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Posts Tagged ‘careers’

“The secret to a long life is knowing when it’s time to go”
Michelle Shocked

I used to say that any company that hired me full-time was doomed to go out of business in six months. That was more of a joke than the truth, but I do sometimes have an instinct for looming failure. My enthusiasm draws me towards a quixotic organization, and my powers of observation quickly disillusion me. That was true in my teenage relationships, and has proved equally true since in my dealings with employers and various causes – a fact that causes me even more self-doubts than satisfaction.

For example, I once gave up my usual freelance status for a position with a company that I was convinced was doing new and exciting things, and would be a benefit for users. I was quickly promoted, but my increasingly insider position made me uncomfortably aware that the company was spending more time on development than in finding a business model.

After a deal I had nurtured for three months fell apart because the CEO couldn’t bother to check his notes before negotiating, I did a little mental graphing, and concluded that the company would never turn a profit before it ran out of money. I resigned, and the company declared bankruptcy ten months later. Its end would have come sooner, except that employees were on half-salary for the last six months. I never saw any figures, but the company must have had a gross income of well under ten thousand dollars, while spending several million.

A while later, I took a similar position, partly for the pay but mostly for the chance to work with some industry leaders. Soon, I realized that its strength,too, lay in research. At that point, it was two-thirds of the way through developing its own product, which supposedly would be the cornerstone of its future products. Not wanting to leave the product half-finished, I stayed until its release. It sold poorly, much as I had expected, leaving the company with nothing to attract additional investment.

After much conscience-probing, I resigned. A few weeks later, massive layouts hit. The company careened along for several years, but as a consulting house rather than a manufacturer. By the time its doors closed for the last time, its original plans were forgotten by everyone except the executives.

More recently, my enthusiasms lured me into becoming active on the board of a non-profit. In this case, familiarity soon bred alarm. Although I believed in everything the organization stood for, I couldn’t help seeing that the founders had an unfortunate combination of arrogance and inexperience that seemed certain sooner or later to produce a disaster.

Not only did they have no idea of how to deal with the public, but they were incapable of seeing the need for developing a community. Worst of all, with an approach that could only be called aristocratic, the founders gave the board little to do except to agree to decisions that were already made.

For some months after I resigned, the organization was struggling just to raise the money it needed to survive. It took a couple of PR hits, but survived, largely because no one was watching it.

Then the non-profit managed to annoy people in quantity. The founders were denounced, sometimes legitimately, sometimes abusively. Their commitment to their cause was questioned. Previous supporters declared they would not donate again. Other organizations stopped associating with it. Sponsors were questioned about their connection, and, instead of making a public apology, the founders chose to remain unrepentant.

The organization still has supporters, and can probably continue until the next time it needs funds. But, as I write, its future effectiveness seems doubtful, and maybe impossible. The death watch has probably started, although it may be prolonged through stubborness.

In all these cases, I found myself tangled in mixed emotions.

On the one hand, I felt that I had dodged a bullet against all odds, that I had been wandering oblivious through an obstacle course, and only escaped being dragged down myself through lucky coincidences. I also felt my prophetic gifts proved, and had to resist uttering variations of “I told you so!” in public.

On the other hand, I had committed myself on all of these occasions, and made friends – or, more accurately, perhaps, friendly acquaintances. Could I have done anything to stave off disaster if I had stuck around? I asked myself on each occasion?

Fortunately, I’ve trimmed back my megalomania by concluding that I could only have been tainted by each failure, but that doesn’t eliminate the guilt. I’ve been the first person to mutter against myself analogies about rats and sinking ships, feeling hypocritical because, for all my concern, my sense of relief is even stronger.

I suppose I should be grateful for the survival skill. After all, with my ideas of loyalty and obsessive tendencies, things could have been far worse for me. And I do feel grateful – just not very proud.

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Writers are supposed to have a history of different jobs, and I’ve always done my best to keep that tradition alive – even before I started writing professionally. But looking back, I see that three turning points have brought me to where I am today, each of which was driven more by desperation than careful planning.

