Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Daydream Non-Believer

Anytime I get disillusioned with my job and daydream about what my "ideal" work life would look like, the picture I see in my head is of me as a writer. I see me spending my time researching cool and interesting topics, weaving together perspectives from multiple different disciplines, and then turning that research into beautifully crafted prose that my adoring fans would pay lots of money to read.

I suspect you can already spot the problem with this daydream: it is utterly unrealistic. I know that being a writer would be a lot harder than the daydream implies. I know that there would be parts of the writer's job that I would be good at (self-motivating, for instance) and parts that I would find quite challenging (having to call people as part of my research, for instance). I know that garnering adoring fans would be no sure thing- and believe me, I harbor no illusions about how easily I would produce beautifully crafted prose. I've been writing this blog for long enough to know that I rarely, if ever, hit that mark.

And yet... the work of a writer, at least of the type of writer I daydream about being, is actually consistent with what I like in a job: as I figured out during my life reorg, I am drawn to the chance to organize information. I do that now, figuring out how to corral the mess of information produced in drug discovery into databases and SharePoint sites and the like. And a good non-fiction writer organizes information, too, but with the added aspect that she needs to then explain that information (and the organizational scheme) to her readers. In that aforementioned beautifully crafted prose.

However, I think that what keeps drawing my daydreaming mind to the idea is that the lifestyle appeals to me. I like the idea of being able to arrange my work week however it suited me, and I like the idea of being judged by my output, and not the hours it took me to produce it. The most appealing aspect of the job may actually be the idea that being efficient could be rewarded in a way that it is not in corporate jobs. In my current line of work, efficiency is generally rewarded with more work. In my writing daydream, it is rewarded with the opportunity to work a little less. Perhaps this is an overly idealistic view of what writing would be like. OK, this is almost certainly an overly idealistic view of what writing would be like. I suspect that I would actually need to fight the urge to work longer hours, to make more money.

But maybe not. The one time I had the opportunity to choose a little more time over more money, I chose the time: I cut my hours to 35 per week for about a year after Pumpkin was born. I felt productive at work in 35 hours- as I alluded to in my post on my work limit, if I try to work too few hours, I don't feel productive. I spend all my work time getting my head back into the work, and not much time actually getting anything done. So I don't want a true part time job. I would just like to redefine full time a bit.

When I think it through, it is not even that I really to work fewer hours on a week by week basis. I don't want to work less. I just want to work different. I want more time to travel. Since both my husband and I have "paid time off" (PTO)  instead of vacation time and sick leave, a lot of our time off goes to caring for sick kids (or being sick ourselves with whatever illness the kids have passed on to us). We struggle to take real vacations. When was the last time we both two solid weeks off of work? I'm trying to remember, and I think it was right after Petunia was born- which hardly counts. I think the last time we came close to an actual two week vacation was our trip to Oregon, while I was pregnant with Petunia. And if I remember correctly, the I was only able to take that much time off at that point because I was allowed to take a couple of the days off without pay.

Even once my kids stop sucking all of my PTO into sick days, I suspect it will be hard to take the three week long vacations that Hubby and I took back when we were first together. People are shocked (and a bit horrified) when I say that I used to take a three week vacation every year- without a Blackberry. I don't know if this is a sign of my increased seniority (and responsibilities) or the fact that after years and years of downsizing and productivity increases, corporate America isn't really set up to have people disappear for three weeks. There is very little slack left for anyone to cover anyone else's work for more than a few days.  Of course, it can be done. I managed to take a three month maternity leave after the birth of each child. I worked extra hard before and after each leave, organizing things for my upcoming absence and then picking up threads that had gone loose while I was out. I'd be more than willing to do that again in exchange for a proper three week holiday. But everyone seems to think that our work is too important to put on hold for anything as trivial as a vacation.

