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

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This headline from the Yahoo! News page is an enticing one to many: “How to Afford to Quit Your Job.” Kimberly Palmer, writing for U.S. News & World Report, introduces us to a former NPR program host, Tess Vigeland, who one day realized that it was time to say goodbye:

When Tess Vigeland, the former host of public radio’s “Marketplace,” came home from work and cried in her backyard for three hours, she knew it was time to leave her job. “I decided I couldn’t take it anymore and I felt like I deserved better,” says Vigeland, who turned in her notice the following week.

Vigeland now has a book, Leap: Leaving a Job with No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really Want (2015), in which she is encouraging other folks to follow her path. In her interview for Palmer’s article, Vigeland recommended, among other things, assessing one’s financial situation, including alternate income sources, savings, freelance work, and “a partner’s salary”:

“I did some back-of-the-napkin calculations with my husband and we figured his salary could pay the mortgage with me not working at all,” she says. In addition, she planned to take on freelance work so her income would not go to zero. “I also knew I had a large retirement account that I could tap into if I had to, and home equity,” she adds.

Midlife “quit lit” and “encore” careers

Okay, here’s one of the issues I have with so much of the midlife “quit lit,” i.e., the quit-your-job-and-live-your-dream-type books and articles based at least in part on an author’s personal experience. I’ve looked at a lot of these writings, and almost invariably the Dream Chasers have financial resources from a supportive spouse, partner, or family and/or have a good chunk of savings that can be tapped to ease a likely income drop, at least temporarily.

More than a few have strong networking connections as well, including some in pretty high places.

I don’t begrudge people who have those options — I’ve encouraged some friends to consider that very avenue — but in reality many folks, because of limited incomes and savings, kids and other dependents, single status, etc., find the hopes inflated by this type of book/article title quickly deflated when they realize that the author had a cushion of financial support and cash.

I find similar dynamics when it comes to “encore” careers, a term used to describe experienced professionals who decide to step off of a demanding, if highly paid, treadmill to pursue work that is more soul satisfying and contributing to the community. There’s even a popular website and book devoted to encore careers.

Yes, encore careers can be great for those who have the financial resources to sustain them. However, most people in their 40s and 50s, especially, happen to be in their potentially strongest earning years. The pursuit of Something Very Different in the heart of midlife typically should not be done on a whim.

I’m not saying Don’t do it. Rather, I’m urging that the strong emotions driving such considerations be complemented by dispassionate assessment and planning.

More realistic options: Avocations, hobbies, and Millennial-style startups

Some loyal readers may feel like they’re hearing a mixed message from me. After all, for those in toxic work environments, I’ve suggested that an exit strategy may be the most viable option when health and psyche are deteriorating. And I’ve also recommended sites like Encore.org for those seeking to make significant career transitions. Furthermore, there are people who, against more “rational” assessments, took that risky leap without a parachute and landed on their feet. Some have enjoyed remarkable success in their transitions.

That said, there may be less risky alternatives to exploring and making major career/work changes. A few considerations:

First, do you have an avocation that has income-producing potential? An avocation is typically a labor of love, so you know the passion is there. A next question to ask is whether you can grow it into a steady income stream.

Second, how about taking something you really want to do and starting it as a part-time micro-business? Chris Guillebeau’s The $100 Startup has a Millennial generation audience in mind, but it contains inspiration, insight, and information for anyone considering a lower-risk road to entrepreneurship.

Third, do you need additional training or schooling? Formal degree and certification programs tend to be expensive, but low cost or free adult and independent learning opportunities abound. You might, for example, go to a local SCORE workshop on starting a business, or take an online course or two through educational content providers such as Coursera, Udemy, and EdX.

Fourth, might it help to work with a really good career or life coach to help you plot your way through all this? A wise voice who asks the right questions and helps you to make and stick to plans and identify priorities can be very helpful. 

Finally, if your potential plans include going out as a freelancer, you might want to take a look at Sara Horowitz’s The Freelancer’s Bible for some of the business details you’ll need to address.

The term go for it has a lot of emotional power, especially if you’re in a less-than-wonderful work situation and considering alternatives that sound freeing and exciting. Pursuing your passions is good, life-affirming stuff. But it’s often helpful if you do so with research, planning, and assessment to help prime a path to success.

Does a sense of purpose contribute to a longer life?

