The Cliff’s Edge
Think back to a time you stood at the edge of a cliff, whether real or metaphorical. A moment when your life was behind you, and the only thing in front was a lot of very thin air. And a high, cold wind that tugged at you unexpectedly, leaving you dancing and waving your arms. Scary, yes?
But was it fun? Did you feel as if a heavy backpack had fallen away so you stood straighter? Did the prospect of diving off – not falling, but diving – sweep away the cobwebs and leave you trembling with expectation? Didn’t the fatal edge hold a strange attraction? Wasn’t it fun to be at risk, to imagine putting it all at risk? Isn’t this why the Grand Canyon gets so many visitors?
The Cookie’s Crumbles
I was over the edge before I knew there was a cliff. My nearly 30-year career as an academic researcher, culminating in a tenure-track faculty position, ended in seconds in a brief-but-pointed meeting with my estranged boss. No chance of appeal (though I tried), no helpful rope thrown to swing me down to a lower ledge. I was already falling by the time I realized there was an edge.
It was a long way down, but a short fall. Strangely, it was also fun. One advantage of academic positions is that they can’t simply show you the door. I had a full year to wrap up my affairs, and being one of the walking dead was very liberating. I had one of my favorite meetings of all time with my estranged boss, full of humor and completely positive and upbeat. The poor man had no idea what hit him. I know he expected me to rant and rave, but instead I could reflect on all the ways we had done good things together (we’d worked together for almost 20 years). I walked out whistling. The looks on his face had been priceless.
I certainly couldn’t feel the backpack filled with stones I’d been carrying around. I was in free fall. I hit hard when the last day came rolling around, but walking out the door of a place where so much good had developed, so many mistakes made, so much stress suffered, and so many dreams realized (and shattered) really felt like flying. I left the backpack on the threshold and almost drifted away on the breeze.
Fun at the Bottom
Putting my life together afterwards has been fun – as well as stressful, disappointing, depressing, and exhilarating. I’ve made a serious study, much more serious than any of my academic researches, on why my work hadn’t been much fun, and what it would take to keep it fun. Fun as in fun work, not a staff party at work.
Much of what I’ve discovered – some from the literature (I especially recommend Csikezentmihalyi’s Flow and Fried & Hansson’s Rework for the beginning student of fun), some from observation, and the rest from my own research and practice – highlights preparation. Contrary to what we might expect from parties, vacations, and screwing around, fun work requires careful preparation and is rarely spontaneous. Fun work comes out of expertise, inspired management, carefully designed systems, and lovingly nurtured teams. It is also often spontaneous and creative and playful, but these qualities don’t arise from the dust.
It took a fall to shake me out of my difficult and mostly unfun career and allow me to focus on what really matters in my work. I can’t say I’d recommend it as a method for reorganizing your life, if only because of the economic uncertainty, but I wouldn’t go back to my old life. Better to be at the bottom with a clear vision of your goals than be lost at the top. Cliffs are everywhere, and often the edges crumble further back than you’d expect.
Walk with care – or run forward full tilt. Either way, I offer you these conclusions from my own descent: Fun work is your best work. Fun is the best measure of your work. And fun is what makes success feel like success. So, whether warily or carefully . . . make it fun.