If Finland is the happiest country in the world why do people long to opt out here too?

I’m reading Anu Partanen’s book The Nordic Theory of Everything at the moment. It’s really an excellent read; I wish I had read it sooner. Partanen’s book so clearly explains the differences between life in Finland (or the Nordics) and the US and how these two very different social, political and cultural systems come together to create independent or not so independent individuals. 

Now, especially if you’re from the US, you may be guessing that the US system is the one that creates independent individuals, not the Nordic welfare state, but, perhaps surprisingly, it’s not. It’s the Nordic system that does that. 

One of Partanen’s messages is that the Nordic countries are most certainly not socialist, despite popular (American) belief, and that any Nordic person would balk at the idea. On the contrary, the Nordic model of social security and support allows individuals to be independent and to create good lives for themselves, instead of having them depend on for example parents, family members and employers just to be able to afford important, but basic, things like education, health care, day care etc. And yes, if you visit the Nordic countries, you will see that individualism actually does run strong throughout our cultures, for better or worse.

I strongly recommend the book, but that wasn’t actually the point of this blog post. What I want to talk about is how it is possible that opting out experiences can be so similar in both countries despite the differences that rank Finland at the top of so many lists* and the US much further down? How is it that people in a country like Finland long to opt out of their current jobs and lifestyles just as much as Americans do? 

Finland has recently, once again, been declared the world’s happiest country. It kind of makes you wonder, if this is the case, why is it that the opting out stories I have collected in Finland and the US are so remarkably similar? Why is it that people who live in a country with free education, free health care, more reasonable working hours, five weeks of legislated vacation time per year, long maternity leaves, paternity leaves, even longer parental leaves after which they are guaranteed their job back, high quality affordable day care etc. etc. etc., have very similar experiences to those who do not enjoy any of the above? 

How can it be that they also feel exhausted, they feel a lack of control over their lives, and they also have difficulties creating coherent life narratives? How can it be that they also reach a point when something’s got to give, or if not, at least long to leave their current way of living and working?

How come so many of the world’s happiest people don’t seem so happy?

Well, first I want to say, that no system or country is perfect. The happiest country in the world does not necessarily mean absolute happiness at all times. Finland is also ranked one of the most gender equal countries in the world, but that does not mean that the work here is done. Finland has not reached a state of perfect gender equality, nor will it any time soon at the rate we’re going.

I recently read that Finnish mothers are among the most stressed and exhausted in the world. The main problem is (in addition to the all-consuming motherhood ideal of today) that while Finland has among the highest percentage of women working fulltime, women also continue to be mainly responsible for childcare and household chores. While working life has become more equal, home life has been lagging behind, compared to Sweden for example. 

But one factor that has become glaringly obvious to me during all these years of researching opting out and having the privilege of hearing countless people’s opting out and in stories, is that regardless of any national differences, one common denominator is corporate cultures and ideals. They tend to be similar throughout the world thanks to globalization and global organizations, and they also tend to override local practices and sometimes even legislation. 

Let me give you an example. 

It happens, in Finland, that when a man wants to take some legislated paternity leave to get to know his child and to share the load with his partner, his employer may let him know that ‘it is simply not done in this company’. 

Research has also shown that men with low incomes are more likely to take time off to care for their children than are men in high-powered corporate positions. 

So what should we do? We need to work on changing work. We need to create corporate cultures that belong in the 21stcentury. 

* In addition to being ranked the happiest and one of the most gender equal societies, Finland is also considered one of the most stable, best-governed, least corrupt, and best-educated countries in the world.

#MeToo, racism and other difficult topics (and a guy who isn’t the least bit creepy)

I got a notification on Messenger the other day, saying that I had a message from someone who wasn’t my Facebook friend. It happens relatively often, people I don’t know contact me every now and then about my blog or my art. So I checked it out thinking it was probably something like that. However, when I clicked on the notification, the message had been deleted. The person must have changed their mind. The sender was still visible though, and I was curious to see who this person was and what it was all about, so I clicked through to get a better look.  

Having public profiles on social media, I get my share of creepy messages. They are often from guys who must think I look ‘hot’ or something and are looking to be ‘friends’. Their messages usually just contain a ‘Hello there’ and nothing else, and they never change their minds and delete their messages, so I really didn’t think this was anything like that.

So, I clicked through to see who this person was and I thought I recognized him from his profile picture. As a matter of fact, I was pretty sure it was the dad of a sweet, little girl who was friends with my daughter almost two decades ago. My family was located in Sweden at the time and this dad and I were both on parental leave with our daughters and had met through a play group. Our girls got along beautifully and we would sometimes meet up in the park for play dates. I remember them well, I really liked both of them.

We only lived in Sweden for a couple of years. We moved back to Finland and lost touch with many of the people we had met. I had not been in touch with these particular friends since we left and had no idea where or how they were, so I was really happy to see that it was him.

I didn’t think twice. I shot back a message saying I saw that he had tried to contact me and is he so-and-so’s dad? He messaged me back saying yes, he is and that he had found old pictures and decided to see if he could find me on Facebook. But then he had changed his mind after messaging me. Whatever, I didn’t care, I was thrilled. What a blast from the past!

