This weekend blog has been my weekend escape. It’s not a vacation. I take vacations I tend to queue up some posts here so that I don’t seem to be on vacation.
My mechanic and his wife were closing the shop for a week. I asked them where they were going. They said that they might go to the Jersey shore for a few days. Nothing big. When they returned, I asked again. They did three days at the shore, took their grandkids to the zoo, and got some “things done around the house.” The latter sounds like “work.”
I was reading that Americans are terrible at taking time for vacations. Workers lose their vacation days, trade them for other benefits, and when they take time off it is often like the couple above – staycations and working vacations. Almost half of the employees surveyed worked an hour a day while on vacation last year.
The United States has no federal paid vacation policy. It is one of only a handful of countries without guaranteed paid annual leave. In 1910, President William Howard Taft said two weeks off was not enough for people to protect their “health and constitution.” How much did he suggest? Two or three months.
In the European Union, workers receive a minimum of four weeks of paid holidays annually. France guarantees 30 days of paid annual leave, and Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland have set the minimum at four weeks of paid annual leave.
But if Americans aren’t even using the days they do get (two weeks is still pretty standard), what would happen if they got more time off?
What reasons do workers give for having unused vacation days? Sadly, some felt they couldn’t adequately disconnect from work while on vacation. Some say they can’t feel relaxed or connect with loved ones at home. Some thought time off would bring up negative outcomes, such as feeling stressed or having financial burdens.
Today is Labor Day in the United States. It’s another holiday that seems to have lost a lot of its meaning. Like some other holidays – Veterans Day, Memorial Day, some would even say Christmas – we now view this as a day off and a long weekend.
Many children associate this 3-day-weekend-holiday with the end of summer. Though some schools start the new year in August, in my part of the country most schools begin actual classes after Labor Day.
American Labor Day was first celebrated on a Tuesday – September 5, 1882 – and was organized by the Central Labor Union in New York as a day of rest for working persons.
The Haymarket Riots (or Haymarket affair or Haymarket massacre) was a demonstration on Tuesday, May 4, 1886, at the Haymarket Square in Chicago. It started out as a rally in support of striking workers. Someone threw a bomb at police as they dispersed the public meeting and that resulted in gunfire from the police, the deaths of eight police officers (most from friendly fire) and some civilians. The legal proceedings that followed got international press and eight “anarchists” were tried for murder. Four men were convicted and executed, and one committed suicide in prison, although the prosecution conceded none of the defendants had thrown the bomb.
There were efforts to use that May date as a holiday but U.S. President Grover Cleveland supported moving the holiday to a September date to avoid associations with the Haymarket riot and the Socialist May Day associations. He signed a bill into law making the September Labor Day observance a federal holiday in 1894.
Most other countries celebrate workers on May first of each year. “May Day” refers to several public holidays but is associated with International Workers’ Day, or Labour Day, a day of political demonstrations and celebrations organized by unions and other groups.
Americans don’t really do much to celebrate work or workers today. We have barbecues, backyard blowouts, watch early college football games. And yet, now might be the time we should consider workers. Unemployment is high, businesses are cutting back and there are still battles to raise the minimum wage to a living salary. It’s not a good time for labor unions either. There are lots of demands for concessions by unions on their contracts. Some politicians and corporations are calling for an end to unions and trying to stop new unionization of workers.
America is a work-obsessed culture. Many people are still working this weekend, just as during the worst of the pandemic when workers labeled as “essential” still had to go to their workplace while other workers were able to more safely work from home. Are those essential workers at the top of the salary guide and corporate ladder? No, it’s almost the opposite. Some of the lowest-paid and least respected workers were deemed “essential” in this very limited way.
It seems a shame that this holiday doesn’t have more of a connection to the positive aspects of work and workers and as a time to reflect on how labor is treated in the country.
Back in 2016, I was preparing a conference keynote presentation to give at the Rutgers University Online that I titled “The Disconnected.” That is my name for a segment of the population. These people are not disconnected in a detached or unengaged sense but are instead disconnecting from traditional modes and sources of information and learning.
