March 29, 2017 · 2 comments · Categories: Musings · Tags:

In the “why automation won’t be taking all our jobs anytime soon” category: This morning, my husband took his car to the dealer for a warranty repair. The touch screen with the radio controls, etc., weirded out and went blank a few days ago, then came back up after restarting the car. When my husband called the dealer, they assured him that they had a service bulletin describing the problem and could fix it with a software update. He made an appointment to bring in the car early this morning.

When they started working on it, however, they discovered that the update wouldn’t download from their diagnostic computer, which has a wireless connection and insufficient bandwidth. So my husband sat around all morning while they tried to figure out what to do. By the time I took a lunch break, I still hadn’t heard any more from him about it. Maybe they’re still clueless.

Anyway, I don’t expect to see a future of machines seamlessly running everything while we all sit around without any work to do. It’ll probably be more like Star Trek, where crews of overworked engineers scurry around fixing one problem after another. And while I’m on that subject, would you trust a transporter to reassemble all your body parts in the right order?

Person in a Star Trek uniform standing on a transporter.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

Nah, I didn’t really think so. Me neither.

One good thing is that the sun finally came out after a dark and chilly morning, and hopefully it’ll warm up enough so that we can get out on the river and row after work. My husband said he could definitely use the exercise after a morning like that.

March 8, 2017 · 4 comments · Categories: Musings · Tags:

A few years ago, my employer started calling annual pay increases “rewards.” Maybe I am old-fashioned, but that word choice has rubbed me the wrong way ever since I first saw it. Instead of the more dignified, businesslike language of past years, such as “compensation adjustment,” it leaves me with the distinct impression that pay raises have been trivialized to the level of shopper loyalty discounts.

Well, okay, I get it, we’re in the Twitter age now, and people don’t really expect dry businesslike wording anymore. Besides, given how often younger workers change jobs and careers, it wouldn’t be surprising if they really do see their pay raises as not much more significant than the gas discount at the supermarket.

Gas station in front of a Kroger supermarket. 

Still, if it were up to me, which it isn’t, I would prefer more formality. After all, in a world where everything has been changing so quickly around us, I find it reassuring when the workplace rituals have some predictable structure and stability, rather than devolving to the language of gimmicks.

In the grand scheme of things, this is just a petty gripe, I know. What matters is that the money shows up in my paycheck, whatever they want to call it. Most people probably don’t think twice about the wording. Readers, what’s your opinion? Do you care what a pay raise is called, or are you totally practical and only interested in the amount of it?

When I first started writing this post, it was going to be a long comment to an entry on Glory Begin, in which the author thoroughly trashes (and in my opinion, deservedly so) the popular notion that in order to accomplish anything meaningful, one must first identify some all-encompassing purpose giving life meaning. That is common advice from today’s motivational authors—find and focus on a defining passion, visualizing it in great detail and pursuing it as a lifetime dream until, through the mysterious powers of the Universe, it eventually comes true.

Actually that’s not a new idea, but rather a twist on one that goes back much farther in history. Many traditional religions taught that people had a calling from God (or the gods) to follow a predestined path all through life. Back in the long-ago days when social roles were so rigid that changing one’s path was nearly impossible anyway, many folks probably did find that advice helpful. For instance, if you were the son of a farmer or a carter, you’d likely be doing the same work too; and if you saw it as God’s plan, then you’d feel happier and more dignified as you rode around behind your oxen every day.

Wooden cart drawn by oxen on a dirt road.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

And of course, there were obvious political benefits for the kings and priests whose obedient subjects believed that their circumstances were their God-given destiny. Nowadays we don’t feel constrained by old barriers of social class like our ancestors did; the modern narrative is that we can do anything if we set our minds to it. But, at the same time, there’s still an underlying belief that we are not really constructing our lives from the choices we make each day—instead, we’re humble pilgrims on a quest to discover and follow a life path already laid down by fate.

Way back in the misty depths of time when I was a confused teenager and life felt like a wild overgrown forest with thorny thickets everywhere, the idea of finding a straight and well-defined path had some appeal. But as I gained more perspective on how quickly the world is changing, I realized that trying to plan an entire lifetime according to one singular purpose was nearly impossible—and even if it could be done, it amounted to a recipe for stagnation.

