All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Very Dull Boy

A couple of weeks ago, my sister asked if I loved my job. I’m not sure if I give off some aura of total contentment or a sense of abject sadness, but people take an inordinate interest in my job satisfaction and I get this question quite often. She asked me this while I was slurping away at my first cup of coffee and I imagine my answer was a bit disjointed and, probably, incoherent. That happens the older I get. I’ve also found that questions like this are much easier to answer over a couple of beers. I’m usually smarter, better looking, and a good dancer after an hour at the bar.

I’ll state for the record that I do not love my job. I’m not even sure I like my job some days. As jobs go, it beats the heck out of digging ditches or artificially inseminating cows but, at the end of the day, it’s still a job.

Periodically, I’ll have students (and others) quote a little Confucius and tell me “you should choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Confucius, I’m sure, was a great guy, but as a career coach he left something to be desired.

Let’s start with the obvious notion that we can’t all choose jobs we love because 1) most of us aren’t qualified for the jobs we love (or think we would love) and 2) if we could all simply do the jobs we loved there would only be about 4 garbage men, 6 roofers, 3 people to slaughter pigs, 1 person teaching junior high math, 52,000 creative writers, and 5 million X-box professionals.

Certainly, there are people out there who work jobs they love (or learn to love their jobs) and can play junior Confucius at dinner parties.

But, let’s also note that Confucius’ argument sets up a philosophical conundrum where there is no distinction between work (something you do under the rules and guidance of others) and play (something you do for yourself). Importantly, the basic tenets of Confucianism center on character within accepted cultural norms, loyalty to one’s “true” nature, giving or reciprocity, and filial piety. (Hear that kids!) While I’m a fan of the humanism at the heart of Confucian thought, I think we would certainly agree that his advice about work lacks a certain practicality. We should also note that Confucius makes some pretty important assumptions about both culture and individuality. He assumes that accepted cultural norms are humanistic, pure, and fair. Just as importantly, he imagines we have some special insight into our own “true” nature.

To thine ownself be true, Confucius might say were he a Renaissance playwright. I have my doubts, though, about most of our abilities (or willingness) to recognize our true self. Importantly, Confucius assumes we have a true self that remains constant over the course of time. What we want at 51 should mirror our 21 year old self?

I suspect that Confucius’ idea was perfect for the time in which he spoke. Certainly, we want to avoid oversimplifying 550 BCE, but I do think we can say with some confidence that the job opportunities were not as robust as they might be today. You can see in most philosophies/religions emerging at the time a movement away from feudalism and toward emerging identities. In other words, people at the time had their identities, jobs, and lives defined by feudal lords. While Confucius maintains some of that loyalty to the larger culture, we also see an emerging idea about one’s independent self and a philosophical movement away from defined identities to a greater autonomy.

But when Plato (who lived about the same time) argued that the “unexamined life was not worth living,” he was offering a radical departure from the cultural norm. The “examined life” begins our ascent out of the cave of illusions into the reality of daylight. What we realize is our self is multi-faceted and we play many roles throughout our lives. While I wouldn’t dare trace the the work/play dichotomy to Plato, we might note that during this era work and play didn’t exist as two separate entities. There were no work place laws or regulations. In essence, what you did at sun up is what you did until sun down. Wise words from Confucius then but when we begin to examine that life, we begin to call into question the notion that our live is tied to simply producing that which we need for survival.

Notably, we exist in a vastly different economic system as well. As workers moved from barter economies to a monetary system, we stopped working to trade goods and services and became employees earning money in order to purchase goods and services. I’m no longer trading you a footstool for a chicken I can eat. I’m selling you a footstool so I can go buy a single piece of chicken from anywhere I want.

As the western world has changed so to has our relationship with work and play. Whereas in 550 BCE our day might last 12 hours (in the field, shop, or street), we have “progressed” into an economic system that values the 40 hour week. I’m no mathematician, but if there are a 168 hours in a week and we spend 40 at work, we spend 75% of our time on not-work. Even if I sleep 10 hours a day (70 hours) and go to work 40 hours, I still have more not-work, not-sleep time than I do work.

Why, then, should I be defined by my job and worry about loving my job?

Our job, then, should be a tool that allows us to pursue our “selves” during those other hours. It is not imperative, then, that I love my job. It is far more important, it seems to me, that I find a job that allows me to do the things I love with all my free time.

