"I want to be sure I make the right decision. Totally sure, so I don't regret my decision later."
I hear this all the time from new clients. People want to make informed decisions that are guaranteed to get them to a place they want to be. They're afraid of choosing the wrong thing, of making a bad decision or a false start. Many of them have made prior career decisions that they now wish they'd never made or that they wish they'd thought through more carefully.
But can you ever know with 100% certainty what will work?
I believe the "100% goal" is a trap, and I frequently tell my clients this. It can lead to paralysis and an inability to tap into your intuition and creativity in the career exploration process. The most common reaction is relief – "Oh, you mean I'm off the hook about getting it totally, completely right?" This is not to deny that it's extremely important to carefully consider your next move, check in with yourself about whether it feels right, makes logical sense, and, to the best of your ability to discern, will be a good fit for you.
It's this "ability to discern" that's so tricky. How much can we really know about the future? Since crystal balls are few and far between, we do the best we can with self-reflection, research, and envisioning the life we want to lead going forward. Maybe we get to 85% clarity about the viability and desirability of an idea. Then we take a leap of faith.
It's always a leap of faith, and there's such thing as 100%. Does that make you feel better? If so, you can relax a little about making the "perfect" decision. (No decision you make will be completely irreversible, although it will impact your future.) If not, know that the career counseling process often involves learning to be comfortable with some level of uncertainty – you, too, can learn to be satisfied with 85% (or so) certainty and leave some room for the unknown.
Ray Bradbury died last week. I've only read one of his books, Fahrenheit 451, and read it poorly because I ambitiously bought the Spanish version…but I found his New York Times obituary and accompanying Appraisal very interesting.
In the Appraisal, Michiko Kakutani writes that "the greatest danger in Mr. Bradbury's futuristic tales is not posed by aliens or robots, but by threats to creativity and art…and humanity's own waning capacity for belief in the strange and miraculous." He mentions the story "The Toynbee Convector," in which a ghost "grows pale and ill when surrounded by cynics and intellectuals but begins to revive when a group of children gather," Peter Pan-style.
I've clearly got some reading to do…in the meantime, it's enough to think about these statements in the context of career counseling. So many people are trying to "figure it out" or "get it together." To this end, it's common even for creative artists to try to intellectualize or analyze their way through the process quickly. "If I can just find half a day to sit down and figure this all out, everything will be great – I just have to think it all through." This is the mature adult way, after all – or is it?
What I've discovered is that we very often need a more creative approach to "figuring out" our own next steps in life. Getting more of this creative perspective can include:
- An openness to the things you hear on the radio, read in the newspaper or a magazine, or otherwise come across in the course of your days (Wow, I never knew you could do that for a living – what if I could, too?…That person is inspiring – what if I could emulate her?)
- An exploration into your own memory (What did I like to do when I was 10? 20? Where have those interests gone?)
- A close look at the things that are right in front of you but that you might take for granted (What do the things I have lying around my house reveal about my interests and the things I'm good at? What do I have to offer now, and who might want it? What do other people notice about me that I might not?)
- An invitation to chance encounters (You never know who you'll meet, and every once in a while you meet someone who inspires you like Peter Pan inspired kids in Victorian London.)
We can't always figure things out the conventional way – we often have to skirt the conventions and cultivate outside-the-box opportunities for new ideas to surface. Jonah Lehrer, in his new new book Imagine, describes studies sugesting that travel to new places enhances creativity. That's no surprise to me – I always get insights and inspirations when I go away, even on a road trip a couple hours from Denver.
But you don't have to get out of town to think creatively – Bradbury didn't. The obituary describes his homebodiness – 50 years in the same Los Angeles house, and he never learned to drive (in LA!). He didn't like to fly either. He's quoted in the Appraisal as having said, "All my life, I've been running through the fields and picking up bright objects. I turn it over and say, 'Hey, there's a story!.'"
Someone I used to know worked at a company that had very rigid policies about plants. You had to be promoted to a certain level to have a plant in your office. Not to have the company buy you a plant, but to be permitted the privilege of having a plant. So, if your parents or sweetheart bought you a ficus to celebrate your sticking with the job a full year, it was outta there unless you'd been promoted to Director or whatever the cutoff was.
I could go on and on about ridiculous company policies, but my interest is mainly with the cluelessness of the powers that be to realize that aesthetics at work do matter. Don't just take it from me, think about your own situation – do you feel better working in a place that has some life about it, some vibrancy and color, or in a bare gray cubicle? We learn in preschool that people need plants and plants need people. In fact, preschool reminds us that we need color and art and music…in short, aesthetics do matter, tiny kids know this, and it's not just a child's truth.
Environmental psychologists are on to this as well. Indeed, this brief article from Psychology Today (in PDF format) describes the calming effects of plants in an office setting.
A visually appealing home, workplace, and neighborhood can go a long way toward keeping a person in an optimistic, creative mood. Have you found this to be true for yourself? It may sound basic, but it's so easy to get into the utilitarian rut – "Oh, why bother with that, it's not functional?" or "I'll get around to decorating the bedroom walls when I've gotten everything else done."
Of course, it's subjective and personal. Think about your own sense of aesthetics. What do you like to see, hear, smell, taste? What types of environments make you feel at peace? Make you energized? What small, inexpensive (or free) things might you place in your surroundings to give you an aesthetic boost?
Regardless of where you are in your career and what role creativity and art are playing in your life right now, a change toward a more aesthetically pleasing environment might help you better connect with what you really care about.
