Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Two Sides of the Evolution of Work-Life Balance

I read with great interest the opinion piece on regarding Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's assertion that she works a 9 to 5 office schedule, setting up a firestorm of reaction ranging from:
  • "You go, girl! Way to put your foot down on what's really important."
  • "Wait, I work myself to death 6am to 10pm and they didn't make me COO and give me the associated perks that come along with that. Thanks for rubbing the salt in the wound."
  • "Baloney, I don't believe for a second that you truly work from 9 to 5."
All of these reactions are understandable and have merit. Besides the COO part (which I gather makes a big difference in our stress levels and standards of living), I've tried to set that sort of structure on my own work life. I get in early and leave the office relatively early so I can have dinner with my family with young children and help put them to bed. Like Sandberg, I value face time with my children and I buy into the hypothesis (here detailed in Time magazine) that having family meals together lead to healthier, happier and kids that learn better at school. While I wish I was always enthusiastic (I'm trying to get better at this) listening to them talk about a girl who wouldn't let them use the same kitchenette at preschool or some sort of playground tag strategy, I know that this is something that is good for the family.

I can also appreciate the bitterness that others feel that Sandberg is the COO of the company given her respect of work-life balance. This, probably more than anything else, illustrates that while Corporate America still talks a good game about work-life balance, there's still this prevailing thought that hard work and long hours are the prerequisite badges for leadership and promotion, as opposed to a means of success of accomplishment. Or put another way, I would argue in Sandberg's defense, if she's managed to accomplish great results while working in the office 9 to 5, good for her. Mark Zuckerberg and the Board ought to care less about how she achieved good results (provided the means were legal and sustainable) as opposed to applauding and recognizing that she got the job done.

But there's this disconnect on the interpretation of work-life balance divided by two camps:
  1. Work-life balance means that you can work less hours and keep your job, but your career growth and progression will be stunted
  2. Work-life balance means that you can work smarter with possibly less time in the office, and the onus is upon you to ensure that results are still optimized
I would argue for perspective #2, but I suspect some are still stuck on #1, which isn't work-life balance but a description for a "part-time worker".

Which segues into my final point around the skepticism around Sandberg's claim. Look carefully at her quote:
"I walk out of this office every day at 5:30 so I'm home for dinner with my kids at 6, and interestingly, I've been doing that since I had kids," Sandberg said in a video posted on "I did that when I was at Google, I did that here, and I would say it's not until the last year, two years that I'm brave enough to talk about it publicly. Now I certainly wouldn't lie, but I wasn't running around giving speeches on it."
She's not asserting that she only works 9 to 5, only that she limits her time at the office so she can spend face time with her children. Like me, she probably enjoys her dinner, puts the kids to bed, and does conference calls or pops the laptop open to do whatever work that needs to be done while simultaneously watching "Parenthood" or the Knicks game (well, maybe she's not doing that). But let's face it, in this day of mobile devices, work doesn't end when one leaves the office. The lines of life and work have been irrevocably blurred, and us modern day workers are figuring things out as we go along. Work life balance? I suppose the I will have known that I succeeded by asking my kids twenty years from now.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Music to Soothe the Soul

My wife is a classical musician by training, so if I ever want to spend a night sleeping in the couch, I can say something the lines of, "Why in the world would anyone in their right mind study music? What a waste of time. Get a real job" or "Psshht. That guy wanting to become a pianist is just like my childhood dream of becoming a professional juggler, except it'd be much easier for a juggler to carry around his props" or "Yeah, professional musicians are great in spreading 'aesthetic beauty', but do a lousy job of paying the bills."

In truth, music is one of those rare things that transcends culture, language and time. What's uncanny about music is that the beauty of it doesn't discriminate by social status or wealth, by color or creed, or even by the character of the listener. Part of being human, it seems, is to appreciate the symphony of notes which are somehow put together into a melody which evokes a feeling in the soul much more profound that mere happiness. I was reminded of this when I read an article about an emerging hospice ministry in music, where chaplains visit the dying and comfort them through friendship and song.

