If there’s a myth about meaningful work, I’ve likely heard it. Here I take the top five myths and bust each, using research. Get ready to lose your excuses!
Internships are a key element of pursuing meaningful work - but they’re only as powerful as we make them. My first piece for Forbes Careers reveals five research-based ways to take your internship to the next level, leading to meaning, purpose and success in your future work:
March in Maine is horrible.
It's muddy, it's cold, it's still snowing at the most inconvenient moments. And, worse yet, Mother Nature teases us with a balmy, sunny day sprinkled in here and there.
All of us who live here can predict that March will be miserable, every year - yet's it's still hard to endure.
"March is when I am overtaken by the urge to throw out all my possessions, put the house on the market, shave my head, and start over," local columnist, Heather D. Martin, recently wrote in The Northern Forecaster.
Most of you don't live in Maine. But I bet you can relate to Martin's feelings, especially when it comes to work if my inbox is any indicator!
One of the most common questions I get from career coaching clients is WHEN to say, "take this job and shove it!" (albeit more nicely, please, for the sake of coaching being successful!)
The timing does make a big difference between a satisfying job change and ending up back in the same situation, just with a new business card - or worse.
When Should We Quit?
Mainers learn that you do not move out of state - or make any big changes, whether filing for divorce or cutting our hair - during March. As much as we might want to! "Back when I was a social worker," Martin writes, "the rule laid down by my boss was 'no one quits in March.' If you still wanted to leave come April, fine. Otherwise, 'it's just March talking,' she'd say. Wise woman."
Wise indeed. She was offering the best advice on when to quit. Not when you're in the valley - and want to quit the most - but, ideally, when you're at the relative peak.
Based on her and her colleagues' research, Angela Duckworth, Professor of Psychology at UPenn, concurred on the WorkLife podcast ("The Perils of Following Your Career Passion" episode):
"I always recommend quitting things on good days. You know, if you come in and it's a nice Thursday morning and everything's gone reasonably well and you still want to quit, well there's maybe something going on...You should not quit things when you're in [an] acute period of pain and disappointment and self-doubt." - Angela Duckworth
I couldn't agree more. The worst email I ever receive from a coaching client is the, "I couldn't take it any more and I quit! Can we talk ASAP?" email. My heart aches when I get that. Aches.
Why Quitting On a Bad Day Is a Bad Idea
There are so many reasons why we should avoid quitting on a bad day - even if we really want to:
It's easier to get a new job when we're still in a job. This might feel like a frustrating fact but, in my experience - personally, while hiring, and while working with coaching clients - it is indeed a fact.
We typically haven't gotten a chance to fully enact job crafting, which can at the least make our current job bearable while exploring and searching. It may even make the organization a good fit; many of my recent clients have strategically switched job functions within their existing organizations, retaining their sense of community, financial vesting, and seniority while becoming more fulfilled at work.
The client likely has not yet built a financial runway, which career coach Jenny Blake describes in her book Pivot: The Only Move That Matters is Your Next One as the financial means to jump from one role to another, perhaps taking a pay cut in the interest of trading money for satisfaction (which 9 out of 10 people would be willing to do, research shows).
We'll possibly/probably have burned a bridge - or two, or three - from our impulsive choice. At the very least, we didn't get a chance to clear up whatever was underlying the "bad day" feeling (such as, negative feedback during a performance evaluation, being called out for a mistake we made, or feeling undervalued by our coworkers and superiors over a specific event or interaction). At the worst, we gave an emotional speech a la Jerry Maguire and will be hard pressed to get a good reference.
"You don't want to quit the moment you don't like a job because passion can grow over time," says Organizational Psychologist Adam Grant on the same WorkLife podcast episode. Passion is not something we discover, both Grant and Duckworth attest based on research. It is something we develop, a statement with which I agree heartily. Duckworth points out that the first year in any job in particular is difficult and, often, unfulfilling. Quitting on a bad day undermines our ability to develop our skills, begin to feel competent and, thus, start to develop passion for our work since passion is derived from being good at what we do.
Perhaps the biggest reason of all: because of the inevitable pangs of regret. My "impulsive quitting" clients spend valuable coaching session after coaching session circling back to kicking themselves: they question why they quit right then, and what would have been possible if they'd held off. And no wonder since regrets are inevitable when we act impulsively; in those moments, the emotional center of our brains, the amygdala, take the reins, cutting off the rational, planning part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex. But once the emotions cool - often as soon as we walk back into our office after quitting - the prefrontal cortex kicks back in and says, "What DID you do?" This in turns gets our amygdala all riled up again - except with the emotion directed at ourselves this time - undercutting our ability to stay focused and take the next steps we need to enact a job search.
Steps Before Quitting
That said, we often do need to quit. Some workplaces are downright toxic and need to be escaped. More often the organization, industry, and/or role are not a fit because we:
picked a career without prototyping options first, often right out of college
AND/OR because we've developed and our work-relevant values are different than they once were
AND/OR we've plateaued and are ready for our next challenge
In those cases, we definitely quit...on a good day.
We quit when we have set up a financial runway; job crafted the heck out of our current role, reflected on our strengths, personality, interests, and work-relevant values; prototyped new options through informational interviewing, job shadowing, volunteering and/or side hustling; have networked extensively; and, ideally, have the next role in hand.
We quit when we can walk in and it's just like any other totally normal day and we still want to leave...we still know we need to leave.
In the meantime, we create a plan, find support sources to whom we can vent on the bad days and who can repeatedly remind us our plan, and we take strategic and concrete actions every day to work toward quitting on a good day.
One of my clients was so certain and had done so much prep work that she gave notice the day after a big office party to celebrate a major milestone. Everyone was on a high - including her - and she calmly walked in her supervisor's office and said, "It's time for me to go."
So now that it's April, I'm free to leave Maine. I'm free to cut my hair. I'm free to make any dramatic change I see fit. Regret free.
But, you know what? This place is pretty darn gorgeous without snow on the ground. And everyone is smiling a bit more without winter coats weighing them down. And, all in all, I'm right where I want to be.
Despite March. Or maybe even - although I'd never admit this during the doldrums - because of March and all the gratitude it engenders.
“I want meaningful work,” a career coaching client says during our first call together.
“OK, great, we can definitely help you move toward that goal," I say. "And can I ask what you mean by ‘meaningful work’? What is it you're looking for?”
There's a long pause.
“Honestly, I don’t know how to put it into words,” the client says. “But I know it’s something different than I get from work now!”
Point taken. And commonly expressed!
Most of us want “meaningful work,” regardless of our age, but are we clear about what we’re seeking? Until about ten years ago, I couldn’t have articulated “meaningful work” myself - even though I longed for it. And talked about it a lot.
This lack of clarity is a real problem. How can we construct meaningful work for ourselves if we have no idea what we’re aiming toward?
Thankfully, we can all get more directed in our search for meaningful work by learning from psychologists' efforts.
What Meaningful Work is NOT
Meaningful work is not the same as job satisfaction, commitment to work, or work engagement, according to a study by psychologist Blake Allan and colleagues that combined data from 44 previous research articles. Their powerful research not only found that these experiences are different from one another, but that meaningful work predicts job satisfaction, work engagement, and commitment. In other words, we need meaning at work if we want to be deeply involved and enthused by what we do.
“Meaningful work” is also, interestingly, not synonymous with “meaning.” Meaning is how we make sense of an experience, which we might do in a positive, negative or neutral way, Allan and colleagues write. For instance, if you don’t get a job offer that you really want, you might make positive meaning out of the disappointment by thinking, “I bet this is making room for an even better opportunity to come along;” or make negative meaning out of it by thinking, “this is one more piece of evidence that I’m perceived as too old by this industry;” or neutral meaning might instead arise: “that meant nothing; there will be other interviews.” On the contrary, meaningful work is, by definition, positive. Nobody has "negative meaningful work.” Thankfully!
So What IS Meaningful Work?
Meaningful work is individually-determined. I asked my career coaching client to share her take on “meaningful work” for precisely this reason: what feels meaningful to you might not to me, and vice versa. The judgment depends on the work-relevant values we each hold: our sense of what’s most important to us. Typically these values relate to our (big, hairy, unclear) existential goals: Why am I here, and what’s worth doing while I am here? We might not always be able to put that into words off the bat (!), but noticing when and where we gain energy can point us in the right direction. For instance, inspiring and educating the next generation of helpers is apparently a top work-related value of mine because that's what charges me up, consistently. That goal might feel completely pointless to you - which is totally fine...as long as you don't go out and become an educator!
