Thursday, January 24, 2013

What I learned by being unemployed for 7 months

First, I have to do a little victory dance -- I accepted an offer of employment and will be rejoining the workforce soon.

Here's what I learned from my personal journey through unemployment. Your results may vary.

1. Being let go from a job was not a personal judgment about me. It was also not a reflection on my professional performance.

2. It happens to "everybody." When I first lost my job, many people (more than I thought) gave me words of encouragement because they had been in my shoes -- long-term unemployed. Six months. Eight months. A year. All in a geographic area commutable to several Tier 1 (ie metropolitan) cities and many Tier 2 (ie large) cities. These were good people. Hard-working and intelligent. They were my inspiration. In this economy, lengthy job gaps are not a death sentence for finding meaningful future employment.

3. Unemployment is a serious test of mental and emotional fortitude. The experience is isolating and depressing. I needed to force myself to get out and network or see friends, especially on the days when I felt like staying in PJs all day. Also, I made it a rule to not wear sweats/PJs during the day unless I were going to the gym. I had been through unemployment previously, so I had a decent emergency fund available to me, but other friends in the same boat struggled with the emotional stress of financial challenges as well.

4. It's also great for the waistline. Between reduced stress, ability to work out regularly and having time to cook more meals at home, I lost 10 pounds and improved my muscle definition.

5. It gets better. The hard work will pay off. I tuned out all media coverage on unemployment because it seemed to focus on the impossibility of getting a job, which is the exception, rather than the rule. I was able to get to know myself better over these 7 months, make better decisions for my future, and realize that work should not be the be-all-end-all of my existence. I had job interviews within a few months, job offers within a few months (which I turned down because they weren't the right fit for me) and, now, a successful emergence from unemployment.

Looking back, my unemployment came at a good time for me -- personally and professionally. Personally, I was able to be available for my family during a very big transition. I was also able to use the time to realize that, as much as I didn't think I was, I centered a lot of my life around my job. Professionally, I was able to re-assess my goals to get a clear picture of where I would like to be in 5 or 10 years.

Today I am grateful for my last few days of "free time" before I get back to the routine of a 9-to-5 gig. I'll be getting my naps and movie-watching in while I can :-)

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Can You Choose Success?

I read an article (and, apologies, I forget where it was online) about how entrepreneurs motivate themselves to success by simply "choosing not to fail."

Is it that simple?

The article's premise is that, if you have a singular goal (ie the success of your business), then failure is not an option.

Based on the failure rate of businesses, I don't think a myopic view of any goal is the simple path to success. I did watch a documentary, The Queen of Versailles, that detailed the struggles of a businessman who was pinned the success of his entire company on the launch of one new business unit. I could see the drive discussed in the "choose not to fail" article in this documentary; however, the documentary included interviews with people involved with the company who shared the perspective that the business overall would be successful if the owner stopped focusing on the success of the one business unit and simply let that part fail.

I agree that you have a choice between success and failure. I think, however, that to "choose not to fail," you need to have a broad goal. You don't want to be the dry leaf -- changing course without purpose -- but you also don't want to be so stuck to a myopic vision that provides limited opportunity for success.

To bring things back to the job hunt (as that's where most of my energy is focused these days), my biggest goal when I became unemployed was to find unemployment that made the most of my previous work experience and provided a work culture that fit me. Specifically, I took a risk six years ago to stay at a company where I did not fit with the corporate culture so I could accrue experience in higher level management. Working in that type of environment was emotionally tiring (I didn't realize how much until I wasn't in it anymore!). I did not want to take a job below a management level because I felt (and still feel) that it would have meant those six years of emotional stress were for nothing. I also never want to put myself in a situation again where I discount the importance of cultural fit to my overall work experience (or think that, with enough positive attitude, I can change a culture from the inside without being the owner or president/CEO of a company). If I can't invent a time machine to make different choices, then I need to make the choices that I made count.

My goal was singular enough to focus my efforts, but not so myopic as to limit my opportunities. Depending on the size and complexity of an organization, management positions can be several levels deep. After reflection, I didn't feel that I needed to stay at my same level of management because, depending on the organization, a lower level of management may more directly correlate to my level of experience. While I have some experience, and a lot to offer an employer or client base (if I chose to go into business for myself), I'm not so short-sighted as to think that I have nothing more to learn.

I also knew that my interviews needed to be two-way -- I needed to grill any company that I met with about culture and leadership to ensure that I would feel that I fit the organization when I walked in on Day 1. I also needed to pay attention to my gut throughout the process. With my most recent work experience, there were numerous points prior to employment where I knew that the company would not be a cultural fit for me; I discounted those misgivings and rationalized the interactions. In the end, my gut was right.

