Last week, a Black software engineer, Leslie Miley, made news when he shared why he quit his job at Twitter – where he was the ONLY Black engineer in a leadership role – in a thoughtful piece on the lack of diversity in tech.
In recent years, Twitter and other tech giants have come under fire for their noticeable lack of Black and Latinx employees, as well as women across ethnic groups. The numbers are even worse when you look at the leadership.
In his Medium post, Miley notes that during a leadership meeting, when he questioned what steps Twitter planned to take to increase diversity, a Senior VP stated:
diversity is important, but we can’t lower the bar.
Actor Matt Damon made a similar statement on a recent episode of the filmmaking contest Project Greenlightwhen producer Effie Brown – the only Black person in the room – raised questions about a film the panel was evaluating. Particularly, she was concerned about the portrayal of the film’s lone Black character – a prostitute – and how it may result in [yet another] a one-dimensional character and reinforcement of negative stereotypes.
In a talking head interview, of Effie’s comment, Matt said he appreciated her “flagging diversity” (is that like “flagging a typo”?) but that ultimately, the show and this process is about “giving somebody this job based entirely on merit, leaving all other factors out of it.”
What a lovely world he must live in where people get ahead solely based on merit.
Do people who say things like this actually LISTEN to themselves? Why do they think increasing diversity requires lowering standards? All this type of thinking accomplishes is maintaining the current unbalanced power structure where white men are over overrepresented.
Are we really expected to believe that there are so few talented engineers, actors, producers, and fill-in-the-blanks, who are female and/or non-white, that white men can’t help but hire themselves in these roles?
The film industry is a great example of how not to embrace inclusion. It pretty much fails at diversity in all areas – age, sexual orientation, gender, and ethnicity – the picture is more bleak for people working behind the camera.
The show made it a point to have the hiring managers – three white men and one white woman, all whom nearly lost their ability to function normally in the presence of a Black person – discuss that while they liked Monica, she didn’t attend a top-tier law school (Loyola wasn’t good enough for them) and that her LSAT scores were lower than the white candidates’.
I’m not really sure what point the writers were attempting to make. They lost me at “not as qualified.” In the end, Monica didn’t get hired, and the firm’s sole female partner brought her in to tell her personally, while expressing her sympathies. As Monica rightly told her, “I’m not here for your white liberal guilt, I need a job.” [I may have inferred the bit about white liberal guilt.]
They couldn’t have made their point about diversity in hiring without making the candidate “less qualified?” You mean to tell me in very Black Chicago (where the show takes place) you can’t find Black lawyers to fit your elitist standards?
Back in June, while at the day job at Big Tech Startup, I recall sitting in a room with two young white men, talking through hiring requirements for several open positions to fill. One of the guys, the recruiter from HR, said:
Well, at this point, it’s summer, we’re going to get second and third tier candidates. All the best candidates have jobs by now.
He looked at me after he said it – I’d just met him – and added, sounding somewhat apologetic, “It’s just how it is.”
I found his thinking unsettling, but unsurprising. Atthe job before this, of a big hiring push for engineers, a C-level exec affirmed, “we want people who went to schools like your Stanfords, Yales, Browns, Harvards. Who’ve worked at the Amazons, Googles and Facebooks.”
It’s kinda hard to diversify when everyone’s pulling from the same pool of candidates.
Not everyone can attend an Ivy League university even if they wish to. Cornell was my top university choice, which while not an Ivy, is still a quite competitive institution. However, after I went to an information session it became very clear Cornell wasn’t an option because there’s no way I could afford the absurdly expensive tuition.
Instead I attended a state school with a top ranked information technology program. A state school with tuition 1/10 the cost of Cornell and still I had to get a scholarship, government loans, and work 30-40 hours a week, all while trying to graduate in 4 years – which I didn’t, despite my best efforts.
Unlike some of my more privileged classmates, I didn’t have my parents depositing cash in my bank account on a regular basis. I also didn’t have any adults in my life who could relate to my experience as an undergrad. I had no one close to talk to about the unique struggles I experienced as a Black woman at a predominately white institution with a major dominated by young white men.
As Leslie Miley’s article mentioned, some of these top companies also give favorable weight to new grads with impressive internships on their resumes. I didn’t have internships during the summer breaks. Too many internships were unpaid and how many folks can afford to work for free? I sure couldn’t.
I didn’t attend a fancy university, nor did I have a fancy internship and I didn’t graduate in a pat 4 years. However, I still managed to get hired at these companies with their lofty hiring requirements because I could do the job. Hiring decisions shouldn’t be so heavily weighted on factors that are impacted by socioeconomic status, race, gender and other elements largely outside of personal control.
I’ve read that Black women are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs. I’ve written about my own entrepreneurial goals and how negative work experiences have played their part in my choices. I have to wonder how many of us have opted out of the traditional workforce because we can no longer deal with the extra weight of being a double minority in workplaces where increasing diversity is seemingly more of a trendy talking point than an actionable endeavor and continuous goal.
Despite the “browning of America” the Sunday morning political show landscape remains a panorama of middle-aged white man-ness. One notable exceptions is the Melissa Harris-Perry show which manages to fill a panel with a diverse group of knowledgeable folks every Saturday and Sunday. While not weekend morning shows, both The Nightly Show and All in with Chris Hayes cover politics and also manage to secure diverse panels of noteworthy, tv-ready people as guests. The guests are there if you actually look for them.
When it comes to diversity, can we just cut the crap? If you genuinely think there aren’t enough accomplished, competent, qualified candidates for a job other than white men – you have a problem which you need to address. However, if you truly want to increase diversity – it is going to take action.
We don’t need anymore research. We don’t need more task forces. What we need is for people to step outside of their insular circles. To quit using the same tired standards to find talent. To stop perpetuating isolating cultures of exclusivity. The time for excuses is long past.
It’s been my experience that if someone claims they want something, but continually makes excuses for why they can’t do it, it’s not a priority for them.
Do you have any ideas for how organizations can improve diversity? Why do you think more progress hasn’t been made?
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Last week I sat in a meeting where the word “slave(s)” was said at least 20 times.
No, I wasn’t involved in a discussion on slavery or history, as someone asked when I tweeted about it. I was in the office of a tech startup. [I’m contracting in my old career until my new one takes off.]
Each time “slave” escaped someones’ lips, I cringed internally, trying hard not to externally display my discomfort. However, with each “slave” uttered, I sank deeper in my chair as my tension found other ways to release itself: a bouncing foot, a tapping finger, deep, quiet sighs, shifting positions in my chair. With every vocal release of “slave” it was as though someone tossed the sharp-edged word directly at me. A lashing by lexicon.
In technology, “master/slave” terminology describes the relationship between entities. In the case of this meeting, the discussion centered around databases.
I’m familiar with the terms from reading about them during my undergrad studies, though they never made the cut for class usage, thank goodness.
I’d also heard the terms during orientation months ago. Mercifully, they were only vocalized twice on that occasion. Afterward, thrown by the incongruity of this word usage in 2015, I turned to Google to research if it’s a topic that’s been addressed before.
Unsurprisingly, those online who criticized the change – with the majority who weighed in being non-black people –responded with over-intellectualized arguments about the origin of the terms, their multiple meanings, complaints about an overly PC culture, and other irrelevancies.
As a black American who descends from enslaved people, in a country where the legacy of slavery STILL has its tentacles ensnared in so many institutions and systems, not to mention daily life, it disturbed me.