By now we’ve chatted over Messenger a couple of times about old memories of when our girls were little. Sometimes he apologizes in case it seems like he’s prying or if he’s messaged me in the evening. He really doesn’t need to, there has been nothing inappropriate about any of this, but I get the feeling that he just wants to be sure that he won’t offend me or make me feel uncomfortable. He doesn’t want to come across as a creep.

I appreciate that, but let me say right off the bat that this guy has never, ever been even remotely creepy or inappropriate in any sort of way what-so-ever. We had some good conversations as our daughters played and he was always just a really nice guy. 

Being the gender scholar that I am, I thought that was interesting. He was clearly apprehensive that I might misconstrue his motivations for getting in touch after all these years. Maybe it’s just who he his, I don’t know, but what I do know is that a lot has happened since we last met. #MeToo for example. 

The #MeToo movement has been, and continues to be, a hugely important movement. Sometimes I hear comments (mainly from men) about how it has gone a bit too far. I really don’t agree, it hasn’t. On the contrary, it needs to go further because awareness isn’t enough, we also need change and we’re just at the beginning of it. 

One problem, however, is that it is an uncomfortable truth and like all uncomfortable truths, it makes a lot of people feel like they don’t know what to say or how to act. It’s the same with racism, also a hugely important topic, but one that many white people avoid talking about. Many are scared they might say something wrong. I notice it when I write blog posts about difficult issues like these. Unlike other posts, they are usually met with almost complete silence. They hardly even get any likes. 

But back to #MeToo. Every once in a while, I will see frustrated posts and comments about how it is possible that men have become unsure about what is and isn’t appropriate when it comes to women. Do they really not know how to be respectful? Do they really not know what is and isn’t appropriate behavior when interacting with another human being? 

Although I really get where these frustrations are coming from, I also understand guys who all of a sudden feel unsure about what is and isn’t okay and are worried they might say or do something around women that may be considered offensive. How can they know if they’ve never been taught?

We live in a world where inequalities are built into the very structures of our society. Misogynism and racism can be overt, and when they are, they are of course relatively easy to detect and people really should understand that it’s not okay to treat others that way. But in this day and age (because a lot of people know it is not okay to be openly racist or misogynist) it is more often than not rather subtle and difficult to detect, although potentially just as damaging. 

Since #BlackLivesMatter became an international phenomenon in 2020, many white people have started to become aware that they need to listen in order to learn what is and isn’t okay. We are invariably racist, whether we like it or not, since racism is built into the very structures of society where we have been brought up. It’s the way we have been raised and we have to work at being better – at not being racist. 

In the same way, there are probably men (and women) who need to learn what is and isn’t okay to say and do, because we have also been brought up in a very gendered society with very gendered social structures. 

So, when men do feel unsure and ask, we shouldn’t lash back and ridicule them for not knowing. The fact that they are asking is a sign that they are listening. They want to know and they want to unlearn and relearn. 

It is the men who don’t ask and who think they already know that we should be worried about. 

It saddens me that these things are so difficult to talk about. People tend to avoid them like the plague in the fear of seeming ignorant or saying or doing the wrong thing. But the fact is, it is only by talking about these things that we will learn and it is only through dialogue that we will see change. 

And if that old friend of mine is reading this and I completely misinterpreted whole the situation, I apologize. But it did get me thinking, so thank you for that!

Calling all like-minded people!

I haven’t opted out just once, I’ve done it twice. 

I first opted out of a career in consulting in 2009 to work on a PhD. And then I did it again sometime around 2017, when I realized that I didn’t want an academic career either, at least not the publish-or-perish-in-order-to-reach-full-professor kind. I didn’t leave the academic world, but I did step off the proverbial career ladder to do it on my own terms. 

I had a light-bulb moment when I was reworking a particular paper to be resubmitted to a journal for what felt like the millionth time. Several journals and even more reviewers had me and my cowriter jumping through hoops in what seemed like a never-ending loop of critical feedback, rewriting, rejection, resubmission… While the paper was undoubtedly getting better, much of the time it was also a question of nuances and reviewers’ preferences. And ironically, the actual research results remained the same no matter how many hours we spent revising. 

I realized I was working my butt off for the wrong audience (and not really having a very good time while I was at it). I came to academia from the business world and I have visions for what we need to do to make the world of work a better place for all of us. Reworking a paper ad absurdum and then to not even have it seen by people in the world that I want to impact, frankly just felt like a huge waste of time. 

It was then I realized that it just wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to continue doing research, but I wanted to do it on different terms, on my own terms. 

When I started talking about how I wanted to work, some of my former colleagues seemed genuinely worried. Although I’m touched by their concern, I think it was mostly because I was talking about doing things in a way that they didn’t understand. It seemed unheard of. If you haven’t moved between worlds and seen different ways of working and living, it’s hard to imagine doing things differently and going against the expected. I know it is. Banal as it may sound, it was for me too before I opted out that first time and realized that there are so many ways to live your life and make a living. 