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(image courtesy of clipartpanda.com)

In a piece for the Huffington Post, Shelley Emling summons research suggesting that living with a sense of purpose and direction can extend our stays in this life as well:

What’s the key to long life? Is it clean living? Lots of exercise? An abundance of vegetables? Actually, the key to long life may be something a bit more intangible: a sense of purpose.

Researchers studying longevity say those who feel a sense of purpose and direction in life may indeed live longer, no matter what their age.

She quotes Patrick Hill of Carleton University (Canada), lead researcher in a study suggesting that a strong sense of life purpose may have “protective effects”:

“Our findings point to the fact that finding a direction for life, and setting overarching goals for what you want to achieve, can help you actually live longer, regardless of when you find your purpose. . . . So the earlier someone comes to a direction for life, the earlier these protective effects may be able to occur.”

Many potential sources

Although this blog is mainly about work and workers, let’s acknowledge right away that we can create or discover a sense of purpose in a variety of ways, including employment, an avocation, a hobby, or volunteer and philanthropic work. It can come out of devotion to others, such as parenting, caregiving, or helping animals. It may be inspired by a broader cause or a personal objective. Faith and spirituality may enter the picture as well.

It seems intuitive, doesn’t it? In fact, the capacity to develop our life purpose is one of the major distinguishing characteristics between humans and other living beings. Surely there are days when the life of a beloved dog or cat — basically hanging out, eating good food, playing when you feel like it, and getting lots of TLC — looks pretty good! But for we human folk, having a strong, motivating sense of purpose and direction is among the blessings that makes life worthwhile.

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

 

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When Dr. Shelley Lane was experiencing severe bullying at the community college where she worked and recovering from foot surgery that limited her mobility, she retrieved the personal journals she wrote during a formative year spent studying abroad as a young undergraduate and turned them into a book project. In the Preface to her eventually published A Stirling Diary: An Intercultural Story of Communication, Connection, and Coming-Of-Age (2010), she writes:

Soon thereafter fate provided me with two reasons why I should read them again: a new president at the community college where I worked who made Attila the Hun appear weak and timid, and foot surgery that had me in crutches for four months. I finally returned to the journals to keep my mind away from the workplace bully and to forget that I wasn’t easily mobile.

Some 20 years after her sojourn abroad, she found in those journals “entries written by a young woman who was in the midst of a personal transformation.” Thus would emerge A Stirling Diary, a reflective travelogue that concludes with her return to the U.S. and her departure for graduate school.

Immersive alternatives

For some, delving into a positive, engaging, and immersive activity may serve as a healthy alternative to ruminating over a terrible work situation. This may be in the form of a hobby, a personal project, an avocation, volunteer work, or creating a side business. Shelley Lane did just that as she stepped back in time with her study abroad journals in the midst of her experience with workplace bullying.

Therapy or counseling, and mindfulness activities such as yoga or meditation, may be helpful for coping with bullying at work. In addition, consider the possibility of a meaningful, life-affirming endeavor in which you can lose yourself in a good way.

I emphasize words such as meaningful and immersive. I am well aware that this is not as simple as picking out a hobby or pastime from some random list. (In this context, “Why don’t you try collecting coins?” is about as helpful as “You need to get over it.”) Rather, it’s about connecting to a positive activity decoupled from work. It will not address the bullying itself, but it may well provide a safe and enjoyable space away from it.

Back to our story

For Dr. Lane, the story continues toward a good ending. She would leave her position at the community college and land on her feet, obtaining an appointment as an associate dean and professor at the University of Texas-Dallas, her current employer.

I discovered Shelley’s book because I was searching around for study abroad memoirs. As a collegian, I was fortunate to experience a life-changing semester overseas, so much that the academic geek in me periodically keeps up with the study abroad literature. I certainly wasn’t looking for any references to workplace bullying when I ordered her book! After spying Shelley’s reference to her work experience, however, I contacted her and found that she had done quite a bit of research on workplace bullying and had written a short piece reflecting upon her experiences. Here’s part of what she shared with me in an e-mail (reprinted with her permission):

By the way, I was working on a second writing project while putting together A Stirling Diary. I knew that the only way I could be hired at a university was to have a publication. At this point, I had quite a few articles published, but a book was my ticket out of [the community college]. So on some days I worked on my memoir and on other days I worked on my interpersonal communication textbook. I recall being “in the zone” as I worked on these projects, which was crucial to my mental health. Any time my mind was not engrossed in project or activity, I’d think of Cary [ed. note: Her tormenter] and how I was treated unfairly. Logically, I knew that the cortisol streaming through my system was harmful, but emotionally I couldn’t stop myself from becoming furious whenever I thought of Cary. The books most definitely helped me cope, and the textbook helped me land the job at UT Dallas.

