Rethinking Work

My favorite 21 year old is graduating college this May and “launching” shortly thereafter. A college friend, a 56 year old retired SoCal fire fighter, was just accepted to a Physician’s Assistant program. This is for them. And everyone in between.

Our work tends to be the result of our personal interests; compensation considerations; and though we may not want to admit it, the relative prestige or social status associated with our chosen occupations.

More specifically, we choose among possible jobs not just because they pay the bills, but also because of the particular activities associated with them-we become teachers instead of accountants because we enjoy interacting with young people in classrooms more than we like crunching numbers in cubicles. A person attends seminary rather than law school because they want to make a tangible difference in their community without any pressure to maximize their billable hours. A person becomes a landscape architect rather than a golf club professional because they like plants and the outdoors more than they do beginning golfers.

Additionally, my fire fighter friend, if he’s typical of other fire fighters, probably partly chose his first career because of the unique work-life balance it afforded with a positive mix of twenty-four hour shifts and more than normal days off each month. I’m sure the excellent salary and benefits, service-orientation, and built in station-based community probably factored in too. A pretty great job altogether, apart from the extreme occasional danger.

Here is what even my daughter’s very good, vocation-oriented career placement center probably won’t tell her when she inquires about different possible jobs. Think about more than pay and primary activities. Talk to people doing the work about the less visible and less obvious activities, and the culture of their workplace, meaning the nature of their relationships with all of the people they regularly interact with. For me, as a university professor/administrator, my relationships are with faculty colleagues in my department and across campus, students, and numerous staff and administrators. Don’t fixate on the relative appeal of any job’s primary activities, instead, carefully reflect on the personal qualities each particular work culture is likely to cultivate.

For example, people think of teaching almost exclusively as what goes on between a teacher and her students during the middle of the day within the four walls of an individual classroom. But that’s the tip of the iceberg. Ignored are the hours spent planning daily lessons; the hours spent alone reading and responding to student work; the hours spent teaming with colleagues to plan, problem solve, and respond to student work; the time spent continuing one’s teacher education; the time spent being a part of the school’s extracurricular activities. Conventional wisdom about teaching might account for about a third of a teacher’s weekly activities.

Every job comes with a distinct work culture, some work cultures cultivate more socially redeeming personal qualities than others. Working at Chicago’s Newberry Library is probably similar, but not the same as working at Northwestern University’s Main Library. So it’s a two-fold learning process, learning about library culture generally, and a particular library’s variation on “what’s typical” more specifically. How to do that? Talk to people at the library about the culture, what’s rewarding, what’s most exasperating, why. When, at the end of your interview, you’re asked if you have any questions, ask about the work culture, what do employees say when asked what’s the best part of working at x, what are some commonalities that prove most challenging.

Most people think about work in terms of how they’ll benefit/change the people they work with, giving little to no thought about how their work will change them. Every job you do for very long will change you, for better or worse, probably more than you’ll change anyone at work. Ask people doing the work you’re considering, “How has being a landscape architect, nanny, teacher, engineer, nurse, journalist, changed you as a person?” What personal qualities does the work cultivate? In what ways, if at all, are you a better human being as a result of doing this work?”

If they can’t answer that question positively, cross it off your list. Be bold. Don’t obsess about the obvious activities, the pay, the benefits, the perceived prestige; instead think about work as a context for self understanding and self improvement. Don’t think about work as an end in itself, meaning don’t fret about how your job or career compares to your peers; instead think about work as a means to becoming a better human being.

I’m fortunate that my work culture values good, open-ended questions, but my comfort with ambiguity can exasperate more concrete sequential, literal-minded people. And I’m fortunate to work with people, teachers-to-be, who are more altruistic and socially conscious than average. Their idealism and service orientation is a nice counterbalance to my cynicism and selfishness. I’m a better person because of their optimism and vitality. When it comes to the other two-thirds of my work, it’s mostly about conflict management, which provides daily opportunities to become a better human being. More specifically, I’m convinced my success resolving workplace conflicts depends almost entirely upon my ability to carefully, actively, and sensitively listen to others.

It’s cool that being a decent husband, father, friend, and citizen depends almost entirely upon the same thing. And for that reason, I’m fortunate to get to do the work I do.

What We Get Wrong About Work and Retirement

A fair number of my friends are in their late 50’s to mid-60’s meaning they’re heading towards the exits at work. Some who’ve recently retired are struggling to adapt to life without work routines. They werent enamored with their work all the time, but it provided a predictable structure for their lives.

Meanwhile, we continually read about how wonderfull everyone’s “Third Act” is, whether traveling the world, volunteering, consulting, or starting new careers which shouldn’t count as retiring at all. Retiring is like investing, we only talk about the most positive examples, thus painting a misleading picture. The truth of the post-work matter is, many people don’t know what to do when they don’t have to do anything.

Yes, you’re right, this is a nice “first world” problem to have. Too many people can never afford to retire, but solving that problem is well beyond the reach of my pea-brain, so here I focus on those fortunate enough to soon pull the work plug.

Maybe the best way to think about the challenge is to consider the experience of a friend of mine in his late 40’s because I think his experience is fairly typical.

