The week@work – An astronaut in Greenland, a McDonald’s worker in Edinburgh, Facebook’s identity crisis, and how to design a happier life

This week@work, a former astronaut and climate scientist, and a McDonald’s employee in Edinburgh challenged expectations and stereotypes, journalists questioned Facebook’s content algorithm, and a leading happiness scholar shared his formula.

In January, Piers J. Sellers, Deputy Director of the Sciences and Exploration Directorate and Acting Director of the Earth Sciences Division at NASA/GSFC wrote an opinion for The New York Times Sunday Review, ‘Cancer and Climate Change’.

“I’m a climate scientist who has just been told I have Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

This diagnosis puts me in an interesting position. I’ve spent much of my professional life thinking about the science of climate change, which is best viewed through a multidecadal lens. At some level I was sure that, even at my present age of 60, I would live to see the most critical part of the problem, and its possible solutions, play out in my lifetime. Now that my personal horizon has been steeply foreshortened, I was forced to decide how to spend my remaining time. Was continuing to think about climate change worth the bother?

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Journalist and author, Jon Gertner continued the story this week with ‘An Astronaut Finds Himself in Greenland’ for The New Yorker.

“Piers Sellers landed in Greenland on a frigid Monday morning in April, and as he stepped off the plane at Thule Air Base he regarded the surrounding snow-covered hills with delight…Sellers was visiting the country for the first time. “I didn’t even see this from space, since the farthest north the shuttle goes is fifty-one degrees latitude,” he said. “We’re at seventy-six degrees now, right? Fantastic.” Sellers’s plan was to rendezvous with NASA researchers at Thule (pronounced “TOO-lee”) and accompany them on Operation IceBridge, an annual mission to collect data on the diminishing ice in the Arctic Ocean and on the Greenland ice sheet. “These guys at IceBridge are always saying, ‘Oh, you should come along, see where the rubber meets the road,’ and I say that I’m too busy, with too much piled on my desk,” Sellers explained. “But, given my current situation, of all the things that we’re doing in the field, this one is probably the most critical right now.”

After the diagnosis, he briefly considered living his final year or so—assuming his doctors’ expectations prove correct—as a rich man might, in a tropical, hedonistic splurge. “I thought of myself sitting for weeks on a beach,” he said. “What would I do? I’d be thinking about climate.”

So Sellers went back to his desk job at Goddard, where he oversees the work of about sixteen hundred people, and considered how he could fit a few modest adventures between his office duties and chemotherapy sessions. Soon it occurred to him to go to the Arctic, which is warming faster than any other part of the world.

The second story this week comes via Mashable and writer Davina Merchant‘s coverage of the Facebook post of McDonald’s employee, Mike Waite. Bravo for debunking stereotypes!

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“Today I have had enough of the judgemental criticism. Let me be clear. YES I work at Mcdonalds and do it nearly 50 hours a week. Why? Not because I have no aspiration, motivation or intelligence…but for the opposite…because in a few months time like a great number of people I work with I will be going back into higher education. McDonalds has this reputation which is quite unfounded in the recent age, every person I work with has a story and every person is working their ass off in what can be a very tough job for their own reasons…be it they are in school, uni, have family, have kids, saving…etc. The one thing McDonalds is is a job which is extremely (extremely) flexible, has opportunities for growth and can allow you to do what you want to do. There are people becoming pilots, lawyers, designers, architects, and people who are at a point in their life that they will do whatever it takes to look after their family. I work with people I would aspire to be like, who have strengths in areas I wish I had, who have overcome situations I never could and who have the determination to not fade away on handouts but rather step up and work for their living unlike a huge number of people in this country. In the past I have known and worked with very rich folks in very high end jobs, and a few of them could never match the resilience and work ethic of some of the current lads/lassies. After the ending of a big part of my life McD’s is not only letting me save up for University, but setting me up with flexible work I can continue over the next years to come. Not only that but I intend on eventually progressing into the management side of things, something which ties in directly to my degree and will enhance my future job prospects.”

