Government Worker: Creativity at Work Interviews

Like many great anonymous writers I’ve met, Government Worker first came to my attention on Twitter. This is despite the fact that he is known to take reeeaaallly long Twitter sabbaticals (something I whole-heartedly respect). 

Aside from the on and off banter he offers the personal finance community on Twitter, I thoroughly enjoyed the long-form critique of Henry Theoreau on his blog (and my *almost* argument with him where I defended Theoreau because I think it’s obvious Theoreau had undiagnosed Asperger’s).

Posthumous diagnosing aside, I also dug his bold article about body image issues from the perspective of a male

He and his family hail from the great state of Wisconsin. He somehow knows about the fantastic bike trails in my town, and we might even meet in Madison someday (if I ever play Art Fair on The Square of again). He is a true music lover and has even suggested some great folk bands for me to scout out. 

In the article below, he is honest about the struggle presented by a creative path versus a safe scientific path. I hope he makes peace with his creativity someday. (I certainly think he sounds like a great creative scientist!)

The thoughtful reflections below on creative living signal he’s well on his way to exploring a healthy definition of creativity.

Take it away Government Worker!

Please give us a little background along with where we can track you down on the web.

Hi! I’m GovWorker!

I blog at https://governmentworkerfi.com and am active on Twitter @GovWorkerFI. My main goal of blogging is to help federal employees understand their retirement benefits and explore early retirement. However, I also write a lot about my family. My Tweets are a hot mess.

I’m in my mid-thirties and I have been a federal employee since I was 18 years old. I have three kids and a fantastic wife. We live in the Midwest, which I define as a state that touches one of the Great Lakes + Iowa - (New York + Pennsylvania) . (Iowa sneaks in there because they were part of the original Big Ten conference). As a side note- I find how people define “Midwest” to be a fascinating discussion. It’s a great way to tell where a person grew up and partially what his/her values are.

I have a PhD in a STEM field. When I was graduating from high school, I had won scholarships for excellence in music and also excellence in science. My eighteen-year-old self looked at my musician friends who were always piecing together multiple gigs and decided that STEM was a better bet and quit music for a decade to have more time on honing my science craft.

I started becoming interested in financial independence when I was getting burned out in my job. I wanted to quit and then just play whatever gigs I could find as a musician. Perhaps this means I missed my calling? At any rate,I’ve moved past the burnout and feel like I’m producing the best science in my life now and I’m pretty happy with it.

Do you consider yourself creative?

No. Not at all. Both in music and in science I frequently would meet people I would consider creative. I was always jealous of them. On the other hand, all of the creative people I worked with could never harness their creativity to produce outputs. For example, I know several brilliant scientists that can “see” math but are unable to write publications that are useful so their science and careers flounder. 

On the other hand, people come to me frequently because they like my “original” scientific ideas. So perhaps I am selling myself short. My “original” ideas never seem original to me because I’ve already thought of them. And perhaps my own personal definition of “creative” is very close to that of “savant”. 

Are there times when you feel pulled between traditional success and creative ideas that just won’t leave you alone?

No. Not. At. All.

I was always driven to be “successful” as traditionally defined by societal expectations. I was the top of my class in high school and the top student in my department. I went into a STEM field because I thought that was what successful people did. In retrospect, all of this “success” probably came from a deep place of insecurity. I wasn’t comfortable with who I was, so I tried to fool myself and everyone else into thinking I was some perfect example of the American Dream. That’s a crap excuse for living an authentic life. Now in my mid-thirties I’m trying to change that. 

What role has creativity played in your working life? Private life? Finances?  

As I have said before, I struggle with seeing myself as a “creative” person. But I am often credited for being a creative scientist. Perhaps I’m still learning to embrace my creativity. I feel most creative at work when I’m writing up my papers. I like visualizing the narrative of how my data fits into the story arc of humankind’s collective understanding of my area of research. In fact I like writing these stories so much that on almost every scientific team I’m on, I write the manuscript. (Typically that’s the job of the first author, or the person who is most intimately involved with the data). Perhaps that’s like being a freelance writer in the scientific realm? IDK.

When I compare my personal life to the lives of my blogger friends like Savvy History or A Purple Life, I feel like I must be the biggest square ever. I somehow feel like if people saw me in real life they’d think I was Ned Flanders (sans-mustache of course).

(Savvy History here to defend my square-ness. Classmates called me a robot. I don’t drink. I go to bed by 9:00pm. And Purple kind of sounds like a square too - ha!)

Are there any areas of living you approach in an especially innovative way?

I would like to think that I’m a pretty innovative parent. Perhaps it was that I was a parent in my early 20s but the only part of parenting I really ever enjoyed was the schadenfreude I got when my kids were frustrated by something. So instead of helping them, I would frequently touch their live wires together to see what other sparks would fly. This has resulted in them all being incredibly resilient and funny. They know that I love them, but that I won’t help them (and in fact, am likely to prank them) if they ask for help on something they don’t need help with.

Do you have a system for keeping track of ideas?  For example, do you use a series of notebooks or certain apps?

