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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Having a successful life

“The changing nature of work has made subjective success measures more important.”

This is something I jotted down in my notebook last week at the WORK2017 conference, as I was listening to a presentation on the ‘net generation’ and work in the digital age. The presenter said something along those lines and my immediate reaction was ‘YES!’

In research we differentiate between objective and subjective definitions of success. For a long time, success has been measured in things like salary, promotions, and fringe benefits (like a company car) – so called objective measures. In other words, the more you make, the more often you get promoted, the more powerful and higher up you are in the organizational hierarchy, and the more access you have to things like business class travel and other perks, the more successful you must be.

Okay, but that is a very narrow and one-sided definition of success. People who have opted out of objectively successful careers sometimes report that yes, they may have had a successful career before opting out, but not necessarily a successful life. Objective definitions of success didn’t always make them feel successful, not to mention happy or fulfilled or any of the other things that are considered important in a well-rounded life.

For them things like feeling that their work was meaningful and being excited about what they were doing, feeling healthy and rested, and having the time and the possibility to pursue other interests and spend time with the people they care about were more important. These are examples of subjective measures of success.

What this means in practical terms is that more money and power doesn’t necessarily attract potential employees anymore, or at least it isn’t enough. But don’t think that means you can offer people a meaningful job without paying them what they deserve. Getting paid is a hygiene factor and should be a given. It’s also an important form of validation and needs to be taken seriously.

But as always I feel pleased when my research results and ideas are confirmed. Employers need to recognize that there is more to life than work and objective definitions of success. But they need not worry, just because people value subjective success doesn’t mean they aren’t ambitious or don’t want to work hard. They just realize that a successful job isn’t enough; they want a successful life too!

The times they are a changing, and we can be part of that change

I’m at a conference at the moment in the beautiful city of Turku, Finland, and the topic of the conference is the future of work. You can imagine, I kind of feel like a kid in a candy store. I mean, this is what my research on opting out and in is all about: to decipher clues that might tell us something about how people want to and will work in the future.

Well, I listened to a very interesting keynote presentation yesterday. It was given by Marina Gorbis, Executive Director of the Institute for the Future. Gorbis said something that really hit home: you can shape change as it is happening, but you can’t put it back in the box thinking that things can continue as before. Because they won’t.

We’re living in an extremely interesting and exciting, if not also somewhat frightening, time in history and things are changing at a mindboggling speed all around us. The nature of work is being completely revolutionized and we need to be involved in shaping this change. According to Gorbis, jobs are being broken down into tasks and micro-contributions and organizations have access to large networks rather than just a finite number of employees to complete these tasks. To a certain degree, management is being replaced by algorithmic coordination.

Gorbis talked about machines as economic agents and how many people feel threatened by this, by machines, technology, and artificial intelligence, but that these are, in fact, not part of the problem. The real problem is that we’re competing not against machines when shaping our lives and work, but against social processes and institutions. We’re in a time of dramatic change and development, but we are stuck in our ways, which makes it difficult to influence the change in a way that will serve us – humanity – in the best possible way.

And this is true. This is what I see in my research. People want to work differently, to create alternative ways of understanding and organizing their work. However, many organizations are stuck in routines and mindsets that date back to industrialization. When these organizations are unable to change with the times and accommodate the people who work for them, and who would most likely continue to work for them under different circumstances, some people see no other alternative but to leave – to opt out.

Another thing that I have found is that the change that is needed for these people to want to stay is really not that dramatic. They aren’t asking for much, just some flexibility, freedom, and control over their lives and their time. They still want to work, and they want to do so in a meaningful way. No, the change people crave isn’t necessarily really that great, but it involves a change of mindset; a change of the social processes and institutions that Gorbis talked about.

So to tell you the truth, as I was listening to her talking about the future, the future that is already here by the way, and describing the innovative ways in which people already organize their work – for better and for worse – I realized how ridiculous the situation really is. The fact that these organizations that people have opted out of are worried about things like flexible hours or working offsite is laughable. Come on organizations, catch up already!

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.

A touch of humanity

A dear friend of mine is just about to embark on a new exciting journey. She is going to retrain as a nurse and I am so excited for her. She is following her heart and her dream.

