A plea for art as vocation and artists as leaders

Kayhan Irani

What if our society made more room for artistic expression as a form of vocation and recognized more artists as leaders? Those are among the questions raised by Kayhan Irani, a self-styled “artivist” based in New York who uses her artistic and creative gifts to advance social change.

Kayhan has been a dear friend since 2004, when I invited her to Boston to present “We’ve Come Undone,” her compelling one-woman play about the challenges confronting immigrant women in the post-9/11 era. Since then, I’ve watched her define her vocational role and win plaudits for her artistic work, including a 2010 New York Emmy for a 9-episode educational television drama for immigrant New Yorkers and co-editorship of a book about the use of storytelling to advance social change. (Go here for her interesting and impressive bio.)

Yesterday on her blog, Kayhan asked readers to consider how art (of all types) can be sustaining work and how artists can serve as societal leaders. I wanted to share some of that with you and to offer a few responses.

Art as vocation

Kayhan first takes issue with stereotypes about artists and with assumptions that artistic work should not be a sustaining form of vocation:

The messages that are broadcast in our society about artists are that we are irresponsible, stupid, drug addicts, mentally ill, have questionable morals; and that art is frivolous, a diversion, not serious work, it’s only for some people, it’s stupid, and can’t pay the bills.  In order to maintain the status quo, we need artists to remain on the fringes of society, barely visible, always teetering on the brink of poverty and irrelevance.

These messages get enforced from a very early age.  Imagine an adult asking you, with pleasure, if you are going to be a lawyer or a dancer when you grow up; what about a firefighter or a painter?  From a very young age, we are steered away from art-making as a life choice.

Artists as leaders

Kayhan concludes by urging us to consider how artistic leadership can be a force for positive social change:

And that brings me to my main point: art and creativity are the most powerful forces we have for liberation.

Art can bring people together.  We don’t even need to speak the same language.

Art can make a way out of no way.  When people are living in oppressive situations, artists can help imagine a way out.  The fight for another world has to imagine that the impossible is possible.

Artists never stop questioning.  Creativity means to use your senses to engage in a process of inquiry.

So let the artists lead us.  Let us recognize that they already do!

Spot on

Kayhan’s call for a world where artistic expression helps us to envision better communities and lives sounds pretty good to me. And it sure would be nice if it was provided by artists who are able to earn a decent living from their work.

I’m not suggesting that we live without formal structures or ditch anything that smacks of “businesslike.” After all, as a lawyer and law professor, I believe that a world without the rule of law would be a pretty scary one. (I’m not exactly enamored with the legal system we have, but that’s for other posts.) And I fully acknowledge that enterprise and technology can bring us some neat stuff, such as the computer I’m using to produce this article.

However, we have got things way, way out of balance. In particular, the financial insanity that led us to the economic meltdown should have prompted a deeper questioning of basic values and major institutions, but I fear we are squandering that opportunity as we yearn for a “recovery” that puts us in a position to do it all over again.

In the meantime, many artists who have been dependent upon outside funding and non-profit sponsorship for their work are struggling even more.

New ways

So…to Kayhan’s eloquent plea I’ll add the need for societal structures that enable artistic work and are not as subject to the boom-and-bust cycles of our casino economy. I confess that I haven’t made all the “third way” connections between this and other forms of sustainable, community-oriented initiatives and enterprises, but I’m sure others have done so. Surely we cannot repeat the mess we’re in, right? Right?

Does your organization nurture growth-fostering relationships?

Last week’s annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) Network in New York City featured the presentation of an award (posthumously) to Jean Baker Miller, M.D., a visionary psychiatrist, social activist, and co-founder of relational-cultural theory (RCT).

RCT (link here) holds that:

Growth-fostering relationships are a central human necessity. Chronic disconnection, whether on an interpersonal or societal scale, is a primary source of human suffering.

The Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at the Wellesley Centers for Women is devoted to transformational personal growth and social justice, building its programs around an RCT model.

