Quitting a Job: An Act of . . . Poetry?

I’ve heard people say that quitting a job is having the courage to admit that work is not the most important thing in life. For some, that’s true — quitting can be about placing value on things other than earning a living or, more to the point, other than earning respect for earning a living in a certain way. In short, they resolve not to give work more of their time and energy than it truly deserves. It’s a perfectly legitimate point of view, and it leads many to make decisions that improve their lives greatly. These practical choices are acts of necessity.

For other people, the need to quit a job emerges from a deeply held belief that work really matters — matters too much to be done in the ways that the institutions they inhabit at the moment demand. They find it hard to watch the potential of human labor — especially their own — strangled by narrow aims that don’t amount to much in the end. These folks, who are often the most talented, don’t merely redefine their priorities and slot work in the proper place. They seek to redefine work itself and to restructure their “working selves,” not just their work schedules, accordingly. Their decisions are acts of conviction.

Whatever the reason someone quits, quitting is indeed an act. Even the most level-headed, drama-free exit from a job (the best kind) puts a person in a contemplative zone, not so much as the decision is being made but in the aftermath — in that curious, breathless void that only big transitions expose. It’s then, just as the lungs begin to fill anew, that it’s most valuable to give yourself the room to speak. That speech can take many forms, not all of them verbal. But I believe it’s important to articulate something while you’re in that space, to loosen the ties around the neck, some of which you may not even have felt before the untying. There’s something about the gesture — about the expressive act itself — that allows you to stretch and grow more fully than you would have otherwise.

For me, that act was writing a blog post about my decision to quit, and then the subsequent serial blog that, by twist of fortune, ensued on hbr.org and now resides here. A much more compelling act on the subject is an evocative poem by the late Robin Blaser, called simply “Quitting a Job.” You can watch and listen to him read it at an event in late 2008, just six months before his death and, strangely, just one week after I decided to quit, by clicking here (start at 17:50).

It’s in witnessing acts like Blaser’s that, I believe, you can begin to discover the poetry of your own act — to hear in your mind’s ear, and then articulate, the voice of what’s possible so that, as Blaser writes so pointedly, “You won’t die strangled.”

Thanks to Cheryl Clark Vermeulen, who introduced me to Blaser’s poem.

Call Me a Part-Timer, Call Me a Nomad

Many people who make their living working multiple part-time jobs aren’t thrilled with the scenario. They say things like “I don’t know if I’m coming or going” and “I’m spread too thin.” The situation usually arises out of necessity, not choice. For one thing, there’s the difficulty in securing affordable health insurance — it’s the 800-pound gorilla. But if you press these wandering workers about why they dislike the nomadic lifestyle, you find that even without that fat ape, their lives often feel like a zoo.

I, too, am no fan of constant chaos. But I also have a fundamental need for variety in the challenges I confront, the people I collaborate with and serve, and, most important, the ways I use my mind. Given all that, on balance I’ve come to appreciate the hodgepodge of multiple part-time jobs I do, even if it sometimes means feeling spread thin. I would rather keep moving and risk fatigue than sit still while the black flies descend.

For nomad workers like me, variety can have a temporal dimension as well. I work part time in new venues, but I also freelance for former full-time employers. Both connections require direct, ongoing collaboration with on-site colleagues. In this respect, the past phases of my work life persist in the present, so that my experiences feel cumulative and mutually reinforcing, not sequential and discrete. Plus, I retain a sense of belonging to, and remain invested in outcomes at, the organizations where I used to be a full-timer. The proof of that, I recently realized, is in my instinctive use of “we” when I talk shop with former coworkers.

That said, conversations about work identity can be a sore spot for me. When asked to label my career, I often don’t know whether I should call myself a teacher, a freelancer, an editor, a writer, or some wishy-washy-sounding mixture of them all. In general, I try to use verbs (what I do) rather than nouns (what I am), but that can sound to certain folks like dodgy language from someone trying to hide that he’s a jack of all trades but a master of none. The more specialized the profession of the person talking to me, the more suspicion I tend to arouse, especially when one of the subareas I mention as being in my repertoire is the one with which he or she identifies. “Call me a nomad,” I once joked in response to such a person. But that self-deprecating label doesn’t make me seem like someone whose labor you’d want to pay for. The proof comes in the work I eventually produce, and so far reputation has served well enough as evidence of my legitimacy (knock on wood).

I also place a premium on establishing strong relationships with the folks at the new places where I work. I involve myself in decision making when that type of participation is welcomed, and I do other extras when I can. Boundaries can, of course, be tricky to maintain when your zoo of responsibilities is populated with animals that don’t cohabitate comfortably. I try to use fences rather than walls as much as possible — to keep the inter-species dynamics interesting without compromising my own safety (read: sanity). There is that 800-pound gorilla, though.

For the moment, the zoo is my professional home, and the animals are the many jobs I do, each one with its own needs and risks but deserving of my affection nonetheless. An itinerant zookeeper with a feed bucket swinging from my hip may not be the most flattering look to sport. But it’s a small price to pay for the freedom, variety, and sheer fascination I enjoy from almost-daily exposure to the sights and sounds of diverse habitats. I’ll continue to wander through them for now, prepared to reassess my choice if my legs and arms and back tire out before my eyes and ears and brain do.

Are You a Specialist or a Generalist Editor?

