Love your work

Love your work

I was chatting to my daughter yesterday and reflecting on the fact that although I’ve had quite a few different jobs in my career; I have more or less been doing the same work, just in different environments.

I started work at 15, straight out of school. It was common in those days for girls to leave school at 15 and go to secretarial college for a year, or get work in a shop or hairdresser. My grandmother went ‘into service’ as a housemaid when she was 11 or 12, and this meant living away from home during the week and returning home on Sundays, her one day off. Younger readers will think this sounds a lot like Downton Abbey, and I guess it was quite similar, except that she worked for a middle-class couple who owned a chain of shops, rather than for the landed gentry.

My mother left school at 15 and went down the secretarial path, working as a typist in an office in Perth before leaving to get married and have children. This was also a common pattern. I didn’t want to be a secretary and as a result I deliberately avoided learning to type when I was at school. I have regretted this decision several times in my career.

I wanted to be a music producer, an unlikely career choice for a girl living in a smallish city with only one recording studio. Employment opportunities in the creative industry were very limited, but I did snag a job as a film editing assistant with a small production company who made documentaries and television ads.

My job involved typing letters, (one letter would take me all morning), doing the banking, getting lunches, and learning the rudiments of film editing.

Film editing is about storytelling. You start with a lot of content (much more than you can use) and you decide (with the director), what serves the story best. Next you decide how to organise the content so that the narrative arc is entertaining, surprising or interesting, or hopefully all three. It doesn’t have to be linear, it just needs to engage the audience and move the story forward. Often a circular pattern involving flashbacks works well.

Looking back, I realised that this sort of work: choosing, sorting, and ordering content has been the through-line of my career. Teaching also involves choosing salient information and arranging it in a way that makes sense to the students, and doesn’t bore them to death. Writing and editing reports (especially evaluation reports) involves deciding what’s valuable and then arranging the content so that it’s meaningful.

Now I’m interested in writing memoir and realise it involves the same set of skills. When you are writing about your life, you need to think about what the important moments were. The critical turning points that changed the course of your life. Then you need to arrange those pieces in a way that illuminates bigger, more universal themes so that your readers can identify with your story. It’s quite hard work, but the principles are the same, so the process is familiar.

Can you identify any themes or similarities in your working life? Are there tasks that you gravitate to, regardless of your role or job description? I suspect that these are things you are probably good at.

Please share your thoughts, I’d love to know what you think.

Back to work

Back to work

I retired from my day job a couple of months ago and naively thought that I would have the time to do whatever I wanted to do (chiefly, more writing), but instead I just futzed about generally enjoying myself, but definitely not making that much progress with my new writing career.

I occurred to me that this is because I haven’t been treating writing as a career at all.

I was always a good worker; conscientious and reliable. I always turned up on time or messaged my boss to explain why I would be late (medical appointment, pet emergency). I never turned up late because I couldn’t be bothered coming in on time. I went to work every day whether I felt like or not. I always met my deadlines and was able to work unsupervised because I was a grown-up and that’s what grown-ups do. So I don’t know why I thought I could take such a cavalier attitude to my writing career and simply not bother writing if I didn’t feel like it. Which turned out to be most days.

So I’ve decided to treat my writing like a job and disregard the fact that I don’t get paid to do it. After all, I didn’t get paid to do any of my degrees and I usually submitted my essays on time, although I did need a few extensions when the kids were sick. I took my studies seriously and I took myself seriously.

But there are a few things that I’m going to do differently in my new job. I’ll have a quick peek at my emails in the morning but I’m not going to answer them until I have put some words down on the page. I’m not going to wander off to the kitchen and chat with people until I’ve done some actual work, and I’m not going to start reading interesting articles on topics unrelated to my work until I have done some writing. I’ll make an exception about getting up from my chair to hang out the washing because seriously, it can’t just sit in the machine all day.

I will change my hours to part-time because I’m my own boss now and I can do whatever I like. I might also schedule in some walks and some coffee dates because my back gets stiff when I sit for too long and I need to talk to someone other than my husband. He’s lovely, but there’s only so much you can say to the person who shares your home. Perhaps some kind of walking and talking arrangement with a friend might work?

