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Farai Chideya: The Episodic Career

About this talk

In her book, The Episodic Career, author and professor Farai Chideya considers how professionals can protect themselves and achieve their personal definition of success in an age of uncertainty. In her 99U talk, Chideya focuses on how creatives in particular can not just survive, but thrive amid disruption.

About Farai Chideya

Farai Chideya has combined media, technology, and socio-political analysis during her 20-year career as an award-winning author, journalist, professor, and lecturer. She is a fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, studying media coverage of the 2016 election. She was, most recently, a Senior Writer covering politics and data at ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight, and a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. She is the author of six books, the most recent of which is 2016’s The Episodic Career: How to Thrive at Work in the Age of Disruption.

With deep knowledge in a variety of disciplines, including the future of work, politics, culture, race, and technology, Chideya frequently appears on public radio and cable television, and has worked for CNN, ABC, and NPR, and appeared on numerous other networks. Chideya is also the former longtime host of National Public Radio’s News & Notes. Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Chideya graduated from Harvard University in 1990. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.


The Episodic Career


Full Transcript


I am so excited to be here today. What I want to talk about is freedom. And I want you to be as comfortable and as present as you can be. So humor me for a moment and if you choose, put one hand on your belly, the other hand on your heart, eyes open or eyes closed just try to breath slowly. And if you want you can do the inhale through the nose and the exhale through the mouth. And thank yourself for being present. Thank yourself for showing up for yourself, for your career, for your creativity. Thank yourself for showing up for the other people you can share what you learn here with. And I thank you for showing up.

So, what I want to talk about today is how to free yourself to be yourself, because when you’re in creative professions, a lot of times there are questions which have been amply talked about by past 99U speakers, some of whom, I wrote down a couple of names last night instead of timing out my speech I was watching some of the presentations. So Yuko Shimizu talked about sort of like the price point to creativity ratio. When do you have control of your own work? And also the virtuous circle that we have when we help other people out in creative professions. Dan Mall talked about apprenticeship and the idea of bringing people along, and Kristy Tillman talked about creativity and justice. And I think all of that fits under the rubric of what I want to talk about today.

So, part of me is, you know, a very experienced very analytical reporter. This is me on election night, with the team at ABC Digital. The guy in the center is Walt Hickey of FiveThirtyEight, which is where I worked for the election. You know, I do global reporting. This is one of my FiveThirtyEight pieces about France. This is me in Mumbai. And I also got a chance in December, after the election, to go to Standing Rock with a team of reporters from Butte America Radio. And it was so cold that literally the skin on the tips of my fingers peeled off after I was doing all of this audio reporting. And this was what I lovingly called ‘the condo’ which was this four-person tent with these structural adjustment made by that plank of wood. And during the blizzard which happened, you’d get condensation that went up to the ceiling so that when it was, when the fire was low, you’d get ice on the top of the tent, and then once you cranked the heat up, then it would precipitate on you. And that’s kind of what happened. But I love adventures.

But part of me also just wants adventures in my personal life. I’m a kayaker. I’m a hiker. I’ve driven across the country twice with my sister, gone once across the country by train. And I’ve been spending time writing a science fiction novel, which may or may not ever be any good. And you know I have a crush on this guy, he seems to have a lot of brothers [LAUGHTER]. So, Oscar Wilde tells us, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” And the question that I’ve had, you know, working this may years in the field of journalism, now doing some academic research at Harvard and MIT on the media and on other topics, it’s like well, who am I? You know, with my mix of passions and my mix of skills. You know, I want to have a goofy side as well as the very serious side. And, I think that we are having a vocational freedom crisis. And this is one little small example of it, which is unused vacation days. In 2015, there were 658 million unused vacation days in this country. 222 million of which were lost because people are afraid to take vacation, or they think they can’t. And this is just people who are fortunate enough to have vacation days. If you work for yourself, but you never give yourself time off, you’re just as bad as the boss who won’t give you time off. Do you know what I mean? So, this is just a small hint that we are anxious, and there are reasons for that, it’s a little sad not to take vacation. But there are reasons to feel cautious about what’s going on. So in this talk I really want to talk a little bit about the economic big picture. Then, get into some strategy, and then some tactics if I don’t totally run out of time, which I think I’ll be good.

So, big picture is that over the past ten years we have just barely gotten back to our pre-Great Recession household income inflation adjusted. Which means we took a huge hit, now we’ve bounced back, we don’t know whether we’re really going higher, leveling out, there’s a lot of differening opinions about that. And, at the same time that we’re anxious about what’s happening with the economy, we can see a lot of problems with equality in the work force. Despite the fact that you know, gender diverse companies are 15% more likely to out-perform ones that are not and ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to out-perform. And yet you see things like the recent Atlantic cover “Why is Silicon Valley so Awful to Women?” because we have not gotten together our ethical game when it comes to crafting diverse work places. And it’s easy to blame you know companies that have major sexual harassment scandals in the newspaper. You know 10, 20, 50 million dollars worth of settlements. But this is a more pernicious and widespread problem and it extends to many different types of identity in the workplace. So, we just have some housekeeping to do.

