A Labor Day Launch

For most people, Labor Day is the last day of summer vacation, a time to enjoy the final barbecue or picnic or party of the season before heading back to work or sending the kids back to school.

But it’s also a good time to think about work – what it means to us, and the huge role it plays in our lives and society. There are, of course, huge problems with work in this country, most obviously how unequally people are paid for it, both historically and now, and the ongoing failure of our public policies to deal with that.

In this new blog, I’m focusing on the more personal dimension of work: what makes it satisfying, aside from the paycheck, which we all tend to think is too small. In my own career, I’ve gone from being a lawyer to a journalist and then some mix of the two, all in a quest for some sort of meaning and fulfillment. Both aspects of my career have provided me some of that, more or less at different times.

Still, more recently, I’ve wanted something else:  to contribute more directly to the people around me. As a human rights lawyer, I advocate for a more humane and less bellicose U.S. national security policy, and try to close down the Guantanamo Bay detention center or restrain the United States’ remote-controlled drone killings of suspected terrorists. But the benefits of that work feel very distant and intangible. Who am I helping, really, and how? What are the actual consequences of lobbying Congress and the White House, or of writing op-eds and blogs to try to sway public opinion? It’s all pretty unclear.

So over the last year, I’ve embarked on a new adventure: coaching. The idea isn’t completely divorced from my experience: it actually came out of being a National Security and Human Rights fellow with the Rockwood Leadership Institute, which runs trainings and fellowships for “leaders” in the nonprofit advocacy world. (I put “leaders” in quotes only because the underlying idea is that we’re all leaders in one way or another, not only within our organizations but also in our own lives. Job titles don’t necessarily capture that.) As part of the fellowship, I was assigned a coach, who I worked with over the course of several months. I found that experience, along with the fellowship retreats, to be really eye-opening. Most importantly, it helped me realize that we have more choice over our own experiences of work than we tend to acknowledge. It’s far easier to blame someone else – a boss, senior manager or colleague, usually – for our frustrations and dissatisfaction, than to look at our own actions and how we’re contributing to a bad situation.

That’s not to say that a boss, manager or colleague isn’t annoying or even doing something to actively obstruct us or make our lives more difficult. It’s just that focusing our attention on that is usually counterproductive: it just makes us angrier. Through my own coaching experience, and now intensive coach training, I’ve come to realize I do much better if I focus on what I can do to change and direct my own experience.

Since starting a coach training and certification course last Spring, I’ve been really delving into this question: how can each of us change, and improve, our own work – and life — experiences? How can we make choices that direct our own lives toward how we truly want to live them? And how can we gain sufficient clarity to become truly aware of our current experiences, our desires for the future, and the steps we need to take to move in that direction?

I’m still working as a human rights advocate as I explore this new realm. But I’m also relating to that work differently – more aware and accepting of what I can and can’t control, both about the work itself and its consequences. I know what I can and want to contribute, but I’m also more willing to do that work and let go of the outcomes. It’s a perspective that I think can reduce the stress levels – and burnout rates — of many advocates. It’s an area I plan to explore further.

This new blog is my way of working through some of what I’m learning as I develop a coaching practice and continue my human rights work. While the two might seem incompatible, they’re not, really: it’s all about human dignity. In my view, we all have a right to work and to live in a way that’s meaningful to us. That will mean something different to everybody, but I hope the insights I’m learning and will share here, and with my coaching clients, prove useful, even in some small way, toward helping people realize that real potential – and their own human right.