Do I think that the folks in the room used the words to hurt me directly? No.
Do I think they are evil racists? No.
What I do think though, is that usage of the terminology is insensitive because it ignores the negative affects such words have on some employees, regardless of how small they are in number.
I don’t really care about the history of the words, anymore than I care about the history of the words “ghetto” or “thug.” I do not care about the usage of the phrase in other countries or in peoples’ bedrooms. I care about how the words are used here, where stolen human beings were treated like chattel, with fewer rights than a dog, for hundreds of years. I care about the fact that no one’s work experience should involve them feeling assaulted by the free usage of outdated terminology.
Words evolve in meaning and association. It’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise. We can talk circles around the topic, but I will never again sit through this crap.
I wish I’d left the conference room. I think I was rendered immovable by the shock of the situation. My mind reeled with options. I’d considered walking out as I uncomfortably anticipated the next utterance of “slave.” I didn’t want to seem unprofessional, especially if I left mid-meeting without explanation. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. I didn’t want to make a scene.
Ultimately, I endured the meeting and bolted out of the room the instant it concluded.
I am somewhat ashamed by my response. I promised myself I’d no longer refrain from addressing difficult subjects just because it might make other people uncomfortable. I WAS EXTREMELY UNCOMFORTABLE. The longer I sat in the meeting, the more I heated up, stewing over the fact that if the racial makeup in the room were different, this wouldn’t be an issue. But, I was alone and no one else appeared bothered.
I don’t expect the use of this terminology to change – at least not anytime soon. Tech is ruled largely by white men and as the thinking goes in this country when we gauge offensiveness, if it doesn’t bother them, why should it bother anyone else, right? If they don’t see a problem, it doesn’t exist.
The tech world is known for a serious lack of diversity. Words matter and continuing old practices like usage of “master/slave” terminology doesn’t help people like me feel included, nor valued.
If the tech industry really wants to attract and retain more black talent (as well as Latino/a, Native American and female), issues like this require addressing. People whose experiences differ from the majority shouldn’t be dismissed as “too sensitive.” Diversity isn’t solely about increasing the number of employees from underrepresented groups, it also involves adapting and evolving customs and practices to foster a culture of inclusion rather than marginalization.
The last time I experienced unemployment was over 10 years ago. I was in my mid-20s, living in the heart of Hollywood, California. I don’t just mean living in Los Angeles, I actually lived in the Hollywood neighborhood. My roommate and I could see the Hollywood sign from her condo balcony. I came home one Friday evening to a message from my temp agency informing me that I’d been let go from my several months long temp assignment. Again? I thought. While this hadn’t been a permanent job, it still marked the third time I unexpectedly and abruptly found myself without employment in a 3 years.
Is this what it means to be in the working world? Absolutely no job stability? I had a feeling I knew what motivated the sudden booting: I think my temporary employers were concerned I’d caught wind of their shady financial reporting practices and might report them to the SEC. I did know. One of their long-term permanent employees gleefully spilled the tea. She despised them, but did a great job of pretending otherwise. I think she wanted me to do the snitching for her. Shady.
One of my new L.A. BF’s was also among the ranks of the unemployed. We shared a lot in common including our age and an aversion to the concept of working in an office and signing our lives away to the rat race. At that time, I hadn’t identified a new career path after parting ways with my attempt at an acting career, so I floundered a bit until I basically fell into my most recent career in tech. I took on a few temporary jobs here and there, but during that economic climate, even short-term temp jobs were drying up. So, my BF and I had a lot of free time on our hands, along with the excitement and Energizer-energy that accompanies early twenty-something youth. Unfortunately, we did not have a lot of cash.
We’d wake up late mornings and IM each other while we looked for jobs online and concurrently planned out our next bit of shenanigans. We went out most nights as there is always something to do in L.A.: always a party, an event or an opening. I also learned the Long Island Iced Tea, with its melange of liquors, is the best drink for your buck if you want to get drunk for the least amount of money. We found $1 bargain shopping bins at trendy thrift stores, figured out the best ways to score free food, drinks, and swag – free movie tickets are easy to come by in the “Entertainment Capital.”
We were aces at finding clubs giving away free drinks if you were willing to arrive unfashionably early; art gallery openings were a great way to appear cultured and score free wine and cheese. I’d also inherited the role of organizer & events planner for a woman’s social group that I’d joined when I first moved to L.A. two years earlier. I had plenty to keep me busy. I look back on the time fondly even though I was broke and being broke in Hollywood where money = power, influence and prestige, is not easy. It may not have been the most productive way to spend 10 months of unemployment, but I enjoyed it and don’t regret a bit of it.
Now that I am older and, I hope, wiser, my priorities are different. My situation is different. I am different. I also realize, having been laid off now four times, that with the ending of each job, something bigger and better always arose. Each layoff propelled me to something greater and more beneficial for me.
This time around, I recognized the opportunity in front of me. The layoff signaled to me, an opportunity to move on to something greater. Maya Angelou said, of an employer firing her and learning to be grateful: “So you fired me. Good on you and very good on me, ’cause what I’m going to get, darling, you would LONG for.” Yes!
I felt a duty to myself to make the best of the situation. After taking care of the basics one does after losing their job, like filing for unemployment, taking care of health insurance (thanks Obama!) and dealing with finances, I set to planning. Here are five things I did that helped me stay productive and kept me sane during unemployment.
1. TOLD MY FRIENDS, FAMILY AND NETWORK
I know some shy away from announcing their layoff to people they know. Maybe they feel embarrassed, ashamed or down. Whatever the reason, layoffs are a part of life. We no longer live in a society where employers keep people on for decades and happily wave you off at age 60 with a cushy pension. There is no loyalty in most workplaces – on either end of the relationship – and at any given time any of us can lose or leave our jobs.
I didn’t do anything wrong to warrant being released. I worked hard and have the performance evaluation to show it, so I let people know. As a result, I felt freer; I don’t like hiding things. Friends and family have been emotionally supportive in the aftermath. Additionally, friends and former co-workers from jobs past have referred me when jobs in my role crossed their paths. In many industries, getting the next job is about who you know. Tech is definitely no exception. I am grateful not just for their referrals, but their respect. Most people don’t refer someone for a job if they don’t respect their skills and work ethic.
Being open about the layoff has led to a few uncomfortable moments; but nothing I can’t handle. When you talk to someone who asks, “How’s the job search going?” before they even eek out a hello, that’s a little awkward. You wonder if you’re not looking hard enough and then you realize it’s only been three weeks and did this person forget what it’s like to look for a job? When a person you rarely hear from messages you from out of the blue, “How are you?” and you know what they really mean is, “Have you found a job yet?” because they’re just being nosy, you wish you’d excluded them from your Facebook post.
A recruiter who contacted me, shortly after I updated my LinkedIn profile to reflect the parting of ways between me and the old job, told me his company had their eye on the ex-employees of my former employer, “Fancy Startup”. Who knew? Tech companies compete for good talent here, he said. That knowledge made me feel that much more optimistic about the potential return on my job search investment.
2. MADE A “FREE TIME” WISHLIST
It’s not often that a 9 to 5-er gets the opportunity to have the entire daytime free. Not just a holiday Monday or Friday off when most everyone else is off too and banks are closed and so is the post office, so it may as well be a weekend. An actual free weekday when TV shows air that you’re never home to see live. When stay-at-home moms and dad entertain their kids who are on summer break. Free time during business hours when you can make the phone calls you need to make!
