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!

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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.

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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?

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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.

Spring break

Okay, so it's not quite like this yet (Jamaica Plain, Boston; photo by DY)

Okay, so it’s not quite like this here yet (my ‘hood, Jamaica Plain, Boston; photo by DY)

This week I am solemnly observing that annual academic ritual known as spring break. Okay, so it’s not yet spring, and the weather is hardly like the early June photo I’ve pasted into this post. But I’m not complaining in the least. This has been a welcomed opportunity to play what we sports fans like to call catch-up ball.

For an academician, much of that game is played on the keyboard. I spent the weekend giving feedback on student paper descriptions and drafts, a process that looked fairly quick from a distance but then took up more time than anticipated once I started getting my head into the topics they’re writing about. Now I’m attending to revisions/edits of two law review articles, some back and forth with contributing authors for a book project I’m co-editing, and various stages of work on non-profit and advocacy initiatives. Those activities, plus a cluster of phone conferences and planning for speaking appearances later this spring will eat up much of the week.

This semester has been unexpectedly demanding because of some internal committee responsibilities that have eaten up gobs of time. I’m on my law school’s faculty executive committee, which is a fancy name for a small group of faculty who give feedback to the dean and bring topics to the full faculty for discussion and deliberation. This is at once an opportunity and a burden, the latter due to the proclivity of academic institutions and their denizens to belabor points to excess. In this case, the matters at hand could not be ignored or put off, and they became somewhat consuming.

So perhaps “spring break” is something of a misnomer. But all is not lost in terms of pure fun. Yesterday evening I went to my weekly singing class and did a decent rendition of “Bali Hai,” an iconic song from the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific.” This evening I’m joining some of my voice class friends for an open mic/cabaret night. As I’ve written on my personal blog, singing has become a favorite activity and a therapeutic outlet for me. This hobby is an especially blessed one given that the subject matter of my research, writing, and public education work often focuses on the dark sides of our workplaces. It’s nice to get away and to sing a few bars about something totally unrelated, in the company of good friends.

What’s your hobby?

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Hobby: an activity or interest pursued for pleasure or relaxation and not as a main occupation: Her hobbies include stamp-collecting and woodcarving. (Dictionary.com)

So what’s your hobby?

In a blog mostly about work and workplaces, perhaps this question seems misplaced. But especially if work is demanding, stressful, or difficult, a hobby can be a healthy lifeline. Even if you’re fortunate to be in a great job, a hobby can add a richly rewarding activity to your life.

And what better day and time to talk about hobbies than on a Saturday morning?

The best part about a hobby is that it’s all about your own interests and passions. There’s nothing obligatory about it, you can start or stop at any time, and you can define it on your own terms.

At times, money and resources may come into play. If you want to learn how to play an instrument, for example, you’ll probably need some start-up cash. But there are plenty of other hobbies that don’t require a large initial outlay.

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When I was growing up, I was a collector. Stamps, coins, baseball cards, you name it. (Yes, the seeds of my, shall we say, archival mentality are planted deep.) As you can see from the photo at the top, I remain on the lookout for interesting postal souvenirs.

Today, I’m an avid reader, a sports fan, and a devotee of bad weather. But my main hobby is singing. For many years, I’ve taken a weekly singing workshop at a local adult education center, and more recently I’ve joined friends from that class for open mic cabaret nights, where we perform our favorite numbers in front of small groups of fellow music lovers. I’m a big fan of the Great American Songbook — the stuff of the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Sinatra, and Rodgers & Hammerstein. Musically speaking, at least, I was born 50 years too late!

By endorsing hobbies as a meaningful pastime, I’m not suggesting that they are must-have activities in one’s life. A hobby, by its very essence, is not a required course! Rather, it’s something we embrace for the enjoyment it provides us.

What if you don’t have a hobby and would like to develop one? Asking yourself what interests you is the best place to start. If you need some ideas, you could look at lists of hobbies, such as this one compiled on Wikipedia. Give it some thought, and enjoy.

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.

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