Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Virtue of Not Burning Out

Rachael O'Meara, Pause: Harnessing the Life-Changing Power of Giving Yourself a Break

America’s work ethic idolizes ninety-hour workweeks, absentee families, and staycations. If some work is good, we reason, more is better; waking hours spent not working are wasted. Sometime Google executive Rachael O’Meara disagrees. As beneficiary of that increasingly rare beast, an American corporation that encourages sabbaticals, O’Meara has firsthand experience with therapeutic stopping. And she wants to evangelize her discoveries to you.

“Pausing,” for O’Meara, may mean taking a ninety-day personal leave, as she did, an option supported by only a minority of employers (and bill collectors). Or it may mean scheduling time throughout ordinary days for personal reflection, breaking from ordinary pressures to evaluate one’s trajectory. Many options exist, she reveals, most of them adaptable to your unique circumstances. Though I admit some trepidation, her description sounds both promising and uplifting.

O’Meara mixes autobiography, business philosophy, and scholarly research to convey her point. When the ambitious Internet start-up that employed her got bought out by Google, she found herself on a career fast-track. But one promotion proved particularly poorly chosen, and she couldn’t adapt to the requirements. When management said her position was jeopardized, she embraced Google’s paid sabbatical program to evaluate her future options.

The choice proved well founded. She not only had the opportunity to rediscover her personal goals, she investigated how others have approached the same problem in themselves and others. Her list of citations includes entrepreneurs, psychologists, theologians, behavioral economists, and more. They share a remarkable consonance on one premise: if you live to work, and structure your lifestyle around employment, you’ll burn out and become unemployable in a heartbeat.

Rachael O'Meara
Pauses, in O’Meara’s structure, should be substantially unstructured. You should permit yourself opportunities to explore, without schedules and checkpoints. However, this isn’t a chance to drift listlessly through life, falling backward into circumstance after circumstance. She explains systems of approach to your otherwise self-guided time, to ensure you have a guiding goal keeping you oriented toward your desired ends. Don’t restrictively schedule yourself, but don’t float, either.

O’Meara describes multiple approaches she and others use to evaluate themselves during their pauses. Some of my favorites include mindful journaling and a form of mental reprogramming she lists under the acronym TASER. (Not that one.) Many of these approaches involve taking assumptions you’ve held implicitly for years, and making them explicit, at least to yourself. You cannot redirect your trajectory if you remain stuck on attitudes and suppositions you’ve followed passively for years.

As O’Meara writes, around 70% of people go through life without examining their choices. I propose even if you do examine, you probably leave around 70% unexamined, because you haven’t noticed it. Therefore, cultivating newer, better pre-conscious tendencies makes for a more fulfilling, mind-positive lifestyle. In this way, O’Meara overlaps significantly with Gretchen Rubin, who has written extensively on building habits that better serve our goals.

Though I appreciate O’Meara’s thesis, she has some class-based suppositions she probably doesn’t realize. Extended sabbaticals, or even mindful daytime pauses, are often the exclusive domain of those who can afford them. I have colleagues working two jobs and raising families; their only private time is their commute. Telling such people they’ll escape their trap if they only approach the day with more intentionality, sounds elitist and risks unintended backlash.

Many captains of industry, especially tech entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and the late Andrew Grove, extol the virtue of ninety-hour, seven-day workweeks; a documentarian recently captured Musk calling coders who took Saturdays off “soft.” Young strivers commencing careers, like O’Meara describes her former self, encounter a “move up or move out” ethos upon starting. Tell them to take ninety semi-scheduled days for solitude and introspection? They’ll call you nuts.

Therefore, many readers, mostly those at the bottom and top of America’s economic ladder, will have to adapt O’Meara’s principles pretty freely. Fortunately, by her own admission, O’Meara creates a system friendly to being adapted. If your only available mindful journaling time is five minutes in the parking lot before clocking in, do what I do: carry a miniature notebook in your pocket beside your wallet. Because five minutes is five minutes.

To her credit, O’Meara doesn’t assume your journey will parallel hers. She provides a buffet of options, which she and others have tested and found effective, but she assumes you’ll experiment and find what works for you. She provides guidance, not a checklist. As the average American workweek approaches fifty hours, the point of professional burnout, let’s consider the value of stopping. Before reality stops us first.

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