I’m not going to work on weekends, and I’ll give myself some annual leave and a Christmas bonus (some new books!) if I’ve reached my writing quota on a regular basis. Perhaps I need to set myself some KPIs and develop a strategic plan as well?

I just can’t wait to get started in my new job which quite frankly, I think I’m going to love. The pay isn’t very good, but the conditions are excellent, and I hear the boss is nice.

No morning tea please

No morning tea please

After making the big decision to retire, I had to formally submit my resignation through our online HR portal. This triggered what is known as a “termination process” also known as “offboarding”.

The language made me feel quite ill and a little bit anxious. I’ve been working at the organisation for 14 years, so to end my career in this impersonal way felt a bit sad and confirmed my view that working for a large government department turns you into little more than a number, fodder for the machine.

I emailed my manager to let him know that I was submitting the form and he emailed me back the offboarding checklist. This is to ensure that you settle all your accounts and hand back any equipment that’s been issued over the years. He also rang to say that he would miss me, which was nice. I specifically requested that there be no fuss as I just wanted to walk away quietly.

I’ve always hated those corporate morning teas that are usually held when someone leaves. I dislike the people who only turn up for the free sponge cake and the ubiquitous cheese and crackers. I hate those speeches where the top brass talks mainly about themselves or tells embarrassing stories about the poor person who is leaving.

I hate the bit where the person says that they won’t miss the work, but they’ll miss the people. I know that for most people this is true, but I will genuinely miss the work and the people.

I will miss laughing with my team-mates, helping people solve problems, and moaning about senior staff who send you long rambling emails but don’t ever say what they actually want you to do.

I’ll miss people shouting across the room to ask me how to spell accommodation and other tricky words.

When I went in yesterday to return my laptop and security pass, I was still a bit surprised at how upset I was. There were only about four people in the office and the place was a wasteland of blank screens and empty chairs. I handed over my computer and the admin person said weakly, “we should have bought a cake”.

I wandered off down the corridor and came across a lovely colleague that I’ve known for years. She could see that I was upset so she gave me a hug (verboten).  She told me that I would be missed and that I’d had a big impact on the organisation.

It was nice after all.

It’s time to retire

It’s time to retire

I was supposed to go back to work in late September, but I’ve decided to retire while I still have the energy to do the things that I want to do. I told a few of my friends about my decision and most of them said, “I knew you wouldn’t go back”, which is odd because I didn’t really know myself until a few weeks ago.

Lots of people tell me that they would retire tomorrow if they had the money, but for me the decision about how and when to retire has resulted in many sleepless nights and long circular conversations with my friends and family. I’m grateful to have had those listening ears, and thought I’d share a few thoughts in case you are also contemplating retirement.

I have always liked working and wasn’t even thinking about retiring until last year when I was lucky enough to go to New York with my youngest daughter. When she announced that she was going to book some flights, I think I kind of invited myself along, or maybe she asked if I would go with her. Anyway, I jumped at the chance and we had the most fabulous holiday. I’m so glad I went as I doubt that I’ll ever get back there again.

Woman eating hot dog in New York

While I was in New York it occurred to me that I wasn’t going to be around for ever and perhaps I should start making the most of my time. It would be awful to be given some kind of diagnosis that cut short your life and to have spent all your time at work when you could have been having fun. I’m not expecting anything awful to happen to me, but you just never know how long you’ve got on this earth.

Even so, I still struggled with the idea of being a retired person. My sense of identity has always been strongly connected to my working life and I was a bit worried that I’d feel a bit unmoored when I left work. I also worried that my natural inclination to futz about all day would lead to me being very unproductive or doing nothing at all. Fortunately, neither of these has eventuated during my long service leave. Whilst it’s true that I spend more time doing household tasks – it’s hard to ignore the washing up when you’re at home all day – there’s also more time for reading, writing, and learning new skills.

When I talk to people about retiring, the conversation usually revolves around the question of having enough money, so one of the things I’ve been doing over the last 12 months is tracking my spending. I know that the Covid 19 has reduced most people’s outgoings, but I honestly don’t think I need a huge salary. I have pretty simple tastes and apart from the household spending, it’s seems like the most common things I buy are wine and coffee. Even though I’m an avid reader, most of my books come from the local library or from friends, and I’ve only filled up my car with petrol once in the last three months.

