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Labor Day Meditation

Labor Day Meditation
Labor Day Meditation

    Today is Labor Day in the United States. A product of the labor movement, Labor Day was established in 1882 (it became a federal holiday in 1894) as a day to celebrate and acknowledge the achievements of American workers — though you’d hardly know it from the drunken barbeques and (non-drunken) white sales that are our preferred means of celebrating the day today. Achievements like the 8-hour workday, child labor laws, paid vacation, health benefits, workplace safety laws, and the right to collectively bargain with employers (who have always collectively managed).

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    In the last few decades, a lot of American labor’s accomplishments have been eroded, some as a result of government deregulation, but possibly more as a consequence of changing market relations, the exportation of most production overseas, and a change in attitude by Americans towards organized labor itself. You’d be hard-pressed today to find an American who works 40 hours; most studies peg the average American work-week at around 55 hours. At the bottom of the economic ladder, many Americans work two jobs to make ends meet; at the top a new crop of “knowledge workers” puts in longer and longer hours to meet the demands of their jobs. Workers at the most attractive companies crow about the amenities — gyms, gourmet cafeterias, video games, dry cleaners, and so on — that make it almost possible for them not to leave work at all.

    With work hours growing longer and productivity skyrocketing (American productivity has more than doubled in the last two decades) you’d think we’d be living pretty high on the metaphorical hog, but the reality is that American wages have been more or less unchanged for decades, and sit at levels far below those of other “developed” nations. Because of rising housing costs, gas prices, and other expenses, even 6-figure professionals are living paycheck-to-paycheck (if they’re not financing their lifestyles with charge cards and high-interest second mortgages).

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    The upshot is, a lot of Americans (and other folks, though the rest of you have wisely decided to celebrate your labor days in the springtime) are turning every which way, sometimes all at once, tying to keep their heads on straight. The rise over the last couple years of blogs and other websites dedicated to personal productivity, time management, and organization testifies directly to the ever-shrinking gap between the amount of work we have and the number of hours we have to do it in — if we’re not already at negative figures. More and more of our business literature reads like self-help; actually, much of it is self-help, because the biggest challenge facing working people these days are primarily psychological: too much work, too little personal space, too much pressure, too little security, too much going out, not enough coming in.

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    So, this Labor Day, I wanted to step back and take a look at some of the bigger principles that inform most of the work we do here at lifehack.org, accompanied by the dozens if not hundreds of other writers that make up the “lifehack-oriented” web. Sort of a “50,000 foot” view of things, to borrow from David Allen’s Getting Things Done. These aren’t hacks, per se, but the ends that the tips, advice, and simple hacks we present here are aimed at achieving.

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    • Work-Life Balance: Today’s workers struggle to find time for family, personal health and fitness, education, hobbies, and other interests, and employers are by and large unmoved by such concerns. Worrying too much about non-work matters has come to be seen as frivolous, undedicated, even disloyal, a fact illustrated by the results of a recent study that found only a tiny percentage of North Americans (USAnians and Canadians) take even the meager two weeks paid vacation most employers allow. Even sick time goes unused in most instances, as employees fear appearing selfish or uncommitted to their work. The lack of time to physically and mentally recuperate leaves us unhappy, burnt out, and subject to further (and likely greater) illness. Finding a healthy balance between our working selves and our personal selves has become a crucial concern for working people, whatever their field.
    • Goals: Closely related to work-life balance is the need to establish goals for ourselves, both as workers and as individuals. Unfortunately, work itself has become many people’s only goal, with no consideration of what we hope working to make possible for us. Since many paychecks leave so little left over after bills, groceries, clothing, gas, and incidental expenses are taken care of, it can come quite easily to seem like we work to make enough to stay alive so we can keep working. Without clear goals, we are left with no yardstick against which to measure our work, or any other activities. It’s no wonder that the treadmill has come to be the preferred metaphor for describing our lives.
    • Personal Space: Our forebears in the labor movement worked hard to make clear separations between our working lives and our personal lives. Today, working at or from home is one of the fastest-growing trends, and technologies like cell phones, mobile email platforms like Blackberries, email, and cheap broadband have made it possible — and often necessary — for workers to be “always on call”. It is not uncommon for people’s homes to become not a refuge from work but an extension of it. How we erect boundaries and delineate spaces that are “just for me”, and what we do with such spaces when (if?) we construct them, is a central worry for many of us.
    • Personal Development: Most of us would like to be better people. For some that means pursuing an education, for others that means taking part in a religious community, for still others that means being more reliable parents and caretakers. For many of us, though, finding the time, money, and resources to commit to our personal growth is an overwhelming challenge. The rise of “quick-fix” solutions — anti-depressants, cosmetic surgery, diet pills, fast-track educational programs, self-help books, get-rich-quick schemes, one-day workshops, and 1-hour DVDs that promise to tell all the secrets of life — offers us something that feels like personal development without straining our budget or our schedules.
    • The Cure for “Consumeritis”: Under the pressure of increased working hours, weakened family ties, and limited opportunities for growth, we find ourselves investing more and more of our identities in the things we can buy. Karl Marx, who knew a thing or two about working lives, regardless of what you think of his politics, wrote that workers who invest ever-increasing portions of their identities in the things they produce for someone else’s profit turn to consumerism in a vain attempt to recapture the pieces of themselves they’ve lost. It’s not surprising that self-storage is one of the US’s fastest-growing businesses. Many of us have found the rewards of consumption and accumulation to be empty and unfulfilling, and seek ways to divorce ourselves from the never-ending cycle of buying, displaying, and ultimately storing or discarding objects of questionable value, and have begun to seek out ways of minimizing the role of consumption in our lives. Finding alternatives, however, is not always easy.
    • Meaningfulness: We want to be more engaged with our communities and the social problems that face them, we want to develop our talents, and we want to reach out to those around us in more meaningful ways. Yet we find that we are increasingly isolated from our neighbors and fearful of the communities in which our children go to school. We distrust both the businesses we patronize and the government that is supposed to protect us. Although some lucky few manage to build careers around their callings, for most of us — especially those with families to support — this simply is not possible. So how else can we cultivate meaningfulness in our lives, and how can we share it with others?

    These are some of the thoughts and questions I’ve come up with on this Labor Day. Not everyone will share these concerns, of course; there are many who have found their own answers to these concerns and are actively pursuing lives that they find rich and fulfilling. Others will have concerns of their own that trump these — just putting food on the table is, alas, a daily struggle in millions of American households, and the failure to do so is felt far more keenly than the lack of personal space or educational opportunities. But I like to think that, in this time of almost obscene plenty, with the total wealth in the US (and the rest of the Western World) growing at rates unheard of in human history, these problems can be overcome and people freed to grow to the limits of their talents and desires. For me, that’s what Labor Day is about, and that’s what lifehack.org and its fellow personal productivity sites are about.

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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