The first was my decision to return to university. I had finished my bachelor’s degree in English and Communications four years earlier, but I had done absolutely nothing with it. I was working part time in a book store, because, after five years of university, I was burned out. Just as importantly, I had no idea whatsoever how I wanted to make a living. But the two years off I had promised myself had turned to four, and I was feeling trapped, and more than a bit of a failure. Book stores, I had discovered to my surprise, were not about loving books at all, but selling them, and I might as well have been selling slabs of raw chicken breast in a butcher shop.

Not having a better idea, I listened to the common wisdom, and decided that what my double major amounted to was the first steps in the qualifications I needed to teach. That seemed plausible; I had given poetry seminars at my old high school, and they had gone over well. So I scraped up the recommendations I needed, and applied to both the faculties with which I had an association.

For a while, I considered studying parrots in the Communications Department, and even wrote to Irene Pepperberg, the recognized expert in the field. But my moment of desperation was in December, and the department only took new grad students in September.

By contrast, the English Department would let me start in January. I still wasn’t sure exactly how I would use a second degree, but I could be paid as a teaching assistant while getting it, and the pay and the responsibilities were much better than at the book store. So, for four years as a teaching assistant and seven as a lecturer, I taught, finding the job mostly satisfying, aside from the necessity of occasionally having to fail students.

Slowly, however, that became a dead end job, too. Unless I took my doctorate, the best I could hope for was a non-tenured position as Senior Lecturer, and even those jobs were rare unless my partner and I were prepared to move. We weren’t, and I realized that I was not only in another dead end, but one where my choices could be limited by the whim of the department chair.

Trying to ignore the despair and panic nibbling at the edges of my thoughts, I attended a Saturday afternoon seminar on technical writing at Simon Fraser University’s Harbour Centre campus. My partner picked me up so we could have dinner at her parents’, and, as we drove down the highway through Richmond, I summarized what I had learned about the profession to her.

A long silence fell as we considered the possibilities. Then suddenly, I turned to her and said, “You know, I can do this.”

So I did. I did it so well that I worked largely as a freelance. In four months,  I more than doubled my income, and, in nine months I was hiring sub-contractors. Unlike a surprisingly large amount of technical writers, I had realized that success required the ability to learn my subject – and if there was one thing that all those years of school had taught me, it was how to learn. I also discovered that being able to offer technical writing, marketing, and graphic design made me an all-in-one package that many employers found irresistible.

But that success made me an executive at a couple of startups. When they crashed, I found it hard to return to my base professions – I could see the mistakes that business owners were making, and I had just enough sense to realize that my opinions wouldn’t be welcome, particularly since I would have been correct more often than my employers.

I endured two particularly dreary jobs at companies that were being led into the ground. Then, one afternoon, walking along the Coal Harbour seawall in the autumn sunlight, I realized I could no longer be even conscientious about helping to prepare mediocre proprietary software.

I was already doing the occasional article for Linux.com. Now, in my desperation, I asked Robin (“roblimo”) Miller if he would take me on full-time. To my unending gratitude, he agreed to let me try. At first, I thought I would never manage the dozen stories he expected per month, but soon I was not only meeting my Linux.com quota, but writing another six to eight stories every month. Writing, I discovered, was like everything else, becoming easier with practice.

Looking back, I see that each of these turning points brought me a little closer to the work I did the best, even though I didn’t realize at the time what was happening.

More importantly, I realize that none were the rational, careful planned moves that the typical career advice suggest that you make. In fact, if I had followed that typical advice, I would probably still be at the book store. At each of these points, what motivated me was my unhappiness with my current position, and a realization that taking a leap into something new was no more chancy than staying where I was. It wasn’t ambition, or careful planning that made me move on – just a dim sense that I wasn’t where I wanted to be, and a growing awareness that I really had nothing left to lose.

This, I suspect is how most people make such decisions. These days, when someone comes to me asking for career advice (as happens two or three times a year), I don’t tell them to plan their career moves rationally. Instead, I ask them how they want to spend their lives, and what risks they are prepared to take to do it.

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Long ago, I lost count of the classes I taught and the talks I’ve given. The number, though, must be in the hundreds. I can remember only a handful in which I wasn’t nervous beforehand – and they were uniformly disastrous. At least for me, anxiety about speaking in public is normal, so over the years I’ve learned to cope with it.

