Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Building a Life

Laura Vanderkam and Anandi at House of Peanut both had posts up last week about working and parenting, and the way this plays out in couples. The posts got me thinking about why I work, and I realized that I couldn't easily articulate my reasons. Sure, I work to help support my family, and the fact that I work means that my husband doesn't ever have to feel trapped by his job, just like they discuss. And I have been known to use the fact that I make more money than my husband to shutdown questions about why I don't stay home with the kids. If I'm completely honest, though, none of that really explains why I work. If I didn't want to work, we could arrange our lives to make that possible.

So I work because I want to. By why do I want to? I work because working is necessary to my vision of what I want my life to be. In fact, the money part is not actually necessary to that vision- I aspire to arrange my finances such that I do not feel that my choices about what work to do are quite so constrained by my need to bring in money to help support my family.

As I rocked Petunia toward sleep tonight, I thought more about my life and what I want it to be. Like most people, my life is a mishmash of different pieces, which I try to arrange in a meaningful way. I think my building blocks fall into three main categories:
Relationships. It is important to me that I do right by the other people in my life. Unsurprisingly, this is an area that has gathered a lot more blocks since I've had kids, but it was always an important area to me. I was never going to be someone who subordinated her personal relationships to some grand enterprise, even if that enterprise would do wonderful things for the rest of the world.

Joy. I really do think that being happy is one of the most important things I can aim for in my life. If I am not enjoying my life, I think about why and try to fix it. I've recently realized that for me, a big part of feeling happy is feeling free, and I'm still working through what I think that means to me and the life I've built.

If I'm honest, this aspect of my life has taken a bit of a hit since having kids, even though the kids themselves bring a lot of joy to me. I think the reason for that is that we have allowed the kids to constrain some of the other things, big and small, that bring me joy: travel, eating out, reading. I'm working to fix that, to the extent that we can, and I have made peace with the fact that I need to do that work. Having kids was a major change to my life and to my sense of identity. It shouldn't really be surprising that it has taken me a few years to find my equilibrium again.

Meaning. This is where work comes in. I want to leave the world a little better than I found it. I want to create things that touch other people. If I didn't try to do these things, I would feel a big hole in my life.

I've written about my struggles to find the "right" work for me and how I've been feeling restless in my career. The more I've thought about it, the more I realize that this isn't because I am fundamentally unhappy with the work I am doing now. It is because I am having a hard time figuring out in which way I can best contribute. Here is a list of the things I care about, in no particular order:
  1. Improving the way other scientists organize their data, with the idea that doing so will help them get more value from that data and the information it provides. This is a major component of my current job, and I still care about it. It bothers me that we do so much better at organizing our shopping data than our scientific data.
  2. Contributing to drug discovery. There are so many unmet medical needs out there- too many cancer diagnoses are essentially death sentences, we have so little to offer people with mental illnesses, infectious diseases still kill people, etc., etc. I know that a lot of people disparage the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry, and believe me, I do not think my industry is perfect. But we are still the ones trying to meet those unmet needs. I like being a part of that.
  3. Getting more women and minorities into science and technology. I think these are the fields that find solutions to a lot of problems, and I want as much diversity in these fields as possible, to increase the odds that we solve the most important problems. Also, there are some great and rewarding jobs in these fields (see point 2), and I want those jobs to be open to everyone.
  4. Convincing people that you can have a meaningful and successful career without subsuming your entire life to it- even in science and technology. I think this is closely related to the diversity problem. I also think that getting rid of the "real scientists and engineers will do whatever the work requires" stereotype would lead to more productivity and creativity, not less. Not to mention happier scientists and engineers.
  5. Providing equal education to all kids, regardless of income and location. In my view, education is the path to a happier life, because it is a path to a life with more choices (or freedom, if you will). It is the path out of poverty, and it is so, so unfair of us to propagate a narrative in which "anyone" can succeed while at the same time stacking the deck against the kids whose parents don't make enough money to buy their way to a good education. I know that the solution to poverty and the achievement gap is not as simple as just providing equal education... but I still think it would be a great start.
I'm probably not going to build something this grand
There are probably other things I'm forgetting now, but the fact that those came to mind first indicates that they may be what matter most to me. But I haven't figured out how to best allocate my energy. Should I focus on 1 and 2, hope that I make some small impact on 3 and 4 by example, and just throw my spare money at 5? This is my current configuration. Or should I try to change my focus to something else- maybe 3 or 4?- throw money at 2 as well as 5, and figure I've made as much contribution as I'm going to make towards 1? And if I did that, what would be the most effective way to make an impact?

