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 amazon.ca.

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.

 

Making your lists — and unpacking them

At the end of 2015 I uncorked a bottle of champagne and bade good riddance to a memorably bad year. I welcomed 2016 with open arms, confident that it couldn’t be worse. At the end of 2016 I viewed the coming of the new year with relief, but was not crazy enough to tempt karma again by kicking the old one out the door. I’d learned my lesson. And now I’m wondering whether I broke a mirror a few years ago without realizing it…

Ever since I bought my house I’ve been known to grumble that I wasn’t built for home ownership. Every time something goes wrong I say it again. This fall when I had to replace my furnace and I started in on the old refrain, my brother offered a bit of perspective — listen, he said, you’ve cut down your dead trees, replaced the windows and doors, the dryer, and your furnace died, what else can go wrong? Well, I said, there’s the roof. And the rest of the appliances. And the plumbing… But really, he’s right. Barring major catastrophe, we should be good for a while at least, and maybe it’s OK to relax. A bit.

What does any of that have to do with being laid off? In a word, fear. I live in fear of the house collapsing around me, but realistically, barring catastrophe, that’s unlikely to happen. It’s more useful to think about the things that could happen, and figure out how I’ll deal with them.  So let’s extrapolate that to the workplace: if your fear is losing your job, what are you afraid of? What’s the worst that could happen?

I’m a BIG fan of making lists, I make them all the time, mostly because of my crappy memory, but also because I’m a linear enough thinker that I find a visual representation of my thoughts helpful.

So think about your worst job-loss fears, and write them down. What’s the worst that could happen? I lose my job. Now unpack that. Why is that bad? Well, there’s no income. That’s a huge and highly legitimate fear. So think about what you can do if you lose your job and have no income. What resources do you have? What do you have for the short term, what can you tap into for the long term? What can you do now to increase your resources? Can you take an extra job? Is there work you can do on the side, or more hours to pick up? Is there any way to cut down on your expenses? Anything you don’t need that you can sell to add to your nest egg? Write it all down. Make a plan. And no matter what you do, remember to pocket the money instead of spending it somewhere else.

What’s the next-worst thing that could happen? Work through every fear individually. Why you’re afraid of it, and how you’ll confront it if it happens. Make sure that your planned actions and outcomes are realistic because while setting goals is very helpful, not meeting those goals depletes your confidence, even if those goals never existed in the realm of possibility in the first place. Be firm, but don’t over-promise to yourself.

Obsessing over your fears makes you feel helpless, puts you in the victim position; having a plan and working the plan helps to give you confidence — you’re taking positive steps and creating results.

And here’s to 2018 — may it be a good year for all of us.

 

How not to panic if you’re panicking

The last time I saw my doctor I told her that I was under tremendous stress because of things going on at work, and that I was starting to have panic attacks — that I was waking up in the middle of the night gasping for air, heart racing, in full fight-or-flight mode.

She told me I need to reduce the stress in my life.

I told her that was a little hard to do when the stress that I was reacting to was coming from my workplace and was nothing that I could control. What I was controlling at that moment was my urge to kick over my chair and scream, “Are you fucking kidding me? THAT’S your advice?”

My somewhat dysfunctional relationship with my doctor aside, her advice wasn’t entirely wrong — if you’re stressed, the way to be less stressed is to reduce the stress. Bit of a tautology, but there you go. And if I had been talking about everyday stress, I’d have probably laughed and gotten on with it. But the last time I was this stressed was not, if you’ll believe it, the last time I was laid off — though that was stressful. No, the last time I had actual panic attacks was 10 1/2 years ago, when I’d taken a new job in a new city and had two weeks to find a new apartment and move.

I was leaving a company where I’d worked for 17 years and while a lot of those years were unhappy, it was nonetheless a job I was good at, that I could do with my eyes closed. I was jumping to a completely unknown quantity — a job that hadn’t existed two months earlier, a startup workplace where I would be called upon to use the skills I’d been begging my previous employer for years to let me use. Now I’d have to prove I had the chops. My imposter syndrome was setting off alarm signals at all hours of the day and night. I found a new place to live fairly quickly, but then had to move 11.5 years of my life, including shutting down and setting up utilities, getting quotes from movers, dealing with a dickish landlord about notice, and packing, packing packing, getting around Canada’s biggest city without a car in a heatwave where daytime temperatures were around 45C with the humidex and at night they went down to around 43.

I’d be walking down the street and all of a sudden be unable to breathe. My heart would pound and my knees would shake and I more than once thought I was having a heart attack.

