A Responsible Adult: John Pickett

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If you’re a bicyclist in the DC area, I hope you’ve had the good fortune to meet John Pickett. You might have seen him at the 50 States Ride, Friday Coffee Club, or his daily commute on the Mount Vernon Trail. Although he’s an proud introvert, he also knows pretty much everybody and is always making new friends over apple fritters. With retirement in sight, John has a lot of perspective on careers and life that I was grateful to hear right now.

Who Are You:  John Pickett, 61, of Mount Vernon, VA. Father of two. Husband of one. Notorious bike commuter and renegade blogger. Fan of the Nationals (and the Sawx). Will hike for beer.

What is your job?

I am an economist. I work for a small government public policy office focussing on the postal industry. I write papers on issues of relevance to the Postal Service and the postal industry.

Why did you accept your current job?

I was burning out on my previous job. Too many deadlines. Too little reward, financial and psychic. When I came out on the wrong end of a re-organization, I started looking around. I had another offer, but this opportunity came up for me to take advantage of my institutional knowledge in a less stressful environment.

Tell me about work you’ve done, in this job or a past one, that made you proud.

I’ve been working here in DC, mostly in the postal industry, for over 30 years. I’ve done transportation operations and cost analysis, pricing design and policy, service performance measurement, econometric demand analysis, and revenue and volume forecasting. Now I write policy papers. In each of these jobs, I’ve had a moment when some problem, some issue I was working on went from a confusing mess to Eureka!. That’s what motivates me. Finding out new things. Solving messy problems. Also, learning new things from interesting people. DC is filled with interesting people.

How do you define success? Do you consider yourself successful? 

Success is definitely not about acquiring stuff. My neighbor once congratulated me on buying a new car. I looked at him like he had three heads. It’s an appliance for crying out loud!

I suppose earning a living is a part of success, but it by no means the only or most important part. Success is when you are not engulfed in stress and distractions to the point where you miss out on joyful moments that happen every day. They can happen at work or elsewhere.

  • A beautiful sunrise over the river.
  • The gratitude of a young co-worker who you’ve helped out.
  • The ability to watch undistracted nearly every game or performance that your kids were in when they were in school

I suppose success is when your work feeds your happiness instead of starving it.

Tell me about a time when you were unhappy at work. What did you do to get through it?
I had been re-organized into a job that was really unfulfilling. Everything seemed to be sucking the life out of me. I was on the verge of telling somebody in high places to fuck off. So I walked into my boss’s office, sat down in a chair and said, “I need to get out of here.” A moment later, in walked a colleague who said, “Do you have anybody who can give a speech in Baton Rouge?”I wrote the speech. Flew to Baton Rouge. Then gave it again and again all over the country. (Las Vegas, San Francisco, Miami, Baton Rouge (again), Minneapolis, Nashville, Reading, Joplin and Springfield Mo.) Then the Chief Marketing Officer sent it out to all her marketing managers across the country. So I suppose what I did was be open to “Yes”,

What would you do tomorrow if your job disappeared?

I’d ask myself who are the people I like and respect? Who would I want to spend 40 hours a week with? Who can I learn from? I don’t make it a point to network, but I do gravitate to interesting people that I can learn from. I’ve lost my job in reorganizations and landed on my feet working for or with these people that I admired and learned from.

If I lost my job tomorrow, however, I’d just retire. There are so many places that my bicycles have not seen. I mean, I’ve never ridden a bike in New Jersey!
I also owe the world a few bazillion hours of volunteering.

What do you do outside of work, and how do you make time to do these things?

It occurred to me about 10 years ago that my hobby was commuting. (You are a very strange old man, she says.)

I commute about 15 miles each way to work by bike. My route takes me on the Mount Vernon Trail along the Potomac River. My bike commute is the ultimate in multitasking; it gives me transportation, exercise, meditation, and sightseeing all at the same time. Life gives you lemons, you make lemon meringue pie! (Bike commuters LOVE pie!)

I like my bike commute so much I started writing a blog about it. It’s called A Few Spokes Shy of a Wheel. Occasionally I write about other things. I also keep a journal. It’s where the monkeys in my brain go.