In Shelley’s case, not only did she immerse herself in a project that took her back to a very meaningful time in her life, but also she worked on a second book project that helped to open the door to future opportunities.

Equally important, the warm and spirited tone of our e-mail exchange tells me that Shelley has bounced back, replete with a good job at a better institution, and with life, mind, and soul in a better place. For those who have experienced severe bullying at work, this type of recovery and renewal is the gold standard.

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Related posts

Workplace bullying and mobbing in academe: The hell of heaven? (rev. 2014)

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

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Neglected blog posts seeking more love

At times I will toil away at a blog post that I really think has something to say, only to find that it’s a dud with my readers. The WordPress platform that I use for this blog enables me to check how many “hits” a given article has attracted, and I can see which ones aren’t exactly lighting up the Internet. (In truth, a niche blog like this one rarely “lights up” the online world, but I’m cool with that.)

Anyway, as I close in on 1,000 posts for this blog, here are 10 articles that I believe fall within the “good-but-neglected” category:

Our avocations and hobbies: The third pillar of work-life balance? (2012) — On the importance of finding non-work activities that engage us.

I wish our political leaders would send us to the moon (2012) — A call for public leaders to inspire us, linking two nifty videos of JFK.

Professional schools as incubators for workplace bullying (2012) — Consider the seeds planted by law schools and med schools.

Loyalty, “betrayal,” and workplace bullying: Does insider status matter? (2011) — As a denizen of Boston, loyalty and betrayal are key concepts to me!

Dignity amidst horrific indignity: A job shoveling s**t in the Łódź Ghetto (2011) — A WWII story that helps to illustrate how almost any job has inherent dignity.

What’s the plot line of your life story? (2011) — Is it about overcoming the monster, comedy, rebirth, or something else???

What if we paid less attention to advertising? (2010) — Instead of “them” telling us what to buy…

The moral obscenity of a “jobless recovery” (2010) — Read this and compare to where we are three years later.

On hiring consultants (2010) — I would underscore what I wrote here.

Work and the middle-aged brain (2010) — Some things we do not as well, some things actually better.

Slow blogging and slow media

Blogging first became popular roughly a decade ago as a way to share instantaneous news and commentary on breaking stories. It continues to serve that useful journalistic purpose, but it also has evolved into a medium for synthesizing information and for reflective commentary, analysis, and opinion. I believe that this latter mode describes how some readers use blogs in connection with their work, hobbies, and avocations. Blogging in this manner encourages more contemplative writing that will be relevant well beyond its initial posting date.

To characterize this use of the blogging format, I’d like to invoke two terms, slow blogging and slow media, that capture how we can use social media to temper the pace of our tech-fueled, hurry-up society.

Slow blogging

The philosophy and practice of slow blogging has been beautifully articulated in the Slow Blogging Manifesto by Todd Sieling. Here are a few snippets:

Slow Blogging is a rejection of immediacy. It is an affirmation that not all things worth reading are written quickly, and that many thoughts are best served after being fully baked and worded in an even temperament.

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Slow Blogging is a reversal of the disintegration into the one-liners and cutting turns of phrase that are often the early lives of our best ideas.

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Slow Blogging is a willingness to remain silent amid the daily outrages and ecstasies that fill nothing more than single moments in time, switching between banality, crushing heartbreak and end-of-the-world psychotic glee in the mere space between headlines.

Slow media

Slow blogging relates strongly to the concept of slow media that is circulating around the wired world. In the “Slow Media Manifesto,” co-authors Benedikt Köhler, Sabria David, and Jörg Blumtritt describe their philosophy this way:

The first decade of the 21st century, the so-called ‘naughties’, has brought profound changes to the technological foundations of the media landscape. The key buzzwords are networks, the Internet and social media. In the second decade, people will not search for new technologies allowing for even easier, faster and low-priced content production. Rather, appropriate reactions to this media revolution are to be developed and integrated politically, culturally and socially. The concept “Slow”, as in “Slow Food” and not as in “Slow Down”, is a key for this. Like “Slow Food”, Slow Media are not about fast consumption but about choosing the ingredients mindfully and preparing them in a concentrated manner. Slow Media are welcoming and hospitable. They like to share.

