October 8, 2020 · 4 comments · Categories: Musings · Tags: ,

After working yesterday morning, I went to get a flu shot. I took the afternoon off, just because the weather was nice and I have more vacation than the one week I can carry over into January.

I was reminded of a post I wrote three years ago on the topic of taking half-days just to relax. Because I had gotten in the habit of rushing around from one thing to another, taking vacation time for no particular reason felt wasteful. To illustrate being busy with chores, I posted this image of my willow hedge, which needed lots of pruning because it wasn’t tolerating climate change well (this year I’ve cut the willows back to a much smaller and more manageable size, hoping they’ll get healthier after a while).

Willows after pruning in October.

Although I’ve mostly recovered from being a time-hoarder, I still wasn’t feeling entirely relaxed yesterday. Having all that extra vacation got me thinking about road trips not taken and, more generally, what a messed-up year this had been for the world.

Then my husband, who is still working from home, has overtime work at present, and doesn’t have vacation because he changed jobs in December, said (while sitting at his desk) that it must be nice to have all those vacation days. That was a well-taken reminder to be more appreciative!

I didn’t feel inclined to do much writing last week because, among other things, I wasn’t getting anywhere trying to imagine the future. What with the entire world having been totally upended this year, I felt as if I’d lost whatever intuitive sense of direction I might once have had. Because telling stories to make sense of a confusing modern world is the central theme of this blog, it seemed rather pointless to write about being lost in a sea of befuddlement. (Well, except that putting the word “befuddlement” into a sentence just now was kind of fun.)

Then I started reading an apocalyptic business book that projected automation would destroy most of the world’s jobs in the near future. Before this year, I had dismissed that scenario as highly unlikely because it looked like we had plenty of jobs, with more coming open because of retirements and lower birthrates. But now, with a pandemic that could go on for a long time, what business owner wouldn’t want to replace sickly, unpredictable, and expensive humans with robots and intelligent software?

Large robot leaning over a wall.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

That line of thinking put me into quite a funk, and I considered talking it over with my 119-year-old future self, Fannie the Fantastically Adventurous. She might be able to offer some helpful insights and encouragement. But no, that wouldn’t do; I already wrote a post last year in which I asked Fannie for career advice. Something more was needed.

“Yoo hoo!” A waving hand appeared in my imaginary inner landscape, connected to an arm that was nicely toned, if a bit wrinkled. The rest of the body soon came into view, dressed in lime-green workout shorts with a matching tank top and sports bra. This visitor had just been outside on a humid afternoon, judging from the damp, sweaty curls tumbling in all directions over her shoulders. A thin line of gray roots was barely visible under the brown curls.

“I’m Kass,” she informed me, “your 76-year-old future self.”

“Is that short for Cassandra?” I asked, wondering where a future me would have gotten that name. Usually when new characters introduced themselves, I knew their origins; but this time I had no clue whatsoever.

“No, it’s Kass with a K. And it’s short for kicking yours.” Kass smirked in a way that made her look more like a juvenile delinquent than a respectable lady of her claimed 76 years.

I briefly considered tossing her back into whatever murky pool of my subconscious mind had spawned her. Curiosity got the better of me, though; and I decided to take her bait, even if doing so might have been against my better judgment.

“If you’re from my future, aren’t you supposed to be kind and forgiving toward me?” I demanded. “That’s the whole point of imaginary conversations with younger selves, right? You help them to put things in perspective and to understand that their mistakes weren’t really as bad as they might have thought.”

Kass waved a hand in a dismissive gesture and made a “pfft” sound.

“Yeah, right—like you were kind and forgiving when you told our past self Queenie to take a hike?”

“Well, okay, that wasn’t very nice,” I had to admit. “But I did it without thinking, I apologized to her, and then I went back later and told her she was brave for standing up to social pressure.”

“Aren’t you the noble one.” Kass sneered, putting her hands on her hips and glaring at me. “I’m not feeling nearly that altruistic right now, and that’s mainly because I am still recovering from all your ridiculous fears and insecurities. Fannie has had a much longer time to mellow into a wise old woman; I’m not nearly there yet. Just this afternoon, I was out for what should have been a nice relaxing jog in the park, until your annoying self-pitying thought loops about life’s unfairness showed up and ruined it.”

