Opting out or a strategic career move?

‘Opting out’ as a term is actually quite misleading. It started out as a debate about women who leave their successful careers, but has since come to represent so much more. I joined the debate in 2009 because I felt it was missing important contemporary aspects and since then, research has shown that it is not only about women and most of the time it isn’t about leaving working life altogether either. Still this is the term we use to debate this phenomenon, and every now and then someone points out to me what an inadequate term it really is. And they are right because it kind of sounds like dropping out instead of making a lifestyle or career change, which is what people who opt out of their successful careers usually do. People with careers rarely leave them to do nothing. Most of the people who opt out rather choose to leave a certain expected career path or way of working in order to organize their lives on different and more sustainable terms.

So yes, I do agree that as a term opting out is a bit inadequate, which is why I rather talk about ‘opting in’. I mean we know a lot about why it is people leave, but not so much about what they choose to do instead, which is very valuable information – both for people who are looking for a change, but also for employees who want to know what it is people look for in their professional lives.

By now I’ve been researching opting out and in and alterative solutions for work for years. Although I am an expert on opting out and in, I’m not an opting out coach and I always feel a bit at a loss when people approach me and ask how exactly they should go about opting out and in. And a lot of people do.

The thing is, opting out and in can be hard since imagining an alternative is difficult. It can feel like stepping out into the unknown, which it often is. Therefore the narratives I collect of people who opt out and in often contain stories of crises that have pushed them to make a change and to overcome the uncertainty of the unknown. And you can’t very well tell people to have a crisis and everything will sort itself out, because sometimes it doesn’t. Obviously there must be a better way; I just haven’t really had any tools to offer.

But then I started reading a book written by a person I have gotten to know through my blog. Monika Janfelt used to be an academic but opted out of academia to become a career coach and an expert on talent and career development. We have sort of made similar journeys but in opposite directions, and whenever we meet we always have a lot to talk about. And when we do I’m always struck by how much we have in common. We deal with similar issues in our work, just out of different perspectives.

Her book Karriere – kunsten at flytte sig (loosely translated: Career – the art of moving) was a revelation for me. I like her writing style. She bases her writing on research, she has a very pragmatic and systematic approach, and she is obviously very knowledgeable. But the revelation I had was that although ‘opting out’ as a term may be somewhat catchy and attractive to someone who is just sick of his or her current job situation and desperately wants to move on, what we’re really talking about is a career transition.

According to Monika, career transitions (of which opting out can be seen as one type) are something that we are going to have to get better at going into the future, since they are going to become an increasingly important part of our professional lives. But instead of creating a greater sense of insecurity, she argues that by building our career transition competencies (knowing ourselves and being able to drive our career changes) we can actually gain more control and influence over our lives (which is exactly what people who opt out and in are looking for).

And the good news is, unlike me, Monika has the tools to facilitate this change. Instead of jumping out into the unknown, if you want to know how to go about opting out and in, you should be in touch with her. Click here for more information.

Her book is in Danish, but I sincerely hope she will publish an English translation soon, because this book is definitely worth a read. In the meantime you can contact her directly. In addition to Danish she also coaches in English and in Swedish. For those of you who want to make a change but are at a loss as to how, this might be a solution for you!

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Open your mind, there are worlds out there just waiting to be discovered

One of the misconceptions of opting out is that it is forever. Like any career transition, the work solutions we opt in to are anchored in time and space. What feels like the right solution depends on where you are and the challenges you’re dealing with at that particular time.

Opting out and in comes with a lot of soul searching. When you go through a life change you invariably spend time thinking about what’s important to you and where you want to go in life, which is a good thing. More people should. However, this is also a continuous process, because just like your career or lifestyle solutions, it is also tied to time and space. So you have to go back and keep reminding yourself what your terms are and check that they are still valid. I think once you’ve started a habit of of self-reflection, you don’t stop. And if you’ve been through something that pushed you to make a lifestyle change, you want to make sure that you don’t end up in that same situation again.

This is true for me. I think a lot about what I want to do, where I want to go from here. What was the perfect solution for me a few years ago as I opted out and in might not be anymore, but that doesn’t worry me. I know that situations change and needs change and that is fine. As a matter of fact, change is probably the only constant we have, and in a way I find that comforting. I find comfort in the knowledge that things will inevitably evolve, not matter what the situation.

But as I reflect over my choices, and the lifestyle changes I made as I opted in to academia, there is one thing in particular that I am especially grateful for. Working on a PhD really opened my mind. And I’m not talking about the actual research now, although obviously that opened my mind too. I’m talking about the insight I got into the fact that there really are different ways of living and working, there is no one right way to make a living.

Let me explain. Before I opted out, all I knew was what I had experienced. I had always worked in an organizational setting, and I didn’t really know of any other way of making a living. I sometimes longed to but I couldn’t imagine it. That’s why opting out can be so scary, because it means taking a step into the unknown. But after I did, I started to realize just how many people there are out there who work completely differently with different routines and different ideals, and that it can be done, that I can do it too.

And I think it is thanks to this insight that I have actually realized yet another dream.

