We played hooky.
By that I mean, I went to the dentist, and my hubby drove, and he used comp time and I used two hours of vacation.
I was supposed to take the whole day off. I just couldn’t quite bring myself to do it.
All the same, what we managed to do with a fairly brief window of time off duty felt like a vacation day. Properly planned, it doesn’t take very much.
The first thing that made this day feel like a vacation day is that neither of us had to sign on at a particular time. I blew off my morning stand-up meeting since I had already written up and submitted a status report. Delayed delivery is our friend!
More of us should start taking it seriously when we say “this meeting could have been an email” - and actually write the email and then cancel that meeting.
I did have a meeting scheduled that I had forgotten about when I asked for the day off. I wanted to keep it, though, and we wound up finishing our discussion in under fifteen minutes. Whether “work” feels like “work” depends almost entirely on how much agency you have around your project. It doesn’t even have to be interesting or challenging if you feel like you are the boss of getting it done.
Since I had this meeting that I wanted to keep, I made an intuitive decision that I would put in a certain amount of a proper workday, and that I would do it sub-rosa. I simply wouldn’t log in or talk to anyone else, and I would get some stuff off my backlog.
This was a little nutty but it totally worked. It felt like I got two days off in one - the equivalent to my working Fridays, when nobody else is around and I can be 3x as productive - plus a fun outing.
It turned out my hubby also had a morning meeting that he had forgotten about, even though he, too, scheduled a day off. His was a little later than mine, so I used the time to get some stuff done. We both left feeling productive.
We took off, having temporary use of our friend’s car. (Everyone loves you when you have your own personal parking spot in a secured garage, at least when that spot is empty).
We drove to our old town, where neither of us can quite bring ourselves to break up with our dentist, even though it’s quite a haul. The truth is that trips to the dentist also make room for a quick tour around our old stomping grounds, and we still enjoy that, so much so that we keep talking about moving back.
(That is, until we drive home again and realize all over again how untenable the commute would be, even for a day).
While I had my appointment, my hubby sat outside our favorite old Starbucks, drank tea, and read a book.
One important secret to playing hooky is to do it during a season when you really appreciate the weather. Some people are going to want a snow day, some people are going to choose rain rolling down the window, and we of course are going to choose hot summer weather.
This is really the ingredient that made our day special. Half an hour of driving was like fast-forwarding from spring to summer. It was about 15 F hotter in town than it was at home. I wore a sleeveless top and a skirt, while I’ve been wearing sweaters for months.
It’s not quite enough to forget that one is wearing two masks plus a face shield, but maybe it’s as close as one can get right now.
I went to the dentist, and the news was not good, and I sometimes wonder what I have done to have this sort of saga visited on me. On the other hand, it does mean I’m going back again, and I have another appointment to look forward to, and I can try to think of all the fun parts of that day rather than dental implements.
After my appointment, I had a nice sunny walk down what used to be one of my favorite parts of town. I remembered all the times I went into the bookstore that was now open for curbside pickup only. I remembered past years when I had bought Girl Scout cookies from a table on the sidewalk, right at that corner. I remembered living there and having no idea that 2020 was coming and just swinging my arms and having a bare face.
Then I saw my hubby sitting at his little outdoor table. It has been a very long time since I was just able to walk up on him from a distance and see him from that vantage. I like to pretend sometimes that he’s just a random single boy and I’m a single girl and that I’m going to try to chat him up.
He told me a little about his book, which I imagine he would have done if I were flirting with him, because that would totally work.
We ordered sandwiches from what used to be our favorite sandwich shop. Sometimes we would eat there and then go see a movie. This time, we got our food in a bag and drove across town and went to a park.
Eating a meal in a park, when you haven’t done that for a long time, can feel like a vacation in itself.
It was such fine picnic weather. I saw a yellow-rumped warbler and a black phoebe and a very saucy squirrel. We ate potato chips and drank lemonade and felt that we had the entire day to do whatever we liked.
Then, of course, we realized that we really needed to get a move-on if we were going to beat traffic, and remembered all over again what it’s like to drive on a six-lane freeway, and why we decided never to have a freeway commute again, and why we got rid of our car.
We were back before 4:00 pm. It was a coin-toss whether I would log back on and work a bit more, or not. But it was too late to take a nap, and I had to sign my timecard anyway, and I realized I wanted to get stuff done. So I worked another two hours. But it felt like nothing.
The best parts of the day were enjoying the fine summer weather and having hours together to chat casually about whatever. In every respect, it was like a vacation day.
Except that I only had to take two hours of vacation to pull that off.
I’m sad to say that if I had taken the entire day off, like I originally planned, I probably would have spent a lot of the day thinking about work. I would have worried about what was lurking in my email and I would have stressed about how much more I would have to do the next day. This is definitely something that I need to work on - and a lot of people in our culture should probably join me. I will give myself credit for taking a part of a day and using it recreationally, which is what vacation time is for.
How about you? Are you leaving comp time or vacation time on the table? When is the last time you took an afternoon off, or even took a long lunch?
Jobs and romance are exactly alike. The same sorts of myths about perfection and fate and destiny are attached to both. In many ways, what people imagine about a “dream job” is a lot like a “dream wedding.”
But do you even have a dream job?
I know I never did, until I did.
I had no idea whatsoever what I wanted to do. All I knew was what I didn’t like about whatever I was currently doing.
I hated getting up so early and commuting. I hated having a dress code and I felt very intimidated by that each day. Roughest of all was managing my attitude and facial expressions around customers and coworkers, no matter what they were doing or how I was feeling.
When I imagined having a better job - not a “dream job,” mind you - all I could think about was earning more money doing basically the same thing.
