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3 Important Life Lessons I Learned From An Unlikely Friendship

One of my closest friends is a white woman 30 years my senior – a Baby Boomer. We shared a cubicle wall back in the ’00s when we worked in IT at a large insurance company. I hated that job so much that some mornings I’d sit in my car and cry before leaving for the office.

It was the type of job where I had a micro-managing relic of a supervisor whom on a daily basis would periodically stroll by unsubtly peeking at our screens to make sure we weren’t surfing the internet. God forbid we take a break from the mind-numbing, inconsequential grunt work we were doing.

This is the same supervisor who for some reason couldn’t get my name right and would often refer to me by the name of one of the few other black female employees, who looked nothing like me and were at least 15 years older. I would pretend I didn’t hear him; after all, my name didn’t come out of his mouth.

Five days a week, I’d toil for hours at my desk in the large, window-deprived, cubicle farm boxed in by drab, ’70s-brown walls. An inappropriately loud middle-aged man who bang-typed on his keyboard and always seemed to be on the phone with his doctor discussing his various prescription meds, including one for ADHD, which explained a lot – sat in front of me. The back of his head, where unkempt gray hairs fought black for dominance, greeted me each time I looked up from my boxy monitor.

I worked in a Dilbert cartoon.

Sometimes you find friendship in the most unlikely people. | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black in "3 Important Life Lessons I Learned From an Unlikely Friendship"
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I’d often wonder, as I looked upward, “Why am I here? Why do I have to go through this? I am miserable almost every day!”

I wondered what lessons I’d learn from this job, what I would take away from it. I figured there had to exist a reason beyond the below-market paycheck.

One afternoon, feeling trapped in the office and trying to make it through the day without screaming, I eavesdropped on my surrounding co-workers. To my left, on the other side of my cube wall, my neighbor ranted about yet another blunder of then-President George H. Bush. I heard her say:

“Of course, he’s from Texas. I’ve never met a person from Texas who I like.”

I stood up, peered over the wall and interjected shyly, “I’m from Texas. Well…kinda…I lived there junior high through college.”

My neighbor, JC, a blonde woman with a kind face, bright expressive eyes, and a voice that brings to mind your favorite elementary school teacher replied, “Well, I like you, so maybe Texas isn’t all bad.”

A friendship was born.

As we got better acquainted in the following months, we discovered that despite our age difference we shared more than a few commonalities. Our friendship cemented, when on a Friday night she came out to West Hollywood – risking traffic misery – to celebrate my 27th birthday with me and a bunch of my twenty-something friends. My friends liked her and I loved that she was game for anything – even hanging out with people who whine about being old at the age of 27.

Sometimes you find friendship in the most unlikely people. | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black in "3 Important Life Lessons I Learned From an Unlikely Friendship"
Me with JC in 2005. One of my younger sisters was in town visiting and JC took us on a nature drive through the Santa Monica Mountains

In the many years that we’ve been friends, JC’s seen me through heartbreak, job changes and career struggles, supported me through growing pains and has taken me in on holidays since I don’t have family in California. She is like family to me.

It’s an unlikely friendship. I notice the curious looks we get sometimes when we’re out in public together – often joined by JC’s husband, to whom she’s been married almost as long as I’ve been alive. It’s difficult to quantify how much our friendship has enriched my life. However, there are valuable lessons I’ve picked up which I’d like to share.

Sometimes you find friendship in the most unlikely people. | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black in "3 Important Life Lessons I Learned From an Unlikely Friendship"

1. Don’t Take Your Body or Health for Granted

A few years before I met JC, a man having an epileptic seizure while driving lost control of his car and plowed into her parked vehicle where she sat paying bills in the driver’s seat. The accident nearly killed her and almost destroyed her body. She spent nearly a year in the hospital undergoing multiple surgeries as well as physical and mental therapy.

A self-proclaimed nature lover and outdoors girl who grew up in the California desert, JC had to re-learn how to walk and use her body – now rebuilt with skin grafts and enough metal to alarm an airport detector.