Meaningful work is based on an overall judgment of our work, not on our moment-by-moment experience. We all have aspects of our work that feel meaningless. For instance, I’m writing this article to put off making a multiple choice exam for my 200-level students at Bates College. Certainly if I dig deeply enough, I can find meaning in even the understimulating task of exam creation - exams encourage students to study material deeply and provide them and me feedback on their comprehension, thus guiding future instruction and learning approaches - yet, overall, it doesn’t feel meaningful as I write each individual test question. If we do meaningless tasks all day long (meaningless, again, compared to our personal work-relevant values), then our overall appraisal of our work is that we do not do “meaningful work.” Somewhere between either extreme - all meaningless tasks or (the impossible ideal of) all meaningful tasks - is a tipping point that leads us to judge our work as, overall, “meaningful” or not. Based on my work with coaching clients and Bates alumni, this tipping point varies greatly from individual to individual - and can be changed.
There are many ways to get to meaningful work. The great news that emerges from research is that we can get to “meaningful work” through many different pathways. That said, two processes in particular lead most of us to judge our work as meaningful: when we growing personal and/or contribute to other people while working. Indeed, ADP Research Institute’s survey of over 2000 participants in 13 countries found that almost 90% of younger workers look for precisely these two aspects in work. That said, since values are individualized, the processes to experience meaningful work likely are, too, and do seem to vary a bit by generation.
We don't have to leave our existing job in order to “find meaningful work.” Based on all of these points, there are many ways we can make our current job feel more meaningful, either while searching for our "next" or instead of making the often financially and psychologically fraught big leap. Among many other small changes we can make, we can shift our focus from the meaningless tasks at work to the meaningful tasks; increase the proportion of time and energy we put into the meaningful tasks, if possible; and/or identify the values we are fulfilling through our work and elevate their importance in our life. It may feel easier to do all of this in the “blank slate” of a new organization, industry and/or role, and at times it truly is. I’m a big believer, though, in flexing our muscles of doing these "job crafting" exercises wherever we happen to currently be. The novelty of any new role will eventually wear off, and those muscles will come in handy!
Overall, meaningful work is possible for any and all of us; job crafting researchers have shown this to be true in careers of all statuses and financial reward, from hospital custodians to hairdressers to design engineers and more. If we stay clear on what meaningful work is - and is not - then we can not only seek it, but actually find what we’re looking for.
Of the many repeated questions I receive - from reporters; students, parents, alumni, and staff at Bates College; and from my career coaching clients - the most common is whether we need meaning in our work.
Certainly the majority of us want meaningful work.
90% of respondents to a survey by BetterUp reported desiring meaning at work. In fact, they wanted meaningful work so badly that they said would trade a portion of their salary to get it. "On average, our pool of American workers said they’d be willing to forego 23% of their entire future lifetime earnings in order to have a job that was always meaningful," Shawn Anchor and colleagues wrote in Harvard Business Review. Almost a quarter of their earnings! And that's in a representative sample of over 2,000 people from a range of industries, ages, and roles.
But just because we want something, doesn't necessarily mean we need it, of course. It's a point I make many times a day to my 8-year-old about the "slow rise" squishies for which she yearns, and a difference we all experience whenever we stare down the bakery counter at our favorite lunch haunt.
Are we all little more than grade school kids, moaning for an experience that's "nice to have" but equates to little more than decadent, short-lived pleasure?
Shana Lebowitz, a reporter at Business Insider, recently explored this question in depth, and I was honored to get to weigh in:
"'We've set the bar way too high for what constitutes meaningful work.' Fraser-Thill shared...Meaningful work is fundamentally about feeling like it's about more than just you. Providing for your family financially counts. Bringing a smile to your coworkers' faces every day counts, too. Fraser-Thill is all but certain that, if we expanded our definition of meaningful work, we'd have a much more satisfied workforce."
I am certain that we're all capable of experiencing meaningful work, regardless of our job function, industry, educational background, or level of privilege. Job crafting research indicates as much, finding that individuals in fields as far ranging from hospital custodian to design engineers can change their thoughts, tasks and/or relationships with co-workers and clients/customers in order to move from meaningless to meaningful work.
And still, the question remains: do we need meaningful work?
We need meaning in our lives. I know that for sure.
Psychologist Michael Steger gathers the overwhelming evidence for the need for meaning in a chapter in Wellbeing, Recovery, and Mental Health (2017), summing up it this way:
"People living a meaningful life are very likely to be happier, more positive and more psychologically mature, anticipate brighter futures, take care of their health better, feel better physically and enjoy all of these qualities for a longer period of time before death."
Indeed meaning in life, and the sense of purpose it typically involves, is linked not only to psychological health, but to physical health and longevity as well, at every point in the lifespan. Gallup's worldwide wellbeing research also indicates that this relationship is predictive, moving FROM meaning and purpose TO physical, social, community, and financial well-being, not vice versa. And the impact is notable:
"People with high Career Well-Being are more than twice as likely to be thriving in their lives overall."
Intriguingly, Gallup's research focused on meaning and purpose at work in particular. Rath and Harter noted, though, that "career" well-being is about how you spend your day, regardless of the income generated. "If you don't have the opportunity to regularly do something you enjoy -- even if it's more of a passion or interest than something you get paid to do -- the odds of your having high well-being in other areas diminish rapidly," they write.
So here we finally reach the crux of the answer: we need meaning in our lives in order to be healthy and to, quite simply, keep on living. The way we spend our days creates - or fails to create - that meaning we so very much need. Since most of us also require an income to stay afloat, it follows that spending our paid work hours constructing meaning is a need, not a mere desire.
As Annie Dillard so aptly put it, "How we spend our days of course is how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour and that one is what we are doing."
Given that most of our waking hours are consumed by paid work (over 90,000 of them in a lifetime, to be exact), what we do with our career matters for our ability to experience meaning in our lives.
This doesn't mean we need to pick the "perfect job" or the "perfect organization." Spoiler alert: neither exists. It does mean we need to know from what sources meaning arises, and then actively shape our work lives to maximize those experiences. We all have that flexibility, even if it begins simply, like with a more enthusiastic and genuine "hi!" as we pass our co-worker into the place where we'll spend our day.
And thus, importantly, where we'll spend a good chunk of our life.
Although I haven’t had time to write original posts on career change and meaningful work in quite a while, I’ve been fortunate to be regularly interviewed for meaty, thought-provoking articles by other writers. I’ll be sharing these articles weekly, with some highlights extracted from each.
This week I’d like to shine a light on Karen Tietjen’s article “How To Transition Into a New Career, According to Experts,” recently published in The Zoe Report.
Here’s some of the advice I shared with Tietjien’s readers:
"About 80 percent of the people who contact me to consider career coaching say that they feel like they've wasted years spinning in their own heads about whether to make a change or not, being miserable in the meantime.”
"Might as well make the change now — thoughtfully, not rashly — and feel more contented and settled by the time the next decade milestone in your life rolls around.”
"A change should be intentional and thoughtful, with a good deal of time (weeks or months) spent identifying your own strengths, interests, values, and personality type; exploring and actively trying out a variety of paths through informational interviewing, volunteerism, job shadowing, and other means; and a balanced consideration of how your finances and lifestyle will be impacted by any possible change."
Read the whole article here to learn about the steps to career change, in sequence. The take-home message: if you’re feeling the itch for “the next thing” there’s truly never a better time to start exploring than right now! You won’t regret getting started, but you likely will regret delaying.
There's nothing quite as nerve-wracking as doing your work when you know a reporter is watching. In this case, the reporter, Shana Lebowitz, was on the other end of the phone line as my career coaching client - but Shana was so engaged in her professional development that within ten minutes of our first session I forgot that she would be reporting on our coaching relationship. Maybe that's precisely what made our fours sessions go smoothly: I treated her just like my other clients and it was an absolute joy.
But don't take my word for it - here's what Shana herself discovered through the process of career coaching.
We’ve all made decisions about our work lives that don’t match up with who we are and what we genuinely desire. “TGIF” only succeeds as a phrase because society leans that unhealthy way.
