About the Author
Farai Chideya has combined media, technology, and socio-political analysis during her twenty-year career as an award-winning author, journalist, professor, and lecturer. She is a senior writer at the data journalism organization FiveThirtyEight, and has taught at New York University and Harvard. She frequently appears on public radio and cable television, speaking about race, politics, and culture. She was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, and graduated magna cum laude with a BA from Harvard University in 1990. Find out more at Farai.com.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The Episodic Career 1
Work and the Pursuit of Happiness
WORK IS THE linchpin of American life. We work the longest hours among the biggest developed economies in the world, having outstripped most European nations and Japan, among others. Sure, we complain about not getting enough time off—yet collectively we left 577 million earned vacation days unused in 2013.1 Many of us are anxious, worried that if we don’t work those extra hours, someone else at our job will and win favor for doing so. We also worry that we won’t have enough to make ends meet. That’s real. But there’s also an emotional and even national component to what some people call a strong work ethic and others call the rat race. In America, work is not just a means of earning a living but also a form of self-definition and a cultural obsession.
If you were to walk into a cocktail party in Paris and, right after being introduced to a stranger, ask, “Qu’est-ce que vous faites comme travail?”—“What do you do for work?”—it would be considered très désagréable. Yet in many parts of America, that’s our opening gambit. Why? We see jobs as the human equivalent of computer data meta tags; ways to neatly sort people and decide if they’re valuable or desirable to us. If you’re single, hearing doctor might make you think “Good catch!” If you’re a job seeker, you might be focused on meeting someone in your field and head to the other corner of the room to see who else is more useful. That’s natural, at least in our culture. Still, after my own career ups and downs, as well as our nation’s job crises, I’ve become less likely to judge someone based on current or past employment. I definitely don’t presume to know whether he or she is happy or not.
“The pursuit of happiness” is written into the founding documents of our nation. Yet our society puts so much emphasis on work and money as the cornerstones of our dreams that many people imagine that happiness is a luxury they can’t afford. (Think of those millions of unused vacation days.) A focus on success by the numbers can undermine the satisfaction that we might gain from a more balanced workstyle.
This book is divided into four parts. In the first, I lay out the landscape of American jobs present, past, and future. You might find this edifying, terrifying, or tedious (if the latter, bear with me—this is crucial). There’s no way we can figure out how to plot and navigate our course without good landmarks. In the second section, you get to explore your own desires with a self-diagnostic tool, the Work/Life Matrix. It will give you greater insights into how you want to use your skills and how you want to position yourself within a corporate or independent work structure. You’ll take a simple quiz about your desired workstyle and then get to see how people who fit different patterns and archetypes based on the answers succeed. This storytelling-rich center of the book allows you to learn from others’ hard-won wisdom. You’ll see how different people have navigated their careers; overcome family and cultural programming that no longer suited them; or forged their own paths even in times of hardship. Part three looks at some of the hard decisions that require us to blend head and heart. How do we connect our intellectual knowledge with our intuitive, soulful knowledge? (The Work/Life Matrix will help.) This section covers issues such as the critical role of emotional resilience—that is, how to bounce back from hard times—a skill that you can learn and cultivate. We’ll also look at questions such as when job retraining or additional higher education is worthwhile and when it’s a potential waste of money and time. Finally, part four examines success, both on your own individual terms and how we can build healthy employment options for America as a whole.
Throughout this book, I’ll also speak frankly of the challenges that different demographics face, including employment discrimination. The idea of a modern labor market, with a reasonable degree of protection for people of all races and sexes (though not yet for gay and lesbian Americans on the federal level) is only a few decades old. America’s roots include inspiration as well as exploitation. “The pursuit of happiness” wasn’t designed for all.
One of the big questions facing this country is whether, in a time of rising income inequality, we can sustain the American Dream. While we focus on the ways that you can maximize your position in the US workforce, we also have to acknowledge frankly the systemic challenges and look at ways that individuals as well as groups can confront them.
Let’s start, though, with that vast territory held within our minds and memories. We each bring to any situation a set of expectations about how things should be and how things could be. Those expectations can cloud our ability to see clearly, evaluate our options, and make the best decisions. Even jobs we love—perhaps especially jobs we love—can break our hearts. So let me share one of my own stories from a career that has taken me to Nelson Mandela’s house and onto Air Force One but has also tested my limits of endurance and sometimes my finances. I share here for a reason—because I want you to see that I approach the topic of careers and society not just from an intellectual perspective but also from a human perspective.
