What makes work work?

Hot Chocolate Run for Safe Passage mugOn the first day of my new job, I reached into an office cabinet to take out a coffee mug and, to my surprise and delight, emerged with one that carried the logo for Northampton’s annual Hot Chocolate Run for Safe Passage.

As regular readers know, I’d just left my beloved Northampton – a western Massachusetts college town where I’d hoped to put down roots – to take a job in Boston. I’d participated in the Hot Chocolate Run several times myself, and picking up this mug—on my very first day!—struck me as crazily serendipitous, you might even say, a sign.

Over time, however, I’ve come to see it as something else: A reflection of the fact that I’d landed in a simpatico workplace culture.

The coffee mug incident wasn’t the only clue. There was also the fact that, when I interviewed, the two future colleagues with whom I had lunch were both Buddhist meditators. The fact that my department head took time off from work to campaign for her (and my) candidate before November’s election. The fact that I love my colleagues’ distinctive scarves and ear rings. I could go on.

Much advice about career transitions focuses on the what—on figuring out what you want to do and then finding a place to do it. Do you want to take cases to trial? Do you want to write about food? Do you want to counsel women in crisis? Do you want to teach kids?

Yes, it’s important to have a sense of what you want to do—but I’ve found that it’s equally (or more) important to consider the where and the how.

I love to write. Whether I’m working on a Plan B Nation post (like this one) or a speech about health care, I tend to lose myself in the process of putting words together—to enter that state of absorption famously described as flow.

But that isn’t to say that I’d love any job that involves lots of writing—and speaking from experience, I can tell you that I would not. My current job isn’t the most prestigious I’ve ever had, and it’s not the most high-paying. It is, however, overall, one of the more satisfying.

So what accounts for job satisfaction? Over time, I’ve come to identify the qualities that matter most to me, which incidentally, can all be traced directly to workplace culture.  Here are three examples:

1. Autonomy

I’m far from alone here—lots of research suggests that autonomy is critical to on-the-job satisfaction. (One interesting recent study found that high-level leaders have less stress than those lower on the corporate food chain, with researchers hypothesizing that this counter-intuitive result stems from the fact that the higher-ups have more control over their lives.)

That said, I suspect autonomy is more important to some of us than others. For me, it’s really important, and my most difficult professional experiences have been in workplace cultures where this creates tension. (“I feel like I’ve spent the year trying to keep you in the box, and you’ve spent the year trying to get out,” one supervisor ruefully remarked many years ago.) I could be writing the coolest thing in the word, but if I’m being micro-managed, I’m not going to be happy.

2. Balance

I don’t care how much I like what I’m doing: I don’t want to do it 110 hours a week. For that reason alone, I was never going to be happy in the sort of firm where I spent my first two years after law school.

It’s no secret that in the post-Recession world, work has gotten more demanding, as layoffs and increased “efficiencies” create more work for those who remain. Still, while I roll my eyes at suggestions that employees simply need to do a better job setting limits, the issue of balance is a real one. If you’re unhappy at work, is it because of what you’re doing or is it because of how much? And if you’re lucky enough to have some choice: How much is it worth to you to have time to dedicate to other parts of your life? For me, it’s worth a lot.

3.  Mission

A shared sense of larger mission–such as the one that infuses my work at Harvard School of Public Health—is a through-line, enriching good days and giving meaning to the inevitable minor slumps. In my experience, it’s also more likely to lead to warm workplace friendships—which themselves have been found to correlate with job satisfaction and success.

Even Cal Newport—an outspoken critic of the “follow your passion” school of decision-making—discourages people from taking a job they think is useless or actively bad for the world. His reasoning is partly pragmatic: If you feel this way, you’re probably going to have a hard time sticking around long enough to build up the sort of career capital that you’ll need to move forward long-term.

* * *

In 2011, as the Great Recession ground onward, I found myself scratching my head over a New York Times article with the headline “Maybe It’s Time for Plan C.”  The piece recounted the stories of several people who traded steady jobs for entrepreneurial opportunities, launching businesses that included a Greek food stall, a wedding planning business, and an online ceramics store. As Newport might have predicted, it wasn’t long before they were overwhelmed. “I preach to my students to make time for themselves, to treat their bodies as vital instruments. Now I’m lucky if I get that a few times a month,” said a marketing professional turned Pilates instructor.

But here’s the curious thing: Only one of the people interviewed regretted their decisions. While the piece didn’t offer any explanation, I have an idea. Even harder than working for yourself is working in an alien culture. If that was their alternative, these choices make total sense.

