As our reset, post-recession reality topples longstanding ideas about what constitutes “making it,” the good life seems ever harder to define.
ON A QUIET Tuesday night, Rebecca Lovell paces the tiny stage at the Hula Hula karaoke bar in the Lower Queen Anne neighborhood like a pro as she belts out “Bette Davis Eyes” with the raspy fierceness of Kim Carnes herself.
Most people might be content to spend a work night lazing on the couch binge-watching a TV series, but not the star-in-waiting Lovell, whose hectic day job as startup liaison for Seattle’s Office of Economic Development requires long hours at the office and networking in the city’s tech community.
Cooling off after a rousing duet with good friend Lisa Weeks of the Eurythmics classic “Sweet Dreams,” Lovell says karaoke is more than a fun — some might say nerve-wracking — way to blow off steam.
“When you walk in here, you check all of your baggage,” she says. “You don’t know anybody, but you’re all bonded in this intense, shared experience . . . It’s cathartic.” And, she says, “It’s cheaper than therapy!”
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Lovell’s “let’s just do it” personality is hard to resist. She relishes her time on stage. It doesn’t hurt that karaoke happens to be a favorite social and business networking opportunity in the tech world, she says, a “not-so-secret, not-so-guilty pleasure.”
When asked about whether she worries about the future, whether she’s concerned about work eating away at her ability to enjoy life, her simple response is no. “I’m invested in ‘right now,’ ” she says.
Lovell, 43, has her sights set on what she can do today to make life more meaningful.
It comes at a cost.
Lovell says that after she earned a midcareer MBA from the University of Washington in 2006, she re-entered the workforce by taking a job at an angel-investor program that paid $45,000 a year, about half of the median salary of classmates who’d completed the same grad program. But she accepted the lower pay because the work was fulfilling. And, luckily, a scholarship covered much of her graduate studies, so college-loan debt wasn’t an issue.
Lovell says she still earns less than she could in other jobs. In exchange, she receives increased job satisfaction and the chance to make a real difference in her field by helping striving entrepreneurs link up with possible investors and by working with high school students.
More than that, Lovell says she has liberated herself from the so-called American dream, with its set notions about what a good life ought to look like.
She’s chosen to “travel light,” renting a small apartment on Capitol Hill instead of buying a home in the city’s pricey housing market. She sets aside mornings for working out and does karaoke at least once a week, but she spends many evenings attending professional networking events, happily blurring the line that designates personal time.
“It’s more of a balance between feeding your soul and feeding your community,” Lovell says of her life. “I really don’t see it as a sacrifice.”
AS OUR RESET, POST-RECESSION reality topples longstanding ideas about what constitutes “making it,” the good life seems ever harder to define.
A study by Deutsche Bank points to a tenuous situation for many Americans. It found that 47 percent of U.S. households don’t save any money from their current income.
Many, of course, can’t save, because they lack the funds. But others seem to be doing it by choice.
A recent study by SunTrust found that a third of middle-class U.S. households earning an annual income of at least $75,000, which is more than $20,000 above the nation’s median household income, are living paycheck to paycheck.
But peel away the layers and an interesting fact emerges. It’s not just that people in that income bracket are unable to put away money. Many in that group have simply decided not to save, according to the study. They’ve opted for a carpe diem approach to life, spending their extra money on dining out and entertainment instead, even if it means they don’t have any cash left over for practical things like saving for a rainy day.
While some of us are busy seizing the day in a material sense, the Lovells of the world are searching for something deeper. They’re reassessing what it even means to have a good life, given factors like the demands of work, the higher cost of living and the preciousness of free time.
Stenciled on the sidewalk by a Pioneer Square art gallery is a message that captures this new way of thinking: Time is memory.
The idea is as lofty as it is concise. What will you see when you look back on it all?
That existential question was on the mind of Pike Place Market veteran Jaison Scott recently as he contemplated the costs involved with achieving and maintaining the American dream.
Scott, 42, has been an employee at the Market for 22 years. But before that he was a regular behind the counters, because his single mother worked here when he and his brother and sister were kids and the family shared a two-bedroom apartment in Kitsap County.
“Unfortunately it didn’t pay that well, but she was happy,” Scott says.
Scott would take ferries into Seattle on Saturdays to hang out at the Market while his mom worked taxing, 12-hour shifts. Because of work, she wasn’t home much. The family’s vacations never amounted to more than a weekend road trip. But he and his siblings didn’t mind — that’s all they knew.
As an adult, Scott continued working full-time as a fish monger while playing drums in a rock band. By his mid-30s, though, he had gotten married, bought a house on nearly an acre of land on the Eastside and had a daughter, Ava, who’s 4 years old.
Now he’s the parent commuting long distances and working tough, 12-hour days.
Scott says he loves his job and the close bond among co-workers. He even dreams of pooling resources with his co-workers and buying the fish market some day.
But owning and keeping up the house turned out to be expensive and time-consuming, especially given Scott’s long work hours. He shows up at the Market by 5:30 a.m. each day and doesn’t get home until around 7:30 p.m.
The Scotts decided to downsize. They sold the property earlier this year and moved into a lower-maintenance town house.
“It was a great learning experience, but I was just so happy to have a house that I didn’t pay attention to a lot of the things that needed to be done with it,” he says. “That stuff piles up, and it costs a lot of money.”
Besides, now that he’s older, Scott realizes he’d rather spend his limited down time doing things with his family and friends and watching his daughter grow up, something his mom couldn’t do with him.