“Queenie had a few things to say when I felt like that,” I pointed out. “She told me that it wasn’t fair to blame a bad day on a younger self, who was likely finding it hard enough to stay positive without the added stress of being responsible for how her future selves might feel. And I would add that is especially true in 2020, when everyone in the world is stressed out.”

“Aw, boo-hoo-hoo, so unfair, poor tragic long-suffering little you. Cue the violins.” Kass made exaggerated fiddling motions in the air. “We both know that you’re super lucky, compared to what happened to a lot of people. So get over yourself already.”

She dropped her hands into a more relaxed position at her sides and took a deep breath before going on. “And in particular, you need to stop judging yourself as a stuck-in-a-rut failure for not having a clear sense of career direction—or any other kind of direction that you feel you’re lacking. You live in a time when the world is changing so fast that almost anything might happen. Recognizing that fact doesn’t make you less insightful or motivated than anyone else.”

Turning that over in my mind, I couldn’t dispute her point. Clarity wasn’t easy to come by these days; and framing its lack as some kind of personal failure did not, in truth, make any sense.

“As for work,” Kass concluded, “just think what might have happened if you’d felt inspired to change careers or start a new business in 2019. Many people did just that—and then the pandemic hit, and they lost everything. So, your uncertainty turned out to be a blessing, even if it didn’t seem like one. Be grateful for it, give yourself permission to chill out and relax for now—and be open to new opportunities finding you later, when the time is right.”

She gave me a smile that actually looked like it might be a real, good-natured smile this time. “And then, maybe, I can finish my next jog without interruption.”

My routine in the morning doesn’t change much from one day to another. After waking up and getting dressed, I go into the kitchen, open the blinds, and unload the dishwasher. Then I make my breakfast, which usually consists of two slices of multigrain toast and some fruit or eggs.

To give myself a fresh view of the world every morning, I change the picture on my digital art display. It hangs midway up the dining room wall, positioned to look like a window from where I’m sitting on the couch in the living room. Usually I choose landscape scenes; and to make them feel more realistic, I try to match the sky in the image to the ambient light from my real windows. For example, on Sunday it was partly cloudy, and I displayed a beach image with some clouds.

Beach photo with clouds in the sky.

(Photo credit: Roberto Christen)

After changing the image, I get my breakfast plate and a cup of coffee from the kitchen. If it is a workday, I’ll eat at my desk. On a weekend morning, I’m likely to sit on the couch and do some reading on my Kindle while having my breakfast or, if an idea for a blog post comes to mind, I might start writing it on a notepad.

What got me thinking about all of this was a conversation with my daughter on Friday evening. She is the sort of person who always has multiple projects going on, while also planning for more. In contrast, I have been doing the same work at the same company for many years. Although I know that the modern world has many opportunities, I don’t yet have a clear sense of direction as to what comes next.

My daughter was of the opinion that with so many possibilities out there, it’s best to pick something and make plans accordingly, rather than waiting for intuition to show the way. As an example, she suggested that because I like writing, I could make good money turning my blog into a business.

Although I appreciate her efforts to be helpful and encouraging, I can’t see myself doing that. Whether or not blogging can work as a career plan in the abstract, it wouldn’t suit me in the here and now. As I see it, I gain something of value from having my blog available as a place to sort through random thoughts, without the constraints of a regular production schedule. That value doesn’t translate into money, and it is neither efficient nor measurable—but that is, to a large extent, the point.

When I started writing this post earlier in the week, I wrote the first few paragraphs and then set it aside for more reflection. Now, I’m not entirely sure what I was thinking about my morning routine and how it relates to work possibilities. It had something to do with peaceful routines, unhurried schedules, and taking time to refresh the mind. I suspect it was a bit different from what I actually ended up writing, though.

And that’s okay. Because my blog is not a business, I don’t have to plan every post in detail and have it complete, perfectly organized, and ready to be published the same day, without fail. If other things distract me, or if it takes a little longer to get my thoughts in order, it’s not a problem and doesn’t feel like a failure. Maybe the value of that can’t be calculated or added to my bank balance, but it is definitely worth something.

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.