Five Good Things

Dr. Miller boiled her core ideas down to a set of “Five Good Things” that empower people in growth-fostering relationships:

1. A sense of zest or well-being that comes from connecting with another person or other persons.

2. The ability and motivation to take action in the relationship as well as other situations.

3. Increased knowledge of oneself and the other person(s).

4. An increased sense of worth.

5. A desire for more connections beyond the particular one.

So here’s the question: Does your organization nurture these qualities? To further explore this subject, you might take a look at these posts:

***

For a short report on last week’s HumanDHS workshop:

Building a society that embraces human dignity

Some real “job killers”: Executive salaries, bullying managers, health care costs, and demanding stockholders

The Chamber of Commerce and other powerful trade organizations are fond of using the term “job killer” to denigrate virtually any proposed legislation or regulation that protects workers, consumers, or the environment. They claim that costs of prevention and compliance drain monies that otherwise would be used to create jobs.

Sort of true, but not really

Technically, perhaps they can make a case: If one assumes there’s a fixed pot of money marked “for wages, salaries, and benefits,” and the costs of complying with pesky labor, consumer, and environmental protections must come out of that pot, then I suppose the regulations can be called job killers.

But one does not have to be a corporate accountant to know that organizational budgeting doesn’t work that way. The costs of social responsibility can come out of other buckets of money as well.

Instead, take a look

In any event, in the interest of fair play, let’s consider an alternate list of job killers:

Executive salaries — Exorbitant executive salaries and accompanying perks surely kill jobs, especially when the high pay isn’t merited due to poor performance. A mediocre CEO earning $300,000 is just as good as a mediocre CEO earning $1 million, except that with the $300,000 CEO, there’s another $700,000 left over to hire more workers.

Bullying managers — Workplace bullying increases employee attrition, absenteeism, and health care costs, while driving down employee morale and productivity — all of which have negative bottom line impacts. In the U.S., the significant majority of workplace bullying is perpetrated by managers and supervisors.

Health care costs — Attempts to create affordable, quality health care for all are continually thwarted by corporations, insurance companies, and pharmaceutical companies that lobby Congress and state legislatures and form political action committees to reward their friends in elected office.

Demanding stockholders — Stockholders who pressure corporations to post sky-high profits rather than reasonable ones are, in essence, drawing from monies that could be used to hire workers and pay them a living wage.

It’s not quite so easy

Okay, I admit, it’s more complicated than that. The business, labor, and regulatory climate in the U.S. is multifaceted, to say the least. Fixing unemployment and a huge earnings gap, among other things, requires more than serving up competing bullet points.

But if we’re even going to consider the claim that safeguarding workers, consumers, and our planet kills jobs, then at least let’s look at other major factors that curb job creation and preservation.

Freelance revolution and freelance realities

Is the independent, freelance sector our next great job generator and a path to living the dream?

Freelance revolution

Sara Horowitz of the Freelancers Union, writing for The Atlantic, says the surge of freelance workers is the “industrial revolution of our time” (link here):

…Today, careers consist of piecing together various types of work, juggling multiple clients, learning to be marketing and accounting experts, and creating offices in bedrooms/coffee shops/coworking spaces. Independent workers abound. We call them freelancers, contractors, sole proprietors, consultants, temps, and the self-employed.

And, perhaps most surprisingly, many of them love it.

This transition is nothing less than a revolution. We haven’t seen a shift in the workforce this significant in almost 100 years when we transitioned from an agricultural to an industrial economy.

Freelance realities

But going it on your own is no piece of cake. Alex Williams, writing for the New York Times, followed the entrepreneurial ambitions of disenchanted, well-credentialed escapees from Corporate America and found that realities can be tough on dreams (link here):

Plan B, it turns out, is a lot harder than it seems. But that hasn’t stopped cubicle captives from fantasizing. In recent years, a wave of white-collar professionals has seized on a moribund job market, a swelling enthusiasm for all things artisanal and the growing sense that work should have meaning to cut ties with the corporate grind and chase second careers as chocolatiers, bed-and-breakfast proprietors and organic farmers.