I have always loved to paint and one of my passions has been silk painting. I’ve been doing it on and off for years, and took it up more actively after I finished my PhD (all of a sudden I wasn’t finalizing a thesis every waking moment and had free time to fill). I always had this, what I thought was a frivolous and completely unrealistic, dream of being an artist but I never really thought it was something that could happen, because I just didn’t know how to. I couldn’t imagine the lifestyle. Well something magical happened a few months ago. I was asked if I was willing to sell some of my silk paintings, and I was absolutely thrilled and definitely willing. The thought of my paintings adorning someone’s wall instead of gathering dust in my study felt great. And that someone wanted to buy something I had created without the help of publishers and copyeditors etc., was simply amazing.

This inspired me to start painting more and to start an Instagram account for my silk painting (with the help of and a small push from my wonderful daughter). I’m not going to quit my day job or anything, but I guess I can sort of say that I’m an artist now too. At least I’m a ‘silk painter of Instagram’. And I honestly think I never would have done this had I not been open to different ideas of what constitutes work.

So my wish for you this holiday season is open your minds. Realize that there are worlds out there that stretch beyond your imagination, and if you just dare to venture out there they are waiting to be discovered. Just because you can’t imagine them yet, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Happy Holidays! I’ll be back in the New Year with new blog posts.

Oh, and if you’re curious, you’ll find my Instagram account under @ingrids_silk_painting.

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.

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.

Extreme makeover for little girls

My daughter just showed me something pretty awful: a game on an online game site for children. It’s called ‘Extreme Makeover’, and yes, it is exactly what it sounds like. You have an avatar – a virtual doll – and you give her a makeover. You start with the nose – a nose job of course (you cut with a scalpel along a dotted line). Because all little girls need to think about having a presentable nose, any old nose (with character) will certainly not do. After that, it’s the cheeks: collagen cheek injections for plumper cheeks, and then the same of course – collagen injections again – for plumper lips. After that you use a hammer and a chisel to sculpt the jawbone (I don’t even know what the correct term for that is), and then finish with hair implants for thicker and fuller hair. Now the doll/avatar/virtual self is ready for the spa. But before that she needs to lose weight of course because that’s what you have to do if you’re a girl and you want to be pretty. Unfortunately I was so aghast that I can’t remember exactly how much weight this virtual doll managed to lose, but I think it must have been about 30 pounds or almost 14 kilos.

Let’s let that sink in for a moment.

Can someone explain to me how anyone in their right mind can think that it’s ok to develop a game like this for little girls? For anyone? Girls have enough to deal with as it is with the over-sexualization of girlhood and pressures to be thin, pretty, desired, and demure. We have cultural ideals that send them the most mixed and ambiguous messages, and now we’re not only teaching little girls that it’s what you look like on the outside that counts, we’re also normalizing going to any lengths to achieve that perfect look. It’s drastic plastic or nothing girls! It’s insane, it’s shocking, and, frankly, it’s disgusting.

Help me out here. How do we get this game taken off the internet?

Time for reinvention!

A friend dropped by the other day. Let’s call him Bob. Bob was wondering what I was up to, and I told him I was preparing for a course in HRM (human resource management), which I’m teaching this semester. And his reaction was, “HRM?!” And I said, “Human resource management, you should know that! (Bob is a corporate executive in a company which most certainly has an HR department so he definitely knows what HRM is.)” And he said, “No no, what I meant was why on Earth are you teaching HRM of all things??” And I said, “Well, they needed someone to teach the course just like last fall when I taught the organizational behavior course.” And his response was, “Well yes, organizational behavior is interesting, but human resource management, really? Why would you want to teach that?”

Well, I don’t know if you’re thinking what I’m thinking, but I’m thinking that this really says a lot about HRM! Or at least about how people see HRM. I mean here we have a corporate executive who I would guess has been in the work force for about 20 years or so, and in a managerial position for at least half that time. Granted, not in human resources, but he has most certainly known and worked with his fair share of HR managers, and yet his reaction is what it is. Not very positive I may add, in case you didn’t get it. And I assure you; Bob isn’t alone.

In my experience, HR departments are among the most misunderstood and least appreciated departments in the history of the organization. And that must certainly take its toll. They are a support function and not a part of the core business, and therefore not considered as strategic as other departments and functions. At the same time, employees are often considered to be a company’s most important resource. Ironic isn’t it, because that sounds pretty strategic to me. And HR departments are important. However, it seems their greatest challenge is the associations the letter combination ‘HR’ triggers in people like Bob.

This is often the biggest problem when trying to create change. The language we use to talk about things, effectively keeps us locked in our old ways. Our words mean something specific to us, which makes it very difficult so see things differently. We need to create new words in order to really be able to change the way we think, or in this case see something in a new light. And let’s face it; HR professionals really need a new word.

So I suggest we scrap the term human resources. If you think about it, it is actually rather production oriented anyway, and doesn’t really embrace individuality or diversity. Nor does it recognize employees as the people they are with their individual wants and needs, which is what we’re trying to do more of, right? We need something new to call HR professionals, so that they can do what it is that they are trained to do. So let’s do that, let’s reinvent HR! Let’s create a new word that doesn’t make people go, ‘yes, but why?!’ like Bob did.