by Kristin Cardinale, Ph.D.
Career myopia is an epidemic; are you one of the millions who suffer from this debilitating yet preventable condition? Myopia, commonly referred to by eye-care professionals as nearsightedness, is a condition that causes objects in close proximity to appear clear while those in the distance appear blurry. The typical American worker suffers from something along the same line that I refer to as “career myopia” whereby workers lose their ability to visualize the big picture because they are so focused on the daily grind of the 9-to-5 world. As a result, their field of vision narrows, and the big picture becomes fuzzy. They lose sight of their dreams and instead fixate on merely surviving instead of thriving.
Aside from a few career renegades, Americans are conditioned to accept this situation as a way of life; mind-numbing work that dominates our days is the norm. And over time, we lose our ability to bring the big picture, our dreams, back into focus.
Did you know that the average American worker spends a combined total of only nine months during his or her working life enjoying time off? Nine months! And worse yet, the Harvard Business Review recently found that those stereotypically carefree retirement years are becoming fewer and fewer because an increasing number of Americans are working until physically unable, which Sun Life Financial’s “Unretirement Index” seems to corroborate.
How depressing. Is that really what you want for your life? A work-until-you-die mentality? Is that the example you really want to model for your children to follow as they grow older? America, what are we doing with our lives?
Well, before I get too carried away, let me mention that Americans are neither the only nor the biggest offenders of the work-before-life mindset with the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Poland, and Korea also working the same hours that we do each year — or more. In fact, Korean workers clock 600 more hours each year than employees in the United States. Therefore, it is not surprising that both Korea and the United States, incidentally, never make it onto the Forbes list of countries with the happiest citizens. The countries that consistently do — Denmark, Finland, and the Netherlands — are those countries with either the shortest work year or among the shortest.
But less work is not always an indicator of happiness in and of itself, as any unemployed person can tell you. So where are we then? We know that we want to be somewhere on the employment spectrum between unemployed and overworked. What is the missing link? The answer: freedom.
Ironically, in a country like America, where freedom is a word that resonates so strongly with its citizens, freedom is the very thing lacking in the 9-to-5 lifestyle. The big, unattainable dream for most of us is having the freedom to enjoy more time away from work to pursue leisure activities without jeopardizing our employment. Certainly we Americans are jealous of our European counterparts who are well-known for long and leisurely periods of vacation that can total as much as six-weeks beyond our own vacation allotments. To us, that amount of vacation time seems beyond our imagination; instead, we trudge along and await our six days of at-will vacation leave each year.
In fact, America is what one study called a “no-vacation nation” relative to the rest of the world because ours is the only advanced economy that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation. European countries establish legal rights to at least 20 days of paid vacation per year, with legal requirement of 25 and even 30 or more days in some countries. The gap between paid time off in the United States and the rest of the world is even larger if we include legally mandated paid holidays, where the United States offers none, but most other industrialized countries offer between 5 and 13 paid holidays yearly. In the absence of government mandates, almost one in four Americans have no paid vacation and no paid holidays.
It seems we have a much different opinion about taking time off than many other countries in the world. Perhaps the American approach harkens back to the Industrial Revolution, but whatever the origin we are certainly behind the curve. In fact, we’re off the charts. American workers are not legally guaranteed any paid vacation by law, unlike nearly every other modern economy on Earth. Zero. Despite the fact that our quality of life is most certainly connected with this coveted time off because it allows us the opportunity to pursue our interests, strengthen social bonds with our family and friends, and focus on personal development and identity formation separate from our work.
Somehow we Americans fit all of these activities into our six days of vacation a year. Or do we? As a nation we are most certainly not awash in happiness according to any number of polls and studies. The reasons are varied and complex, but one of the key factors to happiness that we so obviously lack in our 9-to-5 lifestyle is this freedom, or personal control, that leads to empowerment, which results in better coping skills and living more happily overall.
Are you thinking to yourself, “But what is the alternative? After all I do have to pay my bills and taking time off in these lean economic times seems ridiculous, right?” And to that I say, “Thank you for asking!” The alternative to your current 9-to-5 reality is deliberately designing your lifestyle, beginning with customized work weeks that ultimately create a made-to-order work year. Would you like more than nine months off during the course of your lifetime? Of course you would! OK then, how much exactly? What is the magic number? What number would make you feel free? What number would make you feel wealthy, rich with time? I urge you to give this issue some serious thought because ultimately that is the time you allot to really “live” your life.
I’m not talking about working a few hours a week and becoming a millionaire. Instead I’m referring to Patchworking, which is a proven employment strategy for designing a freelancing career that allows you to decide when, where, and how you work. It’s a career lifestyle that respects the bigger picture — your life — based on the idea that working for a number of employers simultaneously presents unique business opportunities.
Contrary to popular belief, an organization can live without an employee for periods of time, and the employee can enjoy job security in the interim if the expectations are clearly defined from the beginning. You may be thinking this scenario is impossible for the average person, but let me be the first to tell you that the idea simply circles back to the fundamental concept that is so troubling for the myopic masses. The question about taking time off is not, “Can you do it?” but instead, “What is holding you back from it?”
The answer for most people is twofold: time and money, which can both be yours in abundance by employing an entrepreneurial career model I call The Patchwork Principle. It’s easy, lucrative, practical and can be applied to your everyday life — immediately. I speak from experience; I am a Patchworker — someone who selectively accepts work based on lifestyle factors and decisions — and have been for many years. Change your focus away from the merely surviving; bring the big picture back into focus with Patchworking — start thriving!
[Editor’s Note: Besides using Kristen’s book, The 9-to-5 Cure, we also recommend the Job and Career Resources for Consultants, Freelancers, and Gurus section of Quintessential Careers.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
This article is part of Job Action Day 2010.
Kristin Cardinale, Ph.D. is the author of The 9-to-5 Cure: Work on Your Own Terms and Reinvent Your Life. She is an optimist, columnist, career coach, consultant, technology instructor, adjunct college professor, seminar speaker, owner of a small technical-support business and serial entrepreneur; she is a bone fide Patchworker. Follow her on Twitter @WorkOnPurpose or visit her Website.