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Creativity Lessons from Charles Dickens and Steve Jobs by Anne Kreamer

This piece originally appeared in The Harvard Business Review.

Creativity is the most essential skill for navigating an increasingly complex world — or so said 1,500 CEOs across 60 countries in a recent survey by IBM. And yet federally funded research and development — creativity, institutionalized — is down 20% as a share of America's GDP since the late 1980s. Private R&D spending has also tailed off since then, when it brought us breakthrough innovations like laser printing, the Ethernet, the graphical user interface, and the mouse. And that was just from one company's private R&D engine, Xerox's PARC. At the same time, experts fret that our public school system doesn't foster enough creativity in our future workforce. All of which makes it easy to worry that we'll run out of creative leaders producing creative goods. But I think the declinism is overwrought. And that's because some of the best paths to encourage innovation are surprisingly simple.

   Charles Dickens and Steve Jobs Tell Us How To Boost Creativity

Charles Dickens and Steve Jobs Tell Us How To Boost Creativity

Yes, as a society, we do need to remake our educational systems to deliver more young people to what Steve Jobs called "the intersection of technology and the humanities" — to bring American students' globally below-average math and science fluency up to snuff and keep them immersed in the arts. But each of us as individuals can also work to optimize our innovative capacities. If innovation is stimulated by identifying under-served markets and then figuring out a service or product to fill the void, then here are a few low-to-no-cost suggestions for reinvigoration.

Reduce stress, but don't relax too much. Stress affects our creativity. A study conducted in 2006 by Christina Ting Fong, an assistant professor at the University of Washington Business School, suggests that the optimal sate for an individual seeking maximum creativity at work is to embrace an in-between emotional state, neither happy-go-luckily complacent nor anxiously stressed out. After asking college students to write about experiences that had made them feel happy, sad, neutral, or ambivalent, she then had them complete something called the Remote Associates Test, a word-association test used to measure creativity. Fong found that those who reported feeling emotionally ambivalent performed significantly better on the creative test — and believes that it was the presence of mixed emotions that increases sensitivity to unusual associations that stimulate unconventional, more creative connections.

By studying people's "Aha!" moments of insight, Northwestern University psychologist Mark Jung-Beeman found that one's brain state before addressing a problem can importantly influence the creativity of one's proposed solution. He discovered that if someone is too focused or too wound up, the scope of their problem-solving is reduced. John Kounios, a cognitive neuroscientist at Drexel University who partnered with Jung-Beeman in his research, advises people to relax to encourage insight. And one simple way to relax and stimulate your creative juices? Take a walk.

Get out of the office and into unfamiliar environments. Let's imagine you're an executive in charge of overseeing the development of a new product — a television show, a medical device, a beverage, whatever — and you spend your working hours hermetically sealed, going from office to conference room attending meetings, never leaving a car between appointments out of the office. That narrow input will result in a correspondingly narrow output. A piece in The New Yorker exploring the flaws inherent in the groupthink of brainstorming sessions, cited research into the process of free association by psychology professor Charlan Nemeth of the University of California at Berekely. Nemeth has "demonstrated that exposure to unfamiliar perspectives can foster creativity."

I've often suggested that people walk to work, take public transportation, and in general, wander about to see how real people, consumers, are behaving and spending their time. If you never take the time to fill your creative well, you'll having nothing to contribute. Wandering around — observing, talking to strangers, taking pictures, inhaling the rich diversity of unfamiliar life, may feel unproductive or even wasteful. But innovation needs to be informed and sometimes provoked by the unpredictable hurly-burly of messy, surprising real life. Suntae Kim, Evan Polman and Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, researchers from New York Univsersity, have found that students who were allowed to walk freely, rather than along a fixed path, were able to generate 25% more creative uses for various objects.

In a recent essay, Verlyn Klinkenborg connected Charles Dickens's extraordinary creative output to his nightly walking. "He is lost in a kind of mental ventriloquism," he wrote, "calling up his emotions and studying them. Every night he walked a dozen miles, without which, he said, 'I should just explode and perish.' Under the pseudonym Boz, Dickens wrote, 'There is nothing we enjoy more than a little amateur vagrancy, walking through London as though 'the whole were an unknown region to our wandering mind.'"

Steve Jobs and Charles Dickens were of one mind. In a 1995 Wired piece, Jobs put it this way: "Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things... A lot of people in our industry haven't had very diverse experiences. So they don't have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one's understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have." Creativity requires both divergent thinking (the generation of lots of fresh ideas) combined with convergent thinking (channeling those ideas into a practical solution). The tension of toggling between right-field thinking and pragmatism leads to the greatest creative insights.

Let your mind wander. It does no good to get out of the office or reduce stress if you don't let your mind do any roaming. Yet a different study led by Kalina Christoff of the University of British Columbia, suggests that our "default" and "executive" brain functions, "two systems that so far have been assumed to work in opposition" might, in fact, be encouraged to work in cooperation by the unique mental state stimulated by day dreaming.

When we're younger, the road to success is all about learning habits of discipline and rigor and focus. And those habits are crucial. But once we can take those habits for granted, we need to build in new disciplines — call it the discipline of being undisciplined — of breaking away and wandering, physically and intellectually, to see new things and connect dots in new ways. Otherwise, we risk becoming reliable but uncreative drones. Remember the fable about the super-prudent ant and the devil-may-care grasshopper? At their best and most innovative, we are not one or the other — but both.