She is doing this after having left a career in business, and what I find so interesting is that she isn’t the first person I know who has decided to become a nurse after having opted out of a corporate career. Not too long ago I interviewed a man who had done the same. And he apparently knew of a whole bunch of people who had opted out of different careers to become nurses. I quote:

“When I started [studying to become a nurse] I was 45 years old, but surprisingly I wasn’t the oldest in the group. As a matter of fact, just in my course, there was a small group of older men like me who wanted to change careers. So I’m not really a unique case.”

He’s right; he isn’t a unique case. Come to think of it, although everyone didn’t choose nursing, most of the people I have interviewed for my research – both men and women – have left corporate careers to do something that involves caring for and helping people. Two became life coaches. A few became teachers, teaching everything from preschool to college. One started working with immigrants, giving legal advice. One became a nutritionist and works with schools to make sure kids are provided with healthy food. A few started working pro bono and many are involved in charities of different kinds. I could go on.

All of a sudden I realize that I see a pattern here. A common denominator seems to be opting in to work where they can help others. And I don’t think this is a coincidence. I do, however, think it says something about the corporate environments they chose to leave.

We focus so hard on productivity and profit, and organizations are streamlined to the point where we seem to forget that they are made up of people; people with human needs. When people finally have enough, when whatever happens that pushes them to take the step and leave a career behind, they choose a road that provides them with the coherence and meaning that they didn’t get in their previous jobs. And apparently also one that provides a touch of humanity.

Not only that, all of them, every single one of my interviewees, talk about the people in their lives. They talk about family and friends, and about having a job and a lifestyle that allows them to be there for those who are important to them.

And that’s what I’m going to do now. I’m going to take some well-deserved time off to spend with my loved ones. Because to be honest, as clichéd as it may sound, it really is the people in my life that make life worth living.

I’ll be back in August with more blog posts. See you then!

Be whatever you want, sort of

In many ways we live in very exciting times. We really do. There are a lot of scary things going on politically, and at times it feels like everything is up in the air, but it is during times like this that you can really make a change. We have a chance to take a stand and shape the future.

Sociologists like Anthony Giddens and the late Zygmunt Bauman talk about how this is a time unlike any we’ve ever experienced before, partly due to the speed at which everything is happening. And I do agree; for better and worse though because not all of it is good, but not all of it is bad either.

One of the things that has been argued to define this exciting time in which we live, is the fact that tradition really isn’t as important anymore as it used to be. We aren’t bound by certain professions and we don’t have to do things in certain ways; we can reinvent ourselves at the drop of a hat. Not only can we, we are encouraged and pushed to do so too. Ulrich Beck coined a very illustrative expression; he talks about contemporary society as a tightrope society. If you don’t constantly keep your balance and reinvent yourself to stay competitive you might just crash to the ground. Not a very uplifting picture.

But still, even though there undeniably is societal pressure to reinvent and stay competitive, the promise of reinvention is also quite intriguing. If traditions don’t matter so much and you can reinvent yourself as you wish, you can do anything you want. Or can you?

This whole idea of individualization, reinvention, and having a multitude of choices has been criticized. They say that it may be true for a chosen few, but many, if not most, are bound by issues like gender, class, and race. The ones who aren’t, are according to these critics basically white men. Not all white men obviously, but white upper and middle class men. And I have to say, I have seen first hand how women, for example, can be bound and held back by traditional gender roles and norms both in the workplace and at home.

For my current project I have been interviewing men who arguably belong to this privileged group of people who can be whatever they want, and choose from a myriad of possibilities. I’ve been interviewing mostly in the US and Finland, and all but one of my interviewees have actually been white middle class males. Now you may wonder why my data set is so homogeneous. Well, Finland as we all know is somewhat restrictive regarding immigration policies, and the Finnish population just isn’t as culturally and ethnically diverse as in many other countries. In the US, the population is much more culturally diverse, but the fact that almost all my interviewees (so far) are white does say something about the people who get promoted and recruited to top corporate positions, which most of these men opted out of.

However, for people who are free to do and be whatever they want, I have to say that I have been struck by how bound by tradition and expectations my interviewees have been when choosing a profession.