In doing my research, I found a podcast that is called Unretirement and realized that in my own process of learning to retire I was probably entering unretirement.
Chris Farrell, who wrote the book Unretirementand hosted the podcast, defines unretirement as a “grassroots movement rethinking and reimagining the second half of life.”
At that point in my life, I was pretty sure that I was done with my full-time work in education which has been my career for 40 years. But I wasn’t sure that I wanted to completely stop working. I knew there were things I wanted to do that wouldn’t count as “work” because there was no remuneration involved. I wanted to get serious about my poetry and painting I wanted to see friends more often. I also wanted to do more travel and things that would cost money. Spending money but not making money could be a problem.
Farrell’s book is subtitled “How Baby Boomers are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community, and the Good Life” and as a Boomer, I could identify.
I began, almost accidentally, retiring into consulting. I was asked by two colleges if I would be willing to work on projects part-time. No contract. No benefits. Very flexible hours, including working virtually from home for a good part of it. I agreed.
Both jobs required me to formalize this path and I created an LLC so that I could be paid as a business rather than an individual. That was required by the colleges as I was now a vendor or independent contractor.
I was also doing web design work for clients who I knew beforehand. My own definition of unretirement meant that I worked when I wanted to work and at things that I wanted to do for people or organizations I liked.
I also did volunteer, no-pay work. I was teaching about filmmaking and enjoying it. That was also part of my unretirement plan.
After a year of being unretired, another college asked me to do a six-month project. This project involved open education resources (OER). Like the previous projects, this was an area I had worked in previously.
My wife wasn’t thrilled in me taking on a project that was longer term. Web jobs and volunteer work took a few weeks. She didn’t want me to do anything that would close out our ability to pick up and travel. But the college team was very willing to let me adjust my time on campus.
Then in September 2018, I was offered another gig at a different college. This was a different commitment. It would be a one-year contract to help create online courses for a new project. “Contract” was not a word I or my wife wanted to hear.
Gig, as in “gig economy,” is certainly a part of my unretirement and the unretirement of others. A gig economy is usually defined as an environment in which temporary positions are common and organizations contract with independent workers for short-term engagements.
I took on that one-year gig because the pay was good, the hours were totally flexible and the work would be about 90% virtual. Billable hours.
I finished that gig this past September and agreed with my wife that “contract” would not be a part of my future unretirement. I’m still doing my web design work. I’ll be making less income, but I’ll have more time for the non-paying gigs that I really enjoy.
I live between First and Second Mountain of the Watchung Mountains. In this valley, with its small river as a dividing line, I am between two large stages of my life.
There are lots of ways you can divide a lifetime . At 21, I would have said there was my childhood, high school, and college. Now, all three seem to be just one part of my life.
David Brooks has written The Second Mountain and I picked up the book at the library because of that title and where I live. Brooks uses the climb up the first mountain as a mostly self-centered one. I found online descriptions for this part of life as “in search of résumé virtues” and finding “the skills you bring to the marketplace.”
The younger Brooks has written about related topics in his New York Times columns. His earlier book, The Road to Character, examined some thinkers and inspiring leaders trying to find how they built a strong inner character.
I believe most of us feel that we should live a life larger than ourselves. That “road” he wrote about earlier might be the one up Second Mountain. On this second journey, we are looking to lead a more meaningful life. But all around you on the mountain is a self-centered world, so how do you accomplish your goal?
I read that second mountain is not the place for finding and acquiring résumé virtues, but a time to secure “eulogy virtues.” These are “the ones that are talked about at your funeral.”
Brooks wrote Bobos in Paradise which is subtitled “The New Upper Class and How They Got There,” and is described as the stories of some self-centered bourgeois bohemians who were somewhere between “1960s values and 1990s money.” In some ways his books chronicle his own “road to character” journey. Fifteen years after Bobos, he was a 50-something who was try to find meaning and “save my own soul.”
