FRANK TALK ABOUT WHAT WE DO WITH OUR LIVES

Welcome

In Notes on April 26, 2017 at 12:05 am

Work Stew is a collection of original essays and in-depth interviews. To learn more, please visit the FAQ.

New essays and interviews will be added regularly, so please check in often. Or you can sign up to receive email notifications of new contentlook for the button at the bottom right of the site.

Also, Work Stew now has its very own Facebook page; if you ‘like’ it, you’ll be able to see periodic updates in your news feed. You can also receive notices of new content via Twitter.

 

A brief history:

The site was launched in January 2011, when I published “Random Acts of Business,” an essay about extraordinarily long hot dogs, True Believers, and my lifelong quest for flow. Since then more than 70 other essays have been added to the mix.

You can view a complete list of contributors here. To date, the Top Ten Readers’ Favorites* are (in alphabetical order):

Molly Bishop Shadel A law professor writes about juggling her wide-ranging legal career with a personal life

Gerald Casale A founding member of the ground-breaking and enduring band Devo reflects on what constitutes “work.” 

Samantha Cole A prep school grad embraces her “inner laborer.” 

Ronald J. Granieri An historian pulls back the ivy to reveal what life in academia is really like.  

Tasha Huebner A self-employed Wharton grad takes a hammer to the old chestnut, “Do what you love, and the money will come.” 

Meg Heimovics Kumin A software developer reboots after three babies and two family crises and emerges as a photographer

Gopi Kallayil A Googler ponders the power of intention after an idea scribbled on a piece of paper almost immediately springs to life. 

Lindsay Moran Following the Abbottabad raid, an ex-spy reflects on her decision to leave the CIA

Rhino A soldier describes what it’s like to come home, including what goes through his mind when someone says to him, “Thank you for your service.” 

Terri Rowe A longtime factory worker reveals the secret identity that has sustained her since she was four years old. 

If you’re interested in submitting an essay of your own, please write to me at kate@workstew.com. I’d love to hear your story.

Thanks,
Kate

Kate Gace Walton
Editor, Work Stew

*Note: ‘Readers’ Favorite’ is a pretty subjective designation based on page views, shares, comments, and the volume of love/hate mail each essay has so far inspired. So, read all the essays; as they say, your mileage may vary.

If You Know

In Essays on March 8, 2013 at 5:31 am

Note: New essays are in the works. While we wait for those, here’s a gem from the archives. 

By Meg Heimovics Kumin

Meg_Heimovics_KuminWhen I was two, my father told me, “If you know what you want to do by age thirty-two, you are going to be all right.” I probably threw my Cheerios at him.

I was six when my father told me, “If you know what you want to do by age thirty-two, you are going to be all right.” I thought thirty-two was oldancient old. I had all the time in the world.

I was twelve when my father told me, “If you know what you want to do by age thirty-two, you are going to be all right.” By then, all the career and personality tests had told me I was exceptional at math and spatial reasoning, and I should be an engineer. I wasn’t sure I agreed.

I was seventeen when my father told me, “If you know what you want to do by age thirty-two, you are going to be all right.” By this time, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. Two years earlier I had picked up my dad’s 1970-something Nikon camera and fallen in love with the lens. I took classes and put a darkroom in my parents’ basement. I became photo editor of the newspaper and photographer for the yearbook. I spent all of high school behind the camera and under the dim, red light of the darkroom. What did I want to do when I grew up? I wanted to be a National Geographic photographer! I wanted to follow Jane Goodall around the primate world. I wanted to capture the next “Afghan Girl.” I wanted this, but I also knew it was a pipe dream, and never, ever, going to happenunless I got really good.

I was twenty-one when my father told me, “If you know what you want to do by age thirty-two, you are going to be all right.” This time I was on the cusp of graduating college with a degree in American Studies, with a focus on race, ethnicity, and culture. I stumbled into the degree following a thirst for understanding people and identities. It was a discipline that taught me to read, think, and writeand I loved it. But I was no Cornell West, and I worried that I’d spend the rest of my life waitressing.

So I spent my fourth and fifth years taking engineering electives including calculus, physics, and computer programming. It was coding that lit up my mind. It was like one, never-ending puzzle, and I loved it. I began to think maybe those career tests were right. Following graduation, I pursued a Master’s in Computer Science.

