FRANK TALK ABOUT WHAT WE DO WITH OUR LIVES

Archive for the ‘Notes’ Category

Peeking into Academe

In Notes on June 18, 2012 at 10:35 pm

A note from Work Stew Editor, Kate Gace Walton:

When I launched Work Stew last year, I thought it might be difficult to get people to write frankly about their jobs. And to some extent it has been. This email, from a research scientist I contacted for an essay, sums up the usual hesitation:

“I will give some thought to a potential contribution. I must say this is probably somewhat easier to do as a self-employed person than as part of a large, fragile ecosystem. My work itself is wonderful, but the job has countless drawbacks that evoke daily fits of stifled rage… It is hard to imagine how one can write anything meaningful without alienating someone important in the endless cast of collaborators, bosses, underlings, administrators, and other work frenemies.”

Interestingly, essays from academia have been particularly hard to come by. Molly Bishop Shadel, an associate professor at the University of Virginia’s School of Law, contributed an excellent piece that was quickly shared more than 90 times. But six months later, Work Stew still has just as many CIA operatives in the mix as professors.

As a result, I’ve had to look elsewhere (gasp!) for additional glimpses into the academic life, and last week this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education caught my eye: “Why Are Associate Professors So Unhappy?” I think it’s worth a read. And maybe it’ll inspire a few more Work Stew essays from academia. I live in hope.

In the meantime, I’m very grateful to Oren Izenberg (University of California, Irvine) and Kyla Wazana Tompkins (Pomona College), who took the time to share their reactions (below) to The Chronicle article. More food for thought.

“It seems to me that what the article wants to be about is the friction between the idea that academic life is a vocation (that we are privileged to freely pursue the life of the mind, that we accept the price of that privilege in the form of relatively low salaries, uncertain social prestige, etc) and the reality that academia is a profession (with institutional politics, institutional responsibilities, frustrating bureaucracies, etc.).

On the one hand, one could fairly say that the former is and always has been a naive view of American academia, and (if the stated discrepancy is real) that what is happening is that associates are unhappily waking up to the reality of the profession they joined.

But it isn’t that simplefirst, because the professional part of the profession has changed and is changing: universities are becoming increasingly corporate and faculty governance is being erodedso institutional responsibilities have less and less to do with thinking about what is best for teaching and scholarship and more and more to do with adjusting to a corporate mission. And second because the ideal of teaching and scholarship as a noble vocation is being used to manipulate faculty into giving up reasonable workplace demands (the resistance to faculty unionization is a good example of this).”

—Oren Izenberg, University of California, Irvine

“When you have caught the golden ring, as those few of us who got tenure-track jobs and who got tenure have, you have to explain your unhappiness carefully. Ours are good problems to have, in many ways. But I would say that, the difficulty of being an Associate Professor is that you have very little controlor most of us do anywayover your mobility. Most of us land in places far from our families, and sometimes separated from our partners. Many of us live in places far from the communities that make us feel whole, sane, and creative. And a terrible and difficult job market pretty much guarantees that most of us will exert little to no control over our locations. So even if you want a change, not because your job is bad or you hate your colleagues or whatever, but simply because you want to move into a new place in your life, you are virtually guaranteed to not be able to. And that lack of control, in a culture that seems more and more organized around mobility, is psychically grinding. But as I said: employed, in conversation with your colleagues in your school and in your field, teaching wonderful students, having time to think and read and writethough never enoughthese are things worth sacrificing a lot for.”

—Kyla Wazana Tompkins, Associate Professor, Pomona College

Coming Soon

In Notes on March 24, 2012 at 7:16 am

A brief note from Work Stew editor Kate Gace Walton:

I stew about work—but I also do work. And for my job, I spent the bulk of last week in Las Vegas at an industry conference. There were some low points, like the awards ceremony where the Chariots of Fire theme music was played as the top-ranked managers took to the stage.

In my view, the Chariots of Fire theme music should only be played if it’s 1924 and a group of strapping young men in white athletic gear are actually running along a beach.

But for the most part, the conference was useful: I met a bunch of people. I learned a lot. And I loved one speaker in particular: an industry lawyer who abandoned a conventional PowerPoint in favor of his guitar and a short song, jam-packed with sound legal advice, that he sang very well.

In moments like that, given the opportunity to glimpse the person behind the title, I am reminded that none of us are our jobs—that as all-consuming as any one role can feel, we are each, always and without escape, merely our idiosyncratic selves, a unique bundle of talents and hang-ups trying to find our place in the world, trying to answer the question that the poet Mary Oliver put this way:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do 
with your one wild and precious life?” *

That search, that process, is something that we all have in common, and I love that some of us are starting to talk about it here.

Which brings me back to stewing. Here’s what’s in the works…

A Writing Contest—with a CASH prize!

Thanks to some generous donors, plans are coming together for the first-ever Work Stew essay contest, one with an actual cash prize, not the usual Imaginary Prize of Staggering Value.

Logistics and legalities are still being sorted out, but a possible prompt/theme, suggested by Work Stew reader Navin Madras in homage to NPR’s wonderful ‘This I Believe’ series, is ‘This I Do.’

If you have any suggestions of your own, please let me know at kate@workstew.com.

Also, if you want to be sure to get a notification when the contest kicks off, please enter your email address where it says ‘Email Subscription’ below.

*Thanks to Cheryl Strayed’s recently-released book Wild for reminding me of this quote.
Congratulations!

Terri Rowe, a longtime factory worker who wrote for Work Stew about her “secret identity” as a writer, is no longer under wraps—she’s now a published author.

Her first children’s book  Green Goo was recently published by MeeGenius after her manuscript became a readers’ favorite in an online contest.

After learning that her story had been selected for publication, Terri sent this note to Work Stew: “Thank you for giving me the chance to share my thoughts and dreams, which helped me to change my reality!”

Kind words, Terri—thank you and, again: congratulations!

‘Follow Your Heart,’ ‘Do the Math,’ Or Something In Between?

In Notes on January 14, 2012 at 1:10 pm

What would you advise a young person today? In considering various career options, would you go with ‘follow your heart,’ ‘do the math’or something in between?

Last week, I posted this note on Work Stew’s Facebook page:

Recently, I had a drink with a dentist. I asked him (as I am wont to do) why he decided to become a dentist. 

He said that, after college, he asked all the healthcare providers he knew if he could follow them around for a bit. Trailing his dentist, he liked what he saw: the chance to be an entrepreneur, the opportunity to achieve tangible results every day, the promise of a comfortable lifestyle without being consumed by work. 

He decided to become a dentist.

What a supremely rational and informed approach! So different from what I did: taking a job at a PR agency—solely because it called itself a “writer’s shop”—without knowing (truth be told) the first thing about PR. I was so blinded by what I saw as My Passion—to communicate! to write!—that I ended up making a career choice that was, in retrospect, a pretty poor fit.

Which leads me to wonder: does following our hearts sometimes steer us awry? Should we all be making more dentist-like decisions?

Some Work Stew contributors have already weighed in on this question. Tasha Huebner essentially concluded that ‘follow your heart’ is crazy talk, especially in a country where health insurance is tied to employment. Menekse Gencer, on the other hand, found that pursuing her passion was exactly the right thing to do: today, she’s a successful entrepreneur who loves her work. Of course, it’s worth mentioning that Menekse’s passion is mobile payment systems. What about those who love nothing more than to paint? Or to act? Or to play basketball? What paths should they pursue?

So, please weigh in:

What were you advised as a kid? What informed your career choices? What might you have done differently had you known then what you know now? And what would you advise a young person today?

Perhaps we can ladle some collective wisdom out of this here stew.

Thanks,

Kate

One Year Later: Four Emerging Themes

In Notes on January 2, 2012 at 7:05 am

A few months ago, CNN contributor LZ Granderson wrote a popular piece called “The Question on Everyone’s Mind.” That question was ‘What do you do for a living?’ and Granderson argued that asking it is both rude and lazy: it’s a thinly veiled attempt to gauge income, he said, and it fails to get at what’s really important. In fact, Granderson suggested that, the next time you find yourself striking up a conversation with a stranger, you shelve the topic of work all together and instead ask: “When was the last time a moment took your breath away?”

I don’t know about you, but if someone I’d just met asked me that, I’d start scanning for exits.

There’s nothing wrong with asking people what they do; the problem lies in judging their worth based on the answer or in leaping to conclusions without taking the time to learn more.

I’ve spent the past year asking all sorts of people what they do for a living and how they feel about it. Work Stew is an ongoing project, with many more essays and interviews to come, but there’s now enough meat in the mix to detect a few emerging themes. Here’s what I’m seeing so far:

1. What we do for a living matters. Most of us spend the vast majority of our waking hours working, or looking for work. What we do, and how we feel about it, affects us deeply.

Work also affects our relationships. Jobs compete with family and friends for our time and attention. More subtly but just as importantly: the beliefs we secretly harbor, both about our own careers and those of others, can have a profound effect on how we interact.

The work we do also matters because it plays a part, however slight, in shaping the world in which we all live. As one big, global workforce, we are forever changing—for better and for worse—the face of our planet and billions of lives. We shouldn’t just let that unfold. We should think about it, often and hard, and we should constantly consider what we could do differently.

2. Work is a continual conundrum. When it comes to carving out a career path, there seem to be a lucky few who are fueled by a powerful sense of mission and guided by a finely tuned master plan. The rest of us are finding our way by trial and error. Sometimes we act with a strong sense of purpose; sometimes we are buffeted by circumstance. When we don’t have jobs, we need to find them. When we do, we wonder if we’re doing the right thing. We don’t have career ‘paths’ so much as we have a series of career conundrums. The stress levels change over time of course—rising and falling as our situations change—but there is pretty much always something to ponder, something new to sort through.

3. Change is possible. A lot of people feel utterly stuck—unable to get work, unable to leave a particular job, unable to swap a stale career for a new one. Naturally, this is especially true in a weak economy. But change is not impossible, and many of the stories that found their way to Work Stew this year illustrated this: the investment banker who became a high school teacher; the marketing executive who became a cook; the anesthesiologist who became a musician. Perhaps my favorite story—because it demonstrates just how imaginative we might all be when contemplating a change—is that of John Safkow, the flight attendant who eventually left the airlines to become a caretaker to Koko, the world-famous signing gorilla. Talk about connecting the dots in a creative way.

4. Unpaid work is an important part of the mix. Often this point is made in connection with household work like childcare, cooking, and cleaning. And rightly so: such work creates a huge amount of economic and social value and can be a deep source of satisfaction for the doer. But what is emerging at Work Stew is the importance, similarly, of volunteer activities and creative pursuits. Work meets multiple needs: the need to make a living, the need to feel meaningfully engaged, the need to be challenged, the need for self-expression. Maybe it’s a function of the economy, but there seems to be an increasing realization that no job can single-handedly meet every need, and that patching together a tapestry of roles—some that pay and some that don’t—is perhaps the most realistic way to solve the work conundrum. At least for a moment.


2011 Highlights

In Notes on December 18, 2011 at 9:59 pm

I’ll be putting Work Stew on a low simmer for the next two weeks.

As a philandering politician might say, “I want to spend more time with my family.” Seriously. They look ornery, but they’re actually quite appealing.

In January, I’ll go back to editing essays and conducting interviews.

I also plan to publish a second piece of my own: ‘lessons learned’ from the 60 plus essays and interviews collected so far. If there’s any particular take-away that you think should be included on that list, please let me know.

In the meantime, here (in the order they were published) is a rundown of the five most widely read Work Stew essays from this year:

Why I Don’t Work in an Office

By Samantha Cole

People who graduated from my high school were never supposed to need a tool belt for work. At the small private girls’ school in a wealthy Connecticut town, there were no vocational courses offered. Freshman year, my best friend and I signed up to take wood shop at the affiliated boys’ school, but the course was cancelled once it was clear that we two girls were the only ones who had shown any interest. Parents sent their kids to this expensive and exclusive prep school so they’d have an advantage getting into the very “best” colleges. When I attended in the mid-’80s, the parking lot was full of European imports with college stickers in the back windshields. The more Ivy League institutions you could lay claim to, the more cachet your BMW had. These were not people who built things. These were people who commissioned things to be built for them. Read on…

*****

From the Outside Looking In

By Lindsay Moran

Since I resigned from the Central Intelligence Agency in 2003 and wrote Blowing My Cover, a memoir about my experience in the CIA’s clandestine service, I frequently field the same question from interviewers, friends and other curious parties: Do you ever regret leaving?

I have always answered truthfully, “No.” I left the CIA for reasons both personal and ideological. Personally, I didn’t want to continue leading a double life—lying to my family and friends, and becoming further isolated from them, and to a certain extent, reality. Ideologically, I had become disillusioned with the organization that I’d once revered, but which from the inside looking out had proved alarmingly dysfunctional. Read on…

*****

Stuck in a Moment

By Tasha Huebner

Damn, I was arrogant.

“Hmph,” I smirked, even with a bit of an eye roll thrown in for good measure. “I’ll never be one of those people trying to sell more cornflakes, or—god forbid—figuring out what color hats the Keebler Elves should wear. I’m going to do something a little more important than that.”

So, with Wharton MBA in hand, I set out to conquer the world, self-styled Master of the Universe that I was. And what kind of important things am I doing now? Let’s see. Today I was out at my garden plot fussing over the tomato plants, because I’m hoping that later in the summer I’ll have enough to sell and make at least a few hundred dollars. Read on…

*****

Watch Us Work It

A reflection on “work” by Devo founder, Gerald V. Casale 

Work. Workin’ it. Workin’ for the weekend. Workin’ for the man!

James Brown was “the hardest workin’ man in show business.” But was he workin’? If it’s fun, it’s not work. You “work” to make money so that hopefully some day you won’t have to work. Work implies a certain amount of drudgery. You work to survive. You tolerate your boss. You clock in and clock out. You feel compromised, unfulfilled, and would rather be somewhere else. You move down the line in quiet resignation. That’s usually what is defined as work (i.e. a job). But what if you like your job? Is it work? Read on…

*****

My Secret Identity

By Terri Rowe

Secret identities aren’t just for super heroes. You might not know it to look at me, but I have one, too. In my everyday life, I am an ordinary blue-collar worker. I have held a wide variety of jobs since my youth, from food service to factory. But there is more to me than what you see.

For the past 17 years, I worked at a tier-one auto parts supply plant. I assembled the components of automotive interiors: headliners, floor consoles, overhead consoles. These days, I continue to work in manufacturing. However, my role will soon be changing as I train to become a technical operator focused on the building of hybrid batteries. The work I do on a daily basis consumes my energy and time, but it isn’t who I really am. Read on…

Photos provided by Chris Walton, Samantha Cole, Lindsay Moran, Tasha Huebner, Gerald Casale, and Terri Rowe.

Six-Month Update

In Notes on July 20, 2011 at 10:50 am

Work Stew is six-months-old as of this week. When I published my own essay, the first in the collection, I felt an urgent need to address my personal work angst, to figure out “for once and for all” what I should be doing with my life. Here’s what I said on the first episode of the podcast:

I don’t know that any one essay or any one interview will help in an immediate and concrete way…but I do know the power of stories: how they get us to expand our imaginations, how they encourage us to think differently about our lives. The hope is that Work Stew will provide, both on the page and in the podcast, a good mix of stories—food for thought as we each find our own way.

Since then, I’m struck by the fact that each essay and interview has actually helped me, many in very specific ways. Mark Spearman’s moving piece on the satisfaction he’s found in being able to support his children’s dreams. Tasha Huebner’s powerful reminder that having work of any kind is nothing to sneeze at. Gerald Casale’s raw acknowledgement that even rock stars make compromises. Lindsay Moran’s eloquent thank you to the men and woman of the CIA, an employer that has long inspired in her deeply mixed emotions. Each of these essays has helped me to look at the work I do in a new way. Perhaps there’s a way to make peace with it, I’ve started to think.

On the other hand, I’m struck that Lindsay, for example, did choose to leave the CIA, and that the need to make a change emerges as a Work Stew theme just as often, if not more frequently, as the themes of reframing and acceptance. For example, I’ve found myself inspired by Samantha Cole, who traded in her office job to become a journey-level carpenter; by Jane Viau, who left a VP role at Merrill Lynch to become a high-school math teacher; and by Hollywood producer Malvolio, who made less dramatic but equally important changes to put himself on a more satisfying career path.

So, as far as my own ‘work stew’ goes, it continues to simmer; I’m still sorting through some thorny issues, and I haven’t figured out anything “for once and for all.” What I can say, though, is that this six months has been the most pleasant and productive period of stewing I’ve ever hadand that’s saying something, because I’ve stewed for decades. Literally decades. So, thanks to all of you who have contributed to Work Stewas essay writers, podcast guests, readers, and listeners. Taking this journey with such a merry band beats, by leaps and bounds, what I was doing before, which was stewing solo. It’ll be interesting to see what the next six months brings, and I hope you’ll stick around for the ride.

All the best,

Kate

P.S. Thanks also to everyone who has purchased a Work Stew coffee mug. Work Stew’s bandwidth costs are now almost wholly reader/listener-supported, getting me closer and closer to my goal of making this a self-sustaining project. If you’d like a mug or are interested in supporting Work Stew in some other way, please contact me at kate@workstew.com.

20-Week Update

In Notes on June 7, 2011 at 12:19 am

20 weeks, 20 essays. That seems positive, as if this project might be tapping into something real.

It’s interesting, though: not everyone gets Work Stew. Partly it’s an age thing. As far as readers/listeners go, the sweet spot seems to be people who are old enough to have had their childhood dreams knocked around a bit, but young enough to be contemplating several more decades in the workforce.

That said, age doesn’t seem to be the sole predictor of Work Stew enthusiasm levels. Some of the site’s most avid fans aren’t searching for career answers of their own; they’re already quite content with what they do, or they’re retired. In these cases, what Work Stew visitors seem to be responding to is simply the storiesthe chance to hear first-hand what goes through the mind of a soldier, or an air traffic controller, or a stay-at-home dad.

Recently I was asked by someone who had heard of Work Stew but hadn’t visited the site, “Why would anyone want to read people’s complaints about their jobs?” Mmm. I’m not entirely clear where this experiment is headed, but I do know this: that’s not what Work Stew is all about.

Work Stew is a place for people to think out loud about what they do for a living. When some people, like pediatrician Peter Morningstar, think out loud, they end up expressing what they love about their jobs. Others, like former CIA operative Lindsay Moran, wind up sharing a complicated mix of views. And even those who cop to being somewhat disgruntled explore their feelings in what seems to me to be a pretty thoughtful and constructive way.

Most of us will spend the vast majority of our waking hours working; it seems important to think deeply, and often, about how exactly we’re spending that time. I’ll be frank: I consider my own work angst to be the result of a failure of imagination on my part. Looking back, I don’t feel that I explored widely enough, or hard enough, before charting my course.

For me anyway, Work Stew’s essays and interviews are slowly but steadily helping me to expand my notion of what’s possible. In a way that no reference book on careers ever has, this growing collection of stories is helping me to approach my own career dilemma anew, armed with a much wider range of reference points and considerations than I had twenty years ago.

But that’s just me. Please let me know if Work Stew is resonating with you in any way. I’m curious to know what you like, what you don’t like, and where you think it should head next.

Thanks very much,

Kate


Editorial Note: 12-Week Update

In Notes on April 13, 2011 at 2:45 pm

At three months old, most babies can hold up their heads for a period of time, but they still require very frequent feedings. That’s about where Work Stew is, as it rounds the 12-week mark: it is increasingly steady in some respects—the core readership is growing nicely, and new essays are coming in at a healthy pace—but it still requires a great deal of loving care.

On the basis that it never hurts to ask (which is quickly becoming the official credo of Work Stew), I thought I would use this update to issue a short wish list of sorts. Here are two simple ways in which you, the site’s early adopters, can play an instrumental role in nurturing Work Stew towards a robust toddlerhood:

1. Rustle up an astronaut, Mo Rocca, or both.

I’ve long believed that if I had had the good sense (and the math skills) to become an astronaut, I’d have completely side-stepped all this career angst. I mean, really: does an astronaut spend any time—any time at all—wondering if they’ve chosen the right path? In my mind, the answer is clearly no, but I’d still like to read a first-person account on Work Stew.

Alternatively, or in addition, I’d really love to get an essay from Mo Rocca. In a perfect world, those of us who loved Mo years before he hit it big with that chickwich spiel would simply be able to call him up and invite him to contribute to Work Stew. But the line between Eager Editor of a New Website and, well, Stalker can be perilously thin. So it would be really great if someone who’s in touch with Mo these days could ask on my behalf.

2. School me in this, how you say, Twitter thing.

At first, I resisted Twitter. It seemed to me like there was already plenty of noise being pushed out at people who aren’t really listening. Why add to the cacophony? But then I was urged by some Work Stew contributors to promote their writing via Twitter and I figured: if someone has taken the time to craft a thoughtful, thousand-word essay, the least I can do is cobble together 140 characters announcing that the piece has been published.

So I buckled down and sent my maiden message. Afterwards I wrote: “I just tweeted for the very first time. I’m still blushing and I feel 10 years younger.” And a strange thing happened: someone signed up to ‘follow’ me. Then another. Then another. But it’s early days and @workstew still has only a small handful of followers. If you are some sort of tweeting genius, can you please: a) send me any tips/critiques (kate@workstew.com) and b) tweet about your favorite Work Stew essay? ‘Liking’ Work Stew’s new Facebook page would also be deeply, deeply appreciated.

Thanks very much!

Kate

Previous updates:

Editorial Note: 3-Week Update

In Notes on February 11, 2011 at 12:45 pm

Work Stew is now three weeks old. A few posts went up before January 20, 2011, but that was the day of the first Facebook announcement, and since readers are every bit as important as contributors to a project like this, I consider that day to be Work Stew’s official birthday.

So far, so good: essays have been published at a rate of about two per week, and more than sixty people have raised their hands to contribute pieces of their own. It can take a while to write a good essay, so patience will be the order of the day for the next few weeks and months. But, once the first batch of contributors starts to complete their submissions, I think it’ll be possible to publish a new essay every other day or so—frequently enough to keep the site fresh, but with enough of a pause between pieces to give each new contributor a decent stint on the front page.

In the meantime, the Work Stew podcast is off and running: the first episode was released on Monday, and great guests—to be announced soon—are already booked for the next few shows. I kicked off the debut episode with a brief answer to the question, “What is Work Stew, and why are you doing this?” For those of you who prefer reading to listening, I’ve transcribed my response below.

If you have any questions or suggestions, please write to me at kate@workstew.com. In the meantime, thanks very much to all of you—writers, readers, guests, and listeners. Your enthusiasm for this project has blown me away.

Kate

Transcribed from Episode 1 of the Work Stew podcast:

“What is Work Stew and why are you doing this?”

The reason I’ve created a forum for people to talk frankly about what they do for a living is that there seems to me to be a lot of work-related angst out there.

Once upon a time, the question of what to do with your life (and all of the associated stewing) used to belong primarily to the young—recent graduates needing to choose a path that would make for a good long-term fit. But these days, I find people of all ages, in all stages of their lives and careers, contemplating—or being forced to contemplate—major changes and, in many cases, wholesale reinvention.

For some, it’s liberating; for others, it’s terrifying. For many, it’s both of those things at exactly the same time.

That’s certainly been my own experience—exhilaration and terror, in more or less equal doses and often mixed together.

A few weeks ago, in an attempt to make sense of all the work-related noise in my head, I sat down and wrote an essay. Once it was done, I quickly found myself wondering what other people really thought about their work lives, and I soon realized I didn’t really know.

With my friends, for example, I think I understand more or less what most of them do for a living—but for the most part I only understand it at the cocktail party level.

Maybe it’s because work and money are inextricably linked; maybe its because what we do can be so tied up with our sense of who we are…whatever the reason, how people really feel about the work they do is not, I think, a topic that is discussed as often as it needs to be.

For the most part, I think that those of us who stew over our work lives—and I have yet to find someone who doesn’t—for the most part, I think we stew, we wonder, and we worry largely in isolation.

My goal with Work Stew is to chip away a little at the shiny surfaces—to have people talk, in their essays and in interviews, thoughtfully and frankly about their work lives: why they made the decisions they’ve made, what they’ve loved about their work, what they’ve disliked, what they’ve observed, what they would have done differently, and where they have, or have not, found meaning.

I don’t know that any one essay or any one interview will help any of us in an immediate and concrete way…but I do know the power of stories—how they help us to expand our imaginations, how they encourage us to think differently about our own lives.

The hope is that Work Stew will provide, both on the page and in the podcast, a good mix of stories— food for thought as we each find our own way.