Notice that I said “cope,” not “eliminate” or “reduce.” In my experience, you can’t eliminate or reduce what actors call flop-sweat, and you shouldn’t even try. I strongly believe that nervousness is unchannelled energy, and the trick is contain and direct that energy so that you release it while speaking, and give your talk an extra edge.

How do I turn that anxiety to my advantage? If the class or talk is especially important, and I feel even more nervous than usual, I make sure that I exercise lightly or moderately in the morning. The exercise bleeds off the excess energy, and leaves enough adrenalin and endorphins in my body that I’m awake and alert.

If possible, I like to eat lightly about two hours before I talk. I don’t want to eat too much, because doing so would make me drowsy. Nor do I want to eat so little that I’m thinking about food when I should be watching how my audience is reacting to my words.

I also want to eat healthily. If I eat junk food, then the sugar rush will be leaving me just about the time I speak. Fruit or fruit juices are usually a good choice, I find.

About half an hour before I speak, I prefer to find a room – or at least a corner – where I can review my written or mental notes about what I wish to discuss. Even if the material is as familiar to me as the ring on my finger, reviewing the notes gives me something to do and reduces any fear that I don’t know the material. Besides, I may discover something new to say that enhances my presentation.

If I am more nervous than usual, a short, slow walk helps. During the walk, I concentrate on breathing regularly, and mentally go over my topic. If possible, I try not to speak to anyone. If talking is unavoidable, I’ll be friendly, but keep my responses to a minimum.

Just before I enter the room where I’ll be talking, I may also do some breathing and visualization exercises. One exercise that has helped for years is to count ten deep, slow breaths, imagining each one descending to my navel and sitting there. Then I take another ten breaths, imagining as I exhale that each breath expands from my navel through my torso and down my arms and legs.

In another exercise, I repeatedly imagine myself drawing a line from my forehead to my navel, my breath following the line. If I am alone, my hand may actually trace the line in the air, almost as though I am closing a zipper.

Both these exercises help to calm me and leave me centered and ready to speak.

Finally, just before I speak, I take a few seconds to look over the audience. This habit convinces me that the audience is not so fearsome as my imagination made it. But I also imagine that all the nervous energy I’ve been struggling to contain expands like a sphere to include the audience and myself – and, with that, I’m ready to begin.

As I talk, now and then I’ll mentally renew the sphere, sometimes imagining smaller ones reaching out to audience members who seem disinterested. Perhaps it’s a selective memory, or the disinterested audience members simply notice that I’m looking at them, but the visualization usually seems to refocus their attention.

Perhaps this routine is part neurosis or superstition. However, for me it works, so I’m not very tempted to tinker with it. I don’t suggest that everyone follow my routine, but I do suggest that people follow their own. And if any of my routine works for anyone else, so much the better. With a little experimentation, you should be able not only to control your nervousness about speaking, but also use that nervousness to help you speak with more energy and confidence.

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When I was working at a startup, I arrived one morning to find several developers crawling out of the boxes in which file cabinets had arrived the day before. They had slept there after working late into the evening. No deadlines were looming, but they had done the overtime so they could get the full experience of a startup. From the look in their eyes, I could see that they had already started mythologizing the experience of sleeping in the boxes, even while they complained of aching backs.

For me, the scene has become a symbol of workaholism – compulsive, often pointless overwork. Seeing my busy schedule, you might have a hard time believing this, but it’s the kind of work I’ve always declined.

Nowadays, people are as likely to condemn such behavior in themselves or others. Yet I can’t see that workaholism has declined any, especially in high-tech. People may coyly agonize over how long they work, but for all the relaxation schemes they try, and all the aphorisms and rules they tape on their monitors, they don’t change their habits. Just as people trying to drop ten pounds never manage to get out to the gym regularly, or to cut their portions at lunch, so the self-proclaimed workaholics never quite manage a more relaxed lifestyle. Being a workaholic is part of their identity.

Only now they are recovering workaholics, and want you to know they are aware of their problem.

No one, of course, is going to admit that they are not working as hard as they might. The same corporate culture that claims to be sympathetic to these pseudo-addicts also tells them to give 110%, and to work hours of unpaid overtime. To admit to a desire to do less would be like saying that you aren’t a serious person, and possibly a liability for everyone around you – that you are, in fact, intimidated into making an effort that you would prefer not to make.