What If You Don't Want to Be a Manager? by Anne Kreamer

Imagine that you've invested years of blood, sweat and tears at work, and have successfully climbed the corporate ladder, only to wake up one day and realize that you sort of hate what you're doing. Sure, you used to love it, and the more successful you became, the higher up the ranks of management you went. But now, instead of doing the hands-on work that you loved, you find yourself buried in managerial tasks like budgeting and supervising people that leave you feeling numb at best. You find yourself in the ironic position where all your hard work and success have landed you in a job that leaves you feeling empty, frustrated, and unfulfilled. That's what happened to me. But how? Or better yet, why?

Feeling unfulfilled in your management job?

As I rose through the executive ranks to my last incarnation, EVP and Worldwide Creative Director for Nickelodeon, instead of feeling directly connected to the creation of our programming and other content, I found myself spending nearly all my time in meetings with corporate peers and higher-ups. In theory, I should have been happy. I was working with good, creative people (many of whom remain my close friends), I was earning a great income, and the company made cool stuff that my own young kids loved. But. But. I was merely managing the people who actually did and made things. I no longer operated in my personal sweet spot, where my sense of accomplishment after closing a difficult sale or launching a new product was contingent on my having had a concretedeliverable and the sense that my efforts were integral to its success. Being a manager caused me to feel disconnected from what career analyst Daniel Pink has identified as the three primary motivators of behavior: autonomy, mastery and purpose. I had little autonomy, little interest in gaining mastery as a manager (in spite of myriad coaches), and felt dissociated from my true self.

Why do we reward success on the job with a promotion out of the job and into management? It's a phenomenon that reveals antiquated flaws in organizational design (neither employees nor companies are in the long-term pension-building loyalty business anymore) as well as a 20th century, pre-behavioral economics lack of understanding about what really makes people tick at work. Companies continue to cling to the notion that one of the only mechanisms they have to acknowledge employees' talent is to make them managers and then to continue to promote them into ever-higher levels of management — reflecting the misguided assumption that being good at something also means being able to (and wanting to) manage others doing the same thing. Once in management, its trappings — 401k's, bigger compensation packages and offices, fancy titles — don't really satisfy many of us who, like me, miss the doing. But because we often identify ourselves with our job titles (I'm Director of Marketing) — buying into the idea that clear titles confer status and meaning — it remains hard to envision work in the absence of titles. Management titles allow us to mark our growth, and our maturity. And it's for all of these reasons that it took me a long time to realize that being in management was wrong for me.

I know now from my research into the science of emotion, that as corporate executive I felt like I had to pretend to be something I wasn't — I didn't like being a manager, but I was a manager, so I had to appear to be interested in all the stuff that went along with being a manager. This is something social scientists call "emotion labor" — what you experience when you feel obliged to act differently from your natural inclinations. Eventually, I quit my job and, over the course of several years and false starts, I reinvented myself as a journalist and author — a job where I manage no one (autonomy), make my own rules (purpose), and have very concrete results (mastery) when my work is published.

When I made my leap, I discovered that while there are countless books and courses about how to be a better manager, there are pretty much no roadmaps for how to keep succeeding if you decide you don't want to manage others. So, here are a few thoughts, based on my own experience, for others who feel that management may be wrong for them:

You Can Stay at Your Company, But Forge a New Path

Unlike me, perhaps you don't have to leave. Talk to your bosses about your issues and partner with them to create a different track for yourself. For example, when my husband started as a young writer at Time magazine, there was only one career path — work hard as a staff writer, and eventually you might be promoted to senior editor. In the early 80s, Time created a position for those who did not want to go into management — "senior writer," which came with internal prestige, and commensurate salary bumps.

This is something more companies need to address. To remain globally competitive, organizations need to devise innovative ways to encourage and reward creativity. The unorthodox titles embraced by start-ups — directors of fun, ministers of information — can seem ridiculous, but the emphasis on improvising new ways of doing business is important. Furthermore, research conducted by Office Team found that 76% of employees did not want their boss's job. If employees are no longer responding to the old carrots, it's time for companies to establish new means of rewarding talent.

You Can Find A Company That Shares Your Values

There are plenty of companies that are doing away with traditional corporate structures. For example, Michael Abrash, a member of the Valve software developer community, has a radical notion of corporate structure, where project teams coalesce and dissolve continually within an organization. He believes that fixed organizational structure impedes innovation. And plenty of other people feel the same. You may find yourself more in tune with an organization that has this type of flat hierarchy.

You Can Strike Out On Your Own

And of course, you can always forge your own path. Just be sure to think through the following before you take the leap:

Have a clear idea of what success means to you. It sounds obvious, but most of us unthinkingly internalize others' definitions.

Know that income flow will have peaks and valleys. Few of us are lucky enough to land clients on retainer, so understand out of the box that your income will fluctuate from month to month.

Don't quit without figuring out your monthly nut, especially including health care — and then figure out how you can reduce expenses. Make your nut fit the dream, and not the other way around. And don't quit without a reserve to handle the times when there's little or no monthly income — anticipate your worst-case scenario. Mine happened a few months after I'd quit my big job when my husband was fired from his well-paid (management) job.

Understand that as a freelancer, you will have to be a consummate sales-and-marketer of yourself and that you'll have to develop thick skin to handle the rejection.

Know that there are days where you'll feel lonely working by yourself. Fortunately, the networked world can mitigate this problem as never before.

Embrace the idea of moving from project to project as a way to learn and grow and stay relevant.

