Helgesen, Sally (No. 2)

shelgesen_web.jpgSally Helgesen delivers keynotes, runs workshops, and consults for organizations all over the world. Articles on her work have appeared in Fortune, BusinessWeek, and Fast Company, and her previous books include The Web of Inclusion (see her first Cool Friend interview) and Everyday Revolutionaries, as well as the business classic The Female Advantage. She is a participant in the Financial Times Leadership Dialogue and a member of The Learning Network. She lives in New York.

The change that engulfs the world of work has morphed into a "perfect storm." Alas, there are no "perfect answers" for staying off the shoals. Yet in Thriving in 24/7, Sally Helgesen has given us a profoundly original and eminently useful map to this extraordinary new territory. From cover to cover, this is a remarkable book."—Tom Peters

Compelling and original. Sally Helgesen's new book is filled with insights about how we can flourish in today's demanding environment. In the process, she redefines our notion of 24/7, showing that it's not just about work being invasive, it's about the choices we make to live a life that matters."—Susan Bird, founder of wf360.com

Book Cover Thriving in 24/7

Helgesen, a premier thinker on the role of work in the knowledge economy, offers readers six powerful strategies for achieving and maintaining equilibrium in this new world. Drawing upon dozens of interviews with men and women adept at navigating life in 24/7, she urges us to:

START AT THE CORE: We can move more nimbly in a complex world if we confront personal history, locate our inner voice, get comfortable in the neutral zone, and take inventory on a regular basis.

LEARN TO ZIG-ZAG: We can master the art of improvisation if we learn from the youngest generation, think in terms of “gigs,” plant to keep learning all our lives, rework our definitions of loyalty, and internalize optimism.

CREATE OUR OWN WORK: We can do this (even if we stay in our present jobs) by articulating our value, integrating our passions, identifying our market, running our own shop, and targeting multiple centers of gravity.

WEAVE A STRONG WEB OF INCLUSION: We can build the support we need if we learn to go deep fast, understand the strength of weak ties, grab the spotlight, and master simple of looking people up.

BUILD A CLEAR BRAND: We can brand ourselves unforgettably by becoming highly conscious of our practice, our materials, our design, and the symbols that we use.

PRACTICE THE RHYTHM OF RENEWAL: We can find true refreshment if we learn to connect with timeless rhythms, identify the true sources of our joy, practice mindfulness, and cultivate the elements of Slow.

tompeters.com asks …

The epigraph in this book states, “For Stanley Siegel, who said to throw open the windows, crank up Puccini, and have fun. I did.” I love that, but I need to know how that conversation came about?

SH: Stanley Siegel is a therapist who I interview in the book. And while I was interviewing him, I was describing what I was doing with the book and what my goals were. And being a therapist, he started asking me some questions about how I was going to do it. He’s written a couple of books himself, so he was also professionally interested how I was doing it.

I had a dilemma. I was finding I could not write in two places at once; I had to choose between the country and the city. And that was his suggestion to me, that I just forget the city, go up to the country, throw open the windows, be in nature, enjoy it, remove myself as much as possible from the 24/7 life that I was living so that I could get perspective on it.

So I did. That’s why I dedicated the book to him, because I felt like I’d approached him as someone to interview to offer a psychological perspective on some of the dilemmas that people are facing. But he ended up giving me advice that really shaped how I wrote the book.

This book seems to be a slight departure from your last few books in some ways. You’re not dealing with issues with gender. Is it safe to say that Female Advantage was about issues of gender?

SH: Definitely. Web of Inclusion was not.

Although it seemed to—

SH: It grew out of Female Advantage because the whole idea of the web of inclusion as a structure for organizations and a way of running organizations came directly from Female Advantage. In that book I was trying to see how that would apply more generally, not necessarily with regard to women. So every other book seems to be aimed at women and the ones in between at a more general audience.

I see. So it does fit into a pattern.

SH: Yes. The first book I did was on independent oil producers so you can imagine how many women were in that! The books do move back and forth between issues that affect women directly and issues that are broader and more general to the workplace.

