How I Do Work-Life Integration

shells-fish-rice-eggsPeople used to talk about work-life balance, as if they were two separate things. Now they talk about work-life integration, but what they mean is finding ways to infiltrate every hour of every day with this work that is not really your life. I choose to do things differently.

Seems to me that if left to our own devices, people would just spend all day doing what gives us pleasure. Some of that would involve doing things that help other people or make them happy and some would be just for us. Centuries ago, people discovered that different people like doing different things. If you take on a task that I don’t enjoy, and I take on a task that you don’t enjoy, that leaves both of us more time for the things we like, and stuff still gets done. Maybe I do some things better than you, and you do some things better than me, so we trade off those tasks as well.

That works great one-on-one between people who like and respect each other. As the groups get bigger, so do the tradeoffs. You farm rice, I catch fish, and our neighbor keeps chickens. We start out not keeping track of things, because we get what we need from the informal arrangement and everybody’s happy most of the time. But then the village gets larger, and that one neighbor who is supposed to bring in the firewood winds up exploring the woods instead. He comes back to the village now and then to get rice, fish, and eggs from the rest of us, but somehow he never gets around to bringing us the firewood like he said he would.

So we set up a system of markers to keep track of who’s doing their share. And that works fine for a while. It reminds us to balance out the things that are just for us with the things that help the village overall. Eventually, someone gets a real hunger for piling up a lot of markers. Getting markers is what they enjoy the most. They take on tasks that they don’t particularly enjoy, and they dream up trading schemes, all in the name of getting more markers. And someone else discovers that he likes to manage other people’s markers. He makes a special storage place to keep them safe, and he keeps track of who owes what to whom.

And another guy discovers that if he can get other people to work for him, he can give them a few of the markers that come in while keeping most of them for himself. Some people don’t enjoy drumming up business and keeping track of their own markers, so they are happy to just get out there and work and let this guy handle the business side.

A few lucky people get to keep doing what they enjoy and getting markers for their efforts, but many people find that the only way they can get their basic needs taken care of is to do the work that no one else wants to do. Their lives get divided into things they do because they enjoy them and things they do to get markers, and people start talking about “work-life balance” and “vacation days” and “retirement”.

Eventually, the markers take on a life of their own. Some people spend their days transporting the markers to other villages where they buy more things. Some people don’t even make things any more, they just shuffle markers around and keep some for themselves every time they make a trade. While most people stay in their home villages, in familiar surroundings with their families and friends, the markers go off around the world.

People who used to bring in plenty of markers doing one particular thing find that they can no longer make their contribution to the village, because someone in another village is doing it instead, for fewer markers. The guy who trades the markers still charges you and your neighbors the same, but he keeps the extra markers for himself.

Eventually, some people have to leave their families and friends and move to the villages where they can get enough markers for themselves, with some left over to send back home. But these new villages don’t welcome the newcomers. “You’re trying to take our jobs away,” they say, and they talk about building walls and removing the foreigners by force. The newcomers don’t know the culture or the language, and they find themselves fair game for thugs and con artists. But they stay and work, because what else can they do?

Every aspect of daily life, right down to the language, evolves to represent this separation of what you enjoy from what gets you money. “Have a nice weekend!” “Did you go anywhere over the holidays?” “We’re looking for a good retirement community.” This is the language spoken by people whose work-for-money is not the same as their work-for-enjoyment.

One of the biggest (and fastest) changes I went through after going freelance was adapting to a life that was not dictated by the 9-to-5 structure. I don’t resent working into the night, because I sleep late and do a leisurely read of the newspaper over a big mug of coffee most mornings. If I work on your holidays, it’s because I get more done when you’re not phoning me and emailing me every five minutes. When you’re slaving away in the middle of the week, I’m shopping at a nice quiet grocery store or taking photos of the autumn leaves at the neighborhood park. If I hit a slack period during the day, I don’t spend in hanging out around the break room or sitting in my cubicle watching cat videos — I do a load of laundry or two.

It’s only been four years since I left the cubicle and commute behind, but certain phrases sound very foreign to me now. “I can’t wait until Friday!” “How many vacation days do you get?” “I’m going to move to a farm way out in the country when I retire.” “I really hate my job, but I’m going to hang in there five more years.”