It wasn’t even in my mental landscape what would be different if I did earn more.
I couldn’t really imagine living in my own place and not needing roommates. I couldn’t really imagine having my own washer and dryer and not having to haul everything to the laundry room. I couldn’t even imagine being able to afford to go on a vacation.
There wasn’t even really a connection in my mind between the way I lived/struggled and the amount I earned in a month or a year. I was thinking one week at a time.
There was a blank cloud in my heart where “dream job” could go, and all that was in there was “earn more money somehow.” Which basically translated as “be less broke.”
I didn’t particularly know anyone who had a great job. If I met someone like a nurse or an engineer, all I knew was that I wasn’t qualified to do those things. There wasn’t anything magnetically attractive about those careers to me.
It’s different now. I’ve met all sorts of people who do all sorts of fascinating things. Opera singers and martial arts instructors, astronauts and surgeons, public speaking coaches and restaurant owners, hair stylists and plumbers.
We grew up.
In your forties and fifties, a lot of people have had time to figure out what they want to do, and they’re either doing it or training for it.
In my twenties I hung around with people my own age. Almost everyone I knew either worked in retail or as a waiter, except for one guy who worked in a hotel laundry and obtained a lot of second-hand tablecloths for our theater experiments. I was one of the only people in our friend group who had an office job.
What I learned to appreciate about my boring, dull office job was that I knew I would have Saturday and Sunday off, not just a week in advance but *years* in advance.
So much of a dream job has to do with the lifestyle around it, not the work itself.
Hair stylists are an example. From my perspective, they’re on their feet all day long! I always ask, when I’m getting a trim, “Did you always want to cut hair?” Almost every time, they answer that they started when they were kids, cutting their friends’ hair, and they can’t imagine doing anything else. There must be something compelling about spinning someone around in the chair to marvel at the transformation you have just worked. There’s also no real upper limit to how much a hair stylist can earn or the level of fame and prestige of their clients.
I learned to cut hair in 2020, first my husband’s and now my own. It turns out that it’s kinda fun. It is satisfying to see that you’re up to at least the level of a $6 barber. It’s also made me even more inclined to appreciate the artistry of a good stylist and eager to pay someone else to do it.
I’ve arrived at my personal dream job after learning about, and ruling out, a lot of other professions. I realized that I didn’t want to run my own business because I’d have to spend so much time hustling and marketing and promoting whatever I was doing. I knew I didn’t want to do anything that involved working nights, weekends, or holidays. I didn’t want to drive from site to site.
As I looked around, I realized that what I loved was the predictability and decorum of the business world. There’s a code of conduct - one that I didn’t understand quite so well when I was younger, but that makes me feel at home now. I think business jargon is funny and endearing, but we can circle back to that.
It happened when I was just an impressionable child. I saw “His Gal Friday” and the arrow struck me in the heart. When I grew up, I would need to work in an office with a typewriter and that’s all there was to it.
What would I be doing with that typewriter? Who cares?
I call my job my “dream job” because I had in mind a specific position in a specific company. When the opening came up, nobody could have been more enthusiastic than me. THIS job! Working for the specific person I had in mind! In the interview, I said I wasn’t even applying anywhere else, that my passion was for sending things to space and becoming part of a multi-planetary civilization. That I could see myself spending the next twenty years there.
Not everyone who works where I work is all that enamored of the space industry. That is strange to me because many of the jobs are prosaic, the likes of which can be found in any industry. Planners and purchasers and managers and recruiters and facilities crew and security and all the rest. Not everyone does orbital mechanics or propulsion engineering, although if you do, DM me, we’re hiring. I just would have figured that every space geek in the world would want to work in a place like this, and there wouldn’t be room for someone who would just as soon be working for a sports franchise or a mortgage bank.
The first secret of having a dream job is to have a field that you find incredibly interesting. The second secret is that the more you learn about it, the more interesting it gets. At that point, even a straightforward and unglamorous role can at least feel like something dynamic and purposeful.
A dream job isn’t like a dollar bill that you find in the street. It’s a starting point. It’s a role. Just like the fabled “dream wedding,” it’s not over when you get your offer letter. It’s a relationship that is just beginning.
Who taught you to job hunt?
This is a question that I think few people ask themselves, but it’s important.
A friend of ours reported struggling to find a job, and we asked her process. She was dropping by places where she wanted to apply, in person, during the pandemic, to ask if they had an opening.
I didn’t even have to ask to know that a Baby Boomer suggested this plan. Back in the 1970s, it was a solid strategy that actually got people jobs. (Not the “visit during a pandemic” part, though!)
Having worked in an employment agency and having met dozens of interview candidates at a dozen different companies, I can tell you with some authority that this process does not work if you want an office job.
(It might work if you want to bus tables at a restaurant or do manual labor on a construction site, but I’m not sure. Just guessing).
Your very first rule is not to annoy the front office staff. This must be said because apparently a shocking number of people find it impossible to do.
This is why it’s a good idea to ask yourself, where did you get your ideas on how to conduct a job hunt? Does the person who gave you this advice work in your actual field? (Not “did” as in “many years ago,” but does this person actively work in this field today?)
Have you checked those ideas with anyone else? Do these other people also have successful careers in your field?
Something it took me much too long to discover was that it’s better to ask for advice from people than it is to ask them for job leads. The ratio should be about 10% asking people for their time to help you, to 90% doing your own reading and research.
People ask me to look over their resumes all the time, which I do because I’m super nice that way, and it typically takes me an hour. It’s really important to understand that an hour of a busy person’s time is a big ask. You need to be paying that forward and making absolutely sure you are doing at least 1:1 hours of nice, generous things for other people.
