Thursday, January 05, 2012

Weekend Reading: The Back to Work Edition

In honor of the fact that just about everyone is back to work after the holiday break, I have a bunch of posts about work and how it fits in with our lives.

First, I found a post about work-life balance that really resonated with me, from a woman in tech. I agreed with just about everything she wrote.

There was also a good Harvard Business Report post about the law of diminishing returns at work, something I've written about before, too.

Science- particularly academic science- as a culture could learn a lot from those posts. A few weeks back, Scicurious had a really good post about the persistent idea that being a good scientist requires allowing science to consume your entire life. I don't think that working on science is some sort of magical exception to the fact that most people cannot sustain maximum productivity over long hours. In fact, I first noticed the negative effect of trying to work past my "work limit" when I was still in academic science. And yet, the culture of bragging about long hours in the lab persists. It is a shame, and as the Twitter discussion in Scicurious' post points out, off-putting to a lot of potentially good scientists. Now you could argue that there are still plenty of scientists, so why worry? Well, I think we'd probably get more quality science done if we dialed back the work hour expectations on scientist. And I also think that life outside the lab informs the sorts of questions people ask, and that we as a society are probably missing out on some diversity in the questions asked because we are driving away diversity in the question askers.

Anyway. This all brought to mind a post of Laura Vanderkam's from November, musing about strategy in marathons and careers. The post is about how we motivate ourselves, but the topic made me think about how I've come to view my career as a marathon, not a sprint. I think I can afford to run a little slower when I'm running up a hill like having young children, as long as I stay in the race. The folks who are sprinting right now may run out of steam, anyway. So I'm focusing a bit more on long term strategy and less on short term positioning, and I find that perspective helpful in squashing the occasional career-related panic.

So, what strategies to use? Cal Newport argues for deliberate practice- i.e., seeking out work practices that maximize your effectiveness by actually making you better at your job. He had a recent post looking at how innate talent or intellectual ability factors into his deliberate practice theory. His conclusion is that the small differences in innate ability can be swamped by practice, which is reassuring for those of us who don't think we were born on the far ends of the bell curve!

He also had an interesting post about why we bother reaching for career success. Why don't we all embrace the minimalist lifestyle and try, as one commenter on a Slashdot thread I read once argued, to work as little as possible? His answer is that people generally want to do something meaningful with their lives, and work is how most of us accomplish that.

I agree... to a point. My thoughts on this and on the problems with our culture that glorifies working long hours were clarified by one of Anandi's recent posts. She writes about why she wants to see her crafts published, and that got me thinking about the value of diversification. My thoughts went first to diversification of income streams, and pulled up an old Scalzi post about the various revenue streams he has. It is accepted wisdom that diversification is good in investing, but not necessarily in other ways of earning income. Scalzi's post makes a compelling case for income diversification for creative types. I have long thought it would be good to have income diversification for the rest of us, too. It would certainly smooth out some of the bumps from lay offs and the like!

But perhaps more important than income diversification is self worth diversification. If all of your self worth is bundled into your job, you are probably in for a rocky ride. Even the most lucky of careers will have their down times. In those times, it is good to be able to look at the other aspects of your life and realize that you are still "adding value" to the world (to use obnoxious business speak) even if your career isn't going as you'd hoped at the moment. I actually think that having this diversification in self worth makes me a better employee, too. It (and the hefty buffer in my bank account) makes me less fearful and cautious at work. I will say what I think, and take some risks, because the consequences of failure don't seem catastrophic to me.

Which brings us back to work-life balance. I wonder what it will take to change our culture to be one that really recognizes its value for everyone?


  1. Thanks for the link! Woot!

    I've been thinking a lot about income diversification recently as well (it's a frequent topic on which I started reading a couple of months ago.)