However, one of the things, and this is true obviously in Web of Inclusion and I think is true here, I do see a lot of these trends that are shaping the workplace today as being set by women. Because women’s participation has changed the nature of work in our lives as individuals. It is one factor that’s responsible for this deindustrialization of work and the decompartmentalizing of work and the fact that we integrate work more into our lives.

A lot of the social and demographic trends—technology has also played a major role, intersecting at the same time—that are reshaping the world of work are often being led by women because they came in as outsiders. And the world of work has come to adapt to the needs, imperatives, and talents and skills that women bring.

You’ve got an opening section that deals with all of the issues that are—technology being one of them—causing us to seem to be living a work life 24 hours a day. But part of the adjustment to that is acquiring a different perception about work versus life. You maintain that we’re still trying to figure out what the rules of living in the new economy are. A thought occurs, given your previous books on women’s issues, which is that women haven’t been living by or regulated by the rules as much as men have.

SH: That’s true.

So what then leads to this disjoint? What are your thoughts on this idea of rules. Because it seems that “rules” is a code word for “this is what guys do and this is not what women do.”

SH: The big bestseller aimed at women of the last couple of years was called The Rules as you may recall. It was aimed at the rules of dating in the new world and I think the essential premise was how to get a husband. That was a big bestseller among women, so women obviously have an affinity for rules.

In the context of the workplace and thinking about work—when we work, how long we work, when we take periods off from work, and how we combine work with our learning—I think that women have by their participation brought a greater fluidity to how we think about work. And women take a much more customized approach to work rather than that generic “go to school, get some training, join a corporation, be there 30 years, retire, play golf.”

That old organization man paradigm has been exploded in part by the instability and empowerment that technology has brought about by enabling so many people to set up on their own. But the other factor besides technology has been the demographic change of women’s participation. Women have brought a more fluid approach to work. As a result, they’ve given men permission to look at work in a different way.

I think the genesis of this book really came from a couple of the interviews I did when I was working on Everyday Revolutionaries. I was focusing on the way in which the women were improvising their lives to suit their needs and interests and their situations as they changed over time. And a number of the women mentioned that they had made fairly radical career shifts and really tailored their work to meet their needs when they had young children. By doing this, they had freed their husbands from thinking about work in a conventional way because the husbands saw that their wives could make it work.

I heard that from a number of younger women. And from a number of older women who had created new kinds of work for themselves after their children had gone off to school. I heard them talk about how their example had inspired their husbands when their husbands had been, for example, laid off or downsized or made redundant by a company shift. They saw that the answer wasn’t necessarily trying to slot into something new but to look around a little more broadly, to think about what their talents and real interests were and try to create a means of livelihood that reflected those.

A number of women said that their own improvisations, which had really been developed to help them fit work in with their family responsibilities, had been inspiring to their husbands. And then of course that has begun to change things so that men obviously in the working world are much more involved on a day-to-day basis with their children than men were in the organization man era.

What women have brought in is a greater fluidity of necessity, a greater emphasis on improvisation rather than filling slots. The technology has created an environment that makes it possible for people to do that. And that in turn has had an effect upon organizations and upon men as well.

Which leads me to this notion of balance. Usually when we hear the word balance we think about balance between work life and non-work life. And yet I’m reminded of this by what you said about the women because it would make sense that they would bring this idea of work and life being one and the same thing since they’re dealing with kids and family and then trying to do a job. It’s just all of a piece anyway.

SH: Exactly, so it’s more about integration than balance. I think in balance we’ve saddled ourselves with a term that often is doomed to failure. Because the nature of the transition we’re living through technologically and economically means that work at this particular time tends to be in stages and very, very intense.

The more traditional ways of looking at work-life balance that a lot of companies have taken having to do with flex-time and all this, yes, that’s very helpful, wonderful. But looking at it, it seems to be an industrial paradigm when we’re looking for work-life balance. What we really need to be looking at is a greater integration of what our personal lives and passions are and how we earn our livelihood. And I think that’s something that has really evolved over the last 20 years in a fairly startling way.

