May the spirit of papau inspire us

Let’s start the week with something good: Papau. It’s a great Hawaiian word. To quote from my crumbling copy of The Pocket Hawaiian Dictionary (1975):

papau. Deeply engaged, absorbed, engrossed; united, all together.

Papau may be an elusive place; let’s face it, even the best of jobs have their grunt work. But the state of being deeply engaged, absorbed, engrossed; united, all together is something to which we all should aspire. And if our current daily tasks don’t offer this possibility, then we should strive to find things that do. It’s not just about ridding ourselves of the bad stuff; it’s also about envisioning something better.

Isn’t it great that there’s a word for this? (Maybe this explains why the minute you land in Hawaii, your blood pressure drops 10 points!)


Thanks to Wikipedia for the great photo of a Maui sunrise at the Haleakala crater.

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?

How’s this for an epitaph? “She lived a balanced life”

The importance of “work-life balance” is something of a shibboleth to those of us who talk and write about psychologically healthy work environments, and on numerous occasions I’ve made blithe references to it. But at times, I find myself questioning whether this is an unattainable and sometimes wrongheaded ideal — at least as applied to individuals.

Parsing the definition

Wikipedia (link here) defines work-life balance as:

a broad concept including proper prioritizing between “work” (career and ambition) on one hand and “life” (Health, pleasure, leisure, family and spiritual development) on the other.

The mere use of the word “balance” leads us to a debate that cannot be resolved. How do we apportion our time among these categories? Is it 50/50, 30/70, or 60/40?

And how do we define “work”? For example, “family” usually is placed in the “life” side of the ledger. But I doubt that a parent taking care of kids equates family responsibilities with leisure! For many, it’s physically and emotionally demanding work.

Time at work

Beyond the definitional nitpicking, I get the general idea: We spend a lot of time at work, especially in America. Economist Juliet Schor brought this issue into our contemporary policy debates in her 1993 book, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, marshaling data showing that U.S. workers spend a lot more time at work than counterparts in other nations.

So, in questioning the concept of work-life balance, I agree that things in America (and elsewhere!) are out of, umm, balance.

“I want it all”

But implicit in the notion of work-life balance is the idea that we can have it all, if only we can find the elusive formula for fitting the pieces together in the right way.

The YouTube video pasted into this article — from the Broadway show “Babe” — captures that wishful thinking. Three women of different ages and life circumstances meet by chance in a doctor’s office, and they share with each other how they want it all.

But most of us can’t

Way back in 1985, Norman Redlich, the dean of NYU Law School, referenced those Broadway lyrics in his remarks at our graduation convocation. His message: It sounds great, but most of us can’t have it all. There are choices to make and realities to navigate in a life that moves all too quickly.

So there we were, sitting among family and friends in beautiful Carnegie Hall, thinking that the world is our oyster, and the dean is telling us it’s probably not.

It’s one of the few useful pieces of advice I’ve heard among a sea of mostly banal, forgettable remarks at graduation ceremonies.


Many women, especially, have understood the impossibility — or at least the unlikelihood — of having all of life’s pieces conveniently coming together at the right places and right times.

Instead of chasing such an elusive goal, I suggest that we all redirect our focus to qualitative questions of what makes for a good and meaningful life, while remaining aware that choices and events may constrict our flexibility.

For some, that meaningful life may be grounded in raising a family or pursuing an avocation. For others, it may mean devotion to a career or a cause. For lots, it will involve a perpetual juggling act. A fortunate few may achieve a zen-like blend that allows them to check all the boxes. And still others may find meaning in overcoming significant personal or family challenges.

“She lived a balanced life”

Ultimately, aren’t we — and the world — better off for having made a positive difference in some way? You know, like starting a company, raising kids, helping those in need, serving one’s community or country, saving animals, or inventing or creating or making or teaching or fixing something?

As I see it, work-life balance should remain a priority for employment relations, but when it comes to individual lives, we need to embrace a much deeper set of questions. After all, does anyone really want to be remembered for having “lived a balanced life”?


Related posts

Beyond happiness: Founder of “positive psychology” movement expands his vision

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

What will be your body of work?

Are You a Marathoner or a Sprinter?


June 11 update: In a sad coincidence, Dean Redlich died this week. His obituary, which details his rich life and career, can be read here.

Beyond happiness: Founder of “positive psychology” movement expands his vision

The importance of being happy has received a lot of attention in recent years. Much of this stems from the pioneering work of Martin Seligman, who has spearheaded the “positive psychology” movement.

However, commentators have criticized positive psychology for being too focused on the idea of happiness, to the exclusion of other factors that constitute a good life. Furthermore, some have unfairly reduced Seligman’s ideas to such superficial levels that the idea of happiness has become self-parodying.