The article cites the growing need for hospice care in our aging population, and how music therapy is an emerging field which is getting some attention. The story focuses on friendship between hospice chaplain A'Shellarien Anthony and dying patient Charles Black, two people who have little in common - Anthony is a middle-aged black female New Jersey native and Black is an 86-year old white male who grew up in Kentucky coal country - besides a very important common appreciation for music and in this case, hymns, which led to an even deeper relationship where they did Bible Study together. To me, the story is just another example of the power of music as a channel.

But I tend to think that music itself is neutral as a channel. It can certainly be used for all the above good purposes, but it can also be used to harm and destroy. Lyrics can be incendiary, hateful, misogynistic and destructive. Some music can be dissonant and cacophonous, producing the opposite effect of calming and soothing. The so-called "culture warriors" are right to care about music, because it's tremendously influential.

Music is interesting that way. It's a language which can convey emotion and history. It is a catalyst for remembrance and nostalgia. It has the power to bring energy and joy to an otherwise dreary day, and the article shows how it can bring comfort and healing to a man who is nearing the end of his life. If you're a science fiction nerd, you are also aware that Lynn Minmei's singing caused legions of war-crazed Zentraedi in Robotech to become pacifists. There is beauty and power in good music, and good music should be celebrated, supported and embraced. And like situations such as hospice care, perhaps there are broader applications to how music can be used redemptively which are still fertile soil.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Mega Million Letdown

A couple of weeks ago, millions of people in the United States were buzzing with the prospect of winning a $640 million jackpot lottery. The Mega Millions contest spanned states all over the country, and the thought of putting oneself in a position having more money that could conceivably be spent in a single life brought people to kiosks and convenience stores in droves. Of course, this madness ignored the logic of minuscule likelihood of matching numbers successfully and the oddity that people who never paid the lottery before would somehow play now that it reached $640 million. Or put another way, I guess that a measly $30 million or so isn't quite worth winning.

But the excitement of lottery, some of which I saw first hand, made me a little bit uneasy and frankly a little sad.

First of all, I'll repeat what's been said and articulated many times in the midst of this madness: the lottery is a voluntary tax. Or put another way, this is a vehicle to take money out of the pockets of citizens to support municipal projects, with a sideshow benefit of making a lottery player (or a couple of lottery players) rich. It's very little different than a raffle, except that in most cases, I see people purchasing raffle tickets because they support the cause which is being supported, as opposed to really wanting a gift certificate at Macy's.

The other thing that alarms me is the reaction both before and after the lottery drawing from people who are lower income. As the previously reference article mentions, "this increasing reliance on lotteries to fund state governments is troubling, as these taxes disproportionately fall on low-income individuals." Most people who are educated realize the mathematical ├╝ber-unlikelihood of winning the lottery, and if they're going to play a game where there's a high likelihood of losing, they'd just as soon invest in the stock market, where they can use some of their know-how to make their chances of "winning" far greater. At least much better than the 1 in 176 million odds that Mega Millions gives you.

I had some of the people in my office who were excited to play, and it was led by an administrative assistant who was an older single-mother of a teen. This colleague - God bless her - really got into the excitement of the prospect of winning and managed to zealously recruit over 75 people in our floor to play (and I did chip in my $2 contribution), sending out e-mails around our press conference plans and how we should use positive thinking ("Don't say if we when", she would insist, "We should talk about when we win how we'll spend the money"). I'm sure she knew the odds, but she was pretty psyched about us winning that jackpot, which she had calculated out the payout and had dutifully provided each of the participants copies of the selected numbers. She was much less subdued coming into the office on Monday morning, realizing that she would not be able to quit her job and purchase a mansion in Westchester.

I don't know her heart, and I don't know the heart of everyone who played the lottery last week - and as I mentioned, I did chip in $2 for the office pool. But there's something about the mania for lottery windfalls that's troubling, akin to the novice poker player who thinks he's going to be the next Phil Ivey or Johnny Chan, and make millions as a professional, only to realize that he's managed to waste gobs of time and money in a fruitless exercise which would have been better spent elsewhere.

It's also the seductive "get rich quick" nature of the game which seems antithetical to other messages that society tries to preach. On one hand, teachers and civic leaders tell kids that the road to success is a marathon, not a sprint. "Study hard at school and keep picking yourself after you fail, and eventually you'll earn the fruit of your diligent labor. There are no shortcuts to hard work - but it'll all be worth it at the end."