I’m not piling up great stacks of money these days, but I have a comfortable place to live and a refrigerator full of food. Getting paid for my work makes me a little more focused and organized, but seriously, I don’t mind doing a little paid work on my “days off” (if it’s my choice) because I enjoy what I’m doing. I have money put away for the time when I’m not able or willing to work any more, but if I’m 90 years old when that day comes, that’s OK with me. Business is picking up, to the point where remodeling the kitchen and traveling the world for fun are evolving from dreams to plans.

In that other world, people talk about “work-life integration” and they mean that you’re supposed to check your office email while you’re on a vacation trip with your family. It means that your boss can send you text messages at 5AM and expect an immediate reply.

In my world, it means that I’m doing things I like, and I decide when to do what. Some things are just for me, and some of them help other people. The part of the help-others work that I get paid for lets me pay other people to take care of the things I don’t want to (or can’t) do myself. It seems to me as if this is how I was meant to live all along.

Signal to Noise Ratios

turn down the noise

Photo by Nancy McGuire

Back to the science metaphors today. I got to thinking about how radically I have emptied out my schedule this year, and how it’s helping me pay attention to things too long ignored. Improving the signal-to-noise ratio, as it were.

Right after grad school, I spent three years as a postdoc at Los Alamos National Lab. I was studying the way that surfaces influence the structure of thin coatings, to see if you could set up a surface that could direct a thin film to form with the properties you wanted. In order to pick up any kind of a signal at all on my instruments, I had to start out with substrate materials that had a whole lot of surface area, just to have enough of the thin film to make a detectable signal.

I had to make sure that the substrate surface was as clean as humanly possible, to eliminate interference from contaminants — including air. For every sample I made, I had to start by baking my substrate material at a high temperature, under vacuum. This required custom-built glass furnace tubes that had to be made in the lab’s glass shop, by the resident glass-working experts. My fellow researchers showed me how to set up the furnace and vacuum pump setup, and they clued me in on putting a cold trap between the two parts, so that pump oil would not back-flow into the furnace tube. They also told me that the copper coil I needed for this could be found at a local auto supply store.

After I baked out my samples, I had to close off the glass tube and transfer it to one of those big glove boxes that you may have seen on TV shows where people are working in a lab. The man in charge of keeping the glove box maintained had very large hands, so the gloves were sized to fit him. I have very small hands, so I had to learn to manipulate tiny tweezers and allen wrenches using thick rubber gloves that were several sizes too big for me.

Coating the sample surface was an exercise in patience. Meter in a little gas, let it condense onto the surface, wait for things to settle down, meter in a little more, repeat. Do this until the gas pressure gauge shows that no more gas is condensing down onto the surface. This sometimes took hours. Once, I tried to put two layers down on a surface, and I stayed at it for 36 hours straight before I finally gave up.

After I collected data from my instrument, I used a computer program (written by another colleague) to tease out the tiny signal from the thin film from the much larger signal from my supporting surface. Another computer program would interpret the resulting pattern, but the specific material I was studying hadn’t been studied much as a thin film, so I had to piece together what I could from existing information and make reasonable assumptions.

I did manage to put together a general picture of what the surfaces were doing to the thin films. It’s been almost 25 years, and others have gone much farther than this than I could.

What I’m getting at is this. In order to see anything at all out of this year-long experience of mine, I had to set up a situation in which I had a lot of time just for me — my supporting substrate surface. I had to clear out any interfering noise from this time — residual stress from a long day at work and commuting, much of my extracurricular activity, anything that would take away from what I’m trying to find. After the initial clearing-out, I had to protect my time from re-contamination. Only then could I begin to let in the things that I want to pay attention to.

I’m getting a lot of advice and assistance from friends and colleagues, but ultimately, I’m having to put this thing together myself. And now that little hints of answers are starting to come in, I’m having to try and make sense of what I’m finding out. Looking at what other people have done is giving me a general direction, but ultimately, I’m having to take what I can find and make some reasonable assumptions about the rest.