I don't know the answers. I haven't even figured out how to try to find them. I've been reading various books (and I have some more on my list to read), and doing a lot of thinking, but I'm not making much progress. I feel like I have dumped out all my blocks and divided them up by color, but haven't figured out what I want to build. All I know for certain is that I can't build something that pleases me without using my full range of blocks. So I won't be giving up work anytime soon- if I ever do.

21 comments:

  1. Thanks for the link! I was wondering if your work comes in under Joy, or if it might if you were working on your 3,4,and 5. That would be pretty awesome.

    I especially like your #4 and I think that's another one of my reasons why I work, kind of to prove that it can be done, though it's a hard sell in my industry as well.

    There are a few people who have quit jobs at my company (or in their case, retired when it was a good time to have stock) and started up nonprofit orgs to address your #3 and #5. We have a friend who retired from tech and now teaches high school. I love the idea that career no longer means you do one thing for 45 years then retire.

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    1. The hard thing with #4 is that there are a small number of people who really do want to subsume their entire life into their career- and hey, I think they should be able to do it. But I don't think the rest of us should be judged by their work style. It might be effective for them, but it isn't effective for most people I've managed.

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    2. I think a lot of people early in their career do #4 by default because they don't know what else to do with themselves. I see a lot of that at my company, with folks who are either very young and single or married but don't have kids and both spouses just have work as their hobby.

      And of course, there are the people who just love writing code so much that they would rather do that. I have a friend who, despite having 2 kids, routinely doesn't take all of his vacation and works *all* the time because he can't imagine doing anything else with his time.

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  2. Great post!

    I think I work because:
    1. I'm ambitious
    2. I like watching things grow
    3. I like bringing in large sums of money
    4. Protestant work ethic. (How I got this while being raised Catholic speaks to its strength through the generations.)

    If I had tons of money I could probably find fulfillment without paid work... in the same way that Bill Gates does these days.

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    1. I like your list! I'm not sure what I'd do if I had tons of money. Perhaps try to start a company. I may eventually try to do that without dons of money, actually... that is one of the possibilities I'm considering.

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  3. Love this post. I agree that equal education is so important. When I was growing up, I didn't live in an expensive school district but the schools were relatively decent and state universities were affordable. Now it seems I keep reading that good schools are only private or in expensive areas, which leaves many, many smart kids with potential out of luck. That's sad and fixable, since it was provided more equally at some point.

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    1. I don't think things are uniformly bleak in public education (although I think there are pockets of extreme bleakness). What I saw when I was looking around at schools here was a big difference in the "extras" at schools in richer and poorer areas, but not a big difference in teacher enthusiasm or (from what I could tell) quality. There are definitely some things that could be fixed with some judicious application of a relatively small amount of money.

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    2. I did Upward Bound tutoring and private tutoring when I was in college in a large city, and there are definitely big differences in teacher quality, specifically in math instruction. When the person teaching math is also the PE teacher or the history teacher and has a fear of math and doesn't actually know the math they're teaching, the quality of instruction is just not that great. With the UB kids a lot of time was taught training them how to teach themselves from their falling-apart-ancient textbooks (and since I was a math major, teaching math). Private tutoring it was more clarifying what the teacher had taught and just being there for moral support while the students did their homework (from the shiny new textbooks).

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    3. Oh, yeah, like I said- there are definitely some places where the public schools are just dreadful. I just didn't observe that while I was looking at the San Diego public schools. Of course, I didn't go and visit the "default" neighborhood schools in the poorer areas, so I freely admit this is just an impression and not a researched opinion. I do know some people who are teaching in poorer schools here, and they are all smart, dedicated people.

      And the public schools in the wealthier areas seem on par with the private schools I looked at, to be honest- with the notable exception of class size.

      I think some people hear about the public schools that have real problems and think that all public schools have problems, and that just isn't true. And I think that some people think the problems the bad public schools have are insurmountable, and that isn't true, either. Some of the problems really could be fixed with money- like the ancient falling apart text books.

