Charles Hayes on unfinished business

My favorite Hayes book

Recently author and philosopher Charles D. Hayes shared these thoughts on his Facebook page:

Have you ever wondered what could, should, or might have been? Or, if perhaps, the best book ever written was not published, the best orator never made a speech, the best voice never sang, the best athlete never played sports, and so on down the road of life experience? I think it’s more likely than not, that all these examples are plausible.

And just as feasible, is the likelihood that the unfinished business of every person who dies unexpectedly could represent an aspirational loss, amounting to an existential deficit for the living, on par with books never published. Something to think about in keeping one’s affairs in order.

Charles is one of my favorite authors and thinkers, and in recent years we’ve become friends via Facebook. I’ve touted his writings on this blog many times. He often goes deep in his thinking and writing. This was one of his simpler “ponder this” thoughts that invites deeper contemplation.

The term unfinished business resonates strongly with me, as I’m sure it does with many folks of middle age and beyond. It becomes especially relevant when you realize that the clock is ticking, that you no longer have seemingly endless amounts of time to do what you’d like to do.

So what’s your unfinished business?

Are you sitting on a great idea for a book or collection of short stories? Maybe becoming the next J.K. Rowling or Stephen King is a long shot, but you could publish your work and build a neat little (or not so little) readership for your work.

Do you have dreams of running up and down the court as part of a championship basketball team? OK, you probably won’t be playing with or against LeBron James, but you just might find an adult hoops league that is right for your athletic aspirations.

Would you like to play the piano like this guy? Well, that might be a stretch — performers like the remarkable Jack Gibbons are rare — but perhaps a few piano lessons might reveal more talent at the keyboard than you ever imagined you possessed.

Yup, Charles’s words have once again given me an excuse to be a shameless hawker of avocations and hobbies, which I think can be among the joys and good havens of our lives. They can be gift to you and to others, and in some cases be positively life-changing.

Related posts

“Let’s leave it all out on the field”: A Gen Joneser rallying cry? (2018)

The importance of hobbies and avocations during stressful and anxious times (2016)

What’s your hobby? (2015)

Embracing Creative Dreams at Midlife (2010, rev. 2018)

 

“Let’s leave it all out on the field”: A Gen Joneser rallying cry?

Bartlet (l) and McGarry (r) confer

Dear readers, I confess that this is a bit of a ramble, a lot of thinking out loud in digital form. It’s about my generational cohort — the one dubbed Generation Jones, i.e., late Boomers and early Gen Xers born between 1954 and 1965 — and how we might contribute to the world in the years to come.

One of my favorite television characters is Leo McGarry from “The West Wing,” the Emmy Award-winning political drama that ran on NBC for seven seasons. The late John Spencer, a supremely underrated actor, played McGarry, a politically savvy and trusted close advisor to President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen).

A favorite West Wing episode comes late in the series (season 6, episode 12). McGarry is returning to White House duties after a heart attack and bypass surgery, and the Bartlet Administration has only a year left in its second term. The President is fatigued due to a chronic illness, and McGarry is struggling to regain his health and his role in the Oval Office. Too often the Administration is letting events control it, rather than the other way around. Leo senses that maybe the President and his inner circle are simply running out the clock, while trying resting on their laurels.

In a great scene featuring McGarry and the President, Leo challenges his long-time friend and fellow political war horse to push hard during their last year in office: “Both of us, sir, this is our last game. Let’s leave it all out on the field.” With the President’s approval, Leo calls a late night meeting for the senior staff, during which they begin to map out an ambitious policy agenda for the Bartlet Administration’s final 365 days.

A Gen Joneser rallying cry?

I love that scene between McGarry and the President. Yeah, it is corny and doesn’t bear any resemblance to today’s Washington D.C. But for pure inspiration, it works for me.

And maybe it even speaks to me. Let’s leave it all out on the field. When I think of fellow members of Generation Jones, these words come to mind as a potential rallying cry for our (hopefully many!) remaining years.

Today’s Gen Jonesers are roughly between 52 and 64 years old. In terms of traditional age demographics, this covers a healthy span of middle age. And while our bodies may be feeling the passage of time, we also have a lot of accumulated wisdom, insight, and experience. I’d like to think that we have a lot of gas left in our tanks. In fact, in many realms we may be at or near the top of our games in terms of productivity and leadership capabilities. These qualities give us opportunities to make significant contributions to the world around us during the years to come.