    YES++ to diversifying where you get your self-worth. I sort of keep a running tally in my head to maintain balance - like "today I was a great mom, but not so great at getting any crafty stuff done", or "today I was great at work, but didn't see hubby or daughter before they went to bed", stuff like that to keep all areas in check. It's really a good way to feel like I'm contributing something, somewhere, on any given day. Of course there are those days where none of it is good ;)

    Re: the culture of long hours - we see this in tech companies as well, though less when the workforce gets older and has kids and families to go home to. But there is this badge of honor for pulling an all-nighter or whatnot, that is VERY offputting if you don't want to make your work your whole life.

    I'm definitely starting to see less of that in my company, though it really depends on the group.

    Which gives me an idea for a post... Thanks Cloud, your blog inspires me :)

  2. Anonymous6:26 AM

    The career-marathon metaphor is a really important one because it puts everything into perspective. I hope and plan to have a career that lasts 40 years or so. So if I have to slow down to have a couple of kids - that's slowing down for 3-5 years, slowing down not stopping. So I'm still "producing" just not at a frenetic rate. *Everyone* has slow years and fast years. No one, no matter how wealthy, childfree, unencumbered, happy, and perfectly healthy they might be. Creativity and productivity are cyclical, and everyone goes through down times for a variety of reasons - natural biorhythms, illness, relationship absorption (coming together or breaking apart), death of a loved one, trauma, burn out. If we recognized that everyone experiences these cycles, maybe as a society we could ease the eff up on working mothers (as a "drain" on the workforce).

  3. I like to point out that money not spent is also income. If you can do it yourself for little or no money, and don't have to pay someone else to do it, then you have a skill worth money.

    I make good money in tech, but my highest hourly rate is earned in DIY financial planning. I sit down with my quarterly statements, Quicken and some pen and paper. I calculate my asset allocation, compare it with my target asset allocation, and plot how to get the two lines to cross.

    Many firms charge 1% of the account balance to do this. (Or charge 1% above plain vanilla mutual funds.) DIY for a million dollar portfolio and you have earned yourself $10,000 for about 10 hours of work per year.

    OK, it also means reading the business pages and keeping abreast of world developments. But I am a curious person and would have done that anyway.

    Your assets are not strictly financial. Your friends don't show up on a balance sheet, but you can help each other over rough spots. When I was ill and my husband was away on travel, no fewer than 3 families on my block babysat my toddler so I could get some rest. When I was breastfeeding and needed to travel to attend work meetings, I stayed with friends who, not only provided a guest room, but babysat while I worked.

    You can live on so much less money if you are adept at running a household yourself--cooking, cleaning, sewing, maintenance, gardening, etc.

    The less you spend today, the less you've trained yourself to live on during lean times and retirement.

  4. Anonymous10:05 PM

    I think a prime difference between science and a lot of other professions is that for us scientists, our work is something we really love, and want to do. Most days we wake up in the morning, and can't wait to get to work. Most days we stay up working late at night, not because we have to to finish up something, but because we want to know the answer to such and such problem or how such and such works. We have no Monday morning blues because mostly we can't wait to get to work on Mondays.

    In this context, the development of the culture of machismo about putting in long hours at the lab does make sense. Let me clarify that I don't support such a culture; doing science is about joy and excitement, and forcing someone to work long hours due to peer pressure is sure to take the joy out of them.

    But on the other hand, how many professions can boast of such excitement?

  5. @Anonymous, most techies I know feel similarly, and I get the same absorption into work when I'm working on a techie problem as when I'm working on a science problem.

    I'm sure there are lots of other professions in which people feel an internal drive to solve or finish something, which has nothing to do with external deadlines.

    The question for me is- when does that focus actually become counterproductive? I can keep working because I want to figure out a bug (or, back when I was in the wet lab, finish an experiment)- but that doesn't mean I'm actually doing something useful. Sometimes, it takes walking away for awhile to see the cause of the bug, or figure out the flaw in your experimental design.

    It is really clear to me now that I need to manage that obsessive focus that I can get


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