What workplace culture qualities are important to you? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

It Takes a Village to Bake a Loaf of Mark Bittman’s No-Knead Bread in the Happy Valley during a Time of Climate Change

In honor of the impending blizzard, I’m re-posting these memories from the October 2011 Snowpocalypse, when I was living in Northampton, MA. This essay first appeared in the Hampshire Gazette (and later on this blog).

The Little Bread-gine That Could

The Little Bread-gine That Could

When the snow started to fall, I was playing a card game with the Baskinettes. Which isn’t really surprising, since this is how I’ve spent a good bit of the past year, something between an honorary aunt and slow-on-the-uptake peer.  (“I’m going to deal the cards instead of you. That way, it will be faster,” a seven-year-old Remy once airily informed me.)

“Do you think I should head home now?” I asked the Baskinettes’ father, aka my friend Hosie.  The snow was coming down faster, in huge wet clumped flakes.

Hosie looked out the window and shrugged. “I don’t think you have to rush.”

And indeed, he was right.  Back home a few hours later, safe and warm, I decided to do some baking. For weeks, I’d been meaning to make New York Times food guru Mark Bittman’s magical no-knead bread.  With 10 minutes or so of hands-on time for an artisan-quality loaf, it’s a recipe easy to love. The only challenge is finding the 14-hour window needed for the dough to rest. But I had plenty of time now. I expected a quiet weekend.

The dough was just starting to rise, when I got my first inkling my night might not go entirely according to plan.  My cell (only) phone rang (cricket chirped). It was the eldest of the Baskinettes, 16-year-old Ezekiel.

“We don’t have power.” The voice was aggrieved  “I’m. So. Bored.”

Still, freakish as this seemed—and by “this” I mean the weather, not teen protestations of boredom—I wasn’t all that worried. I live in a neighborhood where utility lines are safely lodged underground. We rarely lose power out here. Also: It’s October!  I glanced at a clock: almost time for bed.

Then everything went black.

No big deal, I thought philosophically. I’ll get a good night’s sleep.  Perhaps tomorrow we’ll have power back.

This did not happen.

When I got up the next day, it was really cold.  I flicked the light switch. No response.  No electricity meant no coffee. Something had to be done.

A Facebook friend once asked if the Happy Valley’s vaunted fashion laissez-faire extended to PJs as street wear. “Yes!” came the resounding response. “Totally!  Absolutely!”  It seemed that today was as good a day as any to put this to the test. I yanked on a fleece in the frigid air, grabbed my parka, slipped on boots. Keys. Purse. Money.

And then I remembered the bread.

There it was on the kitchen counter, waiting so patiently.  Heading out the door, I picked up the bowl and cradled it in my arms.

I never pick up hitchhikers, but this once, I made an exception for the bundled twenty-something figure trudging tiredly down Route 9.  He slid into the seat behind me, taking the bread in his lap, glad for the ride and seemingly unphased by his pajama-wearing dough-toting driver. He was bound for the Unitarian Church in town in hopes the service was still on.  We talked about The Great Gatsby, Faulkner and Willa Cather. Then I dropped him at the church and parked my car, my mind once again on coffee.

But while the mood on Main Street was strangely festive, not a store or café was open.  A flannel-clad me paused dejectedly. I was out of luck.  (On the upside, those Facebook friends were right. No one gave me a second glance.)

I love my town for lots of reasons, and one of them is this: When you show up unannounced on your friends’ doorstep, wearing pajamas and bearing dough, you’re likely to be greeted as if you’re paying a totally normal visit.  Once settled in at the breakfast table and fortified with black tea (no electricity meant no coffee grinder, no coffee grinder, no coffee), I explained to my friends Jen and Michael the purpose of my mission.  “I knew you had a gas stove,” I concluded. “So I thought I could bake it here.”  But a gas stove, yes. Gas oven, no.  Again, I was back to square one.

Happily, here in the Happy Valley, hope springs eternal.  A few hours later, up the street, back at the Baskinettes, I had the choice of two gas stoves—and yes, one of them even appeared to have a functioning gas-fueled oven. We set out on a rescue operation, the four Baskinettes and I, trekking back down the snowy hill to collect the dough from Jen and Michael’s.

So far so good.

But not so fast.

There comes a time in every endeavor when by far the most sensible option is simply to give up.  Our Bread Odyssey reached this point when we found, upon arriving home, that the oven on which we’d pinned our hopes was also out of commission.  Is it possible to fry yeast bread? To rig up a stove top oven?  We gave some half-hearted thought to these questions, but clearly we were losing steam.  And then, like some culinary deus ex machina, Hosie’s sister appeared.  Yes, Lucretia had a functioning oven, and yes she would take our bread.