Boy, if I had just been drinking Irish Coffee, maybe that’s what I would have said.

Vacate the Premises

I haven’t been blogging much lately. Some of it, I think, is simply the summer heat. Out here in west Texas, we spend a month or two with 100 degree days, no rain, and sun shining in places we don’t like. Calling them the dog-days just seems cruel to dogs.

Mostly, though, I’ve been using up my vacation days. When I was a full-time faculty member, I didn’t need vacation days. We had summer, the holidays, and if I needed to be off-campus for an afternoon, I left. One of the glories of teaching at the college level is that I can do parts of my job from anywhere. I have to be in class and I have to be in my office at certain times, but research, service, and writing can take place anywhere at anytime. The advent of skype and google hangout even allows me to host virtual office hours from any where with internet service. (Lest anyone think college profs are lazy, the average college professor works 55-70 hours a week. We just don’t all work between 8-5.)

Last summer, though, I began a stint as a full-time administrator, accruing vacation days, working 8-5 (5 days a week!), and becoming a small cog in the larger wheel of the machine. Some days I can’t decide if I’m Milton Waddams or Bill Lumberg. (If you don’t get the reference from Office Space, do yourself a favor and watch the movie. In fact, if I were you, I would skip the blog. The movie is much better than what you are reading now.)

I’m not asking for sympathy here. I fully realize that accruing vacation time is not a benefit everyone has. In fact, according to various reports, American workers receive the fewest paid vacation days of any industrialized country. I’m also not arguing for some sort of government intervention. Certainly, it might be nice if the government designated more national or federal holidays. Doing so might allow some companies protection when they closed (since all their competitors would be closed) and federal holidays often provide the only true vacation days for workers in hourly or lower-salary ranges. I hate to sound cynical, though, but those goofballs in Washington can’t even agree when their own holidays start. Heaven help us if they start telling us when to take the day off.

But, I also think we need to come to grips with vacation. I realize the very idea of vacationing is ripe with economic and cultural bias. America, we are told in school, was built on hard work and sacrifice. We aren’t France (or Greece), for instance because we demand hard work. The “puritan work ethic” demands 40 hours a week (or more). Idle hands, our pastors tell us, are the devils’ workshop. (Feel free to insert your own cliche here.)

In other words, if you aren’t working, find something to do until you are. We have created a kind of cultural guilt around not working and we too often feel compelled to justify those moments we aren’t busy. (See my defense of college professors above for example. Not only do we work, I say, but we work more hours than you! I willingly admit I’m part of the problem not the solution.)

But that’s just not right. If all we do is work, we become our job, forgetting that the purpose of work isn’t to gain a foothold into heaven but to provide sustenance and an ability to live the good life. Unfortunately, we have increasingly defined the good life as a world filled with toys and trips necessitating more work. We need to refashion work as a means to an end not as an end in and of itself. We should work because it lets us do the things we like.

Perhaps even more disturbing is too many Americans don’t take the vacation time they have.  Many workers are scared, worried that if the office survives while they are gone, the boss might wonder why she hired them in the first place. As a result, employees don’t go on vacation or they take a vacation but keep the phone on vibrate all day.

Trust me–just because the office doesn’t stop functioning when you are gone doesn’t mean they don’t want you there. In fact, studies show us that taking a break, stepping back, vacating work is healthy for the bottom line and your mental health.

In my office, I encourage my staff to take their vacation days. Use them all at once or piece meal throughout the year, but use them. Take a break, recharge the batteries, get that home repair taken care of so you will quit obsessing about it at work and, most of all, forget about us for a while.

When you come back to work, show us the photos. Just not tomorrow. I won’t be in.

The Absurdity of Ignorance

When my family and I went camping at Custer State Park in South Dakota, the park rangers warned us repeatedly not to get near the bison. At first we couldn’t quite figure out why we needed this repetition. After all, getting up close and personal with a 6 foot tall, 2,000 pound bull with horns just seems like a bad idea in general. Who, we thought, is out there trying to mingle with the wildlife?

There’s always one, though, right: The guy at the Grand Canyon who jumps the fence for a better picture, the woman who goes swimming in the ocean by herself at 4:00 am, the kid who skis the black slopes in a snow storm.

And the woman who thinks she can pet the bison.

Evidently, the week before our visit, a tourist decided she wanted her picture taken with a bison calf. Unfortunately for her, the mother took exception and the park rangers had to clean up the mess.

