My first encounter with the concept of "pootling" was through a recent article in The Telegraph. Radhika Sanghani described how British Millennial women stopped pursuing high-paid positions in favor of "pootling along sideways." For those unfamiliar with the term, as I was, to "pootle" is to roam or wander. You won't find it in the unabridged Merriam-Webster, but in the online urban dictionary.
For most women today, especially Millennial women, career has been redefined. As Thom and Jess Rainer discovered through their research in The Millennials: Connecting to America's Largest Generation, women want a healthy work/life balance that respects family and friends as priorities. They want to work where it makes a difference and to ensure their organizations contribute to society. They want to integrate career and calling into a lifework that supports and encourages lateral, life-stage development over traditional ladder climbing.
Having raised four children while pursuing a career during the era of trying to do it all, the concept of pootling sideways would have defined me as the dreaded underachiever. By nature, I am intense and have much to learn about wandering. My idea of exploring the Rocky Mountains was a 10-day backpacking trip into Canada, hiking to a 10,000-foot elevation with four children under the age of 15 (all with their own backpacks—everyone had to carry their own food and shelter), a soon-to-be second husband, and a sawed-off toothbrush (to minimize weight).
It was with this same vigor that I poured myself into career and calling, dedicating no less than my full attention—a mathematical anomaly since my four kids and new marriage required equal amounts of commitment. After all, women, then and now, hold a strategic and influential position within culture and community. When this is coupled with a calling to live like Christ, our influence is powerful. The mere idea of impacting the world for Christ inspired me to write a speech, lead the charge, start a movement. Pootling sideways through career, calling, marriage, or motherhood would have been, well, counter-cultural at best.
But Christ calls us to be counter-cultural. Culture change occurs at the fringes which, whether sideways or other ways, requires us to act counter-intuitively. Our perfect example is Christ, whose counter-cultural leadership was demonstrated through the upside-down way of extreme servanthood. Christ provided the perfect example of counter-cultural influence by wandering always at the edges of society.
The sideways advantage
As a lifelong, headlong diver into things, with years of head banging to my credit, I'm fascinated with the idea of wandering along sideways. I believe sideways has many advantages.
Sideways is enjoyable (and less painful). My first lesson in traversing a hill was a humiliating attempt to ride a one-speed bike through the foothills of the Baja Peninsula. The tri-athletes I'd traveled with decided to walk this day. I, with all the wisdom of an ambitious child trapped in a woman's body, decided to rent a heavy one-speed bicycle, the only one I could find in our small Mexican town. Determined to make the top of our first ascent, I charged it, zooming past my companions. As I began to lose speed, I could hear them yelling behind me: "Traverse! Traverse!" which, to me, sounded very much like 'reverse.' Having not ridden a one-speed bicycle since childhood, I did not remember that brakes and reverse peddling are one in the same and that stomping on the brakes of a one-speed bicycle can throw a rider onto the pavement.
Shortly after my companions picked me up from the concrete, I received my first lesson on how traversing, wandering from side to side, alleviates the burden of a steep and difficult climb. The ride is more enjoyable, not just from saved energy, but also from the scenic views glimpsed at the edges of each turn. I also soon discovered that traversing can prevent a fast descent, while hard braking would fly me over the handlebars.
Sideways is freedom. Sideways allows us to freely choose, without guilt or self-reproach, service over salary, friendship over fraternization, or commitment over ambition. Sideways allows women to redefine success.
In Sideways to the Top, Norah Breekveldt tells 10 stories about 11 women who took non-linear career paths to success. Breekveldt details women's reflections upon the vistas where life traversed, documenting their insights, challenges, successes, and failures along their paths. By seeking "sideways moves rather than promotion" they became more well-rounded, side stepping traditional barriers to leadership.
My favorite example of a well-rounded lifework is found in Proverbs 31, in which we peer into the decisions and circumstances of a woman who freely chooses her definition of success: wife, mother, teacher, manager. She, like many women today, blazed a trail with richness, depth, and creativity. Like her, we too discover that life has great meaning when the journey to enrichment is not a rocket with a known destination, but a DIY expedition with lateral career moves, layovers with family, and sojourns of service.
Sideways is creativity. There's a fabulous quote in Sanghani's article by a bright woman in her 30s who decides to energize her current position with interesting lateral projects. It is a healthier—less stressful—and more creative way to enrich her career. She says, "There's a lot of interesting work around the sides."
I have fond childhood memories of my mother's quilt-making days. Wonderfully creative, my mother found value in the scraps and remnants from her years of clerking at a fabric store. From time to time, on rainy afternoons, she would bring out the boxes of fabric, and my sister and I would build color schemes and possibilities from the hundreds of pieces others thought too small or insignificant for use.
The implication of life around the sides is one of making connections in the fuzzy, less-defined world where interesting people and possibilities lie. Reflecting on my own career, it was the moments in which, ambition aside, I connected with people to celebrate Christ within them that made success possible. These were times during which I invested in women to see greater possibilities by pursuing what was off-path and different to build something unique and satisfying.
"Pootling along sideways" is the wanderer's approach to career and calling. No less ambitious of eternal outcomes, it affords us wanderers grace to explore life's edges in surprising and unintended ways. Sideways is an invitation to create a lifework from remnants and beauty, in which each of us finds God's glorious and individual purpose.
Join TCW for a sideways exploration of Lifework
Lifework: The Crossroad of Career and Calling is a new joint project between Today's Christian Woman and Diane Paddison of 4wordwomen.org. A biweekly e-newsletter, Lifework will explore a woman's position within family, church, and workplace to discover her unique and powerful opportunity for influence and culture change. Sign up for this free e-newsletter today!
Mary Goodrich drove headlong into a career into marketing. Having recently completed her MA in Leadership, she is seriously considering the merits of pootling to the next adventure.