Sunday, January 29, 2012

Using The Happiness Project as Career Advice?

"Work can be a source of many elements necessary for a happy life: the atmosphere of growth, social contact, fun, a sense of purpose, self-esteem, recognition", writes Gretchen Rubin in The Happiness Project (70).

I'm in Rubin's month three of her project to make herself happier. This relates to chapter three of the book - each chapter chronicles another month and another resolution that she measures with a calendar and a series of check marks to hold her accountable. The end goal is that she will have twelve new resolutions she will be a pro at keeping them, making her a happier more fulfilled person.

In January, she boosted energy; February, she remembered love. Now, in March, she is "aim[ing] higher". Previous to this book, she has already made a career shift from law to writing, so she discusses starting a blog, "enjoy[ing] the fun of failure", asking for help, and so on.

It is actually her discourse about leaving law that I find most interesting though, as I've been standing at a similar juncture for several years.

Therefore, I read "March" with interest, trying to apply it to my own life in a quest for answers.

Rubin discusses having an epiphany when she was at a friend's apartment. She was flipping through her friend's graduate school textbooks and asked "Is this what they make you read for your program?". Her friend replied, "Yes, but that's what I read in my spare time, anyhow" (70). This was so epiphanic for Rubin, because she realized that she never liked to read law journals off the clock or discuss cases during her  lunch break. What did she like to do in her spare time? Write. She claims to have already written two novels that were locked in a drawer.

Lately, the diatribes about teaching have given me such a heartache that I can no longer bear to read or discuss them: not on the news, not over the supper table with friends and family, not even on my friend's Facebook pages (I've had to block some friends because their anti-teacher sentiments or those of their friends leave me spiraling downward). My husband thoughtfully added Waiting for Superman to our Netflix queue, but, with a heavy heart, I pass over it all the time. During the month of August, I can usually muster up some enthusiasm for a book on curriculum, but it never sticks during the year and I end up disillusioned and bitter about educational theories come Thanksgiving. I've nibbled at the end of getting a degree in curriculum or administration, yet the thought of having to devour those tomes on ever changing, not really proven, ideas gives me agita.

If the literature surrounding my field leaves me sick, maybe that's a sign. I read on...

She writes: "People who love their work bring an intensity and enthusiasm that's impossible to match through sheer diligence...Therefore, career experts argue, you're better off pursuing a profession that comes easily and that you love, because that's where you'll be more eager to practice and thereby earn a competitive advantage" (71).

Well, crap. When I am in the classroom, when I am doing what I do, I am damn good at it and I become intense and enthused, but those moments are leave me feeling more like I've run a sprint than a larger feat of endurance and the feeling of victory is as fleeting. Also, I don't believe that competitive advantage exists in education because I can only advance so far and if I do advance, it won't really be in ways that are recognized or in a form of recognition that matters to me.

Conflicted again, I read on...

Rubin discovers that she "loves writing, reading, research, note taking, analysis, and criticism" and that her past was "littered with clues that [she] wanted to be a writer" (71).

I love those things too! Surely, then I should be a writer!  Except, so far, I've lacked the discipline to make myself write regularly. While she has two novels squirreled away, I have one short story. My husband chides me kindly about my poor protagonist whom I've forgotten about. "I haven't forgotten about her!", I respond hotly. "She's just been, ummm, tabled for the moment."

In January, one of Rubin's goals was to "fake it till you feel it" as a way to change her mood in the moments when she was down, but she notes that "it isn't a good governing policy for major life decisions" (72).

I've been telling Evan since I started teaching, back in the days of 2003, that I've been faking it till I make it. Pulling together awesome last minute lessons when technology decides to take a day off, finding material that fits the curriculum perfectly that I might not have researched as closely as I should have, anytime something goes well and my efforts are recognized, I feel like I got lucky. Basically, I should have made it by now because I've been faking it long enough. Maybe I have made it. Maybe I am there, but I still feel like I am faking it a large percentage of the time and I'm just waiting to be found out.

Since Rubin's already tackled this tough decision, her goals are on maintaining her happiness within writing. "...most important," she writes, "I would take care to remind myself to remember how lucky I was to be as eager for Monday mornings as I was for Friday afternoons" (72).

I think this is an ideal that one can strive for, but, correct me if I'm wrong, isn't it perfectly reasonable not to be excited for Monday mornings? A few years ago, after leaving NJ, I dreaded Monday mornings. I dreaded every morning that involved work. My hear raced so feverishly, as I walked up the steps to my classroom that I went to the doctor fearing I had a heart condition! At my new school, I may not be excited, but I don't dread Mondays on the same scale by any means. In fact, this past week was really nice. It was a week that reminded me what I love about teaching. All my students were reading their graphic novels, they were engaged and not disruptive. I got work done, it was productive. I was content. On the whole, I am content.

But, I am sure as shootin not excited for tomorrow morning. If I had a different career, would I be excited? I've been looking forward to writing this blog post all week. Is it possible that I could look forward to working all week?

Quoting Tal Ben-Shahar and his book Happier, Rubin writes about the arrival fallacy and surmises that "the fun part doesn't come later, now is the fun part" (85). She illustrates this point with an anecdote about researching Winston Churchill and realizing  that his life "fits the pattern of classical tragedy" (85). That moment for her, that realization was the fun part!

That's what I love too! I love making connections and sharing them with the students, even if the students are less than stoked to be my partners in this discovery. I remember being so excited my first year teaching when I realized that the protagonist in Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club fit Hemingway's definition of a code hero and then my disappointment when I realized I couldn't show Fight Club to a bunch of fourteen-year-olds.