I recall during one particularly trying work day, walking down Market Street (a main thoroughfare in San Francisco) and wistfully envying a group of teenagers seated in a circle on a patch of grass laughing and talking. The sun shone brightly and I thought how nice it would be to lay in the grass in the sun in the middle of the day. I think the kids may have been doing drugs together, but still, the sentiment remains.
I set about making a list of everything I could conceive of doing that I could either only do during the day or that’s better done (e.g., less crowded) during the day. Whether I could get to it all, and how much of it was actually feasible mattered little. The list gave me a jumping off point, ideas for keeping busy, small achievements to aspire to, and activities I could look forward to doing.
The first thing I checked off my”free time” wishlist? Laying out in the grass in the middle of the day.
Eventually, I expanded the list to include lower priority items on my to-do list that I now I had plenty of time for. BLO (Before Layoff) so much of my life was either spent at work or recovering from the exhaustion of work. I never had enough time. PLO, I spent one luxurious afternoon cleaning up my junk email box. I unsubscribed from several newsletters (including “Fancy Startup’s”; it took them 3-months to remove me from the list, #fail), organized items into folders, and cleaned up my social media accounts. I know that doesn’t sound thrilling, but it was glorious to have the time.
3. CREATED GOALS AND ESTABLISHED A ROUTINE
As much as I detest the idea of having routines and schedules, I recognize that it’s helpful to give a sense of stability in my life, thus increasing my comfort level. I recall from my earlier unemployment experience how lost I felt some days without the schedule I’d grown accustomed as an office worker bee. I also quickly concluded that pressuring myself to look for jobs constantly would eventually drive me batty. I had to establish some boundaries. Modifying the typical US work week, I decided Mondays through Thursdays are for “work” and Fridays through Sunday are for play (with exceptions considered if I ask myself nicely and negotiate well). I created a loose routine that includes not sleeping in past a certain time (I hate feeling like I’ve wasted half the day), time for job searching & networking, therapy, fitness and a few other items.
It’s important to me to feel a sense of accomplishment or achievement. I imagine that even when I’m retired, I’ll want to feel like I’m having the best retirement I can. So, I do what do and I made goals for myself to keep motivated and active. Or as I titled it, “How to Not Become a Lazy Bum:”
Do something productive at least each weekday – e.g., exercise, read, apply for jobs, etc.
Look for things to consider as accomplishments – Sometimes we don’t give ourselves credit for the important things we do each day.
Leave the house at least four out of five weekdays – Perhaps this seems odd, but I’ve seen how easy it is to become a recluse over time
Keep a clean apartment – My nightmares include dying alone in a filthy apartment that the fire department has to bulldoze through to extract my feline–ravaged body. I also find it harder to think if there is chaos around me.
Keep a journal of the things I’m doing – I cannot tell you how much tracking my daily accomplishments has helped me from feeling like a useless layabout. I accomplishment quite a bit on an average day.
4. MAINTAINED HEALTHY HABITS
I’ve worked out in the mornings for at least the last 6 years. At first, it was to ward against the end of day workout killers of “I’m too tired,” or the “I’d rather go to happy hour,” and other distractions. Now, while I certainly enjoy that benefit, I also like that starting my day with something that’s good for me, mentally and physically.
I didn’t want unemployment to lead to my blowing up Sumo-size. So, I make it a point to continue to work out several times a week and not turn practice trash compactor-like eating. It’s so easy to graze on food when you’re at home. I work out at home and I also find ways to get active outside, to which San Francisco’s weather is usually conducive.
I try to walk as much as I can. When I worked, even though I took the bus, I still got in an extra mile a day just walking to and from bus stops. I didn’t want to lose that advantage, so I use the Moves app to make sure I’m walking enough.
I got into the habit of drinking water regularly in my twenties because of it’s health benefits. At work it was easy enough to keep up the practice with a large water bottle I’d keep on my desk. Now that I’m home, I make it a point to get in my regular intake of water each day. This is one of the ways I know I’ve grown up. I care about my daily water intake.
5. TOOK TIME TO REFLECT
Initially, I was antsy to return to work. After working continuously for over 10 years, it barely occurred to me to think of anything else. A few weeks of disinterestedly applying for jobs, bored senseless by the role descriptions, I realized that by jumping into yet another job, i might be wasting this opportunity to make a change. How many times have I complained that I don’t feel like the office life is for me? That I don’t like slaving away to make some faceless person wealthier. That I find it ridiculous how executives catastrophize situations and trickle down their stress to employees as though the cure for cancer is slipping through their fingers on a daily basis. My 25-year old self knew she didn’t much like working in an office, whether it’s in the confines of the corporate or a fast-paced fancy start-up. While I’ve managed to fake it well, it’s not who I am. The more time that goes by, the harder it is to survive in a world where I don’t fit in. I felt off-center after the mindwreckof my last job.
A friend told me I needed to take time for myself. “I live by myself and the only other creatures I take care of are two cats. Who else am I spending time on?” Upon reflection, I understood what she meant. The very nature of my career involved giving to and taking care of others’ needs. I spent the majority of my days solving other people’s problems. By the end of many workdays and work weeks, I was too spent for much else.
I needed to take this time to get back to WHO I AM. I’d lost myself.
I have savings (having learned from the first time around!) and I figured now is as good a time as any to invest in giving myself a break to step back, reassess and really consider my next steps.
I explored my natural interests and delved in to the activities I found interesting in hopes of leading myself toward my new path.
I made the rounds with my family and friends whom before I didn’t have as much time for. I reunited with several friends, including a few whom I hadn’t seen in over a decade. I knew these friends surfaced in my life at this time for a reason. I figured I had something to learn from them or maybe even something to share. I welcomed these opportunities not just as a chance to catch up with old friends and nurture those friendships, but to see what unfolds as a result. What doors will open for me? What new angles will I notice?
I also enlisted the help of my friends in my search for direction. My career counselor suggested asking friends and former co-workers for their thoughts on what career fit they envision for me, for their thoughts on my strengths. Not only do I think it touched them that I asked for their input, their feedback helped to gel a few ideas that had sloshed around in my head for a while.
Being laid off can rock your world, but it doesn’t have to be a negative experience. I’ve learned a lot about myself as a result of my layoff. I’ve been ready for a change. I’ve undergone a transformation and it hasn’t been the easiest. I got really depressed at one point, but I made it through. I feel like I’ve returned to center. I recognize myself again. For the first time in over a decade, if not longer, I have a true sense of direction, one about which I feel confident. I know what I want to do next. Now it’s just a matter of making it work and having faith that things will work out. I am excited to see how my life continues to unfold.
Have you gone through a layoff or experienced prolonged unemployment? How did you keep busy? How did you maintain your sanity and sense of self?
My career counselor told me she thinks I have post traumatic stress from my last two jobs.
I laughed when she said it. The past two years have been intense for sure, but post traumatic stress? Isn’t that usually reserved for soldiers, victims of violence – you know, real trauma?
I knew my sense of confidence and self-efficacy took a serious hit with thejob I left in 2013. I admittedly felt a bit raw going into the next place. Like jumping into another relationship when you’re on the rebound. However, unlike a relationship, working to bring in an income is essential to my survival, since the only person taking care of me, is me.