Today I woke up with a list of four things to do — happy things: laundry, call my parents, finalize my list of Christmas cookies to make next weekend, finalize my Christmas shopping list. Easy peasy. What stress? And then I got a bit of news I wasn’t expecting and all of a sudden panic is setting in again because I want to solve the problem but can’t.

The platitude-spouters say when you can’t control your environment, what you can do is control your response to it. I despise platitudes and don’t have much time for most of the people who spout them, but I do accept that this sort of received wisdom works for some people and they pass it along in the most well-meaning of ways. This is one platitude I’ve tried to implement in my own life, examining my response to a variety of stressors and discovering that I can choose, sometimes at least, to not react in a certain way.

So. There. That’s one thing you can do to control your panic. Choose not to panic. That advice is less helpful for when you wake up at 3 a.m. in the throes of a full-blown attack, but when you see the stressor coming, and recognize it for what it is, sometimes you can steel yourself for it and not give into the atavistic urge to go batshit crazy because of it.

What else can you do?

Again, when you’re compos mentis and know what you’re dealing with, deep breathing will help you through an attack as it’s happening. Concentrate on drawing air in through your nose and letting it out, in a controlled way — or as controlled a way as possible if one of your symptoms is not being able to breathe. And if you have a paper bag nearby that will fit over your head, try that.

A quick Google search will give you advice such as:

  • Stop and think -The thing you’re panicking about isn’t actually happening, it’s all in your head.
  • Confront your fear – When your thoughts are spiralling out of control, rein them in and try to work through the problem as rationally as possible (coincidentally, this was supposed to be the topic of today’s blog). This is especially important if you’re a catastrophic thinker, which I am — e.g., someone late isn’t just unavoidably detained, he’s dead in a ditch somewhere. Get out pen and paper if necessary and work it out, or work yourself back to the most reasonable explanation. Remember Occam’s Razor. And if you can’t regain control that way, count. Count whatever works for you. I find counting in a different language helps me focus, so if you have a second language or two, use them. The point is to impose order on your thoughts.
  • Relax your muscles. I know, funny, right? Who is she kidding? But sometimes stress begets stress, and the fact that you feel tense makes you more stressed. So stretch, take a walk. I have a four-minute yoga exercise video pinned to my toolbar, I do that sometimes at work sitting in my desk chair. Just taking a time out can be helpful.
  • Try to laugh. Reader’s Digest had it right, laughter really is the best medicine. Laugh at your fear. Or at yourself. And when I say laugh, what I really mean, I think, is to express your emotion. Laugh, or cry, or punch your sofa (so that you don’t hurt yourself or anyone else) but own the emotion that led up to the attack.

It’s OK to be afraid — there’s some scary stuff out there. But if you let the fear take hold, it can keep you from doing that you need to do. The trick is to neutralize the fear before it gets to that point.

Also (quoting my doctor again): get enough sleep, exercise regularly, and eat proper, regular meals.

keep-calm-and-carry-on-scan

 

Go on, what are you afraid of?

One of the worst things about chronic depression isn’t just that you’re sad all the time, although that’s not one of its high points, it’s that your brain works to keep you that way. Ask any chronically depressed person about negative self-talk. It’s your brain taking the things you hate about yourself (and also, strangely, stupid things you said 30 years ago in a conversation the other person has likely forgotten) and magnifying them, then throwing them at you with darts. Eventually you’re prickly like a hedgehog with negative talk and you roll into a ball and stop trying to fight back.

One of the best ways I’ve found for overcoming that negative self-talk is to take the harmful words out of my head and write them down on paper. The first time I did that I looked at the paper and cried at the nasty things I said to myself. And then they lost their power. Astonishingly quickly.

So working from the theory that giving the nasty thing air removes its sting, let’s talk about fear — specifically, what fear is keeping you from looking for a new job if you don’t like the one you have; or better yet, if you don’t like what you’re doing, what fear is keeping you from switching careers?

For the record, I have four brothers so I don’t tend to make my fears public — I’ve had them thrown in my face too many times. And I don’t expect you to tell all your friends (or your big brothers) either. But when you have a quiet moment, get a pen and a paper and write down what you’re afraid of. Be brutally honest with yourself or it won’t work.

A typical fear for women especially is that they’re not good enough. A lot has been written over the years about the difference between the way men and women apply for jobs — men will apply even if they have 25 per cent or less of the required skills. A guy who’s well-known as a first-rate speechwriter told me that he’d never written a speech when he presented himself to a newly elected prime minister as a speechwriter — and got hired. He had a decent background as a journalist, but no proven skills at the job he applied for. A woman would never do that. Or most women wouldn’t, they have to have 80 per cent of the qualifications or better before they’ll apply and even then they’ll dither and moan about it. Google “imposter syndrome” for more information. So you’re not alone if you think you’re not good enough, but chances are good that you, in fact, are good enough.