Before I started reading the book, I read an excerpt online and listened to a sample and I connected immediately to several passages. Here is Brooks on that first mountain:
“Every so often, you meet people who radiate joy—who seem to know why they were put on this earth, who glow with a kind of inner light. Life, for these people, has often followed what we might think of as a two-mountain shape. They get out of school, they start a career, and they begin climbing the mountain they thought they were meant to climb. Their goals on this first mountain are the ones our culture endorses: to be a success, to make your mark, to experience personal happiness. But when they get to the top of that mountain, something happens. They look around and find the view . . . unsatisfying. They realize: This wasn’t my mountain after all. There’s another, bigger mountain out there that is actually my mountain.”
On the second mountain – and not everyone wants to go there or is able to climb it – your life should move from self-centered to other-centered.
We all know this desire, even if we don’t really desire the same things. On second mountain, you desire things that are truly worth wanting. You lose the desire for things other people tell you to want. Interdependence and not independence. A life of commitment.
Brooks defines four commitments for this life of meaning and purpose. First, is a commitment to a spouse and family. Next is a commitment to a vocation. He also lists commitment to a philosophy or faith. Finally, is a commitment to a community.
Although Brooks looks within, he also looks at others who have lived committed lives.
This might sound like a book for older people, but t really is better read by younger people for its guidance in choosing a partner, vocation, philosophy, and how to begin putting commitments into the climb of first mountain.
Society is probably not going to help your climb the second mountain. Society favors the first mountain’s freedom, individualism, and putting self first.
Brooks says that if you get to the top of that first mountain and are “successful” you may still find yourself unsatisfied. He writes that these people “sense there must be a deeper journey they can take.”
But some people get knocked off first mountain. “Something happens to their career, their family, or their reputation. Suddenly life doesn’t look like a steady ascent up the mountain of success; it has a different and more disappointing shape.”
And other people have something happen that knocks them off the path if not off the mountain. He writes that “the death of a child, a cancer scare, a struggle with addiction, some life-altering tragedy that was not part of the original plan” Where are they? “Whatever the cause, these people are no longer on the mountain. They are down in the valley of bewilderment or suffering. This can happen at any age, by the way, from eight to eighty-five and beyond. It’s never too early or too late to get knocked off your first mountain.”
That passage caught me. As I said, I literally live in a valley and so I wondered if I am also between the first and second mountains of my life.
Writers can take metaphors and analogies too far. Life is not all mountains and valleys. I know that I sometimes still live on that first mountain, but I have also made my way up the second mountain. I suppose I do live oftentimes in the valley between.
Brooks’ “small rebellions” that lead to the second mountain are to rebel against your ego ideal, and to rebel against mainstream culture. I can see my explorations of Buddhism and other spiritual journeys as a way to battle ego. I am not much of a rebel against culture. I haven’t pursued money, power or fame, but some of that is more due to a lack of opportunities than some nobility on my part. I suspect that on the first mountain I would have easily grabbed at all three of those things if I had the chance. I’m not sure that now I would rebel. I truly am living in that valley.
Someone who rebels and alters their life at any age has moved from one mountain to another. The book gives examples from the radical lawyer who gives up a law practice and moves to Tibet or quits a consultant job to teach in an inner-city school. He writes “I have a friend who built a successful business in the Central Valley of California. She still has her business but spends most of her time building preschools and health centers for the people who work in her company. She is on her second mountain.”
I taught for 45 years. It wasn’t inner-city schools but I am very comfortable with the work I did and I truly feel I made a positive impact on my part of the world.
This past week I climbed up my nearby mountain to a hawk watch. I could see from my perch on First Mountain the more rural Second Mountain to the west. And looking east, I could see a more urban landscape.
This is not a spoiler, but I will tell you that toward the end of the book, David Brooks has a kind of epiphany when he is hiking in Aspen. He was in a bad place in his life, coming out of a failed marriage. He pauses in his walking to read a Puritan prayer about the redemptive power of suffering. He says that he felt “the presence of the sacred in the realities of the everyday.”
Some people will find their second mountain through a crisis or religion or a spiritual practice. Some people will find the sacred only when they arrive on second mountain.