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  4. mom2boy2:54 PM

    I'm not sure you asked for opinions but I think you have an unusual talent and passion for 1 so I vote for staying in your field, using 1 to impact 2. Continuing in your field in a managerial, hiring, project over-seeing level to positively impact 3. Keep up your blog to impact 3 as well as 4 and continue to be an advocate for your daughters' education and local school system for 5.

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    1. Oooh, I love the idea of having people tell me what to do! It would be interesting to read the reasons- and maybe really helpful. So anyone else who wants to tell me how I should arrange my life, please chime in!

      Your arrangement is pretty much what I do now. It is nice to know someone, at least, doesn't think I'm totally screwing up.

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  5. Nice LegoLand illustration! Even people who don't have to work can have a lot to offer the world, not just their families. See points 1-5 for that.

    I've been pondering lately how to talk to my children about work. I try not to say I "have" to work. I have made the point that people work for two reasons. One is for money (explaining what we do with money) and one is because we enjoy it.

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    1. There's also the: We were given gifts and it is our responsibility to share them to help make the world a better place. Because that is the right thing to do. Or maybe that's just my mom.

      Also: Idle hands make the devil's playground. People who don't work enough tend to get themselves in trouble.

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    2. I like the point about not just telling our kids that we "have" to work.

      I have an unbelievable number of photos from Miniland and Legoland. Everytime we go, my husband takes more. It is nice to finally make one useful!

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  6. Love this post, Cloud.

    Like you, I don't *have* to work for money. Money has never been a big motivator for my work (or I wouldn't have stayed in academic science all these years). I make a quarter of what my husband makes. Often times I actually feel quite guilty about the hours I put into my work, because I don't make much money at it, and so one of the top "excuses" a mother makes for working ("my family needs the money!") is denied me.

    I work because I would go nuts if I didn't. I work because I need something outside my family to keep me happy and sane. And I work in the field I do because I need to feel a part of something bigger than myself, and science gives that to me. Pushing the boundaries of knowledge, adding one more piece to our understanding of the world, and being part of a community that does this... that's what drives me. I must admit that basic curiosity, not the drive to find cures for disease, is my primary motivator, although of course I hope that any work I do will somehow impact human health.

    And you know, your blog definitely contributes to #3 and #4 on your list!

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    1. Yeah, I'd go nuts without some form of work, too. I don't think it would have to paid work, although I do like bringing in money. But if money suddenly became no issue for me, I'd still work in some way, although perhaps more independently. I have a lot of "non-work projects" queued up, waiting for my attention.

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  7. My main reason for working (for doing the work that I do) is that I love it. It brings me joy, and stimulates my mind. I also need to have something that's for *myself*. And I never think about in these terms, but making my own money is important (good feminist principles, although this reason is the one with the least resonance). But sometimes when I'm alone with the kids all day, I could see being a sahm, what that would feel like, what I would do all day, how I could weave those days into something of beauty and meaning. I'm not going to do it, but I can *see* it. Meaning is everywhere. I guess that's always been my philosophy, that meaning doesn't exist outside us like an objective direction, but within us. The only meaning a situation has is the one we bring to it. Anyway,

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    1. I should add that I've never felt any guilt about working outside the home, mostly because my mom unapologetically worked out the home (and she made almost nothing - it definitely wasn't about the money, although she was very protective of her salary). She had her own life. It was the best lesson she could have taught me, and she did it entirely without words.

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    2. It is awesome that your work brings you joy. My work can make me happy sometimes, but I'm not sure I could put work in the joy column. Maybe that is part of my problem right now! What I'm best at (and get paid well for doing) isn't something that brings me a lot of joy, although it does hit the "meaning" column.

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    3. I'm late to commenting on this - but I think I'm with you @Cloud. My work has meaning and usefulness for society and I'm good at it and I can see a (financially and ego) rewarding career-path : but it certainly doesn't bring me joy. My other issue is that it doesn't really meet one of my core personality traits - my need for control over what I'm doing. I like my direction to be my own, to make my own mistakes, generate my own ideas, control my own time. I can do it to a certain extent - but I'm still part of a corporate behemoth.

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  8. Erin, this is a lovely comment. I hope to teach my own children that lesson.

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