In other words, slow media emphasizes sustainability, quality, dialogue, and respect for its users. There’s a personal connection as well:

Slow Media ask for confidence and take their time to be credible. Behind Slow Media are real people. And you can feel that.

The heart quality of slow blogging

Informed by these thoughtful words, for me the concept of slow blogging means writing thoughtfully, reflectively, and connectively. It doesn’t dodge tough topics or avoid stating a strong opinion, but it attempts to steer clear of knee-jerk reactions and snarky provocation. It means writing posts that are relevant and interesting beyond the present. And it means interacting with your readers when time and opportunity permit. (This can be a challenge when work is piling up!) Although I sometimes fall short of following these precepts and practices, I regard them as worthy aspirations.

Blogging can be a modest, yet meaningful way of sharing information, ideas, and opinions for the longer term. If you’re a blogger, or if you’re thinking of starting a blog, then I hope this has inspired you to consider the deeper purposes of your writing in this form.

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Hat tip to writer and editor Jane Friedman, whose post introduced me to the slow media concept.

Therapeutic obsessions: Replaying the National Pastime on a table top

Vintage edition of the APBA baseball game (From apbagames.com)

Vintage edition of the APBA baseball game (From apbagames.com)

Kenneth Heard is an Arkansas newspaper reporter with a fierce devotion to a baseball board game, APBA (pronounced “app-bah”), that uses dice, charts, and individual player cards to recreate the National Pastime on a tabletop. Furthermore, he writes about the experience via a unique blog, “Love, Life and APBA Baseball.”

Tabletop sports games are the forerunners of today’s fantasy and computer sports simulation games. Among a diehard subset of mostly Boomer-age sports fans, they remain quite popular. APBA (company website) and its perennial competitor, Strat-O-Matic (company website), are two of the longest surviving holdovers. During the heyday of these games, high school kids, college students, and grown men would play them obsessively, staging dream match-ups between all-time great teams and even replaying entire seasons in hopes that their favorite team might fare better than it did in real life.

His anchor at sea

Heard is a diehard APBA baseball player. He replays entire past baseball seasons and chronicles his progress on his blog. He’s currently replaying the 1942 season. Recently he completed a replay of the 1981 season, which in real life was interrupted by a players’ strike. You can read his concluding post on it here:

It was a long season; 16 months of rolling games, recording scores and some stats and watching what happened.

It was a good season. When I embarked upon this, I wanted to see what would have happened if the baseball strike didn’t occur. . . .

. . . When the regular season ended, Detroit and Baltimore were tied for the American League East, each posting 97-65 records. The Tigers beat Baltimore in a one-game playoff, but were defeated by Kansas City, 3 game to 1, in the American League Championship Series.

In the National League, Los Angeles, which won the West Division by 9 games over Houston, swept Montreal in the three-game National League Championship Series.

The Royals took the first game of the World Series, 1-0, over the Dodgers on Amos Otis’ RBI double in the seventh inning. L.A. took the next two games, 9-0 and 6-2. Willie Aikens drove in the go-ahead run in Game 4 for the Royals in the ninth, and Kansas City tied the Series at two games apiece.

And that was it for the Royals. Dusty Baker hit two home runs for the Dodgers in Game 5 for the win and Rick Monday added two homers of his own in Game 6. McRae popped out and the season was over.

The APBA baseball game is Heard’s anchor at sea, “the one constant in my life,” as he explains in a July 14 blog post that also gives you an important bit of his life’s story:

I spent today watching the clock, marking all that happened on July 14 seven years ago when my life changed drastically.

At 4:30 a.m., in 2006, I told my wife I’d take her to the doctor later that day because she wasn’t feeling well. I told her I loved her and said things would be okay. At 6:30 a.m., I found her unresponsive on the floor in our bedroom. At 9:30 a.m., a doctor ushered me into a private room at the emergency room of the hospital an ambulance rushed her to. He looked at me somberly and said they tried all they could do, but she was gone. It was something he probably said often in rote fashion to families, but to me it was the most impacting thing I’ve ever heard.