One thing that people who have left management may underestimate is the blow to self-esteem that can happen when you can no longer simply define with a title what it is that you do for a living. Although that's changing in the emerging world of co-working, freelancing, and zig-zagging careers, titles still have meaning, and it requires clarity and courage to say "thanks, but no thanks" to that management position. But take it from me: being an ambitious round peg in a prestigious square hole is no way to spend a working life.

Better Writers Make More Money by Anne Kreamer

I recently discovered fascinating data generated by Grammerly, the online proofreading tool. They reviewed 448 freelance professionals’ profiles for spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors on Elance, an online staffing platform, and discovered that people with stronger writing skills are better at their jobs and get paid more.  Here's a graphic highlighting their findings.

The Business Case for Reading Novels by Anne Kreamer

This piece originally appeared in The Harvard Business Review.

I thought it was worth reposting during the summer holidays when novel reading beckons. I've been a devoted, even fanatical reader of fiction my whole life, but sometimes I feel like I'm wasting time if I spend an evening immersed in Lee Child's newest thriller, or re-reading The Great Gatsby. Shouldn't I be plowing through my in-box? Or getting the hang of some new productivity app? Or catching up on my back issues of The Economist? That slight feeling of self-indulgence that haunts me when I'm reading fake stories about fake people is what made me so grateful to stumble on a piece in Scientific American Mind by cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley extolling the practical benefits to be derived particularly from consuming fiction.

Over the past decade, academic researchers such as Oatley and Raymond Mar from York University have gathered data indicating that fiction-reading activates neuronal pathways in the brain that measurably help the reader better understand real human emotion — improving his or her overall social skillfulness. For instance, in fMRI studies of people reading fiction, neuroscientists detect activity in the pre-frontal cortex — a part of the brain involved with setting goals — when the participants read about characters setting a new goal. It turns out that when Henry James, more than a century ago, defended the value of fiction by saying that "a novel is a direct impression of life," he was more right than he knew.

In one of Oatley and Mar's studies in 2006, 94 subjects were asked to guess the emotional state of a person from a photograph of their eyes. "The more fiction people [had] read," they discovered, "the better they were at perceiving emotion in the eyes, and...correctly interpreting social cues." In 2009, wondering, as Oatley put it, if "devouring novels might be a result, not a cause, of having a strong theory of mind," they expanded the scope of their research, testing 252 adults on the "Big Five" personality traits — extraversion, emotional stability, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness — and correlated those results with how much time the subjects generally spent reading fiction. Once again, they discovered "a significant relation between the amount of fiction people read and their empathic and theory-of-mind abilities" allowing them to conclude that it was reading fiction that improved the subjects' social skills, not that those with already high interpersonal skills tended to read more.

Theory of mind, the ability to interpret and respond to those different from us — colleagues, employees, bosses, customers and clients — is plainly critical to success, particularly in a globalized economy. The imperative to try to understand others' points of view — to be empathetic — is essential in any collaborative enterprise.

Emotions also have an impact on the bottom line. A 1996 study published in the journal Training and Development assessing the value of training workers at a manufacturing plant in emotional management skills — teaching employees to focus on how their work affects others rather than simply on getting the job done — found that union grievance filings were reduced by two-thirds while productivity increased substantially. And a study of a Fortune 400 health insurance company conducted by Peter Salovey, a psychology professor at Yale, looked at the correlations between emotional intelligence and salary and found that people rated highest by their peers in emotional intelligence received the biggest raises and were promoted most frequently.

To bring the subject home, think about how many different people you interact with during the course of a given day — coworkers, clients, passing strangers, store clerks. Then think about how much effort you devoted to thinking about their emotional state or the emotional quality of your interaction. It's when we read fiction that we have the time and opportunity to think deeply about the feelings of others, really imagining the shape and flavor of alternate worlds of experience. Right now, I'm in the middle of Irene Nemirovsky's posthumously published novel about France's fall to the Nazis in 1940. Her simple sentences sketch a sense of uncertainty, moral ambiguity, and heartbreak — feelings I certainly wouldn't want to dwell on in "real" life, but emotions I'm better off for having taken the time to consider.

But nourishing empathy doesn't require such grimness. And if you want your diet of fiction, as it's shaping your mind to be more emotionally acute, to be specifically relevant to work, there is a body of great literature about business and organizational behavior. For instance, Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now, inspired by 19th century financial scandals among the British elite, resonates powerfully today. In his autobiography, Trollope wrote that "a certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places, has become at the same time so rampant and so splendid that there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable. If dishonesty can live in a gorgeous palace with pictures on all its walls, and gems in all its cupboards, with marble and ivory in all its corners, and can give Apician dinners, and get into Parliament, and deal in millions, then dishonesty is not disgraceful, and the man dishonest after such a fashion is not a low scoundrel. Instigated, I say, by some such reflections as these, I sat down in my new house to write The Way We Live Now." Seems fairly au courant to me.

From now on, I'm going to feel less like an escapist slacker when I'm engrossed in a new novel. In addition to the Trollope, below are some of my favorite books to get you started.

Kurt Andersen, Turn of the Century — set in 2000 and 2001, a successful TV producer husband and digital entrepreneur wife, trying to balance the demands of work and life, wind up pitted against each other as executives in a U.S. media empire. His mistrust grows when she becomes a favorite of the Rupert Murdoch-like chairman. Meanwhile, their hedge-fund-manager best friend is involved in big-time stock manipulation. (Full disclosure: my husband is the author)

Jane Austen, Sandition — in this unfinished fragment of a novel, Austen departs from her typical marriage plot to describe the zealous entrepreneurialism of a real estate speculator. While we can never know how the novel would have ended, we can be pretty sure his housing bubble will burst.

