I think it’s safe to say that we are gradually becoming more aware of the fact that individuals’ needs vary, but many may not know that individualized solutions could potentially increase productivity. After all, if you are allowed to work in a way that works for you, it tends to increase the quality of your output. In fact, according to the co-founders of the job-search platform Werk, flexibility should be a business imperative and not just a lifestyle perk. But most organizations still seem to be at a loss as to how to go about this.

If only I had a penny for every time I’ve heard, ‘how do you know that a person is working if they aren’t in the office’ or ‘if everybody was allowed to do as they please we would have anarchy’.

Well first off, let me set one thing straight: a person isn’t necessarily working just because he or she is in the office, and no one said anything about having people randomly do anything they want anyway. We’re still talking about work that is managed and structured and measured to make sure we meet our targets. And it’s doable, it’s just a question of changing attitudes and management routines.

Although most companies still subscribe to the importance of face time (i.e. coming into the office and showing your face), there are companies out there doing new and exciting things. The other day I stumbled across an article about a Baltimore based company that realized it couldn’t rely on geography to find the right people for the company and they ended up recruiting from all over the country, in addition to having people employed in their local office. They found this to be a really good solution; what they call the hybrid model (having people work on and off site) was apparently good for both their productivity and their organizational culture.

One reason was that the remote workers displayed high self-motivation and responsibility, which apparently rubbed off on other employees making the whole company more productive as a whole. But they also changed some management routines to make working with a hybrid model possible. The main thing they worked on was communication, and getting the right communication technology and using it in the right way. Giving employees a chance to get to know each other face-to-face also makes remote communication easier.

But there are other things to consider as well. Another article emphasizes the importance of emotionally intelligent managers (although also here what we’re talking about is communication) and boils it down to four points:

  • Don’t create two classes of employees: One way of doing this is to have everyone participate in meetings on the same terms. If a few have to be online, have everyone be online from their desks, even the ones located in the office building.
  • Lead with trust, not control: If you don’t trust the people you recruit then you have a problem. Still, many managers have a hard time trusting, but as I said before, having people in the office creates a false sense of security because physical presence doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doing their jobs or doing them well. If you have people working remotely you’re going to have to get over that hurdle, and you’re going to have to communicate with them better and more regularly. Get to know them and try empathizing with their situations; you’ll find the trust issue much easier to deal with.
  • Ask more questions and learn to listen: Again, this is about communication. If you have people working remotely you won’t automatically find things out about them and their lives by just seeing them around, you have to make an effort to get to know them. Ask questions about them and about what’s important to them. You’ll not only get to know them better, they will also feel more understood and valued, which may lead to greater motivation and commitment. This goes hand in hand with the previous point.
  • Talk about the difficult things: This is always true, but especially when you have people working remotely. You need to be able to embrace and raise uncomfortable issues and frictions; no beating around the bush here, you need to be upfront. Your employees will thank you for it because they will have a better idea of what is expected and working with you will just be easier.

And then, of course, you have to follow up on targets and results. But hand on heart, isn’t this what a good manager should be doing anyway? What we’re talking about really isn’t rocket science. It’s not that dramatic a change, we just need to get past this old-fashioned idea of having to be in a certain place at a certain time in order to do a job properly. We have the technology, now all we need is the will. After all, as they say, where there’s a will there’s a way.