My career counselor also astutely assessed: “You probably felt increasingly anxious when asked for things.” How did she know?!
Due to the nature of my last role, I received many requests (or “demands” depending on who did the asking) to the point where when my phone would ring or chime, even outside of work, I’d sigh wearily and wonder, “Who wants something from me now?” I am fairly certain I experienced my first anxiety attack at that place, so…maybe she was onto something with the post traumatic stress. She does have a psychotherapy background, after all.
She presented this unofficial diagnosis after I shared with her that while job searching – feeling as though my life were in limbo until I secured a new job – when I reviewed job descriptions and envisioned what the day-to-day work might look like, I felt such an intense aversion. Worse than my revulsion at the idea of spending an afternoon with Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Elizabeth Hasselbeck. As though one of those positions might beguilingly lead me into the arms of an invisible boogeyman, its massive hands slowly tightening around my dainty lady throat until I can’t breathe. Squeezing the life out of me.
Eep. So, maybe I am a bit burned out.
One morning, a few weeks after I lost my job, my youngest sister, C___, called me and when I answered, her words rushed out before I finished saying “Hello,”
“Keisha, omigosh! Ok, I know this is going to sound ‘all about me’, but can I just tell you? The best thing about you not having a job is I can reach you whenever I want to now!”
I chuckled. She was right. In the short time since I’d become a woman of leisure, she and I had spoken more often, almost daily. We even Facetimed! What is this magical world where one has time to face…time?
I traveled to Austin a couple of weeks ago for a needed vacation. Yes, you can need a vacation from the exhaustion of cycling through what I term “The Five Stages of Layoff Grief” and worriedly wondering what you’re going to do with you life. I also wanted to reconnect with another part of myself.
Having moved around a bit, people sometimes ask me, “Which place feels more like home to you?” Every place feels a bit like home to me. Each place I’ve lived and where I’ve experienced life in new and unfamiliar ways, has helped to shape who I am. The me that I am in San Francisco, the life that I live here, only represents one part of me, it’s one view of my world. Austin represents another. I have family there in the way of close friends and now my sister C___.
Importantly, in Austin, I’m more easily able to relinquish the fear of being vulnerable, fear of having my insecurities and weaknesses exposed. The walls that we gradually stack up as adults are more permeable in this place where I lived as a college student. There’s no putting up fronts with my Austin family. To boot, the town is friendlier; I could shed my tough city armor. I needed time away to breathe; to let the waist out.
I stayed with my sister, whom having newly graduated from college, just began a new job and rented her first non-college apartment. My last evening in town we assembled her new dresser while Mork & Mindy (RIP Robin Williams) and then The Cosby Show played in the background.
I loved being able to spend time with my little sister, doing nothing more than setting up her apartment. With our 13-year age difference and living so far away from each other, I miss/ed out on the chance to do some of these simple activities with her.
I also met up with several of my friends from college, including former roommates, my best friend and a friend, F___, with whom I keep in touch on Facebook, but hadn’t seen since we graduated over a decade ago.
Over breakfast with F___ – the food in Austin is excellent – we caught up on the goings-on in our lives since college. She’d worked for nearly a decade as a CPA until one day realizing she didn’t like it very much and didn’t want to do it anymore. As she described her emotional evolution, I identified with almost everything she described feeling.
I told her I felt like I’d become a robot. It happened gradually enough that I didn’t notice the spark fading from my smile, the twinkle from eyes. She nodded as I shared that working in the environments I did forced me to repress so much of my natural self.
Whether it be stifling my creativity and humor in writing a report – gotta be professional, no quips allowed! Or something as basic as adapting to the fact that a lot of people don’t say good morning to each other at work (or other social niceties) and you need to calm your friendly Texas ass down.
Simply not being able to say of the lazy, pompous blowhard with a penchant for taking credit for other people’s work and throwing others under the bus (and there are always these people), “This guy is a poison to the team. At least five people have left because of him, yet you guys are steady promoting this fool. If the company goes down, you have yourselves to blame for being blinded by bullshit;” or when you want to shout in a ridiculously contentious meeting, “We’re not curing cancer people, calm the fuck down! No one is going to die!”
F___ is currently exploring an interest in the film industry on the business side of things, and encouraged me to take some time to consider what’s I want to do next. As she smartly said, “Working for years and taking a couple of weeks off every once in a while isn’t long enough to get re-acquainted with who you are.”
She’s right. I’ve been out of work for almost two and a half months now and it’s not until just recently that I’ve felt even close to being me again. It’s as though I’ve been unwittingly enrolled in a crash course called: “Revisiting Keisha: 101.” I returned from Austin reinvigorated.
Perhaps my career counselor exaggerated a bit when she said I have post traumatic stress, perhaps not. I certainly don’t think my situation compares to more typical PTSD cases. I do know that I haven’t felt this free and light in a long while. I smile more, I laugh more, I write more, I read more and I have more time for the people I care for. Sunday night thoughts are no longer sullied with the pallor of the impending Monday morning. I’m enjoying seeing the world from a different perspective – it’s different with the daytime free! Even my career counselor, whom, up until a couple of weeks ago, hadn’t seen me in almost a year – since I took the most recent job – commented when she greeted me, “You look great! I can see it in your eyes.”
I don’t want to return to the way things were before.
The news didn’t completely surprise me. I knew the company, which I’ll refer to as “Fancy Startup” (FS), planned to cut some jobs [the numbers-focused CEO told us weeks ago, “We have too many employees and still more to hire. We now have x hundreds of employees and plan to hire x number more. Do you guys think we should have that many? That’s crazy!” He laughed mirthlessly, “By year’s end I expect we’ll have the same number. So…”] I didn’t think I’d be one of the casualties, though it’s always a possibility when you’re not a coveted software engineer in the tech world. FS slashed a significant percentage of the workforce in a “restructure.”
Upon hearing of the news, which I shared freely – may as well, the media reported it – my friends and family have been supportive, offering encouraging words of positivity, platitudes about doors opening and closing and reactions from, “I am shocked. They are idiots who didn’t deserve you,” to “Want me to kick someone’s ass for you? and “Are you okaaaaaaay?”
I am okay. In fact, I feel relief. I feel FREE.
BYE BYE ROSE-COLORED GLASSES
I mostly enjoyed my first 5 months at FS. It’s definitely a fast-paced environment as advertised. Every week in the office felt like a month, with always always something going on.
Often the job sapped my energy. Intense days, often without lunch, or lunch eaten at my desk during a quick break between meetings, sleepless nights ruminating over the previous day’s events; early mornings awoken with anxiety, concerned with things to occur that day, worrying that I’d missed something on my to-do list. I drove myself crazy thinking about ways to improve my teams, techniques to do the best job I could do without the infrastructure or support in place to truly do so effectively. I was the first person hired in my position, which I’ll refer to as Thankless Role (TR): when things are going well, you almost always get no credit; when things are going poorly, you’re often the recipient of of blame and fingers pointing in your direction.
In a matter of weeks after hiring me last July, the company recognized the need for more people in the Thankless Role for other departments and hired three more in few short months. With my manager, the five of us grew close pretty quickly. We’re all experienced professionals with big name companies dotting our resumes and a lot of mutual respect for each other’s different experiences and personalities. The TR team and a few other co-workers helped keep me sane during the last 5-6 months where things ratcheted up to a level of near-constant stress and anxiety. I imagined if you touched me, you’d feel a current of hot stress bubbling under my skin.