Her life as a maven of the outdoors was never the same after the accident. She can’t hike the way she used to. There’s always a mobility walker in the trunk of her Prius which she uses to help with her balance. She suffers through pain almost daily due to lingering nerve damage.

In discussing her accident, JC always reminds me of the importance of appreciating my body, health and youth. Not taking for granted how hard my muscles work just so I can walk, run and jump. To respect the vitality and mobility youth enables. As we all know, that mobility and vitality isn’t everlasting.

Staying physically fit and healthy is a priority for me. I use my youth to my advantage. I want to be that 70-year old no one believes is 70 because she’s bursting with energy and in fantastic shape.

Sometimes you find friendship in the most unlikely people. | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black in "3 Important Life Lessons I Learned From an Unlikely Friendship"

2. You Can Be Friends with People with Different Belief Systems

JC is friends with nearly everyone. She’s warm, talkative, vibrant and very likable. Souls are drawn to her open heart, even those who don’t share her firmly liberal beliefs, about which she is quite vocal.

Conservative friends of hers will send her inflammatory memes and Snopes-worthy articles which they’ll vehemently debate knowing neither party will budge. Yet, they remain friends, despite their warring political beliefs of the type some friendships fall out over. It’s a testament to the fact that she accepts people for who they are and genuinely wants the best for everyone.

Some of JC’s friends she’s known since her childhood and early adulthood – though that doesn’t keep her from making new friends. With those she’s close to, she keeps in touch regularly – even talking on that device we use to text and check our social media. I aspire to be able to say the same when I hit her age. Maintaining friendships is important.

Sometimes you find friendship in the most unlikely people. | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black in "3 Important Life Lessons I Learned From an Unlikely Friendship"
In 2012 at Farm Sanctuary’s Animal Acres in Acton, California. JC and I both love animals.

3. Always be Learning and Seeking New Experiences

From time to time JC will remind me of a conversation we had years ago that changed the way she views people in public spaces. She’d invited me to an art festival in Orange County, about an hour south of Los Angeles. If you’re unfamiliar with the OC, many cities there aren’t exactly diverse. Driving to Orange County is sometimes derisively referred to by Angelenos as “crossing the orange curtain” because in several ways it’s the polar opposite of L.A.

Though art is totally my thing, I declined the invite and explained why. I’d had some uncomfortable racial experiences in the OC. Particularly in the region where the festival took place, which was and still is overwhelmingly white. Some people would stare at me like they’ d never seen a black person before or they’d just not even acknowledge my existence. It’s quite alienating.

JC said that she’d never thought about it that way before. She’d never really had to. She’d see a sprinkling of people of color in a crowd and think “ah, diversity.” She hadn’t given much thought to how it’d feel to always be the minority in public spaces and endure the weirdness that sometimes occurs. I laughed when one day she emailed me about an event she’d attended and how all she saw were “old white people.”

We’ve spoken fairly candidly about race over the years. She’s been open and receptive to learning about my experiences and how the world looks through my eyes. Likewise, I’ve learned a lot about her lens on the world.

As an avid traveler, JC’s always encouraged me to see the world. I recall one afternoon visiting her wonderfully quirky, ranch-style home up in the beautiful Santa Monica Mountains and flipping through old photo albums as she narrated.

One album was full of photos taken on an African safari she’d gone on with her husband. As I turned the pages, I imagined how amazing it would be to visit Africa one day. For so long it had seemed like an unrealistic dream. Talking to JC about her experiences made it seem a more real and attainable goal to me.

In 2012, I visited Africa for the first time – Tanzania, specifically – and went on a safari. The entire trip was more incredible than I could have imagined. In the years since I met JC, I’ve visited countries on four different continents. I hope to make it to all seven by my 40th birthday.