Sounds good

Seligman apparently has heeded some of the criticisms. He now is advancing the idea of “well-being” or “flourishing” as a more well-rounded concept for understanding and pursuing life satisfaction. John Tierney of the New York Times (link here) summarizes the new framework:

[Seligman] has also created his own acronym, Perma, for what he defines as the five crucial elements of well-being, each pursued for its own sake: positive emotion, engagement (the feeling of being lost in a task), relationships, meaning and accomplishment.

These ideas are spelled out in a new book, Martin E.P. Seligman, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being (2011).

A check on mindless “happy talk” at work?

Perhaps the most articulate critic of the “happiness movement” in America has been Barbara Ehrenreich, political and social critic extraordinaire, who took happy talk to task in her 2009 book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

In a sub-chapter titled “Managing Despair,” Ehrenreich excoriates corporate use of motivational speakers and team-building exercises to “inspire” workers in the midst of layoffs and pay & benefit cuts, while conceding it has achieved its intended goal:

By and large, America’s white-collar corporate workforce drank the Kool-Aid, as the expression goes, and accepted positive thinking as a substitute for their former affluence and security.

By comparison, does Seligman’s new Perma formulation — positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment — help us to look at the work experience in a more holistic way? Maybe. At least it gets us beyond the purely vapid.

But if we’re going to talk about positive emotions, meaning, and the like on the job, then we cannot ignore the ugly side of work, such as workplace bullying, sexual harassment, and excessive executive compensation. After all, the absence of bad behaviors helps to fuel the good emotions.

And while we’re at it, let’s talk about decent, safe work with living wages and good benefits. That kinda stuff makes people pretty darn, well, happy.

Recycling: On best jobs, great jobs, and our body of work

I’m currently at an excellent conference — the biennial “Work, Stress, and Health” conference co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the Society for Occupational Health Psychology — about which I’ll be blogging later.

In the meantime, from the archives of this blog, here are three posts of possible interest:

1. What are the best jobs in America? (November 2009) — Money magazine took a stab at the question, and I commented.

2. “What makes a great job?” (October 2009) — I Googled that question and reported the highlights.

3. What will be your body of work? (August 2009) — Our lives should add up to something, yes?

[Editor’s Note: In addition to maintaining a list of articles that have remained very popular on this blog — see the Popular and Notable Posts page — every month or so I’m recycling relevant posts from more than a year ago. Hopefully they will be of interest to newer readers.]

Working as an educator: Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach

If there was one book I could recommend to an educator at any level  — K-12, higher education, adult education — it would be Parker J. Palmer’s The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (10th ann. ed., 2007).

A departed friend and pioneering adult educator, John Ohliger, once wrote that a classic is something you keep getting more out of every time you go back to it. That definition resonates with me when I think about The Courage to Teach.

Identity and integrity

Palmer won me over with this short statement of purpose in the first chapter:

This book builds on a simple premise: good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.

The rest of the book espouses upon that philosophy, while recognizing that contemporary education at all levels resists it. Palmer takes on a culture of teaching “that fears the personal and seeks safety in the technical, the distant, the abstract.”

Recharging the teaching batteries

Last week, with my 20th year of law teaching coming to a close, I wanted to read something that would help me reflect upon my role as an educator. So I looked to The Courage to Teach, revisiting a book I’d read parts of some time ago.

It has been the right decision. I have become dismayed that many educators (law professors included) are reducing “better teaching” to a bag of tips & tricks, the very thing that Parker warns against. In fact, it is downright demoralizing how the culture of legal education, to borrow from Parker, “glorif[ies] the method du jour, leaving people who teach differently feeling devalued, forcing them to measure up to norms not their own.”

In law schools today, the current methods du jour include inserting more “skill development” and “assessment” into our courses, seemingly without any integration of personal values and qualities of emotional intelligence, not to mention the lack of active questioning of what the law should be and whose interests it should serve. It’s a cut-and-paste approach to legal education, and neither lawyers-in-training nor their future clients are likely to benefit.

So I return to Parker’s book at a good time. As I slowly make my way through it, truly savoring his ideas about education, I find the inspiration to continue trusting my instincts about what makes for effective, quality teaching.

What’s the plot line of your work life story?

Do you have a story, a narrative, that describes your career or work life?

Seven plots

I may not be in agreement with journalist Christopher Booker’s views on climate change and evolution (see his Wikipedia profile, here), but I’m intrigued by his thoughtful tome, The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories (2004), in which he posits there are seven basic plot lines that continually recur in literature and drama:

“Overcoming the Monster”

“Rags to Riches”

“The Quest”

“Voyage and Return”




Let’s apply the plots to work

Does one of these plot lines describe the arc of your work life?

Perhaps you started in the mail room and ended up in the executive suite, a genuine “Rags to Riches” story.

Maybe you’re in a good position now and can look back at less-than-wonderful jobs as genuine comedies.

Or maybe you’ve been hit by a layoff or derailed by a workplace bully or harasser. If so, hopefully tragedy will turn into overcoming the monster, rebirth, or a successful quest.

