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Posts Tagged ‘work’

Years ago, I was the fourth person hired at a start-up. I was also the first non-programmer, which meant that I was an outsider, tolerated for a few useful abilities that nobody else wanted to concern themselves about, and often condescended to in an allegedly friendly way as I struggled to increase my spotty knowledge. Perhaps that was why I was sensitive to what happened when the first women were hired.

The other employees were young men in their twenties, some single, others in permanent relationships that were up to several years old. Thrown into an empty office several floors above the parent company, the company had the atmosphere of a locker room – nothing too raunchy, you understand, just a group of young men acting the way they had been taught to act, with a lot of casual talk about women and equally casual squalor of the sort left by men who had never been responsible for picking up after themselves.

By contrast, I was older and long-married, which were other reasons why I was an outsider. As the company slowly grew, continuing all male, I had plenty of confirmations of my belief that men and women tend to civilize each other, and that one-gender groups were about as appealing as an old sock growing mildew at the bottom of the laundry basket.

Then an office manager was hired. In those days, the position was as inevitably filled by women as programming jobs were filled by men, and this new hire was no exception. The all-men’s club was about to change.

I was responsible for bring the new hire up to speed, since she would be taking over tasks that I had been doing for lack of anyone else to do them. Tentatively, before she arrived, I suggested a few changes in daily behavior, like removing the soft-core anime screen-savers, and maybe making an extra effort to make her welcome. My suggestions were mocked, although, to be fair, when the time came some of the other male employees did seem to make a bit of an effort.

The trouble was, those efforts were nowhere near enough to overcome the habits of several unsupervised months. The new office manager was barely out of college, and visibly nervous about stepping into this atmosphere. Not only did she have no experience exercising the authority she was supposed to have, but many of the other staff members talked to her breasts more often than her face. Once or twice, she almost certainly heard her body being evaluated by some of the men.

Watching this, I felt like apologizing on behalf of the company, but I was equally unsure of how to use authority. I worried, too, that bringing the topic into the open would only add to everyone’s discomfort, especially since I am a man myself.

However, I soon concluded that, as annoying as my treatment had been, it was trivial compared to the office manager’s. After all, while not a programmer, I was quickly learning enough to hold my own. I had also discovered that, short of being familiar with the technology, the next best thing was to show a willingness to learn. Over time, I was gaining limited acceptance, at least among some of the programmers.

At best, though, the office manager had only a professional interest in the technology. But even if she had been willing to learn, I realized that she would never be fully accepted, simply because she was a woman. Too many of her fellow employees were asking her out – and none of these suitors had the maturity to accept the authority of a woman they hoped to date.

The second woman had the advantage of being a bit older and a bit tougher. Also, she was a technical writer, and the male programmers were only too glad to have private conversations with her. But her situation was similar, and she was too different from the office manager for either to support the other.

Another woman, hired to help with the Japanese translation of the company’s products, was even more isolated because of her limited English. Still another, hired as a receptionist, had to endure the graphic designer moving his computer so he could sit with her. She already had a boy-friend, but had no idea to handle the situation – and neither the office manager nor I had enough support from the company founder to get the designer to change his behavior. If anything, many of the programmers applauded his chutzpah.

The only woman who held her own was the finance clerk, whose expertise nobody disputed. About sixty, she could also assume a motherly role, treating the rest of the staff as children. But if she ever helped the other women cope, I never observed it.

For myself, I never did figure out how to intervene effectively, and after ten months at the company, I realized it would eventually fail and moved on. But I wonder, sometimes, if I would ever have noticed the difficulties of the women if I hadn’t been in a position to empathize, or felt partly responsible for them. Certainly, I was the only man who ever expressed concerns, even if I were too inexperienced to do anything.

However, what bothers me most about that situation is how routine it was. Few of the programmers were ogres of sexism. They were nothing worse than young men, and, while they were conditioned the way that most young men are in our culture, most of them were too introverted and polite to be the worst representatives of that conditioning.

Nor were the female employees particularly sheltered. Yet, despite being constantly thwarted in their efforts to carry out their jobs, none complained or made any effort to improve their situation. Instead, the women simply acted as though such difficulties were nothing new – which, of course, they weren’t.

Long before this experience, I had counted myself a feminist. Yet somehow I had managed to miss how ordinary this systemic sexism actually is. But since then, this reality has been like a bad smell that, once noticed, spoils all the other smells. It is a perception that I have no way of turning off. And, ever since, I have wondered frequently at the crassness of many men and the patience of most women, and worried about how much I contribute to the problem and whether I do enough to help solve it.

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The last time I worked in an office, I couldn’t wait to work from home. I had lost what little tolerance I ever had for endless meetings, and HR managers dragging everyone from their keyboards to play morale-building games of charades. Yet no sooner had I started working from home that I started looking for other places where I could sometimes work. The search continues, eight years later.

The trouble with working from home, especially when you live alone, is that you can easily spend days with no human contact. Yet finding the right work space elsewhere is difficult, too, since I would prefer to walk or cycle, and, although I want people around me, I don’t want so much noise that work becomes impossible.