Another impetus for this book was a conference where I was a keynote speaker at a big non-profit in Los Angeles that does work for developmentally disabled people. It had been an on-site facility but now its focus is on placement in group homes. It was their 25th anniversary so they had a lot of the parents of people who had been there through the years and I saw what a dramatic difference there was in the approach of the various generations.

Some of the older parents said, “When our children were here, our attitude was, ‘You tell us what they need.'” They said, “Now, many of the people shaping the policies here are parents and they’re defining what their children need.” They’ve become such activists and so involved in everything from issues of how insurance pays developmentally disabled children to what a care facility ought to be. It’s been the active involvement of the parents that has changed the way this facility is run.

And what I learned from some of the younger parents is that a not insignificant number had ended up leaving whatever jobs they had and entered this field in some entrepreneurial way since they had become impassioned about it because they had a child with these kind of developmental disabilities.

And that’s what had really changed. If the insurance executive of the organization man era had a developmentally disabled child, he and his wife would keep that child home and not let anybody visit. That was the usual scenario. I remember a few instances like that in my own neighborhood. Or they would put them in a facility and visit them on Sundays. They wouldn’t be involved in shaping the major policies, nor would the insurance executive end up leaving his work to either head up a non-profit or write a book about it, form a parents advocacy group, become an expert in a certain area. That would not have happened.

But those are just the kinds of things that people do now. And I saw very clearly that there’d been a generational shift. And it was a shift toward empowerment and grass roots decision-making.

An intriguing section of your book concerns how you work. Can you talk about how you came to analyze balance and integration in terms of your own day and then what you changed and how that change has affected you?

SH: That’s really interesting. People have really responded to that example. It’s been fascinating. One of the things I began to realize about myself as I looked more deeply into how I liked to work and what my activities were is that I’m a person who likes lots and lots of different kinds of interaction and activities. I enjoy doing many things. I particularly enjoy doing a lot of what some people might think of as the garbage work of daily existence, whether it’s taking my clothes to the cleaners or going to a local copy shop. There’s always something interesting going on at those places.

But it’s also because you’re a writer so a lot of your work is done at home alone.

SH: Right, I’m at home alone so I want to get out and have people around me in the course of my day. But it’s also that I enjoy doing a lot of different kinds of things—physically, mentally, spiritually. There are many areas of life that interest me.

Now at the same time, since I always felt that I had too much going on in my life to be able to balance the personal and the work, one of the ways I tried to deal with that was that whatever I was doing at a given time, I did it very intently with the idea of finishing it well and fast.

If I was writing, I would be totally focused on writing. And then I would become sick of it and depressed so that I would schedule a day to have lunch, dinner, and breakfast with different friends, catch up with people, talk on the phone, etc., and then go back into deep-six mode with my writing. Whatever I was doing, I was totally devoted to it and concentrating on that.

Then one day I was sitting on a bus on the upper west side in New York City coming back from a meeting, and I took out my date book and I began to realize that what I was doing really didn’t suit my temperament because I was scheduling all one kind of activity for one day, for one week and then another kind for another day and another week. And I was doing that in order to get my plate cleared so I could get through that activity and check it off my list and say “I’ve done that.”

No wonder I feel dissatisfied and out of balance, I thought. I need to do a lot of different things. So what I’m going to do is reorder the way I do my daily notebook. Instead of having a couple of major things that have to be accomplished that day and concentrating on them, I’m going to make a list of all the areas of my life that are important to me and make sure I have one activity from each of those areas scheduled each day.

So even if I have a book that’s due that day, I’m balanced in my approach. I do get to the gym or at least I manage a walk or a bike ride in the park; I do talk to a friend on the phone or connect with family in some kind of meaningful way; I do read a chapter in a book that I’m immersed in. I don’t have days where I do just one thing.

What I came to realize was that the idea of “clearing my plate” was my motivation. To have these very unbalanced days was ridiculous because “my plate” was my life. If I took an integrated approach to it, there’s no reason that I would be trying to get all these activities done because they were never going to be done. They’re all part of my life.