In some cases, a middle-aged career shift may be part of a fundamental personal transition. Career counselors and coaches have sometimes referred to this as pursuing an “encore” career, one that may involve earning less or even no money — the latter crossing into the realm of avocation — but in any event enabling someone to make a difference in a chosen arena. A popular website devoted to the pursuit of encore careers uses the tag “Second acts for the greater good.” It’s an appealing idea: Earn enough money to secure your future, then spend a chunk of the rest of your time giving back.

Imagine, millions of seasoned, able, mature workers pursuing work and activities that help our communities, big and small. It’s about defining personal legacies, giving back, and paying it forward, right? As I wrote in 2016:

…(W)e live in a world in serious need of more joy, creativity, humanity, and compassion. Who wants to look back at a life only to see a lot of wonderful opportunities squandered and wasted?

Reality checks

But hold on, there are harsh reality checks on my generational cheerleading. Let’s start with economics and personal finances. As I wrote last year, many members of Gen Jones are getting hammered in terms of jobs, savings, and retirement readiness:

…Generation Jones has been snakebitten by broader events. During the early 1980s, many graduated into a terrible recession that limited entry-level job opportunities. This was also a time when America’s industrial jobs base went into sharp decline (a trend continuing to this day), wages started to flatline (ditto), and employers began eliminating pension plans (ditto again).

Fast forwarding, the Great Recession hit during what should’ve been Gen Jonesers’ strongest earning years, the heart of their 40s and early 50s. Many lost jobs and livelihoods during that time and have struggled to recover. Some have never recovered. Gen Jonesers are now hurtling toward what have been considered traditional retirement years; most are within 10-15 years of that time. But as I have written often on this blog…, America faces a retirement funding crisis of major proportions.

Gen Jonesers are in the bull’s-eye of that retirement funding crisis, as will become evident during the next decade. In terms of its entrance into the labor market, this age group is the first to fully experience the widening wealth gap that began in the 1980s and continues to this day. Absent dramatic changes in the American economic structure — likely through some combination of civic leadership, public policy, and political voice — we are a preview of things to come.

Overall, the march of time brings a mix of ordinary and extraordinary life challenges. Job losses and career setbacks have emotional as well as financial impacts. Illnesses and deaths are a part of life, but no less difficult because of their inevitability. As many regular readers of this blog know, various forms of abuse can exact a significant toll and have cumulative effects.

Looking ahead

So what is it to be? A rich midlife with impact-making encore contributions, or remaining years spent pinching pennies and recovering from setbacks? Of course, the reality for most Gen Jonesers will be somewhere in between, replete with individual stories and circumstances. After all, there is no one-size-fits-all playbook for midlife and beyond.

With all that said, here is a cluster of framing ideas for our consideration, some possible ways for us to leave it all out on the field:

Legacy work — It starts with legacy work. Again from 2016:

By “legacy work” I mean our core contributions and accomplishments, the stuff we’d like to be remembered for in the longer run and by people we care about. In the realm of vocation, it may involve creative or intellectual work, achievement in business, service to others, building something, activism and social change work, or some type of innovation or invention.

…(O)ne’s legacy work need not be vocational in nature. It can include parenting, caregiving, an engaging avocation, a deeply meaningful hobby, or charitable work. For some, a “day job” may pay the bills, but an unrelated project or endeavor brings the deeper meaning.

Community — In recent years, loneliness has been labeled an epidemic and a public health crisis by health experts. (See recent pieces in the Washington Post and New York Times for more.) Part of the answer is to build and maintain genuine communities. These communities can be grounded in geography (e.g., neighborhood), shared interests and activities (e.g., vocations, avocations, hobbies), or shared values (e.g., social and faith beliefs). The care and feeding of communities and those within them require intention and commitment.

Recovery — By the time midlife hits, a lot of folks find themselves recovering from setbacks small and large. The big hits often involve fear, stress, and even trauma. Fortunately, for many there are paths to recovery. For example, even those experiencing post-traumatic stress, once thought to be extremely hard to treat, may heal via new healing modalities and even enter a phase known as post-traumatic growth.

