September 26, 2019 · Write a comment · Categories: Musings · Tags:

At work this month I’ve been participating in an exercise that was described as a continuous-improvement project and a way to encourage collaboration across workgroups. Teams made up of people from different parts of the company are proposing suggestions for better perks and other ways to improve employee engagement. The presentations will be made on Monday.

For my team’s project, I volunteered to do some research on labor shortage and retention issues, so as to put the topic in perspective. That made very clear why management is concerned about the employee engagement issue. It was quite an eye-opener. I learned that 27 percent of the U.S. workforce quit their jobs in 2018, which is the highest quit rate on record. Meanwhile, retirements also are on the increase: every day, about 10,000 workers of the Boomer generation sail off into the sunset.

Ships under a sunset sky.

Although I had known in general that a labor shortage was developing and that many companies were finding it hard to keep enough workers, I hadn’t fully realized the extent of it until I looked at the statistics.

I suspect management’s real goal with this employee engagement project is to look for ways to keep the workforce happy, or mostly so, without having to raise wages much. That probably won’t get them very far in reducing the number of quits and retirements, but we shall see. Next year ought to be interesting.

I cleaned off my desk this week and put away some small decorative items I’d had sitting there for more than a decade. They were gifts from my employer to recognize high-quality work. During the recession, unfortunately, such freebies went the way of the dinosaur.

Although the economy has improved in recent years, almost all of the gains have gone to shareholders, and showing appreciation for employees’ work now seems like a quaint bit of ancient history. While I was ruminating on that fact recently, it occurred to me that leaving the old freebies on my desk amounted to a daily reminder that I wasn’t currently getting as much recognition for my efforts as in the past. So I boxed them up, put the box away in my basement, and left the space empty.

Empty space on a desk with cords and a telephone.

Because life always finds ways to make use of empty spaces, I am hopeful that leaving space on my desk will attract better work circumstances. Maybe that will mean more recognition and better pay raises in my current job, or maybe I’ll find a worthwhile opportunity somewhere else. At this point I am not making assumptions in that regard, nor am I trying to visualize anything in particular; I’m just leaving space for appreciation and inviting the Universe to fill it.

“I’ve been feeling somewhat frustrated the past few years,” I said to my imaginary future self Fannie, as I helped her unpack a picnic basket on a cloudy and windy afternoon in July 2083. The corners of our disposable red and white tablecloth fluttered briskly in the breeze. Although the sky had gotten dark enough that a storm surely had to be close by, we didn’t have to worry about losing the tablecloth to a sudden gust because a thin strip of some futuristic temporary adhesive kept it firmly secured to the park table.

Picnic table with red and white tablecloth on a cloudy day, with dark trees behind it.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

Sipping her iced tea, Fannie gave a nod of encouragement, waiting for me to go on. I was distracted, however, by a pair of unusually large bluish-green flies that hovered above our tuna sandwiches for a moment before they both flew away.

“They’re harmless,” Fannie informed me in a cheerful tone. “Genetically engineered to eat mosquitoes and other pests, while leaving picnic food alone. Also, they glow in the dark—that gene was inserted to help the biologists track them. They’re really quite pretty on summer evenings. Look, there are more of them glowing under the trees where it’s dark.”

In all honesty, I thought the genetically engineered flies looked a bit creepy; but in the interest of being polite to my future self, I didn’t say so. Instead, I went back to my earlier topic, which had to do with the frustration of trying to imagine my future work in a rapidly changing world.

“My job is comfortable enough,” I said, “and maybe that’s part of the problem. Maybe I’ve been doing the same work for too long. I feel like I ought to have a better sense of what comes next, but I can’t seem to get it clear in my head.”

“Let’s talk about what happened when you first took the job,” Fannie replied, putting down her salad fork. “Did you have any clear future plans then?”

This obviously was a rhetorical question because Fannie, as a future version of me, already knew what had happened. Still, I gave it serious consideration and got my thoughts in order before I answered.

“No, I didn’t really—and that seems strange now, given the fact that I started in a temporary position and had no assurances that it would become permanent. I was mainly focused on the skills that I was learning, and I felt confident that I would be able to use them in a future job, whatever it might be. At the time, I didn’t worry about not having long-term career plans.”

Fannie took a bite of her tuna sandwich and chewed thoughtfully, as the sky grew darker and I heard a faint rumble in the distance. It sounded like thunder; but considering the sci-fi surroundings, I guessed that it might be traffic noise from flying vehicles instead.

“Well, then,” she finally asked, “what changed?”

Several potential answers came to mind before I was able to settle on one. “Mainly my perspective. By now, I’ve seen what can happen to people who wander through life without plans or who get overconfident in their assumptions. A lot of comfortable jobs disappeared during the recession, and the economy still feels shaky—but it’s not just that. With the world changing so fast, I now feel like I could easily miss out on something good because I didn’t know where to look.”

