Wisdom at fifty-something

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Charles D. Hayes is a self-taught philosopher and adult educator whose body of work urges us to look beyond the superficial aspects of modern life and create lives of enduring meaning. Among his many writings, my favorite is his 2004 book, The Rapture of Maturity: A Legacy of Lifelong Learning. Here’s one of the many wonderful snippets from it:

Most of us have spent the first half of our lives denying the inevitability of our own death, but something about turning 50 enables us to penetrate this barricade of self-deception just enough to stay dimly aware that the end of life is forthcoming. For those of us fortunate enough to have lived this long and remain in reasonably good health, I believe this period is the premium apportionment of life. This is a time when we can separate the wheat of wisdom from the chaff of experience.

Lest anyone under 50 take offense at my seeming endorsement of the view that one has to reach the half-century mark to accumulate a reasonable amount of wisdom, be assured that I speak with authority only about myself on this matter! That said, I think it’s fair to suggest that many of us squander big chunks of our earlier years attending to less meaningful endeavors. The question becomes whether we will “wise up” in time to live life to the fullest and contribute something meaningful to this world.

If we pass on this opportunity, then we may end up like the protagonist in Leo Tolstoy’s masterful 1886 novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Ivan Ilylich is a successful lawyer, public servant, and family man who, when confronted with his mortality by a fatal illness, finds himself tormented by the question of whether he has lived a meaningful life. The final scenes of the book are memorable and unsettling.

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We can create meaningful lives in many ways. It may be through relationships such as parenting, caregiving, friendships, and partnerships. It can be through voluntary, community, or avocational activities.

To the extent we create this meaning through our work, we must strive mightily to resist the superficial trappings and excesses of careers and occupational cultures. I see these dynamics playing out all the time in higher education, and I have not been fully immune from them. In fact, as I read how Ivan Ilyich — whose professional resume would document a successful career in law and public service — anguished over the life he had chosen to live, I silently wondered if I might feel the same way when my time comes.

Yup, this is pretty maudlin stuff, isn’t it? But I think it’s the lesson that writers like Hayes and Tolstoy are trying to teach us. We can pay attention now, or ignore it and possibly live to regret it later. And the earlier we understand this simple truth, the better, yes?

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Go here for Hayes’s Self-University blog.

Go here for Hayes’s September University blog.

Go here for more about Hayes’s published books and essays.

Here is a free version of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Maude translation). Inexpensive print and e-book editions of that popular translation and a more recent (and well-received) translation by Pevear & Volokhonsky are available at bookstores.

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Addendum: Soon after posting this piece, I found this excellent essay by Fred Branfman, posted to AlterNet: “Embracing Life-Affirming Death Awareness: How to Transform Yourself and Possibly Save Human Civilization.” If this general topic interests you, it’s worth a serious read.

The myth of the “dream job”

“It’s my dream job.”

How many times have we heard variations of this phrase? It usually pops up when someone is interviewing for a job that sounds like a wonderful, perfect fit, or after they just accepted the offer.

If you follow up with them a few years later, it’s likely that reality has set in. It may have turned out to be a very good job, a decent job, a tolerable job, or an absolute horror show. But if they’re still sticking to the “dream job” line, they’re either (1) truly fortunate; (2) fibbing a bit to keep up appearances; or (3) deluding themselves.

Reality check

The idea of a dream job reflects high, often pie-in-the-sky expectations that may ignore the realities of organizations, human behavior, and economics. Indeed, the very concept of a career or a vocation that blends a good salary or wage with a chance to do inherently rewarding work is very much a product of a first world, late 20th century, upwardly mobile culture. A century ago, I doubt that many people were thinking in such a manner.

In the meantime, there are bills to be paid and mouths to be fed. These are not trifling matters. In fact, basic survival is what most of the world confronts on a daily basis.

Furthermore, even a good paying job may be short on psychic income. There are plenty of people who are toiling away mainly for the money, sometimes sacrificing their own desires in order to pay a mortgage or to send the kids through school.

Realistic hopes

Dream jobs may be few and far between, but I’m not suggesting that we give up on finding great meaning and a decent paycheck in our work. When it comes to pursuing our life’s purposes and passions, I’m still a romantic.

I think it boils down to expectations and aspirations grounded in reality. The world of work may disappoint us at times. But we can strive to create better opportunities for ourselves and to take full advantage of those presented to us.

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The School of Life on finding fulfilling work

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Here’s a thought-provoking question that writer and lecturer Roman Krznaric poses at the end of the first chapter of his very good little paperback book, How to Find Fulfilling Work (2012):

What is your current work doing to you as a person — to your mind, character and relationships?

I’ve heard and offered less compelling variations of questions like this one — How’s work going? What’s good and bad about your occupation? Is your job meeting your needs? — but nothing so neatly framed.

School of Life series

How to Find Fulfilling Work is one in a series of short books on practical philosophy sponsored by The School of Life, a London-based entity that offers “a variety of programmes and services concerned with how to live wisely and well.” The book series is entering the U.S., and this title will be available soon.

The School of Life sounds like a fascinating initiative. Reading its description makes me wish we had something similar here in Boston:

The School of Life is a place to step back and think intelligently about these and other concerns. You will not be cornered by any dogma, but directed towards a variety of ideas – from philosophy to literature, psychology to the visual arts – that tickle, exercise and expand your mind. You’ll meet other curious, sociable and open-minded people in an atmosphere of exploration and enjoyment.

The quest for fulfilling work

Krznaric mixes ground-level philosophy, vocational guidance, and inspiration into this quick read. Here are the chapter titles:

The Age of Fulfillment

A Short History of Career Confusion

Giving Meaning to Work

Act First, Reflect Later

The Longing for Freedom

How to Grow a Vocation

The book concludes with helpful recommendations of books, movies, and other resources to help people in their quests for work that suits them.

But first: Basic needs and obligations

If you’re weighing your career and vocational options, especially with an eye toward pursuing more meaningful work, this book is worth your time.

But I also know that some readers are not in a position to be selective. They need decent paying work, period, and with bills mounting they’ll be grateful for whatever comes their way. Indeed, anyone who is free enough to consider options for making work a fulfilling activity in itself is very fortunate.

So, if you need to pay for food, shelter, and clothing, the type of work you’re doing may matter a whole lot less than getting a sufficient paycheck. And if your obligations include kids and/or other dependents, you may not be in a position to “go for the gusto.”

In fact, one of the few quarrels I have with Krznaric is his suggestion that financial fears can be softened by having a backup fund of three months worth of expenses in case the “dream job” falls apart. In the first place, saving up that kind of money is difficult in tough times. And secondly, a three-month emergency fund isn’t all that comforting anyway for someone who must care for others as well.

Onward

Still…my hope is that we will evolve into a society where decent pay and good work come together more often than not. Books like How to Find Fulfilling Work point us in the right direction. So, let’s put these options for individual initiative and change out there, and gravitate toward them when we can.

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!)

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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.

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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.

Instead

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”?

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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?

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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.

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