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There seems to a lot of pushback at the moment against the kind of lifestyle that’s a direct result of the Silicon Valley mindset. People are rejecting everything from the Instagram ‘influencer’ approach to life to the ‘techbro’-style crazy working hours.
This week saw Basecamp, a company that prides itself on the work/life balance of its employees and on rejecting venture capital, publish another book. You can guess at what it focuses on from its title, It doesn’t have to be crazy at work. I’ve enjoyed and have recommended their previous books (as ’37 Signals’), and am looking forward to reading this latest one.
Alongside that book, I’ve seen three articles that, to me at least, are all related to the same underlying issues. The first comes from Simone Stolzoff who writes in Quartz at Work that we’re no longer quite sure what we’re working for:
Before I became a journalist, I worked in an office with hot breakfast in the mornings and yoga in the evenings. I was #blessed. But I would reflect on certain weeks—after a string of days where I was lured in before 8am and stayed until well after sunset—like a driver on the highway who can’t remember the last five miles of road. My life had become my work. And my work had become a series of rinse-and-repeat days that started to feel indistinguishable from one another.
Part of this lack of work/life balance comes from our inability these days to simply have hobbies, or interests, or do anything just for the sake of it. As Tim Wu points out in The New York Times, it’s all linked some kind of existential issue around identity:
If you’re a jogger, it is no longer enough to cruise around the block; you’re training for the next marathon. If you’re a painter, you are no longer passing a pleasant afternoon, just you, your watercolors and your water lilies; you are trying to land a gallery show or at least garner a respectable social media following. When your identity is linked to your hobby — you’re a yogi, a surfer, a rock climber — you’d better be good at it, or else who are you?
To me, this is inextricably linked to George Monbiot’s recent piece in The Guardian about about the problem of actors being interviewed about the world’s issues disproportionately more often than anybody else. As a result, we’re rewarding those people who look like they know what they’re talking about with our collective attention, rather than those who actually do. Monbiot concludes:
The task of all citizens is to understand what we are seeing. The world as portrayed is not the world as it is. The personification of complex issues confuses and misdirects us, ensuring that we struggle to comprehend and respond to our predicaments. This, it seems, is often the point.
There’s always been a difference between appearance and reality in public life. However, previously, at least they seem to have been two faces of the same coin. These days, our working lives as well as our public lives seem to be
Noah Geisel, who I know from the world of Open Badges, has written a great post on how to be an educational consultant. I’ve got some advice of my own to add to his, but I’ll let him set the scene:
I get several messages each month from people — usually teachers — reaching out for an informational interview to learn about what options exist to be an education consultant. I’ve had the conversation enough times now that I’m sharing out this quick primer of what normally gets discussed. Maybe it’ll save you the cup of coffee you were going to buy me or help you come prepared to our coffee with novel questions that really make me think.
In my experience, people in employment who have never been their own boss are always interested at the prospect of becoming a freelancer or consultant. This is particularly the case with jobs like teaching that are endless time and energy pits.
Like Noah, the first thing I’d do is try and get underneath the desire to do something different. Why is that? I think he does this brilliantly by asking whether potential consultants are running towards, or running away, from something:
Which way are you running? This is the most important question. Are you running to a new opportunity or are you running away from your current situation? The people I know who are successful and happy doing this work definitely ran to it. The work is just too hard to be anything other than what you want (or even NEED) to be doing. I can’t speak for others but my own experience is that this path is a calling, not an escape pod.
I can only speak about my own experience, but once the Open Badges work went outside of Mozilla, and I’d pretty much done all I could with the Web Literacy work, it was time for me to move into consultancy. It was the logical step, both because I was ready for it, but also because people were asking if I was available.
If no-one’s asking if you can help them out with something that you already specialise in, then it’s going to be long, hard struggle to be seen as an expert, get gigs, and pay your mortgage. However, if you do decide to make the leap, I like the way Noah demarcates the types of consultancy you can do:
The first two of these are employment by a different name. The third might go well for a few months, but you’re likely to quickly run out of clients, unless you lock them into a multi-year contract. Realistically, you need to go for the fourth option.
If you’ve been used to a job where you do lots of different things, such as teaching, the temptation is going to be to offer lots of different services. The trouble with that, of course, is that people find it difficult to know what you’re selling.
You are wise to avoid attempting to be all things to all people. Focus on a strength that gives you a competitive advantage and go hard; if you fail, you’ll want to know that wasn’t because you didn’t put enough into it.
One of the best things I’ve ever done is to set up a co-operative with friends and former colleagues. We have an associated Slack channel for both member discussions (private) and discourse with trusted colleagues and acquaintances. Meeting regularly, and doing work with these guys not only gives us flexibility, but access to a wider range of expertise than I could provide on my own.
As Noah says, it’s great to earn a bit of money on the side, but that’s very different to deciding that your going to rely on products you can sell and services you can provide for your income. I did it successfully for three years, before deciding to take my current four day per week position with Moodle, and work with the co-op on the side.
