What’s your legacy work? (And how can you de-clutter your way to it?)

What is your legacy work? In other words, how do you want to make your mark on the world?

This potentially life-changing inquiry is a core idea of a book I’ve recommended in recent posts (here and here), Chris Guillebeau’s The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World (2010).

Two key questions

Guillebeau poses two simple questions:

  • “What do you really want to get out of life?”
  • “What can you offer the world that no one else can?”

The answers may take a while to articulate — especially if you’ve never asked yourself these questions. And don’t apologize if this is the case. Guillebeau’s overarching theme of non-conformity recognizes that many folks have jumped through hoops defined by others.

It’s up to you

Ultimately, only you can define your legacy work. When we start thinking for ourselves, the possibilities are endless, and surely not limited to paid employment:

  • Building a business
  • Raising a family
  • Organizing for a cause
  • Writing a book
  • Leading a community group
  • Teaching kids
  • Starting a band
  • Caring for animals
  • Creating a charity
  • Inventing a new product
  • Helping the sick
  • and many, MANY more

Too much junk? Then de-clutter

Once you get to a certain age, life may have served up enough baggage — material and emotional — to eat up precious time and energy. This can impede your quest to identify and do legacy work. If that’s your situation, then you may need to de-clutter.

The Art of Non-Conformity has a very good chapter on how to clear away the junk for stuff that matters. It’s especially helpful in getting us to do triage on the tasks and commitments that may suck up a lot of time but provide very little payoff in terms of real accomplishment and satisfaction.

In addition, I highly recommend Brooks Palmer’s Clutter Busting: Letting Go of What’s Holding You Back (2009), which I also mentioned in a recent post. Palmer nails the psychology of how our material clutter frustrates our ability to live in the present and for the future. He employs a humane version of tough love to get us to ask important questions about why we hold onto belongings that have little or no positive value to us.

Individual power in tough times

Especially during these tough times, I believe that individual initiative and creativity will be the key to lifting some people into a better place in their lives. Identifying one’s legacy work and clearing away the clutter are two vital steps toward moving in that direction.


Additional resources

Go here to access Chris Guillebeau’s website.

Go here to access Brooks Palmer’s blog.

Cubeduel: Promoting rank-and-file cannibalism

I thought this was a ruse when I first read about it courtesy of a CiviliNation post on Facebook, but Cubeduel (link here), a new online game/service/whatever that allows people to evaluate their co-workers anonymously, is for real.

How it works

Working through LinkedIn.com accounts, Cubeduel sets up gladiatorial, tournament style contests in which employees are pitted against each other to earn the highest rankings from their co-workers. Here’s more from Cubeduel:

Cubeduel is a fun way to rank your coworkers. Who would you rather work with? Cubeduel uses your LinkedIn® work history to figure out who you worked with. Your current and former coworkers compete in head to head duels. Click a coworker to vote in each duel. …Your votes are completely, utterly private and will never be shared with anybody. Ever.
Cubeduel is a perverse turn on the old labor movement chestnut about hanging together or hanging separately. Instead, Cubeduel is encouraging workers to hang each other, a sort of rank-and-file cannibalism backed by the cloak of anonymity.

Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Bill Update, 1/27/11

The Healthy Workplace Bill, legislation that provides targets of severe workplace bullying with a legal claim and creates incentives for employers to prevent and respond to bullying at work, is being filed in the 2011-12 session of the Massachusetts legislature, with Representative Ellen Story and Senator Katherine Clark serving as lead sponsors.

What you can do

State House Day, Thursday, Feb. 3

On Thursday, Feb. 3, at 10:30 a.m., supporters of the Healthy Workplace Bill are gathering in front of the Main Staircase (2nd floor), where they will be broken into smaller groups to ask their State Senators and Representatives to sign on to bill. All supporters of the HWB are invited to attend and participate.

To RSVP, please contact the Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Advocates at: info@mshealthyworkplace.com.

Contact your state legislators

Between now and Feb. 3, contact your State Representative and State Senator and ask them to sign on to the Healthy Workplace Bill:

Ask your State Representative to sign on to House Docket No. 2872

Ask your State Senator to sign on to Senate Docket No. 1446.