Another perfectly standard fear is that they won’t like you. And that’s a valid fear, nobody’s hiring any more for straight skills, “cultural fit” is also important these days. No one wants to waste time and energy on-boarding someone who’s going to jump ship because they don’t like the atmosphere. And then there’s the worry that you might be aging out of the job market, especially if you’re anywhere near 50, and extra-especially if you’re older than 50. Ageism is something that you have to be aware of. When it comes to changing careers, the need for more education is often an obstacle, as is money.

In short, there are many things to be afraid of. Write them all down. Think about them. Let them lose a bit of their sting. And then start fighting back. Why are you afraid you’re not good enough? What do you do well? Write that down. Even if you think you’re a complete loser there’s something you do well and you know it. Admit it to yourself, there, in private. The day I admitted to myself that I might not be the world’s worst writer, I gained 10 pounds of self-esteem. I don’t brag about it, I don’t always believe it when other people tell me they think I’m good at it, but deep inside I know that I’m not bad. It’s a candle in a dark room sometimes.

Now, what else do you do well? Write those things down too. Create your little nugget of gold, “these things I know.”

And now start listing things you need to do in order to find a better job, but don’t do as well. And start thinking about how to cross them off your list. Can you take a course? Can you ask for advice from someone who does it well? Taking positive steps for yourself can be a huge boost to your self-esteem and overall mood.

And then make another list of the things that make you happy. Study that list to find patterns and possibilities. Do any of those things look like a job? What if you looked at them sideways? Do some research, talk to career counsellors. I know I’m guilty sometimes of  having a limited imagination when it comes to jobs — I simply can’t imagine that a job might exist, or that there might be a market for it. And then someone goes and does it and … whaddya know?

The moral of the story is: Face your fear to remove its power. Write it down. Then write down your counter-argument. Create a roadmap around — or through — your perceived obstacles. On a professional level at the very least, figure out what you’re good at, what you have enough confidence in to sell to an employer. But spend some time also figuring out what you’d like to do if you weren’t doing this, whatever “this” is. Gaze deep into your navel. The answer might surprise you.

Here we go again

The day before 9/11, a Canadian TV network launched its first national newscast, a supper-hour program that wouldn’t compete directly with the two major networks’ 10 and 11 p.m. shows. At the time it was my job to watch all three newscasts. The two legacy networks handled 9/11 and the ensuing weeks’ coverage like the pros they were. The upstart added a little sumthin’-sumthin’ underneath the items about 9/11. I noticed it because while I was watching the newscast and taking my notes I would feel unsettled, my heart would beat a little faster, I’d breathe a little faster, my hands would sweat — things that didn’t happen when I watched the coverage on other networks. It was an extended low note, almost but not quite subliminal, that ran as long as the 9/11 items lasted. I called it the Tone of Dread. I’ve probably written about it before on this blog, because it’s one of those things that has stuck with me, and today it’s useful as a metaphor.

That tone of dread, subliminal or audible, is familiar to most people working in media these days. There’s an under-buzz, a hum, in newsrooms that accompanies the death by 1,000 cuts to staff. It makes your heart race and your palms sweat as you wonder, “when will the next cuts come?” and “when will they come for me?” Living under that hum does things to your brain that simply don’t go away when the job does.

My media job went away five-and-a-half years ago — to the day, as it happens . To my great relief I quickly found another job out of the media, with an association that seemed about as solid as it gets. The excitement level was through the floor, but, lack of adrenaline notwithstanding, it’s been a good place to work and I’ve been lucky to be there and I’ve actually learned a lot.

But that damned hum is back. Associations everywhere are facing the same problem — companies that still haven’t fully recovered from the 2008 recession, or which cut back on spending during the recession and decided they liked having the extra cash — are not shelling out for elective items like they used to, which means associations are losing members. And they’re starting to look at how they can adapt to having less money. My association, having gone through the assessment stage, is now preparing to implement its change measures. And yes, there will be layoffs. And yes, my head’s as likely to be on the chopping block as anyone’s.

And my heart’s beating a little faster and my palms are often sweaty and — this is new! — I’ve started to wake up at night gasping in the throes of a panic attack.

I dropped this blog like a hot potato five-and-a-half years ago when I started my new job — there was some question about whether the social media rules allowed me to have a blog, and then once that was resolved there was the question of whether I felt like writing at the end of a long day of writing. The answer – I mostly didn’t.

But that damned hum is back. And I’m thinking that five years on maybe there’s something to be said for saying something in this forum. So we’ll see how this works. I’m going to try for regular updates. And if there’s anything you’d like me to discuss, I’m all ears.