Based on my goal choice, I am able to say that "failure is not an option." My goal is not limited geographically or by industry. If I need to make a calculated geographic or industry move to achieve the goal, then I will.

Today, I am grateful for getting one of the last flu shots at my grocery store and that the flu shot this year is on target for the strain(s) of flu going around. This is my first-ever flu shot. Seeing how severe the flu outbreak is in my area, and the fact that the immunization is on target for the specific strain being spread, I finally decided to bite the bullet. (Interestingly, my great-grandmother died of the flu; you would think that the experience, which left my grandfather motherless at a rather young age, would make me more attuned to the severity of the illness and the necessity for prevention, now!)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Are you a wet leaf or a dry leaf?

In high school, one of my teachers gave an extemporaneous life lesson to my class. It's an image that has stuck with me for *mumble mumble* years.

She told us that we have to decide if we are going to be wet leaves or dry leaves in life. A dry leaf is carried by the wind, directionless. A wet leaf sticks and is difficult to move. Her closing statement, "Do you want to be pushed by anything, or stand for something?"

I've never been swayed much by negative peer pressure. Throughout my life, I've been fortunate to surround myself with people who provide positive peer pressure and, while they may present negative options from time to time, never make participation in negative activities a requirement for friendship. The idea of being "pushed by anything" didn't feel like an option to me.

The perspective that I've gained over the last *mumble mumble* years is that peer pressure isn't the only way to be "pushed by anything." I was looking at tornadoes and disregarding the light breezes. Apathy and rejection have been the light breezes that, at times, dried my leaf.

I've written before that I am very motivated. My natural state is "wet leaf." I want to make life happen for myself. I do my best to accomplish goals and put myself in the path of opportunity.

However, during very difficult times, I've been lulled by the dry leaf siren song. It's easier to do nothing and just see where you end up. Then, you're not responsible for what's going on in your life. You are simply life's victim. Sometimes problems have no solution. my core, as much as I would like for life to be easier, I don't believe in being a victim of life's circumstance. I don't believe that there is a life problem that I can't solve. Granted, I may not like the potential solutions that I come up with or that I may hear from trusted advisers, but "doesn't like" isn't the same as "doesn't exist." Also, having been through very difficult times before, and having come out the other side, I know that sometimes the hardest decisions are the starting point of the most positive change.

I work in a very competitive field. Knowing this, in college, I cold-called businesses in my local chamber of commerce directory seeking summer internship opportunities. (Unlike today, when I was in college, most businesses did not advertise internship opportunities) Did I like cold-calling? No, and I still don't! But, I had an end goal and knew that even though I didn't like what I was doing, it was giving me an advantage in the future job market.

In middle school, "everyone" was getting school jackets. At age 10, I was too young to be taken seriously as a paid babysitter and my family didn't have money to buy an expensive jacket that I would outgrow within a year or two. So, I did what I could do -- I wrote a children's story and sent it to Highlights Magazine in the hopes of getting published and making enough money to buy my own jacket. (I didn't get published, but I did receive a very nice "we'll keep your story on file for potential use in another issue" letter that I still have today)

Today, I'm faced with similar challenges. There are parts of getting through my current challenge that I don't like. But, they are the steps to an end goal that I know exists. So, I focus on the goal, rather than the uncomfortable steps of the process, and re-wet my leaf.

Today, I'm grateful for the VS Semi-Annual sale that I stumbled upon at the mall. I love fun foundational garments, and I love rooting through the sale bins to see what's available, even if they're not things I will end up buying. I'm also grateful that I can get as much pleasure from window shopping, and knowing that cute/fun things exist as I can from actually owning those items.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Pool Songs

I took advantage of some of the nice weather this week and walked around my neighborhood listening to my iPod.

Chicago's "I Don't Want to Live Without Your Love" came on and I smiled. It was what my siblings and I refer to as a "pool song," a song that was in heavy rotation during the summers when we were at the local pool.

With the exception of Billy Ocean's "Get Out of My Dreams and Into My Car," "pool songs" are pretty depressing songs. Yet, every time I hear them, they make me smile because they remind me of happy, relaxing times with my friends and family. John Waite's "Missing You" always makes me think of diving off of the diving board. It was the only place where you could actually hear the songs being played poolside, beyond the low and high notes.

Ah, life -- all about perspective.

In a larger context, I can look back on rough times in my life (present time included) and realize that, overall, the experience made me a better person, and are things that I should appreciate. Without everything that I'm going through now, I probably would have lost myself completely as a person because I was trying to make something work that was never going to work. It took me about six months to recover from six years of awful; while I'm not 100% yet, I keep getting closer to that every day. And, I don't know that the recovery would have been possible without being abruptly thrown from the life I was living at the time.

