Unemployed by Choice, Part Two

IMG_1491What do you do when the job you have taken has taken the life out of you? When the end of the road comes at a job before you have something new lined up, what’s the next step? Do you stick it out or do you leave on your own terms? I had reached that crossroads. I had a decision to make. I knew that being in a job that compromised my integrity and held me back from achieving my true potential was not the place I wanted to be.

Knowing what you have to do and actually doing it though, are two very different things. It has taken me a long time to write this blog post. I left my job in April with many mixed emotions and regrets. I hadn’t wanted to think about that place I was in for a long time after I left. I fear that I idealized what working for a non profit was going to be like. I went through all the emotions–anger, sadness, wistfulness. In the end, I had to be true to myself. When you find yourself in a new career, you have to evaluate if the career skill set works for you and you have to evaluate the work environment where you exhibit your skills. I had found that I loved what I did, I was just doing it for an organization that was a bad fit for my personality and skills. I was working in a 10-year-old non profit that took 3 steps backward for every 1 step forward they took. There was a lot of change in personnel before and during my time there (never a good sign) and also a lack of real vision and innovation to be bigger, bolder, and better than what the other charities in our field were doing. I don’t mind an underdog, but after a while, you realize that when the only thing holding an organization back is the structure of the organization itself, it is a model for everyone with talent to fail.

I had considered myself lucky in that the first round of my career had found me thriving, excited about my work and my company, and energized to get up and do the job even 15, 16 years into it. I was surrounded by very talented people and it always made me want to reach higher and achieve more. It was disheartening to make a new career in non profit only to find that I didn’t really do my research and that I was so eager to be of service to others, that I didn’t see the warning signs of the place I would be working. Knowing what I know now, I would be very wary of working anywhere that had such enormous turnover in staff in a short period of time. I would now also look to see what the background of my co-workers was and if they were suited to their position. Unease and negativity of staff members usually comes when people are in over their heads or lacking in appropriate background to do their jobs. This makes it hard to communicate and also to have good team morale. Sudden turnovers also mean that a small team can go from being cohesive to being antagonistic based on a few shifts in personnel. I think I missed all of these red flags because I had worked for so long in a place that didn’t have much turnover and where people stayed for a good part of their career. In reading further about non profits and talking to a lot of people working in the field, I came to realize that it was pretty typical that charitable organizations hired people they liked and then tried to fit the job around that person.

Another thing to look into before accepting a job is the real financial situation of an organization, especially in non profit. No one can work at their highest level of potential when financial crises and constraints restrict the things you can do and the tools you have to use. Most non profits strive hard to be very transparent in their financials and better due diligence on my part would’ve exposed a lot of clues into the state of affairs that I was walking into. Being in an organization that is growing, makes you grow. Being in an organization that is struggling, makes you spend your days fighting to get by with what you have. It is very hard to be innovative and successful in a stifled environment.

The last red flag I would now watch for is that a workplace should not lack real structure and goals. At first it was very exhilarating to work somewhere that gave you the answer, “do whatever you want” when you asked if or how to do something. It seemed like I could  just do whatever I wanted, that I had free creative license. But no one else was invested in the things I had to do like social media or events. After a while, it becomes discouraging and it feels like you are working in a vacuum when no one gives you any feedback or has any interest in how you support the mission each day with your work. Ultimately, I felt like everyone around me had their own agenda and was working for their own reasons. There was no tangible teamwork displayed to support the mission. There is no way for an employee or company to thrive in that type of environment. You can only survive.

Leaving was a hard thing to do. I felt like I left a lot untapped potential on the table. But the saying, “when one door closes, another one opens” really holds true. I find myself today doing the work I dreamed of in non profit. I get to be an evangelist who focuses on the good things charities are doing. I am part of a movement to make the world a better place and it feels good, really good. I found my niche by being open to the universe and by giving freely of my talent and seeing who accepted it. Luckily for me, my reinvention has been life-affirming and brings great joy to me every single day.

When you find yourself stuck at work, you are never really stuck. It is just a process to go through that leads you to another place. If you can’t find a job, create a new one. If you can’t get paid for what you do, give it freely and see who is willing to accept it and who is willing to support you. You will be amazed at the doors the universe will open. Let go of a negative workplace and it is quite a journey on the road to what comes next. Don’t let fear overwhelm you, fear more being stuck somewhere that doesn’t accept your potential and your gifts.