I was twenty-seven when my father told me, “If you know what you want to do by age thirty-two, you are going to be all right.” This time I smiled, and so did he. I had figured out what I wanted to be. I had just landed the best job in the world as a software developer at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute writing biological collections management software for natural history museums.

I got married and three months later, we found out we were pregnant, rather unexpectedly. Within a year of landing the best job ever, we welcomed our whoopsie-baby, and I had a crisis of identity. Did I want to be a grown up inhabiting the working world, or did I want to get lost in my child’s world? I decided I wanted it all.  Fortunately, my boss was more than accommodating. I became an anomaly in the Mommy Wars: I was a full-time employee who brought my baby to the office. With a bouncy seat next to my keyboard, I tickled his tiny toes while I wrote java code.

I was thirty-two when we welcomed our third-born to the world. We also welcomed the rotavirus, and influenza, and sick days quickly outpaced accrued leave. It became clear that being the mother I wanted to be AND having the career I thought was for me, was unsustainable. I quit my job as a software developer to stay at home and be a childware developer.

I was thirty-two when my father told me, “Your mother is in the hospital. The doctors say she has a tumor that runs from her ear, down her neck, along her spine, into her armpit and onto her lung. The prognosis is not good.”

I was thirty-two when my father had a nervous breakdownnot the metaphorical kind, but literal catatonia. The doctors said he needed an institution and a dose of shock therapy, or the prognosis would not be good.

I was thirty-two when neither parent could care for the other. For the next year and a half, it didn’t matter what I wanted to do, I did what I had to do. I got to wear my stay-at-home-mom hat and chemo-buddy hat and power-of-attorney hat. I might have looked all grown up, but I was navigating life like a six-year-old behind the wheel of a Mack truck. How I got through it without becoming an addict or clinically depressed is the topic of a story I will probably never write.

After my mom passed, I found writing and the words poured out of me. I read and wrote and wrote and read. I used the voice inside my fingers to try to make sense of where I’d been, who I’d become, and who I wanted to be.  I picked up my camera and began attending to small wonders; it filled me with a love of life again.

I was thirty-five when Kate Gace Walton butted into my life and did this thing that she does. She asked me, “What do you do? Will you write about it?” Little did she know it was a loaded question, as virulent and unsettling as this year’s flu.

It’s been two years since Kate first asked me to write this essay. I wish I could say I blew it off, but I didn’t. I obsessed about it. Countless times, I closed my eyes and asked myself, “What do you want to do?” Again and again, I thought about where I’d been and what I’d done. I thought about what I would regret having never done. The picture became clear. I wanted to live life in Kodachrome and capture it with the lens.

So I took the plunge. I built a website and made a plan. I announced to the world, “I’m doing it!” While thirty-two was my father’s number, perhaps thirty-seven is mine. I may not be a National Geographic photographer, but I’m on a path of passion and no regrets…and it feels better than all right.

Meg Heimovics Kumin is a photographer based in Lenexa, Kansas. Her work can be viewed at Meg Kumin Photography

Random Acts of Business

In Essays on January 18, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Note: With any luck, I’ll have some new essays to share soon. In the meantime, here is the piece that launched this collection. 

By Kate Gace Walton

In 1996, I spent a night in the Georgia Dome helping to set up a display of the world’s longest hot dog, a publicity stunt designed to snare some Olympic buzz for my company’s brand. Once it was fully unwound from its giant spool in the back of a refrigerated delivery truck, this hot dog wrapped twice around the stadium’s athletic track. At a press event the next morning, former Olympians ran alongside the record-breaking wiener. Wielding oversized condiment bottles, these magnificent athletes squeezed out mustard, ketchup, and camera-ready smiles.

Back then, only a few years after graduating from college, this sort of work amused me more than it distressed me. The event seemed, even at the time, to sit somewhere between cheesy and tasteless, but, food service jobs aside, I had never worked for a big company before, and I felt that my entry-level marketing position was giving me a front row seat to Dilbert’s world. The absurdities were abundant and glorious. At that stage, many of my friends were doing something similarly inane, and the fact that I was, quite literally, a card-carrying member of the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council brought welcome comic relief to us all.

