29 01 2015

I’ve been thinking a while about the concept of ambition.  Like most children from a privileged upbringing, I was told to dream big, to work hard, to achieve success…to be ambitious.  These were and are good things.  I was fortunately born with the type of intelligence that does well in standardized testing, and (after a stint in a program for gifted children) the kind that also fit in well with the educational style of the 1960s and 70s.  I did well.  I was rewarded for it.  I achieved good grades in high school, got into the college I wanted to attend, and was paid to go to graduate school.

All along was the idea that wherever you are, you need to push to be in a better place.  Where you are is good?  The next place could be better, with more money, more power, more, more, more.  Your relationship seems pretty great?  Are you sure?  It could be better – more sexy, more intimate, more, more, more.  Your child is well-adjusted?  Are you sure he has enough to do? Is her environment rich enough?  Have you done everything you can to encourage the growth of those early neurons?  Don’t you think you could be doing more?

I did well.  I was successful.  Decent job, good marriage, a demanding-but-otherwise-awesome son.  I made myself crazy listening to the voices telling me that none of those things were enough.  I pulled free of some of it – for instance, the Baby Weight Gaining competition that happens when you have a baby close in age to another woman’s.  “Oh, your baby gained a pound in the week after birth?  That’s great… my baby gained TEN.”  Followed by more information than you want to hear about the richness of your competitor’s breast milk, along with a self-congratulatory breast pat.  That one has “Get out while you can” stamped all over it, and I did.  Fast.

Other things I didn’t let go of, so much as have them pulled away.  My decent marriage ended with my husband’s death.  Which of course, after a period of grief, starts the push cycle again.  Are you seeing anyone? Have you been dating?  Are there any “good prospects”?

Then I was laid off from my decent job.

A lot of things came to a screeching halt right there.  The first thing I noticed, when the shock wore off, was a sense of relief.  I took some time to simply breathe, and rest, and consider what had happened.  A little while later I got a contract position… and there it was again: Will this turn into a full-time position?  You really want that, right?  Because that would be better.  You should want more than contracting.

The breathing and resting paid off.  I wasn’t in a full-time position, and realized that I didn’t actually want to be in that position full-time, because hello, corporate crazy.  My time was my own.  I could set that job down and walk away.  Sure, they could let me go at any time – and I could also let them go at any time.  It felt balanced in a way that I hadn’t felt in a long time.  I finished that contract and moved into another one – for less money. (Shouldn’t you be making more?  You used to make a lot more than that.) Less money was more than balanced by working with people that I knew and loved.

I get it, truly.  There’s a time in your life when you are trying to build and achieve.  You’re making a family, or building a career, or studying deeply for a long time, or planning for retirement.  But I’ve come to think that we should always question what it is we are after.  Is it just more?  The bigger house, the fancy job title, the luxury car, all the activities for your children… what are they for?  It’s like we’ve misunderstood the “dream big” part of what our parents tried to teach us.

What do you actually dream of?  Do you dream of that next big goal?  Or do you dream of a time when it’s behind you, when you can stop pushing so hard to get to it?  We can make that time happen.  There should be a point where we can look at our lives and say, these things are good.  To stop adding the word “but” to every single beautiful thing we say about our lives.  Instead: I love my husband.  I have an amazing child.  I like my job.  My house is comfortable.  My life is good.

It is nearly un-American to say ambition isn’t always good.  It’s the American way – strive, be ambitious, succeed.  Never be satisfied, never be content with where you are, never rest.  I am not entirely done with that – I do still have a mortgage to pay for – but my ambition these days is for inner peace.  To not worry about whether I’m achieving enough, but to love what I’ve already achieved.



18 04 2014

I lost a former coworker this week.  He wasn’t much older than me – only three years – but a couple of weeks ago I heard that he was in the hospital.  Then I heard that he was “septic,” that things were bad.  And then earlier this week he died.  As always, death is a mystery to me, how someone can be a living, breathing presence in one second, and in the next second they are gone, with nothing to announce their absence.  It seems like there should be something, the sound of creation rushing into the space that they used to occupy.

My cowrker lost his job at our former company the same way I did, but a year later.  He started with the company right out of college, and had worked there for 33 years when he was laid off.  He was, as a mutual friend described him, “a man of helpfulness and industry”.  He had been with the company long enough that he remembered the history of the various processes we supported.  He knew where things were, where to find the equipment you needed… and if the equipment didn’t exist, he could improvise something that would do the job.  He took care of business.

He had some idea that the business would take care of him as well, and was left bitter by the layoff, by the realization that the passion he brought to his job was largely unrequited.  I remember the emotion well.  I was bitter for a while.  And beyond that came detachment, of no longer tying so much of what I believe about myself to the job I have.  For the years I was with our former company, I described myself as an employee of that company first, and as a scientist second.  Now I am a project manager.  And I only mention where I’m managing projects if someone asks.