An extra credit assignment

If you’re trying to find your way to a better work situation, think about taking pen (or mouse) in hand and writing how you want your story to come out. What are the obstacles and challenges? What are your resources, and how can you identify more of them?

I hope it leads your story toward a better ending.

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

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

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

Two key questions

Guillebeau poses two simple questions:

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

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

It’s up to you

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

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

Too much junk? Then de-clutter

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

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

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

Individual power in tough times

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


Additional resources

Go here to access Chris Guillebeau’s website.

Go here to access Brooks Palmer’s blog.

Willy Loman, defining success, and the Great Recession

In a thoughtful piece for Newsweek, columnist Julia Baird examines American attitudes toward success and failure against the backdrop of the Great Recession, using the life of Willy Loman — Arthur Miller’s lead character in Death of a Salesman — as a mirror for our times:

Willy is, perhaps, America’s consummate loser, a failure to his family. But if you can bear with me for one moment, imagine he lived in current times, not amid the postwar prosperity of 1949. Sure, his career was ebbing, but Willy kept a job for 38 years, he owned his house—he had just made the last mortgage payment—and had a wife and two children. Today he’d be a survivor.

Baird goes on to link unemployment with our evolving attitudes toward success and failure, noting that the latter was not always “associated with individual identity.”

Finding ourselves, accepting plateaus

In fact, adversity and failure sometimes can force us to dig deep and find our true selves. Baird cites a Harvard commencement speech by J.K. Rowling, who told the graduates that bottoming-out as a financially-strapped single mom prodded her to finish the manuscript that led to the Harry Potter series. Rowling smartly added: “You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity.”

But Baird also implicitly recognizes that adversity won’t turn us all into bestselling authors. Hopefully the recession also teaches us “we can accept plateaus, understand that a life has troughs we can climb out of, and that a long view is the wisest one.”

“I coulda been a contender”

This maddening, perhaps uniquely American mix of boundless possibilities and harsh limitations can be hard to process. Journalist Abby Ellin, in a piece titled “I Coulda Been a Contender” for Psychology Today, examines her own life and career against the crush of personal and external expectations:

We all gauge our own success against that of others, at least in part, and we always compare up. Universal though it is, the negative comparison habit may be amplified by America’s striving spirit: Here, everyone can, and therefore should, make it to the top–or so we think. Those of us who’ve had more opportunities may wind up feeling that much worse.

Reading the rest of Ellin’s article, you sense the author is struggling to accept the lurking wisdom behind her own words. Her advice leads us to no other conclusion:

Every night, write down three to five things you feel proud about from that day. Recording your accomplishments keeps them front and center in your mind, an exercise that helps crowd out negative rumination.

…But back to real struggle

Ellin’s angst is readily identifiable to anyone who understands America’s culture of success — and if you don’t, just hang around a high-prestige college, law school, or business school for a few weeks and you’ll know what I mean.  In any event, this is not really what the psychological costs of the Great Recession are all about. The stakes run much deeper.

As I have written previously here, when reporter Louis Uchitelle began researching his book The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences (2006), he did not anticipate that he “would be drawn so persistently into the psychiatric aspect of layoffs.”  But he soon understood that the “emotional damage was too palpable to ignore.”  For the suddenly unemployed, “a layoff is an emotional blow from which very few fully recover.”

Uchitelle did his research several years before the meltdown. Today, these personal setbacks are hitting people in virtually every job sector, and cutting across socioeconomic groups. The poor, of course, pay the highest costs. Unemployment and poverty levels are at their highest rates in years.


Julia Baird invites us to recast Willy Loman as a survivor, not a failure. I tip my hat to her for questioning how Americans are wired to think about success.

But maybe there is an even more meaningful narrative playing out across the country, one that stands as a rebuke to the borrow-and-bust mentality that led us into this mess. As the destructive power of this recession continues, millions of people are struggling to pay the bills, raise their families, and keep a roof over their heads. The stories of these lives are those of everyday heroes, not mere survivors.

Seth Godin: Seven keys to personal reinvention

Here’s a neat little freebie from Seth Godin, bestselling author of books on careers, work, and organizations: Brainwashed — seven ways to reinvent yourself.  Godin suggests that since we were children, we’ve been brainwashed into being average and compliant.  This has led us down the path to becoming cogs in a wheel, and that quality won’t help us survive or thrive in today’s difficult and volatile economy.

Instead, he urges us to “Do work that matters,” and he suggests “seven levers available for anyone (like you) in search of reinvention”:

1. Connect
2. Be generous
3. Make art
4. Acknowledge the lizard
5. Ship
6. Fail
7. Learn

I’ll leave it to your own curiosity to read this short piece and discover the meanings behind these concepts.  Like a lot of Godin’s writings, it’s up to the reader to contextualize the ideas in Brainwashed.  I believe his work is best appreciated as an invitation to imagine better possibilities.

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