Such an admission is not compatible with most people’s self-respect. So instead of finding less demanding or more fulfilling work, they keep pushing themselves too hard, using the language of twelve step programs so they can dramatize their dilemma until it’s bearable.

As a coping mechanism, seeing themselves as addicts is much easier than actually working towards changing their lives. If nothing else, truly changing themselves might take a year or two because of their previous obligations, and as a culture we’re not skilled at delaying gratification. Call yourself an addict, though, and you have the perfect excuse for never changing anything.

If that is what they want to believe about themselves, who am I to argue them out of it? Yet I do wish that they would stop insisting that, if I work hard, I must be in the same position.

I can understand why the workaholics might think that. Like them, I work long hours – far more than the forty hours each week that once was supposed to be the norm. Ten, twelve, or even fourteen hour days are very familiar to me.

The difference is, unless I’m sick or injured or traveling, I rarely go as long as two days without exercising, and always take some time for myself.

Even more importantly, I’m as busy as I want to be. I wasn’t lucky, as they often say, to become a freelance writer. I took years to maneuver into my present position, Now, when I work long hours, I may have deadlines to meet. But I chose to take on those deadlines, and I meet them because I more or less enjoy what I’m doing.

Admittedly, some of the assignments I take on aren’t ideal ones. Nor can I say that, were I suddenly independently wealthy, that I would keep on doing exactly what I’m doing now. But I would keep much of present routine, and the rest wouldn’t be that different from what I do now.

Isaac Asimov said that he was once asked if he would rather have sex or write. He replied that he would rather write – after all, he could write for twelve hours a day. I don’t know that I would go quite that far, but I know what he’s talking about.

Quite simply, my work writing is fun. It’s not drudgery. I like it so much that when I finish my paid work, I go and write some more, either in this blog or on some other project. I enjoy putting words on the screen, and I see no reason for being apologetic about the fact.

Workaholic? Me? Sorry, when you enjoy it, work’s a healthy thing. Just because you haven’t learned that doesn’t mean that I haven’t.

I wish you might learn the difference one day; you’d be better off. However, until you do, please don’t mistake my definition of work for yours.

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Considering how much I dislike authority figures, I have had surprisingly little trouble with them in my working life. Maybe the fact that I am habitually polite in person helps – although it can also give rise to charges of hypocrisy if I criticize someone later in an article. Maybe, too, the fact my acts of subversion are usually covert has something to do with it, too. But whatever the reason, I only remember a single reprimand – and then it was without any intent on my part.

The incident happened when I was working for a small company that was being slowly ground under by its CEO. He was new and. while he was learning as he went along, he lacked the empathy to understand that repeated purges of the staff might have an effect on morale. I mention this background because worry among the top management might have been responsible for my reprimand.

At the time, I had the habit of entering small jokes into the screensaver banner – wry, mildly amusing one-liners of the sort you often see today on Facebook and Twitter. Most were so trivial that I no longer remember them. One might have been “Common sense isn’t,” and another (borrowed from Doonesbury), “It’s tough being pure. Especially in your underwear.” If I didn’t use either of these, the ones I did use were similarly innocuous.

So, too, I thought was the one that caused me trouble. It was a T-shirt slogan that I had first heard about at a Garnet Rogers concert: “Does anal-retentive have a hyphen?”

I changed the banner after a morning of editing a manual for publication when I reflected that I was lingering over changes that probably no one except me would ever notice or care about. To me, the expression was a comment about how overly-punctilious I was being and how close I was to losing my sense of proportion. I posted it, and went for lunch.

When I got back, the fourth highest executive in the company accosted me with a look so grim that I thought another company purge had come. Instead, with lips quivering with disapproval, he insisted that I take down the banner.

“Why?” I asked, genuinely puzzled.

The lip quivering increased. “I shouldn’t have to tell you. Some things are simply unacceptable in the work place.”

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that comment,” I said, secure in the knowledge that I had a consulting contract with a kill-clause. “What’s the problem?”

But finally, after the executive made a few vague efforts to talk around the issue without being specific, I relented. All I really understood was that he thought I had overstepped and that, more in sorrow than in anger, he had to correct my behavior.