Strict editorial boundaries have never really suited me. I’ve been a writer, a developmental editor, and a copy editor, and in all three roles I can’t help but wear all three hats. When I work with a piece of writing, whether or not the byline is mine, I allow every editorial detail to enter my brain simultaneously. That unfiltered receptivity, though it may seem indiscriminate, enhances the value of each decision I make, large or small. If I censor myself, even temporarily, something vital gets lost, and I end up treating the piece as if it’s a machine being assembled rather than an organic creature being nourished.

The advantage of discrete editorial roles is, of course, that each specialist in the process has the space to focus on her assigned job without distraction and is empowered to make judgment calls in the area she knows best. But what also tends to happen is that individual specialists cater, sometimes without realizing it, to separate internal constituencies instead of a common, external audience. To be sure, specialist expertise can be essential to an editorial endeavor, and the need for it must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. If, however, the default arrangement is that every editorial role is specialized, it can be very hard to work out all the kinks and truly unify the final product.

I often wonder whether more editors should instead behave as generalists, simultaneously attending to the forest, the trees, and everything else in the editorial ecosystem as they produce, shape, and refine the whole — while bringing a writer’s sensibility to bear at every twist and turn. That doesn’t mean I long for a world without editorial collaboration, where one person does it all. I firmly believe that nearly anything worth publishing is best produced through collective effort, and I consider the basic need for both a writer and an editor to be fundamental. But I prefer to collaborate with people who can operate expertly and without inhibition in all domains at once yet who appreciate the value of a second — and a third — set of equally unencumbered eyes and ears.

My sense, though, is that I’m an outlier in that regard, and that to most people in editorial arenas the advantages of specialization far outweigh the drawbacks. If you’re a writer, an editor, or both, where do you come down on the specialist/generalist question? I’m all eyes and ears.

Your Livelihood Is Subsidized — by Immigrants

Another midterm election season has begun, and with it another wave of scapegoating immigrants for the ills that burden us. It’s practically a staple of American politics every fourth spring and summer, a perfect setup for the fall. This year the focus is an Arizona immigration law that soon will allow police in that state to accost, and demand proof of citizenship from, people they suspect are in the U.S. illegally. Because, surely, those confrontations will unburden Arizona of its problems and make it a much more pleasant place to be.

Last time around, in 2006, the big issue was an amnesty provision of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act. Had the bill become law, it would have permitted immigrants who were in the U.S. illegally for more than five years to apply for citizenship after paying fines and back taxes. Critics of the legislation won that debate in part by, once again, painting immigrants as a “burden on the system.” At the time, National Public Radio broadcast a 3-minute essay by journalist Richard Rodriguez in which he, unassumingly and poetically, undercut that specious argument by simply thanking immigrants for the long list of things they do for us as a nation every day, at an extremely low cost. Rodriguez’s naming of these deeds, one by one, was chilling — and worth a listen even these four years later.

My immigrant students work in jobs similar to those Rodriguez listed in his 2006 radio piece. They lift hospital patients out of their beds and clean their bodies; load and unload chicken legs, beef tenderloin, and Kashi GoLean from the backs of trucks; scrub down homes and offices and hotel rooms and the cages of lab rats; and click their heels and smile at the people they serve on hand and foot, day and night. And they do it, quickly and efficiently, for pay that most people reading this blog would never consider accepting for such self-effacing work, perhaps for any work at all. In short, their labor subsidizes our lifestyles. While we work for ourselves, they in effect work for us, all the while demanding little for what they do. The economy in general — and your livelihood in particular — rests on their backs, literally. Yet their labor goes largely unseen — and when it is noticed, unappreciated.

In the little free time that these immigrants have, many attend school to learn the English language; the archaic English system of measurement that we refuse to discard in favor of more-sensible meters and liters, which they already know; and the contradictions of our culture and politics, which insult them in more ways than you can imagine. It’s an enormous amount for anyone to absorb, and especially hard for students like one I’ll call Teresa, who works the overnight shift in a hospital, then comes to my math class at 9 AM, and finally returns home to care for her children and an aging father. When I asked Teresa when she sleeps, she said, “On the bus sometimes.”

The schools that serve students like Teresa tend to operate on shoestring budgets. Most are staffed by highly skilled but undercompensated teachers who have made this work a vocation as they try to earn a real living on the side — and who often don’t get any pay for up to half the hours they spend at school. All this unrecognized labor is a continuous stimulus for the national economy, as it makes the grossly underpaid immigrant workforce even more productive. The effect is to dramatically reduce, not increase, the country’s economic burdens.

Critics, of course, point to the small percentage of immigrants who commit crimes or who game the system. After all, naysayers can always find isolated counterexamples. But I can tell them, from the front lines, that on balance they are getting much more for their dollars — no, their pennies — than they ever would suspect. The number of immigrants, most of them here legally (but, yes, some illegally), who diligently do our dirty work, in the literal sense of that phrase, is staggering. And, no, many of them will not be counted by the U.S. Census; they exist — and they work — nonetheless.

Go ahead, Arizona, apprehend that “burden” you see on the public street. Maybe you’ll actually lock up and deport one of the dregs who drag us down. But it’s much more likely that you’ll burden yourself and the rest of us by handcuffing the single biggest subsidy of our precarious economy. For every physical arrest that you make, you effectively demoralize and disable thousands of hardworking immigrants who look on and imagine themselves in your shackles. Keep arresting productivity in its tracks like that and you will burden our entire nation so that it falls, quickly and efficiently, to its knees.

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