….The lures are obvious: freedom, fulfillment. The highs can be high. But career switchers have found that going solo comes with its own pitfalls: a steep learning curve, no security, physical exhaustion and emotional meltdowns. The dream job is a “job” as much as it is a “dream.”

Sorting it out

Both views are real. For those who have a promising, marketable new service or product and a desire to create their own business, the independent route may be the one to go. However, virtually every start-up requires grit, determination, countless extra hours, and a dose of luck and timing to succeed.

Creating new enterprises and fostering healthier ways of earning a living are vital parts of a responsive solution to the surfeit of dysfunctional organizations currently in existence and the economic challenges people are facing. I hope that combinations of private, non-profit, and public sector support can help people turn their good ideas and aspirations into reality.

New jobs, new economy: Envisioning better ways to work and earn a living

Bravo to YES! magazine, whose Fall issue (link here) is devoted to examining how we can create new jobs and a new economy based on human and community needs and sustainable practices:

The jobs crisis has slipped off the political radar, but to ordinary Americans, jobs and the economy are top issues. How can we build strong local economies that sustain us in an era of ecological limits? What can we do to support each other in challenging times, and how can we rebuild the American Dream?

The Fall issue is rich with ideas and inspiration. Here are titles of some of the articles:

  • Who’s Building the Do-It-Ourselves Economy?
  • Work Less, Live More
  • 5 Steps to Redefine Making a Living
  • 7 Smart Solutions

YES! has been among the most thoughtful voices calling for a new economy, one not so much vested in “isms” (capitalism, socialism, etc.), but rather one emphasizing individual and community priorities and values in the context of a sustainable society.

It won’t come from Wall Street or Washington D.C.

Implicit in all of these pieces is the realization that human-level solutions to our economic crisis are highly unlikely to come from Wall Street or D.C. I couldn’t agree more. Our mega-institutions are simply too broken right now.

The idea of Big Business as the Great American Jobs Machine may have had some credibility decades ago, but certainly no more. Wall Street is about short-term gains and shareholder profits, and jobs creation ranks very low on its priority list.

As for many of our policy makers in the nation’s capital, the less said, the better. Few are talking about jobs; even fewer are taking the long-term view that we desperately need.

Grassroots entrepreneurship

In the meantime, encouraging and enabling entrepreneurial, socially responsible initiatives at the local, grassroots levels may provide some answers to the jobs crisis and to the question of how we build a sustainable and inclusive society.

Granted, these ideas need testing and refining, and frankly some of the new jobs described in YES! will leave people wrestling with how to pay the bills each month. But the more valuable point is that we need to ask ourselves some fundamental questions about how to live healthy, meaningful, and secure lives after decades of excess and credit-driven buying frenzy. Raising these questions is very threatening to those who have reaped the benefits of the status quo, but for everyone else, they are vital.

***

Related post

Can communal responses to tough times lead us to better lives?

Possibilities

For those dealing with a layoff or recovering from a job where they were bullied or harassed, there may be an understandable tendency to dwell on the negative experiences of the recent past. But ultimately, if they want to turn things around, they’ll also want to envision the possibilities for something better.

This is much easier said than done. Nothing is more frustrating and even infuriating than to be told that it’s time to “get over it” or to “move on” from a horrible experience at work. Indeed, that experience may be with someone for a long time. Job loss, bullying, and harassment leave their marks.

And yet, the ability to look ahead is a key to finding that better place.

During the 2+ years I’ve written this blog, I have identified a number of books, websites, and resources that may be helpful to those who are forging solutions and options that will move them toward a better place.  I thought it might be useful to collect them, as well as a few others I haven’t mentioned, in one post. Here goes:

Inspiration, letting go, moving on

Career envisioning and job hunting

Richard Bolles’s What Color is Your Parachute? is a classic career guidance and job hunting manual, updated yearly. Go here for Bolles’s website.

Career coaching

Personal career coaching may help you define a better path. For example, Career Planning and Management in Boston offers career counseling services for individuals (link here). Principal and co-founder Dan King (and member of the New Workplace Institute advisory committee) has posted a host of excellent advice columns on the website, including “Fight or Flight: When Your Job Becomes a Nightmare” and “What Do You Want To Be In Your Next Life?”