But why? There are myriad reasons, of course, which I’ll continue to unpack in my posts to come, but I can dash off the top reason without even pausing to think:
Social comparisons. Hands down.
In my college students, my alumni, my career coaching clients and myself, I see the guiding role of social comparisons in career and work-life choices on a daily basis.
Which is problematic in the extreme since, research shows, looking around and judging our choices based on decisions made by others is a sure route to regret, envy, guilt, yearning, and defensiveness, among other seedy emotions. And I’d argue that many of those emotions are bull’s eye centered on our paid work in particular.
So how can we clear the comparison scourge and make way for work lives that fulfill and stretch us? I turned to the research to find out.
Why Social Comparisons Kill Our Work Dreams
First, let’s step back and consider why social comparisons affect our decisions about career so intensely.
Social comparisons are tricky little devils. For one, they’re built into our psychology and then reinforced by society: we naturally determine value in relative terms, not absolute ones, and schools and other social institutions capitalize on that natural tendency. While we can train ourselves out of thinking about success and worth relatively, as we’ll discuss shortly, it takes a good deal of conscious effort. Thinking absolutely simply isn’t our norm.
Secondly, social comparisons can have a massive upside: they can bring us joy…IF we’re the person with the perfect resume or the immaculate personal life relative to someone else. And let’s be honest here: in each and every domain of life, there’s always someone you’re besting.
Social comparisons can feel so good that we can get hooked on them as our source of self-worth, and we don’t even realize we’re doing it:
Feeling fed up with the drudge job? Our mind wanders to our friend who hasn’t landed any paying work in the past six months.
Feeling crappy about a new haircut? Our finger clicks through Dropbox to that photo of our curly-haired friend on an extremely humid day.
Feeling icky about lack of direction? We prod someone even more directionless into telling us her woes — again.
The problem is, using this strategy to feel good comes at a heavy price: we end up feeling badly about ourselves most of the time, as Dartmouth researchers found:
“Frequent social comparisons may, in the short-term, provide reassurance. But in the long-term they may reinforce a need to judge the self against external standards.”
— Judith White, Ph.D., and colleagues
Comparing ourselves becomes an addiction, and an insidious one at that. We end up scrambling around Facebook, desperate for a hit of “I’m rocking life compared to that person,” but in the process are exposed to a whole lot of “wow, that person is doing so much better than me.”
That’s why the following three steps to quitting social comparisons are vital to the pursuit of work that is fulfilling and most truly “us.”
Step 1. Set Internal Standards for Self-Worth
Getting clear on what you care about and then prioritizing your life around those values makes social comparisons less relevant, as the researchers found:
“People who are uncertain of their self-worth, who do not have clear, internal standards, will engage in frequent social comparisons.”
— White and colleagues
In other words, if you believe that “success” results from meeting YOUR goals — not the goals of your parents, friends, teachers, or “society” at large — you’ll be less likely to succumb to the agony of social comparisons.
The “how” for this step comprises most of my blog posts from the past and my work as a teacher and a coach, so it’s fair to conclude that the process of creating internal standards cannot be boiled down neatly here.
That said, you can begin today by simply writing down what you care about most, in a stream of consciousness manner — such as having freedom, connecting with friends, spending time with family, having financial stability, acting creatively, and so on. Then return to the list daily over the coming seven to ten days to add to and edit it, working to also prioritize as you go (tip: putting each item on an index card or scrap of paper can make the process faster and easier). You’ll know you’re done when you haven’t made any changes for three days running.
This reflective exercise takes less than five minutes a day, and I’ve personally seen it be life altering.
Step 2. Practice Mindfulness
There are two ways we can view ourselves: subjectively (from the inside out) or objectively (looking at ourselves as if we’re an object). People who do the latter engage in more frequent social comparisons and thus feel less content, according to research:
“Viewing one’s self objectively cuts one off from mindful experience, resulting in mindlessness. Not only are we holding the self still, in order to view it objectively, but also we are holding still the dimension on which we are making the comparison. In a mindless state, a person automatically accepts the positive or negative consequences of a social comparison.”
— White and colleagues
Furthermore, when we’re proceeding through life mindlessly, we’re less likely to notice when we’re turning to social comparisons to serve as a mood booster. In other words, mindfulness provides two ways to quit social comparisons — a pretty powerful cocktail indeed.
As we’re all aware by now, there are many ways to practice mindfulness, including meditating, engaging in mindful walking, or even simply remaining aware of small details while eating or dressing.
If you’re new to mindfulness meditation in particular — an approach that makes no spiritual claims and has been shown to decrease stress, anxiety, and blood pressure —Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Wherever You Go, There You Areis a great starting point.
Interestingly, researchers note that making social comparisons may causemindlessness, so you’ll need to reconnect with a mindful viewpoint daily to keep things in check. It will be well worth the effort, as the researchers found:
“In a mindful state, the same social comparison information can have a completely different meaning, and thus different consequences.”
— White and colleagues
Step 3. Schedule Activities that Bring You Flow and Meaning
There is a bit of chicken-and-egg happening here, but studies show that if you can “find happiness,” you may be less tempted to look at the friend who is climbing the career ladder and has the uber-family to boot. And less affected if you do.
Unhappy people make more frequent comparisons and take them more to heart in comparison to happy people.
Of course we could fill 15 bajillion posts on the question of how to “find happiness,” but I’ll stick with the psychology-based answer I strongly believe: lasting happiness comes not from fleeting pleasures, but from structuring your life around endeavors that are personally meaningful and that frequently plunge you into a state of flow. And given that we spend about a third of our lives doing paid work, I strongly advocate for not just looking for happiness in our hours of recreation, but also actively creating a work life filled with purpose. One that is not ruled by social comparisons, but rather by your personal sense of mission.
I’ve seen many people make such a career a reality for themselves. I’ve experienced it in my own life. Is it easy? No. Does it happen quickly? Of course not. Do you retain it forever once you’ve found it? I wish. But implementing the three steps here is genuinely a great — and tangible — way to start.
What role have social comparisons played in your decisions about career? I'd love to hear your comments here or on Medium
White, J. B., Langer, E. J., Yariv, L., & Welch, J. (2006). Frequent social comparisons and destructive emotions and behaviors: The dark side of social comparisons. Journal of Adult Development, 13, 36–44.
What do you think everyone would want to do, if only they could? What kind of work? In what kind of environment? At what time of day? Under what circumstances?
Answering this series of questions can provide you with the single greatest insight into your own preferences - and also into your fears.
About a decade ago, I leaned over a paper placemat at Friendly’s and answered a friend’s query about the sort of working life I’d love to have: based at home full-time with no boss, no “team” to have to collaborate with, making my own schedule - which likely would look like working from 6am to 10am, having the middle of the day off, and then going back to work in the evening - writing articles and books that simultaneously self-express while helping others.
I followed up my description with, “But who wouldn’t want that?”
My friend stared at me, then lifted an eyebrow. “I wouldn’t. And I honestly don’t know anyone who would.”
This took me by complete surprise. So I then launched into grilling her about what did *not* sound good to her about my vision for my ideal work lifestyle, then spent days (weeks? months?) wondering if I was a horribly strange person.
Before that day, I honestly believed that I was fantasizing about a working lifestyle that “everyone” would want. In fact, I believed that so many people wanted it, I might not be able to get it because “it” was already taken (as if such a thing could be true).
Furthermore, I hadn’t articulated my vision for years on end because I’d taken it as such a given - as something that was so obvious that it need not be spoken. Who doesn’t want to be their own boss? Who doesn’t want to work in their pajamas? Who doesn’t want to spend hours not having to talk to anyone?
Lots of people, I now realize.
The Friendly’s moment of realization is part of what drove me to want to hear people’s work stories - and, through coaching, to help them construct in reality what had been previously only been in their heads. Through much formal and very informal interviewing and coaching of people from a wide range of ages and backgrounds, I’ve come to realize just how idiosyncratic my preferences are. They are very “me.” Are there others in the world who share my vision of the ideal working lifestyle? Absolutely. Chris Guillebeau, for instance, has made a living stoking the fantasies of people like me.
But of the hundreds of clients and students I’ve known, it’s only a small percentage who share my vision - or share a vision with one another. I’ve come to believe that work lifestyle preferences are our ultimate psychological fingerprint: as unique as each of us.
