Get a real job…

Whether you’re a corner boy in West Baltimore, or a cop who knows his beat, or an Eastern European brought here for sex, your life is worth less. It’s the triumph of capitalism over human value. This country has embraced the idea that this is a viable domestic policy. It is. It’s viable for the few. — “Interviewing the Man Behind The Wire,” Slate

When I was a full-time writer, I heard a certain question a lot. It was posed different ways, but it always amounted to the same thing: “Do you make any money doing that?” And the implicit question behind it was: “Why don’t you get a real job?”

Real job meant, of course, a job that paid a salary. A job that took place somewhere other than my home. Where I had a boss telling me what to do.

The idea was certainly attractive. As a writer, money and my next project were constant worries. I had to provide my own benefits and pay my own Social Security. But it was only after I took a couple of gigs that didn’t feel were right for me — but still, I needed the money — that I decided to chuck it in and get that real job.

Here were some things I learned while I was working my real job. Nothing can be done without holding a meeting — or preferably, a whole series of them — first. “Collaboration” means spending countless hours consulting everyone without anyone helping you do the actual work.  Having to be in a certain place at certain hours even if it wasn’t the most productive use of my time feels unpleasantly like being back in middle school.

I don’t have a real job anymore. I don’t have any job right now, unless you count mothering as a job, which most people don’t. And it feels great. I know that I don’t want to go back.

Reflecting on this brings to mind the eye-opening book Your Money or Your Life. We must each ask ourselves: “How much value does my life have? How many hours should I have to work to buy this pair of designer jeans or this new television or this DVD I don’t need? Is it worth it?” No one else — certainly not your boss or the company that gives you that real job — will be asking these questions for you.

It saddens me when I hear people say things like: “I’m lucky just to have a job.” Yes, even in these tough economic times, we must remember that our time and labor still have value. We have to establish our own value. We can’t let our employers determine how much our lives are worth.

Everyone acknowledges that there are no more jobs for life. I would argue that there are no more real jobs, even. Companies showed no hesitation at shedding workers when hard economic times hit. Wages have been stagnant for decades. Health insurance and other benefits are being cut back, and more of the cost is being passed on to workers. Companies show no loyalty to their workers, so why should workers be expected to be unquestionably loyal to their employers?

We all work for ourselves, even if we have real jobs. We can’t expect our employers or the government to look out for our best interests anymore. Each of us is a corporation of one, and we are our own CEOs. And it’s time we start deciding for ourselves what our time, what our labor — what our lives — are worth.

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My last day

Kazimir Malevich's impressionist Unemployed Gi...
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So, today is my last day of gainful employment. Don’t worry, it is by choice. I have chosen gainful unemployment not due to “this troubled economy” but rather in spite of it.

For me, this day has been a long time in coming. I am grateful for everything I have learned during the 8 years I spent in my job, and also for all the wonderful people I had the opportunity to collaborate with during that time. I do believe that a life progresses in cycles, though, and that it is not good for us to remain stuck in an old place when a new cycle is ready to begin. I seem to start a new phase every 10 years or so. First, I was a child, and then a student. Then I was a writer, and then a project manager at an international nonprofit. Now… who knows? But I am excited to find out.

I am planning to be a full-time mom for a while, while I figure out a direction for the next phase of my life to take. I already have some possibilities in mind. But for now it is good to take a breath, pause, be in that moment of stillness between the end of one thing and the beginning of another.

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We are just sharing already

Recently, I posted a link to this article: Planning to Share Versus Just Sharing. The post struck a chord with me, because I have been involved in so many initiatives in my organization to plan how to share. We are a nonprofit with a large contingent of academic staff; we believe in sharing, theoretically. We are an international nonprofit with field offices and remote workers around the world, largely working independently; we see the value of sharing, theoretically. So why, in the 7 years that I have worked there, has sharing always been such a struggle?

The article I linked to lays out a lot of the reasons why, so I won’t go into those. But I do want to talk about the lightbulb moment I had after I read this, something I should have already known from participating in various forms of social networking. The key is not to plan to share; the key is to just start sharing and see what happens. The serendipity that occurs is something that cannot be planned.

I still remember an ill-fated venture I was involved with at my organization to organize communities of practice. Communities of practice, if you are not familiar with this knowledge management term, are groups of people working in the same area who share their learnings and best practices with one another. It’s a good concept and one that everyone expressed a lot of interest in fostering at our organization. But the initiative just bombed. Why? Because we spent all our time planning, making rules, forming hierarchies, having meetings, deciding who was in charge and who could join, and we didn’t spend any time just doing it. I knew at the time that informal networks could not be structured but had to just emerge, but I had no idea how to encourage that or even where to start.

More recently, our smaller team has been struggling with how to share with one another. We are distributed over many countries, but we are tech-savvy. We are a fairly good representation of 21st century knowledge workers. We spent some time discussing video conferencing and team mailing lists and regularly sharing status reports, but nothing really seemed to take off.