To find your state legislators, go here.

Join the campaign

To join the campaign to enact the HWB in Massachusetts, go to the website of Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Advocates.

Many thanks

I’ll be posting updates regularly, but for now let me close with thanks to Senator Clark and Representative Story for their support and appreciation for the work of SEIU/NAGE in taking lead roles on behalf of this important legislation.


More information

For those from other states who would like to support the HWB, please go to the national campaign website.

I drafted the HWB several years ago after concluding that existing legal protections for targets of workplace bullying were severely inadequate. Those who want to learn more about more about workplace bullying and the law, including the Healthy Workplace Bill, may find useful this paper that I presented at a Massachusetts Bar Association program two years ago (link here). My longer scholarly analyses can be downloaded from this page on the blog.

Fired for wearing a Packer tie and the cyberbullying of Jay Cutler

Lest someone get the wrong idea, let me state my fandom up front: I have been a Chicago Bears and pro football fan since I was a kid. I maintain a mental shrine to the legendary 1985 Bears team, and I dutifully participate every year in a fantasy football league run by a college classmate.

Over the weekend, I was so worked up in anticipation of the Bears-Packers playoff matchup that I had trouble concentrating on anything else in the hours before kickoff. Alas, the Bears fell short of the mark. But there are two news stories more disturbing to me than the result of the game.

Fired for wearing a Packers tie

As reported by Yahoo! sports (link here), a fellow named John Stone was fired from his job at a Chicagoland car dealership because he committed the sin of wearing a Packers tie to work:

From Chicago’s WGNtv.com comes the unfortunately real story of a Chicago car salesman who was fired because he wore a Green Bay Packers tie to work. And making it even worse, the man wore it because his grandma was a Packers fan who had recently died and was buried two days before her beloved team’s NFC Championship game matchup with the Chicago Bears.

I don’t know all the details on Stone’s employment status, but it’s likely that he was employed on an at-will basis, meaning that he can be terminated for any reason or no reason at all.

Furthermore, to the extent that wearing a tie with a Packers logo might be considered an expression of free speech, it is highly unlikely that the law protects it. (Constitutional free speech protections do not extend into private sector workplaces. If you want a treatise-length explanation, check out my law review article, here.)

I’ll leave it to you to decide if this was, in view of the circumstances, a boneheaded and cruel decision, even if the employer was within its rights to do so.


Bears starting quarterback Jay Cutler sat out most of the second half of the game with a knee injury that turned out to be a ligament tear serious enough to knock most players out of action for 3-4 weeks.

Even before the diagnosis, that didn’t stop some of Cutler’s NFL contemporaries from tweeting during the game that he was giving up on his team and faking his injury (link here), such as these comments from Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew:

When the going gets tough……..QUIT..

All I’m saying is that he can finish the game on a hurt knee… I played the whole season on one…

Yup, it’s called cyberbullying. Just like adolescent schoolgirls defaming a classmate with online putdowns, these guys immediately took to the Internet to question Cutler’s courage and manhood. Funny how they also chose to ignore the fact that he was tough enough to take a horrific beating this season, playing behind an offensive line that offered him little protection from defensive onslaughts.

Now the truth about Cutler’s injury is known, but the damage has been done. The game wasn’t an hour old before the narrative was set: Jay Cutler folded instead of leading his team in a playoff game where everything was on the line.

I hope this young man wins a Super Bowl or two (in a Bears uniform, thank you) to give the story a better and more just ending.

The costs of suffering in silence about bad work situations

(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

Let’s say you’re being bullied or harassed or otherwise mistreated at work. Or maybe you’ve just learned that you’re being horribly underpaid compared to the less-than-stellar fellow in the next office or cubicle.

Anger and resentment are natural responses to these situations, but is there any outlet to express your emotions at work?

Bottled up

Many people will keep it bottled up inside them.

After all, self-censorship has long been a staple of behavior for the rank-and-file worker who has assessed the potential risks of speaking up and concluded that silence is a more prudent option. During difficult economic times and amid tough job markets, folks often reason (with good justification) that it’s better to internalize their bad feelings rather than express them.