So, then, what have you been failing to articulate because it’s “so obvious”? What is your vision of a work life that “everyone” would want? What do you take so for granted that you don’t usually even bother to let it into your consciousness?
Do you think that “everyone” would love to work with an endless supply of coffee in close reach? Would “everyone” love to interview celebrities? Would “everyone” prefer to spend their day out in the sun?
I’d bet most of those examples didn’t resonate with you - yet for someone, one or more of those represent their core assumptions for awe-inspiring work environments.
Two caveats before we wrap:
First: DO NOT think about reality yet. When you hear the pesky voice in your head say, “but that’s impossible” as you consider some aspect of your ideal working life, that’s a sign that you’re on the right track. Write that thing down! Is endless coffee just a dream? I don’t know. I’m not trying at this moment to assess its odds of occurrence. It’s beside the point. If the thought of it makes your pesky voices rise up in opposition, you’re onto something. A good vision should be internally controversial. If it weren’t, you’d simply be describing the work life you already have. And if you’re reading this article, chances are you don’t want to keep working exactly (or at all) as you are.
Secondly: Aim to write about the process of the work, not the outcomes of that work. For instance, would “everyone” love to make seven figures a year, especially if that money didn’t come along with a huge lifestyle cost? Probably. But “making seven figures” is not a work lifestyle. It is not a “doing” of something. It’s an outcome of that doing. We actually do tend toward having universals about outcomes - e.g., wanting more time with our family members, wanting more time off in general, wanting money flowing in without having to do anything at all - and so they aren’t that compelling or helpful in our work search process.
It’s the HOW that comes before the outcomes that varies from person to person. It’s the HOW that can guide your choices as you move from where you are to where you want to be. It’s the HOW that can unlock the fulfilling working lifestyle you’ve always wanted to have.
So take a moment to write down your obvious. What, do you think, does “everyone” want to do?
What's your "obvious"? Share below - or on Medium
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That's the question that has haunted me for years. Decades even. I wondered it as I read Laura Ingalls Wilder books during my childhood, wondered it afresh as I wandered from college to grad school dropout to unemployed-but-I-know-where-I-want-to-live, and I wonder it still. Every day. In fact, I've been contemplating "how does a person build a fulfilling life?" so much lately that I haven't been able to write one word on the topic. Hence the recent radio silence on this blog (for the first time in 1.5 years!).
I'm currently being forced to put into practice everything I've spent years considering, writing about, and researching. My life is undergoing seismic shifts: new career path for my husband, new work opportunities for me, moving to a new home [current status = our house is under contract to be sold and we can't find a house we want to buy...yikes]. It's a lot like...hmmm....being 20something all over again. Even though I just hit my 36th birthday. Proof positive that life is all about cycles of change and stability, forever and always, until the day we die.
When things are getting all shaken up, THAT'S when we need to be most intentional and present about building a life that we'll find fulfilling and valuable. But what exactly does that entail? That's a question we each have to answer for ourselves, and the question that has filled my mind much more than it has filled blank pages of late.
I trust that my "stability" period is coming down the pike and I'll finally be able to process in words all that I'm currently experiencing. But that time is not yet, so this blog will remain quiet for a while longer. (Which may be just fine with you!!!)
If you would like a little something to read over, though, check out the terrific interview Cassie Paton at Witty Title Here recently conducted with me. We chat about all things creativity, entrepreneurship and - indeed - creating a fulfilling life. I'm grateful to her for getting me out of my head and down on a page for a few moments!
I don't have the answers. No one does. We're all just rubber balls bouncing around this nutty thing called life...and I'm really bouncing at the moment! If nothing else, we'll have a lot of grounds for commiseration when I return because I know that if you're reading this blog, you're there, too.
May we all bounce to the right place for us.
What's all this hype about having a mentor? Today we'll break it down, one question at a time.
First, the obvious question: is the "mentor search" worth the energy? In a word, yes.
People who have mentors tend to get salary increases and promotions faster than workers who don't have mentors. Graduate students in psychology report that peers who have mentors meet more influential people, move faster through the program, have a better sense of direction, and present at national conferences more often.
Although men seem to benefit from mentorship more than women do, women are in greater need of mentors because they still occupy fewer high level positions. It's a shame, then, that Levo League found 95% of Gen Y women have never looked for a mentor.
What Type of Person Isn't a Good Mentor?
Overstretched people make the worst mentors.
They may seem like they have it all - family, career, local fame - and you want to know how they do it. Since they have so much going on, though, they probably don't have the time to give you the mentoring relationship you need.
For instance, Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!, may seem like an interesting mentor given her high-profile career/family juggling, but with all she's got going on, how much time for mentoring does she actually have?
Who Makes a Good Mentor?
What do you do when fear reaches out from our midsection and takes over your entire being? If you're anything like me, what you want to do is curl up in a ball, watch marathon sessions of New Girl, and not talk to a single soul. For days.
(Hence why this site has been so quiet this week...Putting my safe-haven of a house on the market is apparently not good for my writer's soul.)
What we have to do, though, is tame the fear. And keep walking on.
As we've discussed in the past, there is no such thing as "conquering fear" or being "fearless." Ha, if only.
In reality, people who look fearless simply live with the fears and act despite them...which means their fears are tame enough to allow them to function! (That "I can't even think about what I want for dinner because scary thoughts are consuming me" feeling doesn't cut it.)
So here's what I do - and am very much currently doing - when fear and worry get the best of me. I call it the "EFWA strategy." (Doesn't quite roll off the tongue, does it?!)
1. Go EASY On Yourself - for a Day or Two
While the New Girl marathon may not be all that productive in the long haul, it's important to quiet the drill sargeant within us the first couple of days after fear strikes.
Instead of berating ourselves - "What do you think you're doing? You're going to give up? Just like that? What kind of pansy are you?" - we need to take a different tack during our early days in Fear Central.
Think about it: when we were kids and had scary things happening in our life - like getting on the school bus for the first time or going to our first sleepover - how did we want our parents to react?
Did we want them to immediately start telling us "get over yourself and just do it!" I sure didn't.
What we wanted first was a hug and some affirmation that fear is normal in those situations.
We wanted to feel comforted first and foremost. THEN we could move on to bucking up and doing the activity despite the fear.
Bottomline: Don't shortchange the scared child that's inside each of us. Give her or him the comfort deserved, while trusting that the will to move forward will follow closely behind.
2. Put the FEARS In Writing
After we've felt comforted, it's time to face the fear head on.
We need to ask the questions: Why am I afraid? What are the components that are freaking me out?
Then we need to write those suckers down.
For instance, if you're thinking about leaving your job, the component fears may be:
- FEAR: I won't find anything else I like.
- FEAR: My family will think I'm crazy.
- FEAR: I won't have enough money.
I use this "fear-writing" technique with my coaching clients all the time - and at first it freaks them out.
"You want me to tell you exactly what I'm afraid of when I say I'm afraid of starting a business?" one client asked.
"Yes," I said. "As fully and concretely as you can."
She paused. "But I don't want to know that."
This (very common) response makes me want to chuckle - even when it's me thinking it (and believe me, I was thinking it all last week). We are in such denial! How come we think that fears that remain inchoate and unclear are better than those written down on paper in front of us?
Here's how I see it: fears we haven't put into words are like a virus that can infiltrate every cell of our body. They take over our existence, and we can't even tell exactly where or what they are.
Fears we fully process by putting them in black-and-white, however, are like a localized wound. Sure they hurt like crazy and dealing with them might not be easy, but at least we can identify their location. That's more than half the challenge.
So do the painful act of writing the fears out. As fully as you can muster.
Trust me: you'll feel better for it.
3. Lay Out WORST CASE Scenarios
Now that we know exactly what we're fearing, we can take it one (scary) step further and write down the worst thing that can happen related to each fear.
Take it to an extreme - I seriously mean worst case.
Why? Because your mind is thinking about these worst cases even if you're consciously trying to ignoring them. The worst cases are what are waking you up at 3am and making you pop Tums like they're Jolly Ranchers.
The worst cases are there, even if you don't want to see them.
It's time to let 'em loose.
Continuing the example of leaving a job:
- FEAR: I won't find anything else I like.