I have a giant magnetic whiteboard in my office. Each project I’m working on gets an index card. On the front of the card is the project name. On the back of the card is a list of tasks that will move the project forward. I move the cards around the white board based off of deadlines and project interests. Then before I leave work each day, I choose 1-4 cards I want to really focus on for the next day.

Do you mind sharing if you were formally identified as gifted in school? (Keep in mind, many extraordinary individuals are missed).  Do you have any positive or negative thoughts about gifted education or gifted psychology?

I was identified as gifted in school. I was differentiated in English, Science, and eventually Math. I don’t know if I feel especially gifted in those areas. I think I just loved school. School is a great place because you can control your outcome and you get regular feedback. (If I study, I can get an A. I like getting A’s, therefore I will study). I was just addicted to the positive feedback. Getting labeled as “gifted” just caused me to spend more time on school work because I liked that feedback. I don’t think it meant I was any different from anyone else. Also— compared to school, the real world sucks! Nobody is giving me “A’s” for leaving work to take care of a sick kid or dealing with a problem employee. 

What is your favorite DIY hack?  Did you come up with it on your own?

I set up our electric hot water heater to only heat water at night time. I hardwired a 240V timer to the electrical panel. I then signed up for to time of use (TOU) metering with our electric company. It means that (1) we pay very little to heat our water (2) we’re helping the planet by generating hot water when there is little demand for electricity. I wrote up all of the details here. \

What role (if any) has art and music played in your life?  Can you tell us some favorite bands?

Music is a big part of my life. I won the “best musician” award handed out by our high school music teachers and considered going to college for music, but stuck with the “safe choice” of getting a STEM degree. For a while I had some paid gigs while in college but it was too much to perform music at a high level and go to school. 

I started learning piano when I turned 30. It’s been a pleasant change to get re-aquainted with that side of myself. 

Some of my favorite “bands” have been local artists that I’ve watched live many times. I love Daniel and the Lion (which later became “Canyon Spells” and I think is now defunct), Corey Chisel, and John Statz. 

Michelle Again:

I hope everyone enjoyed learning more about Government Worker in this thoughtful and honest interview. I really enjoy his take on parenting, his water heater idea, and the gusto it takes to learn the piano at 30.

Also, the index card system he employs at work sounds like a great way to provide focus for projects. I could see something similar coming in handy with songwriting and recording.

Thanks for the idea Government Worker!

Do you want to hear some of the music that came out of his college days?

What do you think about Government Worker's choice to choose science over music? (I genuinely respect it).

8 Replies to “Government Worker: Creativity at Work Interviews”

  1. This is all so relatable!

    I definitely think I’m a teacher because it’s the closest thing to being a professional student. It was so great to read about feedback actually mattering…because boy, do we spend time giving a lot of it 😀

    Love the interview set up and loved Government Worker’s take!

    1. Thanks for stopping by the blog Penny! I really loved learning more about Government Worker in this interview too. His honesty and take on creativity at work really strike a chord.

      We’re doing a brief career unit with our students. They asked me what my dream job would be. I said, “Professional Reader.” I guess I’ve gotten pretty close!

      1. OMG. The thought of having either of you as my teacher just made my heart skip a beat. Penny— I know what you mean about being a professional student. I miss school so much.

        1. Awww thank you! I would have loved to have had Penny too!

          (I work with my 7th-grade language arts teacher btw – small world around here). I told her I still remember her lesson when she had us analyze U2 lyrics during a poetry unit. Teachers stick with people…

  2. science! we’re not all nerds although a lot of us are. there is no shortage of dweebs here in the r+d building.

    i think creativity in science is underrated, especially if you’re trying to make something that’s never been done. finding out what doesn’t work is as important as finding what does. that’s what took edison so long to land on tungsten for light bulb filaments i believe.

    keep matriculating the ball down the field.

    1. Like you, I love science. I’ve only grown to love it more as I’ve gotten older. I don’t split the brain into “left” brain and “right” brain talk anymore. I love studying inventors because their creativity is rampant, even when many of them have never drawn a good picture, sang a song, etc. I don’t know when the definition of creativity became so narrow.

      1. Thanks Freddy and Savvy!!

        I think perhaps I wasn’t clear in my original post. To an outside observer, I’m doing really innovative, cutting edge, creative science. I’ve won big science awards for originality.

        I don’t *feel* I’m being creative because creativity in science is taking tools people have developed to solve problem X and then changing them so they can be used to solve problem Y.

        I’ve met a few scientists in my career that can magically see brand new ideas. However they either have ASD or some other issues that prevent them from getting these ideas into the world fully. That’s what I meant when I think only “savants” can be truly creative. The rest of creative scientists just are really good at seeing similarities between what we know and what we don’t know. 🤷‍♂️

        1. Thank you for adding some additional thoughts Government Worker. I find people think of several different definitions when they hear the term “creativity.” (You are inspiring a post in me right now.) For example, there’s “little c” creativity that we all engage in on a regular basis, and then there’s “BIG C” creativity that changes lives outside of the original creator. In addition, there are definitions that involve an artsy creative component (along with definitions that strictly point to problem-solving capabilities independent from any level of artsiness).

          Either way, we are all talking about you being creative because you are.

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