A few years ago, I was totally ambushed and sabotaged on the job by someone who should have been my strongest ally. She worked me senseless, burned me out, and knew every button to push to make me feel angry or sad or defeated. Yet today I feel nothing but compassion for her. Of course, that woman was me.
September 2006: I had just become the host of the NPR show News and Notes, a daily live program encompassing African American issues as well as digital community, national politics, arts, and culture. It was such an honor, and the connection I felt to the audience is still one of the highlights of my career. News and Notes had been hosted from the East Coast originally, but since I was out west, taking the host seat initially required waking up at three in the morning Pacific time. Then, after writing and reading through scripts and adding the latest news to the rundown, I had to be lucid at six to talk to hundreds of thousands of public radio listeners. It was the second time in my career that I had unexpectedly gone from reporter to host. Although I was thrilled, I didn’t anticipate how profoundly the sleep deprivation and pressure of daily production would affect my body, down to what foods I craved.
My routine changed entirely. Instead of going to see a band or cooking dinner with friends in the evening, I ended my weekdays mindlessly shoving food into my mouth. I remember standing late one night outside Ralphs supermarket in Culver City, a municipal peninsula surrounded by the vast sprawl of LA. It was dark, and the cool night air was a good forty degrees warmer than winter back east where I’d grown up. I was clutching a plastic bag filled with red velvet cupcakes, my drug of choice. And I didn’t even like sugar—or so I thought, until my crazy work schedule upended my life.
My first seven months as a host, I worked from four in the morning until one in the afternoon. I’d been dating a guy. I’d be lying if I said we were serious, but he was great: a creative professional and loving dad whom I’d met at a conference. Heck, my mother, visiting from Baltimore, had even met him and his daughter. My regular shift had bonus midafternoon pretapes plus “homework”: hours of daily interview prep (including reading up to three books a week). Now catch this: the man I was seeing worked from three to eleven at night at a film production company. And he had his daughter on weekends. So with our schedule mismatch, it’s no surprise the wheels fell off that bus, which left me dating Red—Red Velvet, that is.
Red was as seductive as a bad college boyfriend; the kind you know is lifting you up just to watch you fall down. I’d been a stress-driven eater since childhood, but the sleep deprivation changed my patterns from salty-fatty (like mixed nuts or cheese) to sugars. I used the sugar rush as fuel for doing my radio homework, but I had to be in bed by nine. Early bedtime was so not my style. I started working at Newsweek magazine full-time the summer after graduation, right before I turned twenty-one. I became a fact-checker by day, club kid by night, and went to bed at three in the morning. So going to bed at nine o’clock in LA made me bitter.
Another part of the job I had a hard time accepting was not being in the field—that is, traveling to interview real people with amazing, fresh stories. After joining NPR, my first job as chief correspondent and backup host at News and Notes gave me some great opportunities to see the country and tell our stories. In 2005 I covered Hurricane Katrina and its heartbreaking aftermath, and also filed a series of feature stories while driving cross-country. The downside of becoming host was not just the hours (which after several months shifted to a more reasonable start time) but also being lashed to my desk. Instead of making peace with the pros and cons of my job, or leaving, I literally swallowed my resentments in sugar form.
I gained forty pounds in the four years I worked at NPR, which I am still working off. That certainly wasn’t the company’s fault. I haven’t heard of a job yet that doesn’t have potential for stress. In my case, I had to help lead coworkers through editorial and emotional changes, as we lost staff positions and worked for more than a year under rumors that the show might be canceled. In 2009 it ultimately became part of a Great Recession wave of cancelations that took out three NPR shows and dozens of staffers. After the cancelation, I knew I needed to spend some time getting healthier. Yet I didn’t understand until I began researching this book how harmful on-the-job stress is to your physical and mental health. Stress even explained the biological basis of my food cravings.
Once I moved back to New York in 2009, I found a new physician, Dr. Roberta Lee, who’d authored The SuperStress Solution. In it, she wrote of the recent emergence in many developing countries of the same stress- and diet-related illnesses that Westerners have long experienced, such as obesity, diabetes, insomnia, and heart disease.