Today I'm grateful for nice weather in the middle of the winter. I'm enjoying the sunshine and looking forward to taking advantage of the nice weather tomorrow, possibly by going to the playground with my niece.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

More thoughts on a meaningful life

One of the other big thoughts that stuck with me from Rabbi Kushner's book was this quote from the Talmud: In the world to come, each of us will be called to account for all the good things God put on earth which we refused to enjoy.

The quote provides an interesting perspective: instead of looking at choices in terms of morality, the quote invites you to look at choices in terms of meaning.

I consider myself (and the majority of people) a moral person. I'm not going to, for example, have to seriously think about whether I would rather go to work or sit in a dark alley shooting up heroin.

So the idea that, at the end of my life, Saint Peter and I will go over an audit of my moral failings doesn't really give me a direction to live. Yes, I come across moral crossroads from time to time (ie do I give change to this "homeless" person? Is the person really homeless?), but, in terms of life satisfaction, I need a different guidepost.

I find that this quote from the Talmud gives me a better direction in terms of day-to-day choices. (It also plays well into Catholic and Jewish guilt, as having to witness all of the times where I could have been happy and chose unhappiness would be depressing, especially if it also involved hurting other people)

For example, in my working life, I've given up vacation time in exchange for money. I've been on vacation and felt compelled to check in with the office.

That type of situation is the one where the Talmud, to me, gives perspective. What enjoyable things am I giving up today in exchange for things that may or may not give me pleasure in the future?

At my job where I was paid for unused vacation time, out of about two weeks of vacation, I would use a few days, and get an extra paycheck for the year in exchange for my unused time. The extra money did serve my need for financial security and provided some buffering for my emergency fund. also burnt me out on my job a lot faster than if I had taken the vacation time and spent it recharging.

The Talmud quote keeps me more "in the moment." I am a goal-oriented person, and I try to make decisions that set me up for future success. Sometimes "future success" can be nebulous. If I don't have a clear vision of where I'm going, then why sacrifice current happiness to get to that unknown destination?

Because of my need for security, I need to have hard answers to the following areas of my life:
1) Where do I want to go with my career?
2) What are my health/fitness goals?
3) How much of an emergency fund is enough?
4) What do I need to save for retirement?

(Full disclosure, I don't have hard answers to all of these questions, but I'm working on them!)

With those questions answered, I have the perspective to see the good things put on this earth for me to enjoy, like my family and friends. (OK, at this point, I guess I also have to disclose that my interpretation may not be the Rabbinical interpretation of the Talmud quote. However, as I've stated before, I'm very Type A, and I have difficulty just letting life happen to me. More on this in a future post.)

One of my friends put it best during a breakfast conversation, "I'll never look back on my life and regret the time that I spent with my family. I'll never say, 'I wish I did X rather than spend time with my kids.'"

Today I am grateful for the time yesterday that I spent making empanadas. One of my goals is to get better at cutting foods uniformly (onions, vegetables for cooking), and my onions were pretty awesome in this recipe. I also think I perfected the technique for prepping the filling, the shell and and the frying to minimize the stress of the entire preparation process.

I am also grateful that I have FINALLY (FINALLY!) started working through the large collection of scented candles that I have. My goal, at some point, is to have 1 large candle and 1 box of tea lights. I'm not there yet, but I'm 1 box of tea lights and 1 large candle down!

Monday, January 7, 2013

The meaning in life

One of the books I read last year was Harold Kushner's When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough.

I find that Rabbi Kushner is a good resource for me when I'm going through major life events.

One of my takeaways from this book was: A life of meaning is achieved not by a few great, immortal deeds, but by a lot of little ones.

Sometimes I get focused on having one big splash -- being the next Steve Jobs, inventing a vaccine, etc. -- and that just frustrates me. Heck, I would posit that even Steve Jobs didn't think he was going to be "Steve Jobs." By focusing on one HUGE thing, which, to be honest, I'm not even working toward at the moment (to my knowledge), I simply set myself up for failure that I'm not good enough.

By looking at the little things that I do each day, I stay focused on the things that matter to me (which, right now, is not national or international fame). I may never invent the next iPod, but I have put together a jingle for my nephew that makes him smile when I sing it to him after naps. I share my story of recovery with friends who are starting on their journey to give them an addictive personality's "it gets better" goal. I serve as a positive role model for students. I work on staying positive about my own journey each day, and most days (at least this year), I'm succeeding.