Scarcity, generosity, and choices — Some very smart people are telling us that we face a long-term era of scarcity. Accordingly, our challenge may be to find ways to live good and meaningful lives during a time when resources (personal and global) are limited. As I see it, it will require letting go of some the values that led us to this place and reorienting our lives and lifestyles so that we are less about stuff and more about humanity. It will mean giving back and paying it forward, while defining abundance differently from the ways we have done so before.

Instructive on these points are the words of my late friend and pioneering adult educator John Ohliger (1926-2004), which appeared in a 1981 issue of his newsletter Second Thoughts:

My picture is of a future where we live more relaxed and more modest lives with an abundance of unmeasurable and infinitely available non-material (or better, trans-material) resources. All the travail and pressure we’re going through right now may be paving the way for that future. This future could be one where we will have a choice of “goodies”; not ones requiring scarce energy, minerals, or dollars; or ones permitting some people to get rich while others go hungry, but choices that we create with our own hearts and heads and hands among people we know and care for.

Related posts

Obviously there’s a lot to contemplate here, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. For those who would like to explore some of these themes a bit deeper, I’ve collected a bunch of past entries relating to midlife, transitions, vocations, avocations, and community building:

Work, savings, and retirement: Generation Jones is getting hammered (2017)

From hoop jumping to legacy work and places in-between (2016)

Charles Hayes on the ripples of our lives (2016)

David Brooks and his “moral bucket list” (2015)

Defining, refining, creating, and redefining your “body of work” (2015)

Tribes for brewing ideas and engaging in positive change (2015)

The power of face-to-face dialogue for change agents (2015)

Taking stock at midlife: Time for reading assignments (2014)

Hard looks at joblessness, retirement funding, and Generation Jones (2014)

Personal reinvention: Take a look at “50 over 50” (2014)

Holiday reads: Fueling heart, mind, and soul (2014)

“The Shift: Ambition to Meaning” (2014)

Transitions and inner callings (2014)

Inauthenticity at work and the fast track to a midlife crisis (2013)

“Follow your bliss”? Parsing Joseph Campbell’s famous advice (2012)

What’s your legacy work? (And how can you de-clutter way to it?) (2011)

The “butterfly effect” and working as an educator (2011)

Embracing creative dreams at midlife (2010)

Will our avocations save us? (2010)

Does life begin at 46? (2010).

Are You a Marathoner or a Sprinter? (2009)

A few revised posts for your consideration

Dear readers, during the past year I’ve revised, tweaked, and updated several popular earlier posts to this blog. I hope you’ll find them interesting and/or useful!

The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary human need (original: July 2013 ; revised: January 2017) — “Intellectuals should help to lead, not merely react and respond. In both of my talks at this conference, I suggested that scholars should be “responsibly bold” about investigating reality and fashioning solutions to our problems. I also urged us to be “restlessly patient,” understanding that positive change can take time, while continually seeking opportunities to effect that change sooner than later.”

Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic (original: December 2012; revised: March 2017) — “Gaslighting often is discussed in the context of spousal and family relationships. It makes sense, then, that we see so many parallels between domestic abuse and workplace bullying. Perhaps the leap from Ingrid Bergman & Charles Boyer to The Office isn’t much of one after all.”

When the bullying comes from a board member (original: August 2011; revised: November 2017) — “‘Board bullying,’ as I call it, is one of the largely unexplored aspects of workplace bullying. I do not know how frequent it is, and I have not yet found any research literature on the topic. . . . And yet I know it is real. I suspect it is more prevalent in the non-profit sector than in the business sector, but that impression may be unduly influenced by the fact that I’ve spent much of my career and volunteer service in non-profit organizations.”

What is academic tenure? (original: August 2011; revised: December 2016) — “Tenure is under attack. Some claim that tenured professors are too coddled and privileged. Others say that in the face of rising tuition and a difficult economy, tenured and tenure-track professors are too expensive. In some cases, political and university leaders are going after tenure to diminish academic freedom in higher education.”