I’ll always have my friends and family. I’m always going to be presently working on a writing project. I’m always going to have money accounting and bills in my life. Health and exercise is an ongoing need. I enjoy doing domestic chores so that’s part of my life. All those things are a part of it and I can’t get rid of them because they’re always there.

So it led me to a much more integrated approach. And I prefer to use that word integration. I began to realize that what gave my days real joy was the complexity and not this mono-mania that I was focusing on. I think a lot of us in a very puritanical way think we’re going to be rewarded for these very mono-maniacal days that we have.

I respond to this because I think this is a notion I want to apply to my own life. For instance, if I’m going to be interviewing you, I’m madly reading through your book for two days in a row and then immersing myself in that, as you say. Yet it seems to make a lot of sense to still be able to carve out some time to do those other things you enjoy. It occurs to me that you’re taking your day and rather than treating it as one out of five or one out of seven, you’re just taking each day and treating it as a micro-model of your life.

SH: Exactly. That’s well-expressed.

It seems very simple and yet it’s really quite radical, I think.

SH: It is. It certainly was for me because that’s not what I did. It’s like treating every day as if you want to enjoy the day to its fullest. And I’m very serious about that. I have that little list in the back of my diary and every day when I look at that day and I look at the things I have to do, I make sure that something that reflects all those areas is included in every single day.

We always have those things that we say we’re going to do and we don’t do. And then all of a sudden, it’s three months later—and I’m thinking of people, for instance—it’s three or four months later and you finally figure out you can manage to have lunch with somebody. So I can see the value there.

SH: Yes, because when you’re viewing the lunch as an interruption of your work, then it becomes a low priority item. We get into that Covey thing about what’s urgent, what’s important, all that stuff. Urgent always takes precedence. It seems a very abstract way of doing it. One of the areas of my life that’s very important to me is being in touch with what is actually quite a large network of friends, some of whom are colleagues but they’re also personal friends as well. I have a huge web of very rich relationships.

People have said that to me, “I don’t know how you get so much time for all the people you know.” It’s because I consider that part of my job. It’s not an interruption of a valuable day of work. It’s a way of fulfilling something that’s important to me that needs to be done everyday. Every single day there’s something that relates to my building and maintaining the relationships that are important to me.

Well, I just think of myself. I’ll be working away or then I’ll stop and be looking out the window and I’ll think of some friend or acquaintance. It would be so easy then to send a quick email and say, “Just thinking of you.” But, particularly for a guy, that’s hard. We always need a reason. One nugget that I’m taking from reading your book is that to keep your network alive and viable all you gotta do is call. Make that call once in a while. Send that note.

SH: Of course email makes it so much easier to do that with a broad network of people flung out around the country or around the globe. Absolutely. It’s interesting what you say; we feel like we need an excuse. One of the excuses can be: Everyday I do that. Everyday I send an email to someone I’ve been out of touch with for a while to just say, “What’s going on with you? This is what I’m doing.”

Marshal Goldsmith, whom I interview in the book, signs everything, “Life is good,” and he starts every email, “Is life good?” So it’s just a way of thinking. How are you doing? Is life good? What’s going on? Life’s good here. That saying conveys it all. It makes it very easy to send off an email.

Technology is one of the reasons we’re more able to manage a broad network. But at the same time our network is important to us because it’s what sustains us in a time of real constant change where we never really know what the situation is going to be two years from now and what we’re going to be looking for and in need of. There’s that aspect of it sustaining us personally that’s very important.

But it is more important to us to have that kind of personal and professional network than it was to our parents. My parents saw either politicians or local sales people as glad-handers with big networks of friends. It wasn’t as important to that generation partly because their status was more secure and they didn’t have that need for that sustenance. And they were more traditional in their relationships and their roles as well.

You have developed six strategies for surviving and thriving in this 24/7 existence we all lead now. But I’m wondering , is there a first step for a person who’s sitting there thinking, “Oh my god, I don’t have any of this under control and I’m ten minutes late for every meeting and I’m always behind”? Where to begin?