By February, when the stress escalated to a level I didn’t know possible and the rose-colored classes finally slid all the way off, I posted on Facebook:
I told one of my co-workers that our company is full of overachieving, nerdy, “gotta get an ‘A'” kids who work themselves up into a frenzy when they fail to be perfect. The kinds of kids who would get upset when they’d get a 96 on a test instead of 100 and I’d want to shake them. (Then I’d go home with a 94 and my dad would be like, “But, why are you bringing home a ’94’ though?” Well, damn). Sometimes they raise my stress levels with their stress. I don’t like people making their problems mine.
By then I could tell the worker bee team players from those who talk a good game and only pretend to work hard while cheering, “Go team!” I sniffed out the self-promoters, the brown-nosers and the politickers (my least favorite type behind even the lazy ones). I sensed the trustworthy and those itching to chuck bodies under buses. Finally, there were “the sinkers.” The sinkers are the people that exist as human cement blocks. They are all to happy to attach themselves to you like a blood sucking eel, whether consciously or sub-consciously, and attempt to drag you down under the water with them. Whatever problems they have, they want to share them with you, have you sink down into the deep, dark water with them. They are dangerous and the office bred more than it’s share.
IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH YOUR FACE?
I’m known as a bit of a meeting taskmaster, which generally people appreciate. In April, we received the results of our annual peer feedback. I asked for feedback from 11 peers and more than one (anonymously) enthused about my facilitation skills, “I like being in meetings run by Keisha, because I know they will be efficient and end on time or early.” I hate meetings. Unless it’s a meeting for fun, with an agenda and an actual interesting topic (or even better: drinks!), I want to get in and get out. Many people don’t know how to run an effective meeting. It’s a skill you have to learn as it’s not really taught. I’ve sat through one too many meetings, the sole purpose for which seemed to give pompous directors and ambitious sycophants a platform to bestow their “brilliance” upon their bored, under-recognized, overworked, over-scheduled peers and subordinates. An hour (because 1/2 hour meetings weren’t part of the culture) of listening to people attempt to prove they’re smarter than the next person. Find a damn penpal. Get a therapist. Talked to a stuffed teddy bear.
In a meeting in March, a woman senior to me in age (by only a few years) and position (by only a couple of levels), gave me the dirtiest look I’ve seen since a random disheveled, wrinkled old woman on the street pushing a shopping cart full of assorted collected trash muttered angrily at me, “You stupid fucking bitch.” My only transgression being my bold existence.
I assume this woman is talented at what she does, though she sometimes appeared scattered and disorganized and is prone to veering off-topic and making disruptive, emotional outbursts in meetings. “Is it just me? Or is this just, like, really fucking stupid? I mean, what, oh my God!…” spastic body movements and eye rolls punctuating her words. During one such meeting, where eight highly paid people sat around for yet another assembly of wasted minutes getting nothing accomplished, stalemate after stalemate, because of ego-based arguments and general foolishness like getting into a disagreement because you don’t understand the meaning of “something is fluid.” (An argument ensued because a senior level person though it meant “fixed” and got upset that his idea wasn’t even considered. In that same meeting a grown man pouted as he complained, “I guess I should just sit here and pretend like I don’t exist.”)
I cut her off in this meeting – politely, I am skilled at diplomacy – suggesting we “table” that discussion for now. It was then that she hit me with the dirty look. I have since tried to recreate this look as I telegraph this story for others, but I can’t quite figure out how to contort my features in the ugly way she did. If my life were ever turned into a movie, her face would have transformed into a pool of slithering, hissing serpents like Charlize Theron saw in the face of the duplicitous laywers’ wives in The Devil’s Advocate. I was amazed; who is that unprofessional, especially at that age?
WHO IS RUNNING THINGS?
Given the breadth of my position – I worked with people across different departments and functional groups – I had unique insight into the goings-ons in many groups and holy! unchecked rampant dysfunction, Iyanla! Backstabbing, infighting, territorialism, competitiveness, badmouthing, defensiveness, posturing, ego-puffing, uncooperative actions, CYA-ing to the extreme, defensiveness – oh did I mention that already? – the list of maladaptive behaviors didn’t end.
Personally and professionally, I’ve been primarily frustrated with ineffectual management and the amount of time I spent existing in an unhealthy environment, absorbing the effects of such poor management in the actions of others, detracting from my ability to actually do the job they hired me to do. Being pulled in different directions by people who seemingly change their minds on a whim or have a vision they don’t clearly articulate into actionable tactics. Leaving employees confused, directionless, off-balance and stressed. Both my manager, who’s one of the long-timers at FS, and a couple of co-workers told me that while I have the fortune of working on one of the most exciting parts of the site, I also work with some of the most difficult personalities in the company. Gee, how did I ever get so lucky? Comfortingly though, they all told me I was handling it well.
AND THEN THERE WAS HER
I have never worked with anyone quite like her. The highly ambitious, Ivy League educated young woman who became a huge thorn in my side. She and I worked on the same team, one of many teams I was on, and while I thought she could be charming, is sharp and hard-working, and appreciated her collection of designer handbags and shoes, I quickly grew to view her as an extremely exhausting energy vampire. She’s high-strung and prone to catastrophizing everything, particularly when she’s stressed, which seemed to be most days the sun rose. She micromanages people out of her need to control things and oversteps her boundaries. She can be dictatorial and too often speaks to her peers in a condescending manner and interacts with her teammates in such a way that implies she doesn’t respect your experience or skills. My position was senior to hers and yet she felt comfortable directing me in how to do my job (because as she once told me, she “did it for a year.” Well, I’ve done it for 10. Shall we take out our swords?) and speaking to me as though I were her employee. One engineer left our team for another – she treated him like a wayward child and constantly criticized his behavior failing to make it constructive. She caused another team member to cry because she hammered at her so much, put so much pressure on her.
She and I seem to speak such different languages that our once a week, one-on-one to sync up on our team, inevitably devolved into a relationship discussion, about our working relationship, “When you say this, I feel this…” Also inevitably, she’d take the opportunity to inform me of all the tasks she thought I should be doing that I wasn’t. So often she projected her own bad behavior on to me that I wondered if I were part of some big, secret, clearly unethical, crazy psychological experiment to see just how much fucked up-ness a person can stand. She’d cut me out of things, approach me when there was a problem, too late for me to do anything about it, then blame me for the outcome. On one hand she’d express to me how important it is to be unified in front of our team and then in meetings shut me down when I expressed an opinion, undermine me in front of the team and/or be argumentative.
We were in a freaking relationship except I didn’t get any benefits, just the nagging & the headaches. With her, what you did was never enough unless you were by her side like a lapdog ready to sit when she directed. And if you accomplished this feat it was on to the next thing you needed to be doing, with barely a rewarding pat on the head. Always harder, harder, harder; more more more.
That was my least favorite team. You’re on hyper-alert, always afraid to fail, to come up short despite trying your best, to catch a glimpse of that disapproving look on her face. Waiting for her to get on your case for not doing something else she expected you to do, but didn’t communicate to you, or perhaps did, but in a language that sounds like high-strungese. For her eventually to sacrifice you and tell an exec that she thinks you need to be handled – I know, because I was in a meeting with her and an exec where she did it to someone else. I knew before that I couldn’t trust her, but after that meeting, my guard went up all the way.