Besides, one of the things I have learned over the years is that there are several paths that lead to the same result. We don’t all have to do things in the exact same way.

At the same time my art took off and before I knew it my professional life had warped into something very exciting and unique. It wasn’t planned, but I thankfully had the presence of mind to let it happen, maybe because I was feeling so frustrated with where I was and what I was doing (or rather how I was doing it). My art was a breath of air. What started as a side gig suddenly grew into a part-time job. 

Now I was not only doing research differently, I was combining it with painting, which must have made it all seem even weirder and harder to understand. I still get asked about what it is I really do. Some ask me if I’ve left the academic world altogether (no I haven’t) or if I’m working as an artist full time (no, not yet anyway, and I’m not even sure that I want to). When people ask me, ‘so do you paint or do research or what?’, I just say ‘yes, all of the above’. I guess it must seem like a whacky combination, even though it makes perfect sense to me. 

But it can also make things tricky. If what you’re doing is hard to define, marketing yourself and your products and services can be challenging. People feel comfortable with what they recognize, and a researcher-writer-storyteller-consultant-artist may be hard to, recognize that is.

And then there is the business of finding your group. We all need supportive people in our lives and having your own reference group, be it colleagues, collaborators, friends or networks, can really make all the difference. You need people who you can discuss ideas with. You need people who can give advice when you’re stuck. You need people who can cheer you on when the going gets tough. This is hard to do for someone who doesn’t understand what you’re doing, so friends and family who may be hugely important in your life and who mean well are not necessarily helpful in this respect. 

I do have people in my life who can cheer me on, but being a researcher-writer-storyteller-consultant-artist with my own business can also be lonely at times. I’m thinking there are probably a lot of us out there who could really use each other’s professional input and support. 

So, in an attempt to grow my own reference group, I’m calling all like-minded people. If you’re doing things on your own terms and could use a supportive group, let me know. Maybe we can set up an international group of so-called opt outers. Or if you’re in the Helsinki area, maybe we could have a group meet up at The Art Place. Coffee is on me! 

You can message me through one of my social media accounts or email me at theoptingoutblog@gmail.com

I look forward to hearing from you!

Knowing when to say yes and when to say no

Many years ago, I was approached by a company that wanted me to be the representative of their coaching method in Finland. As a part of that process they invited me to take their test to find out exactly what kind of a person I was. It was a relatively short questionnaire and I admit I can’t really remember very much about it, except that based on the questions you were defined either as a ‘yes-sayer’ or a ‘no-sayer’. In the discussion that followed the test, it became clear that yes-sayers were considered good and desirable in the work environment, no-sayers weren’t. 

I was told I was a no-sayer.

I found this mildly amusing, although also somewhat irritating because based on the test they obviously didn’t know me at all. On the contrary, I have always had a hard time saying no, to a point of it actually being problematic for me, and especially around that time in my career I was definitely not one to say no in work situations. 

It seemed, however, that critical thought, which is so important in any situation, was easily translated to no-saying. Needless to say, in that situation I did have the presence of mind to say no and I didn’t take on the representation of their method. It was an easy decision, flattered as I was by their interest in me. I just didn’t believe in it. 

But always saying yes, being a yes-sayer as that coaching company would have it, isn’t necessarily always good. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard mainly people in the corporate world talk about how they don’t want to work with people who always say no to anything new and innovative and that they want to have people around them who say yes. Yes, I can see the appeal of that, but let’s also not underestimate the value of having people around you who can think critically. 

I’ve actually had to practise saying no. I have easily ended up taking on too much, or just been dragged into things I don’t really want to be a part of just because saying no has been difficult for me. A former colleague of mine used to celebrate the times she managed to say no and made a mark in her calendar. 

But just like always saying yes, saying no all the time isn’t good either. If we always say no we never take any risks and we never find ourselves on unexpected but meaningful and potentially successful paths. We never do anything out of our comfort zone and we may miss important opportunities that may not have been on the horizon.

The trick is to know when to say yes and when to say no. In fact, a wise friend of mine, Amanda Backholm, said the other day that knowing when to say yes and when to say no is actually a superpower. 

Those who follow me know that when I’m not doing research, I paint on silk and it has become a second job for me. It’s deeply fulfilling, not to mention fun, and I’m thankful every day that I had the presence of mind to just let it happen when the opportunity presented itself. I ignored all those voices of doubt in my head and I quickly said yes to queries of commissions and exhibitions before I could change my mind. 

I don’t always get it right, I’m not sure whether I have that superpower or not. Maybe that is something I will know only when looking back at this part of my life. 

However, getting it right every time isn’t crucial. Every once in a while, you will miss an opportunity you should have taken, or turned something down that you maybe shouldn’t have. But don’t worry. Mistakes can be corrected, minds can and should be changed if needed, and new opportunities always come a long. There are many roads out there that you can take (if you want to), you just have to keep your eyes and your mind open in order to notice them. 

And if you just don’t want to, that’s fine too.