It’s wild to see this in writing, but I’ve helped thousands of people take steps toward finding meaningful work. I’m pretty damn good at it – helping others to find their light and to pursue it fiercely. My work matters, purpose is my purpose. But there’s a certain loneliness that comes with this work – with helping others figure out their next steps when some days I feel like I’m a hamster on a wheel.
Have you ever felt like this? Like you’re just running in place?
What we all have in common is that we’re searching for meaning and hoping for mattering. Truth is, it’s probably simpler than most of us make it – it’s like Alanis Morissette booping us all on our noses. It’s right here, in front of us.
When you parent children, it matters. When you give someone a moment of your time, when you really listen, it matters. When you stop to help someone who looks lost, it matters. When you’re feeling lonely and you let someone in, it matters. When you hug and kiss and show love, it matters. When you question and dissent and stand up for what’s right, it matters. When you get knocked down and get back up, it matters.
Even hamsters on a wheels matter. They matter to little girls and boys who cradle them in their tiny hands.
A million matters can turn into meaning, if you let them.
The milk in your refrigerator has an expiration date, and so do you.
It’s graduation season in highered-land and I’ve been thinking a lot about forced choice. Seniors are heading out into the great wide-open – some have job offers and others keep their pockets lined with hope. Either way, they have decisions to make about the lives they want to live. We work on a four-ish-year cycle here and there’s a clear end – when we push our little birdies out of the nest.
We’ve enjoyed having you here, but now it’s time to for you to go.
Life gets a little ambiguous after that. There’s no four-year alarm clock that rings and tells us to get our asses moving. My life is this perpetual contradiction. Some days I want to stand in this same spot, feet planted firmly on the ground, enjoying the breeze. But oh, sweet Jesus, it’s so hard to keep my feet planted when my head is always in the clouds. Brain says, “Life is good,” while Heart whispers, “There’s got to be more to life than this.” Many days, I find myself snuggling up with playing-it-safe. I know many of you might feel the same way, and it begs the question:
My father-in-law is one of the smartest people I know – he is analytical and curious and questioning. He spent many years a chemist, in a good job with great benefits, he probably would have stayed there forever. He might sound a lot like you, a lot like me. That is, until one day, his company pushed him out of the nest.
We’ve enjoyed having you here, but now it’s time to for you to go.
It’s not always easy when someone makes that choice for you, but the good thing is, now you get to write your own rules.
Instead of finding another position as a chemist, my FIL decided he was going to become a professional musician. For over a decade, he’s made a living by playing rock shows on the senior citizen circuit and by teaching piano and bass guitar lessons. If no one told him he had to go, maybe he would have stayed. Maybe he’d still be a chemist and not a full-time musician.
Sometimes we don’t know it’s time to leave. So what happens if no one ever tells us to? That we’ve overstayed our welcome? Quite often, we just don’t know what we don’t know… yet.
Now I’ve certainly been an advocate for staying if it fills you – and this has been the best decision for my life right now. But that question still lingers, Where would you go if you weren’t allowed to stay?
Like many of you, I learned survival skills on the frontier.
I forded rivers, foraged for food, and hunted bison* on the Oregon Trail. When most roads led to devastation, each decision was critical. If we spent 80 hours per week farming, it was because it was necessary for survival. On the trail, we didn’t have jobs – we were too busy trying not to freeze, starve, or die of dysentery.
Ok, so most of us aren’t living life on the Trail and we now have the luxury of grabbing prepared foods at Wegmans instead of skinning rabbits and roasting them over a spit. It’s cool, we’ve industrialized, we’ve vaccinated, we’ve evolved.
So if we’re not fording and foraging and hustling just to live another day – what are we doing with all of this spare time?
The short answer: even though (white collar) life is simpler, we’ve gotten really good at finding ways to create more projects and to clock more hours.
I am fascinated by David Graeber’s thoughts on the “Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.” Let me be clear – I think our work in education is important and necessary, but we can certainly work smarter. Technology could have (and still can) pare our work weeks down to a mere 15-hours per week, but instead, we’ve figured out ways to work more.
The salaried, white collar workforce spends a-bajillion hours checking emails, sitting in meetings, and him-hawing over menial decisions. Many workers park their behinds in non-ergonomic chairs for 8+ hours per day. Employees aren’t taking lunch, they stay late, and if the to-do list is completed, they find more. The average U.S. worker spends over 47 hours per week at work and this is celebrated in our culture.
It’s the American way.
But it can get old pretty quickly – our government thinks so, too. If you’ve been paying attention, you know that overtime protections for American workers are getting an overhaul through new Fair Labor Standards Act rules. Folks who are working full-time and making under $47,476 will be eligible for overtime pay. This is going to affect about 4-million workers, and people in higher education are Freaking Out.
But, friends, I am hopeful. While change is always difficult, this is one we can really benefit from if we’re willing to change the way do business.
Workers in helping professions tend to be overworked and underpaid – because at quitting time, people still need people – and we have a really hard time saying NO. I really dig this video from researcher, Brene Brown, in which she says:
“The most compassionate people that I’ve ever interviewed… happened to be the most boundaried. They happened to be the people who had very, very clear boundaries about what they were willing to do, what they were not willing to do, what they were willing to take on, and what they were not willing to take on.” (4:28)
I know FLSA is going to be a huge beast for managers to tackle and it is going to take a lot of reevaluation and recalculation. I know, I know, it’s all easier said than done. I don’t think the new FLSA rules are about reducing our impact or about bankrupting our departments because we have to shell out overtime pay.
It’s about creating boundaries – it’s about rewarding people for efficiency, not just time in the chair.
Are you willing to pay your employees overtime for that work? If the answer is “no,” then maybe we can shift some priorities to eliminate that task. Perhaps more flexible work schedules are needed, maybe it’s measuring hours v. impact. There are many problems, but there are also several solutions.
The road ahead will be bumpy, but I think this can make us better at what we do and how we treat others. So yes, let’s continue to cross those rivers. But if we can swim instead of treading water? Let’s do that instead.
*but did not put the bison in my wagon to keep as a pet.
[.pdf] DOL Fact Sheet
[Webinar] FLSA and Housing & Residence Life Professional Compensation
[Webinar] FLSA Overtime Final Rule: What You Need to Know and Do Now