The lottery instead tells people, "Don't like how much money you make? Chip in $2 for the quick-fix opportunity of instant deliverance! No hard work required - just less than you would pay for a tall coffee at Starbucks!" And you can understand why low-income individuals become vulnerable to getting pulled into the not-so-far step of Ponzi schemes and other get-rich-quick fraudulent gimmicks. And how far from that place is actually committing more violent crimes in the name of getting rich without actually honestly working for it?

And this doesn't even take into the consideration of the message that money somehow buys happiness. Do they ever show commercials with lottery winners who are isolated and depressed because they can't distinguish real friends from those who are trying to exploit them? Or with lottery winners who find themselves helplessly in debt because of bad investments and over-consumption?

Yes, I'm sure for the vast majority of people it's a harmless game and very few people play the lottery one week and then jump to the logical conclusion that their better bet for getting cash quick is holding up a liquor store. I'm just uneasy with some of the undertones when you scratch below the surface with a coin.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Epilogue: Westward Ho!

And to continue from my last post, as you might say in French, Poisson d'Avril.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Westward Ho!

If we take seriously the concept that we are sojourners in this world who are ready at a moment's notice to pick up everything and leave when God calls, we need to answer when opportunity comes knocking. It's easy to be a slave to inertia and let the routine of life repeat itself. You go to work the next day at the job that you worked at today and yesterday. You buy the same groceries at the same supermarket week after week because familiarity feels good and safe. We get into patterns around what makes us comfortable, which includes a certain lifestyle and a particular standard of living funded by a certain household income. None of this is bad per se, it's just dangerous when that blinds us to something that God has called us to do.

I could count on one hand the number of job opportunities that would excite me enough to uproot my family from the northeast. As I mentioned at a recent dinner with some friends, the forces keeping us from moving are massive. We are thrilled with our church community and the prospects of church planting. We love the fact that our extended family lives a short distance away. My parents provide convenient and free babysitting and childcare. And despite some bouts with garden variety job stress, I really liked my work at a major biopharmaceutical company. The threshold bar for an opportunity which would get us to uproot ourselves was quite high.

More than a year ago, I had exchanged letters with Richard Stearns, the current CEO of World Vision International. It was pleasant enough, we talked about our respective Wharton experiences and I talked to him about Synergy Ministries and my passion around faith and work integration. A little more than two months ago during a meeting at work, I got on my cell phone from a 253 area code which went to voicemail. The message was from the VP of human resources at World Vision, and they wanted to know if I might be interested in a leadership role focusing on strategy and operations special projects, reporting into David Young, the Chief Operating Officer.

A few conference calls later, World Vision flew me and Sarah to Federal Way, WA for a weekend where I had an opportunity to meet with the leadership team. By Sunday afternoon, they had offered me the position and laid out the financial package and asked if I could provide an answer in three weeks.

I shared with an extremely small group of people this opportunity - my desire being to not create waves and rumors through the grapevine around an opportunity which might or might not be seized. Sarah and I weighed the pro's and con's. Clearly being much farther away from family would be difficult. We would miss the deep friendships that we've made here in New Jersey and the northeast. And, of course, there was the financial reality of taking a substantial pay cut from what I was making before.

But none of those things were deal breakers, and at the end of the day it still came down to a single question: where did God want us? So we prayerfully came to a decision (with a great deal of support from Sarah), that this was simply a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that needed to be seized. Plane travel and Skype makes the world a smaller place, there would be other deep friendships to invest in, and given the health of the housing market where we lived, we could make things work financially. But really what it came down to was the chance to do cutting edge program development and strategy at an organization which I deeply respect.

So after the school year ends, we'll be looking to move to Washington state. Like the earlier frontier settlers centuries before us, we head west with excitement for the unknown. I will still root for my New York sports teams, but will do so in places like Safeco Field and Qwest Field. I will swap my New York Times for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. I will trade my Starbucks for more local versions of Starbucks. I don't know what the future holds, but this is why we walk by faith and not by sight.

As you might say in Latin, Carpe Diem.