Even stranger than my assignments in those early years was the fact that I worked so incredibly hard on every single one of them. Perhaps, with a shiny degree from Harvard but no actual skills, I felt I had something to prove. Perhaps I’m just hard-wired to try to delight others. Whatever the reason, I worked myself silly. I regularly pulled all-nighters. I cut short vacations. I tackled the task of writing a speech about packaged meats as though I’d been given the chance to draft a State of the Union. Throughout, I felt like something of an outsider—unable to shake the sense that I was watching a workplace sitcom—but I worked as hard as any insider. I always worked like a True Believer.

Over the years, as I moved through different jobs, the details changed, but the randomness persisted. After I joined a major communications agency, I went from promoting the world’s longest hot dog to promoting the world’s tallest building. Each new client required new “expertise.” One month, it was all about getting up to speed on toenail fungus; the next, it was collateralized debt obligations. (If only I’d known then how much they have in common.) A lot of it was actually quite interesting. I’m a nerd—I like learning about new things. Each project posed a problem of one kind or another, and there was certainly some intellectual satisfaction in cracking the puzzle.

The older I got, though, the more troubling the randomness became. Unlike many of my friends who by this time were Saving Lives or Seeking Justice, I felt I had no mission. There was really only one thread linking my various assignments: I was being paid. Handling those projects was my job.

Some days this seemed like enough. Every immigrant family I know including mine (we moved from South Africa when I was five) puts huge stock in having work of any kind. Earning a good salary and being able to save for the future was a big deal. Traveling the world was a genuine thrill. Certainly when I compared my work to my high school jobs scooping ice cream and making sandwiches, I felt like I had made great progress. But whenever I compared my work to what I hoped it would be, I felt a nagging sense of failure.

What I hoped for had nothing to do with money. I always knew that I would need to earn a living and, as someone who wanted a family, I also knew that I would need to be able to provide for others. But my work hopes have always stretched beyond financial security. What I have long wanted from my work is, for at least some of the time, to feel completely engaged by it. In my work world, I don’t want to be a tourist focused more on observing the locals than on building something of my own. I want to fully inhabit my work, to be wholly absorbed and utterly earnest.

I know, I know. It’s called Flow, and it’s been an obsession of many ever since Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I call him Dr. C) gave it a name in 1975. This craving of mine is neither new nor unusual. In some circles, it’s downright trite. Especially in tough economic times, it’s very easy to dismiss a desire for Flow as spoiled or even ridiculous; to yearn for Flow amid high unemployment can sound a lot like bemoaning the price of arugula. I get that, so I keep quiet a lot of the time.

But, just between you and me: I’m still searching. I’ve made a few changes in recent years that may be taking me in the right direction. I left a large company to become self-employed, giving me the autonomy to seek out assignments that don’t feel so random—projects for people I admire and whose mission I want to support. On the side, remembering that building things had always made me happy, I built a small online tool called VillageOnCall. Lastly, I undertook training to become a certified mediator; for some reason, peacemaking, on any scale and in any setting, never feels random to me.

My current work situation is messy. I have to think hard every day to know exactly where to focus; the time sheets I keep for my own records track a dizzying number of projects. Making it all work financially is a constant challenge as well. My husband is also self-employed and, while some months are good, others are scary.

Especially because of the financial uncertainty, I initially thought that having children might cause me, at long last, to give up my search for Flow. I knew that I would continue to work—both my disposition and our household expenses demand as much—but I figured that, steeped in the deep satisfactions of motherhood, I might not care so much about Flow anymore. A stable income and flexible hours might be more than enough. Now, with two young children, those deep maternal satisfactions are proving to be everything they were cracked up to be…but, much to my surprise, becoming a mom has fueled not ceased my quest for Flow. Now, not only do I want it for myself; I also hope for my kids to one day find Flow in whatever work they choose, and I feel compelled, as the parenting books say, to “model the behavior.”

Almost every night in recent weeks, my three-year-old daughter has chosen Cinderella as her bedtime book. I follow every word faithfully, except for the last line, which I read like this: “Cinderella and the Prince both found work they truly loved, and they lived happily ever after.” My son hasn’t asked for Cinderella yet—he’s only one—but I’d read it to him in exactly the same way.