. . . Here’s where the APBA comes in, and gives this blog part of its title. Some have told me they were impressed with the number of baseball games I replay each day. I average four to six a day at times. I’m a third of the way through the 1942 baseball season now, after three months of playing.

I love the game, but the frequency of games picked up after I lost my wife. I work, come home, fix something to eat, watch some television and then roll a few games. I don’t sleep much, so I can play late into the night.

As I’ve said a few times here before, the game is the one constant in my life. Things change, but the game remains the same. Different seasons, but the world that I create by tossing the dice and logging the wins of each game remains the same and gives me a safe, serene world that I can control and understand. I’ve been playing some form of the APBA game since 1977.

Shared obsession

Heard may be at the extreme end of his devotion, but he’s not alone. At the online Table Top Sports forum, sports game hobbyists engage in informed, sometimes impassioned exchanges about playing and analyzing these games, while sharing humorous stories about how spouses, other family members, and friends regard their hobby. Both the APBA and Strat-O-Matic game companies are found of touting the names of famous athletes and public figures who have played their games as youth and adults.

Several years ago, the New York Public Library published a book detailing how Jack Kerouac invented his own tabletop baseball game, created fictitious teams and players, and kept detailed notebooks of each season. You can learn more about it, including photographs of his homebrewed game, here.

And speaking of the literary end, novelist Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968), is the tale of a man who invents his own cards & dice baseball game and becomes lost in the life of his fictitious baseball league. It’s considered a minor classic and one of the best books about the dramatic pull of baseball.

Universal Baseball Association

(One of my prized book purchases from The Strand bookstore in Manhattan is an autographed copy of Coover’s book, a discovery in the half-priced paperback bin many years ago.)

Work diversions (and beyond)

There’s not much about work in this post, is there? I guess that’s my point. Hobbies are good for us; they make for healthy diversions that are engaging, immersive, and fun.

Some of you might think that Kenneth Heard’s devotion to playing APBA baseball is over the top, but it works for him and makes for a fulfilling hobby. To the extent the game serves as his salve for some of life’s ups and downs, it’s better than falling for more self-destructive behaviors that we could easily list out.

Moreover, these games harken back to the idea of hobbies that don’t require thousands of dollars to sustain. For example, with APBA baseball and similar games, you can obtain the basic game parts and several past seasons for under $100, especially if you tap into eBay and other sites. To play APBA, all you need is an interest in baseball, an ability to learn the game engine, and — most importantly — an imagination to see it all unfold in your mind’s eye.

On this blog, I’ve written a lot of doom-and-gloom things about the economic times to come. I’ll stick to those forecasts; I think we’re facing a rough go of it. One of our salvations, however, may be the rediscovery of hobbies and activities that bring us great enjoyment without draining already tight bank accounts.

Me, too

As you’ve probably guessed, I’ve played these tabletop sports games too, especially during my “tween” years through college. I still collect the games, occasionally play them, and hope for more time to do so someday.

In the meantime, on my iPad is the tablet version of Out of the Park Baseball, a computer sports simulation game, and it’s great for airport waits and plane flights. I’m replaying the Chicago Cubs 1969 season, a year that brings painful memories for longtime Cubbies fans everywhere. Unfortunately, the digital Cubs are faring much worse under my stewardship than the real team did back in the day.

As they say, wait ’til next year.

The great, geeky tour guides of Gettysburg

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How hard would you be willing to study and prepare for a test that may lead to a modestly-paying job leading groups of tourists around a 150-year-old battlefield? If you want to be a licensed battlefield tour guide at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg, you’ll have to study and prepare like never before. And it may take years, if ever, to finally succeed.

The Battle

During the past two decades, America’s Civil War has enjoyed a rush of increased public interest, fueled by the award-winning PBS Civil War documentary mini-series by Ken Burns that first aired in 1990. And no battle attracts such fascination as Gettysburg, which has achieved a somewhat mythical presence in national history.

This week marks the 150th anniversary of that pivotal battle. In July 1863, Union and Confederate forces met at this tiny Pennsylvania town and fought a three-day ordeal that resulted in a critical defeat for the invading Rebel forces. Later that year, President Lincoln would travel to Gettysburg to deliver his brief historic address.

