Tell me, who are you?

“You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis.”  – Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club.

You are not your job. Or if you are, then baby, you need to get a life, because as many of us have discovered to our dismay, we might be our jobs, but our jobs sure as hell aren’t us — they’ll continue long after we’re gone, with someone else sitting in the driver’s seat. That kind of relationship is not reciprocal. And you know what they say about relationships that aren’t reciprocal? They suck. And they’ll suck the life right out of you. Tyler Durden knew that for a fact.

I worked for a long time in a big city where I had no moorings, no roots, no anchor, and the one constant was my workplace. I didn’t — or at least only rarely did — love my job, but I felt immense respect for the organization and moreover, I loved that when people asked what I did, I could say “journalist,” name my employer and feel proud of both facts. I wasn’t my job, but my job was a huge part of my identity, and it took up far more real estate in my life than it should have because I worked anti-social hours (that is, while the world was out socializing I was at work), I hated the city I lived in and had no non-work friends or strong attachments there. I used to have hours-long phone calls with a friend in another city every Sunday, and the two of us would delve into the impossibility of our situations (she didn’t like where she was much either) and every so often we would stop and ask ourselves, “would this matter as much if we had actual lives?” And we were pretty sure the answer was “no.”

That’s something that’s more likely to happen to single people; those happily with spouses and families, or those who haven’t moved far away from the social networks that previously supported them in uncertain times, are less likely to lose themselves in their work. But they’re just as likely to let it become an important part of their identity, and that’s why unplanned job loss can be so world-destroying. When you’re your job and you lose your job, who are you?

I have to stop myself now, when people ask me what I do, from saying that I’m a journalist, though sometimes it still slips out (and sometimes I rationalize it by thinking that just because I’m no longer directly involved in daily news gathering doesn’t mean I’m not still a journalist in my heart), and I’ve wrestled with what to call myself. For now I’m using “writer.” Sometimes “writer-editor.”

Don’t forget to factor this in when you’re making plans for a possible layoff or job change. What will you say when you’re asked but can’t give the usual answer? Who am I if not …? This is a good exercise even if your employment is reasonably stable, to make sure that you still have an identity outside of it. Many of us, while building our careers, forgot to have lives as well.

I was just reminded of a rant a former colleague used to go on when a woman was referred to in a story on first reference as a “mother.” “Before she was a mother she was a human being, a woman with a life,” my colleague would roar across the newsroom. (My personal pet peeve is referring to a woman as mother twice in the same sentence, “The mother said she was worried about her son…” instead of “the woman” which gives her agency outside of motherhood. But I digress.)

Early settlers used to build cairns — piles of stones that would mark a route or a cache of goods. When you’re building a cairn, you need it to last so you give it a good foundation, and make sure that the rocks you place on top  of it are stable. Rene Descartes said “I think, therefore I am.” What is your Descartes statement — the thing that you know about yourself that is the foundation for everything else? Use it to start building your cairn. What is the next thing about yourself that exists unrelated to anyone else? Start adding in your other important identities — son, daughter, mother, father, husband, wife. Bowler. Lover of wine. Storyteller. Listener. Damn fine card player. It’s a way of prioritizing the important things. In a perfect world, your job — not your vocation, if the kind of work you do is important to you, but your current, changeable job — should be a little pebble at the top. If it’s not, if the thing that can be taken away from you at any moment by the vagaries of the economy is part of your foundation, then maybe it’s time to reexamine your priorities.

And if there are places where things become unstable because the rocks won’t sit together properly, or if your cairn stops short of where you think it needs to go, examine for yourself what’s missing, and consider where you might find the stones to shore it up. And if that means getting a life, so be it.


Image result for cairn



Answer me a question — or 12

New year’s resolutions — love ’em or hate ’em, they’re the go-to planning tool for many people.

Eileen Chadnick of Big Cheese Coaching, on the other hand, asks questions. We’re very much on a wavelength, it seems, when it comes to writing things down. I find it focuses my thoughts, makes them real in a way that merely thinking them does not.

Eileen’s 12 new year’s questions were published this year in the Globe and Mail and Huffington Post, and also on her website.  It’s worth it to take some time to go through them, and think about your answers.

The new year’s Tickle Trunk

New year’s resolutions aren’t really my thing (because I, like 90-something per cent of the population, don’t follow through and I think it’s bad karma to start the year feeling like a failure), but since everyone else talks about them as one year creaks to a close and a freshly-diapered baby year appears, I think about what I’d resolve if I were making a resolution, and I started thinking this year about Mr. Dressup.