This is the end to this blog. I have come to the end of my journey through the ups and downs and adventures in unemployment. I will be focusing my energy on my new blog, The Random Ramblings of a Writer, coming soon! I hope you will join me there as I write about anything and everything. Thanks to everyone for their support and input!

Unemployed by Choice, Part One

Many people live in the fear of losing their job and not being able to find another one. The recent dismal unemployment numbers show that this fear is not unfounded. What if you don’t lose your job but leave by choice? This is the unemployed group that no one talks about. What happens when you find yourself in a soul-crushing job situation or one where your morals are being tested?

Many of us have found ourselves in this situation, where you ask yourself, in a nod to the Clash song, “Should I stay or should I go?” Becoming unemployed by choice is a growing group of dissatisfied, disillusioned, and morally challenged workers. The range is from just being in the wrong job to being somewhere where you feel you are ethically compromising who you are.

When I became unemployed the first time after being steadily employed for 18 years, I was dumbfounded. It took me a long time to realize I was grieving a whole change of lifestyle and coming to terms was not easy. When I heard about other people leaving their jobs to take a sabbatical or to find new direction without having another job lined up, I had no sympathy and no connection to why someone would do that. It seemed selfish and frivolous. No one quits in a bad economy, do they?

Yet here I am, two years later, doing just that. I had changed my career and wanted to change the world by working in nonprofit. How could working in charity be a bad thing? What I didn’t realize was that I had idealized how this job would go, without taking a real hard look at a bad work culture and poorly managed organization that had changed dramatically from when I had just worked there as a volunteer. I had become a volunteer at a place with a real connection to the cause, a founder who was fully involved, and an incentive to really make volunteers and donors feel appreciated. When I took a step inside as a staff member, the reality was quite different. The founder was gone and had denounced the organization, volunteers and donors were left hanging and under-appreciated, and the staff members seemed really hostile, stressed, and unable to make the connection any longer. The organization was so completely mismanaged, that even the mission statement had been changed several times in less than a year.

I, of course, thought I could be the catalyst to lead the change to bring it back to being the organization that lured me in as a volunteer. But, it’s hard to swim upstream. Once things snowball in a certain direction, there is only so much you can do when the rest of the culture is fine with negativity as the default setting. I had to soul-search and think long and hard about how being somewhere like this was changing my outlook. I went from idealist to pessimist. What was the next step?

The Zen of Small Tasks

We live in a world where multitasking is lauded and encouraged. But aren’t we missing something here? The more things you do at the same time, the less you are able to do all of them WELL. Technology has created a general distractedness among all of us. We are never doing just one thing at a time. If you are not doing something with 100% of your focus, then you are usually not doing something 100% right. Something always seems to get lost. Maybe technology can do something 100% right all the time, but the human brain isn’t capable of it, especially when our focus is all over the place. Because we are able to do many things quickly, I don’t think much thought is put into doing them correctly or with much skillfulness.

I often think there is also a general unwillingness to do the small tasks, the things that people feel are “beneath” them. How often when you ask someone to do something small, they are dismissive about it or they rush through it? It doesn’t have enough importance or enough kudos given for the time spent. Pride in doing something well is lost in this extreme timeliness. Everyone appears to be looking over their shoulder at what next thing is coming their way, losing enjoyment in the moment that they are having right now. How many people do you know that are never satisfied at where they are at the moment, who they are with and what they are doing? The NOW is being forgotten. I often walk past tables of teens in the food court at the mall. The table is silent, as they are texting or sending photos to whoever isn’t there, instead of enjoying the company of who is there.

How many meetings do you sit in where people are preoccupied with their phone and are not absorbing much of what the speaker is talking about? Things have to be explained more than once because people are never really hearing what is happening in the now, but worrying about what is going to happen next. This just leads to more meetings where things have to be explained again, simply because no one was really taking it all in fully the first time. The mistakes that are made aren’t because we don’t know what we are doing, it’s usually because we don’t hear everything that is needed to do the task. We miss out on enjoying our successes or learning from our failures because everyone is fast-tracked to the next task.

What’s the solution? Do you have to completely unplug? People complain about how much stress they are under and how they have no time. I think the technology does more for us, but it also makes us feel like we have to constantly be doing more which is a cycle that creates more stress. I believe in the zen of small tasks. If I have to proofread something, that is all I am doing. I do it with my full and careful attention and when I am done, I know that I have done a thorough job. Whether it’s sweeping a floor, writing a thoughtful thank you note, or simply cutting up vegetables for dinner, I make a point to do it with full focus. It brings about a certain kind of meditation, it slows us down and relaxes us. And we end up doing it right the first time. How many times have you cut yourself while cutting those same vegetables because you were also talking to someone on speaker phone and listening to the tv or music at the same time? Mindfulness is an art that seems to have been lost. I think you can be more efficient and get more done correctly by doing less.