Then one team member tried out a social networking tool called Yammer and invited other team members to join. Pretty soon, sharing was going on, organically, no planning required. We generally share in two ways: by broadcasting to the group what we are working on at any one time, and by throwing out open questions to the group. It works remarkably well to keep us connected and abreast of what we’re all doing, and it’s a lot more efficient than our old standby, email. Granted, not everyone on the team is using it yet, especially not all of our field workers, but we have to start somewhere. The key is to just start.

What is exciting is that other members of our organization are also coming in and participating. This adds a new dimension and level of connectivity that our isolated team–particularly we remote workers–have not previously had.

Yammer is fairly similar to Twitter, except the network is closed only to people in the same domain (with the same organizational email address). It has a desktop application and a web interface. It is a decent tool–there are things I like about it, and things I don’t–and I am sure there are plenty of others that could also do the job. This just happened to be the first one we tried, and in true social networking tradition, it was good enough so we stuck with it.

One thing I do like about Yammer is that it collects on the web interface all the links, files and images posted by the network for later reference. It also supports tagging on the fly and makes it easy to find all posts under a single tag. Some features, such as groups, could use some improvement, and there are no presence indicators, which makes it hard if you are trying to reach someone in particular. Yammer won’t replace IM and email just yet, but it comes close.

I am even happier that our team is sharing, dynamically, organically, instinctively, without need for structure or rules. It has already improved my remote work experience. I look forward to seeing how it evolves.

Returning to work from maternity leave

It’s not easy coming back to work from any extended leave, but I think maternity leave is the hardest transition of all. Most obviously, there are the mixed feelings of having to leave your child to return to work. I consider myself lucky for having worked out a satisfactory arrangement with my employer that allows me to work part-time from home, so I don’t have to put my son in daycare.

But there’s another difficult transition that is less obvious. When you have a child, your perspective on what’s important shifts completely. Taking care of a baby forces you to slow down and be in the moment more. Your baby is living in baby time, so you have to too, at least some of the time. So many of us strive to do this in our everyday lives, but I’ve never found it to be so effortless as when I spend time taking care of or playing with my son.

Spending some time removed from the world of the office living in baby time makes it clear how meaningless so many aspects of work life are that once seemed so critical. I don’t mean the work, necessarily, but the office politics, the perpetually burning fires that must be put out, the never-ending crises manufactured to insert some drama into the everyday routine. The office is such an insular world, where the smallest problems and especially interpersonal conflicts are often blown up into monumental issues.

Having a child — or, I would argue, having anything that is personally meaningful outside of work — puts it all back into perspective. It becomes easier to identify the drama that goes on at the office as just that — drama. It becomes easier to simply refuse to participate in the office politics and all the nonsense that comes along with it.

The challenge is not to get back sucked in once you return to that world. Maybe work-life balance is not so much a juggling act between your work and your life, but rather balancing the relative importance of all aspects of your life, including your work, and not letting one thing — especially work — blow up out of proportion in comparison.

Identify strengths, passions and values

I recently completed a year of coaching that was extremely helpful for establishing balance in my work life and creating a more satisfying role for myself in my organization. The first thing my coach had me do was identify my strengths, passions or motivations, and values, which I have listed on a separate page. The article, “Five Steps to a Balanced Life” at Suite101.com, does a terrific job of summing up how to do this, so I won’t go into it here.

I found this exercise very useful for many reasons:

  • It helped me figure out what parts of my job were conflicting with my essential identify, and from there, how to re-create my role.
  • It helped me set goals for both my work life and my personal life.
  • It helped me figure out the sources of stress from work and develop strategies for avoiding or dealing with stress.

Reviewing my strengths, passions and values periodically is a wonderful exercise for reconnecting with what has the most meaning in my life and keeping me on track to achieving my goals. I use this list to help me decide whether to stay in my current job, take a new job, take on additional responsibilities at work and start personal projects.

When we feel stressed out, burned out or like we are out of balance, it is often because something in our lives is conflicting with our fundamental strengths, values and passions. We do our best work when it is aligned with our strengths, values and passions. That is when we feel like we are generating energy rather than being drained of energy, like we are doing something meaningful, like everything just fits. But unless we know what our strengths, values and passions actually are — unless we have written them down and review them frequently — then we can’t make proress toward solving the problem.

Ask yourself: What are you best at? What activities make the time pass quickly, when you feel like you are in the “flow”? What ideals are most important to you, that you need in your life to be happy?

Then ask yourself: Do your day-to-day activities match with those strengths, passions and values you’ve identified? Do the responsibilities of your job take advantage of them? Do the values of the organization you work for align with them? Does your organization profess certain values in writing but doesn’t uphold them in the ways the organization actually is run?

If you are finding that they don’t align, it may be time to re-evaluate whether this is the right job for you or the right organization to be working for.