Health impacts

Repressing these emotions can have grave health consequences, however.

Dr. Gabor Maté, an expert on the relationship of emotions to overall health, discussed the links between expression of emotions and immune system impairments in a 2010 interview conducted by Amy Goodman (link here):

Women who don’t know how to express their boundaries emotionally, they suppress their boundaries immunologically, and therefore they’re more likely to develop disease. The same is true, of course, of men, so that the immune system is in constant interaction with our emotional responses.

…In another study with the immune system, medical students under the stress of examination were found to have diminished activity of their natural killer cells, these immune cells. But those students who were emotionally isolated were most likely to have diminished activity of their immune system.

In a 2009 post (link here), I cited a Swedish study indicating that when men repress their anger over unfair treatment at work, their risk of having a heart attack or dying of heart disease doubles.

The self-enforced silence can stoke a brutal, continuous loop of rumination (discussed here and here) and embitterment (discussed here). As I suggested in 2015, workplace abuse can become an obsessive filter “through which so many other work and life experiences are screened, interpreted, and understood.”

Bringing it home

Unfortunately, what is bottled up at work sometimes bubbles over at home.

Contrary to common advice, it’s not always easy to “leave it at the office.”  How much pent up frustration stored up during the workday is dished out toward family members and friends? And how often does displaced anger directed at spouses, partners, and children reach abusive levels?

One-way boxing match

The state of employment law promotes remaining silent, at least for the vast majority of workers who are not protected by collective bargaining agreements. When I first started researching legal protections against workplace bullying and restrictions on employee free speech (especially in the private sector), I realized very quickly that when it comes to freedom of expression at work, it’s a one-way boxing match.

In other words, a supervisor can yell and scream at an underling and usually get away with it, but if the underling acts in the same way, she can be disciplined or fired and the law often will say it’s legal under the rule of at will employment.

Bottom line

We also know how this affects the one thing even bad companies embrace, the holy bottom line. When employees feel mistreated, they are less loyal and productive and more likely to bolt once anything resembling a better job comes along. Stress-related absenteeism and higher health care costs also are a part of the mix.

Public health problem

Workplace bullying, harassment, and other forms of abuse are more than “just” employment problems. We need to teach everyone that these are public health problems as well. When stress inducing, anger producing mistreatment at work continues to be written off as part of the everyday cost of having a job, the negative public health impacts will ripple out over and again.


This post was revised in February 2021.

Work cultures: On airplane lavatories, turbulence, and pilots

When you’re flying and the captain makes an announcement over the PA system, doesn’t he (usually he) sound solid as a rock, like a no nonsense kinda guy, a real GI Joe?

Well, it’s true that lot of pilots come from the military. In fact pilot/blogger Chris Manno, writing as JetHead (link here), prefers to fly with Marines:

(A)s with flight attendants and felons, there are no “ex-Marines.” Once Semper Fi, always Semper Fi. That’s why in the ex-military frat I come from, Marines are great to fly with. They just never stop being hard-charging and fearless, which is a quality to be admired on the flight deck.

Junior high redux

But if JetHead is in any way typical, some of these guys also enjoy a bit of adolescent humor:

But fast forward now to my early days as captain, flying with one of my favorite First Officers who had earned the nickname “Deuce,” and now I’ll explain for the not-so-faint-of-heart how he earned that sobriquet. If you’re easily grossed out, consider ourselves done here–onto to more erudite reading; see you next post.

I won’t spoil the rest of his genteel commentary, but suffice it to say, I have never learned so much about airplane lavatories. The, uh, operational differences between a lavatory in an MD-80 compared to one in a 737 are significant. Of course, I may have missed a few details because I was laughing so hard, a sad confession that my own sense of humor remains stuck in the 7th grade.

Rockin’ and rollin’

So, is flying a jetliner simply a replay of junior high to these guys? Not by a longshot. One of the telltale signs on Manno’s blog is his post asking cabin crew not to call him as soon as the plane hits some turbulence (link here):

We’re flying along fat dumb and happy. Then, it gets bumpy. I turn the seatbelt sign on. What do you NOT do? Or more accurately, what do I wish you wouldn’t do?