Sometimes you find friendship in the most unlikely people. | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black in "3 Important Life Lessons I Learned From an Unlikely Friendship"
2012: On a safari in Tarangire National Park in Tanzania with zebras grazing in the background.

Sometimes, the reason we’re placed in difficult situations isn’t immediately obvious. I never imagined in all those mornings I wept over how much I disliked my job, that I would one day be grateful for the experience. Without it, I never would have made one of the best friends I could ever ask for.

Do you have any unlikely friendships? What lessons have you learned through your friendships?

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When You’re Confronted With Racially Insensitive Terms at Work

View of Downtown San Francisco from "When You're Confronted with Racially-Insenstive Terms at Work"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.

I was the only black face in the room. Of course I was, this is tech in San Francisco.

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.

Master_Slave_Diagram from "When You're Confronted with Racially Insensitive Terms at Work" on The Girl Next Door is Black
Diagram representing the relationship between databases.
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While I didn’t find much, there is one notable case. In 2003, Los Angeles County requested the naming convention not be used in county operations, despite much opposition to the change. They took action after a county employee filed a discrimination lawsuit upon coming across the phrase at work.

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.

diversity trainer from craigslist" border="0"></a><br>More career  humor at <a href="http://academy.justjobs.com/cartoon-caption-contest">http://academy.justjobs.com/cartoon-caption-contest
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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.

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Take That, Mrs. No-Target

Years ago, I volunteered on the entertainment sub-committee for my job’s annual summer party. One of my tasks involved coming up with giveaway prize ideas: a few high-value “grand” prizes, and enough door prizes so that almost everyone left a winner.

Before purchasing the prizes, my committee shared our ideas with the larger planning group. The list included gift cards from Target as a few of the door prizes.

One of the alcohol sub-committee members wrinkled her face at the mention of Target.

“Target? Ha! Does anyone shop at Target? Do you think anyone’s gonna want that? I don’t even know where a Target is!”

Everyone fell silent. Even the crickets in the potted plants went mute.

Does anyone shop at Target? Is she for real? It’s only one of the most popular superstores in the country. Where she been?

Raffle Tickets Photo cr: Alyson Hurt, flickr.com | The Girl Next Door is Black
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Around the conference table, people hid grins and stifled chuckles as Mrs. “I don’t even know where a Target is” scanned the room looking for validation and found none.

Finally someone piped up:

“Uh, yeah. shop at Target. I love Tar-zhay! Who doesn’t?”

A woman from the food committee added, “I go to Target  for ONE THING and I always leave with 10 other things I’m not even sure I need. They just have good stuff!”

Heads nodded.

It’s relevant to mention that Mrs. No-Target lives in a posh area of Los Angeles, near the beach in a spectacular home with a long winding driveway. L.A. has no fewer than 10 Targets. They are kind of hard to miss. Maybe she never has to leave her compound. Perhaps she has staff who take care of menial duties like shopping at discount stores. Is that what it’s like to have serious money? You don’t have to bother with knowledge of plebeian shopping centers?

It reminded me of Oprah, when she taped a camping episode of her show, and her amazement at discovering the existence of REI. She couldn’t believe an entire store dedicated to recreational equipment and sporting goods existed. I love Oprah, it’s an REI, not a cat café.

In the end, we gave away several Target gift cards at the party. The recipients loved them! One even did a little jig. At least that’s how I choose to remember it. Take that, Mrs. No-Target!

As a thank you to all of my readers – the loyalists, the newbies and everyone in between – I have partnered with several other bloggers to offer you the opportunity to enter to win a Target gift card of your very own! Thank you for your comments, encouragement and kind words, readers!

Giveaway ended 4/8/15

Target Giveaway March 2015 Banner from The Girl Next Door is Black

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Prize: $400 Target Gift Card

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Giveaway organized by: Oh My Gosh Beck! (Please email becky@ohmygoshbeck.com with any questions.)

