Free agents and the future of work

Today I don’t blink when clients or friends tell me they aren’t after the traditional employer-employee workplace arrangement. For many, the idea of working a 9-5 job, 40+ hours per week for a single employer sounds stifling. This wasn’t the case even 20 years ago. What happened?

Recently, the idea of being a “free agent” has gone mainstream. Articles vetting this idea are popping up in newspapers and magazines more and more (See the Star Tribune’s “Millennials thinking outside the cubicle”).

My first clear exposure to the idea that traditional employer-employee relationships might be shifting happened in 2012 in Salt Lake City.

I was at a conference for career services people and attended a session where we talked about how career professionals should advise students who are seeking out commission-only work, contract-based assignments, or who want to work seasonally or in part-time positions to accommodate other interests and goals.

This requires letting go of my own biases and getting in touch with shifts in how people and organizations think about work so I can help clients apply that information as they evaluate their own options.

Here is my list of the top 4 forces that I believe are fueling this trend:

1. The millenial generation

  • Millenials, those born approximately 1982 to the early 2000s, grew up in volatile times.
  • For many, 9/11 was a generation-defining moment.
  • While sometimes called “Generation Me”, they do exude a drive and passion for making the world a better place. For many, this fuels more passion for social entrepreneurship than entering the established “race to the top.”
  • They have grown up in a time when national student loan debt surpassed $1 trillion, outpacing consumer loan debt in the U.S.
  • The Great Recession necessitated that many of these young professionals take up a “portfolio” of work when their ideal jobs were scarce.

2. The rise of technology, the share economy, and rapid innovation

  • The online horizon is long, with ample opportunities for contributing via blogs, creating your own website, and creating a digital identity and brand.
  • Accessing markets for products and services is easier with the help of the web.
  • Online payment systems like the Square credit card swipe tool
  • The growing share economy makes it easier to both outsource tasks to others or make money on the side to fuel your passions (think Task Rabbit or Uber).

3. The minimalist movement

  • The simple living movements are gaining momentum as a growing number of people choose to “opt out” of the ideal of a large house and enough cars for each driver.
  • Entire shows are popping up featuring “tiny house enthusiasts” who desire to minimize expenses and maximize experience by choosing to live in homes 1,000 square feet or less, many under 500 square feet.

4. Infrastructure to support the “free agent”

  • It isn’t so lonely to go it alone. You can now join a co-working organization and pay membership dues to share office space and amenities previously only available in larger corporations.
  • Online groups help people connect and find one another for networking, brainstorming, and ongoing professional development.
  • Free online course sites, like Coursera, help people find new training and build new skills in an on-demand format.
  • Unions are even forming for freelancers.
  • Finally, health care reform means many Americans are beginning to feel safer uncoupling themselves from their employer-sponsored health care plans that may have previously kept them in gigs that were less than ideal.

What are your thoughts? Are you a “free agent” now or is it your goal? Do you worry about the risk of unstrapping yourself from the perceived security of a large employer?  What technology, tools, or services have made it easier for you to go it alone? What has surprised you in the process?

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5 tips for families heading off to college

5Tips_OffToCollege_CroppedfromHaikuDeckThe placement tests are done. There are no more schools to research. The financial aid system has been conquered – at least until next year. For families of new college students, what remains this time of  year are the goodbyes and the hopes that these new students will flourish once out of the nest.

Part of the promise that lives within us during those first days “off to college” is the hope that this college experience will be transformative and deeply engaging for this special student, and that it will all lead to a bright future in exactly four years… not five, or six, or more!

So what role can a parent, grandparent, or other loving supporter play in the life of the new college student? Now that the day-to-day parenting is shifting, how can you best support this young person as they stretch their wings and find their place in the world?

Here are five favorite tips I have collected from my decade or so experience working with college students:

  1. Push them to problem solve challenges on their own.

From laundry to roommate issues to more serious troubles, ask yourself if this is a moment to step back and invite your student to come up with some creative ways to tackle the task solo?

