“Work and a life”

Allan Holender, the author of Zentrepreneurism, likes to talk about how the kind of person he calls a “zentrepreneur” doesn’t just seek work, but work and a life simultaneously.

Dave Pollard, the author of Finding the Sweet Spot, likes to talk about how a sustained work life is rooted in a sustainable life: the two go together.

Robert Paterson, the author of You Don’t Need a Job, points out that being in a trust network is far more important than having a title and position.

What these three, and many more, are trying to point out is that the times have already changed, and that in fact while we’re rolling down the hill — the snowball that is our society is now in motion and beyond our control — we’ve got a long way to go before it stops.

Careers since the end of the Great Depression have been fairly easy to manage.

You worked your way up. You used to do that in one firm; today, you make strategic moves from organization to organization. But you went through the steps either way.

Meanwhile, your personal life was on its own track. There was work over here, and other over there. Some people dove too deeply into work; others found some sort of balance.

But all that’s breaking down.

What else did you expect to happen? The endless quest for another half cent per share on earnings to juice your stock portfolio so that your retirement savings would be better off has come at a cost.

Technology made the BlackBerry on your night-table buzz at 2:30 in the morning and you come awake to answer the boss on the spot. Technology made you “stay in the loop” on the beach or at the cottage. But it’s the challenge of keeping your feet on the ladder that’s keeping you from turning it all off on your time.

After all, when we sell out our head offices so those jobs go, and we sell out our plants to cheap labour countries to make a buck, there’s not enough ladder space left.

That’s why newly minted graduates can’t find anything better than an unpaid internship. That’s why over fifties become effectively unemployable, as they’ve been in Britain now for over a decade.

Managing our careers has become now the challenge of managing our lives.

Otherwise, the next promotion can force a move. Our partner’s career is damaged if we go, our own if we say “no”. That it’s the house at least one of you loves, or a neighbourhood you adore, or the best coach your kid could ever have to nurture her or his talent, is immaterial.

Subordinate it all to stay on the ladder, or crash, trying to have a life.

A life today, in today’s society (remember that snowball, rolling down hill, faster and faster?), requires that we find more time to put into the things that matter, not less. They require deeper roots, not more shallow ones.

Let’s say you move into a neighbourhood. You like the pace of life there, you like the views, you like the open space.

If you don’t invest the time in keeping it that way — stopping destructive development, making sure your roads don’t get widened “to deal with the traffic problem”, fighting the merger of schools, and the like — your happy community can be taken from you while you’re working.

When money gets tighter in the public sector, and when people tighten their belts, your child’s sports team, or community centre, or the like can suddenly up and close down. It’s not enough to write a cheque and send them off any more, keeping things going takes energy. Energy from you and me.

A sustainable life, after all, begins with all the things that go into it being kept in good order.

There’s a housewife in the UK that noted that an ordinary satchel for kids to stuff their books in to go to school couldn’t be found in the market any longer. Something she’d grown up with as a child that was simple, practical and useful couldn’t be had at any price.

She decided to design one. Then she spent a year travelling around the UK looking for a leatherworks to make it for her. She was laughed at all over the place.

“There’s no pockets for the pens, the iPods, the cellphone!” one firm said. Another said, “oh, dearie, you can’t make that here, we’re probably not going to be here in another year or two either, China you know…”

Finally she found a firm that would make six satchels for her. One went to her child. It took her a month of hard work to sell the other five.

Four years later, she’s an £8 million/year company with her own small plant and seventy odd employees. Evidently simple and made locally did have a market.

The best part of all, is that the firm hasn’t taken her away from her kitchen, her home, her family or the time that has to go into keeping the Highways Agency from widening the route through her village and making it impossible to cross the road on foot against trucks moving at 60 mph, or in keeping her village library open, or the like. She’s made sure all along that her company was a part of her life — but only part.

Careers aren’t about ladders anymore. They’re about options.

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