When “heart, will, and mind are on the same page” (original: July 2010; revised: July 2017) — “For many years, University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has been urging us to seek those elusive states of flow in our lives, those experiences when ‘heart, will, and mind are on the same page.’  They may involve ‘singing in a choir, programming a computer, dancing, playing bridge, [or] reading a good book.’  In these moments, ‘what we feel, what we wish, and what we think are in harmony.'”

Passion + mission + vocation + profession = “Ikigai”

Screenshot from businessinsider.com

Laura Oliver, writing for the World Economic Forum (via Business Insider), discusses the Japanese philosophy and practice of “ikigai” as “a way to live longer and better.” She explains:

While there is no direct English translation, ikigai is thought to combine the Japanese words ikiru, meaning “to live,” and kai, meaning “the realization of what one hopes for.” Together these definitions create the concept of “a reason to live” or the idea of having a purpose in life.

Oliver adds that according to experts, four key questions start us down the path toward the state of ikigai:

  • What do you love?
  • What are you good at?
  • What does the world need from you?
  • What can you get paid for?

Elusive combination

Okay, let’s be honest. Work and career opportunities that combine the answers to these four questions are not easy to obtain or create. We’re talking about the gold standard here. Nevertheless, if these inquiries can lead us to the best opportunities given current realities, then we’re better off for doing the exercise.

Unexpected difficulties

Furthermore, let’s acknowledge that what look like “dream jobs” from even the slightest distance can deteriorate into something much less in terms of reality. Many readers who have found this blog because of their experiences with workplace bullying, mobbing, or harassment can attest to that. So…the human side of our work environment may have a lot to do with ikigai, too, yes?

For those who have experienced the nasty side of work, perhaps the ikigai concept can help you think through your next options.

Skilled trades, too

In using the term “profession,” the graphic pictured above may suggest that ikigai has a white collar, professional bias. So let’s be sure to include skilled trades, among other things, as part of the mix. For example, take a look at this essay by Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft, which examines how deeply meaningful it can be to make a living via manual labor. (He later expanded the essay into a book by the same title, published in 2009.)

Avocations as an option

If that all-encompassing dream job proves to be elusive, then perhaps turning part of the dream into an avocation is an option. I’ve written about that possibility and how satisfying it can be, such as in this 2010 piece, “Embracing Creative Dreams at Midlife.”

***

Hat tip to Dr. Peggy Berry for the Business Insider article.

The importance of hobbies and avocations during stressful and anxious times

Peter sings, to be followed by a coaching.

Peter sings, to be followed by a coaching.

Periodically I use this blog to champion the pursuit of hobbies and avocations as ways of enriching our lives, and I’m happy to do so again. For a lot of folks right now, the experience of work and the state of the world generally are brimming with stressors. And while I don’t advocate ignoring those situations, I do think we need healthy diversions that offer positive engagement.

On this topic, I try to practice what I preach. I’ve written before (here and on my personal blog here) about a weekly singing class that I take at the Boston Center for Adult Education (BCAE). Every Tuesday, our class meets for a 90-minute session, led by Jane (a Juilliard-trained vocalist and instructor) and Maria (a classically trained piano accompanist). The format is simple. After group warm-ups, each student performs a song of their choosing and is coached before the group. Yup, each of us does a solo number every week!

He dutifully takes notes during every class session.

He dutifully takes notes during every class session.

Recently I was reminded of the meaning of this class by Peter, a fellow student, who dutifully jots down coaching tips and reflections into a notebook during class. He often performs with his guitar, and he’s good enough to do coffee house gigs if he ever wants to go that route. For now, at least, we are his primary audience. It’s very cool to me that he cares so much about the class that he chronicles his experience on a weekly basis.

Everyone is here because they want to be, which can’t be said for many other life situations! The students find the class via the BCAE catalog (print and online) or through word of mouth. Jane and Maria teach this class in addition to holding down “day jobs,” so this is a labor of love for them, a true avocation. 

After one of our term-ending recitals, clockwise fr L: Maria (accompanist), Kerry, Adeline, Lorin, Xiomara, DY, Brian, and Jane (course instructor).