Quitting, defining your role, and connecting

Among Seth Godin’s many great little books, The Dip (2007) helps you decide when to quit or hang in there, Linchpin (2010) helps you to define an indispensable role for yourself, and Tribes (2008) teaches you how to lead and connect.  Godin’s website (with lots of free goodies) and blog can be accessed here.

Starting a business or non-profit

Starting your own business or non-profit organization is hard work, but it may be an attractive option for those who have a great idea and a desire to call their own shots.

SCORE offers free, confidential, small business mentoring and training. Go here for the SCORE website.

The federal Small Business Administration is another helpful resource. Go here for the SBA website.

Boston University offers a four-course online certificate program in entrepreneurship. Go here for the program description.

The NOLO Press offers some excellent guides on navigating the legal end of creating businesses and non-profits. Go here for their small business page and here for their non-profits page.

The Free Management Library has a helpful page on starting a non-profit, here.

Lifelong learning

Especially if you’re considering a career switch, obtaining additional education and training may be advantageous. My advice is to consider all the options, taking the one that gets you there effectively, in the least time, and spending the least amount of money.

In elevated order of time and expense:

Independent learning

Learning what you need on your own is the most cost-effective approach. Three books — Ronald Gross, Peak Learning (1999) and James Marcus Bach, Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar (2009), and Anya Kamenetz, DIY U (2010) — are helpful resources.

It’s possible to learn a lot on your own. For example, I recently blogged about Josh Kaufman’s Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business (2010) and his accompanying website.

Continuing education

Non-credit courses, taken at a local college, adult education center, or online, can give you introductions to new vocations and professions and teach you needed skills.

Certificate programs

A certificate program can be useful in terms of both education and credential value, while requiring less time and expense than a full-blown degree. Colleges and universities (in person and online) offer certificate programs, as well as some adult learning centers.

Degree programs

A degree program can provide immersive study and a valuable credential, but it also can be expensive and time-consuming. Investigate this possibility thoroughly. Many people can get where they want to go without obtaining a new degree. But if you want to enter certain professions, such as teaching, nursing, law, and others, a degree program is the standard door opener.

Non-traditional options

Temping as a bridge strategy

Too many companies treat temporary workers shabbily. However, temp work can be regarded as a bridge to something better. You’ll find helpful information about the overall temp job market (here), pros and cons of temping (here and here), and temping strategies (here).

Freelancing

For freelancers, temps, and other workers in non-traditional positions, the Freelancers Union may be an important source of information and support. Go here for its website.

Telecommuting

For some, telecommuting is an attractive and perhaps even necessary choice.  To learn more about telecommuting options, go here (basics) and here (future of telecommuting).

Good luck!

These resources just begin to scratch the surface of the good stuff that is out there for people. If you find yourself ready to consider your next steps, I hope that some of this will be helpful to you.

“Work is broken” (Can we fix it and remake it?)

Work is broken. This line was invoked by several speakers during opening sessions of the annual meeting of the Labor and Employment Relations Association (LERA), held on January 6-9. It stood as a repeated acknowledgment of the deterioration of the employment relationship, the loss of good jobs, and the overall state of work in America.

LERA (website here) is the nation’s leading non-profit, interdisciplinary research and education association for scholars and practitioners in fields concerned with workplace relations. Work is broken was a telling admission from folks who have been researching and practicing for decades.

Let me count the ways

Of course, work may be broken in different ways to different people.

To workers who have been unable to obtain work for months or perhaps longer, we’re talking about the enduring effects of a recession that economists claim ended in June 2009. (That reminds me of a certain President who stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier with a big “mission accomplished” banner behind him….)

To workers who have been bullied or harassed out of their jobs while company executives or HR officers turned the other way, we’re looking at work environments so bereft of ethics that basic human dignity has been cast aside.

To workers who now are hearing that their pension plans may go under, we’re witnessing the breach of a social and legal contract that offered a decent retirement in return for many loyal years on the job.