Charles Dickens, Bleak House — Dickens' tenth novel explores the human cost of prolonged litigation through the eyes of Esther Summerson, who is caught up in a multi-generational dispute over the disposition over an inheritance. Anyone who has ever been entangled in a lawsuit will revel in the characterization of the process. At the time of publication, 1852–1853, public outrage over injustice in the English legal system helped the novel to spark legal reform that culminated in the 1870s.

William Gaddis, JR — in the 1976 National Book Award winner, the 11-year old protagonist, JR, secretly trades penny stocks, using the tools of the trade at the time — money orders and payphones — to build a fortune. Written entirely in dialogue, the absurdity of a precocious child's feat satirizes as Gaddis put it, "the American dream turned inside out." His description of dysfunctional boards and the corrosive effect of corporate takeovers and asset stripping are as current today as they were 30 years ago.

Joseph Heller, Something Happened — Heller's stream of consciousness second novel follows a regular-joe middle manager as he prepares for a promotion. The messy interweaving of his thoughts about his job, family, sex, and childhood perfectly distill how complicated the selves we bring to work really are.

Miss Manners Minds Your Business by Anne Kreamer

My review originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal. When Judith Martin published her first guide to manners in 1979, the country was still settling down after a decade-plus of countercultural upheaval. Women had become members of the workforce in large numbers, and men were being permitted a more relaxed affect (no ties, longer hair) in most offices. Television series like "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" were successful because they amusingly used workplace snafus to illustrate our shared post-1960s struggle to parse behavioral "rules" amid the new flux, and because they depicted the truth that, with more of us earning salaries full-time, the workplace had become a new kind of quasi-family.

Miss Manners, the amusingly arch and starchy avatar that Ms. Martin initially invented while at the Washington Post, was mock-conservative but also genuinely conservative, lightly ironic but ultimately quite serious about basic good manners. For a would-be establishment desperate for some plausible modern heir to Emily Post, she was an ideal spokesperson. Or is it spokeswoman? In her latest book, "Miss Manners Minds Your Business," our authority is torn on how best to deal with gendered titles. Somewhere during the past two decades, she writes, the rules "went into the shredder, engulfed by almost universal agreement that there should be no difference between professional manners and personal manners."

In "Miss Manners Minds Your Business," it often seems that Ms. Martin, Wellesley class of 1959, wants to wish away the era of "The Office" in favor of an improved, gender-blind "Mad Men" paradigm. Channeling her inner Joan Holloway, she admonishes us to create distinct behavioral spheres and norms for work and home. She declares that at the root of our 21st-century uncertainties about proper workplace behavior are the "two big lies of the modern workplace—that the old hierarchies are gone, so that all employees are equal, and that these new 'teams' are as bound together by friendship as by the accident of employment." She dismisses as faddish nonsense the idea "that people accomplish more when they become pals. It is in direct contradiction to what every schoolteacher knows about separating friends during class."

My reaction to this, as to so many of her assertions, was: Yeah, maybe, I guess, but. While most of one's co-workers aren't going to become close pals, in ultra-mobile contemporary America, work is indeed where many of one's important friendships will be made.

Still, Ms. Martin is right that a lot of stress these days derives from the porous membrane between the professional and the private. She aptly describes the complications that ensue when each of us, digitally connected, is expected to be available 24/7 for family while at work and for work while at home. "The demarcation between public and private was clearer when there was an office door," Ms. Martin writes. "Not every minute spent at work might have been spent on work, but the assumption was there. Cubicle 'farms,' 'open offices,' and lunch rooms—not to mention long hours—at work, and telecommuting, sales jobs, and social media bloggers off-site, have made it less clear what is on, and what off, the clock."

Absolutely. Ms. Martin is at her strongest when sorting through issues faced by parents or childless employees, and she lands firmly on the side of justice when she says that "many patterns of life in this country no longer fit the realities." Companies need to step up and address the needs of working families, she writes; "society has a crucial interest in the welfare of children, and therefore in making good care available, and therefore in designing respected and economically feasible jobs for parents, adult children, and professional assistants alike." Yes!

But I regret to report, with all due respect, that Miss Manners mostly fails to grapple with the thorniest problems of the modern office. When the average person will spend no more than four years in each job, how does one best enter a new workplace again and again and yet again? When it's projected that almost 40% of the workforce will be freelance by 2020, what are the peculiar etiquette issues faced by the self-employed?

"Miss Manners Minds Your Business" is composed of correspondence from her etiquette-anxious readers, to whom the author offers counsel and, along the way, broader cultural reflection. Ms. Martin and her son Nicholas have culled about 200-odd letters, many of which concern the circumstances of open-plan office environments: smelly food, smelly colleagues, noisy neighbors. A particular Miss Manners bugaboo—required attendance at office parties—comes up again and again. But nearly all the questions could have been asked and answered anytime during the past several decades. (Indeed, they were—different questions mention pagers, "dot-coms" and the cellphones that people have started using a lot. One letter is repeated verbatim from the 2005 edition of "Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior," originally published in 1979.)