Although a faint pattering of rain had by now started in the nearby trees, our picnic table was still dry. Fannie poured herself a little more iced tea before starting to put away the remnants of our picnic in the basket, which looked like old-fashioned wicker (but a closer inspection showed it was a synthetic material instead).

“To sum up,” Fannie stated in a matter-of-fact tone, “you’ve gained more awareness of possible different outcomes, and you understand that present-day choices have great power to shape your life going forward. But rather than feeling empowered by these insights, you worry about making bad decisions—or failing to make decisions when they’re needed, which amounts to the same thing.”

I nodded, feeling somewhat embarrassed. “Yeah, that’s about right. I guess I’m being kind of silly, when you put it like that.”

“Not at all,” Fannie declared firmly, as she took from her handbag a small item that looked like a key fob and pressed a button on it. “More choices always mean more uncertainty; that’s just the natural way of things. But what usually happens is that although we may feel unsure of our decisions, they end up all right anyway. Even when we think we’ve gotten ourselves into a bad situation, we find that a solution appears.”

The rain was coming down in earnest now, splattering on the now-cleared table. A moment later, I heard a mechanical whirring, and then Fannie’s flying car came into view. Evidently it had been parked somewhere close by. It landed on a concrete pad not far from the picnic table, and Fannie walked briskly toward it while carrying the basket. She winked at me as she got into the car.

“See, things work out—rain or shine. It’s not that hard.”

I started to walk around to the passenger side, thinking that it would be great fun to go for a ride, even in the stormy weather. But alas, that would have to wait for another blog post. Fannie and her surroundings vanished into the mist, and I found myself back in my own time.

I recently had a midyear conversation with my manager about resources available for building more skills, among other things. The company has been encouraging employees to use online training materials for personal development.

My manager said that she had been talking with other people in my workgroup about their plans. Some wanted to keep doing the same job, while some were looking to change positions or to retire, and others hadn’t settled on what would be next.

Although she didn’t come right out and ask, I got the distinct impression that there was a question in there; so I replied that I was in the “not sure what comes next” group. That was true enough.

I have been doing pretty much the same work for many years and sometimes feel as if I’ve gotten stuck in a comfortable rut (which I didn’t say). The job is well suited to my temperament and skill set, and my manager and coworkers are very nice people.

Rutted road bordered by telephone poles and fences.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

In our turbulent modern society, there is now an expectation that we need to plan far ahead. Otherwise, we’ll miss out on valuable opportunities and put ourselves at risk of falling too far behind to ever catch up. It’s no longer enough just to be a responsible adult who is working and paying the bills.

There are rational reasons for that fear. Many people really did end up in bad situations because they lost a job to offshoring or automation and did not have the skills needed to get a better job, or they wanted to retire but did not have enough savings. So, now we’re always seeing news articles that admonish us to save much more, improve our skills at every possible opportunity, and plan our entire lives in great detail.

There is an emotional cost to all this pressure, though, which I don’t believe our society is fully taking into account. When we’re expected to run faster on the hamster wheel at all times, we get stressed out. And stress causes health problems, detracts from mental flexibility, and leads to persistent feelings of being overwhelmed and insecure. Then, on top of all that, we feel guilty for not doing a better job of managing our stress, and we get even more stressed.

So I’ve decided that I am not going to worry about what might come next. Why should I feel obligated to live up to some arbitrarily created checklist—which, given how fast the world is changing, may not even come close to my actual future circumstances? To me, it makes much more sense simply to exist in the moment, saving a reasonable amount and learning enough to broaden my horizons, but without forcing anything. Then, maybe, when the time is right, discovering “what comes next” will happen naturally.

October 25, 2017 · Write a comment · Categories: Musings · Tags: ,

Now that the weather has turned chilly, I’ve decided that until the winter is over, I won’t be doing any more of what has seemed like an endless chore of pruning my backyard willow hedge. It’s mostly under control and not as much in my husband’s way when he mows, but it still has a few dead and dying branches here and there. Winter isn’t far away, though, and the leaves are falling.

Willows after pruning in October.

As well as getting back the weekend time that won’t be sucked up by those trees, I’m also going to take some half-days off from work just because I feel like it, even if there is nothing in particular that I need to do. My vacation days do not roll over from one year to the next, so there’s nothing to save. I already scheduled taking off Thanksgiving week and Christmas week, and I still have a little time left over.

When my husband and I were younger, we had a judgmental attitude toward people who took “mental health days.” We thought that they were wasting valuable vacation time and might regret it later, if something unexpected came up, and that they needed to do a better job of managing their time.