Because that’s what ‘work’ is.
It gets a lot easier when you take on the persona of a finisher, a closer, someone who will absolutely not just bend over backward, but try to put your foot behind your head if that’s what it takes to get something done.
That’s when people start reaching out to *you* with unsolicited offers, rather than you chasing after them.
You can build a reputation like this in the volunteer world.
This is that type of ‘duh’ advice that makes people’s eyes roll back in your head. Yeah, tell me something I don’t know. How will I have time to do that when I’m so busy with this job hunt?
I never understood how true it was until I did it myself.
I’m firmly convinced that all the volunteer leadership I did in Toastmasters is what got me my dream job - well, that and the spec work I did on my tech newsletter.
There are two forces operating here, and I’m firmly convinced that almost zero job applicants put them to use, even as the standard “submit resume to hundreds of companies and wait” method returns so few results.
One is the force of networking, building a solid reputation with perhaps a hundred people who only know two things about you. First, you’re useful to have on projects, and second, you’re interested in a particular kind of job opening.
The other is the sheer mystical power of the portfolio method.
This is how I got my job.
First, I applied for two jobs and did not hear back. No rejection letter, no call, no interview, no nuthin. What I did do, though, was to attend a resume workshop and talk to a consultant. I hadn’t had a regular job in over ten years, and I wanted help figuring out how to explain that. We met, I wrote my resume and had two other business friends give me notes on it, and then I sent it to her and we talked over it again.
The third job I applied for was the job that I got. Same resume, same type of position, with two key differences.
I actually knew the specific person I would be working for, and I had met at least a dozen people, not just in the company, but in the specific division where I wound up working.
Also, I had been doing my spec project for over a year. I had inside information that it was on target. I figured it would eventually get me a job at this company - I gave it four years - and when it actually worked, I was simply surprised that it happened faster than I had thought.
Two things are happening here. One is that I am a known quantity to the people with whom I want to work. The other is that they have an ongoing sample of the quality of my work. By the time they interview me, it’s more or less a formality, because they already know I can do high-quality work on a consistent production schedule.
Twenty years ago, I knew that most jobs and promotional opportunities are never publicly advertised. I also knew that answering ads didn’t work very well. What I did not know was how the heck a person like me with no connections could get ahold of one of those jobs.
Now I do know.
Did it take hours of unpaid work on my part? Yes.
Did it take paying to hire someone to look over my resume? Yes.
Did all of that magically get compensated by my first paycheck at the new, higher-paying job? Yes.
It’s true that the existing system is not designed to be welcoming to outsiders, no matter what field you’re in. It’s also true that it’s still possible to become an insider. With a sincere desire to fill a specific role in a specific field, and consistent effort strategically applied, probably anyone can eventually become one of those insiders.
What did you do over the weekend? (Take ‘weekend’ to mean ‘day off from work’ - not that everyone has that as an option).
Among other things, my hubby had to spend about two hours talking to tech support, using my phone because his wasn’t working. While he was doing that, I ordered groceries and produce delivery, negotiating several products that weren’t available.
This is a reflection that technology makes our lives easier with one hand, and more complicated with the other.
Another example of this is that our bathtub faucet suddenly started dripping. I emailed our landlord about it, as part of a thread about the ceiling lights that suddenly quit on us and whether it might be an electrical issue. Due to COVID, we mutually agreed not to fix the faucet until “all this is over.”
It turns out that people have more to do than people of our same age did twenty or thirty years ago. That’s mostly because commerce has offloaded more and more tasks onto the end user, and it’s crept up on us, and we’ve barely noticed.
How much of our time is spent on things we didn’t have to do in the past, like updating passwords?
I’ve been noticing this sort of thing more, because I got a new job last year and we work 9-hour days. Since I work 8-6, almost everything is closed when I get off work, and a lot of it is closed during my lunch break as well.
The alternatives here are either to do these things during my off Fridays, or try to cram them into my breaks.
It’s amazing how quickly a free Friday can disappear into shadow labor.
I’ve decided that the only way to cope is to tag these shadow labor tasks, calling them out for what they are, and divvy them up so that I never have to do more than one or two per day.
One piece of shadow labor that I do every day, without fail, is to unsubscribe from whatever has infiltrated my email that day. For some reason, there are often as many as half a dozen new impertinences to fend off.
Another, similar task is to block spam phone calls. If you don’t get on them right away, they’ll just keep calling, sometimes four times in a row.
Yet another, similar task is to sort and toss junk mail from the mailbox. Same problem, different form factor.
Don’t we all have a fundamental right to privacy? And yet why are there marketers constantly coming at us from all sides demanding our attention? Why can’t we make it a single hour without getting an unwanted phone call, email, or piece of glossy unrecyclable mail thrust at us? At least they aren’t leaving as many on our doorknobs these days.
While I strongly resent having to attend to these things each day, I also recognize that my life is easier if I do. I can bundle these mindless activities and blast them off my mental bandwidth while listening to a podcast.
Technically, they barely count anymore.
The goal with mental bandwidth is to save room for two things: System II thinking and high-quality leisure time.
Ideally we want at least a four-hour uninterrupted chunk for the HQLT.
Deep thought, the kind of concentration you need to do something like your taxes, depends on the person. People with attention deficit issues might want to start with a short chunk like 15 minutes, and gradually work up to maybe two hours without a break. People like my husband, who is a sort of swami at this stuff, can go ten hours at a stretch. It’s nuts.
Yet something to aspire to.
What we’re looking for are as many things that we can do with as little concentration as possible, so that we can free up time in as large a chunk as we can.