"Miss Manners Minds Your Business" feels musty, and not always in the lovably, charmingly ironic way that defined the Miss Manners sensibility 35 years ago. She does address a few nettlesome email problems (no response to an electronic job application, receiving unintended correspondence, reply-all responses, a young employee instant-messaging a boss), but mostly she just rues the new conditions. She doesn't delve into the best way to handle the tsunami of everyday electronic dysfunction that exasperates all of us—people who don't bother to carefully read the emails they get, or supervisors who answer emails at midnight yet fail to tell staff that they needn't answer immediately. What are the rules for texting during meetings? She doesn't say. How does one manage in a global company? Nary a question.

One thing Ms. Martin does say is that she isn't fond of emotional outbursts at work. "What helps in emotional situations is formality and ceremony," she says peremptorily, "not, as popularly believed, talking things out, which can easily lead to disaster." "When attempting to enter the business world," she writes, we need "to learn to be someone else. It is called having a professional identity."

Beyond the hyperbole, I fundamentally disagree with her wear-a-mask-to-work approach. Of course an employee should dress and speak appropriately for the environment in which she works and, even in our TMI age, sometimes play things close to the vest. But behavioral economists who study the workplace have identified something called "emotion labor," which in a nutshell is the effort required to maintain a difference between how you feel at your most natural and how you must act when circumstances require it. If too much effort is applied to "being someone else," it can be exhausting and demoralizing.

Employees and their bosses are clueless about how to draw boundaries in a boundary-less world. Antidiscrimination and harassment laws have legitimately constrained management but also left them and their employees uncertain how to demonstrate empathy or compassion, especially during financially challenging times. "Change was desperately needed, and, contrary to rumor, etiquette is not against change," Ms. Martin writes. "It only stipulates that it be well thought out, orderly change that preserves what is good from the past while rectifying what is bad." In our changing world, we crave sensible guidance. Miss Manners does her characteristic job providing a common-sense approach that may have worked in the past, but almost nothing suggests that she understands the bedeviling nature of etiquette at work in the quite different now.

What You Need To Know Before You Quit Your Day Job. by Anne Kreamer

This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal. Going it alone is liberating – and tough.

At the height of the go-go late 1990s, when entrepreneurial optimism leached from the dot.com bubble into the rest of the work culture, I decided to go freelance as a writer and consultant.

In the past I’d worked in commissioned sales — both print advertising and television programs – so the notion of having compensation tied to performance didn’t particularly scare me. I’d also helped build media businesses, which allowed me to imagine that being a freelancer wouldn’t be all that different.

But at the time, I foolishly focused in on my past successes instead of what really mattered — the practical nitty-gritty.

Today, given the deluge of people going freelance as a result of the Great Recession — a recent Intuit study estimates that by 2020 the number of U.S. freelancers will be as high as 60 million or 40% of our workforce— it’s worth examining what this army of the newly minted self-employed will be likely to experience.

Having been in the freelance space for over a decade, here’s what I’ve learned:

It’ll Change Your Identity

Most of us spend great swaths of time at work. It’s no wonder we define ourselves by what we do there: The higher up a particular ladder we progress, the more money we make, and the more valuable and important we feel we’ve become. It’s a key way U.S. culture measures worth and success. (See Sandberg, Sheryl: Lean In)

When I stopped having a title, I changed overnight from being a person whose work and worth was easily calibrated by others, into something that felt amorphous and slippery. I was surprised by how emotionally vulnerable it made me feel.

It took me a year or more to begin to feel comfortable describing myself as a freelance journalist. Peer judgment, real or internally projected, can sideswipe someone in the midst of a career change. Before making the freelance leap, try to anticipate the full range of ways others’ evaluation of your new status will make you feel. That shouldn’t stop you, but you should be prepared.

It’s Expensive

Depending on what you choose to do, there will be savings – reduced wardrobe expense, potentially reduced transportation costs – but there are also significant costs to going it alone.

Setting up and operating a home office and business – legal fees (will your corporate self be an S, C or LLC?), bookkeeping and productivity software, computer hardware, website design and hosting, marketing, tax preparation (just to name a few) – costs real money. Don’t overlook the importance of funding retirement accounts or health insurance.

As for that paycheck, you should know when you go freelance, that you probably won’t earn as much money as you would have had you stayed in your company job.

Also know, that your future income will be hugely variable. Monthly retainers and long-term commitments are increasingly vestiges of a bygone era. It’s a given that clients will, in the best-case scenario, pay you 90 days after you submit your invoice. So craft a financial plan with built-in contingencies. 

It’s Hard Work

Before I went freelance, I’d thought the vicissitudes of sales jobs had thickened my skin for the ups and downs of freelance work, but it’s one thing to sell the product of a team effort and something else entirely when the product is … you.

Then, rejection becomes infinitely harder to shake off. Day in and day out, a freelancer has to get up knowing that they need to network and self-promote even when the process is grueling and humbling.

And the hard work doesn’t stop after a sale or a commission. Don’t expect to hear back from the prospective buyer for days and weeks. Developing a graceful way to continually seek reassurance that the work was acceptable and didn’t get lost in the company spam filter (a favorite way for freelancers to let-clients-off-the-hook-for-their-rudeness) can be a chronic, dispiriting challenge.

Finally, remember you’ll be wearing a lot of hats. And that’s definitely hard work. When the internet goes down or the printer jams, you are the IT department; when payments are in arrears, you are Accounts Receivable as well.

Some Things Need Collaboration

Developing new leads, hatching the best distribution or marketing plan, uncovering fresh sources for manufacturing, refining or expanding an idea — many things are improved with collaboration.