- WORST CASE: I'll be miserable for the rest of my life and feel like nothing I did was worthwhile.
- FEAR: My family will think I'm crazy.
- WORST CASE: They'll disown me and never speak to me again.
- FEAR: I won't have enough money.
- WORST CASE: I end up homeless and without food, and will wither away and die.
I told you they were extreme!
Notice that the worst cases tend to look quite laughable once we put them in writing. What are the odds that any of these worst case scenarios will happen? For most of us fortunate souls living in developed nations, about the same as being struck by lightning.
When we realize that each worst case is highly unlikely - and that you could even survive many of them, regardless of their extreme nature - the power of the fear has been sapped.
4. Determine an ANTIDOTE for Each Fear
Now that the fear is on its knees, it's time to deliver the knock-out punch: articulating a concrete plan for working through each fear.
It usually helps to have a friend or coach walk us through "antidote-finding" because sometimes the strategies that are right in front of us tend to impossible to see ourselves.
Here's a generic example, for which the antidotes could vary greatly depending on the person's personality and details of the job change situation:
- FEAR: I won't find anything else I like.
- WORST CASE: I'll be miserable for the rest of my life and feel like nothing I did was worthwhile.
- ANTIDOTE: Identify 10 things I currently do that feel worthwhile, such as running, spending time with my grandma, and talking to my childhood best friend on the phone. I'll then create a plan for doing these things on a regular basis. That way even if my work life doesn't pan out for a while, I'll be actively creating life satisfaction in other areas of my life.
- WORST CASE: I'll be miserable for the rest of my life and feel like nothing I did was worthwhile.
- FEAR: My family will think I'm crazy
- WORST CASE: They'll disown me and never speak to me again.
- ANTIDOTE: Sit down with each family member individually and ask about his or her path to today's career. Talk about fears and big changes that person made related to work, and then begin to discuss how my feelings relate to their past. It may only be the start of a dialogue, but it'll be a good start.
- WORST CASE: They'll disown me and never speak to me again.
- FEAR: I won't have enough money.
- WORST CASE: I end up homeless and without food, and will wither away and die.
- ANTIDOTE: Get 100% clear on my budget: precisely how much do I need each month to cover costs? Are there places I can shave expenses? How much money do I have in savings, and how many months worth of shaved expenses would that cover? Do I need to stay in the job a bit longer to provide the sort of savings cushion that would cover enough months to make me feel comfortable?
- WORST CASE: I end up homeless and without food, and will wither away and die.
Does it take work to tame fears using EFWA? Absolutely.
But I'll tell you this from the fear-wracked place I currently sit: it takes a whole lot less energy than letting fears run their course.
Now I want to hear from you: What strategies keep you moving when fear threatens to paralyze you?
Photo Credit: BombDog
Q: What's your take on laziness? Is it an epidemic or what? I once had a discussion with my friend about how we are less productive when we are less busy, if that makes sense. For example, when we have a full schedule with deadlines, requests to fulfill, appointments, assignments, etc., we find ways to make it all happen. Then, when we finally get "free time" to accomplish all the things we've been wanting to do for ourselves, like go to yoga, workout, clean, blog, etc., we don't end up doing much of those things at all! There is no one but ourselves to hold us accountable for those things, which makes it all the more difficult to get it done with any urgency. - Isabel Gomez, @izzygomez A: You're definitely onto something with your observation, Isabel. You should see my low productivity in the summertime when I'm not teaching - I often fail to even make it to the grocery store!
Why would less time make us more productive? Because it stresses us out - in a good way.
We need good stress (eustress) to perform optimally, according to the Yerkes-Dodson law. Not enough stress and we're like sacks of potatoes on the couch. Too much and we're a bundle of ulcer symptoms.
But I think there's more to the "laziness epidemic" than a lack of stress. In fact, it's just the opposite. It all comes down to an improper understanding our "Optimal Time Crunch Zone." (It's not as scary as it sounds - promise!)
Get Your Time Crunch On
Before we dig into the laziness issue, let's get clear on our Optimal Time Crunch Zone by extending the Yerkes-Dodson law to "Time Crunch Status," as shown in this image I created.
Too much time on our hands is a recipe for getting nothing done - and too little time is exactly the same!
The big question is, how much time crunch is "too much" and how much is "not enough"?
How to Find Your Optimal Time Crunch Zone
What feels like a ton of free time to me (a whole HOUR today?!?) may feel like nothing to you - or vice versa. So we have to do some trial-and-error to find what amount of free time works best for each of us.
We can do that totally randomly. Or, if you're a dork like me, you can be a bit more strategic about the process, say, like this:
- Identify your current Time Crunch Status.
- Signs of low Time Crunch Status = not bothering to do the things you want to be doing (e.g., the blogging, going to yoga and cleaning that you mention, Isabel), fatigue, lack of motivation
- Signs of high Time Crunch Status = irritability, forgetfulness, exhaustion, missing deadlines, physical ailments like headaches and digestive issues (all sorts of fun!)
- Signs of being in the Optimal Time Crunch Zone = You aren't worrying about this issue at all! Things are just flowing.
- Jot down your Time Crunch Status AND how many hours a day, on average, you currently have "free" (i.e., the hours you get to fully determine what you're doing).
- Put these notes somewhere you can refer back to them months - or even years - later.
- If you're not currently in your Optimal Time Crunch Zone, tinker with your Time Crunch Status.
- For low Time Crunch Status: try adding a bit more requirements to your day, such as by taking on a volunteer position.
- Notice I said "adding a BIT more" - I've seen many students take this too far too fast, passing right by the Optimal Time Crunch Zone into danger territory. I must admit I did this at the start of my first few semesters of college: workload felt so light during the first two or three weeks that I signed up for a ton of activities so that I didn't have so much free time. I'm sure you can imagine what happened to me by midterms. Ugly.
- For high Time Crunch Status: Uh, yea. This one is difficult and I'm no master here. In theory, we should list everything we have on our plate, prioritize that list based on what each brings into our lives (both extrinsically and intrinsically), and then pare off the bottom items one by one until we hit our Optimal Time Crunch Zone. In practice...uh, yea.
- In my experience, this "need for time crunch" remains remarkably stable over time. When I think to my friends from high school, I can think of some people who LOVE to be crunched to an extent I couldn't stand, and others who wouldn't want to endure my pace. Although just about everything else about us has changed in 20 years (good bye frizzy hair!), our individual Optimal Time Crunch Zones haven't moved much at all.
The Scoop on "Laziness"
To return to your initial question, "What's your take on laziness? Is it an epidemic?" I'll start by saying that I don't believe "laziness" is an innate characteristic, per se.
Although Peter from Office Space claims he'd "do nothing" if he never had to work again, I don't believe him. Nobody is that inherently "lazy." All humans have stimulus motives, which make us feel horrendous if we're not stimulated "enough."
Instead, I believe "laziness" arises from a lack of understanding of our Optimal Time Crunch Zone.
And, yes, it's an epidemic. We're a culture so obsessed with being busy, we experience tons of burnout that LOOKS like laziness.
In other words, we operate so far above our Optimal Time Crunch Zone for so long that when we finally get a moment to chill out, our bodies scream for us to STOP. Completely! Then we berate ourselves for not getting anything done.
Once we get clear on our Optimal Time Crunch Zone, however, we know precisely how much we need on our plates to feel productive and energized. THEN we can work on breaking the "overly busy/overly tired" cycle by respecting our needs.
The "respect" part is what I'm still very much working on. My strategy? Intentionally spending time around people who operate in their Optimal Time Crunch Zone on a regular basis.
That's the best we can do, I think: become aware of our patterns, look for healthy models to help us break those patterns, and forgive ourselves when we (inevitably) slip up.
One hour at a time.
Thanks for the great question!
What's your take on time crunch and "laziness"? How do you find the healthy balance between being stressed and being bored?
Do you have a question about work, careers, finding your path in your twenties, identity, or what you should eat for dinner? Wait, not that last one. But if you have any other questions, pop them my way @WorkingSelf or Rebecca@workingself.com. I may not know the answer, but I'll grapple around in my experiences and research to help us puzzle through it together. If your Q is published, I'll send you a free e-coaching session on values!
I'm a rather upbeat person. A glance at virtually anything I've authored tells that story. That said, I'm also a firm believer in truth, and sometimes "upbeat" and "truth" conflict.