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5 Ways I Stayed Productive (and Kept Sane) During Unemployment

Gordon Creek Road by Luke Detwiler , Winding Road | The Girl Next Door is Black
Photo cr: Luke Detwiler
Text and design by The Girl Next Door is Black

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.

Hollywood Sign View of Los Angeles Basin Photo cr: Mary-Austin and Scott, flickr.com | The Girl Next Door is Black
Photo cr: Mary-Austin and Scott, flickr.com

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. 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.

Wood Social Media Icons | The Girl Next Door is BlackI 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!

Free Time Clock Photo cr: Wes Peck | The Girl Next Door is Black
Photo cr: Wes Peck, Flickr.com

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.

Feet in the Park San Francisco | The Girl Next Door is Black
Here are my happy feet in the park
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.

My Super Important Goals | The Girl Next Door is BlackIt’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 felineravaged 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.
Glass of Water on ice, Photo cr: StockPhotosforFree.com
Photo cr: StockPhotosforFree.com
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 mindwreck of my last job.

Girl Meditating on Water Photo by Abigail Corpus, flickr.com | The Girl Next Door is Black
Photo cr: Abigail Corpus, flickr.com

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?

Laid Off, Not Laid Out

I got laid off this week.

Getting laid off from a job is never easy, but it doesn't mean you're out for the count. Read more on The Girl Next Door is BlackThe 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?”

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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THE WORST MEETING EVER

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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.

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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.

Getting laid off from a job is never easy, but it doesn't mean you're out for the count. Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black

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. :)”

Thank you for releasing me, Fancy Startup.

Getting laid off from a job is never easy, but it doesn't mean you're out for the count. Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
First full day of funemployment and I ain’t got no worries!

Waking Up From a Bad Dream: Job Nightmares

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.

WILTING FLOWER

photo cr: chad_k, flickr.com
photo cr: chad_k, flickr.com

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.

photo cr: Jan de Graaf, flickr.com
photo cr: Jan de Graaf, flickr.com

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.

photo cr: marc falardeau, flickr.com
photo cr: marc falardeau, flickr.com

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.

LESSONS LEARNED

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.

photo cr: Enokson, flickr.com
photo cr: Enokson, flickr.com

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.

WAKING UP

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.

photo cr: Rhys Asplundh, flickr.com
photo cr: Rhys Asplundh, flickr.com

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.

America: Land of No Time Off, No Fun?

A good book, a beach and a hammock: this is the life.
A good book, a beach and a hammock: this is the life.

In Tanzania this summer, I had a stimulating conversation with an Irish woman who had taken a break from her teaching job to manage a resort in Zanzibar. When she discovered that I’d been in Tanzania for three weeks, she was in shock. “I thought Americans didn’t get much holiday time?”

“I work for a company that provides really good benefits in the hopes of retaining employees.” 

“Lovely. My American relatives come to visit us in Ireland and they only stay for six days. What’s the point? Stay home! There’s no time!” Imagine this said with a delightfully animated Irish accent.

“I know.”

“Why don’t Americans fight for more time off?”

I gave a heavy sigh and answered, “I don’t even know where to begin.”

A few months before my trip, Jack Cafferty of CNN asked in a short essay, “Why don’t most Americans take all their vacation time?

Personally, I don’t feel I have enough vacation time. In fact, I have a Pinterest board titled, “I need more vacation time.

The article sourced a recent study that found “57% of working Americans had unused vacation time at the end of last year. “ Reasons given for this varied: some feel they have too much work to afford to take time off, others are afraid to take time off for fear of returning jobless and some just feel they can’t afford to do anything.

There was a time when I worked for a large insurance company as a contractor (because they were too cheap to hire me and many others full-time; of course, the execs got nice fat bonuses most years and they can afford shiny commercials with a celebrity endorser). I was only a few years out of college and didn’t have enough saved to afford to take unpaid time off. Even calling in sick wasn’t an option. No work, no pay. So, I get it. But, I didn’t like it. Working days on end with no break in sight. At a job I hated. With no health, dental or vision insurance and a micro-managing mid-level boss spying on everyone’s move. Another who kept calling me by the name of another black girl. I needed a break. We all do. Taking time off can have a beneficial impact on our physical and mental health, as well as our productivity at work. While according to the study, the average American employee gets 13 paid days off, the United States doesn’t mandate it (and I’m not sure how I feel about government intervention in this realm).