I know that this is nonsense, but I work in a culture that has bought into the nonsense. I fight it to the extent that I can. I do still take vacations, and I limit the encroachment of work into those vacations. (I work in IT, so even I accept that some situations are better handled from vacation than allowed to fester until I return.) And I daydream about finding a way to define my own work culture. The only way I'm going to get to do that is to be the boss- and I'm not really in the line of work that leads to being the boss in biotech. I have zero interest in the business development side of drug discovery. Perhaps I might someday find myself as the chief operating officer of a small biotech, but I'm pretty sure I'll never be the CEO. I've toyed with the idea of striking out as an independent consultant/contractor in my field, and I may yet do that (I have more thoughts on this coming in a future post on what sort of retirement I may get). In the meantime, I daydream about throwing it all in, and writing.

Why don't I act on my daydream? Well, for one thing, I suspect I'd miss drug discovery. For all its ups and downs and craziness, it is a pretty cool thing to be doing. I've also gotten a bit attached to my paycheck, and we've set up a life that depends on me earning a fair amount of money. All of that could change, but I'm not sure that I want it to. When I layer the hard truths of reality onto my soft-focus daydream, it doesn't look so great anymore.  So I'll probably stay in my current field. But maybe, someday, when the kids are out of day care and our mortgage is a little smaller, I might decide to make some changes, and maybe, just maybe, I'll try out that daydream and see what its like.

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What about you? What do you daydream about doing instead of your current job? Or are you doing the one and only thing that could ever make you happy?

15 comments:

  1. I can't imagine not having a couple of solid holidays every year! This calendar year we'll have had a total of 5 weeks in New Zealand and a week in Bali (we managed to stretch out the husbands 4 weeks of annual leave with clever use of public holidays) - but that's the advantage of working in the jobs we do, with generous sick/carer's leave entitlements - so we never have to dip into holiday time to cover illnesses. I have 72 hours of accruable sick leave every year - my balance is something like 180 hours now (this is another reason why I wouldn't consider changing companies while I've got small kids - I just can't give that up!)

    I've also hit the qualifying period for long service leave (3 months paid leave for every 7 years of service, which my company very unusually allows you to take pro-rata after 3 years. You can take it on a minimum period of single days by negotiation - for example if you wanted to work 4 day weeks, but be paid for 5 days for a year...) I've decided I'd better tack it on to my next maternity leave.

    But re: your writer's daydream - it's very similar to mine actually - both why I would like to write and why I don't! All the way through high school I said I wanted to write. My chem teacher suggested I write science textbooks... I even started a liberal arts degree at university with the aim of going into journalism before changing my mind & career direction to engineering just six months in.

    I blog in large part because it gives me a chance to write - but I am constantly disappointed with the quality of what I write. I could do so much better with more time - but when I'm typing with the constraint of a sleeping baby in my arms (as I'm doing again, right now) I figure I'd better just get the thoughts out and worry about form later! It's all good practice.

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  2. The American work culture is kind of crazy. The closer I get to having to find a real job to fit inside my single parent lifestyle, the sadder it makes me.

    My dad is a writer. He's an award winning, published short story writer. But that doesn't pay his bills. It might have if he had committed to doing it sooner in life but he says he doesn't have the energy anymore to really be prolific so he puts out about one new short story a year. He's a high school English teacher by trade and it fits him very well. He does get time off during the summer to travel and put in a good chunk of writing. During the school year teaching really takes most of his focus.

    If I had the talent, I'd find a way to make it work, writing creatively for a living, but I don't. But I understand your daydream desire for sure and the way it hits up against the reality of supporting a family.

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  3. How's your French? I'm sure they have drug companies...

    I've got flex-time but I'm always working. Though I work around 40 hrs/week in the summer and more during the school year, a lot of that is a choice on my part. Though if I don't work, I don't get tenure, so what can you do? But even after tenure I will want to work for respect in the research community and in case I need to ever change jobs.

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  4. My new job is much closer to my ideal/dream job than ever before. Being able to do science outreach for a living is definitely a treat. However, what I would really want to do is science education research. I'm trying to find ways to fit it into my current job, so we'll see how it goes!