“Tom” works 60 hours a week, 49-50 weeks a year. In the limited non-work time he has, he watches reality t.v. and his kids play sports. Despite being friendly, he has few friends because he spends almost all of his time working. He assauges his guilt for working so much by spending all of his non-work time with his family. Consequently, he doesn’t have any independent interests or hobbies. In a few years his kids will be gone and he’ll wonder what to do with that little bit of non-work time. I hope I’m wrong, but I predict that In fifteen years, when he stops working, he’ll be completely lost.

Our typical way of thinking about work and retirement, work too much for several decades and then throw a switch and completely stop working, is seriously flawed. It’s unrealistic to expect anyone to succeed at reshaping their personal identity overnight.

My working friends who make time for their friends right now and love things like cycling, gardening, and traveling, will fair better than my friend who has decided to sacrifice personal interests on the alter of exceedingly long work weeks.

Of course, the closely related challenge is creating a lifestyle that doesn’t require decades of overwork. If Tom’s children decide to live more simply, like many Millenials seem to be, maybe they’ll strike a better work-life balance. One other important “dot” to connect is one’s wages. Obviously, the more specialized and sought after one’s skills are, they better they are compensated, meaning the fewer hours they HAVE to work.

Instead of throwing a retirement switch, more Baby Boomers are gently turning a dimmer switch, choosing to work half time for example. Gradually transitioning from the world of work to the world of non-obligatory work makes real sense. If you can afford it.

The Great Recalibrating

Three years ago, back when Peyton Manning was a Colt and Tim Tebow a Gator, things were groovy at work and home.

I was enjoying bringing home the bacon and the GalPal was cool cooking it. She’d cook Mondays-Thursdays, I was Fridays and Saturdays which was great because we’d usually go out one of those nights, and we’d wait each other out on Sundays. Culinary homeostasis.

Actually, domestic homeostasis. She was laundry, me lawn. Her household maintenance, me financial planning. Her labradoodle, me cars. Her school paperwork, me taxes. Her hippy food co-op, me Costco. Her hardwood floors, me carpets. Her weeds, me edging and fall leaves.

And then things started to go south at work. I haven’t written much about that because everything is relative, I’m a tenured professor in a tough economy, and a lot of people would love to have my “first world” work problems. Long story short, I’ve been reorienting, tweaking my interests and identity so that both are less work-centric. I’m still committed to teaching well and doing right by my students, but I’m blogging instead of writing academic papers, sidestepping University Committees, not teaching summer school, and spending less time on campus.

The transition hasn’t been easy in part because deemphasizing work is tough to talk about with my friends who are in the prime of the careers and mostly enjoying working long hours. Doubt they’d understand my desire to strike a different work-life balance, to live more simply, to relish more than normal time alone, and to not be busy.

And while I’ve been striking a different work-life balance, my Betrothed has been too, but in the exact opposite way. She’s tired of taking care of the children and the house. She wants to be challenged in new ways, to broaden her identity, and to be of service to more than her family and house.

So right as I’m resigned to accepting the world as it is, she’s intent on changing it—by teaching adolescents to be bilingual.

Our different orientations present challenges on the homefront. Challenges that have resulted in some conflict. I’d like to used some of my freed up work time to hang out and travel with her, and she’d like that too, but her work schedule is a limiter. And she wants me to take on more domestic responsibilities. At first, when I objected to doing more around the house, she didn’t think I supported her desire to work. Through lots of discussion, she realizes I do. I dig her ambition and I’m glad she’s isn’t as cynical as me. I like that she still has a lot of fight in her.

One outcome of our talks has been a change-up in the kitchen. I’ve been “promoted” to Chief Cook and Grocery Shopper. Now I cook dinner Mondays-Thursdays and Sundays. While I work my “magic” in the kitchen, foreign language teacher lesson plans.

Some bumps have formed in the “dinner-prep” road. First, my repertoire is limited—all things breakfast, wraps, pasta, sandwiches and soup, pizza, all things breakfast, wraps, you get the idea. Second, I now appreciate more fully what the foreign language teacher has said sporadically in the past—the hardest part is deciding what to prepare. Of course, bumps one and two are related. Third, we’re always running low on some ingredient or we’re running low on some key staple—fruit, milk, eggs, etc. What I’d give for a close “one-stop” shopping store.

I hereby offer a belated, but heartfelt “thank you” to all the women who have played Chief Cook and Grocery Shopper at different times in my life—The foreign language teacher, mother-dear, big sister-dear, mother-in-law-dear. If you’re a woman who wishes the men in your life were a wee bit more appreciative, figure out how to get them to take over the grocery shopping, the cooking, and the kitchen detail for two weeks. That’s all it will take.

Our marriage, like most I suspect, works best when we pay at least as much attention to the other person’s needs as our own. The problem is selfishness comes more naturally and easily than selflessness. After 25 years, it’s time to think more about what I can do to help The Good Wife achieve her professional goals than how I can succeed in my own career. She’s always been supportive of my career and I’m indebted to her for that. It’s time to repay the favor. Here’s hoping she doesn’t get too sick of my cooking too soon.