the website of Greg Stamer

Paying the Piper — On Finding Meaningful Work

Posted by Greg on July 4, 2009

Newfoundland in June 09
Back in Newfoundland for a visit, June 2009, retracing some of the steps from my circumnavigation.
Long trips are great but you eventually have to go home…

I love long kayaking expeditions. On such a trip you fully live each day and live for the moment. However, you can’t spend your entire life on what amounts to a glorified vacation. Eventually you have to return home and pay the piper.

One of my biggest challenges has been finding meaningful work. By that I mean work that pays well, work that stokes passion and leaves you energized instead of drained, and allows ample time for adventures, be that hiking the AT or paddling around some large land mass. Some people search for such a “calling” their entire life. Some lucky people find it or, more likely, stumble upon it — probably since few of us understand what we *really* need.  If you do know, then you are miles ahead of the pack.

If you follow my blog you know that I walked away from a comfortable salary working as a software engineer/project manager, to find the right blend of kayaking, teaching, sales, helping people, and application of my software/managerial skills, that would ignite all of my passions. I also knew that I would always have regrets if I did not pursue long kayaking expeditions.

I would like to report that I have found nirvana, but I’m still in active transition — “a work in progress”.  I went from a position with high pay and low satisfaction to a position with good satisfaction and humble pay.  Whereas before I couldn’t get the time off, now the challenge is affording the trips.  I made the decision that was right for me, but not everyone should leave their day job.

Linda Bartlett, my dear friend and long-distance partner, has probably heard more of my telephone drivel than she can stand, on this subject of work/life/passion/balance. She recently shared with me a link from Penelope Trunk http://blog.penelopetrunk.com/2008/09/29/how-to-find-meaningful-work/ that addresses this topic. It strongly resonated with me, I hope you find it useful advice as well.

Following are a few notable excerpts:

 “1. Take care of yourself-have the basics covered.
The most important thing about making meaningful work is that if you are always worried about paying rent, it’s very hard to add goodness back to the rest of the world. Giving back to the world requires a sense of personal well-being and stability that only people who have a roof over their head can manage.

2. Take care of your work-make sure your job doesn’t suck.
Work doesn’t give your life meaning. The idea that your happiness correlates to your satisfaction with your work is misguided. What you need from work is to make sure it’s not undermining your ability to create sanity in your life.  Work is a way to get sanity, to make sure you are growing and you feel secure while you do it. Here’s what you need from a job to get that:

* A short, predictable commute
* Workflow you can manage
* Clear goals that are challenging
* Two co-workers you’re close friends with

So stop using your search for meaning as an excuse for not getting a job. Life is loaded with meaning, if you would just start living it. And, as an adult, that means engaging in ANY kind of work that we can do well”

Excellent advice from Penelope and quite different than either the New Age “follow your bliss” blather, or the old school “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” advice of my youth. I’d love to hear your comments.

  1. keith Said,

    As someone who’s had the BIG trip on the burner, but not on the boil, and is considering asking for the extended leave, I am in this head space. Work is what it is. I actually like where I work now. I live in a nice city where I can afford to live, there is open water, 9-10 months of the year :). And most of the time I have everything on the list.

    Question is, am I asking for a $50.00 bill when the job is already giving me a $48.50. (metaphorically speaking).

    The time I need to do my trip is substantial, but when you add it up to an hourly rate, it isn’t. But it’s not how most of america is wired to think. I think that is what needs to change.


  2. Greg Said,

    Keith, I agree that is something that needs to change. In addition to Penelope’s list of “what you need from a job”, I would add the ability to take yearly unpaid leaves of absence of at least a month. Companies such as REI and Patagonia realize the value of this and offer the opportunity to their employees. Unfortunately many mainstream corporations seem to want to squeeze you to get blood from a turnip. The prevailing attitude seems to be “why on Earth would we pay you a good salary and put you in a place of responsibility if you are not going to be available 24 X 7, less your 3-4 weeks of vacation?” I wonder if this is a uniquely American attitude. In Europe I saw evidence of longer standard vacations, but don’t know how easy it is to take an extended leave.