“No big deal, if that makes you happy,” I said. “But you’re making a fuss over nothing.”

To this day, I am still not sure what he thought I was saying. I doubt that he was suggesting that I was making a comment on micro-management, because, if anything, the company management style was too remote.

The most likely possibility, since he was a fundamentalist Christian who had read little outside the Bible, was that he was unfamiliar with the term “anal-retentive” and jumped to the conclusion that the expression was obscene. Maybe he just felt that a phrase whose meaning he didn’t know should be deleted on principle.

But, whatever the reason, I not only felt that the matter was hardly worth bringing up, but that he had over-reacted. I had no point to make, and would have removed the comment at a simple request.

For a month after the incident, I had little to do with the executive. Technically, I was reporting to him, so matters might have been strained, but since his supervision consisted of approving the task list that I wrote for myself and collecting my time sheet so he could initial it before sending it off to payroll, the main difference was that we talked less.

Finally, he decided he had to discuss the matter with me. He claimed that he was the main reason I was hired as a consultant, and insisted that he had done the right thing, and expected me to agree.

However, I was in no mood to give him much satisfaction. “You over-stepped your authority,” I said, “But that’s in the past, so I’m willing to forget what happened.”

That wasn’t good enough for the executive. He tried to get me to apologize, but I simply continued to insist that we move on until he gave up.

We never did return to the relatively friendly relationship we had before. But, a few weeks later, I put in my notice, and the issue ceased to matter. Since then, I’ve thought more than once that the real sign of how anal-retentive I can be is that I’ve wondered occasionally since exactly what he thought was happening.

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Having worked freelance for most of my adult life, I’ve set up my desk in countless locales. It took me a while, though, to realize how to set up the desk in relation to the view. That’s not the kind of thing I was ever taught – I had to learn the hard way, through experience.

When I was a sessional instructor in the English Department of Simon Fraser University, my desk was mainly something to lean on while I talked with students about their essay preparation and results. I always counted myself lucky that I had entered grad school in English, because the Communications Department – my other choice was in the windowless maze of the Classroom Complex. By contrast, the English Department was on the north and west side of the sixth floor of the Academic Quadrangle. Each semester, I would have a variation on one of two views: The inner one, where I could see people passing through the quadrangle and, in summer, lounging on the grass, and the outer, which gave a spectacular view of the mountains to the north. I could, and did spend hours at my desk staring out at that semester’s view. But I never expected to get much work done anyway, because it would be sure of being interrupted just as I became absorbed.

When I became a technical writer, and later a marketing and communications consultant, the view became more important. At one long-term position, my window overlooked the top of the Hudson Bay parkade in downtown Vancouver. Looking down, I could see not only the people coming to and from their cars, but also the car thieves going systematically down the row of cars. I can’t have been the only one watching, because security guards would always come along a few moments before I thought to call them. But I was lucky that the project kept changing directions over the thirty months of its existence, or else I might have been too obsessed with the view below to keep up.

The same was true when I worked in Yaletown. The two storey building across the road had a flat roof that, over the decades, had accumulated enough top soil to support meter-high weeds. The weeds make the roof a perfect place for seagulls to nest out of sight of predators. Later, when the chicks came, they would scurry into the grasses to escape the detection of crows. Later still, they made their first stumbling efforts at flight across the roof, crash landing in the clumps of weeds. I was more fascinated by the progress of the fledglings than in the work I was doing, by far.

But my real downfall came when I worked on the twenty-third floor of Harbour Centre. I was the fourth person hired, so I more or less had my choice of locations for my desk. I placed it squarely facing the window, looking down at the harbor and beyond it to the mountains. The view was relaxing when I was negotiating ad space and bundling agreements on the phone, but a disaster when I was trying to write a manual or ad copy. I’d find myself staring out the window, and realize guiltily that I had left my thoughts to rove freely for the last ten minutes.

I wasn’t prepared to give up the view entirely, so I moved my desk at right angles to the window. That way, I could focus on my work without the distraction of a seaplane landing or a cruise ship docking, but, when I was on the phone or wanted to take a moment’s break, I only had to swivel in my chair.