Less than twenty meters from my door is a gazebo surrounded by flowers. Unfortunately, it’s in a courtyard where children are playing at most times of the day. Their parents are usually in the courtyard, too, idly chatting, and while I’m glad enough to talk to them when we meet at other times, I have been unable to convince them that when I’m carrying my laptop I prefer not to talk.

The same problem exists with the pool in my townhouse complex. I’d love to sit by the water on a deck chair, and dive in to do a few lengths while I’m working out how to word something, but, when I try, neighbors persist in asking what I’m doing.

Less than a kilometer away, there’s a rec center. It has an open area full of tables, which is often used by ESL tutors to meet their students. Unfortunately, it’s right beside the gym, where troops of adults and children are constantly passing. Also, every now and again, the staff decides to discourage people using the tables, so I can never be sure that the tables are available.

Not much further on are coffee shops. Unfortunately, one is too quiet to bother with. Another is wedged into a corner of the supermarket. A third has glass down one side, and by early afternoon feels as comfortable as a greenhouse, even on cloudy days.

Besides, I feel like a dilettante working at a coffee shop – and more of a bit of a freeloader, even if I buy something every couple of hours.

The best solution I’ve found is to sit in the shade under a tree in the local park, where I can hear the nearby stream and watch people pass on the sidewalk. However, when I do that, I usually drowse, leaving my work half-done.

Usually, the off-chance that I might get work done in any of these locations seems to small to gamble on. Instead, I stay by my work station, half-convinced that I am missing something somewhere, being productive, but convinced that by staying I’m one day closer to a curmudgeonly and lonely old age. Yet even that seems a brighter prospect than returning to an office job.

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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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The Freda Diesing School’s year-end exhibit has become a fixture on my calendar. Not only is it one of the largest annual shows of First Nations artists anywhere in the province, but I enjoy seeing how the students develop over the two years of the program. Over the last three years, it has also become a place for renewing old friendships and acquaintances, and making new ones.

Held April 16-17, the 2011 incarnation of the show was no exception. It was smaller than previous exhibits, but made up for its size by the general quality of the work.

The variety was also impressive, although, when I heard that the final project for the second year students was a moon mask, I half-expected otherwise. Perhaps a lack of time prevented uniformity; when I arrived during setup on the afternoon of April 15, many of the students were yawning and taking every chance to sit, having been up late finishing their pieces for the show.

The quality of the second year students’ work was especially high, much of it equaling or surpassing the pieces seen in Vancouver galleries. Chazz Mack, who has gained a reputation for the skill seen in his two-dimensional designs in his two years at the school was forced to miss the first day of the show because of an illness that the hospital diagnosed as dehydration, but contributed “Eagle Trance,” a mask in the distinctive Nuxalk style of high head dresses, large noses and strong primary colors:

Stephanie Anderson, a winner last year of a YVR award, staggered late into setup with a striking eagle frontlet that still reeked of fixative – and was possibly the strongest piece in the show:

Another second year student, Colin Morrison, whose first mask I bought eighteen months ago, demonstrated his growing skill with two masks, “Resurrection of the Ancestors” and “Black Wolf,” a mask meant for a flat surface or stand:

Even more development was shown in the work of Carol Young Bagshaw, the winner of last years’ Mature Student Award. While last year at this time, you could tell which teachers she was working with on each of her masks, this year, she displayed her own sense of style. Her masks are less stylized than traditional northern work, looking more like portraits, and taking full advantage of the beauty of the grain and the unpainted wood:

These graduates set a high standard, but at least some of the first year students seem likely to equal them. Nathan Wilson, who has already sold professionally, produced a solid piece entitled “Moon in Human Form,” that hinted at his skill, even though it was far from his best work:

Another emerging professional in first year, Kelly Robinson, easily rivaled the second years with “Visions Within,” even though he talked of adding some finishing touches to it:

Yet another talented first year students was Paula Wesley with the fine line and unique hair of her cannibal woman “Thu-Wixia,” which she danced at the end of the opening evening:

Accompanying Wesley in the dance was Evan Aster, who won one of this years’ Honorable Mentions for the Mature Student Award. Like Wesley, Aster promises to be a strong artist when his carving equals his painting:

The same could be said of Nigel Fox, a first year student who also paints in a style reminiscent of Canadian Impressionism. Fox’s “Surface Tension” was an interesting take on colors running together in the water:

Unfortunately, though, the painting overwhelmed the carving. Fox was on much more solid ground when he created an Escher-like design out of traditional butterflies in “Butterflies #3” (which is now in my possession):

Still other first years showed a mastery of the fundamentals of traditional design that should allow them to come into their own during their second years. They included Barry Sampare, this years’ winner of the Mature Student Award:

as well as Robert Moses White, who received an Honorable Mention for the Mature Student Award:

The pick of the show moves south on May 29 to Vancouver’s Spirit Wrestler Gallery, where I predict brisk first day sales. But although Spirit Wrestler is much closer than Terrace for me, I was glad to see the complete show, especially in Waap Galts’ap, the Northwest Community College longhouse, which is a comfortable blend of traditional design and carving and modern building and safety codes.

My thanks to everyone at the college and in the Terrace First Nations art community for making my visit such a pleasant one.

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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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