A loose network of friends and colleagues can help identify resources and brainstorm. Co-working spaces can also offer a collaborative environment. Virtual communities, like Freelancer.com or LinkedIn can provide leads and resources, but, let’s be honest, it’s lonely out there.

It Can Make You Happy

Having worked freelance for the past 15 years, I find I can no longer remember what it felt like to work a 9 to 5 job.  The irregular cash flow and diminished income is more than made up by the freedom to choose my work.  I love being wholly responsible for the success or failure of my output, which researchers have identified as a key determinant of workplace happiness.  A 2004 research study of 1,000 people by the Work Foundation suggests I’m not alone: More than 80% of those surveyed who were self-employed said they were satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs.”

When in doubt, I take solace from risk engineering professor Nassim Taleb’s assertion in Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder that by buffeting about in the roiling waters of regular professional uncertainty, the freelancer becomes strong.

In a world where job security is a quaint 20th century artifact, perhaps evolving an independent, freelance career for oneself is a cleverly Darwinian means of survival.

The Formula For Creating Happiness At Work by Anne Kreamer

How can we be happier at work?   

Fast Company excerpted the following from my book, It's Always Personal.

"Professional happiness is elusive--but you can have it (or even manufacture it), if you know where to look.In her book, The Happiness Myth, Jennifer Michael Hecht identifies three basic kinds of happiness: good day, good life, and peak, and I’ve found that thinking about work within her construct has helped me tease apart some of the “happiness formula” variables that influence well-being.

Good-day happiness at work might mean: I got to the office early, I was able to take care of backlogged paperwork that had been nagging me, I had a productive meeting, and I was able to leave in time to make it to my daughter’s school concert. Good-day happiness is about an awareness of the fortunate conditions of one’s life--where stopping to smell the roses can have measurable positive impact.

Good-life happiness as it relates to work would be more along the lines of being engaged in tasks that you find meaningful and challenging, and in which you are aware that you’re helping provide a decent material quality of life for your family. This kind of happiness is more connected to hard work--the sense that one is doing the best one can in any endeavor and, ideally, endeavors in which the work itself is its own reward. Good-life happiness does not relate to things like our gender or our age, over which we have no influence, but rather to conditions over which we do have some control, such as where we work or the kind of work we choose to do. But good-life happiness does not mean that we are “happy all the time,” to quote the (only somewhat ironic) title of Laurie Colwin’s great novel. Far from it. The positive psychology field puts this in perspective, acknowledging through empirical and replicable research that in spite of the advantages of thinking positively, there are times when “negative” thinking is appropriate, and that difficulty, pain, and sadness are inevitable. We need obstacles and challenges in our lives for achievements to have meaning, the cold and cloudy days that make us revel in the warm and sunny ones, the necessary and numbing scut work that lets us really enjoy the resulting moments of success. Outrage on behalf of the disadvantaged can lead people to make their corners of the world better places. Ferocity--a little anger, even--can fuel healthy competition.

And, finally, the third kind of happiness--peak happiness--is the more transcendent sort, by definition rare in everyday life, including (and maybe especially) on the job. I’ve also found that this sort of happiness becomes more elusive the older we get--the more cares and responsibilities we have, the less willing we may be to engage in the kinds of experiences where peak moments tend to happen. It takes effort to wake up in the middle of the night with our kids to watch the Pleiades’ meteor showers if our prospective sense of how exhausted we’ll be at work the next day outweighs our anticipation of awe. But, Hecht intimates, it is the peak experiences in our lives that endure, that offer us hope and glimmers of meaning, and that connect us to our families, communities, and a sense of the eternal. And this kind of happiness is closely connected to the “V” in the happiness formula--these are the things we choose to do.

While in our personal and private lives peak happiness may be, for instance, the kind of euphoria we experience at a great rock concert or after exceptional sex, at work it is more often connected with the creation of something original: designing a new kind of ergonomic desk chair, discovering a new way to isolate and destroy viruses, delivering a giant project early and under budget, or creating the next Simpsons. In short, moments of peak happiness at work often involve some aspect of the creative process.

The Creative Connection
“There have been in my career a handful of times when I had what I call true happiness--where who I was at that time felt in harmony with what my company did and was about,” says Tom Harbeck, who is today senior vice president for strategy and marketing at OTX, a consumer research firm. And Tom connects his professional happiness during those times with a few key factors: working for a company where there was “a team of people who ‘got it,’” where everyone felt plugged into some larger vision and shared the goal of making the mission come to life. Tom is talking about the collective experience of flow, the happiness derived from face-to-face, day-to-day social connection with other seriously engaged people on the same wavelength.

One of Tom’s times of peak joy was when he worked at the Chiat-Day advertising agency in the 1980s. “The culture was so intensely alive,” he says, “that you couldn’t separate the [agency’s] slogans from the employees who wore them on their T-shirts. ‘Good enough is not enough,’ ‘I’d rather be the pirates than the navy,’ ‘How big can we get before we get bad?’ It was a culture that thrived on scrutiny, debate, evaluation, and criticism--all aimed at the work, not at each other.”Tom was fortunate to find work that tapped into his inner passions. “I was a poetry major,” he says, “who had no training in advertising or marketing, in the midst of an organization creating an advertising revolution.” Chiat-Day’s 1984 Apple ad redefined buzz and event advertising after only one run. Nike’s “real athletes” billboards took a 180-degree turn from celebrity sports spokespeople. And the firm’s NYNEX Yellow Pages ad, “If it’s out there, it’s in here,” charmed the entire country. Despite Tom’s inexperience, his bosses listened to what he had to say and considered it (not him) against the goal of improving the agency’s work, making it closer to great. It turned out that his English-major poetry training--finding and feeling the meaning given an economy of words used freshly--was highly relevant to creating ads. Advertising was intended to make you think and feel something, not unlike poetry. “So despite no prior experience,” Tom says, “who I was and what I knew and what I was good at, at that precise moment in my life, was valued. I was happy. When it happens, it is tremendous--you cannot believe they actually pay you to show up at your desk; you are giddy.”

