My dad likes to rank things in terms of points – each day on a scale of 1 (blizzard) to 5 (beautiful), summing the whole year for an “enjoyment index”; each aspect of life quality summing to an index; etc. I’m not as much of a points person, but I will admit that such a system can sometimes be useful.
I didn’t have a good idea what would be next as I finished up my Ph.D. at Oregon State – I only knew that I wanted to do something different, something outdoors, and something that produced a real product of value to others. Thanks to housemate Helen and an unexpected short staffing at a critical time, I found myself hired by Wild Garden Seed – a small seed company associated with Gathering Together Farm, the largest organic farm in our neighborhood. We had our first seed harvest last week, and it was satisfying to see the crop we carefully weeded and tended get threshed, sieved, and purified into a hundred pounds of beautiful, valuable, vivacious seed. I feel much happier doing this than in much of my time at OSU, and it is time to revisit the 17 criteria.
Exactly five years ago in June 2009, I wrote a post musing on my life trajectory post-Carleton, my current situation, and an ideal situation based on 17 criteria of central importance to me. I missed a few things – most notably the desire to have a life partner and the various dimensions that partnership has added to my experience – but I still feel that the 17 criteria resonate as true for me, and though they are not all of equal weight some value may come from a points comparison. Here we go, with each one ranked from 0-10…
#1: Low-stress/non-competitive. I have had enough of stress and competition in school and college. I am tired of having to prove myself in order to get recognition/admission/grant money/etc.
2009: 4 (flexible schedule but uncertain expectations, need to get grants for research funding, pressure to publish, etc.)
2014: 10 (work stays at work, seed crew is a collaborative, pressure-free experience)
#2: Discrete, reasonable time requirements. The work cannot require an unreasonable time commitment such that I am unable to lead a balanced, somewhat self-sufficient life. Ideally it will be structured such that there is a clear delineation between work time and my own time, so that I do not feel pressured to work during my own time.
2009: 5 (plenty of free time with flexible schedule, but absence of structure meant that work/school time was not clearly separated from my time)
2014: 10 (regular work schedule, 40 hrs/week, reasonable hours and break times)
#3: Environmental benefit. I will absolutely not work in a position that is harming the planet, and anything I do needs to make a noticeable difference in regard to improving the natural environment or our relation to our environment, ideally both.
2009: 6 (clear environmental benefit to end goal, but lots of fossil energy used to get there and low likelihood of attaining the goal as became clearer with time)
2014: 7 (producing open-pollinated seed for organic farming, of clear benefit to sustainable food systems but not addressing the fossil fuel problem – our farm burns plenty of oil)
#4: Tangible product. I need to be able to see what I have done, at least some of the time. This rules out positions that produce only ideas or involve transfer of abstractions (e.g. banking). My Arb guide was perhaps my best example of this, and I thoroughly enjoyed that project.
2009: 1 (no commercially viable end product likely, DNA and cyanobacteria are invisible without a microscope so day-to-day progress is not tangibly satisfying)
2014: 8 (very satisfying to see the seed at the end of the season and to hear feedback from those who buy and grow it; only thing better would be to be producing my own product from my own creativity rather than working for someone else’s business; my fledgeling mead operation could fulfill this desire eventually)
#5. Permanent or first-time product. I do not enjoy fighting entropy. Of course some maintenance is always necessary, but I do not want the majority of my work to be renewing something old that must be renewed on a regular basis (e.g. road construction). There is no creativity in that.
2009: 8 (working on cutting edge research; only drawback that an actual product was too far off and not guaranteed)
2014: 5 (each year is different, and we’re constantly developing new varieties; however a fair proportion of the operation involves growing the same varieties year after year)
#6. Not in a category. I do not want to fill a position that places me in a grouping of more-or-less interchangeable people all doing the same thing. This criterion alone rules out ~90% of available work. Basically this means I do not want to work for someone who hires me to do a specific thing, and who could hire anyone else with a similar skill set to do the same thing.
2009: 10 (only a few labs in the world working on similar projects; work is unique among friends, community, and family; work is self-chosen and self-directed)
2014: 7 (work is not particularly specialized, but “organic seed grower” is a much less common category than “farmer”, and the boss values all of the employees as individuals rather than bodies getting the job done)
#7. Variety. This means either a variety of tasks or discrete projects, or perhaps the same task applied to situations sufficiently different. At least some of the variety must be unpredictable. A good way of ensuring unpredictable variety is to work outdoors part of the time, since the weather is ever-variable and provides interest to even the most repetitive work. There is way too much repetitive labor in this world. This includes, among my experiences, vegetation surveys and mint-packing.
2009: 4 (variety of tasks involved in project, but work environment – lab, library, office – remains constant with very little unpredictable variability to respond to)
2014: 7 (outdoor work introduces weather variability and interaction with nature – birds nesting in the field, unexpected insects, etc. – and work changes dramatically through the season, but pulling bindweed and thistle can get pretty repetitive)
#8. Community. The environment in which I work should be brought together by common interest and managed as a collaboration between all involved. No bosses. No employees. At least not in the normal sense. No hiring people simply because they possess a skill set. Certainly different people will bring different skill sets, but the understanding must be that everyone has the capacity to be creative and to think for themselves. Ideally, financial compensation will be equal for all or at least based on a criterion (such as seniority) that does not value one type of work more than another. An ideal situation might be an intentional community united around a common goal.