The singing class generally runs in six to eight week terms, depending on the BCAE’s calendar. We typically use the last session of a term as a little recital, during which each of us sings two songs of our choice, without the coaching. Students may invite guests, and some do. It’s a neat way of wrapping up each term. As you can see from the photo above, we sometimes go out for a bite to eat afterward.

Opened in 1933, BCAE is one of the city’s non-profit fixtures, offering a wide array of adult education classes. Earlier this year, a few of us attended a BCAE fundraiser, featuring morsels and drinks provided by area restaurants and food producers. It was a lot of fun and a nice opportunity to support an organization whose space and staff help to make these classes a reality.

Supporting a BCAE fundraiser, L to R: Bonita, Adeline, Jane, and Maria.

This is one of my primary sources of work-life balance, to the extent that I can claim to have any! I select mostly numbers from the Great American Songbook — the stuff of the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Sinatra, etc. — but others perform contemporary pop, classic rock, folk, country, religious…you name it.

The class attracts a friendly, supportive, and smart group of people who, individually and collectively, comprise a sort of natural diversity across many categories. Among current students, I’ve been there the longest — over 20 years! — but we’ve also got a steady cohort of repeat takers. Some come into the class with remarkable voices. Many others, like me when I started, are neophytes. Novice singers, however, need not be afraid. Jane has this way of helping just about anyone become a proficient singer, even people who might be classified as tone deaf.

Sinatra’s legacy faces no threat when I’m singing.

On occasion we take our voices outside of the class to perform. Our group has gone to several local open mic cabaret nights, and we’ve done karaoke a few times as well. Some time ago, I was part of a small group of voice class singers that did free gigs at local senior facilities. One of our fellow students does the busker thing in nearby Harvard Square!

I am fortunate to have a career that engages my attention, but this class offers activity and community that provide needed contrasts from the world of work. I often remark that the class and the people in it have saved me thousands of dollars in therapy costs. For me singing class is a form of mindfulness, an opportunity to be in the moment with music I enjoy, buoyed by terrific people who make it a supportive and fun experience. I count many of these folks as good friends. All things considered, it’s about as ideal a hobby as one could expect, and for that I am very grateful. 

Related posts

With “encore careers” increasingly for the wealthy, avocations and hobbies should take center stage (2016)

What’s your hobby? (2015)

Targets of workplace bullying: Pursuing healthy, immersive activities away from the job (2015)

Our avocations and hobbies: The third pillar of work-life balance? (2012)

Will our avocations save us? (2010)

Embracing creative dreams at midlife (2010)

Related article

Jennie Bricker wrote about avocations in a 2015 piece for the Oregon State Bar Bulletin, “Poets, Tramps and Lawyers,” citing pieces in this blog.

 

With “encore careers” increasingly for the wealthy, avocations and hobbies should take center stage

Hard to do without $$$

Hard to do without $$$

“Encore careers” is a term that has come to capture the dynamic of experienced professionals who step off of demanding, if highly paid, treadmills to pursue work that is more soul satisfying and contributing to the community. There’s even a popular website (tag line “second acts for the greater good”) and a book devoted to encore careers. The inherent idea is this: You’ve made your pile of cash, or perhaps invested/inherited/married your way into it. Now it’s time to get away from the grind and do something more personally fulfilling.

I’ve written about encore careers on several occasions here on this blog. For those who can afford to move in this direction, the possibilities are rich. But it is increasingly clear that the option of pursuing an encore career will be available to very few Boomers and Gen Xers, and likely to few Millennials as well. The reason basically boils down to personal finances, including the costs of living, schooling, and raising a family, as well as the challenges of saving for retirement. Too many are already earning a modest income. They don’t need a lower paid encore career to put even more pressures on their financial well being. And for those who are underemployed or unemployed, the notion of an encore career may be sheer fantasy.

This is not to say that vocational mobility and new careers are impossibilities. Far from it. Additional training, education, and certifications can open up doors for people who are returning to the workforce or trying to switch gears. It isn’t always easy, but viable options exist.

However, the encore concept of making a bundle and then switching to a “making a difference” career isn’t very realistic for many people.