Don’t we owe it to ourselves to take the time to do the small tasks, these things that are the building blocks to something bigger, and to do them whole-heartedly?

How did I get here?

The biggest worry the unemployed have is “when will this end?” You search and you agonize and you pray to find a job. You finally get one and the relief sets in. But no one talks about how you feel 9 months or so down the road. In polling my friends who were recently unemployed and now have been in a new job, many are wondering, “How did I get here?”

After all the work of searching for a job (and it is WORK!), many take a job and realize that it isn’t what they want to be doing. We are a country of “under-employed” and of highly qualified workers who can’t find a job in their field…so they settle.  They take consulting work, part-time work, or a full-time job at a substantial pay cut to just be working again.

The reality is this. After a year or two of not having a job, the hope is gone and the money is running out. You got through weeks and months of no interviews, no responses and no hope. Then you get an offer of an interview. You go in. You are just so happy that someone has finally recognized that you have talent and that you want to work. You have something to contribute! The interview process goes on,  but maybe this is the only job you have been offered. And you take it, thinking that this is the answer to your prayers. The fear bred in us through the media that “things are NOT getting better” forces our decision-making.

But months later, many workers find themselves dissatisfied. This isn’t what they thought it would be. This is a step back, a pay cut, a moral loss. It’s a paycheck, not a career. I loved my job so much and when I lost it, I was adrift for a while. I was one of the few people who would always say how much I loved my job. And to lose it all, 18 years of hard work in an instant, it leaves you shell-shocked and doubting your value. You didn’t want to change your career, you had to. And some find themselves lost, adrift and floating in a new job that just isn’t the right fit or the thing that gives you a high level of satisfaction any more.

So after the “How did I get here?”, you ask the “Now what?” question. Do you stay in a job and make do? Or do you start the brutal process of job hunting again? What was once a straight career path has now become a windy road of twists and turns. This is the new post-unemployment world.

A celebration of the working dad

Cheers to my father. He was a city of Milwaukee police officer for 32 years. He never talked about “job satisfaction” or questioned his calling in life. He did his job. And did it well. He never called in sick and had years of sick time left over when he retired. He wore his uniform with pride and as his daughter, I was always excited to tell people what he did for a living. He wasn’t one of those dads who wore a suit and came home tired from sitting in an office all day. He was a cop! He was out in the world, making it a safer, better place.

My dad was the one who had days off during the week and could come to our field trips as a chaperone and came to our games and activities. My dad was able to give the tour of the police headquarters to my class when I was in sixth grade. He was able to drive me and my brother to school every morning because he worked second shift. He was one of many police officers and fire fighters in our neighborhood. Like all of the rest, they never thought of themselves as heroes or special, even though their jobs were often dangerous. My dad saved someone’s life and he never talked about it, we just hung the photo of him receiving his commendation and basked in the pride of living with someone who would do that. We knew that our dad was going to be at all of our big events and would switch days off if he had to or work overtime to guarantee that.

Ours was a family life where dad was around a lot and there when we needed him. Yes, he might’ve worked some holidays and nights unlike “normal” dads. But we had more of his time and attention because of his schedule  and because of who he was. He never talked about how he had to deal with the worst in people, in the worst neighborhoods, for most of his career. He worked hard and we respected him for what he did. He was like a rock star to us, in his dark blue uniform with his shiny badge.

We liked living in the bigger community of public servants, the police and fire fighters, who gave up the 9-5 schedule and the safe life working at a desk to protect and serve the greater good. We always said “I Love You” in our family every day, because of what our dad did for a living. We never took it for granted that he would come home safe. But luckily for us, we were one of those families who didn’t have the tragedy of losing our dad “on the job”. Our dad was just our dad, who happened to have one of the best jobs in the world in our eyes.

Cheers to my father. I know being a police officer was not his first choice of a career. But once he entered the force, he never looked back and he served with pride and dedication. It became who he was and it defined the life of our family. I am so proud to be the daughter of a police officer, always a hero to his family and also to those whose lives he touched through his job.

Happy Father’s Day Dad!

