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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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.

A new year and no resolutions

It’s a new year and I’ve been reading everywhere all about fresh starts and being better, healthier, and happier. I really don’t feel the novelty everyone always talks about after the New Year. Except for a digit in my calendar having changed from a five to a six, I feel the same; I’m struggling with the same challenges and working on the same projects as in December.

No, I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions and I never make any. A friend posted a picture on Facebook that said, “I can’t believe it’s been a year since I didn’t become a better person”, and somehow, although it was supposed to be funny and I did get a good laugh, it really summed it up for me. On many levels.

Fresh starts are good, but for them to actually happen they need to be the result not only of a real need, but also of an epiphany and an understanding that change is absolutely essential. It takes planning and commitment and you have to be systematic. No wonder very few spontaneously made New Year’s resolutions actually make it past January. In my research, I’ve seen that no matter how much people want to do things differently in life, they don’t unless they experience something that provides them with a sense of urgency. And that can and should happen any time during the year, not just on January 1st.

But maybe I’m missing the point. Maybe that’s not what New Year’s resolutions are about. Maybe they’re about dreaming, about imagining a better you, and that even though you’re not actually prepared to do anything to get there, they sort of give you energy, inspiration, and why not hope? Because dreaming is important, where there are no dreams, there is no hope.

Writing this, I’m actually starting to feel a bit like the Grinch of New Years. Maybe the whole point is not to be so sensible all the time. Maybe our musings don’t always have to lead to action, progress, or success. Maybe they can just be for the sake of being.

Having said that, there are a couple of things I would like for 2016:

First, I need to learn how to chill. Although much of what I’ve been doing during the past year has been new and exciting, it has also been pretty exhausting. This is one of the side effects of opting out and in, you find yourself outside your comfort zone, doing many things for the first time without being able to fall back on previous experience. I need to remember to breathe, to trust myself and my abilities, and to give myself a break every now and then. And also literally take a break so I can spend more time with family, my parents in particular. Because that’s what’s important in life: the people you spend it with.

The other thing is to figure out what my next step is going to be. I find myself, at least mentally, with one foot in the academic world and one in the business world. I actually really like it that way, because there is so much in both worlds that really does and doesn’t work and they complement each other in many ways. I’ll save the details for another post, but until then I can say that it is becoming all the more clear to me that my opting out and in journey is exactly that – a journey – and I’m nowhere near the finish line. So during 2016 I will focus on figuring out what that next step is, and on taking it. I have to remember to stay in the driver’s seat though. After all, that was the whole point of opting out to begin with!

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!