I like Brooks’ recounting of a lunch he had with the Dalai Lama. “He didn’t say anything particularly illuminating or profound, but every once in a while he just burst out laughing for no apparent reason.”
There is a reason for the laughter, but it is not apparent to all.
Being a virtual worker has its obvious advantages, such as no commuting, variable work hours and days, and working in your pajamas from the couch. It also has its disadvantages, such as allowing you to do nothing and lose track of time.
Because much of my work these days are billable hours rather than a salary, it is important that I keep track of how long I work on a project. I need those stats both to invoice clients and to give estimates to new clients.
This was a skill I needed to develop when I shifted my working days to virtual ones. One technique that I started using turns out to have a formal name. More on that in a bit…
This time management and productivity technique is very simple. When you start a task (not a project, but a piece of it), set a timer and work on that task for 25 minutes. Then, take a short break (3-5 minutes). Start working on the task again for 25 minutes and repeat until it’s completed.
I just started doing this on my own and it was only later that I discovered that I was using the Pomodoro Technique.
The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. His technique was to use a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. Originally, he broke it down into six steps. These intervals are named pomodoros, the plural in English of the Italian word pomodoro (tomato), after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that Cirillo used as a university student.
The technique has been popularized more recently via a bunch of apps and websites that provide timers and instructions. I just use a cheap digital timer that can count down. I tried using my phone timer but for some reason it was less effective. Perhaps because the screen would go to sleep, so those numbers weren’t always staring at me.
One of the app options is Focus Booster which will automatically record your timesheets for each project or task and lets you export it for easier invoicing.
This technique is closely related to several other productivity techniques, such as timeboxing, and iterative and incremental development.
Timeboxing allocates a fixed time period, called a time box, to each planned activity. Several project management approaches use timeboxing. It is also used for individual use to address personal tasks in a smaller time frame. It often involves having deliverables and deadlines, which will improve the productivity of the user.
Iterative and incremental development, which is often used in software design, uses the basic idea of developing a system through repeated cycles (iterative) and in smaller portions at a time (incremental). This allows software developers to take advantage of what was learned during development of earlier parts or versions of the system.
Rocker Bono and writer Thomas Friedman were quoted online as revealing the 3 skills that American workers need today. And though I doubt that anyone really knows the secret 3 ingredients in the sauce for workers, I was curious.
Friedman has written several books since he started a mantra with The World Is Flat. That book really kicked up the conversation about how the world is changing at an accelerated speed and that American workers were falling behind and needed to adapt their learning quickly for this shifting marketplace.
That is why they chose being a lifelong learner as one of those skills. He points to AT&T who have partnered with the online course provider Udacity as a way to update the skills of its workforce. The company offers employees about $8,000 per year to take courses. Friedman says this sends employees the message that a lifelong AT&T employee is a lifelong learner.
But professional development is not new. Perhaps the platform for it is new.
The second skill suggested to boost creativity is pausing. This one comes from Bono and his band U2. He says that unlike recording studio machines that on pause halt productivity, humans on pause begin a different kind of productivity through rethinking, reimagining and reflecting.
Clearly, the skills these two believe we need to cultivate are what are considered soft skills. Maybe you would have guessed the skills would include tech skills, like coding, data analytics or AI. Those are things workers can learn in courses and training sessions, but soft business skills are getting more attention lately.
Feedback from employers to colleges are often more about teaching soft skills such as the ability to give and receive feedback, and work collaboratively.
One reason is that machines (computers is too restrictive) are getting smarter and are taking over certain aspects of business, but interpersonal skills is an area that is machine-safe.
Friedman says something that I have not heard before. He claims that one of the first things on a résumé that business leaders evaluate is if applicants were in clubs like 4H or were an Eagle Scout. They find that is a good indicator of a work ethic and soft skills that allow people to grow and adapt with the business.
Bottom Line: Make learning a priority. Upgrade your skills. Increase creativity with an occasional pause. Develop interpersonal and communication skills.