Environment to Thrive

I mentioned briefly in Reunions and Goals that I’ve been spending some time thinking about what environments I thrive in. It can be a useful exercise — it helps you identify what is working and what isn’t, and hopefully find ways to improve your environment.

“Environment” can mean a number of things, so to be clear, I’m talking mostly about two factors: living environment (the weather and culture in which you live), and working environment (the culture where you work and what you do there).

Let’s dive into the living environment first: I’m an introvert who grew up in the woods of Vermont. I like having green space around me, and the ability to choose my own pace. I’ve lived in cities before, and the ones I’ve done best in were ones that were welcoming, radically inclusive, and not in quite so much of a rush all the time. I pick up on the tension and urgency of the people around me pretty easily, and it leaves me stressed out more than I’d like. I like my seasons to have punctuation: to be seasons and not just a slight variation in the same weather year-round. I’m pretty ambivalent about winter and summer, but spring and autumn are important to me — in particular Autumn. There’s something about the shift in the air, the leaves changing, the sense of culmination. It’s a period of creativity and productivity for me (spring is a period of reflection and renewal), and something I value a lot.

Culturally, I like the weird. Artists, musicians, counter-culture folks, Cacophanists, Burners. I like diners and dives, street art, and people who don’t take themselves too seriously. I like places where there’s camaraderie and community, where what you do or how much you make doesn’t define who you are. I like to be where there is activity and a sense of getting things done, but where watches aren’t wound too tight.

Then there’s the working environment: what makes me feel productive, how do I like to work? I’ve found that I feel most productive and most valuable when I’m in an autonomous role where I can contribute to a larger whole, and help the people, the project, and the organization shine. I like to fill niches and gaps in processes and workflows so others can achieve what they need with a minimum of drama or frustration. I like to help others feel supported and respected, and like to feel supported and respected in return. I don’t want the limelight — if I was suddenly given the option of becoming a CEO, or becoming a COO (or other C-level position that isn’t the public face of the company), I’d choose the latter. I’d rather have the recognition and respect of my peers than to be called out publicly. I like having enough personal space to get my work done and to breathe, but also enough social opportunities to feel connected with my co-workers.

What this breaks down into for a work environment is a place where there is a level of trust within the organization that everyone is doing their part and contributing as best they can, where the goal is to do good work and to do the right thing, and is less about the politics of ego. There should be room to take initiative, and not too much pigeon-holing into a specific role and job description. Intelligence and talent should be highly valued, but not at the cost of kindness. Every job will have days where you’re there because it’s your job and not because you are invested in the work, but the best environments are where that’s the exception, not the rule. The goal is a work place where you neither feel like an imposter, nor the smartest person in the room, where everyone is striving to do their best work and to be better than themselves.

Obviously, the working and living environments are intertwined: without one, the other will feel off or lackluster. Finding a good work-life balance is hard, and goes well beyond whether or not you’re there 30 hours a week or 70 hours a week. It matters more (to me, at least) whether there is enough separation that work does not overwhelm life (and vice versa), but still enough connection where each is complementary to the other.

I’m not there yet: I really enjoy where I’m working, and feel like the work environment is damn close to where I want it to be. I’m less thrilled with my living situation: the Bay is too crowded, too tense and full of people stressed and rushing about, too expensive, too driven by class and money. That’s not to say there aren’t some amazing people and communities in the area, and a lot of the things I look for — I am saying I’ve not been won over yet or found those connections. I really should invest some more energy into giving it a fair shot. The lack of seasons still bothers me, though, and I can’t imagine settling here for the long term. Maybe that’ll change. In the meantime, it’s at least a worthwhile experience, and an opportunity to identify what’s important to me.