Like many of us, I have a job that didn’t exist when I was a student trying to pick a major. Most workers in today’s tumultuous economy will change careers several times. As for small business start-ups, most will either fail or, if among the fortunate survivors, will end up getting acquired by some huge diversified company. Even if we love our work and throw ourselves into it with all the passion and clarity imaginable, there is still a high chance that in 10 or 20 years, we’ll find ourselves doing something completely different.

Although it may seem wasteful not to stick with the same plan for a lifetime, exploring different paths is not really a waste of time and energy because it builds a more flexible mindset and a broader set of skills. Entrepreneurs often have a history of trying many different projects and careers before finding success—not by chance, but because their earlier efforts gave them valuable experience that made them better able to recognize a good opportunity when they saw one.

To put it another way, we wouldn’t want a phone or computer with an outdated operating system that didn’t suit our current needs, would we? So, why should we expect our brains to keep on running Life Purpose 1.0 forever, while the world changes around us every year?

I had a phone conversation with my dad earlier this week and mentioned that I enjoy blogging. He asked whether I’d been trying to find a literary agent and get my writing published. I said no, and then the conversation moved on to other topics. But I was surprised by the intensity of my gut reaction, which was along the lines of, “No, I don’t need to beg any agents or publishers to validate my writing. I am so totally over that!”

Given that I hadn’t actually submitted any manuscripts to literary agents in a very long time, and not much even then, I wondered why such feelings had popped up all of a sudden. Way back when the Internet Age began, I got involved with online creative writing groups and posted stories to their lists. Many of their members dreamed of being traditionally successful published authors, and they polished their works with great care before submitting to agents.

One guy sold a novel and was thrilled—until the publisher chopped up the story beyond recognition in the editing, while randomly adding the word “Sex” to the title. After he had a few local book-signing appearances, his poor abused novel mercifully expired, going to its literary graveyard with no second printing.

Graveyard with green grass and flowers around a fresh grave.

(photo credit:

After that I didn’t give much thought to conventional book publishing—well, at least not consciously. Something must have been going on beneath the surface, though, or I wouldn’t have reacted to my dad’s question as I did. I ruminated for a while over what it might have been, and finally I put it in the general category of sorting the what-comes-next uncertainty.

That is to say, like many of us, I’ve had my job for years and it is well suited to my temperament and skills; but in today’s fast-paced world, people don’t expect to keep the same job forever. As a result, we’re left feeling unsettled about not having a better idea of what comes next. A lot of subconscious processing goes on as we try to work through all the complicated factors involved, which include cultural views of success.

So, I’d guess that my “so totally over that” reaction meant I had been subconsciously considering whether I might want to be a traditionally published author in the future—or, perhaps, whether I still had much interest in conventional notions of success carried over from many years ago, in general. Apparently, without even being aware of it, I already had answered that question in the negative. I’ll take that as the voice of my intuition offering wise guidance!

An investment advisor that offers its services through my employer’s tax-deferred savings plan tried to drum up more business recently by sending employees a retirement evaluation. Mine had a cutesy red-light graphic and criticized my investment choices as too aggressive for someone my age. Having more stocks rather than bonds apparently means that I can’t be confident of turning into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight upon reaching the magic age, or something of that sort.

Pumpkin with carved face and skeptical expression.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

At the risk of branding myself a modern-day heretic, I’ve never had any desire to create either a bucket list or a retirement activities list because no matter what I might put on such a list, I can’t see myself staying interested in it forever. I contribute regularly to the investment plan because it’s always good to have savings, no matter what I might decide to do with them, and because the company match is free money. But I never could make sense of the cultural expectations that every responsible adult should work like a beast of burden for several decades, with the goal of never working again, and that everybody’s life should be fully planned out.

Of course, some folks are indeed happily retired and enjoying the activities on their list. If that’s you, well then—more power to you! But all too often, people retire just because they were told it’s what everyone should want, and then they have no idea what to do with themselves. Maybe they thought they’d enjoy something, but then it ends up not being as much fun as they imagined. It’s a sad fact that depression and suicide rates spike among the newly retired. Shifting gears all of a sudden and leaving behind a busy career can result in feeling lost and adrift, with no meaningful purpose or identity.