Fixing work

Straight jobs

We need to rebuild our base of what some call straight jobs. By that I mean conventional jobs in the service, retail, and manufacturing sectors that provide a fair day’s pay for a good day’s work. Solid jobs where people are treated decently — some perhaps short on thrills and challenges, but at least paying for life’s expenses while providing the dignity of a paycheck.

Straight jobs anticipate working in offices and cubicles, factories and construction sites, and retail outlets of various shapes and sizes. They are fine for many people. After all, conventional employment can provide security, stability, and built-in resources — not a bad deal!

Recovering a balance of power

On a systemic level, we need to re-embrace the 3-way structure of employment relations in which workers, management, and government have a voice at the table in determining workplace governance. This was the case during the heyday of the American economy, covering roughly the late 1940s through 1960s. Our system reflected a better balance of countervailing power between major stakeholders in the employment relationship.

Labor movement

Accordingly, we need to rebuild our labor movement. Intense employer hostility to unions, weak government enforcement of labor laws, and changes in the labor market have resulted in that balance going way out of whack, especially in the private sector where individual workers are largely on their own to secure better pay and working conditions.

Unions are not a panacea. The bad ones are no more virtuous than lousy corporations, and I have heard many, many complaints from workers who were let down by theirs. Nevertheless, strong, effective, and inclusive unions remain the best way to channel concentrated employee power and voice for the largest number of workers.

Something different…

Equally important, we have to empower the creative and entrepreneurial instincts of those who want to do something different. Here’s why:

Our economy badly needs the jump start effects of new businesses. Supporting the creation of small businesses is a means to that end.

Furthermore, for some, straight jobs are limiting or even stifling. The 9 to 5 thing may be a long-time American staple, but it’s not for everyone.

In addition, many of these traditional work settings are, by their very nature, breeding grounds for dysfunctional and unethical behaviors. For example, unchecked workplace bullying rarely occurs in a vacuum; those who bully typically have been enabled by their organizations. Similarly, organizations where executive pay has become excessive usually have created the conditions that allowed it to happen.

Increasingly I am skeptical that most organizations with entrenched, dysfunctional cultures are capable of significant change. Perhaps a “marketplace” of ethical behavior can supplant some of the bad apples with entities capable of both productivity and decency.

Remaking work

So, what are some of these new ways of working? To encourage your brainstorming and visionary thinking, take a look at these resources, the first two of which I have mentioned before on this blog. Together they raise a world of possibilities:

Freelancer’s Union

The Freelancers Union (link here) is an advocacy and support organization for America’s 42 million independent workers, who represent roughly 30 percent of the workforce. These include “freelancers, consultants, independent contractors, temps, part-timers, contingent employees, and the self-employed.”

Seth Godin

Godin (blog here) is a bestselling author of books on work, careers, and entrepreneurship. His pithy works, in the forms of books and free online materials, encourage us to think imaginatively about how we spend our time working. For previous posts on Godin, go here.

Chris Guillebeau

Guillebeau (website and blog link here) is a writer on a crusade to encourage people to follow their dreams, not what others suggest for them, even if it puts them at odds with the mainstream.

He is the author of The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World (Perigree 2010). Although the book suffers from a touch of youthful arrogance (he appears to be in his early 30s), his message may resonate strongly with folks experiencing a midlife crisis who are in search of inspiration and guidance to do something different with their lives. It’s a quick and excellent read.

Much of the book was developed out Guillebeau’s much-downloaded free pdf, A Guide to World Domination. He has a lot of great ideas, and I’ll be returning to his work in future posts.

***

Panel on Psychological Health at Work

If we’re going fix and remake work, then psychologically healthy workplaces must be part of the mix. Thus, I appreciate that LERA hosted a panel I organized titled “Psychological Health at Work: The Roles of Law, Policy, and Dispute Resolution.” I’ll have more to say on the subject matter of the presentations in future posts, but for now, here was our lineup:

Moderator

Heather Grob, Saint Martin’s University

Panelists

John F. Burton, Jr., Rutgers University (NJ)—Workers’s Compensation Benefits for Workplace Stress

Krista Hoffmeister, Colorado State University (CO)—Beyond Prevention Through Design: Perspectives from Occupational Health Psychology

Debra A. Healy, Healy Conflict Management Services (OR)—Mediating Workplace Abuse: Does It Work?