The “Gift” Of Unemployment

Losing your job…a gift or a curse? It just might be the gift of inspiration. It is very rare to have some time in your life to figure it all out with a safety net like an unemployment check. I come across so many people who have an illness or have something happen in their lives that brings unexpected sadness. Yet they soldier on, one person I know even saying, “this disease is my blessing in disguise.”  I always marveled at that ability to take a bad situation and to turn it for the positive. When you have lost your job and in turn your professional identity, it is hard to positive.

But you begin to realize that in every situation in life, unemployment included, you can become a victim or a survivor. In these hard times of “chronic unemployment” where people are getting discouraged and just dropping out of the job force, it is often a missed opportunity to create your own job or your own path to follow. For a while, I used my talents to create a small part-time business, Nanny On Call. I used my love of children to take the opportunity to help out others who needed the help while giving myself the time to look for a new career opportunity….and to stay fulfilled. I was able to job-hunt and really explore the different things I liked to do while searching for a job that would fit with the things I excel at. I found meaning in being with children and to take a step back and make life simpler and to see it through the wide-eyes of children–no judgement, no assumptions, no baggage.

I also volunteered, because being with people and helping people was something that was important to me,  job or no job. More companies really need to take volunteer work into consideration when hiring candidates. The love and passion for a cause where someone does the job “for free” as a volunteer, can really give employers a gauge of the level of commitment a person is willing to invest. I had realized long before I lost my job that I really was enjoying the child care I was doing and the volunteer work much more than my “real job”. The gift of unemployment gave many other gifts—the insight to seek work in a job where I dealt one on one with people each day, the need to make a difference, and the gift of having people care when I showed up to help.

It always sounds corny when people ask, “what is your passion?” But without passion, we tend to lose faith and become the victims and not the survivors. Volunteering helped me survive. I soldiered on and came in with my A-game, my positive attitude and with the need to create meaning even without a paycheck. I treated my volunteer work no differently than I did a paid job–I treated it with respect, I worked hard, and I left at the end of the day knowing that a job well done always has meaning and importance. Today I work at the same nonprofit I volunteered at. The best gift of all.

Who Do I Think I Am?

Lately, I have been fascinated with the show, “Who Do You Think You Are?” on NBC. It traces the ancestry of celebrities. I find their journeys exciting and it spurred me to trace my own family tree on both sides and to see where I came from. When you look back at your family, you realize that people’s occupations and way of life stayed the same for many generations–a farmer passed down the farming tradition, a tradesman, shopkeep or businessman seemed to breed the same. A whole family’s identity was based on what the patriarch of the family did.

We live in a time now where people don’t even keep the same profession in their own lifetime for more than a few years. The question, “Who Do You Think You Are?” gets asked several times over in someone’s career. In my last career, I was a rarity, a “lifer” if you will, staying with the same company for 18 years. When you are forced to leave a job you have had and liked for so long, that scary question comes up, “Who Do You Think You Are….Now That Are Unemployed”. We spend most of our lives putting all of our time and energy into our jobs. We define who we are by what we do for a living. It’s the first question we ask when meeting new people, “What do you do?” which equals “Who are you?” People forgo children and downtime to get ahead in their career. And at the end of your life…what does it all amount to?

I happened to be at a wake last week and I saw the display of photos that gave the visual history of that person’s whole life. What do you see? Parties, birthdays, babies, grandparents, weddings, families. What don’t you see? Photos of the workplace. Photos of your office, your desk, your inbox. We spend a whole lifetime working, striving, sweating to be the best in our professional lives. And when our life is over, that is the thing that matters the least. The people we meet, the lives we touch are what matter. The ins and outs of how productive we were on the job and how many proposals we wrote and how much paperwork we completed are immaterial. Why is the balance so completely off then? Why are 10 and 12 hour work days ok with us? Why are we so afraid to once in a while take a long lunch and meet our spouse for a meal? Or to knock off early to see our kids’ sporting events? Collectively we tend to think of success in terms of paycheck and title and work, not in the payoff that comes from the title of father, mother, husband, friend.

In my own job, being in a nonprofit where great scientific ideas and medical breakthroughs happen, is of course gratifying. But it’s the people whose lives we change, the volunteers we interact with, the patients who tell their stories, those are the parts of the job that stay with me. The very lucky and brilliant people find careers where they make great things happen through discovery, innovation, and changing the world. But they are the rare few. The rest of us plod along day by day and get caught up in the undertow of the workplace wave.

So who do I think I am? I am someone who is defined by the people I meet along the way. At least that’s who I strive to be.

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