  3. Duane Strosaker Said,

    The modern concept of an “expedition” is interesting. It sort of implies that you have a home, go somewhere far away, explore a while, and come back. Never mind affording it, can you really get to know a place or fully experience it on an expedition? Maybe the best way to explore an area is by living there. An expedition is sort of like visiting Paris for a week. You’re just a pesky tourist, and you’ll never really know the place. But it you lived there for a year, you’d have a much better understanding of it. For an explorer the problem seems to be having a permanent home, rather than a good job.

  4. Greg Said,

    Duane, thanks for your comments. Living in an area and getting to know it intimately would be an exciting way to travel! That said, I challenge the notion that there is any “best” way to experience a place. We are all just too different and kayaking means something different to us all. Some people will want to see every nook and cranny and others with a competitive bent will push themselves to achieve a goal. I have done trips slow (fishing, visiting every sea cave, etc) and heard comments such as, “of course you went slow — you were using a Greenland paddle…”. I have also pushed hard and beat some records and heard, “you just raced around the island and didn’t see anything!”. You can’t please everyone. Perhaps the best trip is when you can truly manage to please yourself.

  5. Mike Maheu Said,

    In my mind it is the preparation, the end, and everything in between. The experience is yours, as you will recall pieces of it for the rest of your days.

    A few years ago I gave up working for The Man in my lakeside office to venture in a company with a few partners. I work from home and have the freedom to grab my paddle anytime I schedule it. That being said, it seems I work harder now at all hours. I still have the freedom to go paddle in the middle of any day, but am always on my iPhone to and from the landing. There is certainly some fine tuning involved and I am still working on this.

    Right now I paddle several times a week in my area and am in the planning stages on some longer expeditions. It was a year ago I moved to a new place on the Atlantic since I had the option to pick a place. This made for a lot new places to explore within just a few miles of home. I guess I am saying that I am having fun locally for now, but will venture off soon.

  6. Dominique S Said,

    On meaningful work, meaningful life, and Europe – with apologies for length…

    The book “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell contains a great definition of meaningful work (p.236, while talking about rice farmers in China):
    – there is a clear relationship between effort and results
    – it’s complex work
    – it’s autonomous
    If you think about people truly happy in their work, it makes sense (I’m not talking about the truly or quasi psychopaths who populate the upper echelons of large corporations…) If there is one thing I find frustrating in North America, it is the lack of autonomy in one’s work and of input into what affects it – corporations run on a quasi-military basis with very little or no trust granted to underlings. Workers in Europe seem to be treated more as adults than here.

    The first chapter of the same book relates the story of an Italian village in Pennsylvania, Roseto. This chapter by itself makes it worth getting the book. What you can conclude from it is that a harmonious communal local life focused on relations between people can be a major contributor to healthy living – and I guess meaningful living. On that count I would think North America score pretty poorly. When the focus is on acquiring rather than living and one’s sense of worth is dependent on transitory things like job function and possessions, it cannot be very fulfilling.

    An advantage Europeans have is that their personal and social life is not centered around work. They do not really mix work life and personal life. Friends and work colleagues are entirely different things. As a Frenchman, I find one of Penelope’s condition for meaningful work “two co-workers you’re close friends with” mind boggling – my life outside of work is completely separate from the people I work with, even here in English Canada, and I sure want to keep it that way. And certainly no 24×7, and no Blackberry…

    Duane’s comment “But it you lived there for a year, you’d have a much better understanding of it.” is certainly my experience. Having lived and worked in 10 different countries, I find there is even quite a difference between working as an expatriate (well paid and shielded from local conditions) versus being a local worker when it comes to know a country. But Greg has a point: it all depends on what the expedition is for. If it’s for speed, then it has little to do with getting to know the place. If it’s to get to know and understand the place, then speed is meaningless. It’s only a matter of personal taste – or of whom one has to please: oneself, the sponsors, or that elusive goddess, fame.

  7. steve Said,

    The question of how much time can you take off and still have a healthy business when you come back is not so simple. If you are self employed and have people working for you who you can trust, then go for it. Look at Freya. If on the other hand your business depends on you alone then you are in trouble. Take this into account when looking for meaningful work or starting a business. I think its a luxury to have a job that allows you so much free time and such long vacations and then takes you back. Remember that theres no free lunch, eventually you pay for what you get or take.If you know what you want and how you want to live when you are just starting out and building your life then you can make a plan to find the right job or profession that allows your lifestyle.