Why is this so important? The resilience that comes from problem-solving on their own can build confidence and make your student more career-ready.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), the ability to make decisions and solve problems is the second most important skill or quality employers said they are seeking when surveyed for NACE in 2014. Other high-scoring skills are related: the ability to plan, organize, and prioritize work. The ability to verbally communicate with persons inside and outside the organization, and the ability to obtain and process information.

Turns out that conflict with a faculty member may be just the ticket when it comes to giving your student a chance to stretch their problem-solving muscles in a safe way.

  1. Help them thrive in the classroom.

Time and time again I hear from employers that good grades alone are not enough to make a student competitive for a job. Yet grades do matter – and more important – learning matters. Make sure you and your student are aware of all the student support services, tutoring, academic skills programs, and advising services available at your institution.

  1. Ask them big questions.

What will you major in? Have you decided what kind of job you want after graduation? These well-meaning questions invoke panic and anxiety in many students, and while they typically come from grown-ups who just want to express interest in the student, they can reinforce pressures students already feel to find “the one perfect major” or “the one perfect career” that will lead to happiness and acceptance.

My invitation to you is this: Ask bigger questions of your student. Ask them which activities have they been involved with where it seems time stands still? What kinds of problems occupy their imagination? What gifts or talents do they believe they can most contribute to the world? What classes, subjects, or concepts bring them the most joy?

Rather than limiting the conversation to majors and careers, these bigger questions help us uncover the threads woven through your student’s heart and mind, providing a jumping off point for helping both you and your student imagine greater possibilities for the future.

  1. Encourage them to build and layer experiences.

As I mentioned previously, grades are not enough. Experience matters. Encourage your student to get involved on campus, in student organizations or student government, in part-time jobs and internships, in undergraduate research experiences and service-learning, in travel and study abroad. The list goes on. As students build and layer these experiences they benefit in two ways: They walk away with greater clarity about who they are and what their career goals may be, and they build a compelling resume with ample experiences to highlight in interviews and more.

  1. Help them build financial literacy.

It may feel taboo to some of us, but many students are comfortable saying they want a good paying job after graduation. The trouble is, few of them know what that means.

Is $50,000 a good starting salary for them? It all depends on their financial literacy and ability to develop a budget for themselves. For some students, $50,000 could be a terrific salary. For others who will leave school with a mortgage-sized student loan balance, have others to support, or who aren’t savvy with money, that kind of salary may not translate to the same financial freedom.

In my experience, very few students say they have been properly taught about budgeting, personal finance, or other money matters before or during college. This is unfortunate, as financial literacy has such a powerful effect on a student’s livelihood and wellbeing after graduation.

 

As so many of us can attest, simply crossing the stage at commencement does not guarantee a great college experience – or that your student will flourish after graduation. The college years can be a difficult (and expensive!) time for students and families alike. Fortunately, parents and other supportive people can play a key role in helping students make the most of those college years so that they emerge prepared, resilient, and ready to find wellbeing in life and work when that day arrives.

 

Envisioning possibilities is hard

TessVigeland_FromAOLStory

‘No, no, Tess – go read “What Color Is Your Parachute!” Watch some TED Talks about finding your passion! Go take a class that you’ve always wanted to take!

Great advice… But inside my head – I was paralyzed. Getting your brain to really, really open up to all the possibilities – it’s so much harder than I ever imagined.”

-from Tess Vigeland‘s 2013 World Domination Summit talk, “What the Hell Are You Doing?!”, here in print or audio.

This afternoon I found Tess Vigeland’s familiar voice coming through my speakers while I was working on some planning tasks. Here was a professional with public radio superpowers, and she was talking about her own struggle making sense of her decision to leave Marketplace. Incredible.

Too often I think we assume there are two camps of people – those who have it together and are on a path, and those who are lost. In reality I think most of us are somewhere in between. We are broken, afraid, and struggling to find signs to reassure us that we will be okay. Career transitions are painful, even when they are fruitful. They leave their marks on us, challenging our confidence and assumptions we have about who we are and the world we live within.

When we are looking for work or trying to decide if we should make a change our dear family and friends who love us will just encourage us to open up and dream, as if we haven’t tried to do this. Yet when we are stressed by job changes and questioning whether we will be okay, it is very difficult for the mind to open up to creatively envisioning a multitude of possibilities for us.