The summer issue of Civil War Monitor magazine is devoted to the battle, and it includes a wonderful feature story by Jenny Johnston on the long, arduous path to becoming a licensed battlefield guide at Gettysburg. (The magazine’s articles are paywalled, but if you’re a Civil War buff, it’s worth hiking over to a well-stocked periodical stand or paying for a $9.95 for one-year digital subscription to get access to this issue.)

The Test

Those who have taken multiple National Park Service tours will likely agree with me that these guides know their stuff and share it well with the public. This isn’t about passing a quick quiz, inventing a few tall tales, and demonstrating that you can talk and chew gum at the same time. Park Service guides are steeped in, and devoted to, the history of their locations.

Becoming a guide at Gettysburg is one of the most coveted achievements of all. Furthermore, as Johnston tells us, very few succeed in passing the two parts of an extraordinarily difficult test.

Part 1 is a 250-question written test, running some 30 pages long. Amateurs are “eaten alive” by the depth of this examination. The “diehards,” however, bring a “knowledge of the battle [that] is beyond encyclopedic.” The problem is, there are a lot of diehards. To score among the top 20 of who will be eligible to move on to Part 2 (out of 150 or so test takers) there is very little room for error: When the test was given in 2010, scorer no. 1 answered 97.96 percent of the questions correctly, while scorer no. 19 answered 96.73 percent correctly.

The finalists move on to Part 2, an oral examination. As Johnston explains, “candidates get two chances to create and deliver a two-hour battlefield tour geared toward the average visitor.” Here, a candidate’s mastery of detail may be his (almost all are men) undoing, because he will be evaluated in part on his ability to educate someone who knows very little about the battle, and too much detail may overwhelm. This is among the reasons why roughly half of the finalists fail both attempts at Part 2.

The Passion 

Johnston writes that many candidates spend years, even decades, in their attempt to become a licensed tour guide at Gettysburg. I love her profiles of those who are devoting such time and effort to succeed, starting with a 54-year-old man who quits his job and moves to Gettysburg so he can immerse himself in everything to do with the battle! Others take prep classes, form study groups, and spend most of their free hours absorbing the voluminous literature about this single battle.

So you may be thinking, gawd, what a bunch of geeks. As I see it, though, we should all be so lucky to have a passion for a subject that fascinates in a way that we can lose ourselves in it. Whether it’s a job, an avocation, or a hobby, isn’t life itself made more meaningful when we can immerse ourselves in something so engaging?

I confess, I’m biased. Six summers ago I joined a group of friends for a Civil War battlefield vacation. We visited Gettysburg, of course, but also Manassas (Virginia), Antietam (Maryland), and several other famous battlefields. Even with the summer heat beating down upon us, it was a memorable trip. Indeed, I understand why this era of history has such a pull. (Yup, it’s very much a guy thing. We’d chuckle at the middle-aged women with very bored looks, traipsing behind their husbands who were eagerly devouring stories told by the tour guides!)

More importantly, however, I wish for everyone something that provides such fascination and pleasure. If the details of an 1863 Civil War battle aren’t your cuppa tea, then I hope you’ll find something else that enriches your life in this way.

What is a “Ulyssean adult,” and how can you become one?

What kind of life do you want to live? And as age creeps up on you, how do you want to spend the rest of your life?

I recently discovered an intriguing book about adult development, The Ulyssean Adult: Creativity in the Middle & Later Years (1976), by the late John A.B. McLeish, a Canadian education professor. Unfortunately it’s out of print, but if you’re interested in this topic, it’s worth hunting down a copy.

Based on The Ulyssean Adult, McLeish was not a warm and fuzzy self-help writer. His observations can be sharp-edged and judgmental, as he was not one to pull punches. Take, for example, how he gets to the core concept of his book:

Three common types of adults

McLeish wrote that we tend to encounter older adults who fall into one of three categories:

Quiet desperation

First is the “older adult to whom life always seems to have happened, rather than [they] happening to it.” Though typically decent persons, their lives have been a series of negatives, as in “don’t rock the boat, don’t step outside the limit, don’t get involved, don’t explore yourself too much, don’t disturb your years with dreams because someday from unfulfilled dreams may come ‘disgust and despair.'” Such individuals, McLeish noted, often “live lives of what Thoreau called ‘quiet desperation.'”