I finish work at 6 pm every day, for instance, so there isn’t very much time between then and bedtime. A whole evening can vanish before I know it. If I tried to do an uninterrupted four-hour block, I’d pop my head up at 10 pm and realize I hadn’t eaten dinner, exercised, or anything else.
What I want to avoid doing is spending my evening on hold with customer service somewhere, paying bills, emailing my landlord, or otherwise dealing with administrivia or life maintenance.
It turns out that most of these things can be done in five minutes, and almost all in under 15.
I paused while writing this, and hit another shadow labor moment that is quite funny in retrospect.
We were renting a movie, and for whatever reason, iTunes wouldn’t load, so I decided to try to rent it through the Apple TV app. Because I hadn’t done this before, I had to enter my iTunes password with the remote. This is slow and complicated and I should probably figure out how to do it on my phone, except that’s yet more shadow labor.
Just as I was about to enter the last character, I accidentally scrolled too fast and clicked ‘Cancel.’
I started making incoherent blithering sounds and punching the air, as one does.
Then I started laboriously entering my password again - and I accidentally hit cancel *again.*
At that point I gave up and rented the same movie through Amazon Prime.
I had to remind myself that if we weren’t doing this, in this bizarro world that we all currently inhabit, then we would have been at the movie theater, trying to buy a ticket from a glitchy kiosk, or waiting in a long line, or getting our seats kicked by someone’s child. The shadow labor of not shouting at a person.
It’s always something.
Sometimes it seems like if we could just have one easy day, one day without friction, then everything would be perfect. The catch is that whenever friction is removed from one area, it becomes more noticeable in another. The game will never be over.
Focus on focusing. Focus on lengthening the amount of time you can concentrate, and also focus on the amount of leisure time that you have to lounge around doing nothing, thinking nothing at all.
The first time, I did it for money.
I was 29, I had just started my first full-time job after college, and I was flat broke. When I heard there was a contest at work with a pool of money involved, I didn’t care if it meant jumping off a roof or shaving off my eyebrows, I was getting that money.
I didn’t think I was overweight; it was more like I didn’t mind potentially being underweight for a week or two if necessary. $100 was that valuable to me at the time.
The truth was, I was obese and didn’t know it.
I wound up losing 11 pounds in 3 months (not quite a pound a week), I got my cash, and I did it again a year later. I went from a size 14 to a size 6. During the time I worked at that place, I made something like $225 in these weight loss contests.
Probably more importantly, I learned my way around a gym, built up my base fitness level, and started to understand how the bag of cookies in my desk drawer contributed to whether my pants fit or not.
2020 has been tough on me, partly because I almost died of COVID-19, and partly because my ego is crushed. This was going to be the year I turned around all the weight I gained in 2019. Instead I’m up 10 pounds from January 1st.
On me - and I don’t know what it’s like on other people because I have only one body - on me, I can directly correlate extra body weight with migraine and night terrors. This was just as true when I was boxing four days a week and doing fifty burpees as it was when I was a size 14 and seeing black spots when I climbed a flight of stairs. I don’t know why this is. All I know is I don’t do well when my body weight hits a certain specific number.
I have the intrinsic motivation to do whatever I can to regain my health in 2021.
I thought, it’s the right time of year. What if I bring everyone else with me?
A fitness contest was the first time I ever really took the initiative to do anything specific for my physical health. I was motivated by cold hard cash, and it worked. I visualized having to pay out $50, instead of receiving a payout, and every day that drove me to push a little harder.
This is the only way that competition really works on me. If I can imagine a negative outcome on a specific date, I will work very hard to avoid that negative outcome.
“I am not going to be that person” who has to pay $50 because I wouldn’t stop buying cookies to keep in my desk.
Being the organizer of a contest is exactly that type of motivation that works on me. Imagine being the person who brought up the whole thing, and then publicly failing.
I reached out to our human resources person to run the rules of the contest by her, the one that we had successfully done in the past. It had been fifteen years since I first heard about it, and I figured that the zeitgeist had probably changed since then. Better safe than sorry.
I try to live by the rule NEVER GO VIRAL FOR THE WRONG REASONS, and part of that is to never come to the attention of HR for the wrong reasons either.
The way the contest originally worked, everyone would weigh in once a week and a non-contestant would observe and record the weights. It was all private. Participants pledged $50 each, and the money went into a kitty. At the end of the 13 weeks, whoever didn’t make their goal forfeited their $50, and whoever made their goal split it. It usually worked out about 50/50, which tended to mean you either paid $50 or got someone else’s $50.
The goal was to drop a percentage of your body weight in 13 weeks, same percent for everybody. I can’t remember what it was but I want to say 6%.
If everyone made their goal, we would all just keep our money. If nobody made their goal, everyone had to pay up and the money would go to charity. Neither of those eventualities ever happened.
It turned out that the pooling and splitting of the money was the problematic part. Possibly it touches on some kind of state law about raffles or sweepstakes.
I had figured it would be more of a problem with the “weight loss” part, since apparently admitting that you want to lose 10 or 15 pounds makes you some kind of baby-eating demon.
I had a plan for that part, though, because I still have every intention of running some kind of fitness challenge for 2021. It needs to result in me fitting back into my work pants, in case we start working on site again, or otherwise I will have to show up in my pajamas.
The first place where I worked had an average employee age of around 53. There were several diabetics, and most people had the type of lifestyle-related health problems that are typical of people in their fifties.
At this place, there is a much higher proportion of early-career people, including high school and college interns. There are more athletes; my boss recently took a meeting on his exercise bike. The majority of people who might be interested in a fitness challenge, then, don’t really have any weight to lose.
What I’m proposing is much more complicated.