And I think that to be free, we have to be ethically free. We can’t believe that if we create monocultures and are dismissive of other people, that we are truly free, because it means that we have some baggage that we’re dealing with about how we feel we need to get ahead. There’s also the long-range trend of the labor force participation rate, which is basically what percentage of the population has jobs.  And it’s been declining. And that’s largely due to automation. 85% of job loss is coming from automation. And creative fields are in some ways insulated from some of the automation losses, but not completely. I mean obviously for the sort of more easily mechanized the task, the more easy it is to automate if you’re doing just really root creative work, then that’s harder to automate. But it also depends on what the market wants. And so, one of the things that I want to do is acknowledge that this is a trying time for us. It’s a very fraught time in America and the world generally but the economy is somewhat fraught.

Nonetheless, I really subscribe to the idea that work especially creative work is a calling which one definition of that calling is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need. And you might say “Well, okay, people need doctors, people need clean water, is a creative profession as much of a deep need?” And I would say yes, everything that we know about how human beings live is that creative expression, the arts, architecture, they are vital to human existence. So, what you’re doing is critically important to where we end up as a society. And we should remember that. I had a mid-life crisis and put it between two pieces of cardboard [LAUGHTER] and this is what it was called – The Episodic Career: How to Thrive at Work in the Age of Disruption. Because I was dissatisfied with some of the choices I was making, and I had a career that included what I call many other people’s dream jobs. You know, TV anchor, you know, this that, the other. And some of them I liked and some of them I didn’t but I always felt kind of guilty, I was like “Well, I’m not enjoying this this much” like sometimes I was like “yay!” and other times I was like “This is really prestigious, but I’m not enjoying it. What can I do?” So, I decided to take an analytical approach to look at creativity in jobs, but also frame it within the context of what some people call right livelihood and this is a quote from Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh: “The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self, or it can be a source of suffering for you and others”. And to me what that means is not just “Oh, you work in a dirty industry or a bad industry” It’s like how do you treat people at work? Are you respectful to each other? Are you gentle with each other? So, it’s really about whatever you do bringing a sense of creativity, passion, empathy, vulnerability to what we do.

So, this past weekend, my sister was in town from California. And we happened to go to a spot in Williamsburg called Eclectic Collectibles and Antiques and this is Anthony Torres. He was such fun to talk to. He is someone who grew up in Alphabet City in Williamsburg picking up broken things on the street, taking them back, fixing them and then selling them. And then later he went into construction and had a really successful company. And that company folded, or he shut it down deliberately as profits shrank during the Great Recession. But he has never looked back. He sells things, but he’s also a prop shop for major TV shows filmed in New York like Gotham and Law and Order. This is from his Instagram feed. He and his wife own the store. And Anthony Torres really represents resilience to me, which is one of the strategies for work-life freedom. Which is, as I wrote this book and I interviewed dozens of people for this book and I also did survey research with thousands of people from a very diverse cross-section in America.

So, resiliency is really something: everyone fails, and we have to remember it’s not just iterate, iterate, iterate and do better on a business level. It’s also like what do you do for yourself when you fail? If you feel wounded by the experience of failure, how do you do self-care? And the people who can do self-care, and then pivot are the ones who really do well in this economic environment.

Another one is track changes in your industry and economy. You have to stay on top of what’s happening. I have too many friends who were Front End/Web Developers and as the money started drying up and it became a less special skill they were really floating on you know career driftwood, and had to totally do a hard reboot of their career. But if you pay attention to what’s happening, you can pivot more gracefully.

And then the last part is know yourself. And this is really where I got deep into things in my book with my survey research. Knowing yourself is, I’m going to talk a little bit about sort of purpose driven work. But this is a picture of me on the left, my mom with the fro, my sister and my grandmother. And so, my grandmother among other things, helped de-segregate part of the Social Security Administration. She found out there was some race-based hiring discrimination and she was effectively black-listed for seven years within her office, not given any promotions despite excellent work. And then new leadership came in and she was given a commendation for stepping up for other people. And that’s the example she set. My mother went to college during the Civil Rights era, was very involved in writing letters to the editor that would get her hate mail in response, and then went to Morocco in the Peace Corps and did a series of mission-driven work: hospitals, and then schools. And my sister’s a doctor and a public health person. And so, what I learned from my family was that it was important to have some sense of giving to others and doing mission-driven work. And I’ll explain why that’s important in a second.