She is fantastic at managing up, she’s Teacher’s Pet, and just like Teacher’s Pet, several of her co-workers don’t like working with her. Her mentor is one of the execs and another exec promoted her. When her promotion was announced in a departmental meeting, you could see the unhappiness of others in the room – and it wasn’t jealousy. Another friend of mine got promoted (they were the only two recognized as such in our department) and many were thrilled for him, he truly deserved it and is a pleasure to work with.
The situation devolved to the point where as time went on I began to have physical anxiety reactions to her very presence.
THE WORST MEETING EVER
In March, when a new Exec decided to restructure teams, and largely left the execution of it in the hands of feckless middle management, the process fell apart and the train veered way off the track into a fiery ditch of confusion, misdirection and frustration. There was little support or guidance. 25+ people directionless. I raised my concerns about the flying debris of confusion to various levels of management, careful not to make anything personal: a broken process and unhappy employees who feel like the execs don’t care is bad for business. Ultimately, I want the people on my teams to be happy and be able to do their jobs effectively. Largely, nothing changed for weeks. I grew more frustrated and my feelings of helplessness ballooned. How am I supposed to work like this? Nothing changed that is, until May when the din of dysfunction grew so loud hearing it was unavoidable and three execs scheduled meetings with the impacted teams to attempt to solve the problems they created. I was the lucky recipient of not one, but two meeting invites.
The morning of the WORST MEETING EVER, I headed to the ubiquitous Starbucks for a latte with burnt coffee. As I waited for my filled coffee cup on which my name would undoubtedly be misspelled even though I spell it out, I suddenly felt weak. My heart began to flutter and then race. My face broke out in a sweat. I felt hot. I literally had to have a seat. I couldn’t hear what was taking place around me with the blood quickly filling and then pulsing in the vessels in my ears. I focused on my breathing and though shaky, composed myself enough to pick up the coffee for “Aesha” when called.
I later asked on Facebook:
What does an anxiety attack feel like?
It was the meetings. The idea of these meetings with the whole team and three execs, yet another meeting full of unproductive conflict and tension, filled me with overwhelming anxiety.
The first meeting scheduled for an hour took 1 hour and 45 minutes! Like a family argument that makes you wish you could be anywhere but in that very place, a hot, enclosed room, ripe with the energy of heavy emotions, hovering in the air like smog. Halfway through the meeting a teammate leaned over to me to whisper, “This is so.fucking.painful.” I spoke no more than a few sentences to give the team a chance to express their challenges. Voices raised, figurative fingers pointed, the words “we don’t feel valued, we have college degrees in this subject, listen to us” spoken with most of this directed at High Strung Girl. I felt bad for her, I’m not heartless. To have a few people share, in a room full of people, just how much you have made their work lives difficult must sting and badly. She seemed stunned and remained largely silent, her faithful sidekick coming to her defense. The execs who’d bought into the package she’s sold them, were also stunned. Her reaction surprised me – how could she not know – sadly, the stupefaction of the execs didn’t shock me. They’ve been highly uninvolved in what’s going on with their own people.
In that meeting I knew I wanted out of the company. I started to plot my exit.
Not too much later, I’d find out that a few of my team members had similar problems with High Strung Girl, including having one-on-one meetings with her to talk about their working relationships, and similarly notified their managers of their frustration and seemingly their managers failed to take action [I can’t say this with certainty, but they sure didn’t think so]. Oh, guess what – at least one of their managers is good friends with High Strung Girl. How do you like that? They also let me know they’d witnessed how disrespectfully I’d been treated and supported me. I needed the validation. I’d been feeling alone in the insanity.
A few weeks later, Fancy Startup gave me the boot, a few weeks shy of my (partial) stock option-vesting one year anniversary.
In May, a new TR joined the company. As part of his interview panel, I advocated for his hire. He’d also formerly worked at another tech company with the exec that promoted HSG and whom I am quite certain was instrumental in my being let go. He’s been asked to take over my role. But, wait, I thought the company was restructuring? Well, more power to him, I hope he enjoys inheriting the mess of problems and the remaining difficult people (some did get cut).
I cannot count the number of nights I awoke thinking about work, the hours I lay awake in bed stressing over bullshit related to office politics and a need to defend myself from the very event that occurred. So, I am not sad. I am thrilled that I don’t work there anymore. I predict it’s on it’s way toward an even more toxic environment before things begin to improve, if they improve.
I am good at what I do. It took my last job for me to really learn to believe that. My peer and manager feedback in April was positive and I received a merit increase. In my time there I led several brown bag workshops, mentored another person who is also in Thankless Role, though junior to me, coached others through hard times with their own teams, started a business book club and solicited agenda topics for a weekly town hall-like meeting in addition to doing my actual job. I was no slouch.
I’ll miss my kickball team friends, the lunch crew, my other team members in the Thankless Role, the autonomy I had – when I actually got to do my job I enjoyed it – my standing desk and my professional and reasonable boss. However, that chapter is over now.
For the first time in 11 years – since the last time I got laid off, this is the fourth time(!) – I have few responsibilities. I have no job to get up and go to. Nobody asking me for anything. No stress, no dirty looks, no anxiety. I just have to take care of myself, my bills and my felines. I’m going to enjoy this for at least a short while before I figure out what’s next. I have more time to dedicate to family and friends who’ve received less of my attention because I was in meetings all the time or too stressed and exhausted to handle long conversations after work. So far this week, I’ve spent hours fun Facetiming with my youngest sister, chatted with my mom, spent another couple of hours talking to my middle sister. I’ve chatted with friends on and offline. I’m reading a book for fun, I went to the park in the middle of the day, with the other people who have daytime freedom: the kids, the retired, the stay-at-home mommies and daddies and the nannies. I had sushi & beer for lunch with another laid off co-worker, Mighty, and we toasted to our freedom. It’s summer and 70 degrees in San Francisco, who wants to waste time being upset?
This is one year out of my hopefully long life. The job was meant as a stepping stone. I knew that from day one. I learned A LOT and met a handful of wonderful people with whom I will stay in contact; now is a great time to move on. Each time I’ve been laid off, it’s led to a positive, life-pivoting change and I welcome it.
I left on my desk two post-its written by teammates of mine during a team-building activity I led after the WORST MEETING EVER in an attempt to repair the damage, still without support or guidance. They read, “You are good at team-building” and “You are welcoming and friendly. You are the glue that keeps us together. :)”
“As you sit in your rocking chair at the age of 100, what might be a regret you will have if there was something(s) you did not do/achieve/try?”
I stared at the question on the work/life reflection worksheet given to me by my career counselor. One of several questions aimed at helping me find my “passion.” The idea being once I discover this elusive passion, I can direct my efforts toward an endeavor I’d truly find satisfying and meaningful, instead of middling through a career that like a perfunctory meal, provides nourishment, but doesn’t inspire, isn’t particularly memorable or something you want to effusively praise to your friends.
Things I’d regret not doing? I don’t even know what I’m doing 6 months from now! Since I stepped onto the other side of 30 it seems time hurtles by like it’s in a foot race. Occasionally, the race is interrupted by brief pause, an allowance for me to catch my breath. During one recent pause, feeling particularly present, I realized: I am not sure how I even got here. Whose life is this? One day I woke up with a career, a recruiter describing my resume as “impressive” and people asking me for advice because they think I know things. When did that happen? Was it not just yesterday when I moaned to my friend that no one seems to take you seriously in your twenties? But, that was years ago now.