Instead of making conventional plans for retirement, Millennials tend to prefer the “financial freedom” approach of keeping their expenses low while they’re young, so that they can build up hefty savings and change jobs or start businesses whenever they feel like it. Buying a house is not the major accomplishment that it was for past generations, but is an expensive burden to be avoided. This works great for people who enjoy frequent travel and the challenge of becoming acclimated to new environments, as well as for minimalists who are not emotionally attached to their stuff.

I would describe myself as somewhere in the middle. I like the comfort and stability of owning a house and keeping a job for a longer period, but I also value new experiences and flexibility. I wouldn’t want a lifestyle of constant travel, but it might be fun to live and work in another country for a year or two. At some point I’ll want to build a new house (I sketched out a floor plan for fun last month). With so many career possibilities in the modern world, it seems likely I’ll develop other work-related interests.

So, what’s my best approach to finances? Never doing any work again is not my goal, and I can reasonably expect to be around for another half-century because of a family history of longevity, so all those computer models based on actuarial tables are not much use to me. Freedom to pursue any interests I may develop is a much more appealing prospect, but how can I put a number value on choices I haven’t yet made?

I suppose finances are like anything else—moderation and incremental changes generally tend to work best, while making course corrections as the need arises.

July 14, 2015 · Write a comment · Categories: Musings · Tags: , ,

Several years ago, I spent a lot of time doing charitable organizing work. I accomplished what I set out to do, but it got stressful at times because it was an ambitious project with only a small number of people, and we had to deal with detractors and negativity. In a recent conversation, this question came up: Did I “win” because I reached my goals? Or did I “lose” because I felt more stressed afterward?

Goals aren’t everything—they have to be considered with a view to the big picture. Getting stressed past one’s tolerance and soldiering on anyway is neither virtuous nor sensible. On rare occasion it may be necessary; but more often, it can and should be avoided through better decision-making.

That said, it also doesn’t make sense to run away from anything that might cause stress and bad memories. We can’t reasonably expect to have all good times and no worries. Friendships and relationships go through bad patches, work sometimes gets harder than usual, and becoming a parent means not only great joy but also great responsibility.

So I wouldn’t measure either winning or losing by a simple comparison of past vs. present feelings of stress or accomplishment. Such feelings do not necessarily mean that it would (or wouldn’t) have been better to do something else. There are many other factors to consider, and the question should go something like this: How would my present-day life, and the lives of my family and others, have been different if I had made another choice?

At that point we get into the realm of alternate history, with infinite permutations. For instance, would leaving a marriage to avoid the stress and bad memories of arguments have resulted in finding someone more compatible and living happily ever after, or would it have meant many depressing years of loneliness? Who can say? No matter what might have happened, there’s no way to go back and do it over, and future events are likely to change what’s on the scorecard anyway.

What’s important to keep in mind going forward is that experience teaches valuable lessons. If one of those lessons is that a high stress level was more damaging than it seemed at the time, that’s useful to know—it means that we now understand the value of setting healthier boundaries and creating calmer and more nurturing environments for ourselves. It certainly doesn’t mean we ought to kick ourselves around for being losers! Better to look at past experiences as a win* even if they were stressful.

*That is, with a life-lessons asterisk.

What does it mean to deserve?

Today’s culture is always telling us that we deserve more. Advertisers deluge us with images of shiny new products, declaring that we should indulge because we’ve earned it. Self-help authors say that we can attract great success by repeating affirmations along the lines of “I deserve to be happy” or “Next year I’m going to earn X amount of money because I am worth it.”

While that’s better than going around with our heads full of negative messages about not being good enough, it still leaves us measuring our worth against what other people have. Because deserving has to do with merit, if one person deserves something and gets it, then by implication others who don’t have it are not as deserving. Maybe they didn’t work as hard or couldn’t stay focused on those happy thoughts. From there it’s just a short step to believing that if someone is poor, unhappy, or sick, it must be their own fault.

Nobody ever wins that blame game, though. It doesn’t matter how many new cars we have in the garage, how well our investments are performing, or how healthy and happy we feel at the moment. Simply put, there is no way anyone can go through life always having more health, wealth, and happiness than the other seven billion people in the world. So if we’ve got the attitude that those who have less are to blame for their own misfortunes, then we naturally end up blaming ourselves for not being as rich and famous as those who have more—and there are always plenty of billionaires and celebrities in the news to make us feel undeserving, if we’re so inclined.