Finally, one thing that might help is to see your life as have ‘seasons’. I think too many people see their professional life as some kind of ladder which they need to climb. It’s nothing of the sort. It’s always nice to be well-paid (and I’ve never earned more than when I was consulting full-time) but there’s other things that are valuable in life: colleagues, security, and benefits such as a pension and healthcare, to name but a few.
(Related: a post I wrote of my experiences after two years of full-time consultancy)
This richly-illustrated post uses as a touchstone the revolution in art that took place in the 17th century with Johannes Vermeer’s The Little Street. The painting (which can be seen above) moves away from epic and religious symbolism, and towards the everyday.
Unfortunately, and particularly with celebrity lifestyles on display everywhere, we seem to be moving back to pre-17th century approaches:
Today – in modern versions of epic, aristocratic, or divine art – adverts and movies continually explain to us the appeal of things like sports cars, tropical island holidays, fame, first-class air travel and expansive limestone kitchens. The attractions are often perfectly real. But the cumulative effect is to instill in us the idea that a good life is built around elements that almost no one can afford. The conclusion we too easily draw is that our lives are close to worthless.
A good life isn’t one where you get everything you want; that would, in fact, that would be form of torture. Just ask King Midas. Instead, it’s made up of lots of little things, as this post outlines:
There is immense skill and true nobility involved in bringing up a child to be reasonably independent and balanced; maintaining a good-enough relationship with a partner over many years despite areas of extreme difficulty; keeping a home in reasonable order; getting an early night; doing a not very exciting or well-paid job responsibly and cheerfully; listening properly to another person and, in general, not succumbing to madness or rage at the paradox and compromises involved in being alive.
As ever, a treasure trove of wisdom and I encourage you to explore further the work of the School of Life.
Source: The Book of Life
One of my favourite parts of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is this one:
Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness, and also the nature of the culprit himself, who is my brother (not in the physical sense, but as a fellow creature similarly endowed with reason and a share of the divine); therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading. Neither can I be angry with my brother or fall foul of him; for he and I were born to work together, like a man’s two hands, feet or eyelids, or the upper and lower rows of his teeth. To obstruct each other is against Nature’s law – and what is irritation or aversion but a form of obstruction.
In other words, you’re going to deal with people you don’t like, and people who don’t like you.
This article from Lifehacker is along the same lines:
Remember that it is impossible to please everyone,” Chloe Brotheridge, a hypnotherapist and anxiety expert, tells us. “You have your own unique personality which means some people will love and adore you, while others may not.” Of course, while this concept is easy to understand on its face, it’s difficult to keep your perspective in check when you find you’re, say, left out of invitations to happy hours with co-workers, or getting noncommittal responses from potential new friends, or you overhear your roommates bad-mouthing you. Rejection is painful in any form, whether it be social or romantic, and it’s a big ego blow to get bumped from the inner circle.
I had a good friend of mine cut me off a few years ago. This was a guy who my kids called ‘uncle’, without him actually being a family member. But hey, no hard feelings:
So, it’s not really that it’s not you but them, so much as it’s both you and them. “This person, this situation, where they are in their life, it’s not compatible to where you are,” Jennifer Verdolin, an animal behavior expert and adjunct professor at Duke University, tells us. “We have preferences in terms of personality, and that’s not to say that your personality is bad. It’s different from mine, and I prefer to hang around people who are similar to me.”
There’s incompatibility, different life stages, and there’s just being a dick:
While you shouldn’t always blame yourself if someone doesn’t like you, if you’re finding this is a pattern, you may want to take an unbiased look at your own behavior. “When I put people in a [therapy] group, I get to see immediately what problems or tics or bad social habits they have,” Grover says. He recalls a successful, handsome male patient of his who was having trouble holding onto romantic relationships. Though they were unable to solve the problem together in individual therapy, Grover managed to convince the patient to join a group. “Within five minutes, I was horrified,” Grover says. “He gets very anxious in front of people, and to camouflage his anxiety he becomes overly confident, which comes across as arrogant. The women in the group commented that he was becoming less popular the more they got to know him.”
You can’t please all of the people all of the time, but you can introspect and know yourself. Then you’re in a stronger position to say what (and who) you like, and for what reasons.
Final thought? It’s worth being nice to people as you never know when they’re going to be in a position to do you a favour. It doesn’t, however, mean you have to hang out with them all of the time.
This article from 2012 was referenced in something I was reading last week:
As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added.
I’ve never particularly had wide group of friends, even a child. Acquaintances, absolutely. I was on the football team and reasonably popular, it’s just that I can be what some people would term ’emotionally distant’.
But making friends in your thirties seems to be something that’s difficult for many people. Not that I’m overly-concerned about it, to be honest. A good Stoic should be self-contained.
The article makes a good point about differences that don’t seem to matter when people are younger. For example, coming from a wealthy family (or having a job that pays well) seems to somehow play a bigger role.