My favourite part of Mr. Dressup was the Tickle Trunk. (For non-Canadians, or whatever comes after millennials, it was a Canadian children’s show on CBC featuring Mr. Dressup and two puppets, Casey and his dog Finnigan.) Mr. Dressup liked to play music and do crafts and when they were at a loss for things to do, there was always the Tickle Trunk, which had cool costumes and other things needed for imaginary adventures. Just like Mr. Dressup’s magical craft supplies, there was always just what they needed in just the right amount. (To be honest, I was a kid terminally in need of proper craft supplies so that probably impressed me more than anything.)

I had a Tickle Trunk moment a few weeks ago when I was filing something away in a file drawer that is equal parts junk and file folders filled with mystery materials. I moved a box containing an old modem and found a book called It’s Your Move, by career consultant Marge Watters. Billed as “A Guide to Career Transition and Job Search for Canadian Managers, Professionals and Executives,” the book is chock-full of career advice and comes from a far more authoritative source than I’ll ever be. My work here is pretty much done if you read it.

I laughed when I riffled through it because I’ve spent the last month looking in vain for examples of worksheets geared for adult learning for a project I proposed at work, and this book has all kinds of them.

I had no memory of the book, don’t know how or when I came by my copy, but since I have the 4th edition, published in 2012 (it doesn’t look like there was a later one), a time when I was writing for a weekly workplace issues package, it’s possible that it was sent to me for review.

It might be five years old, but from what I’ve seen of it so far, the information in it is timeless — stuff I’ve been writing about, and have planned to write about, and stuff I hadn’t thought about but am glad to have brought to my attention. You’ll likely find numerous references to the book in this blog in the future. But if you want to see more for yourself, it’s available in some stores and online at Chapters, and also at

Marge’s website doesn’t look active, neither does her LinkedIn profile. But I’m going to try to get in touch with her and maybe do an interview for a future blog.

It’s not my new year’s resolution to find a job – I don’t make resolutions, remember? But since I have no guarantee that I’ll have a job after September — and since there’s a 50/50 possibility that I won’t like the job that’s available for me if there is one, I think it’s irresponsible of me not to get my ducks in a row. So I think I’m going to snuggle inside during this cold snap and start 2018 off by reading a book on how to line them up.

I wish you all the happiest — and most successful — of new years.


Project manage your job search

Everyone who starts a task and then finishes it is a project manager. Because that’s what a project manager is — a person who gets things done. Yesterday I project-managed my Christmas baking and threw in a homemade mac-and-cheese for supper. Easy peasy. I visualized the steps, completed them in the contemplated order, and was done in time to go out for a movie last night.

Of course, that list disguises the fact that I’d actually started the process on Friday, completely ruined one batch of cookies and spent the rest of the day in a black mood, but you win some, you lose some, right?

My point is that while project management is the latest buzzword in getting things done in the workplace, and there are actually courses taught in it (I’ve taken one!) and certification available, when it comes right down to it, project management is about getting things done, and a project manager is a person who knows how to do it well enough to ensure it happens regularly.

Think of a chef — before the chef even approaches the stove there’s the mise-en-place — the preparation. All the spices are measured out, all the vegetables and meat are properly cut and set out in bowls in the order of use. The object might be to cook a dish but there are 20 different steps to take to get to the stove. Are your utensils ready? Pans greased? Do you have the right bowls? Is the right-sized pot in the dishwasher or is it ready to go? Project management in this sense means working out all of the necessary steps to do a piece of work, and consider all of the things involved in those steps.

There is a science to it — and there are certainly no end of buzzwords, if you like that kind of thing — but you don’t have to be a certified project manager to project manage. You do need a certain amount of common sense and a degree of self-knowledge, though, so keep that in mind.

The first thing you do when you’re managing a project is define the goal. What do you want to achieve? Get a new job is the easy answer if you’re just going from A to B — layoff to re-employment in the same field. But what if you have a career change in mind? How do you get there? When planning the trip from A to B you also need to consider your resources and your obstacles, all the things that will help or hinder your progress. Think about your inputs — that includes the CV you had when you started your last job, but also the things you learned on your last job. What abilities do you have that you need to add to the CV? What abilities do you need for the job you want?

And then map it out. Start: Unemployed (or looking for work). End: A new job. What do you need to do to travel that distance?

  1. Update your CV. What do you need to do to update your CV? Write down the steps. Research what CVs look like these days in your industry. What do employers want to see? Where will you do the research? Online? The library? When will you do the research? Plan it out.
  2. Look for work. Where will you look? Where do job ads get published these days? Does your industry publish job ads or is it more word-of-mouth? How many cold-calls will you make per week?
  3. Apply for jobs. How are you going to apply? Online? Through a company website? Will you write and send letters? Who will proofread your CV and cover letter? How many jobs will you apply to per week?
  4. Financing your job search is important. How much cash do you have and how long will it last? How can you supplement it? Can you take a part-time job?

