What Does Hard Work Look Like?

I recently watched another TED talk, one by Nigel Marsh. Marsh is the author of Fat, Forty and Fired and Overworked and Underlaid. He found out the hard way that not balancing work and life can have serious consequences. After taking a year off, he returned to work with a different attitude and is now the CEO of a marketing firm based in Australia. Here’s his talk:

I’ve spent the last few years developing some technological tools to help make my working life easier. More specifically, I’ve developed online tests that have significantly reduced my grading workload.

I did the work of creating these tests over one summer a few years ago. I sat in the cabana in my backyard, in my little office not attached to the house, and sweated over the ambiguities that naturally arise when one tries to coerce the English language into razor sharp clarity. It’s one difficulty that a multiple choice test presents.

Despite my best efforts, there were glitches and bugs, a lot like the glitches and bugs that come with new computer programs. It took a couple of years for me to find all them all, but once I did, I ended up with a set of 45 pristine questions that I divide up each year – into three different tests – and now I am happy to say that 30% of my grading load has been transferred to a computer system that does the work for me.

It’s changed my teaching. Now I can do things I really like, like finding new poems and stories and working up teachable analyses. I can work on projects that are enriching to me personally — I’ve had the time to decorate my funky little house and cultivate beds of flashy perennials around it. I also, amazingly, have time during the semester to go out with friends, attend literary events, spend an afternoon at a museum or work on this website.

The tests were helpful in other ways. When my mother became ill and lived with me for 20 months, they had just reached that perfected state where they no longer needed improving. It was serendipitous because, looking back, I don’t think I could have cared for my mother otherwise. And that experience made me grow. It gave me a new and humbling perspective on colleagues who juggle work and children. I have no idea how they manage it, but all the same, I suspect they are this era’s real superstars and I really admire them for it.

So why am I posting this video? Like Marsh, I too went through a mid-life crisis – around the age of 45 — and it’s what prompted me to find ways to improve my life. The question of balance for me was very different from his, but it was still one that desperately needed addressing. I’m still not sure why I turned to computer geeks for help, but it’s where I started and I’m glad I did.

More specifically, I became interested in learning more about technology when I realized I had an out-of-whack life that felt like a feast or famine routine: I was either overwhelmed with work or had an open schedule that frightened me. Marsh talks about how we need to define the problem, and for me, that was it. I teach two 15 week semesters each year, but that 15 weeks stretches into 17 or 18 depending on how quickly I get the final essays graded.

One thing I noticed was that in the summer, at the end of May and right after I submitted my grades, I would find myself panicking. I had weeks and weeks of free time ahead of me, but unlike a lot of people, who would love that kind of time off, I always found the prospect daunting. I’m certain this is a leftover reaction from having been raised on a farm. My circadian rhythm, so far as summers are concerned, was set to default at a time when I was always busy picking or packing fruit. So for me, the challenge of unstructured time meant I had to create a structure, something that actually took a lot of thought, planning and commitment.

Of course, people who are not teachers often groan when they hear just how much time off I get, so my response is to explain the difficulties. It’s a lot of time, I tell them, which means I have to be creative and consistently keep my goals in sight. I like it that Marsh addresses a related issue: he says we need to use reasonable units of time to measure balance. He believes that a day is too small a unit, while using a larger block of time, made up of the years to retirement for example, is too much. I agree. For me, someone who does not work 9 to 5, I had to tackle measurements of time defined by three four-month periods: two semesters and a big chunk of time off in between. I still have remnants of panic every summer, but overall, I’m far better at managing.

But I’d like to get back to my title: “What does hard work look like?’ I’m raising the issue here because I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon happening to me lately. It’s related to my age, I’m certain, and is so ironic that I would laugh out loud except that it’s having a chilling effect on my sense of humour. Specifically, I believe it’s human nature to believe that hard work has to look difficult, challenging and painful, and if you manage to make it look easy, some people will not believe you are actually working. It’s a self-defeating attitude that correlates with something Marsh says: he believes it’s moronic to judge success by the belief that “the person with the most money when he dies, wins.”

This is important because making life easier is exactly the state of being Marsh is suggesting we work towards. The problem, as he points out, is that we must change the way we prioritize in order to successfully integrate the diverse aspects of our lives. But there’s more: we also need to accept the fact that some of our colleagues are going to get there quicker and be better at it. We need to be open to their successes and keep our temptation to sabotage them in check. We’re competitive creatures at heart, we humans, and so this is actually more difficult than it sounds.

For example, I find that because I’ve learned to use my time wisely, don’t flap around in a panic and am no longer learning how to do my job, I occasionally provoke the ire of others around me, especially those who are not having such an easy time of things. I sense their unspoken words: “You’re not in pain so you are not working hard enough. Look at me, I’m in pain because I’m busy!

The mental retorts, written in the bubble over my head, go something like this: “No, I’m just efficient with my time and you’re not.” Or, “Have you considered medication?” Or, “So you think panic helps? Yeah, well, good luck with that.”

I’m joking, of course, but if I could be serious for a moment? I’d like to say something in defense of those of us who have learned to delegate, know our material by heart and have, generally, mastered our jobs. I’m also speaking for people, like me, who’ve embraced technology because we believe it is there to lighten our loads. I’m speaking for people who know their material because they’ve taken the time to become experts. I’m speaking for those who are calm because they’ve banished the idea that life is an ongoing emergency. We’re out there and if Marsh’s TED talk is anything to go by, our numbers are increasing.



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2 Responses to What Does Hard Work Look Like?

  1. Daniele July 29, 2012 at 4:45 pm #

    good post. thank for sharing.

  2. Barbie August 5, 2012 at 10:23 am #

    you have such a good sense when you’re writing, please keep doing the good work.


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