That night, after a largely housebound day trending towards cabin fever, the Baskinettes and I set out on foot for the nearby college campus center, lured by the prospect of heat and light and maybe even vending machines.  It was just around 7:30, but it felt pretty much like midnight. Beneath a sharp white sliver of moon, our shoes crunched through snow.  Still, it was good to be outside, to breathe in the fresh night air.

Then, for a strange frozen moment, I saw us as if from a distance, characters in the opening scenes of a movie that wouldn’t end well. Isn’t this how they always start, those blockbuster disaster films?   An almost ordinary lovely day in an ordinary lovely town.   Kids, families, plans, friends—and then The Thing appears.  (Aliens, terrorists, viral pandemic—you can take your pick.)  At first, no one understands what it is they’re up against.  It’s just a slight cough, or a faint shadow. Or a snow storm in October.

We got power back the next day, two days earlier than predicted. All in all, we’d gotten off easy. Even the shrimp and ice cream in my freezer appeared to have survived the thaw.  Within hours, you could almost feel like everything was back to normal.  Almost but not quite.  Not if you surveyed the piles of tangled tree limbs, leaves green against improbable snow.  Not if you took some time to think about the next logical plot point.

I finally caught up with my bread again the following afternoon, now transmuted into a golden cornmeal-encrusted round.  “Was easy enough to bake but seems a little, uh, dense, which is likely because of the lack of warm rise,” Lucretia wrote me on Facebook.  And to sure, when I picked up the loaf, it did seem rather stone-like. But when I cut off a slice and took a hesitant bite, it was amazingly not-too-bad—especially if accompanied by a bit of homemade peach jam.

In the past few months, our little part of the world has endured its share of hardships: a tornado, a hurricane, and now a blizzard, not to mention the all-engulfing global economic maelstrom.  We live in strange and unsettling times. I know this is true. I also know that, whatever dangers we face, there is hope in our human connections. Together, we can grapple with climate change—or make a loaf of bread.  And if you’re going to face the apocalypse, it’s best to do it with friends.

And if you need a soundtrack:

Take stock of how you rocked 2011

 

 

 

 

It’s that time of year again, but before moving on to New Year’s Resolutions, be sure to give yourself credit for 2011.

Now, this may (at first glance) seem like a pointless exercise. Thinking back on the past year, it can be easy to focus on all that you hoped to do that’s still undone: The jobs you applied for and failed to get, the book you didn’t write, the exercise program that you planned to make a regular part of your life. (If you’re anything like me, you didn’t.)

That was certainly the direction my mind went when I first contemplated this task—which was why I was so happily surprised to see it was misleading me.  (This was hardly the first time: I’ve long recognized that just because I think something doesn’t mean it’s true.) Here’s a sampling of what I accomplished over the past year:

  • Started writing personal essays and publishing them in Huffington Post, Salon, and our local paper.
  • Launched this blog
  • Cleared out the packed storage unit that I’d been meaning to get rid of for a decade (and wrote an essay about it)
  • Completed a graduate class in a social work (and no, I doubt that I’ll continue with the program, but I’d been thinking about it for a long time and am glad I tried it out.)
  • Fulfilled a longstanding dream of working with foster kids, including planning a writing workshop to be sponsored by Friends of Children this spring
  • Got some really interesting freelance writing gigs that are likely to lead to more
  • Made lots of great friends in my great new community of Northampton Massachusetts, the first place I’ve lived in a long time that really feels like home.

There’s lots more, but you get the idea.

This was an especially interesting exercise for me given my initial assessment that this had been a long hard year primarily defined by failure. I felt like I’d spent most of the year trying, failing, getting up, then trying again. Along with the successes listed above, I’d applied for (and been rejected for) a whole bunch of different jobs. I wrote and circulated a book proposal that failed to elicit any interest from the agents who perused it. The list goes on.

Happily, I had this year’s daily log to contradict these thoughts.  As I recently wrote in Huffington Post, I started keeping daily logs more than a decade ago after trading my structured life as a law firm associate for the free-form existence of an aspiring novelist. At the time, I was reaching the end of the week in a mild state of panic, thinking “I’m not getting anything done! What is wrong with me?”

In an effort to take charge of my schedule, I started using a blank bound book — a so-called lawyer’s diary for which I had no further use — to track my activities day by day. And lo and behold, I wasn’t such a slacker after all! It just felt that way. (Lest there be any doubt, I did indeed write and ultimately publish two novels.)