Today is one of those days.
Welcome to your personal tour of Sacrifice City.
A Lifestyle Choice
First, a clarification: when I encourage the pursuit of meaningful work on this site, I am, in essence, endorsing a lifestyle choice.
The search for and retention of a life filled with purpose and deep life satisfaction isn't some fad diet we pick up and try for 10 days to see if it'll fit. On the contrary, such a life arises from consistent and committed choices made over the course of hard-fought decades.
I wouldn't support this lifestyle if I didn't deeply believe it is worth having. Every single piece of data I can get my hands on - including my summated first person experiences - indicates it's the way to go:
- I believe the 1000 older adults psychologist Karl Pillemer interviewed who all - all! - DID NOT say anything resembling "to be happy you should try to work as hard as you can to be able to buy the things you want."
- I believe researcher Martin Seligman and his positive psychology breathren who find that life satisfaction comes from deep engagement and meaning in life, not from pleasures and "feeling good" in the moment.
- I believe my mind when it wakes me up early to sit down at a task I care intensely about, and my heart when it spends summer long days with my family on the beach instead of in an office, padding my paycheck.
But anything worth having comes with sacrifice.
And right now, I'm feeling it.
Benefits, Meet Cost
Staying true to my upbeat nature, though, let's first consider the benefits I've gained through a commitment to meaningful working - and living. Benefits I believe any of us can reap, if we want to badly enough.
- The following questions make me pause long and hard whenever they're answered:
- Who's your boss?
- What are your work hours?
- How many sick and vacation days do you get a year?
- What's your work phone number? (I honestly have no clue - who the heck uses the phone these days?)
- Not being able to readily provide a straight answer to those questions = freedom (to me, at least)
- The following questions make me pause long and hard whenever they're answered:
- Related to freedom, autonomy goes one step further, into the moment-by-moment decisions of my day. I pick what I want to do when. Some tasks are non-negotiable - like, say, grading papers and exams - but precisely when they get done on a given day is up for grabs.
- Purpose-driven sense of mission
- In contrast to the work-structure questions I can't answer, there is one question I can answer without pause: "Why?" Ask me why I'm doing just about anything in my life and I have an answer. A personally meaningful, deep-seated answer. That's not for nothing.
- Concentrated time with my family
- Researchers find that 100% of respondents say "relationships" create meaning in their lives. 100%! In a society where we can't agree whether we prefer the cookie or the cream in an Oreo, that finding seems pretty compelling. So my husband and I have both made conscious decisions to maximize family time, including taking jobs that give us summers off (and thereby foregoing the many better-paying and potentially satisfying jobs that don't meet this requirement) and choosing to turn down freelance and coaching gigs (athletic for him, career for me) to have late afternoons together year-round.
Good stuff, right? Absolutely. I'd make the same decisions a thousand times over to gain what I'm so fortunate to currently have.
Yet there comes the moment of reckoning when you have to look hard in the face at all you've sacrificed to get what you have.
We're talking here, of course, about the ol' four-letter word that always accompanies benefits: cost.
Meaning or Money?
Without a doubt, the most notable cost for my life's many benefits is money. The big buckaroo. The almighty dollar. The smacking smackaroney.
Wait, that last one didn't make sense.
The point is, there's a whole heck of a lot I'm not going to have in life because I'm so committed to meaningful, purposeful living. And sometimes it makes me downright ill.
At this very moment we're preparing our house to go on the market and searching for a new home in a community with strong schools and highly engaged parents.
Shorthand: we want to move to a place where a good deal of money is flying around.
Put another way: we're looking to move where we can't afford to be.
Speaking of which, here's a great way to get acquainted with meaningful working/living costs: Spend a Sunday afternoon house hunting. Drive by the houses that are too "low-income" to warrant an open house. Step inside the "fixers" you can barely afford. Then torture yourself a bit by visiting a house $100K or so outside of your price range. Before long, "meaning", "freedom", "autonomy" and "family time" become a jumble of nonsense words an infant spews out at the dinner table.
Seriously, as of last night I wanted to take my high-values, eye-on-the-big-picture, creating-a-life-I'll-respect self and shake the bejesus out of her, screaming, "go off and finally accept a fricking job that'll pay you what you're worth and will enable you to afford a house in which you and your kin can stand upright in the bedrooms!"
[Note: Is this a first world problem? Abso-total-lutely. I get that. I see that. I feel gratitude for that. And now on with my (extremely common) first world crisis.]
We've occasionally touched on money at Working Self in the past - most directly in Money and Happiness: What's the Right Balance? and less so in the recent How to Pursue Creative Passions While Paying the Bills - but I don't write about money often because I honestly don't think about money often. Again, an amazingly fortunate situation, I know.
To be clear, it's not that I don't think about it because I have so much of it - cue the laughing cat there - it's because I don't typically see the value of beyond-basic-needs money.
I learned early on that the best way to stay true to a meaningful lifestyle is to steer clear of commercial traps like, say, the mall, or magazine ads, or, well, just about any public place in our society.
Before you think I'm a major hermit (!), I should clarify that I steer clear mentally. We did visit the mall this weekend, for instance, but I didn't set foot in a single store or browse in a single window. We were there for the food court, the Easter bunny, and the carousel, thank you very much. (And even at that, it would've been much cheaper to stay home.)
Bottomline: when I don't look at all I'm not able to have, I don't realize what I'm missing. That way the benefits are free to loom large and splendorous in my mind, enabling me to continue to make the tough calls in life, like turning down a ten-thousander in exchange for some quality family time.
The real estate search, however, unavoidably flips this whole approach on its head.
The Final Reel
Why am I bothering to tell you all of this? Truth in advertising.
You need to know what you're choosing when you say, "I want a job that feels meaningful." Or, "I want to create a life I can feel proud of." Or, "I want to make a difference."
What are you willing to sacrifice to have those things? Seriously: how much are you willing to give?
There is no "half in." You either pick the path ripe with freedom, autonomy and purpose, or you're a slave to the clock and the dollar. (Show me the lucrative, fulfilling part-time job that you can get without sacrificing your morals and I'll change my take on that.)
Bottomline: we have to be 100% clear on that answer before starting pursuit of a life filled with meaning and life satisfaction, or else our commitment to the path will prove as steady as Russell Brand's commitment to Katy Perry.
Intentionally and actively creating a meaningful life necessitates looking at the whole picture - the entire, un-airbrushed, ugly cracks spidering from the edges sort of picture - and considering whether we've truly got the stomach for it.
Maybe in your case what feels meaningful will also happen to be lucrative. Kudos on your luck, if so.
For most of us, however, the path that picks us can cover the bills (and only after some major strategic tweaking), but it ain't gonna buy us the house we always imagined our children growing up in within the sort of neighborhood where parents invest time and energy into being present and aware.
I trust that my future self won't care about the latter part of that sentence. I trust that she'll review her life and think of the memories made within the walls of the ranch house she never wanted, not the "cozy" square footage encased within those walls. I trust that she'll know she conducted the right cost-benefit analysis for her and her family, and will have great dignity and integrity about her choices.
My current self, though? The one who wants a hit of in-the-moment pleasure now and again?
Quite honestly, she's feeling quite blue.
And that, my friends, is the whole picture.
Photo Credit: DecoDesignCenter.com
Last week we discussed how to pursue creative passions while paying the bills. The best way to truly tackle this topic, though, is to hear from someone who is actively doing it. Enter today's interview!P.C. Dettman is a thirtysomething UK-based fiction writer, software consultant and trainer, blogger, and owner of a business that invests in and advises entertainment industry experts. Not to mention a family man.
In other words, P.C. knows a thing or two about putting food on the table while staying in touch with the creative writing that "found him" when he was 9.
What were the biggest hurdles you had to overcome in your 20s?
My 20s were a total nightmare, even though I had a good job [as a software consultant based in London] and all that sort of stuff ironed out early.
The nightmare came within a year of starting work, and it was simple really: I didn't want any of this stuff. I mean that I wanted nothing of what had been planned out for me, and it hit me so suddenly, like within 6 months or so, that the whole consultancy model was basically evil, it was flawed, and it wasn't right for me.
