Not long ago a client said to me, “I’m 41 years old, and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” In fact, many of my clients make some variation on that statement when we launch our work together. Some feel like they’ve had no coherent career path. As a client explained, “I’ve taken good opportunities when they came to me, and I’ve been successful, but I haven’t had a plan. Sometimes I worry that people think I’ve flitted from job to job, even though I can see what ties some of it together.” These clients often worry that there is something wrong with them, and when they do seek a career change, they struggle to articulate their skills and experience to potential employers in a way that feels like a clear and rational career path.Read More
The other day I sat down with a college student who wanted to conduct an informational interview with me. She wanted to know more about a career in coaching, and her first question was “What do you do in a coaching session?”Read More
One of my yoga instructors often reminds her students to approach yoga practice with a beginner’s mind. What she means is that you no matter how experienced you are in practicing yoga, you always come to your mat as if you are beginner. You try never to think, “I’ve done this pose a zillion times, so I know exactly how to do it.” Instead, each time you take the pose, you pay attention to the things a beginner has to think about: how to ground yourself, where to place your feet, how to align your spine, how to breathe, and how to move. By using beginner’s mind, you continually approach your practice with an open mind and a commitment to building on a strong foundation for your pose. You are constantly refining your postures and building strength and flexibility.Read More
One of my niches is working with clients who are navigating some form of transition.
Our lives involve alternating periods of stability and change. None of us can avoid dealing with change. But some kinds of changes shake us to our very core, challenging our sense of who we are. These kinds of changes are either the result of or the catalyst for a transition.Read More
Just after Christmas last year, the wonderful woman who has been cleaning my house for more than ten years turned to me in astonishment and said, “Melissa, do you take every ornament off your tree every year. I’ve never seen a closet big enough for your tree.” After all these years, Karin has had occasion to be in every drawer and closet in my house, and I think the fact that I couldn’t simply cover my artificial tree with a sheet and slide it in the closet had just occurred to her. Maybe this is not so astonishing with everyone’s trees, but mine is covered with hundreds of ornaments. I assured her that I enjoyed decorating the tree and that taking it down was not such an onerous task. (I don’t think she believed me.)Read More
I don’t know about you, but lately I’ve had an awful lot of days when I’m afraid to get out of bed. The waves of awful things happening in our country and our world just seem to come faster and faster like a hurricane building to Category 5. I’m afraid to check the news—and afraid not to. The other day at the end of savasana, the period of motionless rest at the end of every yoga practice, a period intended to be refreshing, I found my mind racing, and I thought, “I hope something new tragedy hasn’t happened in the world while I was in yoga class.” Fear has become my constant companion. And I know that I’m not alone.Read More
As with anything else in life, it’s pretty easy for me to give my clients good guidance and pretty hard for me to apply that guidance in my own life. Take the business of saying “no.” I’ve written before about the importance of choosing commitments carefully so that we don’t become over-committed, overscheduled, overworked, and frazzled. As I put it in that earlier blog post, “saying yes to something means saying no to something else.” Yet I find the process of learning to choose my commitments wisely and say “no” more often is just that: a process of learning over and over from my mistakes.Read More
Money is ONE ingredient for a happy life. In other words, money is a necessary ingredient, and we can’t cook up a happy life without some minimal amount of it. But what are the proportions of ingredients we need for our own particular recipe for a vital fulfilling life?