What might have been

The second kind of adult “at least seems to have gone through some attempts at identification of self,” but “there is an air of pathos and defeat” to this individual. Often this person laments the person they “might have been” and sees no chance of becoming anything greater.

Days of yore

The third type of adult “has been consummately successful in his or her chosen field,” but now has “opted out of the ‘creativity game.'” They live, at best, with a sense of “cheerful resignation and passivity,” and, at worst, with a sense of “despair and frustration” over no longer living an engaged and creative life.

…and then there’s the “Ulyssean adult”

Thankfully, there’s another kind of individual, those who have retained or regained the light of creativity, embracing “the surging joy of human powers confidently held and used.” McLeish called this individual the “Ulyssean adult”:

The title comes, of course, from Ulysses, the adventurer and hero of the early Greek classical world who would have been about 50 when the great series of adventures described in The Odyssey was coming to an end, and perhaps close to 70 when he began his last adventures.

Harsh

Hmm, McLeish pities the people who fall into the first three categories, without taking into account their life circumstances. Maybe someone made a misstep or experienced a mishap. Perhaps some of these lost dreams are due to personal sacrifice, such as caring for a sick child or a family member in need.

Personal responsibility and initiative are good things, but so are empathy and understanding. I think that McLeish was quick to judge.

Keys to becoming a Ulyssean adult

That said, I do like his concept of the Ulyssean adult. In a later book, The Challenge of Aging (1983), McLeish identified five factors that nurture the development of a Ulyssean adult:

  1. Learning, insight and creativity;
  2. Exploration of the self;
  3. Growth and development in the later years;
  4. Meeting change pro-actively; and,
  5. A zest for living.

I’d say that’s a pretty good list.

Easier said than done

Especially if life has dealt you some frustrations, blows, and setbacks, this may seem like an elusive ideal. As the saying goes, Life sucks and then you die, right?

However, what other choices do we have? For the vast majority of people, lives of growth, exploration, and zestfulness aren’t simply handed to us. We can either pursue such lives or opt out.

Millennials, this is for you, too

Of course, those most likely to benefit immediately from these insights are those in their 40s or older.

But Millennials, take note. This stuff isn’t just for those of a preceding generation (or two or three). If you want to absorb the wisdom of those ahead of you, grab these opportunities to learn from others. As late Boomer, I am deeply appreciative of the lessons shared by folks a generation ahead of me. There’s no reason why you cannot do the same.

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Related posts

The lessons of nostalgia (2011)

What’s your legacy work? (2011)

Does life begin at 46? (2010)

Will our avocations save us? (2010)

Hat tip…

…to Ronald Gross, The Independent Scholar’s Handbook (1981, 1993 eds.), for pointing me to McLeish’s book. I’ll have more say about this remarkable book in a later post, but suffice it to say that it’s a classic that keeps on giving. Ron is a defining pioneer in the field of lifelong learning, and his work continues to inform and inspire me.

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Note: This post was edited in September 2018.

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

All too often, we think of work-life balance as (1) work and (2) everything else. That “everything else” includes family and friends, perhaps some socializing or watching television, and attending to necessary chores. (I hasten to add that for many stay-at-home parents, work and everything else may be one in the same!)

Let me add a third pillar to our model, that of avocations and hobbies, which can be sources of considerable satisfaction, especially when work and home bring more stress than balance.

Avocations

Two summers ago, I wrote in praise of avocations:

I am beginning to believe that our avocations will save us, personally in terms of enriching our lives, and publicly in terms of contributing to the greater community.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines an avocation as “a subordinate occupation pursued in addition to one’s vocation especially for enjoyment.”  That’s a good start, but I want to add a few other qualities that separate avocation from a pure hobby, such as a sense of accomplishment and contribution to the broader community.

Hobbies, too

Let me add similar sentiments for a good hobby, which the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines as “a pursuit outside one’s regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation.”

A hobby may not result in a tangible something along the lines of many avocations (books, music, art, etc.), and it typically does not break even in terms of monies spent. Nevertheless, it can be a tremendous source of personal satisfaction and a way to build community.

What Google tells us

If my Google searches are any indication (using “work-life balance,” “hobby,” and “avocation”), we link hobbies with the concept of work-life balance much more than we do avocations.

