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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Bullying in the artistic sector

Recently I was contacted about a significant bullying situation in the organizing of a visual arts program. It confirmed for me how these behaviors are so universal, cutting across occupations and avocations.

The person who contacted me (let’s call him Walter) was teaming up with another arts enthusiast (let’s call her Eloise) to co-organize the event. Although Eloise initially exhibited great enthusiasm for the partnership, she soon began to push Walter to the side and took over key decision making and outreach for the event. Eloise’s behaviors began to look like a textbook list of common workplace bullying tactics:

  • Excluding Walter via behind-the-scenes machinations
  • Withholding necessary information from Walter
  • Refusing to reply to Walter’s requests and inquiries
  • Stealing credit from Walter
  • Wrongfully blaming Walter for overlooking details that were Eloise’s responsibility

Eloise’s persona suggests that she’s a classic narcissist, one of the most common descriptions for workplace aggressors.

More prevalent than in the military?

Walter’s experience is hardly unique. Lyn Gardner, in her theatre blog for The Guardian, wrote about bullying in the arts a year ago:

For many people working in theatre, bullying is a fact of life. The whispers about it are constant. One theatre chief is famous for the strops taken out on staff. People working in jobs seen (wrongly) as less “creative”, such as press or marketing, are frequently victims of this high-handed behaviour; but it can happen to anyone from stage hands to actors. Do the victims complain? Often not.

I’ve come across playwrights who have been bullied into silence and made to fear for their future careers by the very theatres who commissioned them. I’ve heard of producers throwing their weight about, and directors who treat theatre buildings as personal fiefdoms.

Gardner highlighted the work of Ann-Marie Quigg, author of Bullying in the Arts: Vocation, Exploitation and Abuse of Power (2011) :

When Anne-Marie Quigg investigated workplace bullying in the arts, her 2011 report revealed it was more prevalent in the arts than in the armed forces and the health service.

Whoa, that’s saying a lot…

Bullying of volunteers

This particular event was organized solely by volunteers, so technically it’s not a case of workplace bullying. On that note, last year I wrote that bullying of volunteers is a neglected subject that deserves to be studied more closely:

…(V)oluntary associations are a societal cornerstone, and a lot of folks devote time to them. Their experiences as volunteers not only impact them personally, but also have a ripple effect on our communities in general. It follows that we should understand the significance of when and how working relationships among volunteers become dysfunctional and even abusive.

Expectations vs. reality

So there you have it: An artistic event fueled by a love of the arts, organized by passionate volunteers. It sounds incredibly appealing, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, in this case at least, not for Walter…and possibly for others bullied and manipulated by Eloise.

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.

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.

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