While it is hard to dream in times of distress, stretching yourself to stay open and think big is essential for finding our way to what is next for us.

Next time you find yourself in that place, consider these three thoughts:

1. Know that you alone are enough. You are perfect and you and the gifts you bring are very much needed in the world.

2. Take heart in knowing you are not alone. Even Tess Vigeland feels overwhelmed by these major transitions!

3. Apply equal parts reflection, rest, and forward progress. When we are in the midst of chaos it can be tempting to push harder to work towards the certainty that we crave and yet these transitions require space and time to breathe in new life, energy and possibility.

Give yourself space to notice the uncomfortable or distressing feelings you are experiencing and try to decipher any meaning or lessons therein (I know, that sounds terribly naive, but try). And then rest.

Rest your anxious mind and heart. Give  your search a break. Live into the spaciousness of this moment and find balance between the reflection, rest, and forward progress. My hope for you is that in doing this you will be gentle towards yourself when you are feeling tender, and you will give your own inner truth a chance to be heard and to influence your path forward in a way that is both unexpected and glorious… maybe not right away… but maybe someday, and that is a wonderful, wonderful thing.

Do not worry about the landing place too much.

A friend and dear mentor recently sent me a lovely card in celebration of my upcoming graduation. Enclosed was a small magnet of a little yellow butterfly with a note saying the gift was to remind me of the butterfly’s annual wisdom of growth, transformation, and metamorphosis.ButterflyMagnet

This friend did not know that the butterfly has been an important symbol for me over the last year. I love the image of transformation we can take from the butterfly and I have done a lot of thinking about butterflies over the last cycle of seasons. For these reasons, this small gift from my friend ended up being far more touching than even she intended it to be. It brought me pure joy.

In the last year as I have been thinking about what I can learn from butterflies and their cycle of life, they have started to show up in different ways. I notice them outside, on clothing people are wearing in meetings, on a little note card from a friend, in bowls I use daily in my kitchen but ignore. Now, finally, one arrived at my door just for me. An affirmation of the noticing I have been doing all year.

In this spirit, and because it fits with my intention for this week of “Open hands, warm heart,” I share a simple poem I wrote one day in May last year when I was struggling to find my way. This was written after a walk along the Sammamish River Trail near my home in Woodinville, WA. I hope it brings a bit of lightness to any heavy spots in your heart.

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Attending to wellness.

Graduate school has taught me about tired. Emotionally tired. Physically tired. Intellectually tired. Spiritually tired. Mentally spent.

The good news is that there are resources out there to help disrupt the exhaustion and lead us on a journey towards being in more sustainable service to others.

AudreLorde-Tumblr

Work-life balance

When I worked in the corporate world we talked about “work-life balance” often. In 2008 I left my corporate job to respond to the call I felt to work in higher education. I walked away from a lot in making that decision. I distinctly remember a coworker saying to me that she thought I was lucky to get out before I was making so much money that I could not walk away. (In my mind, that was already the case! Leaving so much on the table  felt crazy).

When I walked away from that world, I thought I was walking towards something just as much as I was walking away. I was saying yes to caring for myself and others in a way that felt more aligned with my values and my gifts. I was trying my best to honor who I thought I was meant to be. I still believe in that promise, but I would not say I have figured out the “caring for myself” piece yet.

In higher education we don’t talk about balance much. I liken it to more of a nonprofit culture. We choose to be here because we are committed to our work as educators and we give every ounce of ourselves to our students. In a lot of ways this is the expectation. I work harder, with more heart, and for less money.

Let me be clear here. I have no regrets. I will just say that I am still trying to figure out what wellness looks like for me. Fortunately, working in higher education we have models we use to help students build these skills and we can apply them in our own lives as well.

Using the Wellness Wheel as a guide 

During my internship at the University of Washington I came across their version of a “wellness wheel” which I offer below:

UW_WellnessWheel

“Attending” to wellness

Like so many women in helping professions, and others, I know I need to attend to my wellness. I get that it starts with attending to self-care. What does it even mean to “attend to one’s wellness” anyway? Let’s go to the dictionary:

attending  present participle of at·tend (Verb)

Verb
  1. Be present at (an event, meeting, or function).
  2. Go regularly to: “all children are required to attend school”.