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  5. @zenmoo- I have two days of sick leave at this job, and that is the first time in my entire professional life that I've had any sick leave whatsoever. I have 16 days of "PTO", That's actually considered pretty good, but it is on par with what I've had all along.

    American corporate culture sucks in this regard. The truly scary thing is that there are so many people who don't even take the paltry leave they have. I find that I am so much more productive and creative after a vacation! That is why I'm willing to take some time off without pay to get a proper vacation- but not all companies allow that.

    @nicoleandmaggie- my French is pretty appalling, actually! They do have a couple of drug companies and a couple of relevant software companies. But I think I'd aim for Scandinavia if I wanted to move to Europe. Except for the cold.... Hmmmm. We're actually pretty happy here, and (perhaps foolishly) are optimistic that the PTO going directly to sick leave problem isn't going to last much longer.

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  6. the milliner8:35 AM

    I'm pretty lucky here in that after 10 years at my current company, I have, per year, 4 weeks paid vacation, unlimited sick days (for myself, and they can't run longer than 3 consecutive days w/o a doctors note), 5 family sick days (to take care of kids, aging parents, spouses etc.) and a few extra company paid holidays tacked on to xmas etc. These conditions are good. I know.

    And yet, I'm exactly in the position now of considering throwing it all in to change jobs so that I can once again do the thing that makes me happiest - a combination of design & creative direction thrown in with some project management, and enough responsibility/power in my role to be leading the projects. I had finally more or less achieved this before the major restructuring in our department. Now? Not so much.

    I kind of feel like I'm on the verge of deciding exactly what specific area (within the general thing I do) I'll focus on for the next 20+ years. Needless to say, it occupies my thoughts and time. I feel like I have the chance to make some major changes now, and I want to take advantage as much as I can. But there are risks to manage, realities (like raising a young child) to consider and I too have grown quite fond of the bi-weekly paycheque and benefits. (I had my own business before my current job - more flexibility, less security).

    My daydream jobs are things like being a floral designer in a neighbourhood shop and having a shorter work day. Or making decorations for kids parties. Of course I totally idealise it and I know it's not the reality. But of course, I guess that's why it's my daydream.

    But, I'm trying to pay attention to the details of my daydreams as I think they tell me what I am looking for in my job: An opportunity to express my creativity, a flexible schedule that could work around the family life I want to have, a consistent paycheque, challenging work, but not insanely busy.

    So far I have been unable to squelch my drive to have my daily work be the work I love/need. Some people can do it / want to do it, and that's totally cool. I've pretty much decided that I have to not force myself into considering that it is an actual option for me as I'm just not wired for it. Instead, I'm daring to dream up what would be my ultimate working/career situation and then trying to pragmatically see if I can work out a version of it in reality. Fingers crossed.

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  7. Time. What I wouldn't give for time, time, time. At my job I get 10 PTO days and 6 holidays per year. Sick time is included in the PTO. So when I got the worst sinus infection of my life this spring? I pretty much ate up my entire year's pto. Hope the kid doesn't get me sick again!

    I'm such a better worker when I can set my own pace. I don't do well, honestly, at a 9-6 job. I work best in spurts, with my most productive times often coming NOT during "work hours." I work best with a little bit of free time. I work best when I can recharge with even a day or two vacation. Which means I often am not working at my best.

    My husband and I have talked before about starting our own business where employees would work-until they got the job done, however they got the job done. It's a nice little dream, anyway.

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  8. This is interesting! I love reading everyone's dreams.

    I guess I should clarify- I actually really like what I do right now. The only downside (other than the time off situation) is that it doesn't use all of my brain, if you know what I mean. There are creative aspects, but they aren't that frequent, and they are limited in scope. Also, I like to write (obviously), and other than dry technical specifications and naming convention documents, I don't get to do much of that at work.

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  9. bogart7:55 PM

    Hmmm.

    I mostly like what I do. I'd like to get to do more research/writing (and may, if a grant proposal that's about to go in gets funded ... fingers crossed and all that) and less administrative stuff at the margins, but what I've got is pretty good by any reasonable standard.

