The Side Hustle

My side hustle is teaching a class each semester in the College of Business at Cal State San Marcos. I teach a course in organizational behavior for non-management majors. I do it because I love to teach. I do it because the energy of working with aspirational students is addictive and fulfilling. I do it because it makes me a better professional in my day job which in turn makes me a better teacher for my students, which in turn…well, you get the point.

For me, the side hustle has become an essential piece of my overall professional experience. It provides a perspective, an alternate point of view that allows me to see my work with fresh eyes.

The side hustle, I am learning, is much more common than I realized. As these diverse endeavors come up in conversation, I am struck by the shy smile that emerges as well as the actual twinkle in the eye. And while I know that many, many people have a side gig for the supplemental income, most of the people I talk to are doing it to satisfy a personal passion.

When I see that telltale expression of mischievous glee, I can’t help but ask: “what is it about your ‘9-to-5’ job that is not providing the opportunity to pursue that passion?” And then I wonder, what might happen, and I emphasize might, if that passion was known by the person’s team leader and the two of them talked openly and expansively about how their current job might be adapted to satisfy it?

What happens so often – why engagement at work persistently hovers around 30% – is that employees leave their passion at home because they either don’t associate “work” as a place where it belongs or their present employer fails to create an environment where passion, even seemingly unrelated passion, it is welcomed and cultivated.

I truly love that we live at a time when traditional ideas and modes of work have been upended. And I truly love and admire that special brand of person who will always have another iron in the fire, always driving to create and express outside the lines of typical employment.

The truth, however, is that most people continue to work within the circumstances and conditions we define as “normal.” They go to an office, put in their time and return home at the end of an 8-hour day. If this huge population of employees is not expected, much less encouraged, to explore and express their passions within those four walls, that organization will always go hungry for the creative energy that is just beyond its grasp.


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The Paradox of Freedom

The things that free you also bind you.

It is a sad cliché that the prisoner, finally freed after years of confinement, has a difficult time adjusting to his new reality. In the face of so many possibilities – so many necessary daily choices and responsibilities – a highly routinized lifestyle dictated by someone else’s agenda could become impossible to live without. Certainly there are days or even just situations where you would much rather have someone else decide. The responsibility of freedom can be exhausting.

I think back on my transition out of corporate life and into the new life of a small business owner and I am reminded of Karen Horney’s (1945) psychological construct that each of us tends to cope with our basic anxiety along one of three dimensions: moving towards people (compliance), moving against them (aggression) or moving away from them (withdrawal). While each approach is available to us, it is our natural tendency to default to one of these primary coping mechanisms.

My default position for anxiety management has long been withdrawal. Frustrated by the demands of compliance and afraid of the consequences of conflict I would simply disappear, my aggression dissipated passively on those who were least deserving of it! Back to the career change, I recall so many people expressing to me how much sense it made that I was finally going to “do my own thing.” I buoyed myself, as I entered a new unknown, with their casual confidence and borrowed as much of it as I could. Looking back on the bumpiness of that first year – a particular and predictable set of anxious feelings – I recognize that the root of the challenge in my transition to a new life of “freedom” was that I was operating from the stress of reactivity rather than the stress of possibility.

As “right” as the change was on its face, it was also another excellent example of my tendency to “move away.” Initially, I made the move in order to get away from a particular set of circumstances rather than to manifest those of my own intention. It was no surprise then that I did not think of myself as a small business owner because to do so requires clarity of purpose, vision and direction. With the gift of space and time, and with the learning that comes from even incremental progress, that definition eventually emerged and I began to operate not from the insecurity of anxiousness (reactively) but from the confidence of determination (proactively).

I don’t think it’s possible to eradicate my default reaction to stress but I do think it’s possible to become deeply educated about my tendency and to stay open to new ways of orienting to the world. As comforting as it may sometimes be to take refuge there, it is imperative that we acknowledge, finally, that the prison cell we have created is not locked, and it never was.



A post script
: What do you notice about your style under stress? Do you disappear? Do you agitate and express frustration? Do you fall into line to diminish the feelings of uncertainty? The opportunity to become your own authority – to more effectively contend with life’s anxieties – exists in your willingness to, (1) identify the pattern and (2) free yourself to choose a new approach in the moment. 


 

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Stuck

When I woke up this morning, I couldn’t find the dog.

Rita usually sleeps in our room, upstairs, but will just as likely be found on the landing or, given the warmer summer evenings, downstairs by the couch.