Adding children to the mix muddles things further. Suddenly, you are surrounded by a new circle of parent friends — but the emotional ties can be tenuous at best, as the comedian Louis C. K. related in one stand-up routine: “I spend whole days with people, I’m like, I never would have hung out with you, I didn’t choose you. Our children chose each other. Based on no criteria, by the way. They’re the same size.”
Indeed, although there’s some really interesting people I’ve met through my children. I wouldn’t particularly call those people friends, though. Perhaps I set the bar too high?
Ultimately, though, there’s more at work here than just life changes happening to us.
External factors are not the only hurdle. After 30, people often experience internal shifts in how they approach friendship. Self-discovery gives way to self-knowledge, so you become pickier about whom you surround yourself with, said Marla Paul, the author of the 2004 book The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making, and Keeping Friends When You’re Not a Kid Anymore. “The bar is higher than when we were younger and were willing to meet almost anyone for a margarita,” she said.
Manipulators, drama queens, egomaniacs: a lot of them just no longer make the cut.
Well, exactly. And I think things are different for men and women (as well as, I guess, those who don’t strongly identify as either).
Source: The New York Times
“Aim for the stars and maybe you’ll hit the treetops” was always the kind of advice I was given when I was younger. But extremely high expectations of oneself is not always a great thing. We have to learn that we’ve got limits. Some are physical, some are mental, and some are cultural:
The problem with placing too much emphasis on your expectations—especially when they are exceedingly high—is that if you don’t meet them, you’re liable to feel sad, perhaps even burned out. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t strive for excellence, but there’s wisdom in not letting perfect be the enemy of good.
A (now famous) 2006 study found that people in Denmark are the happiest in the world. Researchers also found that have remarkably low expectations. And then:
In a more recent study that included more than 18,000 participants and was published in 2014 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from University College in London examined people’s happiness from moment to moment. They found that “momentary happiness in response to outcomes of a probabilistic reward task is not explained by current task earnings, but by the combined influence of the recent reward expectations and prediction errors arising from those expectations.” In other words: Happiness at any given moment equals reality minus expectations.
So if you’ve always got very high expectations that aren’t being met, that’s not a great situation to be in
In the words of Jason Fried, founder and CEO of software company Basecamp and author of multiple books on workplace performance: “I used to set expectations in my head all day long. But constantly measuring reality against an imagined reality is taxing and tiring, [and] often wrings the joy out of experiencing something for what it is.”
I’m a big fan of The Book of Life, a project of The School of Life. One of the latest updates to this project is about the pervasive use of smartphones in society.
To say we are addicted to our phones is not merely to point out that we use them a lot. It signals a darker notion: that we use them to keep our own selves at bay. Because of our phones, we may find ourselves incapable of sitting alone in a room with our own thoughts floating freely in our own heads, daring to wander into the past and the future, allowing ourselves to feel pain, desire, regret and excitement.
I feel this. I want my mind to wander, but I also kind of want to be informed. I want to be entertained.
We have to check our phones of course but we also need to engage directly with others, to be relaxed, immersed in nature and present. We need to let our minds wander off of their own accord. We need to go through the threshold of boredom to renew our acquaintance with ourselves.
The diminutive digital assistants in our pockets do our bidding and unlock a multitude of possibilities.
Our phone, however, is docile, responsive to our touch, always ready to spring to life and willing to do whatever we want. Its malleability provides the perfect excuse for disengagement from the trickier aspects of other people. It’s almost not that rude to give it a quick check – just possibly we might actually need to keep track of how a news story is unfolding; a friend in another country may have just had a baby or someone we vaguely know might have bought a new pair of shoes in the last few minutes.
It’s a cliché to say that it’s the small things in life that make it worth living, but it’s true.
Our phones seem to deliver the world directly to us. Yet (without our noticing) they often limit the things we actually pay attention to. As we look down towards our palms we don’t realise we are forgetting:
- The curious delicacy of a friend’s wrist
- The soothing sound of traffic in the distance
- Moss on an old stone wall
- The pleasure of feeling tired after working hard
- The excitement of getting up very early on a summer’s morning, in order to have an hour entirely to oneself.
- A bank of clouds gradually drifting across the sky
- The texture and smell and colour of a ripe fig
- The shy hesitancy of someone’s smile
- How nice it is to read in the bath
- The comfort of an old jumper (with holes under the armpits)
Every technology is a ‘bridging’ technology in the sense of coming after something less sophisticated, and before something more sophisticated. My hope is that we iterate towards, rather than away, from what makes us human.
We are still so far from inventing the technology we really require for us to flourish; capitalism has delivered only on the simplest of our needs. We can summon up the street map of Lyons but not a diagram of what our partner is really thinking and feeling; the phone will help us follow fifteen news outlets but not help us know when we’ve spent more than enough time doing so; it emphatically refuses to distinguish between the most profound needs of our soul and a passing fancy.
As ever, a fantastic article.
Source: The Book of Life