So, I came up with four questions that I ran through, again, thousands of people in survey research and that gives sixteen archetypes, which I’m not going to go into. But I just want to give you these questions as things that you can use to think about your own life and what you want. So, one is: are you a risk taker or more cautious? Do you prefer high social impact work? (Which I was just talking about). Are you happier innovating or executing? And do you like making decisions alone or in a team?

And I found out some things that were not surprising, which was like, “CEO’s are more risk-taking”. Then I found out some things that were really surprising, like Americans who work for money were happier than those who were mission-driven. And at first I was like “that can’t be right!” [LAUGHTER] But then I started thinking about it, because like if you know that you want to make a hundred thousand dollars a year, you know when you’re making a hundred thousand dollars a year. But if you want to create the best design template in the world, when do you know that you’ve done that? Like, when you think that you’ve done it? When your co-workers think that you’ve done it? It’s just, people who do mission-driven work, whether it’s creative or other, there’s no finish line So one of the things that I did in reaction to learning this was just to be a little bit more gentle with myself. Like, “Okay you’re a little frustrated by this that or the other, that’s probably partly because you’re a mission-driven person” and also setting finish lines for myself. Like, if your work has no finish line, at least give yourself “Okay, this is a milestone”. Reward yourself, you know, just psychologically.

So, creative people, we’re a little bit worker and a little bit superhero. And this is from the best-selling children’s YA series Hilo by my friend Judd Winick, who is a total amazing father and husband as well as creative person. And he, for many years, did superhero comics like Green Lantern and then as his kids grew, they were like “Well why don’t you do something for us?” So he did and by following that passion of both loving his family and loving being a creative artist and script writer he hit a total sweet spot. So, some of the tactics that we need, and there’s so many, I think the main thing with tactics is to confer with other people around you and share tactics. But do a skills audit and an industry audit for yourself, I would say, every six months, sometimes more. And what that means is like, “Skills audit: this is what I can do. How much money do I want to make? Let me look at the job listings. Do I qualify for these jobs? Do I need to retrain? Also what are my side-hustles?” You know, I had a friend, she’s now a full time academic, but she was at one point a hairdresser, a real estate agent and a student of Arab languages and literatures. And it was great because like the studying was like unpaid, hairdresser is quick money, but not necessarily a lot of money, and then the real estate is bigger money, but not always as often. I was like “You have got it covered girl.”

And industry audit; you need to figure out what’s going on in your industry. Be a translator. This is something that’s really worked for me. I studied computer programing in high school, and then learned HTML in the early 90s but other than that, I don’t have any contemporary coding or programing skills. But I understand it enough and keep up with it enough that when I’m working on creative projects that demand people who are on the tech side and people who are on the creative side, I can be the bridge. And one of the things that automation is not doing is eliminating the translator role: people who can bridge parts of the worlds of work.

Another thing that I am really going to emphasize as I get ready to blast on out of here is, give yourself wiggle room. So part of it is that two thirds of people in my research had gotten burnt out at work. I mean, I’m not shocked by that. I would think it would be more like 85%. We’re not always kind to ourselves and it’s really important for us to be kind to ourselves so we can do our best work. Also about a third of the people who I surveyed used funds designated for retirement to bridge their financial gaps. And this was totally me. I at one point depleted part of my 401K and you take a big tax hit every time you do that. And if, one thing that I want to leave everyone with is the idea of psychological self-employment. Whether you work for a big company, or a small company, or for yourself, you need to be psychologically self-employed. You need to plan your own retirement. You need to have your own back-up savings account that’s liquid enough for you to dip into. Because people are moving in and out of jobs much more frequently and then every now and then you have a breakdown where you have someone who doesn’t pay you, if you’re working on a contract basis. These things happen, you just have to build in for it. I say that confidently now because I trashed my credit report at one point. I borrowed money from my sister at one point. And I was like “I’m a grown woman. What’s happening here? This is not right”. And so, you know, I had to learn some real tough love on my finances and the thing is it pays off because you’re just so much more relaxed.

And speaking of relaxed, sometimes you just need to relax. You need to put that “Do Not Disturb” sign on your brain, because that’s where the magic happens in creative work. It’s from having space, having time, you know? So, there’s this poem called The Summers Day that I love by Mary Oliver, and it says “Tell me what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I want to be free. We all deserve to be free. To live in a world where we can make ethical and creative choices about our careers and to live in a world where we’re compensated fairly and well for bringing our brilliance to the table. But it requires a bit of work to get there. A bit of planning. And so, you know, yeah I want to keep writing books. But I also want to keep playing dress-up, and going on family reunions, and experiencing nature. Because freedom is about not just your job, not just taking vacation. It’s about the synergy between life and work. It’s about taking that pause. And again, I honor and thank you for spending this time with me. Thank you.


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