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


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.