Who needs all that judgmental drama? We’d do better to take the concept of deserving back to its roots—to the original Latin word meaning “serve.” Historically, a deserving person was a good servant. Earning money had nothing to do with it—most servants earned little more than their keep, and many were slaves. Deserving, in its original root meaning, was about being loyal to one’s master and devoted to one’s work.

Roots of trees in a forest.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

Although we no longer live in a world of masters and servants, we still spend much of our time serving others. Whether it’s by working for wages, owning a small business, caring for our family members, creating beautiful art, or volunteering with a charity after retirement, there are many ways to be a good servant. Giving our work to others is in our nature as human beings, as members of a social species. That’s how we create meaningful accomplishments and leave the world a better place for having been part of it.

Money measures something else entirely. In a capitalist system, money is supposed to be a means of efficiently allocating resources. When sales of a product or service increase, more people invest in it. Some of the profits go toward developing more advanced technologies; then new industries emerge and create jobs, more people can afford to buy products and invest, and the economy keeps on expanding. Of course, it’s not always as efficient as it could be; but that is generally how it functions.

Most investors, with the notable exception of socially-conscious funds, couldn’t care less about whether a company’s goods provide a benefit to humanity. They just want quick profits. A company may have a wonderfully innovative product that would solve many of the world’s problems; but unless enough buyers can be found at a high enough profit margin, nobody’s going to invest in it just because it is deserving in the abstract. The free market is not about making moral judgments and rewarding those who have faith in their products; it is only about getting bottom-line results.

Doing our work with passion and love—being good servants—is not measurable in terms of money or fame. All other things being equal, a passionate worker would make a better impression on people and would be more successful in the conventional sense. But of course, all other things are never equal. We live in a very complicated world where unexpected stuff happens all the time, so why blame ourselves or anyone else for not reaching some arbitrary level of success? When we stay focused on doing our work of service, other things will fall into place in due course.

It’s in the air. We can taste it on every breath—all that restless energy flowing through the culture, dancing wildly into the future, calling us to expand into infinite possibilities and create all the beautiful things in our minds that are just waiting for us to make them real. Life is supposed to be joyful, it tells us. There is so much more we can create and become. We only have to imagine it.

So we meditate, we visualize, we say affirmations, and we believe it’s within our grasp. We try to harness that wonderful creative energy to run before us like the chariot horses of the Roman arena, hooves pounding in a glorious cloud of dust as the finish line nears. We read self-help books that encourage us to follow our passions, whatever they may be, and trust that the Universe will reward our devotion—by sending a big fat bank account our way.

And I’m left wondering just how the passionate desire to create beautiful things got tangled up in our minds with Wall Street-style greed. Why are we so tempted to visualize ourselves quitting our jobs and effortlessly raking in a gazillion dollars from the books we haven’t written yet, the songs we haven’t composed yet, or the movies we haven’t produced yet? Why does everything have to be monetized on a grand scale? Seriously, are those sparkling joyful surges of creative energy telling us to grab the most toys? What’s going on here?

In general, whenever a narrative spreads so widely through the culture, it reflects something that already exists in present-day reality. I don’t mean to say that we’re all ruled by greed, but that we live in a time of vastly expanding possibilities. Modern technologies and cultural changes have empowered us to pursue careers we couldn’t have imagined in the past. So naturally we’re not willing to resign ourselves to a lifetime of soul-numbing drudgery just because people once thought there was nothing better. That, I believe, is what’s at the root of the “financial freedom” narrative—it’s not so much about old-fashioned greed, but about seizing those shiny new potential-filled moments and making the most of them. Money represents possibility.

And that’s all very well in itself; but the downside of equating money with possibility is that when the gazillion dollars never actually show up, it can feel like a personal failure, rather than simply reflecting the fact of a sputtering global economy that still needs time to expand. All that amazing creative energy takes a backseat to obsessively visualizing the big fat bank account and wondering what went wrong.

