Sunday, April 26, 2009

The body betrays the truth

Last week I learned something very scary – I actually have a physical limit as to how busy I can be. People have often commented, in various degrees of wonder, at how many things I’m involved in, how much I take advantage of happenings in this exciting city and how much work I’m capable of undertaking. To me, it’s not a case of a demonstration of capability but simply that I’m interested in so many different things and want to lap it all up. And so far, in my 26 years, it’s been relatively manageable. I am occasionally exhausted but, nothing that a quiet afternoon and some good sleep can’t take care of.

I went to a talk a few weeks ago where Alain de Botton talked about his new book: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. He made a suggestion about the Sabbath actually serving to prevent megalomania. By forcing those who observe it to stop – to cease all but the most basic and involuntary endeavour – the Sabbath acted as a reminder that we cannot do it all.

Being somebody who observes the weekend as an opportunity to do work (not the kind that pays my bills but that which nurtures my curiosity and my soul), my “Sabbath” came in a different form. Conscious, and concerned that I had been working above a sustainable level since January (and possibly before), and unable to fully communicate the seriousness of the implications of this to my colleagues, I woke up on Thursday morning, unable to get out of bed. Not the ‘I really don’t feel like going to work today’ inertia, but something that was a combination of a physical reaction and one that had to do with my will giving up on me. If ever there was a wake-up call that could not be delayed by snoozing, this is it.

Is it a question of balance?

Like many, I often feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day. In addition to keeping up with friends and family and nurturing those relationships (which at the moment too is a struggle), there is so much I want to do that isn’t within my job description and thus achievable during work. However, by the time I get home, after preparing food and unwinding, I find I have very little time to get stuck into exploring, learning, practicing, developing or attending to any of my interests or “extra-curricular” commitments. The frustration comes when I look at the bigger picture and add up how much of my life I will spend doing my job rather than doing my work (my “life’s work”). Yet, in my particular situation, there is such strong resonance between the two. The undertaking of one is quite directly beneficial to the other. But it’s like unrequited love – the potential is there but what’s lacking is the time to give both the attention each requires and the space to start forming and strengthening the inevitable links.

Like a fool, I can now admit, I have tried to force this time and space where there is none. The conclusion my body has drawn is that, it’s not possible. So, how is this work-life balance thing achieved? BusinessWeek took advantage of that great communication platform, Twitter, to collect suggestions for achieving work-life balance (I’ve interspersed screengrabs of the tweets from that article here).

Or is it a question of doing away with false barriers?

There seems to be some consensus that the separation itself, between “work” and “life”, may be the fundamental obstacle in finding balance between them. For me, work should be the reason you get up in the morning. Work should be something that creates meaning. For many, the ‘work’ they do in their jobs is furthest from bringing any kind of meaning to their lives! What if ‘work’ was not confined to the space you spend most of your waking hours in order that you may pay for shelter and food. This is not to say that you should be doing your job outside of ‘working hours’ but that the definition of work should be revisited. Work as our greater purpose and our jobs merely facilitating this. Some people have jobs doing what they love – doing their “life’s work” Some people do jobs that enable them to do what they love (by providing the necessary resources, usually money but also transferable training, skills and knowledge).

If you don’t like your life you can change it

I am often encouraged by the fact that flexible-working and working from home are more and more being embraced by business because I think it MIGHT be a step closer to helping us integrate the different tasks we carry out in our lives so that there is less of a distinct barrier between ‘work’ and ‘life’.

However, it’s very easy to carry the same obstacles from the office block to the home office. In some cases, people end up doing more work when working at home because they feel they need to prove to their managers that they’re not slacking. It seems to me then, that what needs to change is attitudes towards where and how ‘work’ is done. We need to do away with a culture where you feel guilty calling in sick when you’re bed-ridden by the flu. We need to do away with a culture that gives employees no time for personal development because of obsessions with meeting targets when in actuality, giving employees that time and space will yield greater creativity and improve their work.

With the current economic situation and a lot of people being forced out of work, I’ve witnessed a lot of positively life-changing stories. People no longer have the dream-inhibiting excuse of being too busy at or exhausted from work. They are forced to stare their life and dreams in the eye and take action. They have lost the luxury of inertia enabled by employment.

And those of us who managed to hold on to our jobs? Well, we’re having to cope with even more work than we had before. We’re perhaps accumulating even more excuses to stray from the path that will lead us closer to embracing our “life’s work”. The garnish is increased stress, unhappiness and resentment – but at least we have a job, right?

I’m not so sure that the latter is worth all that comes with it. And my body is pushing me to question that. I remember coming across a poster in the London underground, probably sometime last year. Amidst the throngs of zombie-like bodies on auto-pilot during rush hour stood this shining light simply stating: “If you don’t like your life you can change it”. It’s such an obvious fact, so simple yet, something that’s so easy to forget. So easy to challenge with poor reasoning that gets you out of having to face the clear truth.

(Artist: Mark Titchner)

I’m deciding to walk on the side of truth. The saga will continue …

Friday, April 10, 2009

Work and the democratisation of art

Connecting art, class, work and happiness

(image courtesy of Indigo Arts Gallery)

"I cannot ever forget, nor should I, that I come from a blue collar, in fact in some cases no collar, background. By no collar, I mean slaves. Craft and handiwork were a form of communication for slaves, and are also traditionally African: within those communities there were no artistic echelons. Everybody was engaged in some kind of art activity, whether they were musicians, singers, dancers or visual artists, as a normal aspect of their everyday life. Artists per se were not separated from the rest of their community. I didn't want to forget my heritage, I wanted to extend it. My mother's grandfather was a basket maker and a blacksmith; he made brooms and sweet grass baskets. Both of my grandmothers were quilt makers. My father's father was a woodworker who made decorated canoes. I'm very specifically proletariat in the sense that I know that I'm engaged in this same activity. You have to consistently look at what I do and challenge your own ideas about what is 'visual' art and what is 'fine' art. I think that there is something strange about the idea that it's not as aesthetically profound for someone to make a cup as it is for someone to make a painting of a cup."

— Joyce Scott, artist

Earlier this week I went to hear Alain de Botton talk about his new book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (more about that later). Afterwards, in the bathroom, I overheard an intriguing snippet of a conversation between two, relatively young girls: "…condescending middle class conversations…". It's quite mysterious – were they referring to the Q&A with the author? Judging purely from observation, the auditorium did seem to have been filled with a middle-class, mostly caucasian, Guardian-reader audience. And indeed a lot of the conversation was about the shift from work being regarded as punishment to a point where for people to do their best work, they often need to take some level of enjoyment from it. This idea of doing work you love, is often seen as a luxury for the privileged – the poor are seen to prioritise feeding their families, facilitated by any work necessary.

However, I'd like to challenge this assumption and go back to Joyce Scott's point. To go back and, in this instance, put artistic endeavour back into the picture of the everyday (and design is a part of that). People who are not necessarily engaged in explicitly "artistic work", still incorporate art and/or design in their daily practice – through how they eat, how they entertain themselves and others, how they interact, what they wear, their working environments. I mean, look at the barber shops and hair salons in deprived African neighbourhoods – these are sites of work! And love is often visible in the products of blue collar work – often even more conspicuous than in the products of white collar work!

So maybe the middle class white collar elk has got it all wrong and their (our?) empathy has been distorted by a certain megalomania. Does the magic – and the reason why so many white collar workers seem to be unhappy with their jobs – lie in the fact that blue collar work tends to be rooted in the present moment? Is the blue collar's attention to the everyday, as opposed to an automatic dismissal of it because of its perceived mundaneness and triviality, what makes her/his everyday richer (and happier)?