Athletes all do different stuff, so how do you compare between, say, a swimmer and a power lifter?
I’m aiming for total miles, total exercise minutes, and total weights moved across departments.
This makes for a lot more metrics to track, but that also allows for more exploits, a nice feature of any game that draws people’s attention. How do I find a loophole so my team can win?
My plan is to try to use this as a learning opportunity for myself. I want to learn to make different dashboards and data visualizations, and these are the type of numbers that I understand.
If this all works out, it will give us something interesting to do during the final months of isolation. I’ll learn more about data science and hopefully fit back in my work wardrobe. Some people’s dogs will get out more. We’ll all feel more like a team. And anyone who doesn’t want to play can just ignore us.
If there is one single piece of advice that is true for all fields, it is:
Be as specific as possible about what exactly you want to do.
I heard this as a young person, and it was not helpful at all, because I had no idea what I wanted to do! It turns out, over 25 years later, that the reason for that is that my ideal job did not yet exist.
But now it does.
The next most valuable piece of advice is to always learn as much as possible.
Even if you hate your job - even if you feel like you’re working for the worst company, in the worst field, in the worst company culture, with the meanest boss, the most awful coworkers, and the worst commute - learning new things is the only way to get out and do something else.
Another way to look at that is that if you’re going to work at a terrible job that doesn’t pay, make sure it’s in a field that you find interesting.
And if you’re not sure what that is, you’re just sure it’s not where you are now, then learning new things will help you figure it out.
I’ve started to look at my job as a kind of internship where I am continually paid to build skills.
I started a new job in May, and it is not an exaggeration to say that I have been learning new things every single day. I don’t know if I’ll ever be “caught up.” As a person who is motivated by curiosity, this is great news, because it means I’ll never have a chance to be bored.
I hadn’t had a traditional day job in over ten years. I knew all the basic enterprise software; in fact, I’d been a trainer for some of it. In the meantime, I hadn’t had much cause to use this stuff, and it turns out that a lot of features had popped up that were unfamiliar to me.
My first order of business was to reacquaint myself with all the basic Microsoft Office tools. For those of you who haven’t had to use these things on the job, that means Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook. I also had to bone up on SharePoint.
Next, I had to get used to using videoconferencing tools. We use all of them. We were using Skype, until a few months into my new job, when it was announced that Skype will be discontinued and we will be moving to Teams. I might use Skype, Teams, Zoomgov, and something like GoToMeeting on the same day, and then my boss will FaceTime me.
Then I had to get up to speed on a bunch of corporate tools, including our timecard system. I have payroll-adjacent duties, so I have had to learn to adjust other people’s timecards as well.
Right now I’m learning how to edit videos in Camtasia and upload them to Microsoft Stream.
I’m also learning more advanced Excel skills that I never had to use before. Those include conditional formatting, pivot tables, macros, and a bunch of new formulas.
For 2021, I’m going to learn Tableau. This is the most complicated new tool on my list. What it really means is not the technical aspects of the software, but data visualization in general. An easy way to stand out in a data-driven field is to be even marginally better at presenting the story behind the data. Or: can you make boring things interesting?
When I first joined Toastmasters, everyone said that presentation skills will help you in your career. I didn’t care about that - I was just done with my intense public speaking phobia and I wanted liberation. A few years down the road, with a DTM under my belt, I know it’s true. A lot of brilliant people are terrible presenters. Even a couple of months of coaching could lead to an almost magical transformation, but nobody wants to do it.
These are my broader work goals: To be seen as a go-to person for solving problems; to be regarded as a dynamic presenter; to observe and absorb what it takes to go to the next level in my organization.
Broad goals can either be very useful, or not useful at all, depending on what you choose.
I find broad goals most helpful if I am having a crisis or a low-energy day. I just remind myself of what I’m trying to accomplish by the end of the year, and it helps to put it into context. “Remember, you said you wanted to be a go-to person, and this is probably what that looks like.”
A goal that is too broad or vague, though, won’t get anybody anywhere. This is why it’s helpful to have a list of very specific things to learn, like “Excel filters.”
Some of our goals come down from the top level. We have division goals, and subdivision goals, and department goals, and goals that are assigned to us by our boss. I love this! If I’m going to “check the box” on a goal, I want to make sure it’s the thing that matters most to my superiors.
Rule Number One: Make your boss look good. Even if your boss doesn’t deserve it, even if your boss is an orc, everyone else probably knows that. It’s good for your reputation if you show that you can do a good job getting along with a cave troll.
People are the biggest issue in most jobs. That means it’s not usually a specific individual person who wakes up every day ready to cause friction and deliberately be irritating. Usually it’s some kind of systemic issue that, if discovered, could help everyone get along.
The best way to have people like you at work is to be good at your job. Get stuff done and be responsive.
I have worked with people who didn’t wash their clothes, had plumber’s crack, or fell asleep on the job. In each case, they continued on for years and years, because they were good at what they did. Also in each case, if they fixed that one little problem (doing laundry, wearing a belt, getting a standup desk?), their reputations would have been all the better.
For the brave, ask someone else what your work resolution should be for the New Year. Put an anonymous suggestion box out. Actually that might be the worst idea for the worst reality TV show of all time, but it is an interesting thought exercise. What would you wish other people around you to be doing differently, and what do you think they would ask of you?
I figured out this whole ‘capsule wardrobe’ thing. Except I don’t call it a capsule wardrobe, I call it:
I spent much of my work day, if not all of it, in meetings where we are expected to have our cameras on. Like many people in this situation, I have discovered that nobody can really tell what you’re wearing. Even the color doesn’t stand out much. The only thing that is particularly visible is my neckline.
I’m going with it!