There is also a subtler trap, which is that we have been culturally conditioned to use the word “dream” to describe doing what we enjoy on a regular basis. That language puts it into the realm of distant fantasy, rather than within reach in everyday life. As a result, we can’t just be happy writing a blog or a novel or whatever because that’s what the creative energy calls us to do in this moment—no, that’s not good enough, we’ve got to have the glittering fantasy of being a super-wealthy celebrity. Otherwise, the culture might always dismiss our efforts as insignificant and leave us stuck forever in a dismal wage-slave existence.

Of course, we don’t really need that big fat bank account before we can take control of our lives. Nor is there any requirement to be a glitzy celebrity before anyone appreciates our creative projects. In fact, there are many celebrities and rich people who are notorious for their totally messed-up lives and always get laughed at in the tabloids. So if wealth and fame aren’t really where control, possibility, and respect come from—then how do we go about getting them?

Simply put, it’s all in the details. Not so much in those bright gleaming visualized details of future grand accomplishments, but in the words and images we use to frame our everyday acts—the details in present tense. I don’t, for example, dream of being a writer. I write stories. Fact. I write a blog. Fact. I control what I write and what I publish. Fact. These aren’t dreams—they are options I have chosen from among the many possibilities open to me in the here and now.

And though I can’t control what other people think of my writing, I have a fairly good idea of how to find readers who appreciate my work. First of all, I need to be consistently kind and courteous, showing others the same respect I’d like to get from them. It’s also important to take the time to put together quality work, free of careless errors. I need to be open to learning from constructive criticism and improving myself and my writing. And last but not least, I just need to get into the flow, relax, and have fun! If I became rich and famous, I still would need to do these things to earn genuine respect. There are no shortcuts to be bought.

I set up my blog on Kindle two weeks ago—not because I had any expectation of making money from it, but just because it seemed like a fun thing to do, as well as a convenience for any readers who might prefer following blogs on Kindle. Here’s a partial screenshot of my page on Amazon, which itself has a screenshot of my blog. I decided to put it into this post because the recursive effect looks cool.

Screenshot of my blog subscription page on 

So far nobody has subscribed to it, but that’s okay because it is just a fun present-tense detail of the intentional life I’m in the process of creating. If I had been seriously planning to monetize my blog, I probably would’ve felt disappointed about not becoming an overnight gazillionaire. And we all know what we attract when we feel disappointed and unsuccessful—yup, more of the same. Simply enjoying the small details may not be as glamorous as the rich celebrity fantasy, but I believe it works out better as time goes by and more of those details fall into place.

I recently read an article about a “Burger Bot” that is being developed to automate fast-food restaurants. The author lamented that because so much work can be done with machines, it won’t be long before there are no jobs left for real human beings.

Of course, that line of thought has been worrying people ever since the Industrial Age got underway. Advances in technology have been displacing large numbers of workers for centuries. Our society no longer needs blacksmiths, carriage makers, or many other occupations that once were commonplace. Most of us don’t live on farms in small towns anymore. So, we have to find a niche in today’s complicated economy, and that’s not easy.

Although increased production has made more resources available for new industries to develop, it has been a continuing struggle for this expansion to happen quickly enough to create all the jobs we need. Because of population growth, even in years when many new jobs were created, we’ve always had more workers competing to fill them. Modern transportation and communication technologies have made it possible for companies to move jobs anywhere, bringing even the most remote areas into the global economy. Civil rights laws also have increased the number of people in the workforce—in particular, women.

That’s a lot of transitions to deal with at once. No wonder there is so much anxiety among today’s workers. Although lower birthrates will eventually reduce the number of people seeking jobs as the global economy continues to expand, we’re not there yet.

I remember taking part in a conversation on a forum about ten years ago, started by a woman who enjoyed having a lot of projects to work on. She wrote that when she reached the end of a project and hadn’t yet moved on to another one, it always left her feeling anxious. “The Betweens” was what she called that feeling—a sense of displacement and uncertainty, wanting to do something more but not knowing what came next.

Right now, I would describe our society as mired in the Betweens. Many of the old ways of doing things have outlived their usefulness, but it’s not yet clear what will replace them. All that uncertainty leaves us with vague feelings of impending calamity, as if we need to fix everything right away and it’s going to turn into a huge disaster if we can’t get it all sorted now.