The commentary on work-life balance regards hobbies as healthy release valves for the stressors of work and life. I agree; they allow us to lose ourselves in an enjoyable pastime.

Release valve vs. flow

University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life (1997) (pp. 28-29), urges us to seek states of flow in our lives, those experiences when “heart, will, and mind are on the same page.”  In these moments, “what we feel, what we wish, and what we think are in harmony.”

This is where many avocations enter the picture. They allow people to pursue a meaningful activity resulting in that elusive state of flow — one that may elude them in their working lives. Avocations typically are more than release valves from life’s pressures; rather, they offer our lives a different dimension.

On this blog, I know that I talk a lot about improving work and creating better workplaces. But the reality is that for many, work remains an means to an end, rather than an end in itself. For those who harbor unrealized passions, the avocational route may provide deep satisfaction.

Why this stuff is important

I believe these third places in our lives are going to become ever more significant. They will provide us with outlets for pent-up creativity, some of which we can share with others. They will allow to do, collect, sort, feature, and make things that bring us satisfaction.  In sum, they will help to give our lives meaning.

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Related posts

How’s this for an epitaph? “She lived a balance life” (2011)

Will our avocations save us? (2010)

When “heart, will, and mind are on the same page” (2010)

Embracing creative dreams at midlife (2010)

Will our avocations save us?

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Maybe you’ve got a novel in you? (image courtesy Clipart Panda)

I am beginning to believe that our avocations can save us, personally in terms of enriching our lives, and publicly in terms of contributing to the greater community.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines an avocation as “a subordinate occupation pursued in addition to one’s vocation especially for enjoyment.” That’s a good start, but I want to add a few other qualities that separate avocation from a pure hobby, such as a sense of accomplishment and contribution to the broader community.

For example…

In 2008 I wrote about professional storm chasers who lead groups of weather enthusiasts around America’s heartland in search of tornadoes and other severe storms. Tour guests are the beneficiaries of this shared expertise, exploring places and experiencing vistas that would be hard to discover on their own.

Recently I wrote about two long-time friends who have nurtured their creative passions for writing and music. Their work not only provides personal artistic rewards, but also enriches those who are enjoying the fruits of their labors.

For many years I have taken a weekly singing class at a local adult education center. The instructor is a Juilliard-trained vocalist who created the class for adult students who wanted to learn how to sing better, regardless of previous music experience. Her “day job” is working in a university library.

Civic activism is a very satisfying way to contribute to the well being of our communities.  The causes fueling that activism are often grounded in personal experience. For example, many of the folks who are advocating for legal protections against workplace bullying found this cause after personally dealing with abusive treatment on the job.

More than a hobby…

Hobbies are great. They allow us to engage in an enjoyable pastime that captures our attention.

But avocations can be even better. Like hobbies, they are satisfying and engaging, but often they also provide a deeper sense of accomplishment and contribution.

After all, there’s a difference between writing poetry solely for one’s personal journals and, say, sharing that work by publishing it and participating in readings. The latter gives us a chance to interact with others and enrich the culture of our communities.

Compared to work…

In the best of worlds, our jobs would provide us with the best qualities of our avocations, topped off with a livable income. Indeed, one of the goals of this blog is to explore how we can create better work and workplaces that move us closer toward that ideal.

But transforming the experience of work is a long, hard slog. For many, work is largely a means to an end. Especially in the midst of this recession, higher aspirations for work may have to go on the shelf, at least temporarily.

Likewise, the work of raising a family or caring for loved ones is demanding and sometimes thankless in the short term, even if the underlying devotions are the stuff of strong bonds a long-term meaning. In the meantime, many other forms of personal expression may be sacrificed to the demands of caregiving.

Avocations, however, free us from some of those inherent limitations and obligations. They can be remarkably liberating, a chance to pursue dreams and passions even within the inevitable confines of everyday life.

Let’s stoke this idea…

So why don’t avocations get more attention in our society? Why aren’t we thinking more creatively about that third place between work and leisure?

No answers here. For example, I went to the Amazon website and did a search for “avocation.” I was surprised by how the topic has been so neglected by observers of the human condition.

Nevertheless, we don’t need scholarly studies to teach us how avocations can make a difference in our lives and those of others. In seeking to discover and create meaning in our lives, we can take it upon ourselves to put the idea of avocation high on our lists.

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