    Formally, I get 4 weeks PTO + holidays (roughly 2 work weeks worth, over a year) + 12 sick days/year, the last being accruable (the PTO too, up to a point -- that point being, hmmm, 8 weeks worth). Oh, and I'm eligible for FMLA, were such a situation to arise. Informally I've also got pretty a flexible schedule, though that could be yanked from me at any time if someone wanted to. Still, it's a pretty good set up.

    My commute irritates me, it's about an hour r/t which I consider maddeningly absurd, though I realize by US standards it's mundanely routine. As I like where we live and don't want to move (though I certainly could), it's unlikely to change.

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  10. @bogart, I hear you on the commute. Mine is very good by SoCal standards- 15-20 minutes in the morning, 20-30 in the evening (because I hit rush hour at its peak). But I still grumble about the wasted time. It doesn't bother me as much now that my oldest is 4- she can tell me about her day on our way home. But I'd still rather be at home more quickly!

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  11. I daydream about being an organic farmer. I'm an academic scientist, and sometimes I feel I do too much thinking and writing. I dream about my husband and I teaming up to grow awesome veggies and to be as self-sufficient as possible in some little piece of paradise. I read once that having shared dreams strengthens a relationship, and I've found that to be true with our shared daydream- it's something we pull out from time to time and it brings us closer. I know reality would be back breaking hard work, bad schools, isolation, and missing science, so for now we're happy with a few chooks in the backyard and a big garden.

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  12. Maybe all you daydreamers could leave corporate and allow the rest of us to move up behind you. Just kidding.

    Maybe it's because I'm so early career but I just don't have dreams like this. I think I was born to be a corporate cog as much as it makes me a more bitter and cynical person. It's like my brain won't even let me think about it for very long before dismissing it as unrealistic and/or low paying. I wish more companies would encourage using time off. When I finally have the leave saved up, and have the money to go somewhere, it seems like it's tough to leave for any extended amount of time, even if I'm chained to my work email the whole time.

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  13. I'm in the same boat as you with my PTO. And I'm hoping there will be less sicknesses this year so I can accrue more.

    An additional problem now is that our kids go to a pre-school that has 6 weeks off in the summer. So we had to figure out how to cover that time, which includes a week for me to cover and a week for my hubby to cover (and the rest is our parents splitting it up, thankfully!).

    I was really hoping for time to take a family vacation all together, but then I had to have knee surgery and the time for physical therapy, and there went a bunch of PTO. It's always something!

    I do like what I do a lot. But my dream job has been the same for a long time: a romance novel writer! I write too much technical stuff/non-fiction as it is. I want to live in fantasy worlds with characters falling in love and happy endings and some good "romance" scenes throughout. For now, I content myself with as much "research" as Londo and I can! hehe.

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  14. I hope it's not the one and only thing that makes me happy, but I think my situation is a pretty ideal one.

    I have a stay at home husband/dad (SAHD).

    I work as a scientist at a biotech company, he stays at home with our toddler and does freelance video-editing.

    We've only had this arrangement since August of last year (approaching the 1 year mark) and so far, so good.

    He had a bit of a transition to being our daughter's primary caregiver, and I think we both make a concerted effort to remember that we're working as a team and that bread-winning is not the sole measure of one's contributions.

    It definitely alleviates much of the guilt I would feel having her daycare all day long. And it is fabulous to have him available during the day to run errands and such.

    It's a bit of a worry financially, but we purchased our first home in February on a budget that works on my income alone, with his free lancing being gravy.

    I think the biggest hurdle the permanence of this arrangement is my husband feeling fulfilled. I hope we can make it work until our daughter (and any potential siblings) are school age. We'll see.

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  15. I am fascinated to learn that being a writer is considered a dream job by many! It certainly is my dream job and I'm grateful to be doing it. Of course, it is not all bliss and not for the risk-averse, and tough to have it produce a living wage (though it can).

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