But the upside of the Betweens is that they give us an opportunity for valuable reflection, if we can get past the anxiety and look calmly at what’s going on around us. The Betweens are always happening on a smaller scale in our everyday lives, when we finish a task or errand and haven’t yet moved on to the next one. Often we get in the habit of rushing from one thing to another, without taking time to reflect. Even though we may not consciously notice the anxiety, it’s there anyway as we hurry through our days juggling a schedule packed with chores and obligations, getting distracted and annoyed whenever something slows us down.

This year I’ve been making an effort to change my perspective—to reframe those small daily moments of waiting in long grocery checkout lines, etc., as natural pauses in life’s busy flow and to practice mindfulness when they occur. I want to appreciate the Betweens, to cherish them—to feel grateful for the little unplanned gifts of grace with which they bless my life. Having time to slow down, get my thoughts in order, and be present in the moment really is a blessing, even in the checkout line!

And I am hopeful that our society will develop more creative appreciation for the Betweens, too. Changes and transitions aren’t necessarily bad; we just need time, perspective, and mental energy to deal with them. We have so much power to shape both our personal lives and the world around us into better and healthier patterns, but first we need to take enough time to consider where we want to be!

As workforce growth slows in the coming decades and the global population begins to drop, we’ll likely find ourselves in a much-changed world where companies struggle to cope with persistent labor shortages. Industries that rely on having large numbers of unskilled low-wage workers, such as fast food, will crash unless automation can fill the gap. I believe it’ll turn out to be very good for future workers, having Burger Bots make their lunches while they pursue better-paid and more interesting careers.

I’ll also note that although the Millennial generation often gets criticized for having a sense of entitlement, they generally understand that they are in control of their own lifestyles and career choices. We could all use more of that.

May 13, 2013 · Write a comment · Categories: Musings · Tags:

Back in the 1990s, my favorite computer game was an empire-building game called Lords of the Realm. Players began with a small medieval fiefdom and had to grow its economy, raise an army, and build a castle. As the game progressed, players could build stronger castles. Armies invaded nearby lands and conquered them through battles for control of the castle. Different prices had to be paid to equip soldiers of various types, and peasants could be conscripted. Although peasants got killed quickly going into battle with their pitchforks, they were useful for digging when a moat around an enemy’s castle needed to be filled in.

I enjoyed the sound effects for the battles, which included dialogue. Professional soldiers such as knights or pikemen replied with an eager “Yes, my lord!” or “Right away, sir!” when sent into battle. The peasants, however, made their lack of enthusiasm abundantly clear. When they were selected, they grumbled something surly like “What now?” or “Where to this time?”

I don’t suppose the authors of the game had in mind today’s employment practices when they composed that dialogue, but it struck me as an amusing and very apt bit of social commentary. Modern corporations no longer expect to keep employees for a lifetime, or indeed for any amount of time. Company pension plans are vanishing. Instead of training young workers, which was once common practice, managers insist that new hires must already have all skills required for the job. If no applicants can be found who have the perfect background, work goes undone or is contracted out. Very little thought is given to the long-term effects of cutting costs; only the next quarter’s profit matters.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone in management, under these circumstances, when the employees grumble like surly peasants. Corporate executives give rah-rah speeches and bestow small perks such as letting employees wear jeans to work, but that doesn’t change anything. When their decisions reflect the attitude that any worker can be replaced at any time by someone who comes cheaper, they can’t reasonably expect to enjoy the steadfast loyalty that a medieval knight would give to his liege lord.

Eventually, as globalization progresses, the multinational corporations will exhaust their supply of low-wage workers in underdeveloped nations. I estimate that in less than two decades, companies will be faced with widespread labor shortages. Thereafter, advances in automation won’t keep pace with a shrinking labor force and an increased demand for better-trained workers. When that happens, the most successful companies will be those willing to invest the money needed to retain skilled employees. Competitive pressure will force employers to raise wages, improve benefits, hire the most qualified applicants without discrimination, and generally treat their workers with more respect.

Many executives won’t like it, of course, because they’ve gotten so accustomed to treating their employees like peons. They’ll have no choice but to face the facts, however. If they don’t… well, another feature of the Lords of the Realm game was that if the peasants got too unhappy they’d revolt. They would abandon their fields and go marauding across the countryside. If the revolt wasn’t put down quickly and the peasants’ happiness level raised, the castle would be lost. Those who want to manage the corporations of the future would be wise to take a lesson from that.