In June, one of my favorite yoga teachers offered up a theme for the month’s classes: “life is practice, practice is life.” She was quoting one of her favorite yogis, Judith Lasater, and the statement is a reference to the fact that people who do yoga regularly refer to their ongoing “yoga practice.” But as Katy reflected on the Lasater quote in each of her June classes, she got me thinking about the many senses of the word practice, and they way it is a metaphor for our lives.Read More
How do you get the most out of informational interviewing? Last month I had an opportunity to sit on a conference panel that explored diverse career paths for humanities Ph.D.s, and that question came up. One audience member said, “I’ve tried doing informational interviewing, and I don’t even know enough to know what questions to ask.”Read More
Recently I was on the phone with a client, an articulate, ambitious, great-head-on-her-shoulders young woman, who confessed that after a year in her first post-collegiate job, one she felt was important work that she should be doing, she felt lost. Another young woman in my life, a college junior with a commitment to learning and to making a difference in the world, said, “I have no idea what I want to do with my life.” She felt that by this point, the end of her junior year, she “should” know which direction to go, but her internship and volunteer experiences had only shown her what she did NOT want to do.Read More
How do you build a vital life? Over the past few months, I’ve been leading a professional development workshop series for faculty and staff at a local higher education institution, and we’ve been exploring that question. We had to start by defining what we meant by a vital life. When you are living a vital life you feel deeply engaged in your world and energized by the way you spend your time. To me, a vital life is a meaningful and purposeful existence, and that idea that we want to spend our time doing things full of meaning and purpose has been a point of consensus among the participants in our workshop.Read More
Lately I’ve heard some version of this statement from several clients and friends:
I’m taking a break from the news.
I feel a little guilty, but I’m on a news hiatus.
I know I should be paying attention, but I just can’t look at the news right now.
I haven’t read any news in over a week, and it’s been good for my mental health.
I took a Facebook break so that I could get away from the news.
I began to see that there were real liabilities to being a PREcrastinator. Too often, I cranked out the work, but I didn’t give it enough time to incubate in my brain, so it didn’t reflect my best thinking. I’d finish it, check it off my to-do list, and never think about it again—at least not until weeks or months later when I would read it and kick myself for the things that could have been improved.Read More
Sometimes when I’m working with a client who is exploring a career change, I’ll ask her about folks in her network who might be able to give her some insight into a field she is considering. And about half the time, the client will say, “Well, I’m not very good at networking. I don’t like going to events and talking to strangers, and there’s something that feels kind of slimy about it—like I just want to get something from the people I’m meeting.” But I think that’s the wrong way to think about networking. Networking is really about building relationships.Read More
One of my yoga teachers begins every practice by telling us that “for the next hour, tell the committee that lives inside your head to be quiet and just be present in this room, on your mat.”
I love the metaphor of the committee that lives inside my head. In all my years working in colleges and universities, I spent a lot of time on committees. For better (mostly) or worse (sometimes), most aspects of the academic operations in higher education are governed by committees of faculty and academic staff. And there are certain types of people who are usually present on committees.Read More
Setting an intention means focusing your attention and your actions on serving some higher purpose. Living with intention is something that can lead us to a more fulfilling life.Read More
We hear about it everywhere we turn: the quest for work-life balance. I’ve certainly thought a lot about how to balance work and life. I’ve read endless pages filled with strategies for improving the mix of “work” and “life.” And yet I’ve begun to think that we are chasing the wrong goal. Some of the problem lies with the labeling.
Social worker turned artist Nancy J. Hill offered some wisdom about labeling that resonates with my thoughts on this work-life balance conundrum. In her book, Unfolding, (gifted to me by a good friend), Hill writes, “Labeling is the core of language. It allows us to order our world. But it also diminishes being in the moment by encouraging us to see all we encounter as ‘one of these’ or ‘one of those.’” Next to this passage, I scribbled two questions in the margin: What is work? What is life?
We have this tendency to label our jobs as “work” and to label everything else “life.” But that diminishes the very real work that a lot of people do without pay. Raising children is work. Caring for an aging loved one is work. Working as a community volunteer is work. Being a stay-at-home husband or wife, taking care of the needs of home and family is also work. These are actions that bring great meaning to the lives of many, but they don’t bring in a paycheck and therefore, we often don’t label them as “work.” In the process, as Hill notes, we diminish a lot of the work that people do.
But another problem with the labeling is that it encourages us to create a false dichotomy between life and work. After all, isn’t work an important part of a satisfying life? It certainly has been for me. The work I have done—teaching, writing, coaching—have meant much more to me than simply a paycheck.