“Chronic job stress is as bad for you as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day,” Dr. Lee told me. “Your cortisol level rises, and your body goes into fight-or-flight mode.” Cortisol is a steroid hormone that our bodies produce in reaction to stress. It’s a normal part of our physiology, and when we need it as a “spot treatment,” it can be beneficial, giving us energy. But prolonged stress and cortisol production can weaken our immune system, making it harder to recover from illness and injury. Excess, prolonged cortisol also increases our chances of developing osteoporosis, or bone loss, and it can even impair memory.
Sometimes job stress is inevitable, but we can always change how we deal with it. According to Dr. Lee, just taking a five-minute break in the middle of your day—“a walk, or quiet time with no devices” (no smartphone, television, or computer)—can reset your entire system and allow you to be more productive. Stress can cause the body to crave sugars, which exacerbates inflammation and generates layers of belly fat. That’s exactly what happened to me, and because both my mother and grandmother had double knee replacements due to hereditary arthritis (not from their weight), I knew I was headed for joint complications that could greatly diminish my quality of life. This alarming realization pushed me to lose weight and follow Dr. Lee’s advice. I’m certainly no triathlete, but I use my bicycle now for both exercise and transportation, and take time to do high-intensity workouts with a local boot camp. At the height of my job stress, I could have used the calm that follows an intense workout, but I’d convinced myself, quite wrongly, that a cupcake was better for me than a hike. Exercise also produces endorphins, natural pain and stress relievers; and other research shows even a slow, meditative walk in nature without high calorie-burning value is good for our mental health and mood.2
To investigate stress-related issues further, I interviewed Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, a Nobel Prize winner in medicine whose research has centered on cellular aging and telomeres. Telomeres are parts of our DNA that protect our constantly dividing and renewing cells from becoming corrupted copies of themselves, which can lead to diseases including cancer. She compares telomeres to the little plastic pieces at the ends of shoelaces that keep them from being frayed. In this case, telomeres keep our DNA from fraying as our cells divide. Telomeres naturally get shorter and less protective as we age, but stress accelerates the process. Studies of caregivers, for example—mothers caring for seriously ill children or spouses caring for a partner with dementia—found that meditation can reduce stress-based damage to the cells.3
Sadly, people under extreme job stress sometimes make irrational decisions. Unemployment and job stress are linked to depression, substance abuse, marital problems, and many other difficulties that can destroy lives and families. In July 2015 I ran into a friend at a Maryland arts festival. He told me that a man he knew had just killed his two sons and then committed suicide, despondent after losing his temporary job after years of unemployment. The next day, I read about the incident in the newspaper, and saw photographs of the heartbroken friends and relatives grieving the tragedy. Thankfully, incidents like this are extremely rare, but depression and health problems are common.
In a 2015 nationally weighted survey for this book that I conducted, 61 percent of respondents agreed with the statement “At times I have sacrificed my health and wellness for my job.” In truth, stress is always gunning for us. We have to decide how we can mitigate it, or if we simply need to choose a different job or workplace. I thought about searching for a new job when the strain of hosting a show that was clearly on the chopping block proved more than I could handle gracefully. But a voice in the back of my head said, “Good employees fight for their team! Leaving would be a betrayal of everyone on the show! And it would show you’re not tough enough to mount a proper fight!” Some of that was my own ego and pride, and some was my family programming. With parents and elders who were independent African Americans on my maternal side, and strivers raised in apartheid-like Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) on the other, we as a family are not quitters. I was able to go to Harvard University and have a career because I was supported by my ancestors—the ones still alive, the ones I knew as a child, and the ones who fought for freedom and independence before I was born. I believed at the time that leaving my job would betray my family’s values.
Once the show was actually canceled, however, I learned that our team’s loss was part of a much bigger fiscal picture, both for the company and for the nation in its Great Recession. Three shows ultimately were canceled as part of the overall budget readjustments, all of them based in locations other than the DC headquarters. Like so many people do, I overpersonalized the systemic issues at my company and made the mistake of thinking that championing my own well-being was somehow disloyal to others.
One of the people I admire deeply both for his work and for embodying a positive approach to work/life travails is Barry Johnson. Barry wo...
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