After many years of rushing from one activity to another, though, we can better appreciate the value of having a more relaxed attitude toward time. As with anything else, when time is treated as a scarce resource that has to be hoarded and carefully managed, it never feels like there is enough. Best to be more easygoing, within reason of course, and not worry about it.

October 9, 2017 · 4 comments · Categories: Musings · Tags:

Last week, two of my coworkers decided to have a virtual party to celebrate because things have been going well for our team this year. So they asked everyone to send in a photo of something fun. I contributed a swimming pool picture to make it into a pool party.

Backyard swimming pool on a sunny day.

We ended up with a random assortment of photos showing what people had been doing recently. Running a marathon came first, before taking a dip in the pool, which was followed by eating chocolate and drinking wine. It reminded me of telling group stories as a kid at sleepover parties, where everyone would take turns adding a sentence—whether it made any sense or not.

I feel lucky to work with such a cheerful group, and am writing this post mainly as a reminder to myself that I shouldn’t take it for granted. After all, there are many workplaces that are so dull, nobody even remembers what the word “fun” means. And considering how much time most people spend working, that surely would determine a large part of how life feels in general.

Today’s corporate culture places a high value on continuous improvement, which generally means learning how to question existing practices and determine whether something else might be more effective. To gain some experience with it, I am currently doing a beginner-level continuous improvement project that involves gathering and analyzing data on how my coworkers track their time and fill in the weekly timesheet. The objective is to find ways of making the process easier and quicker, which may save the company a little money if there is wasted time that can instead be used to get more work done.

While this is just a small-scale project and won’t bring about any major changes, it’s useful anyway as part of a cultural shift toward questioning why we do things in particular ways. Before I started the project, I never gave any thought to time-tracking and whether the process was as efficient as it could be. I simply jotted down my work hours on a notepad that I keep in my desk drawer, entered those hours on the timesheet at the end of the week, and took for granted that was just the way it was.

Small spiral notepad in desk drawer with pen.

This cultural shift goes far beyond the workplace. Because today’s world gives us far more access to information than at any time in history, we’re always encountering facts that suggest our old familiar assumptions are likely to be incomplete. Expanding our worldview takes time and a considerable amount of mental effort. After all, our ancestors evolved in a world where things changed very little from one year to another, so they had no need to work continuously on redrawing their mental maps. The human brain’s decision-making process, still rooted in those primitive origins, relies on subconscious assumptions to a much greater extent than we generally realize.

Whether in the workplace or in the broader culture, it all starts with questioning. Diversity programs, for example, give the participants more familiarity with other cultures, which in turn leads to reflecting on the factual basis of assumptions and developing a better-informed perspective. For some groups, such as the LGBTQ community, questioning is expressly seen as an early step in forming one’s identity—although Q can mean queer, it also stands for questioning. The field of Disability Studies has to do with critically examining society’s assumptions about disability in the light of real people’s experiences. In April of every year, the Autistic community celebrates Autism Acceptance Month, which involves questioning cultural myths about autism and seeking to create a more informed and accepting society.

Because the complexity of the modern world requires so much effort to understand and adjust to what’s going on around us, sometimes it gets overwhelming. We need enough simplicity and comfortable routines to keep our stress levels manageable, but that’s not easy when we always have to deal with something new. Questioning our assumptions, whatever they may be, can get uncomfortable because we’re afraid others will judge us harshly if we have been wrong about anything.

Continuous improvement seeks to streamline the process by using familiar and well-defined methods, while looking at the data objectively and avoiding criticism of ideas as bad or existing workplace practices as wrong. We tend not to take it too personally when these projects identify more efficient ways of doing our work based on analyzing the data. In general, we don’t feel emotionally invested in small workplace details such as whether we use a notepad or something else to track our hours.

When our cultural assumptions are challenged, however, we don’t have a clearly defined process for updating them and are far more likely to get anxious and defensive about being judged. No matter what side we may take in today’s political conflicts, we often feel that our culture and worldview are under attack. Global corporate leaders, by contrast, generally look upon information about cultural differences in the neutral light of the continuous-improvement framework. Like other kinds of information, they’re seen as useful data points to inform efficient practices and higher profits.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should cultivate in our personal lives the emotional detachment of the corporate mindset. On the contrary, it is natural and reasonable that in these stressful times, many of us feel strongly motivated to preserve our cultures and traditions. We can, however, benefit from occasionally reflecting on our personal views and how they relate to society, within a calm, non-confrontational setting such as a discussion group. After all, cultural differences do not necessarily have to result in conflict; there are many possible ways of framing and addressing the issues, and in general, questioning is the first step toward discovering what might be possible.

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?