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?

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: publicdomainpictures.net)

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.