I ask myself, what do I want my life to look like at 40? That’s my next major birthday milestone. It’s a tough question. In younger days the path was clearer, the choices more binary. Each phase ended with a right of passage: a graduation, a year ending dance, an exam of life-altering importance.
Then it’s welcome to adulthood! You’re in the real world now, baby! The paths are many: crooked, narrow, hazy, smooth, booby-trapped, newly paved, yellow-bricked or bumpy. There are fewer guideposts along the way to center you, fewer checkpoints that allow you to ask, “Am I going the right way?” Seemingly endless options, and like a menu with too many entrees, at times overwhelming. If you don’t choose well, you risk waking up after another blurred lapse of time wondering, “How did I get here?
When thirty neared, I had a serious crisis of confidence. During the post-college years I’d spent pursuing an unconventional life of meaning, deciding to pursue a longstanding dream of being an actress, a great many of my college friends had spent their time building careers, marrying and starting families. While I plodded through jobs unfulfilling jobs – to me, the kind of work I took on was for survival, not intrinsic satisfaction – my peers were taking glamorous international trips, buying their first homes, continuing on to grad school, talking about 401ks and life insurance and I was doing…what? Nothing I was proud of. After a few years, I recognized that the business of Hollywood isn’t for me and felt lost. Now what? For quite a while, I viewed the period I spent pursuing an acting career as a waste, a decision that set me back.
I enjoy reading autobiographies and stories about other’s lives. They are fascinating and often inspirational. In my twenties, reading bios detailing all the incredible accomplishments other people have achieved, I often feel like I’d done nothing to feel prideful over. Being surrounded by the conspicuous consumption culture of Los Angeles and living paycheck to paycheck didn’t help. Near thirty, I realized that I wasn’t being fair to myself or giving myself enough credit for all that I had experienced, seen and overcome. I climbed out of my well of self-pity and focused on the trajectory of my life for the next few years. What did I want to create, see, and do? Who did I want to become? I created a vision board. Make fun if you like, but I’ve been able to strike through a lot of things on that vision board because I’ve achieved them.
If there’s one important lesson I’ve learned about life in my 30+ years, it’s that it’s full of surprises. I may set the framework for what I hope for in my life, but the actual content is harder to predict and I’m mostly okay with that. Some aspects have unfolded in ways I would never have imagined. I would not have predicted that I’d live in Los Angeles for over a decade, quickly tire of Hollywood shenanigans, dump my starving artist life and return to the world of business. I wouldn’t have guessed that today I’d be single, childfree and living in San Francisco working for a tech startup. I enjoy and appreciate my life, but it’s not the one I thought I’d have. At 22, I thought by now – mostly due to the narratives we’re told through books, visual media and society – that I’d be married, have a couple of kids (a boy and a girl, of course) and have a high-powered job doing something worthwhile.
When I attempt to write the story of what life will be like for me at 40, I come up blank. I’m still on the fence about having kids. Some days I want to, other days I don’t and time isn’t on my side, Halle Berry’s amazing uterus notwithstanding. [Though, if I do decide to remain childfree, San Francisco is apparently the best place to do so!] I am realistic enough to consider that I may not find that life partner to share my future with and I have to account for that in my vision. Even my past dreams of owning a home are up in the air. I no longer think about owning a home in the suburbs because the word “suburb” scares me. I don’t know what kind of job I want or in what field. I’d love to live outside of the United States in France or Brazil or many other places and travel the world meeting interesting people, having stimulating experiences. I’d like to be fluent in at least one other language. There is a long list of things I’d like to accomplish, but no comprehensive story.
For now I’ve come up with simply this:
When I’m 40, I want:
to be happy;
to feel proud of my accomplishments;
to continue having awe-inspiring, thought-provoking experiences;
to continue learning;
to feel like I’m progressing as a person;
to have love in my life, whether that be the love of family and friends or them + life partner and children.;
to keep traveling internationally (and domestically);
a dog (and for my favorite cat to be around and kicking in his geriatric years).
Whatever it takes to get to achieve these things, I’ll set the stage and life can flesh out the script and fill in the cast of characters. My role is to stay focused on my goals and remember as often as I can, not to take the days for granted. Time isn’t going to slow down for me.
You have to live life deliberately. It’s all too easy to put things off, only to find one day you’ve lost precious time that you can’t recover.
I’ve been living in San Francisco for 9 months. I genuinely like San Francisco now (no one say, ‘I told you so!’). I realized a few months ago that I like the city. At the time, I’d add the caveat: “But, I’m not sure about the people.” Now I just like it. No, it’s not the city I knew it to be when I first visited over a decade ago. Yes, as a new friend lamented “Strangers don’t talk to strangers here” and “Men [seem] too afraid to approach women.” I’m adapting to the culture and the norms. I even trained myself not to make eye contact with people on the street.
I appreciate that San Franciscans are generally polite, willing to stand up for things they believe in, love their pampered pooches and have a great fondness for whimsy, celebrations and dressing up in costume with or without reason. It helps that my new friendships are settling comfortably. I still don’t have last-minute “join me at the bar” buddies or “Hey, its Saturday. What are you up to?” level friends. But, I feel less lack in that realm now. I’ve started dating and am pleased to say there are many ambitious, accomplished and interesting men here. I am more comfortable and settled now. I am intensely happy that I made the decision to leave L.A. I needed to. This is the right place for me right now. This is home.
Unfortunately, the past few months have been really challenging for me. I really grew to hate my job. Hate. Like “I don’t want to go, please don’t make me!” or “I wonder if I can get a doctor to write me a note declaring that the job is bad for my health and I need disability,” or even worse “Drinking before work wouldn’t be so bad, right?” Before work many mornings, I’d begin with a pep talk, “You will have a good day. You are lucky to be employed. This is only temporary.” Some days out of sheer silliness and desperation, I’d borrow a line from The Help, “You is smart. You is kind. You is important.” Usually within minutes of walking into the office, all that sunshine, roses and ponies, would fly right out the window. Or more appropriately, absorbed into the walls of my boring brown cubicle in a part of the office that received no direct sunlight due to the view being blocked by a neighboring office building.
I knew two months in that I was dissatisfied with my job. I spoke to my boss and few peers about it, but, unfortunately, that didn’t really help. I tried several things to improve the situation, but ultimately as each day passed, I grew to dislike it more and more. I even called my dad and asked for his advice and that almost never happens. I didn’t know what to do. This is real life. It’s not like when I got a job in high school at Bed Bath & Beyond, knew I hated it after a weekend of work and said, “Deuces, BBB! Keep your cookware and your bedding!”
My spirit was slowly dying in the eight months I spent in the job. I was bored; I felt unchallenged; I didn’t see much room for growth or learning opportunities. The culture felt staid and isolating. Most of all, I didn’t feel like my position was seen as valued or that people recognized my skill set. An astute co-worker (who internally transferred out of a similar position months earlier) even commented “You are so smart and so underutilized here.” Who you tellin’? I felt like an overpaid admin. I respect the hard job admins have especially having worked as one for a bit (and being highly allergic to the position), but I didn’t sign on to be an admin and I didn’t spend years developing a career to be an admin. I lost interest in my interests.