Before All This Started (TM), I knew that I needed to replace my cold-weather wardrobe. I hate shopping, and even more than that, I hate letting go of my few favored garments. It seems that every year, the cuts, colors, and patterns available are more alienating and incomprehensible to me than they were the year before. There’s a sad irony in that I fit in everything and yet I don’t like any of it or want to wear it. What I had were four pairs of pants and a couple of sweaters.
I also had the problem that almost all my hot-weather clothes had spaghetti straps and necklines that were not appropriate for being on camera.
I needed something in a hurry - the on-camera decision was made a couple months after I took the job - and I was hardly in a mood to do a bunch of scrolling and shopping.
I picked out a t-shirt dress, tried it on, and saw that it was good. I ordered four more of the same thing in different colors.
Then the weather got colder. I ordered a bunch of leggings - again, trying on one pair for fit and then ordering variations of the same brand. This was fun because I realized that I could choose the wildest patterns that caught my eye and nobody but my husband and my parrot would ever know.
(She can see 200x more colors than the human eye, so this may in fact be a very weird and psychedelic experience for her).
The weather got colder still, and I ordered some heavy cardigans, what are apparently also known as “sweater coats.”
Keeping in mind that, post-COVID, I now start shaking with cold when the temperature drops to 68 F, I put a lot of emphasis on making sure I had multiple warm layers. Sometimes I still have to put a blanket over my legs and turn on the space heater, but I can get through the day.
The temperature dropped another notch. I found a miracle! Long-sleeved dresses with pockets big enough to hold my phone! This is basically the uniform I’ve been searching for all my life. I bought seven. Plus more leggings to match.
This is my work wardrobe now:
Five t-shirt dresses
Four big cardigans
Seven long-sleeve dresses with pockets
Roughly a dozen pairs of leggings
One pair of fake-fur-lined slippers
The big, dark secret here is that all of these garments are stupidly soft and comfortable. They feel indistinguishable from my pajamas, or in some cases are actually cozier. Plus not all of my actual pajamas have pockets.
My husband is quite envious.
None of these clothes are going to be seen on site at my new job - or, most likely, any job. There are two reasons for this.
First of all, my workplace has a “business professional” dress code. That means blazers and pencil skirts and brooches and pantyhose and all that fussy kind of thing. In no universe would something that feels like pajamas pass for suitable business professional attire.
Second of all, I may never be called upon to go to our physical building in my physical form.
My boss showed up on screen last week in a Ramones t-shirt. I have nothing to worry about from him. When we were discussing the policy change about turning cameras on, I told him, “I haven’t had my hair cut in over six months.” He said, “Neither have I.” Everyone on our team prefers working remotely, and it seems to have a lot of productivity advantages over commuting to the office. It may never happen.
If it does happen, if policy changes and we do start getting called in, I have two plans. Which one I prefer depends on my mood that day.
One plan is just to say, You know what? I’m working remote. I’ma stay right here.
The other plan is to shrug, schedule a real salon haircut, and go on a shopping bender. I have a preferred store that carries my size. I’d just get four pairs of slacks, four skirts, a couple of sheath dresses, matching blazers, and a dozen tops in various colors. I could do it in ninety minutes and get a cocoa on the way out.
All of that is part of the post-vaccine, post-pandemic fantasy in which it’s totally okay and normal to walk around in public again.
That’s the tradeoff. The thought of the world being normal again actually makes it sound exciting to get a proper haircut, go clothes shopping, and even eat in a mall food court. That fantasy doesn’t include the part about having to get up an hour earlier to put on fussy clothes and commute.
In the real world, I have to work in my living room in my tiny little apartment, which I virtually never leave for any reason, and sometimes it makes me climb the walls.
I applied for this job back in April, when I was still deathly ill from COVID, because I believed that the pandemic would last for three years. I knew that if I were right, I would be desperate for something to do! I wanted a way to keep busy. So far, we’re still on mandatory work-from-home status, continuing at least through next spring, and I have yet to be proved wrong.
Weird as the world is right now, unusual as it is to run an office out of our living room, at least I have one compensation to get me through. That is a little thing that I like to call work pajamas.
None of this would have applied to me this time last year. I hadn’t had a traditional day job in ten years and I wasn’t in the market for one. Imagine my surprise when I found myself interviewing just a few months later.
Moral: Don’t be discouraged or disinterested, because your dream job may suddenly pop up out of nowhere, too.
I was not a person who intuitively understood how to behave at job interviews. At my first interview for my first office job, age 18, the hiring manager asked me if I was open to feedback. I said yes, of course, and she told me it would be better for me to wear tops with sleeves, that bare shoulders were not standard interview attire.
Oh! Thanks for telling me. Next time I won’t wear a tank top to my interview.
(I got the job, though).
A year or so later, I interviewed for a different job. The hiring manager asked me what my biggest flaw was, and I told her, “Probably punctuality.”
I did not get that job.
You’d think they’d go for transparency and insight? But no.
Now I’m in a position where interviews are something of a cattle call. Because we’re all mandatory WFH, most of us are generally available to tune in. Candidates do a presentation - sort of an audition for scientists - and everyone has the opportunity to ask questions. I’ve seen a lot of these lately, and I have some things to share.
First of all: We are constantly hiring, and so are all the other engineering firms in our industry. Don’t assume that There Are No Jobs because there definitely are - and you only need one of them. Keep applying!
Everything after that has to do with applying and interviewing. I wouldn’t have known any of this even a few months ago, so pay close attention. You can stand out if you do better in even one of these areas.
Don’t worry. Nobody is comfortable in an interview, and nobody is really familiar with video conferencing yet. We expect there to be issues with your audio, connectivity, etc. It’s totally okay.