…Call the cockpit. Seriously. What we get more often than not these days is, bumps, then ding-ding….But I already know what the flight attendant’s going to say: “How long is it going to be bumpy?” or worse, “it’s really bumpy back here.”

…You can trust me on this: once we encounter turbulence, we immediately go to work to find a better ride. But none of this happens while you’re calling us.

Frequent (or not-so-frequent) flyers, read the rest of his post for an excellent explanation of how flight deck crew members respond to turbulence. If you do, you’ll feel good about the folks who fly us from place to place.


For an earlier post that includes a discussion of JetHead’s response to the story of Steven Slater, the flight attendant who left his job by activating the emergency chute, go here.

Website of the Week: TED

If you’re into talks by people at the top of their game, check out TED, “a small nonprofit devoted to ideas worth spreading.” On the TED website (link here), you’ll find hundreds of freely accessible videos featuring leaders and innovators in their respective fields:

On TED.com, we make the best talks and performances from TED and partners available to the world, for free. More than 700 TEDTalks are now available, with more added each week.

General topics include:








Global issues

What more can I say to whet your appetite? It’s a treasure trove of learning, enlightenment, and inspiration — and absolutely free!

Workplace bullying laws are “just a matter of time,” says New York Law Journal

Legal protections against bullying at work are “just a matter of time,” says an article in the Jan. 21 edition of the New York Law Journal (link here), the newspaper of the New York legal profession.

The NYLJ feature by Jason Habinsky and Christine M. Fitzgerald, attorneys at the law firm of Hughes, Hubbard, and Reed, states:

For years the law has been stacked against an employee claiming that he or she was abused or bullied by a co-worker. Generally, the law offers no protection to such a victim as long as the alleged bully can show that his or her actions were not motivated by the victim’s status as a member of a protected class. . . . However, with bullying becoming front-page news across the nation, it is just a matter of time before the law adapts. Since 2003, 17 states have considered legislation designed to protect employees from workplace bullying.

Another sign

In a December article assessing the state of the anti-bullying movement, I suggested that legislative successes and media coverage surrounding the Healthy Workplace Bill during 2010 signaled a breakthrough in terms of wider public support for legal protections against bullying at work.

Now, as advocates for the Healthy Workplace Bill gear up across the country for the next round of state legislative sessions, the article highlights the growing attention being given to workplace bullying by lawyers and policy makes and the emerging consensus that enactment of workplace bullying laws is coming sooner than later.

Balanced tone

It is noteworthy that the authors of the piece are lawyers at a large New York City law firm that represents mostly large businesses — the very entities that could be sued by abused employees. And yet, if you read their article, you’ll see that while they express some of the common concerns about enacting legal protections against bullying, they are not foaming at the mouth at the possibility. That’s a stark contrast to other pieces written by management-side lawyers who have virulently criticized the idea of any anti-bullying legislation.

Workforce Management conflates workplace bullying and bad manners

I’m a fan of Workforce Management magazine and its jam-packed website (link here), but I disagree with the approach taken by the print edition’s January cover story on incivility at work.

Bad manners

Susan G. Hauser’s “The Degeneration of Decorum” is a major feature introduced this way:

Stress caused by rude behavior in the workplace might be costing the U.S. economy billions of dollars a year. Some employers are taking action to restore civility and improve employee morale.

The article goes on to describe the mounting problem of incivility at work, framing the problem as largely one of rudeness and lack of manners.

When it gets to management misbehavior, the idea of bullying finally enters the picture. At that point, it quotes Dr. Gary Namie and references the work of the Workplace Bullying Institute.

However, the piece never explores the fundamental differences between bad manners and targeted, abusive mistreatment.

Closing editorial

Editor Ronald J. Alsop closes the issue with a wide-ranging editorial that mentions bullying but largely echoes the themes of incivility and rudeness. While I agree with the advice he quotes from a former CEO — “You can’t have a successful business without happy employees” — I found it disconcerting that he conflated these behaviors into simple variations of bad etiquette.