SH: I’m not sure that there’s a generic answer to that because I think it depends on what area of your life is the most out of balance. When I started the book, I assumed that the idea of creating your own work, finding work that suited you even if you stayed in your job was going to be the first principle or the first strategy.

As I interviewed people, though, I saw that more and more people had gone through this crisis where they realized the work they had chosen was not right for them or didn’t reflect who they were. And then they had to really go back and look at themselves and look at their values and look at what they’d been like when they were young and try to paint a different picture. So for many people, starting at the core, which is really learning to look at yourself in terms of what you have to contribute, can be important.

Learn to zig-zag is the second strategy. The original title of that was something about learning to recognize that the stages of life have changed. I think that’s very helpful for some people because it still amazes me how many people often think in terms of very industrial-era paradigms in terms of work and retirement. They don’t see work being integrated into their lives and view career changes as being inappropriate at mid-career or mid-life, even if they’re frustrated in their current job.

What I’m saying is I think the strategies, the importance of them for individuals or where they would start really tends to relate to what they’re doing least well at that particular time. People who are out of touch with a big circle of friends who need to build that personal and professional support for themselves probably need to start by building a strong web.

Every one of the strategies plays to all the others. So in a way, it doesn’t really matter that much where you start depending on what your own life is lacking at the time. When I talked about restructuring how I live my days was really an example of starting at the core because it had to do with the realization of how many activities I really did enjoy. So it came out of that self realization that I have wide-ranging interests and I need to acknowledge that fact.

I think that self realization is a big issue unto itself. I don’t believe that people are very good at figuring out why they do what they do. Which may have some connection to that Gallup poll statistic that found that 40 percent of the working population is pissed off. I’m thinking, My god, how lucky am I that I can be working out of my home office, enjoying what I do? I feel awfully fortunate. To realize then that almost one out of two people is frustrated and angry at work bothers me. What’s going wrong here?

SH: I think it does go back to that need for self-awareness and ability to define oneself. In the book I touch on therapy and look at various techniques that individuals have used to start at their core and get in touch with some of their real, deep interests, things that have appealed to them since childhood.

Right, and yet that 40 percent of the population that’s continually ticked off is feeling like there are forces from without that they have no control over, right? So they don’t know where to begin.

SH: Absolutely. I had a family member as a guest in my house two weeks ago who is nine years away from her pension as a teacher and she’s not enjoying her days at all anymore. But she’s got those nine years until her pension kicks in. There’s a lot of “put in this and I want to get that out of it,” so people make those trade-offs. But then they’re part of the 40 percent.

She’s looking at nine years to getting a pension, but she’s an extremely creative person who could think of doing something else and probably double or triple her income within a few years and the pension wouldn’t be that key. There’s no certainty in that, though. And the pension is certain. That’s the kind of dilemma that often hold those people back.

Is there a different way to look at the situation? If you’re not fulfilled at your current job, is it a matter of either toughing it out and being miserable or the alternative of trying that thing you’ve always wanted to do and ending up economically strapped?

SH: The one lesson that I think has been most valuable from the 1990s as we’ve watched people improvise solutions that meet their needs is that in this post-industrial or knowledge or whatever you want to call it economy, it’s not either/or. You don’t have those generic job choices in the way that you did so that you either become a teacher or you become a media person. You can combine them; you can offer the world ways of combining them.

You can split jobs; you can do one thing at one time while developing your expertise in another area. It’s not either/or because we’re making it up as we go along. We’re inventing the job categories and the skills that we bring into the market. It’s not a question of slotting in and being forced to choose between two options. It’s a question of looking very closely at our talents and interests and finding a way to combine them and make an offering that supports them.

Thank you.

Thriving in 24/7: Six Strategies for Taming the New World of Work
The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership
The Web of Inclusion: A New Architecture for Building Great Organizations
Everyday Revolutionaries: Working Women and the Transformation of American Life
Wildcatters: A Story of Texans, Money, and Oil

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