“I don’t wanna miss those moments,” he says. “I wanna be there.”
BEING THERE CAN mean different things to different people, though.
For Jerry Traunfeld, co-owner of the Capitol Hill restaurant Poppy and former executive chef at The Herbfarm, it means taking time out of a busy schedule to fuss over the garden in the backyard of the fixer-upper home he and husband Stephen Hudson bought five years ago.
On a recent sunny morning before heading to another long day at the restaurant, Traunfeld tended a patch of unruly earth just behind his 1937, International-style house overlooking Seattle’s Montlake neighborhood.
The 3,000-square-foot home represents a spacious upgrade from the smaller, hemmed-in bungalow the two formerly owned in the Ravenna neighborhood, purchased for $75,000 in the 1980s when the James Beard Award-winning chef was making just $8 an hour as a cook.
And, unlike the Ravenna house, this one came with a big yard — albeit one needing lots of attention.
“I know many people with large gardens who think of it as a burden,” Traunfeld says as he digs into the pebbly soil.
Traunfeld can afford a gardener to tend the steep, terraced lot, but he’s chosen to do most of the work with his own hands. It’s grinding but also grounding work.
“I’m doing it for myself; it’s not meant to be a showpiece or anything,” he says. “Just mowing the lawn is kind of fun.”
Traunfeld remembers how anxious he was the night he and Hudson got the keys to the house five years ago.
“So many things needed to be done,” he says.
The house has been a labor of love, but that’s perfect for a man who loves the labor involved.
TUKWILA SCHOOLTEACHER and track and basketball coach Louis D’Andrea, on the other hand, is so busy he doesn’t have time for much else during the school year, certainly not much time for regular personal pursuits between the classroom, sports venues and home in Burien, where he grades papers in the evenings.
To keep life from becoming overwhelming, D’Andrea, a 53-year-old divorced father with a son in college, relies on a single guiding principle: “What’s important now?”
“If I think about all the things going on right now, I’d just get overwhelmed,” he says. “This has helped keep me sane and feel organized.”
His focus outside of work has been doing whatever it takes to help his son, Brandon, achieve the American dream.
In 2001, while working as director of athletic facilities at Highline College, D’Andrea decided to get his master’s in education, allowing him to start working as a teacher a few years later.
Then, when his son was in high school and thinking about college, D’Andrea decided to enhance his salary potential by studying for his National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification, cutting into what little free time he enjoyed. He got that certification right around the time Brandon started classes at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The extra money bolstered Brandon’s college fund.
“I sacrificed a lot, but what was important to me was raising my son,” D’Andrea says. It’s starting to pay off. Brandon was set to graduate this spring with a bachelor’s in environmental sciences.
FACEBOOK FOUNDER Mark Zuckerberg was once quoted describing his work life like this: “If you count the time I’m in the office, it’s probably no more than 50, 60 hours a week. But if you count all the time I’m focused on our mission, that’s basically my whole life.”
The mere mention of “work-life balance” elicits a lot of eyerolling at SURF Incubator in downtown Seattle, a sprawling co-working space for tech startup entrepreneurs that offers networking opportunities with other startup hopefuls as well as possible investors, along with business-development mentorship.
Among the dozens of companies under development here, 60-hour weeks or longer are normal, even expected.
A startup needs constant attention, total commitment.
SURF founder Seaton Gras, himself an entrepreneur and avid surfer, gave the organization that name because he believes the sport shares qualities with starting a business. The name is an acronym for “Start Up Really Fast.”
Gras says the key to launching a business, like catching a good wave, is being at the right place at the right time, moving quickly and taking risks.
“You have to act like there’s no tomorrow, and you have to paddle like crazy,” he says.
Even then, there is no guarantee of success, but Gras hopes the collaborative, open-door atmosphere of the incubator will enable entrepreneurs who hit a snag to easily get feedback and advice from empathetic peers in the next office or cubicle, or at the regular, after-work socials held in the space’s kitchen and café area.
Building businesses inspires and motivates, but it leaves little room for leisure pursuits and relationships outside the bubble of the incubator.
As Gras explains, startups require “subordinating your personal needs to keep the machine running.”
“Your life gets put on hold for a while,” he says. “You have to decide if those things you put aside are going to result in consequences later. Will you regret making that choice?”
But there’s little time to contemplate such things for this driven, laser-focused group of entrepreneurs.
Cristian Munteanu and Bogdan Ghervan, co-founders of the real-time and predictive travel-data firm Qalendra, can be found hunched over their laptops at SURF seven days a week. There’s only a four-hour block in each day when neither of them is at the office, usually between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m.
The two, 38 and 27, moved to Seattle from Romania several months ago to ramp up their business in a section of SURF’s offices that houses 9Mile Labs, an “accelerator” that helps build companies dedicated to cloud technology and business-to-business software.
They left behind everything in Bucharest for a shot at becoming big-time businessmen in the land of Expedia and Microsoft.
“I sold my car; he left his girlfriend,” Munteanu says plainly.
Munteanu looks tired but content. He pulls out a container of ramen from a desk drawer. This is what dinner boils down to on many of those late nights.
You won’t find the Romanians or anyone else at SURF fretting over the sacrifices they’ve made to pursue their business dreams, though.
Devoting nearly all of your time to work might not be everyone’s idea of the good life, but for them, for now, life is good.