Really, my 12 year old son asked. What made her think petting the bison was a good idea? And, in the sick, twisted way of our family, we made fun of that poor woman all week with a well-spring of bad plans (let’s feed the bears!) and mock decisions (I think a midnight hike is a great idea!) we simply knew better than to carry out.

Don’t get me wrong. We sympathized with her and her family. What happened to her (and the woman swimming in the ocean and the guy at the Grand Canyon and the skier in the snowstorm and anyone else whose risk failed) is horrific, unfortunate, and sad. Her family suffered and we recognize their pain. I’m sure a good psychologist (and probably a bad one) would tell you our jokes were about hiding our own fear or our attempt at keeping emotional distance (maybe both?). Mostly, though, as a family that watches South Park, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Arrested Development, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and other shows where irony and political discourse alternate between silliness and social commentary, we’ve learned to laugh whenever possible to avoid crying all the time. Tragedy surrounds us but we don’t have to let it consume us.

But, and let’s be honest, there is a certain absurdity of ignorance that often blunts the emotional trauma we might feel for certain people. The Darwin Awards celebrates and highlights many of these moments, implying in essence that some deaths are beneficial to mankind by removing certain genes from the reproductive pool. Sure, such a thing might seem cruel, but, at the same time, it’s hard to sympathize with the guy who accidentally drinks gasoline, spits it on his clothes, and then lights a cigarette. Or the woman who wants to snuggle with a wild animal.

At the same time, these deaths can make us a bit reflective. I was driving to Austin last weekend, grinding my teeth through traffic on I-35 when we slowed to a crawl. About 100 feet ahead, I see a car and a truck. In the headlights, 3 or 4 people are standing around something and the pit of your stomach knows before your brain registers the possibility. Up ahead of them, I could see a green SUV, rusted in spots with dents in various areas that bespoke a kind of reckless driving history, sitting on the left side of the road up against the guardrail. No flashers, no lights. Not a great place to stop or breakdown.

And a terrible place to get out of the car. On a freeway. At night. With cars going 70 miles an hour and four lanes to cross before you find the safety of the shoulder.

But he tried. Even at 5 mph, you can see the death in his eyes, the onset of bruises that will never hurt, and the pallor of his skin. You can see the horror on the faces of the people around him.

And you wonder, without a lot of sympathy, just what the hell that guy was thinking.

Certainly, there are risks in this world worth taking. We can’t wrap ourselves in bubbles, wear helmets, or avoid dangerous situations. I often think that happy people have mastered the art of calculated risks. They will jump from a plane, climb a mountain, hike the trails, or swim the open seas, but they know the risks and have contingency plans when things go wrong. They also know when the risk is too great for the potential reward. There is, I think, a fine line between risk and stupidity.

Lest you think me cold-hearted, I feel for the guy and his family. No one deserves an untimely death. Ignorance shouldn’t be a mortal mistake. I find no joy or superiority in his passing.

Admittedly, though, I feel even more sympathy for the driver who hit him, a man who will remain haunted by the night he was dragged into the consequences of someone else’s stupidity. The true absurdity of ignorance, it seems to me, is not the bad choices people make that leave us shaking our heads or poking fun, but the unintended victims left to suffer because someone took the risk without the calculation.

Don’t Be So Cheeky

First year college students routinely receive gobs and bogs of advice. Study hard, sit in the front row, exercise to avoid the freshman 15, go to class. (No, really, go to class. Even the 8:00 ones.)

It has become increasingly clear, though, that we are all falling down on the job with regards to one crucial piece of advice we need to pass along to our students:

Keep your ass in your pants.

Don’t think me a prude or a pervert, but each fall I can identify the first year students by either how low their pants hang or how high they ride. I was reminded of such things a few weeks back when I took my son to his first year orientation. For three very long, excruciating days, we walked campus, attended sessions, and learned about all the cool, groovy things waiting for him in late August. In some ways, what I saw was encouraging. We have clearly entered a post-racial world and fashion, or lack thereof, has now transcended (or descended?) ethnicity: it was a veritable rainbow of backsides.

Notably, as we walked around campus, there was a distinct and fashionable difference between the upper division students I saw and the incoming first year students. I watched young men waddle around campus, struggling to keep their pants perfectly positioned on their backsides aiming for that zero gravitational point. Clearly, we have raised a generation of kids who just don’t care if “I see London, I see France, I see Billy’s underpants.” Let me give you guys a hint–they are called underwear because you wear them under the other clothes you wear.