In my research on the lives of twentieth century women, I found that women considered work—paid and unpaid—as central to their happiness even as they grew older. Lucy Cobb was typical. A teacher and writer turned genealogist, 81-year-old Lucy wrote to her niece in 1958 that she could not move to a nursing home away from the archives where she conducted her research. “When you take the means whereby I live, you take my life.” She insisted that “I have to have someone need me.”
Likewise Dorothy Smith Dushkin, a music educator, didn’t become a successful composer until her seventies. On January 1, 1976, she wrote in her journal, "Have to remind myself that I'm 72, an old woman. Don't feel old except going down uneven steps. . . . Having achieved a certain competence in composing late in life, I wonder how much more will be allowed me. Can I distill a lifetime of undefined, half- realized musical expression that has meaning worth recording?" Later that month one of her compositions premiered at Kennedy Center to some acclaim.
I digress by telling stories about the women from my research, but my point is that work is an essential part of a satisfying life, so it wrong-headed to think of work as something separate from—and something that has to be balanced with--life.
That’s why I’ve come to think that pursuing work-life balance is the wrong goal. That is not in any way to deny that the reality for many of us is that our jobs have taken over our lives in an unhealthy way. It seems to me that there are several reasons we feel this way. One is that in the wake of the last recession, some employers have tried to heap more and more work on the existing workforce, expecting far more than anyone can reasonably do.
A second problem is that some of us become addicted to busyness--especially at work. We come to measure our self-worth with our level of busyness. The Catholic spiritual teacher Thomas Merton described it this way: “There is a pervasive form of modern violence to which the idealist…most easily succumbs: activism and over-work. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.”
For some of us, the problem may be that the work we are doing is not the work we are called to do—or work that is no longer a good fit for us. For most of my twenty years as a college professor, I felt little need to chase work-life balance. I did work hard. The hours were long, and work commitments often bled into nights and weekends. I spent my summer breaks doing research and writing. Nonetheless, the work was enormously meaningful, and the job offered great flexibility. For many years, work and life did not feel out of whack.
And then they did. The demands of the job did increase, but a bigger problem was that—as I’ve written in earlier blog posts—the work did not feel like the work I was called to do anymore. As the old roles began to pinch and bind, I increasingly felt a conflict between “work” and “life.” I was no longer the person I needed to be to do that job. The old work no longer felt like an integral part of who I was.
I’ve come to think that our goal should be to live lives of integrity. One definition of integrity is the state of being whole and undivided. Too many of us, I suspect, are living divided lives in which the person we have to be at work is not the person we believe ourselves to be at our core. Our goal must be to live fully integrated lives in which the things we DO in the world—including our work—match our sense of who we ARE.
In some ways, this is a much tougher nut to crack than the problem of work-life balance. We cannot achieve a fully-integrated life with some tweaks in scheduling or an extra week of vacation time. Dividing the chores more equitably at home or hiring someone to clean or take care of the lawn will not lead to a fully-integrated life. Instead that will take harder work—inner work to discover who we are and outer work to make our inner and outer lives match. A fully integrated life requires (sometimes painful) soul-searching and courageous choices. But I suspect it’s the only way to find the sense of peace that we are looking for when we talk about work-life balance.
Executive coach Jerry Colonna summed it up pretty well in a recent podcast. Jerry told his podcast guest, “Work-life balance is bull$*&t. True balance is where the outer expression of who we are matched the inner expression of who we truly are. . . . When we are living in . . . full engagement, self-care becomes a natural expression of who we truly are. . . . It’s just how we live.”
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the challenges and satisfactions of living a fully-integrated life. Feel free to leave some comments or drop me an email.
As we approach the holiday season, I’ve been thinking a lot about hope. For Christians, the season of Advent which commences on the fourth Sunday before Christmas (December 3 this year) is a season of expectant hope—hope for the coming of the Christ Child.