But the thing was, and the reason this was a total nightmare, is that I had already decided I was never going to do a standard office job. I worked my summers, and I seriously could only do 12 weeks of that before I was bored and demotivated and almost ill actually. It made me really quite low to think of doing 40 years of that.
So I hit the consultancy thing straight out of college, I have all the grades and friends and money and I'm in London and flying around the world every week and getting paid to do that, and I physically hated it. I really did. My body rejected the hours and the exhaustion, and my mind rejected the whole thing. And I had no idea how I could live another year, by which I mean I had no idea how to earn my living if not like that. I just felt there was nothing available to me that would pay the kind of salary that would impress my friends and family. Crazy!
So how are you paying the bills these days?
I've realised that there is no money in writing novels.
Even people I know who have 'real' book deals with 'proper' publishers can't earn enough to do that full time. Realising this would be a hobby and not a job has taken lots of years. That industry is just so hard to get into, even if you put in the legwork and build up some contacts, that a rational person would not become a full-time author.
Right now, I am trying out a few different things to see what works. The good news is that I have a bit of money put aside if times get really tough. Everything I read about saving money I agree with and happily pass on. You can never save enough money. However much money sounds like a lot to you, it isn't. This is the biggest secret in life: there are no rich people. What do I mean by that? I mean however much you have, you can always spend more, and the more you have, the more you run up outgoings like fancy cars and boats and palaces and that stuff - the more you make, the more you need. So nobody is actually rich. I believe this.
I'm dabbling in some theatre investments in the West End (that's our Broadway) and doing some freelance writing, but that doesn't pay too well either.
My main income in future is likely to be from consulting and training people in the various software tools I've become expert at. For me, training is specifically the thing that manages to combine my writing and talking with computers, and at the same time makes some good money. That gives me time and space to pursue the kind of fun things like novels too.
It is a constant juggling act, I never feel that I totally have it down, and I think that's also good. Challenge and uncertainty keep you fresh, as does adversity. You need to face adversity and come through it, and you will no longer be afraid.
Can you tell us more about how you balance creative writing with making money?
In the early part of my career I totally went towards making money at the expense of my creative work. I saw doing a job as the easy option, the easy short-term money option, and it was, and is. The hard part is stepping back, realising it's not working for you, and then figuring out what to do instead. All of that took around 15 years, believe it or not.
Sometimes having kids is when people realise it's time to get a steady job and settle down, but I did it the other way around. I settled down at 18 to do the safe thing and now I feel it's time to do the right thing, the creative thing, and properly give that a try. I want my daughter to know who I am, and know that it's okay not to do the safe thing.
I'm reading Morrissey's book right now. He says something like a safe life is not living. I agree.
What's your advice for 20-somethings as they pursue meaningful, self-driven work?
Whenever you read advice like this, and it's from someone older than 35, I think you get one of two answers. It's sort of along the lines of well, I did the right things and you should follow me and do your time and get promoted and work in an office and have a pension and paid holidays and you'll be comfortable and happy. That's one type of answer, but it's not mine.
My advice is that people need the courage, and it really is courage, to follow their dreams. If you don't do that, you may get through the next five or ten years and have a nice life with a big house and that stuff, but you won't ever be happy. You'll be comfortable, you won't starve or lose your house, but you won't be alive. Your family and friends will think you're awesome and you'll all feel awesome together, but it's a giant lie.
You need even more courage for this if you had an expensive education and you have a professional family, because the unspoken pressure to conform will be gigantic. The second you take a step off the expected path, you'll face criticism either spoken or not, and the further you stray, the greater the pressure from friends and family. Especially if those people are all doing dull office work! Boy, you're going to need nerves of steel but that's what it takes.
Worst case scenario, you end up following the herd, but you won't starve. Best case scenario is that you'll be happier than your old friends from the days when you just did what other people wanted. To me, that's worth taking a chance.
Any closing thoughts?
If I die knowing that I always held myself to certain standards, no matter what else happened, I will have done the right thing, and I'll hopefully be happier that way. You have to be able to look yourself in the eye, when you look in a mirror. I'm my harshest critic, and you need that skill, but you shouldn't dwell on mistakes. Just roll with them and you'll be fine.
As a writer, people always say everything bad or good is just material, and there is truth in that. Your 20s are about finding out who you are, so that you can become a great person, whether that be a parent or a great leader of business or some political thing.
Whatever it is you're aiming for, you need to know yourself before you can do any of it.
Have a question for P.C.? Pop it in the comments below!
We can create fancy visions of the purposeful work we want to do, but if we can't execute on a day to day basis, our big scheme is worthless. Funny enough, we learned how to do our days right way back in preschool.
How do I know? Because my daughter, K, is there now, and her preschool parent-teacher conference occurred last week. As I read over her teacher's notes (presented in a a beautiful portfolio, no less - call it the annual review for the Lollaloopsie set), I noticed a ton of parallels to what I was reading in Alexandra Levit's book "A Twentysomething's Guide to the Business World: They Don't Teach Corporate in College."
Levit might be correct that effective work skills are skipped in college...but they're not missed in preschool! Here's a refresher:
1. Express Yourself
In the fall, K's teacher wrote the following goal in her portfolio: "asserting needs and wants and begin to negotiate conflicts with peers."
Who among us doesn't need that written in our "annual goals" sheet?!
Those of us who are terrific at negotiating conflicts tend to be awful at the other end of the spectrum. Just call us the doormats.
And many of us are excellent at making our needs and wants known, but conflicts boil everywhere we go. i.e., The steamrollers.
Apparently millennials have a reputation as more the latter:
"One of the most common complaints I hear about twenty-something employees is that they think they know everything and don't hesitate to convince others of this at every opportunity." - Alexandra Levit
How to curb that? As K's preschool teacher might say, listen first and then speak second. And when we speak, we should present our full and honest truth without accusing or judging someone else.
K is marked as "still practicing" that skill. How about you?
2. Know What Needs to Get Done
If there's anything K is good at, it's prioritizing.
Sorting plastic eggs into baskets repeatedly? Urgent and important. (Category 1)
Hanging out with her friend Clementine in the reading corner? Non-urgent and important. (Category 2)
Eating dinner because mom is on her back about it? Urgent and non-important. (Category 3)
Watching Thomas the Train? Non-urgent and non-important. (Category 4)
Levit suggests we get as clear as K about categorizing our daily tasks:
"If you're been spending your days running around like a chicken with its head cut off, you are probably spending 90 percent of your time in Categories 1 and 3, and you might have noticed totally irresponsible people who hang out permanently in Category 4. When you master effective time management, you stay out of Category 4 and decrease the time spent in Categories 1 and 3 to allow more time for Category 2." - Alexandra Levit
No wonder K would rather spend time with her little buds than do just about anything else. She's a time management extraordinaire. I could learn a thing or two....
3. Practice Your Manners
Of course we should say "please" and "thank you." That etiquette gets us ahead in any setting.
To take our manners to the next level, though, we need to practice making others feel good about themselves, according to Levit (and K's teachers...)
"Be generous with your compliments, but make sure they're sincere. Empty flattery is, in many ways, worse than criticism. Don't praise every move someone makes, and when you do give a compliment, put substance behind the statement so it's meaningful to the person. The most effective compliments focus on specific actions or facts rather than vague generalities or assumptions." - Alexandra Levit
When was the last time you complimented someone concretely and sincerely? K did it just last night ("Mommy, I like those doggies on your pajamas. They are so cute!").
Hear that? A preschooler is showing you up. Time to get your complimenting on!
4. Communicate Well
Levit encourages twentysomethings to embrace the "C&C rule" of communication: clear and concise.
Having sat in K's circle time when a child decided to drone on about his trip to visit grandma four months earlier apropos of nothing, I can attest that K's teachers would approve of Levit's rule. ("That's a nice story," one of them said, gently interrupting the boy. "Can you tell it to me later?")
Stated in a way that's appropriate for us adults:
"Whether you're writing a routine email or a quarterly business plan, offer only the necessary information and be prepared to provide supplemental material." - Alexandra Levit
5. Control Your Frustration
We all know the preschool version of poor frustration control. It looks something like a kid screaming and bashing hands while his or her parent tries to melt into the floor. (If you were in the checkout line in a certain Wal-Mart in Maine last Thursday at 6pm and saw a dark-haired girl with her mom, then you know exactly what I mean.)