But at least we were looking at clothes under those shorts. Sure, they all look constipated trying to walk around but at least they have some sense of decorum.

I would have preferred to see little Susie’s underpants but I’m not sure she was wearing any.

I repeat–don’t think me perverse. I realize these are 18 year old women and I’m not prone to oogling women half my age who could be my daughter. I recognize and respect the necessary separation between faculty and students. These young women are coming to campus where they will be cared for and protected by the established leaders on campus. Let me also state for the record that I respect a person’s right to dress anyway he or she wants to dress. I realize clothes are both a personal expression and, often, an opportunity to make a cultural/political statement. I also realize there is an “ick” factor involved in my even mentioning that I see young people’s backsides. But we also must note that flapping butt cheeks are hard to ignore.

Of course, there was a time when such things were exciting. I’m a child of 80s movies. I was raised on gratuitous nudity and I could rationalize the need for Erika Eleniak’s important role in any film. Popping out of the cake half naked was, of course, vital to the plot line in Under Siege. It offered Steven Segal a chance for moral redemption. Plus, it was Erika Eleniak and I was 23 and not old enough to have a daughter her age. (Don’t get me wrong–I enjoy a beautiful body as much as the next guy. I’m older, not dead.)

Understand that I’ve been teaching on a college campus for 20 years and I’ve watched trends come and go. I fully expect students to arrive on campus and announce their independence from high school dress codes. They feel a sense of liberation as they become fully adult without the oppressive school administration and social mores stifling their sense of self and identity. They are truly coming into their own bodies and experiencing a new found joy in expressing themselves as adult, sexualized, and independent entities.

I get it. I think it’s entirely appropriate for them to do so when they go out on Friday night or off to Las Vegas. Feel free to flash your flesh at the lake or the beach or on our sand volleyball courts. In fact, if you are someone who has a backside worth looking at you should be proud and happy. Trust me–the day will come when everyone will notice your backside but their reaction will be just a tad bit different.

But, and I say this as someone tasked by the state to help train students to become fully realized citizens of the state and the world: don’t be so cheeky even now. Take a hint from the upper division students around you. They’ve put their high school letter jackets in the closet, starting wearing sensible shoes, and realized it’s hard to walk across campus in 10 minutes or less when you are constantly stopping to pull your pants up. Or down.

So I encourage you, as you dress for class, make your fashion statement. Assert your independence. Feel free to be your own person.

But, on your way to class this fall, try to keep a little bit of that person hidden.

Discipline Breeds Performance: A Sort of Book Review

I’m about halfway through Paul Tough’s really intriguing book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Tough’s thesis, at a basic level, is that raising and educating successful children isn’t a game of chance. Instead, he argues, neuroscience, social science, and good old fashioned observation tell us that our contemporary emphasis on cognitive skills is misplaced and, eventually, not terribly effective. Too often, focusing just on knowledge attainment creates kids who know a lot of stuff (let’s play Jeopardy!), have a great deal of ambition (I’m going to be rich!), but lack volition (you mean I have to work for it?).

Instead, Tough notes, successful students exhibit an ability to persist at boring tasks, a willingness to delay gratification, and a tendency to follow through with plans. As Tough moves through the various studies and evidence (and he is putting together a pretty strong case), his discusses seven basic traits that are indicative of success: grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity.

Again, I am only about halfway through the book so I can’t say definitively how this idea “has the potential to change the way we raise our children” (as the book jacket claims), but I can say it’s about time we begin recognizing that academic success isn’t simply about, well, academics.

Note here that I’m not talking about disciplining students or punishment. The inevitable idea that threats, whether in the form of detention, time out, suspension, jail, spanking, etc. are  effective tools for altering behavior is for a different discussion. While I willingly admit that a well-timed swat on the backside or removing folks who are a danger to the rest of us might be necessary at times, we also know that those are short term solutions to larger problems. They work, in essence, as a way to get someone’s attention but they do not create long-term positive behavioral changes. There’s a reason recidivism rates are so high in American prisons.

I’ll also note that I’m using discipline in a pretty general way here as I try to simplify a really large, complex idea into a 1000 word blog, but I think the term itself captures basic ideas Tough proposes.