This morning, she was in none of her usual spots, which is when I remembered something that happened earlier this summer.

My son, home from college, works an evening shift most nights and gets home after 11:00. Rita is not one to miss the chance to hang out with a non-sleeping person so she keeps him company until his much later bedtime, sometimes in the family room and sometimes in his bedroom. One night, forgetting she was in there, or perhaps thinking she wanted to stay, he shut his door and went to sleep. When I couldn’t find her the next morning I finally popped his door open to find her sitting there quietly, both hopeful and resigned.

Again, this morning, there she sat. And once released from the confines of Duncan’s bedroom, she headed straight outside for a much-needed breath of fresh air, among other needs.

Hopeful and resigned, she didn’t whine or bark. She made the best of it, sitting and waiting for her chance to get out, dependent on someone else to take action to change her circumstances.

I admire her patience, but it’s her resignation that makes me uncomfortable, a reminder of the ways I allow myself to stay stuck in “good enough” when just one small action would open the door to an even better way to live.


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Whole People / Whole Lives

The Uses of Sorrow | Mary Oliver

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.


One of the gifts of a long relationship, in this case I am thinking of my 24 years of marriage but other, even longer friendships also come to mind, is that you learn how to stand with others in both the dark and the light.

As I think about this gift of learning to accept and be present to the fullness and wholeness of life – as opposed to just the summery, shimmery goodness of it – I think about my client organizations and all of the workplaces I have been privileged to be a part of through the years.

And I recognize that some places, some leaders, understand and embrace this wholeness much more truthfully and comfortably than others. That is to say, they acknowledge, accept and expect that whole people with whole lives walk through the front door every day. Those whole lives consist, of course, of pain and loss and fear and uncertainty just as much – and sometimes even more – than they consist of joy and openness and possibility and achievement.

This is obvious to us when we stop and think about it, obvious when the words are typed onto the page. But in the moment, in workplaces that are so often curated to be POSITIVE and CREATIVE and to achieve SUCCESS, it is too easy to forget. It is too easy to send the message – out of our own discomfort with other’s pain – that those less popular feelings of suffering and loss are to be left at home or in the parking lot. It is too easy to send the message that those feelings, the feelings of whole and full human lives, are not welcome under the bright lights of the workplace.

We might begin to counteract this by simply saying to ourselves, as we drive to work each day, or as we stride across the threshold: Whole people with whole lives are here today, including myself.


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Into Deep Water

Each one of us has a net in which we capture an understanding of ourselves. That net is strong, it can hold a lot. And testing that strength scares us so we don’t do it very often, if ever. Instead, we keep tossing our net in the shallow end of our experience, catching and re-catching what we have long known about ourselves, hoping that this time the limitations of our understanding won’t hold us back, won’t prevent us from getting closer to our heart’s desire.

Put out into deep water. Go to the depths that frighten you. Find there, in the shadowy darkness of the water a revelation of who you are. Only then will you be equipped to determine what serves you and what must be thrown back. 

Each one of us has a net in which we gather the collective force of our connection to others. That net is strong, it can hold a lot. And testing that strength scares us so we don’t do it very often, if ever. Instead, we keep tossing our net on the surface of our experience, keeping our relationships at a safe distance, rarely risking bringing them closer and almost never including someone new. We falsely believe that this distance protects us, reducing the risk of being known for who we truly are.

Put out into deep water. Go to the depths that frighten you. Find there, in the shadowy darkness of the water a revelation of who loves you, just as you are. Only then will you be equipped to close the difficult distance between the fear of loss and the exponential truth of full relationship.  

Each one of us has a net in which we collect all the learning of our adult life. That net is strong, it can hold a lot. And testing that strength scares us so we don’t do so very often, if ever. Instead, we toss our net in the shallow waters of what is known, comforted by the embrace of the status quo, keeping a wide territory between us and the edge of the new with its persistent threat of exposure, embarrassment and failure.

Put out into deep water. Go to the depths that frighten you. Find there, in the shadowy darkness of the water a revelation of new learning. Only then will you be equipped to say “I am, and always have been a beginner.” 

Each one of us has a net. It is large and strong. It works fine along the shore but it is built for deeper water.

Only you can throw it there.


For Dear Life

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”

– James Baldwin


Yes, we cling to our hates.

We also cling to arrogance and selfishness.

We cling to certainty and control.

We cling to unhealthy appetites.

We cling to external validation and extrinsic rewards.

All because it is so frightening, so difficult to confront our pain.