It's important for me to remember that the little things I do make a positive difference in people's lives and help them grow to be better people, just as I'm trying to grow to be a better person.

Today, I'm grateful for my tenacity, which has been something I've really had to rely on lately.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Change Management

While I've gone through Dale Carnegie training twice (once unofficially and once officially), I read his books before participating in the DC program.

The books made a lot of sense to me.

How to Stop Worrying and Start Living presents the concept of realizing what things are within and what things are outside of your control, and only worrying about things that are within your control.

Right now in my life, I feel like a lot of things are outside of my control. It is a frustrating place to be because that frustration comes from worrying about things that I can't change.

"Don't worry about the things you can't change" is easier said than done. One of my struggles with that adage is that I usually spend a lot of time looking for something that I can affect within the situation.

What I find is that, as complicated as I try to make things, it's pretty easy to determine, within a given situation, what you have in your power. I can look up and down to find a loophole that lets me control everything, but, at the end of the day, the things I can control are those obvious items that I immediately identified when a situation presented itself. For better or worse, I'm still working on remembering that when new challenges cross my path!

I can't control everything, but there are certain things that I can do to keep my mind off of the things that I can't control and help me feel better about life in general.

I make my bed every morning. Clutter (and I feel unmade beds look cluttered) make me feel out of control in my personal environment. Keeping a tidy bed, and a tidy house, helps keep me in a positive mental space.

I do what I can do to the best of my ability. I don't have Carnegie's book with me, but I'm pretty sure that's one of the tenets of How to Stop Worrying. If the only thing that I can control is what I do, then I want to make sure I don't leave room for mistakes in those items.

Today, I'm grateful for social plans that helped keep me from ruminating on the things that I can't control, and good friends who take my mind off of bad situations.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Inspiration for the New Year

My New Year's Eve tradition is to watch The Poseidon Adventure, the 1970s adventure movie that takes place on New Year's Eve/Day. In bad years, it reminds me that someone always has it worse than I do at that moment. Every year, it delivers a few inspirational messages to me that are positive ways to start out a year:

1) Have hope. Hope keeps the characters going throughout the movie. In my own life, I have to make sure I also always have sight of the engine room to buoy me through the challenges that it takes to get to it. I had a few days at the end of the year where I lost sight of the engine room. Interestingly, I spent those days trying to look for my proverbial engine room, even though I wasn't quite sure what I was actually looking for. Thankfully, a few days ago I was able to regain sight of it, although I'm still not quite sure why Experience X was the factor that gave me hope when Experiences A - W, which were remarkably similar to X, did not.

2) Keep trying. In the movie, the closer the characters get to the end goal, the greater the trials they have to overcome to reach it. At one point in the movie, one of the characters easily reaches the engine room. However, when he attempts to lead the group there, a whole new set of obstacles end up in their path. In a matter of ten minutes, the entire landscape changes and requires everyone to regain their bearings. In my own journey right now, I see a lot of people easily reaching my engine room and I wonder why my own struggle seems so much harder. But, in this instance, it's better to spend energy trying to tackle the current challenges set in front of me rather than wonder why things seem to work out more easily for others.

I do recognize that sometimes the challenges do come from within (I call this the "the caller is inside the house!" moment), but I've spent the time examining my current challenges and realize that the problems aren't me -- they're environmental factors that I have to overcome to get to my engine room.

3) Life always matters very much. I had an interesting experience over this last week. My mom always gave perspective on tough situations by saying, "Just wait. In six months, things will be better." A couple of months ago, I rationalized working through my current challenges by saying that if they weren't resolved within six months, I could kill myself and be done with the struggle. Two weeks ago, I thought the universe had miraculously worked everything out. A week ago, I realized that wasn't true...and my deadline was fast approaching.

Yesterday was supposed to be the last day of my life. But, as has happened numerous times, through numerous "bottoms" that I've hit, I found hope in my situation. And life will continue on. Again, I don't fully understand how I can find things so hopeless and hopeful at the same time, but I know that it's not my time to go yet. I want to continue to make things better for myself and continue to bring good things into my life.

Today, I'm grateful for saying "yes" to opportunity, including going to a very fun dance at a sobriety club. I have not been in a recovery support environment in decades, but the supportive environment was just what the doctor ordered. While I don't have issues with drugs or alcohol, I am 16 years in recovery from an eating disorder and find the recovery community to be "my tribe." It was nice to be able to have fun and be awkward with people who were doing the same thing. And I met someone patient enough to help me partner swing dance. Partner dancing is one of my biggest fears because I have trouble with leading/following -- and I met it head on. W00T!