Draw up a calendar for what you’re going to do and when, and then hold yourself to it. If you’re veering off your established career path, project-manage what you need to do to facilitate the transition.

Once you’ve worked out what you think the steps are, start following them. You may find that Steps 2 and 4 are essentially the same thing, so cross out Step 4 and continue. Or maybe you need to do Step 6 after Step 2. Revise your plan and continue. You may have too many steps, you may have not enough. Revise and continue. The goal doesn’t change.

And when someone asks if you have experience with project management, nod. We might not all be project managers, but we all can get things done.

Leaving you is sometimes easy

Believe it or not, layoffs are not always a bad thing.

Granted, there’s the gut-churning worry about making the mortgage and all the other payments, and that’s as real as it gets, especially if you, like me,  have been living paycheque to paycheque and not setting anything aside for the bad times. That is unequivocally double-plus-ungood.

But for your head and your heart and even your career, a layoff or buyout can be breathing space, a time to sit back and consider just what it is that you really want to do with the next five years — or the rest — of your life, and maybe take some tentative steps toward that thing.

I was talking the other day with a woman whose company seems to be moving toward layoffs and she’s pretty sure that if they come, they’ll come for her. And she’s fighting the feeling of relief that this is bringing. She feels like she’s been swimming in a toxic muck for years. Asked why she hasn’t just up and left before now, she admitted that her current workplace has drained whatever self-esteem she might have once had — she’s not confident enough to go out and sell herself on the job market.

Boy, did I understand where she was coming from. I spent the best part of my career working for a company whose mission I believed in — still do. It was the only place I wanted to work when I graduated from university. And many of the people I worked with were wonderful. But it was an extraordinarily toxic workplace for me because while I was frequently seconded to work at a higher level, my bosses made it clear over and over again that I lacked that certain je ne sais quoi to actually get promoted to that level permanently. I was of far more value to them as a pawn on the board that could move anywhere. Not only did I come to lack confidence in my skills, the lack of a saleable job title on my CV was evidence of my employer’s lack of confidence in me, so even when I applied for jobs I got hit by the double whammy. I did eventually get out and move on, but my lack of progress there remains my secret shame. I still can’t explain it, and that doubt remains at the back of my mind.

It’s really hard to believe in yourself when others don’t believe in you.  And even harder to just quit a sure paycheque, as harmful as it might be to earn it, on principle when you’ve got no safety net. So no judgment, please, about this woman’s failure to get out of the poison pool.

But she is taking steps, and that’s a positive thing. She’s getting therapy for her self-esteem issues. She’s getting her ducks in a row so that she’ll be ready when the layoff comes. And she’s trying not to be too overtly relieved about the idea about getting paid to leave her job. I told her to stop fighting it and embrace it as a natural result of the way she’s been feeling about her job. Because sometimes a layoff is freedom. You no longer have to work with the people who were making your life miserable. You leave with severance pay so your immediate concerns about paying the bills are assuaged, giving you time and space to think about your next move — which might be completely different from your last one.

Here are some ways to prepare yourself for a layoff:

  1. Use your benefits. If you need new glasses, get them. See your dentist. Buy your prescription meds. Get the massages that you never get. Take advantage of all of it — you’ve been paying for it, there’s no sense leaving money on the table. And if your company has an Employee Assistance Program that provides a certain amount of free counselling, use it. It’s confidential, won’t come back to haunt you at this workplace or the next, and could be the key to getting out of whatever rut you’ve been in.
  2. Put together a list of contacts, complete with contact details. People who’ve been helpful to you or to whom you’ve provided good service.
  3. Set up a non-work email address and use the first email to send yourself that list of contacts. Also make sure that you have copies of — or access to — any work product that you’re particularly proud of — papers or reports or whatever. Your personnel assessments. If you’ve received emails telling you what a great job you did or thanking you for going above and beyond on something, make sure you have copies of those too. You’ll want to be able to show this stuff to your next employer, plus it’s always good to look back on the work you’ve done and say to yourself, “Damn, I’m good!”
  4. We all know we’re supposed to put aside money to keep us going for a few months, but few of us actually do it, mostly because there’s always something to spend the money on, like gas for the car or a new roof. It’s hard to plan for an uncertain future when the very certain present has its hands in our pockets. But if you know something’s coming, start cutting back where you can, and pay off what debts you can. Start getting used to reduced circumstances.
  5. Sometimes you can see layoffs coming from miles away. If so, look at your resume and check for holes. Is there a course you can take — online or in person — that will fill that hole, either by upgrading existing skills or adding an in-demand skill? Your current employer may have a budget to pay for continued learning, but be careful — if the training isn’t directly applicable to your current job they may not pay for it.