And what I have seen, what I have witnessed, is that on the other side of that great divide lies a freedom, a lightness and a compassion that is all-surpassing and all-encompassing.

Do you remember when Indiana Jones walks across the invisible stone bridge? He has to believe it’s there before he knows it’s there.

And so it is with getting to the other side of pain.


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Set Them Free

The small man
Builds cages for everyone
He
Knows.
While the sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
For the
Beautiful
Rowdy
Prisoners.

~ Hafiz


Today, will you build more cages or drop more keys?

The “small” leader needs to control because he feels out of control. He is small because he does not trust himself which means he cannot trust others. He is small because change frightens him, imagination freezes him, possibility unnerves him. He is small because what he cannot imagine for himself he must disallow for others.

The “sage” is a towering figure not because of stature but because of presence. His equanimity comes from learning to see control as an easy, costly fantasy. He trusts himself because he knows himself; he has done the work. And by doing the work he has developed the capacity to accept the unfinished in others. He is unfinished as well.

The sage welcomes change, because it is inevitable. Imagination is his wellspring of possibility, energizing both mind and heart. He knows that he is a catalyst for the emergence of these qualities in others.

Their rowdiness does not unsettle him; it’s what makes them beautiful. And he takes seriously his responsibility to unlock it because otherwise it will die.

The sage is the very best of who we can be.


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Start Within

“…the most fundamental thing about leadership is to have the humility to continue to get feedback and to try to get better – because your job is to try to help everybody else get better.”

Jim Yong Kim
President, The World Bank


There is no team member, and certainly no team, who will surpass the commitment to learning and development that is established by their leader. If you are frustrated by the lack of growth, or the lack of commitment to growth, being demonstrated by your team, you must first look at yourself.

The act of learning in organizational life, and the feedback required to enable it, depends totally on the environment created by the leader, one in which he or she demonstrates a personal, living commitment to continuous learning. If there is a “secret sauce” to effective leadership, this is it.

Today, the onus on leaders is to start within, focusing first on their own improvement as a continuous exercise of genuine humility. This practice of humility creates a space for a deeper empathetic sensibility that can then be applied to the leader’s team.

When feedback comes from that place it demonstrates a universal commitment to getting better (We are all in this together!) while also reenforcing the most basic truth of leadership, that leaders go first.

If you are not willing to go first, you are not a leader. If you are not willing to learn continuously, grow continuously, question your personal status quo continuously, you are not a leader.

Once you do so, however, it changes everything. You will no longer dread the discomfort of providing feedback to your team but will instead relish the opportunity to be a catalyst for their growth. Once you normalize a persistent and consistent approach to learning for yourself, you will normalize it for them as well.

As ever, leaders go first.


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Do you still get nervous?

I’ve been performing or presenting in some form or fashion since I was 14 years old. In choirs, as a soloist, a trainer, facilitator, or speaker, I’ve been getting “on stage” for 35 years now. Once I while I’m asked, “Do you still get nervous?”

My answer is always “Yes” and that answer is often met with a look of confusion. Like, how can you have been doing this kind of thing for as long as you have and still feel nervous about it?

What I found myself explaining most recently is what I think of as the difference between functional and dysfunctional nervousness.

My functional nervousness is a result of an energy surge that comes from having an opportunity to do something I care deeply about – be it speaking or singing – and my desire to do the very best job I can possibly do. That nervous energy reminds me that I care and I would be very concerned not to feel it in the moments leading up to the experience.

Dysfunctional nervousness on the other hand, comes from a lack of passion (I’m doing this even though I don’t want to and I hope they don’t notice), a lack of preparation or a lack of experience, and possibly a combination of all three.

Dysfunctional nervousness is the type that induces fear and the very real desire to run away as fast and as far as possible.

My recommendation for moving from dysfunctional or debilitating nervousness to functional or energizing nervousness is to do the following:

  1. Whatever it is, don’t go through the motions. Find your personal passion in the material and deliver it from there. If you can’t find that, what are you even doing there?
  2. Don’t wing it. Do your homework and be prepared. That way, you can put your attention on your audience – who very much want you to succeed – and create an environment of generous, reciprocal positive energy.
  3. Get more at bats. Say “yes” to more opportunities. There is no better teacher than experience and if you really want to feel functional nervousness you’re going to have to go out and find/create the opportunities to do so.

Not only does my being functionally nervous remind me that I care, it reminds that I am alive. That aliveness – that energized and activated presence – is the greatest gift you can give to those who have come to listen.


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