I also love watching baseball. Fortunately, Nationals Park is a 16 mile ride from home and has a bike valet for secure parking.

I read constantly. (A gift from my mother.) I always have a book or magazine on me. I am plowing through a pile of National Geographics this week.

If my kids are in town, I’m often doing something with them.

Bonus question! On your blog, you noted that people my age all seem to be worrying about work/life balance. What are your thoughts on or experience with that? How has work/life balance changed over your career?

I don’t know if it’s work/life balance so much as it’s a desire for some sort of personal fulfillment out of day-to-day life. Very few people get this out of their jobs, it seems. My dad was an eye surgeon who loved his work. I didn’t realize it until I was 22 and I scratched my cornea. He had a blast patching me up at the kitchen table. My son’s going blind. YAY!

I think his generation was deeply affected by the Great Depression and the WWII. I have always had a little voice in the back of my head saying “The bottom could fall out at anytime. Be ready when it does.” So I am risk averse when it comes to shaking up my life.

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John with his family

Early in my career, I wanted enough spare time to go for long runs after work. Ten years and one messed up knee later, I was a new father. I absolutely wanted to spend time with my kids. And I made this my priority. I would only work at jobs that allowed me to go to my kids school events and that would facilitate the logistics of school, after school activities and such. I found good bosses who supported me in that goal. I didn’t ask to leave early to attend my daughter’s play; I told them I am leaving to attend my daughter’s play. They understood and never complained.

People your age have some things that I didn’t have. You have much easier access to inexpensive transportation and the Internet. It’s infinitely easier to move around, to maintain contacts all over the country or the world, and to find opportunities. For example, when I took a summer job in San Francisco I had no idea how I’d move out there. By luck, a friend lived in Sacramento who could help me out. That was in 1979. Today, I’d have already known that he lives there because he’s on my Facebook friends list.

The idea of younger people having a different outlook on work/life balance presented itself in a conversation in Meridian Hill Park about 4 years ago. I had gone to spend some time hanging out with a friend. Instead of being her usual smiling self, she looked beaten down. Then she said:
“John, I am so unhappy. I hate my job. I hate my routine. I am just sick of everything. I am thinking of quitting and moving to Thailand. What do you think?”

Inside I was thinking, “Thailand? Are you nuts?” Well, in truth, she is, but then, for the next hour, we talked about her situation. The pros and cons. How would she support herself? Where would she live. What about her condo? By the end of it, I said, “Go. You are so talented that you can always come back here and reboot your career.”

She went. She stayed in Thailand for a year, then moved all over: India, Thailand (again), DC, South America. In January she came back to DC. She had no trouble finding a job here even while living in South America. She is working for a nonprofit that aligns with her values. She seems to be much happier.

And I see the same thing, over and over again. Here are some more stories from 20- to 40-year olds I know in DC:

  • I am quitting my financial job and setting up an online personal finance consultancy (as well as some other online businesses). From Bali. Then I am bringing it back to suburban DC.
  • Being an executive with a data mining start up doesn’t work for me. I’m quitting and devoting myself to painting. I can use the Internet to market my work.
  • My boyfriend moved to the west coast. I’ll get a job out there.When the relationship and the city didn’t work, I’ll move to the midwest for another job. Then change jobs again.
  • Who needs a job. I can freelance work in DC, Denver, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, DC, New Orleans, etc.

None of these people define success in terms of income. They all recognized that they had tons of talent and could apply it in a variety of circumstances. Some of them found inspiration from the heartfelt belief that somebody (God, the universe) likes/loves me and has a plan for me. It’ll all work out. There ain’t no flies on me. What’s the worst that could happen? (KalCan, it’s what’s for dinner.)

So often I find people, young and old, who are beat down by their jobs or their relationships or something. It’s like they shook the magic 8 ball and it said: “You can’t.” And they, for whatever reason, take that answer as truth. Shake the ball again, for goodness sake. If your job sucks the joy out of the rest of your life, find another job. Or invent your own.

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