– Definition from dictionary.com

Attending to my wellness? Being “present” to my wellness? I’m haphazard at best. I certainly do not “go regularly to” my wellness. My problem is that I do not realize I need to attend to my self-care until I am past my breaking point.

Attending in all dimensions

Little by little I am working towards honoring all seven wellness dimensions in my life:

  • Emotional
  • Intellectual
  • Physical
  • Social
  • Environmental
  • Financial
  • Spiritual

There are other forms of wellness I might add if I were feeling ambitious: generational wellness, or community wellness come to mind and I hope to write on these more through this blog.

TIME FOR ACTION: What to do? 

After trying and failing to get the wellness piece figured out, I have realized two things so far:

  1. First, I must accept incremental change and believe it has the power to create waves of change over time.
  2. Second, I need a plan. 

Now I will admit, I have drafted a wellness plan and then failed to follow my plan. It is more the norm for me. But even the act of making a plan helps me to open my eyes to what wellness could look like in my life. It helps guide me in knowing what is right action – for me, for my cause, for my future ability to support others through my calling.

Creating a self-care plan 

If you are like me, and you struggle to even know what “wellness” might look like, I invite you to check out the Self-Care Starter Kit offered by the University of Buffalo School of Social Work. This helped me assess my own situation and build skills in understanding how to apply the various dimensions of self-care in my own life.

As I mentioned, I have not yet arrived with my wellness. However, I talk openly with others about how I am trying to attend to my wellness, even when it is hard. I have the awareness now to realize when I am out of alignment and giving too much of myself to my work, home life, and personal relationships. I am working hard to un-learn the socialization I received around what it means to be a woman who wants to help others in this country. I am beginning to see a middle way where I do not have to give up my whole self in order to be of service to others.

Nothing is harder for me than taking care of myself… which is why having a plan makes so much sense! Just like being tired perpetuates itself, I am learning that making good self-care choices builds momentum over time. This is what it means to “attend” to oneself. It is about being present to my wellness and going regularly to my wellness. It is checking in with myself frequently to assess how I am doing. It is fighting the way I am socialized to ignore my own voice calling out for time, for space, for exercise, for fresh air and sunshine and whole foods and idleness.

Attending is a practice

It is in the act of attending to wellness that the magic happens. Writing up a plan is important. But change happens through small, painful stumbles that begin with good intentions. It happens slowly. It happens each time I choose to hear that small voice inside me instead of silencing her.

Without a plan it is much easier to succumb to the status quo. So while I may feel like a phony for having to revisit the process of creating wellness plans and then watching myself fail miserably at them, this process is actually a way for me to practice attending to myself. Like with any change, it hurts… even when when it is change our very bones are calling out for!

 

  • What might I need to give up in order to invite in more wellness in my life? What would that look like for me?
  • What might I lose in the process?
  • What signals does my body give me when I am approaching my limit? In what ways have I ignored them in the past?
  • What is one thing I can do today to start attending to my wellness? 

Audre Lorde quote and image from http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/audre+lord

Begin with the end in mind.

How can we strive to move through our lives with more openness and trust, especially in the times and situations that scare us and challenge us the most? In what ways can we begin to cultivate a spirit of abundance, even in small ways? How will we find the courage to break open our personal and professional lives and extend a bit of grace and peace in a world with such deep need?

Through this blog I will explore these questions from a multitude of lenses, focusing on leadership, inspiring change, supporting personal and community wellness, and I will share tips and strategies that I discover through my own experiences, interactions with students, conversations with mentors, and from the big ideas that captivate my attention and inspire in me a sense of excitement and hopefulness for the future.

It may seem like a wild mix of topics, but my hope is that the themes and concerns that inspire my writing will capture the space you hold for deep reflection in your life. I hope you will feel inspired to add your voice and perspective to help shape the dialogue here. I invite you to join me in this conversation as I dive into an exploration of what gives me joy. The place of purpose in my life.