Very slowly, a little pattern is starting to emerge from the background. Other people may do this more elegantly or simply, but this is my project, and I am having to put together an answer that applies to me. The learning how to do it, the actual process of doing it, and the friends and mentors I’m meeting along the way are just as important (if not more so) than whatever answers I may come up with.

Reprinted from Flying Lessons blog, which I also write. (verbal-aviation.blogspot.com)

Update: If you would just listen to the facts…

Janet Raloff, a friend of mine and a senior editor at Science News, has weighed in on the topic of how scientists can communicate effectively with the public on divisive issues such as climate change. In her May 29 online article, Climate skepticism not rooted in science illiteracy, she reports on an interview with Dan Kahan of Yale Law School, one of the authors of the Nature Climate Change article I cited in my previous posting. Raloff explores several approaches to interacting with a polarized public in her May 30 follow-up article, Depolarizing climate science.

What comes through most strongly in these articles is that divisions occur when scientific findings have a direct relevance to things that affect us every day, or findings that could make significant changes in our everyday lives. As far as I know, The Heartland Institute has not posted any billboards comparing people who believe in black holes or the law of gravity with Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. We accept these things because we can do so without making any changes in our daily routines.

Raloff cites political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who states that some of the most science-literate critics will listen to experts only to generate compelling counterarguments. What’s stopping climate scientists from doing the same thing — listening to the most rational, articulate deniers and opponents of climate change legislation in order to scope out what matters most to climate change deniers and formulating compelling counterarguments of their own?

Disruptive innovation is another possible approach — one that sidesteps the battleground altogether by providing people with alternatives that they adopt readily because they see a clear benefit to the new technologies. After all, no one waged a political war against paper phone books, wristwatches, or the Sony Walkman, and yet those things have almost completely fallen out of use by Americans under the age of 30, in favor of smartphones, smartphones, and smartphones. The main problem with this approach is that disruptive innovations are notoriously unpredictable. We cannot guarantee the timely arrival and widespread adoption of any particular form of alternative energy or resource-conserving capabilities.

So for now, we are stuck with learning to talk to each other. Which is something that we needed to do anyway.

No Scientist is an Island

Albert Einstein Memorial

Bronze statue of Albert Einstein at the National Academies building in Washington, DC. Photo by Nancy McGuire


The myth of the lone scientist working tirelessly into the night in his converted garage lab is compelling, but fictional (at least over the last 100 or so years), according to the panelists at How to Save America’s Knowledge Enterprise, a May 21 symposium sponsored by Future Tense (a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate magazine).

Take some of the iconic figures of science and technology: did they work alone?

  • Thomas Edison directed a research laboratory with as many as 200 researchers.
  • Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard worked out of a garage, but they were working under a fellowship from Stanford University, under the mentorship of Prof. Frederick Terman.
  • Albert Einstein was on the faculty at Princeton University.
  • The Manhattan Project is remembered in terms of a few of its most famous scientists, but at one point it employed roughly 130,000 people.
  • Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer, benefited from knowledge he gained building mainframe computers at Hewlett Packard. He and co-founder Steve Jobs were members of the Homebrew Computer Club, a source of encouragement and inspiration.

My previous employer, High Performance Technologies Inc. (now a part of DRC) was the administrative partner in a consortium involving academics from Stanford University, Morgan State University, New Mexico State University, the University of Texas at El Paso, and the Army Research Laboratory. Army researchers drew on the academics’ expertise in high performance computing, and the academic researchers gained an opportunity to work on solutions to a set of real-world problems, with a defined group of end users.

Before that, I worked at the Office of Naval Research, which funds the Naval Research Laboratory. Even though the Navy has its own corporate laboratory, it still funds hundreds of research projects in academia and private industry. Why? Because the broader pool of expertise brings in novel solutions, and researchers working in academia and industry see problems from different angles than researchers in a government laboratory.

But that’s just applied science, you say. True, these projects tend to be very goal-focused. But even for purely basic or theoretical science, collaboration provides insights and ideas that transcend the limits of the lone scientist’s imagination. Not only that, but there is just no substitute for validating one’s theories against facts in the real world.

The panelists at Monday’s symposium agreed: research is not a solitary pursuit, but rather, an ecosystem — a densely linked network of scientists, engineers, and end users who constantly provide each other with feedback and new capabilities.