Discipline breeds performance I tell my children, students, players I coach, and anyone else who will listen. I recognize that is an oversimplification but I think we can also agree that things like grit and self-control fuel the other five items Tough mentions as essential for persistence toward academic success. Importantly, discipline, like writing, reading, riding a bike, and most other things in life are learned skills. Practice might not make perfect, but practice does make competence. You can’t, I tell my students, learn to write if you don’t pick up a pen. (Or, push letters on the keyboard.)

Simply put, those students who study and work are more likely to achieve success, or, and I think this is important, are more unlikely to fail. The fortitude to study, especially on those subjects we find distasteful, boring, and useless speaks to an ability to recognize long-term goals. The willingness to study provides the opportunity to succeed and, as with so many other things, success begets success. Students who master a subject, or even students who manage to survive a subject they expected to fail will by extension become more confident, optimistic, and willing to take chances learning other subjects. And, importantly, their ability to adjust socially will improve.

The 64-million dollar question, though, is how we instill those non-cognitive strengths in students at the earliest ages. Tough begins his book discussing Tools of the Mind, a curriculum “that combines activities specifically designed to promote self-regulation with activities that focus on academic skills, while also giving children the opportunity to practice self-regulation/executive function skills.”

Let me note first off that in an ideal world our parents would be teaching us self-regulation and executive function skills.

Of course, if we lived in an ideal world, I would have my own private island in the Mediterranean and chocolate would be considered a health food.

Instead, I suspect we need to re-think our early education programs. Certainly, we have to provide academic and cognitive skills at the early stages of a child’s education, but we also need to recognize that increasing as student’s vocabulary or her math skills as a kindergartner or pre-school student is less important than teaching her how to complete tasks, control her impulses, and avoid distractions.

I recognize that such a system seems a bit draconian and in direct contrast to the idea of education as a tool to teach socialization or the emphasis on standardized knowledge and grade level testing.

But, and I think this is the argument Tough is making, such a system supports both. Students who learn self-regulation at an early age will have the confidence to explore new ideas and a heightened ability to learn.

I just hope in the second half of the book Tough shows me how we can pull this off.

Women are People, Too

I’ve been on vacation for a week and I’m about to take a couple more days off to celebrate freedom (by being completely unproductive, ironically enough). During my time off, I did my level best to avoid getting irate or annoyed at Texas politics. Unfortunately, to read Texas politics is to get irate. And boy has it been an interesting week. Again.

Forget, for a moment, the irony of our small government governor pushing various laws that increase government power and ignore the irony of a man who doesn’t like taxes, welfare, and public expenditures because he wants to keep government off our backs even though he’s more than willing to call multiple special sessions (costing taxpayers real dollars) because it’s not only okay for government to be in a woman’s uterus but it’s evidently the most pressing issue in the state of Texas right now. And if you can forget all that, write a book and show the rest of us how.

The most important and ridiculous political moment from last week wasn’t Wendy Davis being chastised and condescended to by the men in the Austin state house. It wasn’t even the attacks on her feminist bona fides because she dyes her hair (although that runs a pretty close second.) Instead, our goofy, annoying moment of the week goes to Rick Perry for his continued attack on women (and this is why I shouldn’t read the paper on vacation!) by vetoing HB 950, the Lilly Ledbetter Act. HB 950 was relatively simple and enjoyed bi-partisan support in Texas. The bill mirrored Federal law and allowed worker protections against gender discrimination with regards to equal pay. If you don’t know Ledbetter’s story, you owe yourself a moment of outrage by googling and reading about her case.

In essence, Perry is against government intrusion except when he is for it.

I’m sure Governor Perry imagines himself a Constitutional scholar of sorts. Lord knows he’s been in office long enough he’s had plenty of time to read the thing. But, I can’t help but imagine he doesn’t quite understand the role of government based on that founding document. The goal of the Bill of Rights was to restrict the government’s intrusion in our lives and homes. We are free, the Declaration tells us, to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. The role of government is to protect citizens from threats the individual cannot stop on his or her own.

In fact, I might agree with Perry that over-regulation is a bad, destructive thing. He and I probably agree that the government isn’t there to protect us from ourselves. The government is there to protect us from those nefarious forces we can’t fight on our own. We must, as the founding fathers intended, trust the individual to make the best choices for themselves and their community. Federal laws and state laws should not trump those rights.

Someone just needs to remind Governor Perry that women are individuals, too.

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

FiveThirtyEight

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Scott Adams' Blog

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)