2009: 1 (essentially no community or regular human interaction in the lab)
2014: 8 (traditional hierarchy – boss, manager, employees – still exists but in many cases the seed crew functions as a team of equals, with plenty of meaningful social interaction and connection during breaks and while hoeing adjacent rows; coworkers have quickly become good friends)
9. Fair compensation for a meaningful contribution. I am rather tired of being poor. My needs have always been met, so I have been happy with little money, but I would like to be able to afford my own home and reliable, green equipment and appliances. I would also like a little extra to set up a zero-impact energy system based on solar panels, batteries, and possibly hydrogen storage. That all takes money. I see money as society’s payment to me for my services for society. Therefore my services must be valuable enough to others that they feel satisfied paying me and do not feel that they are overcharged. This means not being paid out of tax money (not working for the government or off of government-supported science grants) and contributing something to society that others find valuable and are willing to pay for.
2009: 3 (relatively low stipend as a grad student, derived from taxpayer money rather than payment for goods or services)
2014: 4 (payment is from sales of a valued product, but pay is less; this is institutionalized across farming due to a societal mechanization and undervaluing of food systems that will prove challenging to change)
#10. Non-repetitive travel. There is very little that I enjoy more than plotting out a course to new territory and setting out to find it. I also enjoy having a firm connection to a “home,” so I don’t want to be always on the road. But I would like it if my life’s work regularly took me to new and unfamiliar places, perhaps to teach something, to demonstrate or install something (alternative energy device?), or to collect data on something (not as good since I am not contributing).
2009: 3 (no travel as part of the work, but I did make it to Sweden and Montreal for conferences)
2014: 2 (no travel so far two months in, but I imagine there will be some conference or outreach travel opportunities)
#11. Intellectual challenge. I enjoy thinking about problems and finding novel or optimal ways to solve them. This needs to be balanced with hands-on work, so that I am not over-working my mind. School and jobs related to school (e.g. professorships) provide intellectual challenge but without appropriate balance.
2009: 7 (plenty of things to think about, projects to plan, experiments to design, data analyses to optimize, but far out of balance with the hands-on aspect)
2014: 4 (mostly hands-on, but some intellect in planning bed space, prioritizing work, and keeping ahead of the weather)
#12. Outdoor work opportunity. I will not take a job that involves working in an office/lab/factory/other building all day every day. I have worked jobs that are outdoors all the time, and while I can do that I would prefer a balance. If the work is mainly indoors, it should at least have frequent opportunities to step outside to maintain a sense of connection to the changes in the weather and the cycles of nature.
2009: 0 (no outdoor aspect to work)
2014: 9 (all outdoors all summer so limited balance, though work moves indoors in the winter months)
#13. No cities. I am not a fan of unnaturally large groupings of people, and I like to have my personal living space to garden, have bonfires, watch the stars, etc. Working in a town or city is fine so long as I can get there from my home in a reasonable amount of time (half hour or less ideally), and my home is in a rural or semi-rural setting.
2009: 7 (outside of city limits on an acre but neighbors too close for my liking and too much light/noise pollution)
2014: 8 (farther from town on 25 acres, dark and quiet and in the woods; still renting and limited open garden space)
#14. Progressive, environmentally-aware, spiritual culture. I would like to live among others with similar ideas and lifestyles, in a community based on sustainability, trust and mutual respect. This could be an island within a predominantly different culture (e.g. a neighborhood or intentional community), but ideally it will be a larger community. The presence of others with similar spiritual beliefs would be a big plus, and open minds are a necessity. There are a number of such communities across the U.S. Many are in big cities where I would not choose to live, but there are quite a few small, progressive towns with farmers’ markets, hippie-types, contra dances, community choirs/opportunities to make music together, bike commuters, etc. The first ones that come to mind are Asheville (NC), Ithaca (NY), Boulder (CO), Eugene/Corvallis (OR), Bloomington (IN), and Santa Cruz (CA). There are probably many more, including some small ones like Crested Butte (CO). I suspect that more places will fit in this category as society moves in this direction (hopefully), but for now I am attracted to such places.
2009: 6 (limited connection to others with similar spirituality, good community culture, too much dissonance within my household, no life partner)
2014: 8 (harmonious living community, engaged to wonderful partner of 3 1/2 years, still part of same larger community but with more connection to others through my work, still limited connection to others with similar spirituality)
#15. No oppressive heat. I do not enjoy being outdoors in 90+ degree weather. Folks in southern climes survive by living in air conditioned habitats. I would rather not do that. A few hot days are OK. Phoenix is not. I would prefer a climate without long winters devoid of life, but that is not a deal-breaker. I still have a love for the experience of deep cold and windblown snow.
2009: 9 (very few oppressively hot days in Corvallis)
2014: 9 (still living in the same climate)
#16. Rain. I need to be surrounded by living things, and to be able to grow things. I enjoy visiting deserts but not living in them.
2009: 8 (plenty of rain but almost none during the growing season so irrigation required, vegetation becomes dry and crispy)
2014: 8 (still in the same climate)
#17. Wilderness/natural areas nearby. I need to be able to set out alone to undisturbed lands with no people, in order to reaffirm my connection to nature and to the energies of this planet. That is, some would say, my version of going to church.
2009: 5 (Marys Peak and other areas nearby, but other people at these sites and none within walking distance)
2014: 9 (Natural woodland with native plants, birds, and a spring-fed stream behind our house; docked slightly due to recent logging disturbance but still an opportunity for my energy to spread out unaffected by others and connect with the land)
And the totals are (out of 170):
2009: 52 (work) + 35 (living) = 87
2014: 81 (work) + 42 (living) = 123
All of which is a fancy, arbitrary, numerical way of saying that I’m happier now with my current job and living situation than I was as a grad student in my previous household. It will be interesting to see where I am at in another five years…