Inauthenticity at work and the fast track to a midlife crisis

As a law student, lawyer, and law professor, I’ve spent a lot of time around people whose career ambitions are largely defined by others. To some extent, I have internalized some of those messages myself.

But one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to pick and choose wisely among these markers of achievement. If you fail to do so, you may find yourself living an inauthentic life (at least the part spent at work), and your psyche may struggle with the grudging realization that you’re pursuing someone else’s definition of success. It’s an easy recipe for a midlife crisis.

This month, as thousands of people line up to accept their degrees at college and university Commencement ceremonies around the country, these thoughts deserve extra consideration.

Regrets

In the popular Marc and Angel Hack Life blog, Angel Chernoff writes about the “10 Choices You Will Regret in 10 Years.” The first two screamed out at me:

  • “Wearing a mask to impress others”
  • “Letting someone else create your dreams for you”

In graduate and professional schools, I see this process occurring all the time. It’s all about pursuing a fast track to success, and that path and destination are defined by others who have a vested interest in keeping it that way.

Especially susceptible to this messaging are younger folks who have never been afforded the privilege of thinking for themselves. And the better their grades and test scores, they more likely they are to be pushed onto certain paths.

My summer of discontent

My first major lesson in career inauthenticity came as a law student. I entered law school intending to be a public interest lawyer, and I envisioned a career spent in social and political change work. However, I temporarily succumbed to the siren call of corporate law, and I accepted a “summer associate” position with a large commercial law firm in Chicago.

Summer jobs at big law firms are a mix of tryout camp and wining-and-dining. Over a roughly 10-week period, the work of a summer associate is evaluated closely for the purpose of considering that individual for a full-time associate attorney position after graduation. In return, the law firm pays the summer associate handsomely (typically, a pro-rated equivalent of a first-year attorney’s salary) and hosts a variety of social events to sell the firm as a desirable place to work.

This Chicago law firm treated me with genuine respect and gave me a variety of challenging assignments. But within a few weeks of starting my summer gig, I knew the corporate law sector was not for me. Despite good colleagues and intellectually demanding work, throughout the summer I felt like I was giving an acting performance. It just didn’t feel right.

Although I was invited to return to the firm as an associate attorney after graduation, I declined the offer. Instead, I embraced my original aspirations and, during my final year of law school, accepted a job offer from the New York City Legal Aid Society. No regrets, not even when the student loan bills started to match my monthly rent!

Trade-offs

Of course, having and making choices doesn’t necessarily mean that we can have it all. As I suggested two years ago in a post about work-life balance, even the best of lives usually involve trade-offs. Electing to do something often forecloses doing another, at least for the time being.

That said, Big Life regrets tend to emanate more from inaction than actions, unless the latter are reckless or foolish. In her “10 Choices” blog post, Angel Chernoff warns against “(e)ndlessly waiting until tomorrow”:

The trouble is, you always think you have more time than you do.  But one day you will wake up and there won’t be any more time to work on the things you’ve always wanted to do.

Not always a choice

I understand that all of the above presumes a degree of choice in the matter.

However, sometimes that isn’t the case: Jobs that pay the bills and support families are in short supply these days, and pursuing an occupation that delivers a psychological reward beyond a decent paycheck may not be an immediate option.

If you have choices that create mere possibilities for matching passions with income, consider yourself very privileged. Countless millions of people in this world do not.

Avocations

The challenges of matching dreams with paychecks are among the reasons why I’ve devoted a number of blog posts to the concept of avocation. As I wrote last year:

An avocation falls somewhere between a job and a hobby. It’s an activity that may produce some modest income, and perhaps show promise of turning into a full-time job, but which ultimately we are drawn to because it is very satisfying on a personal level. Avocations may be among the keys to individual fulfillment during tough times when jobs that deliver both a decent income and psychic rewards are in short supply.

Avocations are highly underrated as potential door openers and as satisfying ends in themselves.

If you have the gift of choices…

…make them, don’t let others make them for you. Learn from the experiences and insights of others, and then incorporate those lessons into your own world view.

It’s an ongoing process. And except for a blessed few, it involves some stumbling and bumbling along, hopefully forward more often than backward.

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

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

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

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

Three common types of adults

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

Quiet desperation

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

What might have been

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

Days of yore

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

…and then there’s the “Ulyssean adult”

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

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

Harsh

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

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

Keys to becoming a Ulyssean adult

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

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

I’d say that’s a pretty good list.

Easier said than done

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

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

Millennials, this is for you, too

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

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

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Related posts

The lessons of nostalgia (2011)

What’s your legacy work? (2011)

Does life begin at 46? (2010)

Will our avocations save us? (2010)

Hat tip…

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

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Note: This post was edited in September 2018.

Once more, with feeling: Advocating for avocations

“Avocation” is not a term that we often use in everyday conversation. Indeed, when’s the last time anyone asked you, “hey, what’s your avocation?”

An avocation falls somewhere between a job and a hobby. It’s an activity that may produce some modest income, and perhaps show promise of turning into a full-time job, but which ultimately we are drawn to because it is very satisfying on a personal level. Avocations may be among the keys to individual fulfillment during tough times when jobs that deliver both a decent income and psychic rewards are in short supply.