That being said, there are a lot of unexpected things that can be really distracting. If you can avoid them, it will help you to look more polished.
Chipmunk eating an apple. That’s what I was visualizing. I checked everyone else’s profiles, and there were no open mics. It had to be the candidate. But what was causing that noise? The only thing I could come up with was that his microphone was on his headphone cord, and it was rubbing on his shirt. I think he had it tucked inside his shirt for aesthetics? Unfortunately, over the course of an hour this squeaking, crunching noise kept continuously interfering with his voice. It sounded like someone crumpling up paper balls every few seconds. I am 100% positive he had no idea and couldn’t hear it on his end.
The simple answer for this is to ask literally any person to do a test call with you and tell you what they hear.
Lighting. We had a candidate who was sitting next to a sliding glass door with vertical blinds. They were angled in such a way that they would shift slightly. Whenever that happened, a bright beam of light would hit the camera. It did really strange things with the lighting on the viewers’ end. Again, that has nothing to do with whether the candidate will be good at the job; it’s just distracting.
There are a few fixes for this. One would be to angle the blinds the opposite way. Another would be to set up a workstation somewhere else, maybe in a different room.
I sit next to a sliding glass door - the only place in our dinky apartment that really works - and as a result I am in dark silhouette at all hours of the day. I bought a ring light to put on my laptop, and that helped a lot, but it wasn’t really bright enough. Next I bought a flat panel natural daylight lamp that looks like an iPad, with a picture frame-type bracket on the back so it stands up by itself. It was about $35. Problem solved! Now instead of looking like I’m in a witness protection program, I have the best lighting on our team.
Clothes and haircuts. In our industry, as far as I can tell the aesthetics have zero effect. I saw a professional presentation by a young guy whose haircut made him look like he escaped from Azkaban. Everyone loved it. (The presentation, that is; I doubt they even registered his coiffure).
Slide decks. The slide deck is not make-or-break; most firms have a template and they’ll just give you that to use. If your slides are boring it’s probably okay, as long as your work is sound. If your slides are great, however, it will be noticed and discussed.
In technical fields, if you even got the interview, it means they liked your resume and they’re probably willing to make an offer. What we’re looking for are a couple of obvious tells. 1. Is this person BSing? You’d be surprised how many people try to fake their way into technical positions, a profoundly unwise decision that never ends well. 2. Is this person hoping to leverage this offer in order to get a higher offer from a competitor? If you live in a different geographical area, nobody believes you are really willing to relocate unless you emphasize that you really, really want to. Enthusiasm sets you apart.
The last thing I will say is that few people in technology fields are truly terrific presenters. They don’t like it, so they avoid it. I know what that’s like because I had an intense phobia about public speaking. After four years battling it, I became a Distinguished Toastmaster. It has been a huge help, probably got me my current job, and continues to be mentioned. If you have a video interview coming up, find your local Toastmasters and ask to drop in on a meeting.
Best of luck to you! Except you won’t need it, because you took notes and did those few little extra steps that are going to set you apart.
I realized, when I clocked out today, that nothing went up on my blog this morning.
What had been a fairly successful workday suddenly turned into a sense of crushing defeat.
Not only did I have no blog, I hadn’t sorted the laundry, I hadn’t sent an important personal email, and I had also missed a social check-in I had been looking forward to for literally months.
This may have been the first time in my life when my work life was the only thing that seemed to be going well.
Something else is on my mind. COVID. A key person in our division traveled for Thanksgiving week, and got the coronavirus, and has been quite ill, and as a consequence nobody has been able to cover their work. Apparently 9 people on our staff tested positive in the last week, even though we have all been strictly working from home.
Do you remember I mentioned someone I know whose parents were planning an “open door” Thanksgiving? The good news is, they called that off. The bad news is, the dad lied about getting tested for COVID and instead had his own elderly father over to visit. In that time, he convinced him that “it’s just the flu” and everything is fine. (Like “the flu” is all right for a man in his seventies...)
Either he has a very high level of confidence, high tolerance for risk, or high hopes for an inheritance...
Like most people, we’re hanging out at home with little else to do. Outdoor dining has finally been closed in our area. There is nowhere to go and nothing to do other than wander around outside, hoping not to get within breath zone of any of the wandering mask refusers who populate our town.
Try to think of them as NPCs (non-player characters)
A year ago, I was all like, Hey, I’m going to write a book! Then the world changed and the premise of my book sort of blew away in a puff of vapor.
...and then my life partner came home and our living room became a conference room.
Currently our posture is mandatory WFH until at least 3/31/21. After that it all hangs on a “widely available vaccine.” I think we aren’t going back in until, as individuals, we can document that we have that precious inoculation.
So that’s it. For now, my most obvious and best option is to keep working at my tiny little desk in my tiny little corner of our smallish living room in our itty-bitty apartment.
While the rest of the world outside spirals into pandemic hell.
I had another idea to distract myself, which was to go back to grad school and get my PhD. I have no idea how I could actually make that happen. When would I study?? Right now I am having enough trouble maintaining a reasonable sleep schedule, much less my personal priorities.
It feels like a choice point. I can either:
Crush it at my job and probably promote upward within the next couple of years
Go back to school and get a PhD
Quit and write a (different) book
Be well-rested and rebuild my physical stamina.
I realize that over a million people around the world lost that option because they died of COVID-19 this year. Seven billion people don’t have the array of choices that I do.
The way I look at that is, it does not serve anyone if someone passes up an opportunity.
If you (or I) get a promotion, there is an opportunity to influence projects and company culture that was not available before. What if we were the good guys, what if not every boss had to drive people to stress and burnout?