We aren’t planning any renovations and we aren’t allowed to travel, so the main thing to spend money on is the garden and that doesn’t cost much, especially if you grow things from seed.

It’s true that I will miss my friends at work, but they aren’t physically at work, so the social aspects of being in an office no longer exist. I’ll miss chatting in the kitchen and people randomly asking me how to spell things. I’ll miss contributing ideas and working in a team. I won’t miss the endless re-writing of reports that no-one reads, the long interminable meetings where no decisions are made. Work is not always productive or meaningful, sometimes it’s a sheer waste of time that would be better spent weeding the garden, writing or reading a book. These are by far my favourite activities and I’m looking forward to exploring new horizons. So whilst I’m sad to be leaving my job, I’m pretty excited about the future.

If you read this blog and you’ve been part of my working life, thank you for your companionship and your enthusiasm and do keep in touch. I’m planning to write here more regularly so please keep reading and chime in with your thoughts if you’d like to.

Cheerio for now


Things I miss about being at work

Things I miss about being at work

I’m on a six-month sabbatical from work. This seems like a strange thing to say as we rarely use the term ‘sabbatical’ in Australia unless you are an academic or other high-flying type.

Most people in Australia would say they are taking long service leave, or they are having a long break (known here as leave without pay). There are very generous leave provisions for public servants in Australia and I’m grateful for that and the many other benefits of living in this sunny and clean environment, but I don’t want to sound too smug.

I thought I’d better check whether sabbatical was the right word to use and found that Dr Google describes it as…

“A break from work” during which employees can pursue their interests, like traveling, writing, research, volunteering or other activities (or even rest). During that time, the employee is still employed at their organisation, but they don’t need to perform their normal job duties or report to work.*

So yes, I’m taking the opportunity to pursue my interests (writing and research) and getting plenty of rest, but I’m not currently doing any travelling unless you count going to Kmart to buy some new slippers.

Many people have asked me if I wanted to cancel my leave given the Covid situation, but to be honest, I was grateful not to have to think about work when the whole pandemic thing started. I was too busy panicking and trying to figure out if we would survive (so far so good) and I was finding it extremely difficult to concentrate, so I was glad when my holidays started.

But now that things have settled down a bit and restrictions are easing; I’m starting to feel guilty about my lack of writing progress and general inability to start working on any of my lofty goals (making a podcast, writing a book, starting a newsletter).

I’m struggling with not being at work.

As well as missing my co-workers (who are very nice), I miss the tasks coming into my inbox – please read this report, please write a briefing note, please review these survey questions. At work you don’t have decide how to spend your day, the work comes thick and fast. Sometimes it’s something you enjoy doing and sometimes it’s tedious, but there’s always lots of it. My favourite tasks are the ones which involve editing other people’s words to make sure they make sense. I think I would have loved to have been a book editor. Maybe in my next life…

Being at home with lots of time on your hands means that you have to be very deliberate about your choices. I think this is what is trendily known as being intentional. It strikes me that living an intentional life requires a lot of effort and is intellectually demanding. You have to choose between activities that help you make progress and those that are just using up the hours until you’re allowed to have a glass of wine or watch that new show on Netflix.

You have to avoid going down rabbit holes like reading reviews of every mattress-in-a-box that’s currently on the market and downloading sample chapters of every new bestseller that’s being released in May, many of which you have no desire to read.

It means actually reading the books you were planning to read when you had the time. Yes, that time is now folks, so get reading, but it also means taking the time to rest and reflect on what to do for the rest of your life which is very tiring, I can tell you.

If you are working from home or retired, on leave, or between jobs, I hope you are doing well. Maybe you are trying some new things or just trying to survive as best you can. Whatever your situation, stay safe.

*The concept of the sabbatical is based on the Biblical practice of shmita, which is related to agriculture. According to Leviticus 25, Jews in the Land of Israel must take a year-long break from working the fields every seven years. A “sabbatical” has come to mean an extended absence in the career of an individual to fulfill some goal, e.g., writing a book or travelling extensively for research.