I didn’t read. I didn’t write (sorry blog readers). I didn’t take photos. I lost the energy to continue my friending frenzy. I was cranky and solemn. Even my guilty pleasure Housewives shows were less entertaining (although the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills were on some seriously boring BS. No one gives a shit whether or not Adrienne and her frozen plastic face tried to sue Malibu Barbie Brandi. Show us the riches: beautiful clothing, fancy cars and real estate porn).
I began to doubt my skills and self-efficacy for the first time in a long, long while. It’s akin to being an ‘A’ student and getting your first ‘D’. Your view of yourself cracks and may even be shattered depending on how closely tied your academic success is to your self-identity.
In May, I flew to a conference for a work. For three days I was in sessions learning new things from peers and leaders in my field and most importantly I was using my brain, which had become a novelty. It was noticeably different from my normal work day. How deflating. I had the rest of the week off to be a bridesmaid in my friend’s wedding in Los Angeles, which was beautiful and a ton of fun. Returning to work after a week away was intensely painful. I had hoped to stick it out with the company for at least a year. However, when I returned after a week away, and the dark cloud that’d been amassing around me was right there waiting where I left it and seemed even more consuming, I knew I had to get out for the sake of my sanity. I was sinking into a depression.
I felt guilty complaining about my job knowing how many people are unemployed and wish not to be. It wasn’t like I was being abused, harassed or overworked. When I told a friend that I felt bored and unchallenged and wasn’t interested in having a job where I could surf the net all day she said with some amusement, “Um, so what you’re telling me is you’re getting paid not to do much and not really think? This is a problem?” I know.
HELP IS ON THE WAY
On a first date with a guy named, let’s say, Sam, he inevitably asked the questions I’d grown to dread answering, “What do you do? Do you like it?” By then, I’d given up trying to be positive about my job and would readily tell people that I didn’t like it when asked. He shared with me that he’d gone through something similar in the past couple of years and realized he hated his career as a TV sports reporter. After seeing a career counselor he decided to work toward becoming an elementary school teacher. Talk about a career change! It was clear how happy this career switch made him, despite the drastic difference in income. He recommend his career center to me and I made an appointment with a counselor immediately the next day. The date was fun and Sam was cool, but he didn’t ask me out again and I didn’t feel strongly enough to pursue it.
My career counselor was a breath of fresh air. She immediately became my favorite person. I wanted to pocket her and carry her around like a lucky rabbit’s foot. She is brilliant, encouraging, supportive, sharp and has an impressive and varied career background of her own. She is amazing.
Career counseling feels a lot like therapy (er…not like I would know what that’s like): there’s self-reflection, talking about your childhood, discussion about how your parents influenced your choices and maybe even some tears. While I thought I knew why I hated my job, seeing a career counselor helped me better understand the underlying reasons and allowed me to articulate my thoughts and feelings better. After taking several assessments she remarked me to me with wonder, “It’s amazing how you’ve been able to work this long in a job that is practically the antithesis of who you are.”
HOW DID I GET HERE
I fell into my career. Yes, it is in line with my business degree. But, I didn’t deliberately choose it. When I graduated from college, I wanted nothing to do with business. I wanted to be an actress. I missed expressing my creative side and acting always made me feel awake and alive. Ultimately that wasn’t the right path for me though. Thus, I fell back on my degree and my career chose me based on that degree and my skills. I didn’t spend much time nurturing it or thinking about what success would mean to me because I always figured I’d do something else. I assumed I’d eventually discover my passion and it would all be smooth sailing from there. Time sped by and before I knew it, due to a confluence of my need to be a high-achiever and to progress. I accidentally developed a career.
I cared about promotions because I value being rewarded for my efforts. But, it’s never been “exciting” for me. I’ve long been envious of people who speak of “loving their jobs.” Or people who eat, sleep and breathe their careers for one reason or another. I wonder what that’s like. Why couldn’t I just have a burning desire to be a teacher or an architect or a doctor? But, as I discovered during my sessions with my career counselor, it’s in my nature to have varied interests. For me, it’s not so much about what I do as it is for me to have variety and feel like I’m learning and experiencing life anew.
I learned so much in the sessions I had with my career counselor / saintly woman sent from the heavens, and it’s not over. Three of the most important lessons for me:
1. Don’t get good at things you don’t want to do.
If you’re the person who’s great at picking weeds and no one else is around to do it, guess who’s getting asked to pick weeds? You. And the more weeds you pick, the better you get at it. I don’t want to become an expert weed-picker, so I need to stop picking these damn weeds! Let someone else do it. There are people out there who looove maintaining gardens. I am not one of them.
2. Take charge of your career.
This isn’t news. People say this, but I didn’t really get it. I let things happen to me without realizing I was doing it. I didn’t stand up for myself enough. I didn’t push hard enough for that promotion or the raise or ask to do the work I would have preferred to do. As professional and assertive as I learned to be, I realized I was still guilty of employing some of the behaviors that do a disservice to women. I don’t toot my own horn; I find it tacky. I don’t ask for gobs of money because I don’t want to be greedy. Still, you best believe someone else is doing these things and making much more than I am and doing work they want to be doing.
3. Take time to nurture your natural interests and skills.
Almost all the assessments I took during career counseling pointed to my creative skills and interests. Growing up, I was really creative. Aside from business, my other interests were all artistic. I wanted to be an actor, a writer, a dancer, a comedian (don’t laugh), an artist. As each year of my life goes by, I take on fewer and fewer creative endeavors. I used to love doing arts & crafts! No wonder my spirit was dying. I was focusing all of my attention on things that do not generally interest me and not doing the things that feed my soul. (I hate that phrase, but it’s very much applicable in this case.) Creativity, much like other skills, needs to be nurtured to grow and flourish. But, somehow I convinced myself that because I wasn’t great at it, I shouldn’t be doing it. I need to be doing it though. I may never be a top photographer, but if taking photos and capturing images of the world as I see it brings me joy, I should do more of it. It doesn’t have to be a career, it just has to make me feel happy.
I started a new job on last week. It’s not a career change, but it is a role change (and a career advancement). Thanks to my career counselor, I know better now to focus on honing the skills and strengths that interest me most and that may be transferable to other roles. I feel optimistic that this position will allow me to do that. The company itself could not be more opposite the place I just left. I’ve been welcomed by my new co-workers with excitement and genuine interest. I feel like I’ve joined a family.
I wish I didn’t have to go through the frustration of my previous job. I’m sure I’ll look back on that time with the same derision I do the year I lived in San Jose. Nevertheless, in some ways, I am grateful for the experience because it propelled me to take action to make serious changes in my professional life and do some intense self-reflection. I even rediscovered what appealed to me about business in the first place. Additionally, I have an even greater appreciation for the great jobs, managers and mentors I’ve had in the past.
I don’t know what the future holds and what my next career may be. It could be in business after all, just in a different role. After all, as I remembered in career counseling, at 6-years old I was starting my own businesses in my bedroom, building storefronts out of construction paper (creativity) and “selling” products to my mom. I look forward to approaching my new job with a renewed fervor. That dark cloud is dissipating and I’m seeing larger and larger slivers of the sun each day.
I'm Keisha ("Kee-shuh", not to be confused with Ke$ha). I am a (later) thirty-something, non-mommy, non-wife, who lives in San Francisco, California New York and has lots of opinions on lots of things.