The detachment is good in many ways.  You shouldn’t define yourself through something that can be ripped away so easily.  But it comes with sadness.  There was a time when I didn’t think companies worked that way.  I believed that my company was decent, that there would always be a place for me.  I wanted to think that if I sacrificed for that company – the long hours, the weekends and holidays that I was in the lab – somehow the company would recognize that and be loyal to me.

Now that belief seems laughably quaint.  It certainly isn’t the way business works any more, and it’s getting more heartless out here in the corporate world every single day.  Corporations owe us nothing.  And they know it.  But at the same time they are still using the old beliefs of those who have managed to hang on, the ones who still cling to the idea that the company thinks of them as more than an interchangeable cog in the machine.  Corporations will happily use that unwarranted loyalty to milk ever more out of those employees, until they have wrung them out and tossed them into the same heap with the rest of us.

I am not bitter about my former company.  But I’m a lot more cynical about employment in general, and I will never again willingly offer myself up the way I used to in my younger days.  And I don’t encourage today’s young workers to do it, either.  If a company is willing to discard their experienced workforce, if they are willing to use contract labor to fill entire departments – then they have committed solely to short-term profit and aren’t committing in any way to the people doing the work.  I can and will commit to doing a decent job during my work day.  But when I finish at the end of the day, I’m done and I walk away from it.

My coworker spent the last year of his life bitter about what our former company had done to him.  He felt betrayed and discarded.  His feelings were accurate.  Some would say that his last year shows that life is too short for bitterness; I think the truth is that life is too short for loyalty to a corporation.  I lost a lot of time doing more than I needed to for my former company.  So did my coworker.  And life really is too short for that.


18 11 2013

I feel like I’m tumbling into the end of the year.  I think I’ll land okay, and there probably won’t be too much in the way of damage, but I’m anticipating standing up with sticks and leaves in my hair.

Part of it is just the usual holiday hectic.  Which I kind of got ahead of this year, making a bunch of gifts for my nieces and nephews, rather than trying to find things for them from the various catalogs.  This year they’re all getting hand-spun, hand-knitted items…the good news is that they are all old enough to appreciate that kind of a gift.  The average two-year-old would be less than impressed, but the nieces and nephews are all in their teens and twenties now.  I’m thinking at some point we’re going to need to think about cutting back on the Christmas thing at that level; this year isn’t that time.

Then last week my son had his wisdom teeth pulled out – again, one of those rites of the late teens and early twenties, and he came through it fine.  It was just one of those anxiety-provoking procedures, as it seems like everyone needs to share their dental horror stories once they hear you’re going to have your wisdom teeth taken care of.

The thing throwing me into upheaval now is the work situation… which, welcome to the new working model for corporate America.  Many corporations now rely on “contract workers,” or what we used to refer to as temporaries.  There was a time when companies used temporary hires as a way of screening potential employees; it was frustrating to be that temporary hire, knowing that you were on some kind of probation, but there was the sense that there was a reward at the end.

That’s gone now.  The company I work for is staffed by approximately 50% contract workers, and that’s at the corporate world headquarters.  I’m one of them.  And it’s a deal I was willing to make, given where I am in my career and the options I have.  But last week many of us were informed that the company, in order to hit its year-end financial targets, will be putting most of the contractors “on furlough” for the month of December.  And again, I’m one of them.  The expectation seems to be that we’re still on contract, but we get to sit tight for the month, without a paycheck, and then come back to work again.

It is…wounding to be treated in this way.  American workers are under siege by the corporations.  I’m in a better position than so many because I’m in a STEM field, and there is nearly always employment to be had there.  But employment is not what it once was, and the expectations that I grew up with – long-term employment with a company, with eventual retirement when you’re ready – have been demolished.  I still cling to the idea of job security, even when I know that there is no longer any such thing.  It’s one thing for me.  It’s another thing to watch our children dealing with a radically changed job market.  I see every one of them worrying about their futures in a way my generation didn’t have to.

For me, it’s kind of like sitting down and discovering that the chair has been moved.  I had the air knocked out of me for a bit.  But now, I’ll spend that time at home getting some other things done, and considering options.  I’ll finally get some painting done, after literally years of putting it off.  I’m going to experiment with bath products and see if this might not be an interesting path forward.  And I’m going to be grateful that I can get through this month without panicking about losing my home or turning off utilities.

Heaven knows this isn’t true for a lot of workers.   Entire communities – hell, entire states – are being terrorized and held hostage by major corporations who promise to take their businesses somewhere else if they don’t get their way.   So they get their tax breaks, and their advantaged business position, and they continue to send the jobs away out of the country even after all their demands are met.  It is unconscionable.