On Courage, Playing A Bad Guy, and Women's Coats by Anne Kreamer

The Talksis a weekly updated online interview magazine. Over the past decade its founders Johannes Bonke and Sven Schumann have met with cultural figures of all kinds.

Here are a few of my favorite excerpts:

Charlotte Rampling on Courage:

I think you have to be brave. I think you have to think of being; I think you have to think of being someone. If you’re an actor, you’re going to incarnate a human being. If you are brave and if you want to actually experience what it is like, really, you have to be a developing actor and a developing human being at the same time, because the two things are always together. You can’t develop as a human being and not develop as an actor and vice-versa.

Denzel Washington on playing the bad guy:

As an actor in the theater you’re taught that you never play a bad guy. You have to love who you are. You can’t say, “Oh, I’m a bad guy.” How do you play that?

Yohji Yamamoto on women and clothing:

When I started making clothes for my line Y’s in 1977, all I wanted was for women to wear men’s clothes. I jumped on the idea of designing coats for women. It meant something to me – the idea of a coat guarding and hiding a woman’s body. For me, a woman who is absorbed in her work, who does not care about gaining one’s favor, strong yet subtle at the same time, is essentially more seductive. The more she hides and abandons her femininity, the more it emerges from the very heart of her existence. A pair of brilliantly cut cotton trousers can be more beautiful than a gorgeous silk gown.

How To Be Unemployed (Without Going Crazy!) by Anne Kreamer

Seija Rankin reported this piece for Refinery 29.  Dr. Danny Penman, co-author of Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World and I were among those interviewed for advice. "This week, a whole new generation of college graduates enter the working world — armed with diplomas, a thirst for success, and an alcohol tolerance like no other. We'll spare you the sappy quotes of graduation speeches past (insert biting, yet humorous observation on the outlook of society and the need for a zest for life, here), but rest assured they've heard plenty in the way of warnings and advice.

And, while we have no doubt that each and every one of you breaking into the workforce are more than qualified for your dream jobs (okay, that was a joke), we're going to be honest: Despite the fact that you are intelligent, hard-working, deserving people, there just aren't enough jobs to go around — some of you will join the ranks of the unemployed. Plus, there's that whole life-isn't-fair thing. While we wish we could use the magical powers of the Internet (or, that new 3-D printer invention) to summon careers for each and every one of you, what we can offer you is a shoulder to lean on, and a little bit of expert advice. After all, we've all been there — and by "there," we mean our bed, watching countless reruns of Sex and the City, wishing all those recruiters would understand how totally awesome we were.

So, to do all of you job-seekers a solid, we hit up HR execs and happiness experts to bring you our ultimate guide to surviving unemployment. Read through to get started on your brand new life, and crack open a cold one while you're at it. Because, hey, it's not like you've got a job to get to.

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After our (multiple) stints through the vices of unemployment, we now consider ourselves venerable experts in passing time. You'll find that as your friends, roommates, and lovers head off to spend the day gainfully employed, hours turn into days, days turn into weeks, and a simple commercial break can feel like a lifetime. You'll now be longing for the structure of Excel documents, lunch breaks, and mundane meetings. But, rest easy, because there are (temporary) solutions.

Break Out Of Your Routine: According to Anne Kreamer, author of It’s Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace, being unemployed can be isolating and scary for even the most grounded and secure person. "One of the best things to do is expose yourself to something new that brings you in contact with new social groups," she says. "Volunteer at an animal shelter or find a free lecture series that interests you." It's okay if what you're doing isn't directly focused on gainful employment — it will help you become an explorer of the world and maybe even expose you to a new direction you hadn't even considered.

Get Your Rest: This may seem counterintuitive, but just think — when else in your life will you have the opportunity to get every minute of the beauty sleep you need? Not only will a solid eight (or 10, or 12) hours help you feel refreshed to tackle cover letter after cover letter, but you may finally banish those undereye circles that plague your salaried friends. Plus, the more you sleep the less time you'll spend watching infomercials (and splurging on the Forever Comfy).

Tackle Your Netflix Queue: Are you constantly feeling out of the loop while the rest of your friends riff on The West Wing (Oh, President Bartlett, you ol' curmudgeon!)? Now's your chance to catch up on everything you missed at your 9-to-5.  (to read more....)