While there have been other moments that have filled me with excitement, am I actually imparting this knowledge (and more importantly, the joy of discovering the knowledge) to my students? Is teaching the best way to even impart this knowledge? Maybe it is for some, but I feel like it is such a minor part of my day.

For me, I  feel like I am both Santiago and the crystal merchant in The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Like Santiago, I have a Personal Legend. There have been hiccups along the way that landed me in teaching and, while here, I've focused on ways to improve my teaching and the field of education, much like he improves business in the crystal shop. Like him, I've toyed with the idea of leaving, however, it is hard when I have satisfaction in this alternate job. My father, when he read the novel, got so annoyed at this part in the story, saying to me, "I just wish he would leave the crystal shop and get on with what he is supposed to be doing". The crystal merchant in me argued that it was hard to do that, that maybe it wasn't his time, that having a dream, even if it is isn't accomplished is what's important and that the failure that could come from attempting to have the dream is worse than having the dream and not acting on that.

So, if there are aspects of teaching I love, but it is not what ultimately makes me happy and I think, maybe, writing would be, what do I do?

Back when I was in high school, my brother, in his pedantic fashion, once wrote me an unprompted letter complete with illustrations. He drew a stick figure standing safely back from the edge of a cliff, a stick figure toppling over the edge of the cliff, and a stick figure precariously balanced - one leg on and one leg off. That last one, he wrote, was the balance we should all strive to achieve in our lives.

Lately, I find myself a stick figure running towards the edge, skidding to a stop, kicking some pebbles off, leaning over to watch them drop and then turning my back on the cliff and walking slowly away.  My indecision cripples little stick figure me. I just don't know where the pebbles land and feel like I can't make an informed decision. If the cliff is teaching, is the abyss writing? Some, very few, can balance with one leg on and one leg off, but they are people far more wiser and talented than me.

Do I continue to teach and try to work on my writing at the same time? Difficult. Do I leap off the cliff and dedicate myself fully to writing? Scary. Do I convince myself that there is enough in teaching that I love that it can keep me happy? Depressing.

What do I do?


  1. I talk about this in some of our Happiness Club meetings. I have come to a important conclusion in my life- I am no longer seeking work that makes me happy or gives my life meaning. I am not seeking work satisfaction. Instead, I am seeking job contentment. (Or rather, a lack of job dissatisfaction!) Some people find this to be discouraging and sad. But I find it to be liberating and empowering. I want to have a professional life that provides me with the resources and energy to find satisfaction in the rest of my life.

    I have a job that is very meaningful- but I no longer have the time or strength to do anything else. Not for myself, and not for those that I love. When looking beyond the parameters of my job, I can see that my life is not sufficiently satisfying. I am not content. Certainly not now with a constant state of chaos and stress at work! I give so much of my mental and emotional energy to my clients- I can't imagine how I can have anything left of myself to give to my (future) children. How could I help out with their Little League team or Girl Scout Troop? And doesn't my husband deserve just as much of my energy- I am not available to him with my current schedule as I would like to be. I am not okay with giving so much to my job that my family suffers.

    Now, don't get me wrong- I wouldn't take a soul-crushing job, and I would not expect anyone else to do so. But if my job allows me to spend time at home doing things I love or doing other things that are fulfilling like reading, traveling, volunteering, taking enrichment classes, being a better wife/daughter/sister/friend (and later mother)..... then I'm doing okay.

    As we grow up we are asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" No one ever says mid-management. No, instead we say we want to be the best. We want to be CEOs, astronauts and the President of the United States. Perhaps not realizing then what it takes away from or what it takes out of us. Instead, I believe we should be asking children, and undecided college majors, "What do you want your life to look like when you grow up? What kind of job will allow you to live that kind of life?" I think we make a mistake spending much of our lives searching for greener pastures- chasing happiness futilely. We need to stop thinking that our work should make us happy. Most people aren't happy in their work. I used to plan fun events for students as my job- and you know what?? It was still superstressful and frustrating.

    So I say, find job contentment. Or rather, find a lack of job discontentment. And then go on and make your life what you want it to be. You say you are content. That's pretty freakin' great. Work may not be the focus of your happiness. But your life is what will make you happy. Being a whole person- not just a young professional trying to make sense of their future- will make you happy.


    1. Hey Talya,
      Thanks for reading my blog and for your thoughtful reply. I really appreciate it! I agree with a lot of what you say and was just discussing this with my sister the other day. Here's the rub for me though: work takes so much of our time that I don't want to feel that that time is being wasted. Also, many people get into teaching (although I was not one of them) because of the time off it affords so one can conceivably raise a family and be on the same schedule as their kids. So, can I live for the summer if I'm working nights and weekends on top of my "official" 7:30-3:30 hours (plus meetings afterwards)?
      I think I also need to spend some time deciding whether I am truly content or just less, as you put it, job discontent.
      Lastly, if I am content, but if what I want is to be a writer, isn't that bad? If I can't write as much as I want because of my job...but if writing were my job...
      Anyway, looking forward to seeing you soon!

  2. First and foremost, I think that it's important to correct something! You don't want TO BE a writer.... you ARE a writer. You have been, and always will be, a writer. Since it is not your profession, writing is a refuge and a sacred space. I think that for many people professionally pursuing their passion makes it a chore. Is it worth losing that private island escape and exposing it the mundane and tedious?? Or can you make accommodations to protect that sacred space??

    I think being in the Happiness Club will help you better structure time for your goals and interests... more time into you and less time into work. My sister is (virtually) in the Happiness Club and she's also teacher. She may be helpful with ideas on how to work life around work. She's been successful in many ways and we can chat more about some of her strategies when we meet up.

    No matter what you options you pursue, I think it's fabulous that you are exploring what will make you happy and less discontent in your life! = )