Tracking accomplishments can be especially important in Plan B Nation, where many of us are dealing with more failures than we have in the past. (That’s certainly the case for me.)  The fact is, these are challenging times, and it’s not our fault. Making a concerted effort to recognize our successes can help us to remember that we do indeed have significant strengths.

So go ahead and make those New Year’s Resolutions—and do your best to stick to them. But before cracking the whip for 2012, celebrate 2011.

Wherever you go there you are? Not necessarily

kitchen1

A year ago today, I was packing up my Cambridge apartment a stone’s throw from Harvard Square and preparing to return to Northampton, the bucolic western Massachusetts college town where I’d previously lived for two years in the early aughts.

I’d been in Cambridge for six years, and a hard six years it was. I’m still not quite sure why. It was the third time I’d lived in the storied educational mecca, home to Harvard, MIT, and countless brilliant minds. I’d been there twice as a student. This time I was back for a job at Harvard Law School, where I ultimately wound up writing speeches for then-Dean (now U.S. Supreme Court Justice) Elena Kagan.

It was a pretty great job in a pretty great city, but for some reason my life never really came together there.  Most difficult—and puzzling—of all was the fact that I couldn’t seem to make friends. Being single, my friends have always been especially important to me, and not having any good friends close at hand—well, it was quite a challenge.

In fairness, by the time I moved, I’d manage to collect a handful of intimates, but given the time and effort I put in, the results were pretty paltry.  Was it me? I wondered. It had to be me. After all, who wouldn’t like Cambridge?

This was pretty much the way my thoughts were going when my boss decamped for Washington, D.C., and my Harvard job abruptly ended in the spring of 2009. At the time, it seemed to make sense to just stay put. I had a strong professional network in the Boston area, and even with the Great Recession upon us, the region’s job market was still relatively robust (at least compared to other places).

Over the next year-plus, I picked up freelance projects and other short-term work, but more and more, I found myself pining to return to western Mass. While I’d last lived in Northampton a decade before, I’d made frequent trips back to see friends, and I loved my weekend visits. Still, I sternly reminded myself, mini-vacations are not real life. Making a move wouldn’t change any of the very real difficulties facing me. I’d still be jobless, looking for work, still financially strained. I’d still be single (which is great if you choose it, but the fact is, I had not).

Also: I already knew from experience that just because I thought a change would make my life better didn’t mean that it would. Psychologists have a fancy name for this—affective forecasting error—the idea being that we humans are notoriously poor predictors of what will make us happy.

Wherever you go there you are. The saying stuck in my mind. Everyone knows that you can’t change your life by simply changing your surroundings–and lest you have any lingering doubt, research bears this out.  In one often-cited study, researchers found that people who believed they would be happier living in California actually would not be. I couldn’t help but suspect that Northampton might be my personal California (albeit a far chillier and less sunny one).

And so it went until my unhappiness reached the point that even an unlikely option seemed worth the risk. I didn’t know what else to do. Plus, I couldn’t help thinking—or at least hoping—that a move might serve as a jump start.

I was encouraged to find some support for this notion in journalist Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success. There, Gladwell recounts the story of Roseto, Pennsylvania, a bustling self-sufficient town established in the nineteenth century by immigrants from a single Italian village. In the 1950s, a physician discovered that the town’s residents enjoyed astonishingly good health, with men over 65 dying from heart disease at half the rate of the United States as a whole, and with death rates from all causes 30% to 35% lower than expected. After significant research aimed at controlling for variables–diet, genetics, exercise–researchers concluded that, remarkably enough, residents’ health could be traced to nothing more than the fabric of town life, with its rich social bonds and traditions.

Maybe I was grasping at straws, but this seemed promising. It seemed to suggest that while “moving to California” might not in itself boost happiness, the sense of belonging to a vibrant community could have a profound impact. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that this made total sense. After all, wasn’t it likely that I’d be happier in a place that I knew and loved, surrounded by people I cared about and who cared about me?

Moreover, I was able to garner research to back me up. Again and again, close relationships with family and friends have been shown to be one of the strongest proven predictors of happiness.

Reader, I moved.

And as I approach my one-year anniversary in Northampton, I’m delighted to tell you that I am indeed far, far happier than I was before. While the move certainly hasn’t fixed everything—I’m still looking for work, still looking for love—I’m deeply grateful for my life here. Along with the welcome infusion of human warmth and connection, I cherish the texture of daily life: stopping by the farm down the street to pick up eggs, playing board games with my friends’ kids, working with Friends of Children and Treehouse, local organizations doing cutting-edge work aimed at transforming the nation’s foster care system. The list goes on.

The moral of the story? Changing your surroundings won’t necessarily change your life. But then again: It might.