Tapas K. Ray, National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (OH)—Costs of Stress at Work: Who Bears Them?

David C. Yamada, Suffolk University (MA)—Workplace Bullying, Mobbing, and Harassment: Emerging Legal Responses


Let’s focus on the “largeness of our lives”

Tara Lohan, in a piece for Alternet (link here) searches for a silver lining in the wreckage of the economic meltdown and envisions a society where less is more:

As we pick up the pieces of our shattered economy, perhaps we can rebuild with a more enlightened idea of how much is enough and a more holistic view of wealth — one that does not merely reflect the size of our homes, but instead the largeness of our lives.

Lohan quotes E.F. Schumacher, humanistic economist and author of Small is Beautiful (1973), in envisioning an America less caught up with work, material goods, and McMansions: “The less toil there is, the more time and strength is left for artistic creativity.”

Yes, we need more jobs to get people back to work and help them rebuild their battered finances. But we also should turn this into an opportunity to think about what kind of recovery we want. The Great Recession was fueled by decades of over-extended credit and consumer excess. Let’s not make the same mistakes. We have a chance to think about and create better ways to work and live.

***

Barring important news developments, I’ll be devoting the remainder of my posts this year to pieces envisioning a healthier society.

Keys to happiness at work?

In 2009, Australian psychologist Timothy Sharp conducted an informal survey that asked a simple question, What do you consider to be the top three keys to happiness at work? The responses he received “were remarkably consistent.”

His study led to a short piece for Greater Good magazine, in which he shares “five key steps to workplace happiness” (link here):

“One: Provide leadership and values”

“Two: Communicate clearly and effectively”

“Three: Give thanks”

“Four: Focus on strengths”

“Five: Have fun”

Is that all there is to it?

This list is a good start — and the full article supplies more of the deeper meaning for each item — but I think there’s more. Sharp casts his lot with the school of positive psychology. In fact, according to the article he is known in Australia as “Dr. Happy.” As such, I think his general orientation may gloss over the darker sides of work and how organizations handle issues that implicate fairness, inclusion, and ethics.

Organizational justice is a term used to capture employee perceptions of fair treatment. A difficult situation at work can be a test of organizational justice. Workers who believe their employer acts with fairness and integrity are more likely to be satisfied and loyal and to feel safe, and those who do not are prone to think the opposite.

Signs of growing worker discontent

In any event, employers are advised to take worker happiness and satisfaction seriously, for it appears that pent up worker frustrations are emerging. Tim Gould, in a piece for HR Morning (link here), reports that “(m)ore than eight in 10 (84%) of the employees polled said they plan to look for a new job in 2011, according to staffing consultant Right Management.” The reasons include:

  • the prolonged recession and layoffs
  • increased workloads, small or no raises
  • companies’ reticence to add staff, even as business conditions have improved, and
  • a lack of trust in company leaders.
***
Hat tip to the American Psychological Association’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program for the HR Morning article.

 

Website of the Week: Richard Bolles and “Parachute”

Richard Bolles and What Color Is Your Parachute? have been around so long that it’s easy to take them for granted.  But make no mistake: With every new edition, Bolles faithfully and thoroughly updates and revises this informative and humane guide for job hunters and career changers.

Bolles also maintains an excellent website (link here). Even for those who do not own a copy of the book, it is a valuable stand alone portal to articles and links on the job search, networking, resume preparation, career counseling, and researching employers. For those in search of more personalized counseling, it also provides information about the 5-day workshops that Bolles hosts in his home.

Bolles goes beyond the world of job hunting in his blog, Dick Bolles’ Enchanted World (link here). It’s further evidence that he is not just another do-it-by-the-numbers career counselor. He understands the relationships between work, life, and the society we live in, and he’s not afraid to make his opinions known.

%d bloggers like this: