Reimagining Work

If you won the jackpot today, would you go back to work tomorrow? The question may sound absurd, but there are plenty of lottery winners who have done just that. There’s a waitress in Florida who went back to making $400 per week the day after winning $1 million, a German salesman who was told that he won $27 million only to tell the shopkeeper that he didn’t have time to chat because he was late for work and a British shelf stacker who returned to her job at Walmart after winning $3.9 million. This seemingly strange phenomenon becomes less strange once we admit what we all know: work isn’t just about paying the bills.

Making money is important and particularly with student loans, mortgages, health issues and little people with big educational needs, the urgency increases. But, even if we took the job just to pay the bills, those 40+ work hours add up to more than just dollar signs, they make up a large part of our identity. Hence why everyone’s favorite cocktail party question is, so what do you do?

Even if you’re not the cocktail party type (and I’ll admit that I’m more of a PBR girl myself), all those hours are bound to affect you. Maybe you spend the best years of your life thinking about how to provide excellent customer service at Walmart, maybe you spend them manipulating derivatives on Wall Street. Maybe you love all your co-workers, maybe you don’t. Whatever flavors go into your work wine, you’re not going to get out of there without a little tinge on your teeth.

Most Americans report being satisfied with their jobs. Young people, however, are not drinking the Kool-Aid. We consistently report low rates of job satisfaction and seem to change careers as though it’s, well, our job. Continue reading

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You Have My Divided Attention

The effect of modern digital communications on quality of life is a scary-big topic. This post is about my inner war with Facebook. How do you justify, monitor, or otherwise ponder the role of social media in your life?  

“Good for you,” people responded when I announced deactivating.  Congratulations tinged with guilt.  I should do that too, but…

But what?

***

The symptoms mounted.  At work, thumbs ached from toggling between web windows.  At happy hour, Mojitos downtown were peer-reviewed—mid-sip—for 1,150+ friends.  By midnight, mind noisy with the static of social chatter, I counted “likes” jumping through a blue box towards sleep.

Social media addiction?  Hyperbole aside, we all know someone in a comparable state. Last fall, the marketing firm Nielsen found that in May 2011 alone, Facebook’s then-150 million American users spent 53.5 billion minutes on the site.  That is over 101,000 years of uploading, posting, commenting, and passive peering.  Nearly 30% of users log in before they even roll out of bed in the morning. Who were we, eight years ago, before this drug hit the market?

Our online avatars have become such actors in our flesh-and-blood existence that the question rings of heresy and betrayal. By the virtual social sphere’s self-reinforcing logic, quitting is implicitly thumbing your nose at actual friends, “hanging out” there in the scrolling sidebar. Does the “Facebook suicide” send a chill down your spine? Opting out is for Luddites, poets, wilderness freaks, the paranoid, for Great Aunts. Disappearing from the web is, for a young urban changemaker, the unpatriotic equivalent of skipping the 4th of July for High Tea along the Thames.

But let’s face it—no matter how wasteful, creepy, navel-gazing or even dangerous the deeply personal and increasingly corporatized online world has become, it is near impossible to opt out. Continue reading

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The Hunger Games: Who Wants to Play?

Last Friday evening, for all 2 hours and 22 minutes of the Hunger Games, I was riveted, and not alone. The audience around me gasped, screamed, and hollered almost to match the cast. Yet I left the Hunger Games feeling empty. Standing in the theater lobby, filled with the redolence of synthetic butter glazed over steaming popcorn, surrounded by colors and lights gaudier than the Capitol, the conversations with my friends about the movie were short. It was true to the book, everyone said. The parts that should have been cut were cut, we said. It deserved its sea of red, rotten tomatoes, we all agreed. Then we all agreed on a place for a drink, the 13th Step in the East Village, and the Hunger Games were forgotten.

Yet two days later I can’t forget it. It’s been clawing at my thoughts like a muttation. It’s taken me two days to figure out why: because of how it didn’t make me feel, when it should have. Some of my friends saw it as an action movie, and left the theater pumped. Some saw it as a love story, and left the theater warmed. Others, like myself, left feeling queasy.

The Hunger Games should be a morality tale, or social commentary. It has some of the former, but nearly none of the latter. That’s a mistake. Continue reading

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Happiness Is The New Success: Why Millennials Are Reprioritizing

There used to be a ladder to success. It was the college→good job→marriage→house→family→cushy retirement. Sure, not everyone made it, there were a few broken rungs near the bottom but that was the guiding light to the good life and enough people made it that it seemed within reach. A few people questioned this ladder as really being “the good life” but those were just hippies or crazies, no one worth paying attention to. Now all this has changed; my generation is growing up without a ladder.

Before you scoff, let’s think about that for a second. The first rung on the ladder, college, used to be seen as a straight shot to success. Now, for too many of us, it’s a straight shot to our parent’s couch and thousands of dollars in student loans, totaling over $1 trillion annually. As for a “good job,” well, many of us are busing tables in restaurants and shuffling papers in unpaid internships, but we’re the lucky ones. For those who didn’t make it to college, the unemployment rate is more than doubled at 8.7 percent, leading to a total of 14 percent of young workers (20-24) who are unemployed. While the economy will certainly improve, those years spent doing menial labor will never come back to us, with estimates that we could end up earning 10 percent less on average than somebody who left school a few years before or after the recession due to the loss of critical entry-level work experience.

As Derek Thompson of the Altantic put it, “For Millennials, this is the great irony of the Great Recession. A crisis that started in the housing market could wind up having the most lasting negative impact on the one generation that didn’t own any homes before the bust.”

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It’s Valentine’s Day. Close the Office!

This Tuesday, Valentine’s Day, my office is closed. None of my friends have the day off. Neither does my girlfriend. Google “Valentine’s Day businesses closed” and you’ll see titles like “Why Small Businesses Love Valentine’s Day.” Why? Gue$$. It’s not because they’re having a Grinch-like moment of awakening. Businesses believe in Valentine’s Day. My CEO, Nancy, believes in love. To her, Valentine’s is a day to spend with loved ones; a world of business shouldn’t change that. I agree. And I can’t argue with a day off.

My girlfriend, Vanessa, feels differently. She thinks the office closure seems cruel. “What about the people who don’t have significant others?” A fair point. But shouldn’t Valentine’s Day be about more than significant others? What about friends, family, even hobbies we love? I was cooking Vanessa a special pre-Valentine’s brunch as I said this. We were both well aware of the gap between my theory and practice.

Valentine’s, as a holiday, doesn’t leave space for diversiform love. According to the Valentine’s media blitz, if love isn’t romantic, it doesn’t count.

And yet love does count, even at work. Ask employees what determines their happiness in the workplace, and they’ll tell you money. Yet examine the experimental literature, and you’ll find that that the most important factors influencing job satisfaction are not money and job security, but relationships – relationships with managers, with co-workers, with peers at other companies. In other words, liking the people you’re around matters most, even in the place many of us claim to love least.

Building good relationships isn’t just good for job satisfaction. It’s good business. Positive relationships at work correlate strongly with higher productivity. This holds true even for nerdy data analysts like me. So says eminent web analyst Avinash Kaushik: “Your real impact comes not from [data]. It comes from… being a warm and friendly person, from constructing relationships across the aisle….” In practice, this is obvious. When one gets along with co-workers, joint tasks are accomplished expeditiously. New ideas bubble up. Products improve.

Building healthy, loving relationships at work is not only good for job satisfaction and productivity. It is also simply the right thing to do. I think Nancy gave us the day off because she believes in celebrating a day about love, no matter how much it has been commoditized, or made to feel exclusionary.

So I agree with Nancy – Valentine’s is a day to spend with loved ones. I also agree with Vanessa – maybe it shouldn’t be a day off. But for me, it is. So what will I do with it? In addition to calling family and friends, as well as spending time with Vanessa, I plan to think about how to be a better office mate. When I come back to work on Wednesday, I hope to do my part in making our office a more loving place. To me, nothing better could come of a day off from work than that. 

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Where to Live? The City, Naturally.

Prospect Park

Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY

I live a short walk from Prospect Park, the Brooklyn sibling of Central Park. In the summer, the air of Prospect Park is filled with a shimmer of charcoal, the unrestrained shouts of children, and the gentle flap of kites shifting lazily in the breeze. Even in the off season, Prospect Park teems with life: joggers, bikers, and walkers all keep the barren trees company. I visit the park often. Though I choose to live in New York, I love the outdoors. Or, I choose to live New York because I love the outdoors.

A plurality of U.S. non-profits are in cities. Among my green-thumbed friends, the vast majority work and live in urban centers. It makes sense. Anthropogenic impacts are most deleterious where populations are densest. Thus many tree-savers head to the cities, where there are few trees to save. I’ve often thought about what this does to us – to separate from nature those who work to save it.

The impacts of nature-deficiency are of growing concern nationally. On the cover of Outside magazine last month ran the headline: This is Your Brain on Nature – How Getting Outside Makes You Smarter, Happier, and Want to Fix the Planet.  The following excerpt from the Outside article describes five ways nature improves our mental health, based on cognitive science research:

  1. Increased attention span. A 2008 study by University of Michigan psychologists found that walking outside or even just looking at pictures of natural settings improves directed attention, the ability to concentrate on a task. Put another way: nature restores our ability to focus. Continue reading
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A Letter a Day Keeps the Blues Away

My sophomore year of college, I trapped myself into a bad cycle.  I was overextending myself as an activist—though at first enjoying it.  The campaigns I was involved in and program I started up were important to me, and I knew I was doing good work.  But my social life died for a period; I let friends slide by the wayside during several busy stretches.  This led to people not asking me over, not because they didn’t want me there but because they assumed I was too busy to attend.  I knew I was slipping away from the people I cared about, but for some reason I felt it would be desperate if I called them and asked to come over.  So then I made myself busier, that way it didn’t matter if I didn’t have any invites for a Friday night, because…I had campaign work to catch up on anyway.  Which led to less and less invitations.  I pulled away, alienating myself from friends, instead seeing people only in meetings and late-night study sessions.

After dealing with a lot of health issues over the past few years, I understand that prioritizing that balance between work and play, between lunch-meetings and coffee with friends, is critical for me.  I lived without that balance for far too long, and I know that attempting to find it is essential for sustaining myself as an activist and keeping myself healthy.

***

You know those friends who, no matter how much time has actually passed, once you’ve reconnected it’s like no time at all has gone by?  Most of those friends, for me, come from my summer outdoor jobs. There is something about braving the elements out in the woods that seems to create a special bond.  It’s typically during the summer that I become nostalgic for out-of-touch friends and put in the effort to reach out.  Why don’t I make that effort, a critical part of the balance between work and play, the rest of the year?

This fall I decided to make that effort, to prioritize my friends alongside my work, with a letter-writing campaign.  I love getting mail, but have been perpetually bad about sending it out—if I ever finished a letter, it wouldn’t go in an envelope; if it went in an envelope, that would sit around half-addressed for months…So I set a goal of writing a postcard or letter a day to friends and family.

Continue reading

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