Abuse vs. incivility

At times I have used terms such as bullying and incivility somewhat interchangeably, and the research on worker mistreatment sometimes mixes and matches the concepts as well.

But we need to be vigilant about reminding ourselves that workplace bullying is fundamentally different than bad manners, in the same way that domestic violence must be distinguished from acting out by an emotionally challenged spouse. When someone is singled out intentionally at work for a course of malicious, health-endangering mistreatment, the behavior has crossed into the realm of abuse.


The January issue is not yet posted to the magazine’s website; typically free online access is provided several months after the publication date. For the table of contents to the issue and trial subscription info, go here.

Seth Godin’s “Alternative MBA”: A model for training future entrepreneurs?

In late 2008, entrepreneur and author Seth Godin posted an online announcement, inviting applications for an “Alternative MBA” program that would involve spending six months in residence with him and a small cohort of fellow learners who would create and execute plans for new enterprises (link here).

The idea

In pitching the idea, Godin took issue with both the cost and substance of current MBA programs. His homebrewed, unaccredited MBA program would emphasize hands-on project work and would not charge tuition. The original proposal anticipated students providing help on some of his projects, an expectation that was dropped once the program got underway.

This is how he originally described it:

Here’s the program I’m interested in creating:
One hour a day of class/dialogue
Four hours a day of working on my projects
Three hours a day of working on your personal project
Five hours a day of living, noticing, doing and connecting


Godin’s announcement generated a lot of interest, including this exchange on Business Week’s forum discussing whether it was a worthwhile undertaking for participants. Some 350 people applied, 27 were chosen as finalists, and ultimately 9 were selected.

Near the end of the program in 2009, Godin posted a report about what the group had accomplished (link here), sharing his delight with the results:

We’re almost done, and it has exceeded every expectation I had for it, and I think there are some broader lessons worth sharing.

Here are two projects that came out of the program (with excerpts from their websites):


fear.less is a free online magazine that empowers people through unique stories of overcoming fear. From entrepreneurs, business leaders, artists and scientists to survivors of extreme experiences, these stories demonstrate the hidden potential we have to confront our fears and come out victorious.

The 150 Project

The 150 Project believes that the future of marketing is utilizing online communities for sales, marketing, support and innovation. We help companies connect to their customers or “tribe” through social media and online community platforms. We lead with the problem and solution and not the technology. We work with everyone from best selling authors to enterprise public companies.

“Final Takeaways”

Godin listed four major lessons from the experience:

  1. If you have the resources and wherewithal to run a program like this, you should.
  2. If you’re stuck, getting unstuck is not only possible, it’s an obligation.
  3. Find some peers and push each other.
  4. Making friends for life is difficult to overrate. Every one of these people is an all-star and I’m glad that I got to know them.

What’s (very) old is new again

A millenium ago, many of the earliest universities were guild-like groups of scholars who offered instruction to small cohorts of students seeking their expertise and guidance. Later on, as universities began to assume their more modern forms, schools such as Cambridge and Oxford would adopt tutorial style teaching methods that emphasized one-to-one contact between instructor and student.

Against that historical backdrop, Godin’s “alternative” program bears strong similarities to the origins of higher education.

A model?

Does this mean we’ll see more such efforts from accomplished practitioners and academicians? I don’t see a groundswell yet, but the opportunity to do intensive work over an extended period of time with leaders in a field is an awfully attractive approach.

Furthermore, at least in the U.S., the costs of pursuing undergraduate and graduate degree programs have reached alarming levels, as I’ve written before (here on student loans; here on higher education generally; here on legal education). In the case of a budding entrepreneur, why spend upwards of $100,000 or more to get an MBA if Godin’s approach is a faster, cheaper, and more effective avenue towards creating a start-up?

More such initiatives could emerge, and perhaps proliferate, in niche contexts where people have specific reasons for participating and where the educational experience, networking opportunities, and affiliations will outweigh the lack of a formal degree. Given the price tag of higher education these days, a lot of folks might be happy to pursue that route.

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