Beyond brilliant posts to its site, Facebook was in the news this week when Gizmodo reported that content on the platform was being ‘subjectively’ curated.

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David Uberti reported ‘Facebook wants you to think it’s just a platform. It’s not.’ for the Columbia Journalism Review.

“As prominently argued by Emily Bell, director of Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Facebook is increasingly shaping the contours of the public square, and citizens and news organizations have little choice but to go along for the ride. The power shift raises the all-important question of how information travels in free societies—and what we know about it.

“This is an unregulated field. There is no transparency into the internal working of these systems,” Bell said in a University of Cambridge speech earlier this year. “We are handing the controls of important parts of our public and private lives to a very small number of people, who are unelected and unaccountable.”

News organizations once had a more central role in setting the terms of public debate, balancing money-making aspects of publishing with more civically minded accountability journalism. They also generally followed widely accepted journalistic standards. Social networks have assumed much of the same power, Bell and others have argued, though they typically use more opaque processes and have a greater focus on those profitable slices of publishing. That’s not to say this new construct is necessarily worse, but it is foreign. And Facebook has little incentive to open up about its methodology.”

Fast Company’s Elizabeth Segran introduced us to London School of Economics professor and happiness scholar, Paul Dolan in ‘How To Intentionally Design A Happier Life’.

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“After decades of studying happiness, Dolan has developed a happiness formula. He says that happy people pay attention to the everyday experiences that give them pleasure and purpose, then organize their lives so that they are doing more of those things. It sounds obvious, right? Sure, but the problem is that we spend so much of our lives on autopilot instead of consciously focusing on doing things that make us happy. “We are creatures of habit and we automate processes very quickly,” Dolan says. “We do a lot of what we do because we’ve always done it, not because it is good for us or because we enjoy it.” The good news, however, is that Dolan offers two tangible ways for us create more happy moments in our lives. The first is creating a mental habit of paying attention to what makes us happy and the second is designing our lives so it is easier to do those things.”

Two additional stories of interest this week@work:

‘It’s a Tough Job Market for the Young Without College Degrees’  by Patricia Cohen for The New York Times

“Only 10 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds have a college or advanced degree, according to a new study by the Economic Policy Institute, although many more of them will eventually graduate.

And for young high school graduates, the unemployment rate is disturbingly high: 17.8 percent. Add in those who are underemployed, either because they would like a full-time job but can only find part-time work, or they are so discouraged that they’ve given up actively searching, and the share jumps to more than 33 percent.”

‘The Miserable French Workplace’ by Pamela Druckerman opinion for The New York Times

“While many other European countries have revamped their workplace rules, France has barely budged. The new labor bill — weakened after long negotiations — wouldn’t alter the bifurcated system, in which workers either get a permanent contract called a “contrat à durée indéterminée,” known as a C.D.I., or a short-term contract that can be renewed only once or twice. Almost all new jobs have the latter.

(French workers) believe that a job is a basic right — guaranteed in the preamble to their Constitution — and that making it easier to fire people is an affront to that. Without a C.D.I., you’re considered naked before the indifferent forces of capitalism.

No matter what the government does, the workplace is becoming less secure.”

To close this week@work, let’s return to Piers Sellers’ January 2016 NYT opinion piece.

“As for me, I’ve no complaints. I’m very grateful for the experiences I’ve had on this planet. As an astronaut I spacewalked 220 miles above the Earth. Floating alongside the International Space Station, I watched hurricanes cartwheel across oceans, the Amazon snake its way to the sea through a brilliant green carpet of forest, and gigantic nighttime thunderstorms flash and flare for hundreds of miles along the Equator. From this God’s-eye-view, I saw how fragile and infinitely precious the Earth is. I’m hopeful for its future.

And so, I’m going to work tomorrow.”

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