You would think that these men who have opted out of their careers to create and adopt new lifestyles and ways of working, are the epitome of this age of reinvention. Yet many of them didn’t really seem to realize that they had that many options when they started out. In fact, most of them felt they didn’t. Many of them talk about how they chose what to study or what to become, based on what was expected of them, either by their families or by their peers. Again and again I hear stories of men who after high school decide to study business, engineering, or law because growing up that is what the men in their communities did. I’ve also heard stories of how men have based their choice of university or major on what their friends have chosen or what is considered high status and will make them rich and powerful.

Subsequently, for some of these men, entering the job market after university became a bit of a rude awakening. They worked for several years before opting out, but many of them reported not enjoying it or nor feeling that they were in the right environment. They often didn’t like the culture or they just didn’t feel at home, and when they finally did opt out they did so to do something completely different. I have interviewed a man who retrained to become a nurse, a few teachers, and a life coach to name a few. Others have opted into research, writing, community work, or they might have set up their own business where they could work on their own terms.

So for white middle class men who have so many options, they sure seemed to have been bound by traditions, expectations, and norms, at least when they were starting out. Thank goodness they had the courage and conviction to break out of that mold.

It can’t be done… or can it?

One of the things I often hear when talking about sustainable career models is that in a family with children the parents cannot both have high-powered careers: if one parent pursues a career with everything that entails, then the other can’t or else no one will ever be around to raise the children. In most heterosexual families it’s the man with the career and the woman doing most of the childcare, but I have also seen families where the gender roles have been completely reversed. Instead of sharing responsibilities more evenly they have just flipped roles and the mother has the career and the father is the main caregiver of their children.

To reach the top echelons of corporate hierarchies, there is an expectation to climb the so-called career ladder in a timely fashion. Longer breaks or leaves of absence are often considered suspect. Only a few days ago this was confirmed to me once again by a corporate executive. I was told if a job applicant’s CV has gaps, or if the applicant hasn’t advanced as quickly as expected, he questions the person’s ability, ambition, and drive.

Yes, I know. Just because you choose to do something else for a while certainly doesn’t mean you aren’t able, ambitious, or driven, but that is how many still see it. And no, I don’t think that is the way it should be, and I am working on changing it, but for now that’s what we’re dealing with.

But let me tell you this. In my research, every once in a while, I see an exception to this rule. I interviewed a woman once who decided to just step off the career ladder. She was in a management position, she was exhausted, and she realized that unintentionally often took it out on her child, which she was distraught by. She decided she just couldn’t do it anymore, so after months of agonizing about what she should do, she walked into her boss’s office to hand in her resignation. As it turned out, she didn’t end up quitting. She managed to keep her job but started working part-time instead. No one in a management position had ever worked part-time in that company before, it was absolutely unheard of, and her decision was what we would generally define as a career-limiting move. She stopped caring about promotions, she was just happy that she could still work and be less stressed as a mother. Well, get this. When I met her two years later to follow up on the interview, she had been offered and had accepted a promotion in that very same company. The career limiting move turned out not to be. Yes, she was stressed again, and yes, she stepped back on the career ladder, but if you think about it, it is quite extraordinary as she originally thought her decisions would be anything but good for her career.

Then there was this man I interviewed. He had had several gaps during his career, when he had taken time off work to stay at home with all three of his kids while his wife pursued a successful career. In the interview he talks about how he and his wife thought about what the best solution for the family was, and they came to the conclusion that she should work and he should take care of the kids. His story isn’t very usual, but it’s inspirational because it also proves that interlacing a career with other things does not have to mean kissing a corporate career goodbye. He never disengaged completely; he always kept in touch with his contacts and did some consultancy work while he was away, but definitely didn’t climb the ladder in the expected way. He and his wife had decided to take turns. First she would focus or her career, and then a few years later when the kids were a bit bigger and she had achieved many of her goals, he would focus on his. And because he was never completely away he managed to do this and is now in a top corporate position pursuing the career he originally thought he would have.

His choices haven’t been completely unproblematic. Being away makes his ascent slightly slower than his peers’, but it is still possible. And if we make alternative career models the new normal it might also become possible for even more people.

But in the meantime, consider what these two stories tell us. They illustrate that what we think of as unheard of doesn’t necessarily have to be. You may think it isn’t possible where you work, but how will you know if you don’t ask? Sometimes it really can be that simple.