Alexandra Levit explains that "a key ingredient in frustration is the lack of control that a person perceives for the outcome of their work." People who believe they control their fate (an internal locus of control) "are more persistent and work longer and harder to get what they need or want," than those who feels like victims of life (an external locus of control).
Put plainly, the internal loci folks effectively manage their frustration.
According to Levit, we can build our frustration tolerance just like we do in preschool: by consistent exposure to irritating situations.
In other words, that long Wal-Mart checkout line was good for my daughter. And that painfully boring meeting you just sat through? That was good for you.
What did you learn in preschool that you now use (or should use...) in your workplace?
Want more tips? I highly recommend Levit's book. While I've had fun drawing parallels to what we learned WAY back when in preschool, the reality is that she includes information that is essential for workplace success - and that we all too often forget to use.
Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks
Q: "What advice would you give to millennials trying to pursue a creative passion in the arts who also need to pay their rent. I'm having a life-crisis trying to figure it out and I think I'm not alone. I expect my passion to become my career but what do I do in the meantime so I'm not racking up debt?" Olive B. Persimmon, @Olivebpersimmon A: I love this question because it's the story of my twenties.
I wanted to be a fiction writer so I worked extremely hard toward that goal. (The Grand Tally: 10 years; 2 writing groups that met monthly for years on end; 5 week-long writing conferences; 4 weekend writing conference; purchase of enough writing books to currently inhabit 1/10th of a 10 x 20 storage unit; more rejections than I can count; lots of tears; many extraordinary moments of insight).
Following all of THAT, here's my totally subjective advice on making life work when our passion simply won't pay the bills.
1. Do Not Rack Up Debt
The sentimental image of the starving artist isn't a life I'd suggest. I've known people in this boat; instead of being creatively free, they're too overwhelmed by day-to-day realities to create much of anything.
Instead I used the following formula:
- Limit expenses to the bone (monthly budgeting and daily use of cash worked best for me)
- Take a job that covers said minimal expenses in the fewest hours necessary (and if it happens to be fulfilling in some way, all the better! Number one consideration: it must not drain your creative brain)
- Use every single free moment to pursue your art. (My typical day: mornings to create; breakfast and lunch reading or watching artist interviews for inspiration and knowledge; evenings reading masterworks of fiction and/or researching contests and/or putting submission packets together)
I spent years rich on creativity but poor on money, yet without carrying a hair of consumer debt. The stability of work freed me to be fully present for my art.
2. Learn To Love the Morning
Not a morning person? It may be time to change.
Sure, we can create in the evenings. Late nights work for many people.
That said, I'm a big believer in the age-old advice that if you want to prioritize an activity high, you should do it first thing. When my coaching clients re-order their day in this way, their prized activities suddenly get done. Consistently.
By the evening it's too easy to make excuses. The drag of the day often overpowers the weak willpower that's fighting to get us to sit down in front of the computer or go into the studio. That's human nature, not a character flaw.
So I spent three years diligently waking up at 5am to write fiction. 5am. (Then I got "lazy" and started waking at 6am instead.) Sometimes I felt angry that I "had to" wake up so early, until one day it dawned on me that getting to pursue art in any measure was a genuine luxury. And also that it was my choice to do so.
During my "early rising" period I remarked to a friend:
"By the time I walk in the door of my office, I feel like I've already lived a worthwhile day. Whatever else happens - good or bad - it doesn't matter because I've already had the sort of day I wanted."
3. Treat Your Passion Like Exercise
That said, hard work with no reward can be grating. With a few curse words thrown in.
For all my Grand Tally of fiction work, how many pieces were published?
Do I find this discouraging? I did then. Often. So my uber-athletic husband encouraged a reframe. His questions went something like this:
- Q: Do you enjoy the experience of making your art?
- [A: Absolutely. The insights I gain into myself and others while creating are second to no experience in the world]
- Q: Do you think what you're gaining from doing the work itself is worthwhile?
- [A: Yes, it makes me more open to experiences, much happier on a daily basis, more alive, and more authentic]
- Q: Then if you never, ever make a dime off of it, or never have anyone read it, wasn't it worth it in and of itself?
- [A: <begrudging sigh> Yes.]
- Reframe: None of us will ever make money nor have an "audience" from exercising yet many of us do it. It's for the experience of it, not the outcome. You get to decide if this is enough. If it isn't, then stop writing. And don't complain about your choice.
He was darn right.
I do not - in the least - regret spending years developing my creative writing skills with no readily-observable "output." Those were some of my most well-lived years of my existence to date. Rich, full, genuine years.
Besides, I have a LOT of short stories my daughter may get a kick out of when she's grown (imagine being able to read what your mom wrote as a twentysomething?!)
Bottomline: If you don't like something about the act of creating art - not every day, mind you, because sometimes it's a slog! but on many days - then is it really your passion?
4. Think Hard about Convergence
There comes a point, though, when creating without an audience feels a whole heck of a lot like navel gazing.
That's when it's time to consider what Chris Guillebeau calls "convergence" in his book The $100 Startup.
I detail this concept - and how to find it, step by step - in my guest post on a A Young Pro Does Passion Matter? How to Find Your Dream Job, but in short:
Convergence is “the intersection between something you especially like to do or are good at doing (preferably both) and what other people are also interested in…Not everything that you are passionate about or skilled in is interesting to the rest of the world, and not everything is marketable.” - Chris Guillebeau
If we truly need an audience - and their dollars - to continue our pursuits, then we simply have to consider what the world wants and needs. Not what we wish they would want and need.
5. Get Acquainted with Creative Entrepreneurship
Along those lines, the field of creative entrepreneurship has a ton to say about creating financially sustainable art.
6. Don't Kick Yourself If Your Art Changes
As we move from #3 ("I'm creating art for the act of itself") into #4 and #5 ("I need an audience"), our art tends to change. Drastically.
You don't HAVE to make that move, mind you. You can forever pursue your art on the side of a paying job and live a wonderfully full, meaningful, purposeful life.
By 30, though, I was ready to move on. That meant getting 100% clear on the IMPACT I wanted to make through my writing, rather than being hung up on the TYPE of creating I was doing. I came to recognize that my long-standing goal was to enlighten people's understanding of human development and meaningful living.
Fiction is one way to reach that goal. Writing non-fiction magazine and online articles is another.
I suspect you know what path I chose.
This did not occur altogether consciously nor in an instant. It was a subtle shift - mornings spent on fiction some days, on non-fiction others - until I accepted that the reason none of my fiction was being published was because, quite frankly, I didn't want it to be . It stunk and I knew it, so I shot myself in the foot at every turn.
Non-fiction is my forte. In part because of the decade spent developing the craft of writing. Regardless of genre.
Lo and behold, when we accept our strengths - not what we wish our strengths would be - deep satisfaction...and the money...begins to follow.
A parting mantra: it's not selling out if you're led by what's inside you.
With best wishes to you in pursuing your art, whatever its end,
Have a Q for our Wednesday Q&A feature? Email me (Rebecca@WorkingSelf.com) or tweet @WorkingSelf. If your question is chosen for publication, you’ll get a FREE MINI E-COACHING SESSION about values, plus a backlink to your website!
Photo Credit: Thomas Leuthard
Career myths stick in the college population like hand-clapping games stick in primary school. So when my college students drop by my office to talk about "the future" (cue ominous music), the same falsehoods spill out year after year. I certainly can't blame them; I believed these myths myself in my early twenties.
Here's the trick, though: the sooner we purge our minds of career misunderstandings, the less the ominous music is needed. So let's dispel these bad boys, shall we?
7 Common Career Myths
1. You're about to choose your "forever"
This is far and away the most common myth I encounter. It's usually phrased along the lines of, "But I don't know what I want to do for the rest of my life."
Neither do I! Neither does most anyone I know. How boring would our lives be if we did know what we'd be doing forever?
We don't have good data on just how much career and job change is normative, but it's safe to say that change is the rule rather than the exception.
Skeptical? Then dedicate the coming month to this activity: ask everyone you encounter how they got to their current career. The stories will likely fascinate and amaze you. Plus make you feel a lot less pressured to figure out "forever" and instead simply choose what's next!
2. Networking is about sharing your resume
When we focus networking efforts on resume sharing, we fail miserably.