If you (or I) get an advanced education or write a book, there are opportunities to influence and teach others, others who may be hungry for that information.
Who does it serve if I ever finally rebuild my physical strength and stamina? Well, me, of course! And thus my ability to contribute at... whatever it is.
Same with you.
This is why it’s such a disaster that so many people seem to be shrugging their way into a case of COVID. They think “if I get it I get it” in the same way that they might think “if my house burns to the ground” or “if I get t-boned in my car and become paralyzed.” Yet for whatever reason there is no real sense of freak-out. Yes, these things could happen, and don’t we not want them to?
I was right when I decided that getting a job would make the time pass quickly during the pandemic. It really has done what I wanted it to, which was to give me a way to keep busy instead of climbing the walls with dread and anxiety.
What I didn’t realize was that it would do more than fill a standard workday. It’s essentially swallowing everything, including my ability to hit pause and eat a sandwich.
What I thought I wanted was a simple, no-brainer job that would give me a bit of a social outlet. It may be that I have passed the point where I can disguise myself as a Petite Lebowski.
Fortunately, it is now December, which is traditionally my month to think about goals and resolutions and ambitions and visions and all that sort of thing. Time to revisit what a typical week looks like and where the heck I think the world will look like over the next 1-5 years.
I’m getting my first performance review at work. This is the first time I’ve gone through a review in over ten years, and I’m feeling about it pretty much like anyone would.
I took this job because I wanted something to do during the pandemic and I stopped being able to work on my book when my husband started working from home. I was quite certain we would still be fighting this thing through the end of the year, even back in April 2020. It is disappointing to be proved right about that, but what do you do.
I was right, this new job has given me plenty to do. I’m so busy all day that I rarely give the pandemic much of a thought at all, unless we’ve gotten an email update about the “return to work” plan. I’ve made friends, and sometimes we chat and crack jokes and laugh. All of this is a huge improvement over where I was emotionally in March, sitting glumly on the couch and staring into the middle distance.
It is weird, though, that the review process is getting under my skin so much.
There’s the part of me that is cheerfully ready to work away the next couple of years while the world is turned upside down, no problem. This part of me is having a good time hanging out (and of course earning money) while the clock runs down, leaving me only a couple of hours at the end of each day to fret about COVID-19 statistics.
Then there’s the part of me that likes puzzles, that enjoys solving problems or noticing things that maybe someone else didn’t. That’s the part of me that likes work for its own sake. Doing something that needs to be done, maybe even doing it more quickly or putting a nice little spin on it.
Then there’s the part of me that wants to hide quivering in the closet rather than face my review.
What is going on there?
It’s not that we need the money; we were already living on half our income. The premise has been that I could earn significantly more if I ever get a book deal. (Or, especially, sell a screenplay). In that sense, if I left, it would not impact our lifestyle materially. Same tiny apartment, same car-free household.
It’s not that I have any particular innate desire to do what I’m doing forever. It’s the industry that I like, not necessarily my role within it, although it’s fine and I have no complaints. I appreciate the culture and the mission and I like working with all these brilliant, courteous people. I like helping out in the way that I can, but it’s not like any of my specific tasks are wildly fascinating in their own right. I imagine that if I left, it would be the place and the people I would miss, not the daily details of my role.
The only thing that’s hanging on my performance review, then, is my pride.
What I’ve done is to make myself vulnerable to criticism in a way that I wasn’t when I worked for myself. I took on the odd client, picked up the occasional freelance gig, and it made sense that these arrangements came and went on a temporary basis.
My relationship with external feedback doesn’t always make any sense, and I’m working on that.
I remember how terrible I felt, how drained and sad, after I won my election as division director. Objectively I had done well. In point of fact, I had won my position by a large margin. I tried to talk myself into something else; maybe I couldn’t make myself feel proud or excited, but at least I deserved to feel flat or neutral? I couldn’t figure out what was so depressing about the reality of winning.
Something about competition is demotivating to me. I don’t like being held up against others, even when the comparison works to my advantage.
That proved out again just this weekend, when I was invited to an online party and we played some games. I won a game, and I shrank inside.
I’m not even completely sure. I think it’s a mix of feeling like other people will be disappointed because it’s a zero-sum game, and if one person “wins,” then by definition others have not won. That feeling, plus perhaps a sense that another person might be annoyed or feel envy or jealousy about that supposed “win.” All the celebration and anticipation is over at the end of the game. The goal has been reached, and now what? And furthermore, so what?
The performance review process doesn’t seem to serve many people all that well. It intimidates everyone and it’s a huge time suck for management. The top performers are probably intrinsically motivated anyway, which is the reason that they do so well - but is the review process a way to somehow collect their focus and energy and figuratively inject it into others? Does this process indeed help people suss out exactly how to improve? Does it actually get the results that it’s meant to get?
I’m very lucky that I can talk directly with my boss every day, and he is pretty good about giving clear feedback and asking for exactly what he wants. Every morning, I clock in knowing what I need to get done, and why, and who benefits.
In fact, I’ve already read my review, and it was quite nice, and I have no reason to be as anxious about it as I am. I have really thrown myself into this job, seeing it as a form of rescue from the intense boredom and stress of isolating from the pandemic. I’ve learned a lot and I’ve done a few things that make me proud already, in only six months.
What I’m trying to figure out is why, objectively, the better I do, the more I freak out about being evaluated on my performance. I doubt I’m alone in this. It’s certainly something I need to get my head around if years go by and I somehow mysteriously find myself facing a promotion.
Stranger things could happen. I do like this place. As far as my review, if this sort of thing is in any way reciprocal, my job itself exceeds expectations.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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