Should You Share A Room On A Business Trip? by Anne Kreamer

Years ago, when I worked at Holt, Rhinehart & Winston Educational and Professional Publishing, my female superior and I attended a national teacher's conference in San Antonio, and were forced to share a hotel room because of a late booking. What could have been a profoundly awkward experience — my boss! in her pajamas! — turned out to be one that strengthened our relationship, allowing us to get to know each other in a way that can rarely be found in the frenzy of daily work. The kind of bonding that I inadvertently experienced may be more frequent these days as the byproduct of a corporate mindset reshaped by Great Recession-driven austerity practices — among them requiring employees to share rooms. Major corporations such as Pfiizer, Bristol Meyers-Squibb and Microsoft have experimented with the practice. Nimbleness and frugality, after all, remain critical to growth, and it's been interesting to see that even as the economy slowly recovers, plenty of business travelers voluntarily and even eagerly share hotel rooms with colleagues. An Embassy Suites survey of 700 business travelers discovered that "17 percent said they try to share a room with a colleague." Fostering an Entrepreneurial Mindset

Seth Goldman, the co-founder and CEO of Coca-Cola-acquired Honest Tea, thinks a policy of sharing rooms during business travel helps preserve the entrepreneurial mindset that infused the founding of his company. "Every manager has a P&L that he or she is responsible for," he says, "and while we don't make sharing rooms a hard and fast rule, it's our sense that when people have their own budgets and ownership for their profits, they'll continue to operate that way."

It Can Be Good for Business

In addition to furthering a sense of entrepreneurialism, Goldman notes that "we spend half as much on hotel rooms as we would if we didn't share rooms on the road. It makes people think twice about how we spend our money." But in particular, Goldman says that sharing rooms "allows Honest Tea to save money everywhere that the consumer doesn't see it, allowing us to invest more in the business." Rita McGrath, an associate professor at Columbia Business School, echoes Goldman's findings and estimates that companies "can save as much as 50% in reduced overhead and administrative costs through a room-sharing policy."

Danica Kombol, founder of the Atlanta-based social media agency, Everywhere, has even shared hotel rooms at conferences with complete strangers. Before a recent conference, Kombol, who spends at least two weeks every month on the road, had tweeted that she was looking for a "roomie" and another conference attendee named Christine Young responded. For Young, "the best thing about attending conferences is connecting with other like-minded women." She says the friendships that have been forged have been nothing short of business- and life-changing. "Some of my greatest business contacts," says Young, "have come from these shared experiences." Kombol, who once roomed at a conference with a Wal-mart employee she'd never met before, recalls that particular roommate saying that she chose to bunk with a stranger because it "reminded her to be a good steward of the company's dollars."

Kombol and her Everywhere team also often share rooms when the client is paying. It just makes business sense to her, and her clients reward her company for its attention to value. "I would never have dreamed of suggesting that Danica and the Everywhere team bunk up," says Francis Heid, the Vice President of Media Operations for Advanstar Communications, "but the truth is they do a lot of traveling for us and have visited every Advanstar office around the country, multiple times. The money we've saved on hotels is money we can devote to her social media agency, which frankly gets us more bang for both our bucks."

Companies Need to Have Across-the-Board Consistent and Transparent Policies

Like so many programs, how a room-sharing policy is managed will make the difference between success and resentment. Adelma Stanford, a social media engagement manager, responded poorly to a room-sharing policy her former employer, Promethean (a global education company), instituted for junior employees during the recession. Stanford said that the majority of the employees resented the tiered policy and thought, "'I don't know these people and shouldn't have to room with them.' Many employees chose to pay the difference out of their own pocket so they wouldn't have to share a room."

A former senior associate at Price Waterhouse Coopers, who insisted on anonymity, was okay with bunking with someone, particularly when the economy was in the dumps, but it irked her that more senior management wasn't asked to make a similar sacrifice. As the associate put it, "at PwC the turnover is high. It's a demanding job where you regularly feel undervalued and a lot of senior associates were not very happy with this decision because if it was about cutting costs, then every level should have had to bunk."

Rita McGrath confirms that a practice of sharing rooms will backfire for management if not uniformly executed. "Where it is particularly demoralizing," she says, "is when executives insist on penny pinching for their employees but exempt themselves from cost-cutting measures, whether that be sharing hotel spaces or air allowances or whatever. Then people just feel they are being pushed around."

When senior management walks the talk, a room-sharing policy is more palatable. McGrath described how for "one of my clients, for instance, the emphasis is on keeping costs low, but the tradeoff is a very generous bonus program so that people feel that when the company saves money they get to share in the benefits. Also, everybody does it, from the "C-suite on down." Goldman, from Honest Tea, says at his company secretaries and SVPs share rooms, and laughed recalling the time, the night before a big presentation that he shared a room with a VP of sales who "had to sleep with the TV on." Rather than forcing his employee to turn off the television, Goldman erred on the side of being a good roommate and made do with three hours of sleep. (Granted, many experts — such as HBR blogger Tony Schwartz — would argue that you simply can't do your job if you don't sleep.)

Companies Need To Be Sensitive

While there are no laws against employees sharing hotel rooms, companies could minimize the potential for unhappiness — or worse — by making the arrangements elective and giving employees a choice over their roommates. A male and female manager at Honest Tea once shared a suite, but "it was sufficiently uncomfortable," says Goldman, "that we only did that once." And it's important for management to know what they are asking of their employees and to acknowledge the sacrifice. Many of those I interviewed said they need private time on the road to "reflect and recharge" and felt the cost of losing precious down time would be greater than the corporate benefit. And Goldman admits that as his business has grown and people from more established companies have joined the company, it's become more difficult to maintain a culture where "five guys would share a suite." In fact, he's made a pledge to the staff that if they meet their profitability goals this year, "everyone will get their own room."

Companies need to carefully calibrate their travel policies according to their organization's culture. Bunking up policies can make employees feel both uncomfortable and undervalued if handled the wrong way. But for many, room-sharing — if respectfully and equitably administered — has the potential to foster not just major cost savings, but also deeper, unanticipated connections that can change the course of a business or a career.