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!

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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!

Sometimes slow is faster

I remember when I was working on my PhD. I would get so stressed over how long everything took. As I wrote chapter drafts, I couldn’t believe how incredibly slow the writing process was. Academic writing is a very particular and exact art form, not like jotting down a blog post. Well anyway, it felt excruciating at times and what I thought would take one week, took two or three, and then I would wait for feedback, after which I would have to rewrite parts… At a certain point I thought I would never finish, and never make the four-year deadline.

Well I did finally finish, but the thing I realized as I was working on my thesis was that the faster I tried to work, the slower it went. When I rushed, which I tend to do when I get stressed, I ended up having to rewrite more, not to mention rereading and having to go over my sources again more carefully. In other words, rushing really slowed my process down. So when stressed, I forced myself not to let my impatience get the better of me, and my mantra became “it has to be allowed to take the time it takes”.

I know this doesn’t sound very profound, but to me it really was. Because things do just take the time they take, whether it’s writing or learning a new skill or recovering from an illness. In this age of quick fixes and instant gratification, this can be hard to accept, but sometimes we just have to.

A while back as a group of us at work were fretting over looming deadlines and too much too do in too little time, a friend and colleague recommended a book by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber titled The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. This book is about academic life, but many of the points the authors make are definitely relevant to all of us.

The authors talk about what they call a “culture of speed”. In fact it is exactly this – the sheer speed of things – that many sociologists have argued is what makes contemporary life different from any time we have ever experienced before. The problem as Berg and Seeber see it, is that there is a constant pressure to increase productivity, which means that work tends to take over what should be our down time. As a result we end up having to manage also our free time in order to squeeze everything in (work, spending time with kids/friends/family, exercising, having fun…). And this, in turn, can lead to stress, a feeling of time poverty, and even mental health issues, in addition to stifling creativity, which at least for an academic trying to write is absolutely vital.

Besides, we cannot constantly create or write, we also need time to reflect so that we actually come up with something to write or create. We need quiet down time not only to recuperate, but also to actually be productive. Productivity does not necessarily come from doing more.

So let’s make sure we have enough down time this weekend so that we can be more creative and productive and whatever else it is we need to be.

The wonder of new words and other covfefe

I’ve been cracking up over Trump’s blooper from the other day. Just thinking about it has me in stitches. I’m talking about his tweet of course where he coined the wonderfully mysterious word ‘covfefe’. Just writing it down makes me smile.

I’ve been wondering to myself how one would pronounce such a word. Covfeef? Covfeefee? Covfayfay? Isn’t it wonderful, no one knows how to pronounce this word because no one knows where it comes from. And the reason no one knows that is because it doesn’t come from anywhere. It is a made up word, either an autocorrect blunder or just sausage fingers at a very late hour. So it has no origin and it has no correct pronunciation. We can pronounce it any way we want. We can use it in any way we want, in any number of wild and wonderful ways.

Trump is a disaster in so many ways. I’m not even going to begin to list them here; one blog post would not suffice. But the one positive thing he has done, he did without meaning to, and without even noticing until he woke up to the comic covfefe storm raging all over social media. What he unwittingly did was he coined a nonsense word that tickles our imagination. And let’s face it; we could definitely use some fun amidst all the dismal on-goings around us.

The thing about language is that it forms our understanding of ourselves and of the world around us. Language is central to the way we organize the world. We use language to communicate and to mobilize people towards a common world order. This is important and handy of course. Without the wonder and the power of words we wouldn’t be able to communicate the way we do and share our inner worlds with each other.

But language can also be problematic and limiting. Because we’re so good at labeling, once a word has been uttered we instantly have a common understanding of what it is we’re talking about. And when this happens, we effectively stay within the boundaries of what we understand to be right and true. We stay inside the box.

This means that thinking out of the box, or developing new ways of organizing, working, living, and being – to name a few – becomes difficult when we use our common and familiar language. Simple terms like work or meeting or flexible time instantly pull us back within the familiar boundaries of what we understand these things to be. So redefining work becomes difficult, as does redefining what flexible work should really entail. Or how we meet and interact with each other. This makes imagining and creating the new – the really new and innovative – challenging.

We need new words to talk about these new things so that we don’t get dragged back into our familiar but dated ways. We need to develop with the times and new language will help us do that.

And this week a new word was given to us, just like that.

Let’s create lots of new words; words that question what we know to be true, and that open our eyes and imaginations to new possibilities. Let’s covfefe!

(…she giggles as she hits the publish button.)

What’s wrong with providing employees with mindfulness training?

I have very mixed feelings about mindfulness. It’s not mindfulness as such. Being mindful is not a bad thing. Research has shown that being mindful can help people be more resilient and prevent them from overreacting in different situations. This, in turn, has a positive impact on work environments in organizations. If people aren’t shooting from the hip so much, but instead taking a moment to reflect – to being mindful – then it is bound to have a calming impact on situations that might otherwise be conflicted.

No, I don’t have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is when we use mindfulness to fix a symptom instead of solving the actual problem.

I was at a conference last week organized by the European Association for Work and Organizational Psychology. Being a sociologist, this was a new crowd for me. Sociologist and psychologists do have a lot of research interests in common, although the methods used are often different. One thing that struck me was how popular mindfulness research was also at this conference. Although studying the effects of mindfulness can be interesting and intriguing, the problem is that much of the research focuses on the individual and not on the systems and structures in which these individuals are embedded.

But not only are we researching mindfulness like never before, I also constantly see new consulting companies that specialize in mindfulness and that provide programs to help employees learn and practice mindfulness.

Work environments today are incredibly hectic. Focus is more on short-term wins than on long-term development and sustainability. Jobs are insecure and as Richard Sennett observes, past experiences aren’t so important anymore. It’s rather about potential and you’re only as good as your next accomplishment. However, since seriously questioning and changing the system is hard, instead of going to the source if people aren’t coping well in their jobs, we try to fix the symptoms by helping people deal. And the latest fad on that front is mindfulness.

So instead of creating sustainable working cultures where people can thrive and can work to their full potential, we give them tools so they can be better at dealing with the hectic work pace and organizational culture. By teaching them mindfulness we help them cope.

And yes, it’s good to be able to cope. But it’s bad if it means ignoring the actual problem, which in this case is organizational cultures and structures that don’t necessarily work anymore. They just no longer correspond to how a lot of people want and need to live and work.

So by all means, practice mindfulness. It’s good for many things, and something I probably need to do more of too. But let’s not use mindfulness to ignore the real problem at hand. And please, don’t provide mindfulness training to your employees thinking that you’re off the hook. We still have a lot to do when it comes to creating better and more sustainable working models and environments.