Costa Rica was REALLY good for my soul
Costa Rica was REALLY good for my soul

However, according to CNN Money the UK mandates employers give employees at least 28 paid days off, France decrees 25 and Japan 20. If vacation time is good for the body, good for the soul and good for the business, why don’t Americans fight for vacation time?

Cafferty’s question generated a (mostly) healthy debate.

Patrick from Oregon said,

“Many who work making minimum wages or near it are unable to afford a vacation. heck we can barely afford to buy gas to get to work.”

A more cynical MnTaxpayer commented,

“Because most corporate drones think they are more important then[sic] they really are.”

Quite a few chalked it up to our strong American work ethic. Guy Williams summed up the recurring themes nicely,

“Reasons: (1). Americans, for the most part, have very strong work ethics. (2). We fear losing our jobs if we aren’t at our desk every day other workers see our absence and maneuver for an opening. (3). We barely keep our heads above water with the work load we have; setting it aside for 2 weeks or longer means an unconquerable mountain of backlog when we return. That’s why we don’t take vacations.”

On Friday, CNN Money posted a somewhat related article: “One in three U.S. workers has no paid sick days” which similar to the vacation post received a large number of responses. This time some of the responses were a little sharper in tone.

J. Medford replied,

“I live in a 3rd world Caribbean Country and we have that right…America is weird.”

To which Burns8282 responded,

“Says the guys in the 3rd world country. Ill take the American work ethic and the title of most powerful country in the world.”

Ouch! (As of this writing the response had received 6 positive votes, 14 negative votes.)

In an unrelated comment, Waytooold2 chimed in,

“when your[sic] worried about being outsourced you don’t worry about sick days”

The eye-rollingly named liberlmedia added,

“They should move to Europe if they want paid vacation.”

Others worried about the increase in malingerers (one woman worried about an uptick in drunkards taking the day off to nurse hangovers). However, many were sympathetic to the plight of those without paid sick days. As Nick Knight commented,

“America, slowly becoming a right wing toilet.”

And the battle between the 1% & the 99% continues as Madisontruth stated,

“Welcome to the new normal. The 1% who control the game board see us all as pawns. This is why government intervention is necessary.”

Why don’t Americans have as much time off as other countries? Is it a strong work ethic? Is it that we’re pawns in a game played by a few, dazzlingly wealthy people in charge? Are we just so used to it that it never occurs to us to ask for more? Even when people do take vacation, some end up working anyway!

Paris, je t'aime
Paris, je t’aime

I don’t know what the answer is. What I do know is that I choose to live my life with respect to my future self. When I make important decisions, I ask myself: will I feel it was worth it; will I feel good about it? If not, it’s probably not the right decision. When I look back on my life, I don’t want to lament all the time I spent not making the most of it, not enjoying myself, not doing something meaningful. As I lay on my deathbed, I surely will not regret spending too much time working as I reflect on my life choices. I work hard during work hours, I play during play hours. When I’m on vacation, don’t call me and I’m not checking work emails.

Of course, it’s not that black and white. I’ve progressed well in my career. I have chosen to work in a field where the smart employers – as in employers that realize employees are their best asset –  fight over employees by dangling tantalizing benefits in our faces. I have the option of saying “Hellllll to the no” to jobs with shit benefits. But, that could change: I could lose my job, the debt ceiling could finally crush us and work “perks” like sick days and vacation time could disappear. However, I’ll do my best to live a life to love and in any case, liberlmedia has a good point about moving to Europe…I did love France when I visited.

As far as we know, we get one life to live and I want to enjoy the hell out of this one!