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What I’m up to

Toronto Reference Library by ocas123 via Flickr Creative Commons License

I’m taking the spring and summer off (from paying work) this year. My relationship with my former employer ended recently, and I decided to be a free agent for a while. There were many motivations for this decision, but most importantly (and like most people) I had not taken substantial ‘time off’ from employment in more than ten years.

The North American standard of constantly working without more than two or three weeks of vacation each year—in comparison to the much-mocked French, for example, who are ridiculed for their lavish six or eight-week summer holidays—is clearly a major factor in the general unhappiness and unhealthiness I observe all around me. Regardless of how fervently organizations may want their employees to work continually, it’s actually not good for you to do so, and—by extension—also not for employers. Without breaks long enough to really take your mind off of work (the subject matter, the people, the politics, the stressors, the take-it-home-ness of it all), you cannot fully recharge your batteries. This continual, often imperceptible erosion of your energies inevitably finds its expression in various aspects of your life: work itself, of course, but also your physical and mental health, your relationships/family, etc. Perhaps more importantly, it keeps you from developing new ideas and perspectives, from growing as a person—and as a worker.

As for the French and their too-long holidays: it strikes me that the worldwide economic malaise that has transpired in most major geographies since the 2007 financial crisis did not really distinguish between those with two weeks of vacation and those with more. It appears that the protestant work ethic of ‘two weeks a year’ is really just another form of American ‘exceptionalism,’ a story we are told, part of the greater narrative of how our work lives/careers are supposed to go. The story’s a whole lot easier to tell if there aren’t any alternative sub-plots.

As for me, I’ve chosen my own interim adventure, and it’s a sabbatical, a self-funded career break. The word ‘sabbatical,’ apparently, stems from the Old Testament, where—in the creation story in Genesis and the commandments in Exodus—God rested on the seventh day (and his flock is admonished to do so, too). Wikipedia suggests that traditional sabbaticals are employer-funded and occur every seventh year of employment, but—alas—neither is true in my case. But: Canada’s public healthcare environment handily allays any fears one might have of becoming sick without insurance during a sabbatical, and so the warmer months of the year are calling me.

Here are the things I will be working on during my break:

A book. For the past 8 months or so, I’ve been carrying around an idea for a book. I don’t want to give too much away, but I’m working on a kind of populist sociology of work: exploring, inter alia, the ways in which knowledge work departs from previous kinds of work; how most of us, for about 80% of our time, essentially perform the same tasks regardless of what we’re hired to do (and how nobody ever teaches anybody how to perform those tasks well); how one might re-think knowledge work’s routine tasks as a craft, something to take pride in and derive a certain self-worth from, similar to a craftsperson’s. My book will also look at how the so-called ‘utopian workplaces’ during the dot-com boom have created certain expectations about what work means (the current working-from-home debate, for instance, or the devices and boundaryless work days that cause us to ‘bring it home,’ whether we want to or not), and how—ten years into a slow recession that basically started at the end of dot-com and kicked into high gear with 9/11—we’re stuck with the same obligations (take it home) but few of the freedoms or benefits. I’m looking to investigate ‘ways of staying’ in knowledge work rather than trajectories of escape (everyone seems to want to escape from corporate employment in one way or another: become a freelancer, open a coffee shop, join the maker movement and start working with one’s hands again, etc.). Ultimately, I hope to produce something of value to knowledge workers, but I won’t offer the easy comfort of compromise: these are hard questions that everyone who works primarily with their heads has to answer for him or herself.

I have started to spend my days in the Toronto Reference Library, a lovely 1970s building with a stunning five-story atrium that’s currently undergoing a renewal project (one of the better uses of public funding). It’s a good space to work, although its free wi-fi coverage can be patchy and the local fauna is not always as respectful of the serious reader’s need for silence as one might like. I also recently found myself next to an imposing 6’5” homeless man who, in a very targeted way, retrieved an encyclopedia of the world’s guns from amongst a bunch of older business books (he’d obviously stashed it there himself) and proceeded to sit next to me and page through it, occasionally (and unnervingly) chuckling to himself. Being out among the people is certainly never boring.

My health. I carried around a disconcerting chronic ear infection since early January and was witness to regular medicine’s complete inability to diagnose and treat it. When I started to experience a tinnitus-like whole-head buzzing coupled with regular cluster headaches, I decided to visit a naturopathic doctor who I’d seen in the past to see what could be done. He put me on a well thought out regimen of vitamins and supplements, including copious quantities every day of liquid vitamin B12, vegan omega oils and gingko. Miraculously (though perhaps not surprisingly), my troubles quickly receded and my ears now seem as healthy as they’ve ever been (important, for a music lover). What is surprising, however, is the inordinate energy I have now that I’m replenishing all the nutrients I obviously wasn’t getting from my diet. I just thought I was getting old. As a result of feeling more energetic—and my changed circumstances—I’ve started walking a lot more. I often choose a subway stop quite a bit further away from where we live just to get the additional exercise. Where a quick trip to the greengrocer seemed like a chore before, it’s now something I actually look forward to. My new found enjoyment of walking serves as a (sad) reminder of just how sedentary our jobs and typical modes of transportation have become (another aspect of knowledge work to be explored in my book). Further health explorations during my sabbatical will include a ‘cleanse,’ something I’m anticipating with some trepidation, and—hopefully—more yoga than I normally have time for.

Meetings and projects. In addition to these main activities, I’ll be delighted to meet with friends and acquaintances for breakfast, lunch or coffee, both for business and idea networking around my book and other topics. And I’ll happily consider any short-term projects that people may need help with—IT or not, paid or not: I’m quite willing to trade pay for learning and growth during these next few months. If you have good ideas that you need help implementing—or an execution gap you’d like help closing, please get in touch.

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2 Responses to What I’m up to

  1. David April 9, 2013 at 10:36 am #

    Hi Carsten

    David Phillips here (we worked together on BBM Analytics stuff). Your break sounds like an excellent idea and I applaud you for it. I may be in touch re. bringing your brain to help us. What’s the best way to contact you?

    David

  2. Prashant Kumar April 10, 2013 at 7:58 pm #

    Very well expressed Carsten. For all the professionals, this is an excellent read. I have several times mulled over these same issues, sometimes by myself and at other times privately between trusted colleagues. I look forward to your book. For me it boils down to prioritization and self realization/actualization.

    On another note I still remember the first time we met. I believe your first project @Nav was with me. We have since then done different things, however I always reminisce my good old days there.

    It will be great to sit down with you over lunch and catch up. I sent you an email some time ago but I don’t know if you got it.

    Please feel free to connect with me anytime. I would love to and can always find so many ways to work with a trusted and talented pro like you.

    CHEERS!
    Prashant

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