My posts on avocations have not exactly been the most sought-after on this blog! When I write about workplace bullying, or conflicts at work generally, readership stats spike up. Posts about avocations attract much less attention. Nevertheless, I believe that for many people in search of an outlet that provides an immersive, meaningful, and sustained activity, creating it in the form of an avocation is an accessible, attractive option.

Here are three posts to provide inspiration:

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

2. Will our avocations save us? (2010)

3. Embracing creative dreams at midlife (2010)

Weather and work


So…what are the ties between weather and work?

I recently returned from my annual storm chase vacation in America’s heartland, and I was reminded once more that weather often has an impact on our work lives. Here are three previous posts on those themes:

1. Labors of Love: Chasing Tornadoes (2008) — About folks who chase tornadoes for a living, at least for a chunk of the year!

2. Working in a blizzard (2010) — It means different things to different workers.

3. Waiting for Irene with geeky gadgets and water bottles (2011) — Waiting for a hurricane has a way putting everything else on hold.

By the way, that’s a tornado lowering behind me in central Colorado two weeks ago!

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

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

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

Avocations

Two summers ago, I wrote in praise of avocations:

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

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

Hobbies, too

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

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

What Google tells us

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

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

Release valve vs. flow

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

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

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

Why this stuff is important

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

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Related posts

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

Will our avocations save us? (2010)

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

Embracing creative dreams at midlife (2010)

The lessons of nostalgia

Even as a child, I had an odd penchant for nostalgia. Watching the TV travel show “Hawaii Calls,” I would get sadly nostalgic over a family trip to visit relatives in Hawaii, one that we had taken only months ago! When I became interested in history, I’d experience a yearning to return to the times and events that most fascinated me.

Okay, if you’ve read past the first paragraph, you’ve figured out that this post isn’t about work or workplaces per se, though for some people it may influence how they think about career planning, vocation, and avocation.

Charles D. Hayes, is a retired, largely self-educated writer and practical philosopher whose books and essays on finding meaning in life remain hidden classics. He recently posted to his September University blog a superb essay, “Nostalgia: Why the Past Matters” (link here), in which he makes the case for returning to and understanding our past in constructive ways, rather than with mere soggy sentiment.  A few snippets:

In seventeenth-century Europe, nostalgia was thought to be a treatable disease. It was an especially dreaded malady in military organizations during that period because it provided a plausible excuse for AWOL soldiers. While it is no longer considered an illness, nostalgia is often thought of today as an escape from reality. It is also associated with aging, and American demographics make nostalgia a topic that’s growing in importance.

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Many of us, even in the fall and winter life, continue to be steered along a life course that began when we were much younger. We are still impelled to act by forces we do not yet recognize as being a part of our motivation. And thus our grasp on the illusive nature of free will is suspect, especially in light of recent research in neuroscience that has many scientists rethinking the whole philosophical premise of free will and the notion of authenticity.

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For example, television family life with Ozzie and Harriet Nelson . . . in the 1950s gave the appearance of representing a much simpler and more innocent time when there was little mystery about the notion of right and wrong. . . . Knowing what I know now about the history of those days, it’s hard to appreciate what it might have been like if I had been aware that the Nelsons’ television family life was a façade, that Ozzie Nelson was something of a tyrant, and that the dysfunction in his family mirrored that of my own in some ways.

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If the past represents the holy grail of our values, then getting to the bottom of our fondest memories is an effort vital to our aspirations as human beings. Nostalgia is a key to unlocking that which was once valuable and subconsciously still is. But even if what we value is still present and ubiquitous in popular culture, it is often obscured by the increasing complexity of everyday life.

With Hayes, you get a thoughtful mix of the personal and political. He eschews tagging himself with a political affiliation, but you’ll see that this former Marine, Texas police officer, and Alaska oil rigger has a lot of things to say that are at odds with any stereotypes one might draw from occupational and geographic labels.

Lessons of the ages

As one enters middle age, it’s natural to resist any mental associations with aging — and that resistance may extend to reading reflective advice for “older folks.”

However, one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned over the years is to welcome the wisdom of those who have been on this planet a little longer than me. Charles Hayes writes mainly for those we might call “seniors,” but his potentially larger audience includes anyone who wants to pursue a life of meaning and authenticity.

More from Charles Hayes

Hayes writes with a singularly wise, humane, and insightful voice, and his books and articles are light years beyond the piles of self-help junk that compete for our attention and dollars. Here’s how to read more of his stuff:

September University blog (from which this piece draws)

September University website (“Summoning Passion for an Unfinished Life”)

Books by Charles HayesThe Wisdom of Maturity is my favorite.

Recycling: Midlife possibilities

From the archives of this blog, some ruminations on midlife possibilities:

1. Work and the middle-aged brain (May 2010) — Hitting middle age often brings with it complaints of increasing forgetfulness and absent-mindedness, but perhaps there’s hope for us middle-agers after all.

2. Will our avocations save us? (May 2010) — Our avocations may well be our saviors, personally in terms of enriching our lives, and publicly in terms of contributing to the greater community.

3.  Are You a Marathoner or a Sprinter?  (July 2009) — Are you a marathoner or a sprinter when it comes to life and career achievements?

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A popular and more recent post related to this topic is Does life begin at 46? (December 2010).

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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.

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