The importance of hobbies and avocations during stressful and anxious times

Peter sings, to be followed by a coaching.

Peter sings, to be followed by a coaching.

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

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

He dutifully takes notes during every class session.

He dutifully takes notes during every class session.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related posts

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

What’s your hobby? (2015)

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

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

Will our avocations save us? (2010)

Embracing creative dreams at midlife (2010)

Related article

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

 

Devoted diversions

Screenshot from mlb.com

Screenshot from mlb.com

As I’ve written earlier, I’m in the midst of a research sabbatical semester, working away on a book project on workplace bullying and mobbing, as well as several other writing endeavors. While this stretch of time has been marked by one awful diversion (America’s presidential campaign), it also has brought the wonderful specter of my beloved Chicago Cubs finally playing their way into the World Series for the first time since 1945. And if they manage to win the World Series over another team historically bereft of post-season glory, the Cleveland Indians, then they will sit atop the major league baseball universe for the first time since 1908.

“Cubs fan” and “long suffering” are phrases that have been melded together in the world of sports fandom for decades. Any Cubs fan of, uh, a certain age knows that the years 1969, 1984, and 2003 signify on ongoing angst of hope followed by crushing defeat. But the current Cubs team seems to be different. It is young, supremely talented, confident, and well-managed. Making the World Series was a huge moment for Cubs fans and this team, and hopefully there is one more celebration to come. In any event, the Cubs look like serious contenders for several years to come.

For now, however, the Cubs faithful have been brought back down to earth with a Game 1 loss against a feisty Indians team. This will not be easy. And it so happens that I’m flying to Cleveland this week to visit a dear friend, and she’s an Indians fan. (This visit was planned before the baseball gods ordained this World Series matchup.) It’s probably good that I don’t have my own collection of Cubs fan clothing, as years of living in Boston and New York have taught me to be careful about proclaiming contrarian sports leanings too loudly. There’s already a “Cleveland Indians Championship Parade” event posted to Facebook, but I’m still hoping that my Cubs will rain on that parade.

The French (Dis)connection: No work e-mails outside traditional working hours

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Dominique Mosbergen reports for the Huffington Post on a new French labor law that bans after hours work e-mails:

Checking your work email on a weekend or a holiday? In France, where employees have been granted “the right to disconnect,” that’s now against the law.

Buried inside a recently enacted — and hotly contested — French labor reform bill is an amendment banning companies of 50 or more employees from sending emails after typical work hours. “The right to disconnect” amendment, as it’s so called, is aimed at minimizing the negative impacts of being excessively plugged in.

Lest any work-obsessed, provincial American get in a huff and start hurling insults at the collective French work ethic, Lauren Collins offers some clarifying cultural points in the New Yorker:

The notion of the indolent French worker, for one thing, is a fiction: the country’s hourly productivity, for example, rivals that of the United States, and French workers put in more hours a year than their supposedly more industrious German counterparts. The difference, then, is not in our attitudes toward our jobs but in our attitudes toward the rest of our lives. In France, a personal life is not a passive entity, the leftover bits of one’s existence that haven’t been gobbled up by the office, but a separate entity, the sovereignty of which is worth defending, even if that means that someone’s spreadsheet doesn’t get finished on time.

Okay, I’m not suggesting any such law for the U.S. The objections — legal, practical, everything — would come in from all directions, not just from large employers with round-the-clock operations. (Believe me, as an academician I send e-mails to our support staff at all hours of the day and night, though in no way do I expect responses when they’re not working.)

But I raise this to tweak our perspectives about work, work-life balance, and the importance of our time spent away from work. I think it’s especially germane to wage workers and lower-paid salaried workers who are expected to be at the beck and call of their higher-paid co-workers. It would be healthier for everyone if work’s e-influence wasn’t so 24/7. (Yup, I am writing this as a memo-to-self.)

Even if this French law wouldn’t port over well to America, embracing more of its underlying rationale would serve us well. On that note, for sure, Vive la France.

From hoop jumping to legacy work and places in between

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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.

Work-life balance in academe? Meh…

Samuel Morse imagines the university as paradise (1835-36).

Samuel Morse imagines the university as paradise (1835-36)

I chuckled a bit while reading this Chronicle of Higher Education piece on work-life balance by English professor Scott Warnock (Drexel U.). At his university’s orientation program for new faculty, he staffed a table where new colleagues could talk to him about work-life balance. Alas, there were no takers. Reflecting on his lonely experience, he acknowledged that work-life balance is simply not a popular topic for academicians, sometimes at a cost:

Unlike many professions, academic life is indeed a life. It’s a calling, an essential part of you. You’ll live it for much of your waking (and, sometimes, sleeping) hours. That’s the good and bad of it. It’s not drudgery and meaninglessness. But it can eat you up. And academics are often not the kind of people who would admit that.

A university teaching career can be a wonderful blessing for anyone who enjoys the core professorial activities of teaching, scholarship, and service. This is especially so if one is fortunate to secure a tenure-track position and earn the brass ring of tenure.

However, today’s academic workplace can be a stressed out and challenging environment. As I wrote two years ago, mental health is one of the most neglected concerns in the academic workplace. In its worst manifestations, higher education can be a petri dish for horrific bullying and mobbing behaviors.

I am fortunate to be doing the work I do, but I’ve also witnessed and experienced the nasty sides of the academic workplace. On the question of work-life balance, I can attest that Prof. Warnock’s observations are wise and insightful. An academic career is truly a way of life in addition to a vocation, and that reality can bring its share of ups and downs. For me, there have been more of the former than the latter, and for that I am very grateful.

***

I’ve shared Samuel Morse’s allegorical landscape here before. Morse was an inventor (yes, Morse Code) and artist who taught at New York University during its earliest years. In this painting, he used NYU’s original Gothic-style building on Washington Square — alas, since torn down and replaced by a much more pedestrian structure — to represent the idea of the university as paradise. Even in my most cynical moments as an academician, I find this landscape enormously appealing.

Are you feelin’ the telepressure?

The other day, when I was in one of those half-asleep modes where your mind goes on a weird walk or two, I had an irrational fear: Will I ever be able to escape my e-mail inbox, or will it be with me always, wherever I go, no matter what I’m doing? I mean, what if I’m on vacation, sitting before the ocean, having to spend all my time typing furiously on my iPad responding to e-mails about work?

Okay, I’m not really into sitting at beaches anyway, but maybe my fears aren’t so irrational. In fact, my half-dream reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write about telepressure, a term defined by Northern Illinois University (NIU) organizational psychologists Larissa Barber and Alecia Santuzzi as  “an urge to quickly respond to emails, texts and voicemails – regardless of whatever else is happening or whether one is even ‘at work.'”

In a feature posted by NIU, Dr. Barber — lead author (with Dr. Santuzzi) of a 2014 study on telepressure — explains what this means for our everyday lives:

“Workers who indicate they feel high levels of telepressure are more likely to report burnout, a feeling of being unfocused, health-related absenteeism and diminished sleep quality,” says NIU psychology professor Larissa Barber, lead author of a new study on workplace telepressure and its implications, published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

“Over the past few decades, we’ve seen organizations increasingly rely on email or text messages for conducting business,” Barber says. “The main benefit is that employees have lots of flexibility about when they can work, including at home.

“But this flexibility can sometimes have unintended costs,” she adds. “Employees start to feel like they should be available and responsive to work requests at all times. This type of continuous connection does not allow people enough time to recover from work.”

So…does this resonate with you? If you want to learn more, Drs. Barber and Santuzzi discuss the ramifications of telepressure in this snappy two-minute video:

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