So even if earning a living at a job that provides scant psychic income is in the cards for the longer haul, does this mean that personally fulfilling work and activities can never enter one’s life picture? Nope, not by a longshot. For years, I’ve been promoting immersive avocations and hobbies as potential keys to a fulfilling life. They may include artistic and creative endeavors, outdoor and sporting activities, caring for animals, political and social causes, side gig businesses, intellectual projects, lifelong learning, community and faith-based service, or enjoyable pastimes.

In unusual instances, that avocation or hobby could transform into a decent paying, full-time gig. But even if it doesn’t, it can fill a gap in one’s life left by the intersection of work and personal obligations. Such activities may be enormously fulfilling and meaningful.

The challenges of finding personally rewarding work at decent pay will continue. Against this backdrop, vocations and hobbies will loom larger as sources of individual fulfillment. If you’d like to ponder this topic further, I invite you to read these earlier articles:

What’s your hobby? (2015)

Targets of workplace bullying: Pursuing healthy, immersive activities away from the job (2015)

On “quit lit,” “encore” careers, and the realities of creating work options (2015)

Our avocations and hobbies: The third pillar of work-life balance? (2012)

Will our avocations save us? (2010)

Embracing creative dreams at midlife (2010)

From hoop jumping to legacy work and places in between

(image courtesy of http://worldartsme.com)

(image courtesy of http://worldartsme.com)

Last week I invoked the writings of philosopher Charles Hayes to consider how the ripple effects of our good works can positively impact the world, perhaps in ways we will never know. I’d like to return to questions of how we can make a difference during our lives — in whatever sphere(s) we deem important — by putting on a spectrum the notion of hoop jumping on one end and the concept of legacy work on the other. Please allow me to engage in some Sunday meandering….

First, some definitions may be in order here. By “hoop jumping” I refer to schooling, credentialing, networking, and gaining initial experience. These steps take us to where we’d like to be; they position us. (This is why it is rare for a post-graduate first job to be a true “dream job.”)

By “legacy work” I mean our core contributions and accomplishments, the stuff we’d like to be remembered for in the longer run and by people we care about. In the realm of vocation, it may involve creative or intellectual work, achievement in business, service to others, building something, activism and social change work, or some type of innovation or invention.

Some people jump through their requisite hoops early, completing the heart of their formal learning at a relatively young age, promptly engaging in the necessary networking and positioning, and embarking on a long-term career that brings them much satisfaction. Certainly there may be setbacks and diversions along the way, but they start building their body of legacy work fairly early in life.

For many others, however, that process will include stops and starts, ups and downs, and recasting that often requires jumping through new hoops. A career is rarely completely linear, moving irresistibly upward until we reach some pinnacle and then retire. Furthermore, opportunities to do meaningful work, especially that which may fall into the legacy category, do not necessarily build toward some big crescendo close to the end. Whether they are handed to us or we create them, we rarely have full control over timing and sequencing!

***

I realize that I have been talking mainly in the context of careers here. Nevertheless, as I’ve suggested before, one’s legacy work need not be vocational in nature. It can include parenting, caregiving, an engaging avocation, a deeply meaningful hobby, or charitable work. For some, a “day job” may pay the bills, but an unrelated project or endeavor brings the deeper meaning.

Over the years, I have witnessed these scenarios many times. With some people, the discovery of legacy work has actually been a re-discovery, marking a return to interests and passions they put on the shelf in years past.

***

Let me also acknowledge the sense of great economic and social privilege implicit in what I’m writing about. Those of us who are in a position to devote a good chunk of our waking hours to endeavors that provide satisfaction, meaning, accomplishment, and even joy are very fortunate. Countless millions of people around the world do not have that luxury; they are living in survival mode.

I hesitate to characterize such blessings as constituting a finger wagging obligation to make the most of them and to contribute something good to the world. That said, we live in a world in serious need of more joy, creativity, humanity, and compassion. Who wants to look back at a life only to see a lot of wonderful opportunities squandered and wasted?

***

Looking at the tortoise and the hare folktale, I personally identify more with the tortoise, at least when it comes to this general subject. In fact, I look with admiration at those folks who have figured things out much earlier than I did. I started this blog in 2008, over twenty years into my career as a lawyer and law professor. I now understand that it took me that long to forge a sufficiently wise, authentic, and mature worldview to start writing for a more public audience on the topics that frequent these pages.

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