I am basically an optimistic person with a hopeful nature, but I’ve had a hard time holding on to hope this year. I’ve enjoyed so many personal blessings, but when I see the state of the world around me, I have sometimes plunged into despair. The lives of people in our nation and around the world have been ripped apart by catastrophic hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires. Wars rage in the Middle East and Africa, and the people displaced by these wars struggle to find safe havens. Climate change is moving us toward a global ecological disaster even as many leaders refuse to acknowledge or address the threat it poses. Our political leaders seem bent on enriching the most privileged among us while taking away vital protections from our most vulnerable citizens. Our president recklessly spouts language of divisiveness every single day. And just a few weeks ago, a gunman mowed down 59 people and injured more than 500 others in a mass shooting that was surely much worse than it might otherwise have been because our nation lacks the will to enact reasonable gun regulation. It has truly been hard to hold on to hope.
I know I’m not alone. When I get together with friends, we share our fear and despair. Clients tell me that they’ve felt paralyzed by the relentless bombardment of disturbing events they see in the news every day. Lots of us are finding it hard to hold on to hope, and we feel increasingly helpless to do anything positive to address things.
Thinkers far wiser than me have grappled with the challenge of finding hope in our current world. I recently listened to journalist and theological thinker Krista Tippett interview Roshi Joan Halifax, a Zen Buddhist teacher and medical anthropologist. Speaking in 2012, Halifax noted that the 24-hour news cycle bombards us with bad news all the time. As we face this barrage of stories about injustice and violence, she said,
We enter into a state of moral distress and futility. . . . And yet, we can’t do anything about it, and we enter into a state either of moral outrage, or we go into states of avoidance through addictive behaviors where we just don’t want to deal with it, or we just go into another state of withdrawal, a kind of numbness, or into freeze. And I think that a lot of the world that is hooked up in the media right now. . . is going numb. I think what we’re seeing is . . . empathic distress, where there’s a resonance but we’re not able to stabilize ourselves when exposed to this type of suffering.
Halifax suggests several antidotes to our problem of empathic distress. When we get to the edge of being overwhelmed, she encourages us to spend more time in nature and in places where “you can touch the stillness” and ground yourself. She also suggests joining with others in rituals—religious rituals or secular ones—where we can feel part of a larger community. She says, “Ritual evokes in us a sense of timelessness. It drops us into the past, it brings up the present. It also projects into the future. But it is also deeper than chronological time.” Ritual can remind us that suffering and the overcoming of suffering are both embedded in thousands of years of human history.
As a historian, Halifax’s words resonated with me. This year, I’ve repeatedly had to remind myself (and friends have reminded me) that our nation has lived through dark times before. In my own childhood, the Vietnam War ripped deep tears in the fabric of our nation. And then there was the Civil War. On Christmas Day 1863 as our nation tore itself apart in a war over slavery, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned these words:
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
But Longfellow did not end the poem on a note of despair. He continued:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.
Longfellow’s words are familiar to most of us because in 1956, composer Johnny Marks set them to music. Dozens of artists from Bing Crosby to Johnny Cash have since recorded the song, and it has become part of our holiday musical canon. (Click here for one of my favorite versions by Harry Belafonte.) 150 years later, Longfellow’s words remind us to reach for hope in the darkness.
Hope in the Dark is the title of one of my favorite books this year. The book is a collection of essays first published in 2004 by gifted writer Rebecca Solnit and reissued in 2016. Looking at twentieth century environmental, cultural, and political history, Solnit shows us the ways that citizens have changed their worlds again and again, and she urges us to hold on to “hope in the dark.” She explains, “hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes—you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable.” Solnit reminds us that “hope is an orientation of the spirit,” a way of approaching the world.
Embracing uncertainty is a challenge for me, but this year I have tried to hold on to hope in the dark in ways large and small—by reaching out to loved ones, by reading deeply and widely, by spending time in nature, by participating in rituals in my own community—funerals and academic ceremonies and other rituals which remind me of my ties to my own community and to the people who came before me. I have tried to do things that make positive differences in my community. Sometimes I have despaired, but I remind myself as Solnit reminds us that I don’t know what will happen and that in that uncertainty lies possibility. In this season of expectant hope, I’ll cling to hope in an age of distress.
What have you done to hold on to hope this year? Where do you find your hope? I hope you’ll share your thoughts in the comments.
And if you want to sample Rebecca Solnit’s writing on hope, check out this essay from The Guardian from July 2016.