I’ve followed the same arrangement ever since. Now, as I write in my townhouse, I am at right angle to a view of the trees beyond my third floor balcony. The view is not as breath-taking as some I’ve had away from home, but with the parliament of crows thirty meters away and its occasional visit by red-tailed hawks, there is still more than enough to distract me if I permitted it. But by not looking at it directly, I keep my productivity high, and can still enjoy the sight of the swaying tops of the evergreens when I stand, stiff and in need of a stretch after a long bout of work.

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You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money,

Love like you’ll never be hurt,

You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watching,

It’s got to come from the heart if you want it to work.

– Kathy Mattea

Sometimes, I find myself rediscovering the obvious. When that happens, I’ve learned to pay attention, because it always means that I’ve forgotten something to which I need to pay more attention. A few days ago, I made the thirtieth or fortieth of these rediscoveries in my lifetime – this one to do with networking.

Most of my income these days comes from journalism, but I do pick up the occasional tech-writing, communications, or graphical design work on the side – especially since the rise of the Canadian dollar has reduced the converted value of my pay cheques in American funds. Consequently, like any consultant, I am constantly networking to keep my name out there.

The only trouble is, most networking events are at the end of the day. After eight to twelve hours of work, going out is often the last thing on my mind. I often feel like I have to drag myself out to the events, when, instead of meeting a room full of strangers, what I really want to do is sprawl out on a futon with a parrot or two.

Then, when I get there, I have to get into persona. Regardless of how I feel, I have to look and sound outgoing, and bring out my best small talk. I never have been one of those who believes in speed-networking, counting the evening’s success by the number of cards I collect, but I have usually felt that I ought to circulate when I was really more in the mood to find a good conversation with two or three people in some quiet corner.

Yet over the last couple of years, I’ve been thinking more and more than the typical networking event was becoming less and less worth my while. Part of the reason was probably the tight economy, and another part that many of the same people keep attending the local events. But it was only this week that I accepted that most of the problem was my attitude.

The revelation came because I was out at an altogether different gathering. It had nothing to do with work, or even technology – it was just a group of people with a common leisure interest. And there, when I wasn’t even trying, I got the first piece of consulting work I had picked up at public event in over a year.

If that had just happened once, I would have attributed it to serendipity. But the next night, under the same casual conditions, it happened again, which makes coincidence seem less likely.

The difference, I think, lies in the image I project. I like to think that I talk a good line of piffle, and can make myself likable when I make an effort, and to judge by how people respond, that is not completely my imagination. But when I am going against my inclinations and maybe trying too hard, I suspect that I am projecting – not falseness, exactly, but an impression that is less than completely genuine. Even if most people are unable to explain why, something about me does not seem right.

Should I be in the position of needing work, this lack of authenticity is compounded by desperation. Most people, I find, are made uncomfortable by the slightest hint of desperation, and will avoid people who show signs of it. A few will even try to take advantage of it, although that’s another issue.

By contrast, at genuine social events, people are more likely to be relaxed and able to enjoy each other’s company. Our attitudes create an atmosphere in which actual connections can be made. Although the contacts we make may be fewer than those made at a networking event, the ones we do make are more likely to run deeper. Paradoxically, the less we try to connect, the more likely we actually are to connect.

I’m thinking now that much of how we’ve been told about how to network is inefficient, if not a waste of time. When I consider how I react to most of the people at networking events, I suspect that I’m not the only person with authenticity problems in attendance. Many, perhaps most, I suspect have the same problems as I do to a greater or less degree.

Under these circumstances, is it really so surprising that so few of us connect? We all want something from such events – a connection, a lad, a job – and we are all trying so hard that most of us are being less likable than we could be. Moreover, if some of us do have something in common, we may never realize the fact, because we are too busy with our false fronts.

To suggest that we stop worrying about making impressions or collecting business cards may sound counter-intuitive. To go out and simply enjoy ourselves, trusting that we will make connections without really trying might sound irresponsible, and trusting too much to luck. And almost surely it will result in far fewer connections than a networking event. Yet the connections we do make when not trying too hard are likely to be ones that are meaningful to us. Best of all, they don’t result in hundreds of business cards that we keep in drawer for a few years before we throw them away wondering who exactly all these people might be.

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