"I feel like a phony – I definitely got this job out of dumb luck."
"The work I'm doing isn't really a big deal – anyone could do it."
"I must have gotten a good review because they feel sorry for me, or their standards must be really low."
"Wait til they find out I have no idea what I'm doing."
Does any of this sound familiar? It does to me, because I've had all of these thoughts going through my mind at one time or another, and I hear it frequently from my clients.
There's a name for just about everything, and the name for this thought pattern is impostor syndrome. I find that creative, sensitive people are particularly prone to thinking they are incompetent despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, or existing in a perpetual state of anxiety that people will "discover" their inadequacies. It goes hand-in-hand with the type of perfectionism that can cripple your plans and keep you from moving into something you want to do.
I highly recommend Valerie Young's recent book about imposter syndrome, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. Despite its title, it is not just for women, and I see a lot of men with the same problem.
So, what to do about it? Awareness and labeling are the first steps toward overcoming your impostor fears. Just knowing about the label "impostor syndrome" can be helpful – it's so common it's even got a name. Can you be aware of your impostor thoughts? Can you identify them when they arise – "ah, yes, there's that one about how I'm not as competent as the other people on my team?" Then ask yourself what evidence there is for this thought. Is there really something you need to learn, or a skill you need to develop, to be competent, or is this a baseless thought? Take a really close look at your thought patterns – do they consistently contradict what other people say about you? Can you even bring some humor to the thoughts – "ha, there I go again!"
I recommend the book for much more information and strategies to work with your impostor syndrome tendencies. Just know that the mind is full of thoughts that don't hold up to scrutiny…and most of your impostor thoughts just won't pass it on the reality check.
Ooh, was I annoyed! A short while ago, my trusted minidisc recorder somehow failed to capture any of my fascinating interview with Carolyn Daughters, a freelance writer and novelist who I'm interviewing for my Creative Career Stories project. It simply says "blank disc," as you can see in this bleak photo.
I spent a day or so feeling annoyed with myself for this error. The thoughts went along the lines of, "I should have brought a backup recorder, duh, every interviewer knows to do that, even though I've never needed one in all these years," "I've had this damn thing since 2004, you'd think I could get something more modern by now anyway, it was bound to fail," and, my favorite, "Leave it to me to screw this up!" Helpful, right? But after 24 hours or so of wallowing (up and down, not constantly), I got over it. It was an accident, but I was not entirely blameless – I really could have been more careful. Still, life goes on, and this did not ruin my interview project (I have a new recorder, and a backup, and we're going to do the interview again).
What do you do in these situations? They happen in the career development process, too, despite our best intentions and attempts to be really, really careful. You send a resume and later see that the formatting has gotten all messed up through some ingenious bug in Microsoft Word. Or you realize that you've lost touch with a former coworker who would have been an awesome contact for the new thing you're hoping to do, and it now feels really awkward to get back in touch with that person.
It's common in the career development process to get really annoyed with little things that don't go your way. I mean, to get annoyed with yourself. And a lot of creative people have a heightened tendency to wallow and ruminate about their errors. Does this sound familiar?
On the flip side, one benefit of being a creative thinker is that you can use your outside-the-box imagination to do one of the following:
- bring humor to the situation – tell yourself a joke, write a jingle or movie scene about it, or get a friend to help you find the humor in it
- devise a clever system to prevent this sort of thing from happening again
- write an endearing, perhaps humorous, message to apologize for your error (only recommended sometimes)
- ask yourself how realistic the worst case scenario you're envisioning really is, or check in with an empathic friend about that question (hint: it's usually not that bad)
- engross yourself in a book or movie about people with way bigger problems than yours
- use your best creative mind to find something fun to do, and go do it (i.e. blow off the job/career search for a spell and try to have some fun)
- get involved in an active creative project that you care about – paint your painting, cook a good meal, sing your lungs out, etc.
- journal about your frustrations, or turn it into a short story about someone else, as long as the ending is either humorous or peaceful, not morose
And if you find yourself wallowing, ask yourself if you can identify any elements of potential satisfaction in your wallowing state (admit it, sometimes we feel righteous in our irritation or bad mood). It might go like, "I deserve to be annoyed with myself, so I'll just sit here and be annoyed," or "I won't go out tonight because I don't deserve to have fun, and besides, I have to sit here and work all night to remedy this problem." Once you notice any tendencies like this, you now at least have a choice to continue to wallow or to get up and dust yourself off and move on to the next thing.
I welcome comments – what do you find effective in these situations?
"Ladies don’t drink pints” proclaimed a brash Englishman as he came up from behind me and replaced my pint glass with a half pint, then helped himself to the pint I’d bought. That was about twenty years ago, early in the summer I spent in London after college. Etiquette dictated that women only drink half pints, wine, or mixed drinks and leave the pints to the lads. (I believe this is still true today.)
In Ireland this week, I found myself looking around for cues about what I should and should not order to drink. I even Googled the topic and found ambiguous answers. What I discovered was that it was so strange for a woman to even go to a pub alone that I had no chance of fitting in no matter what I chose to drink. But the only women I saw ordering pints were a group of students from New York.
Since I was traveling alone, I had to get used to feeling awkward pretty much every time I went out in the evening to hear music or to get a flavor of the local culture – and the culture there’s not that different from here. But I figured as long as I wasn’t totally offending anyone and felt safe, I certainly wouldn’t sit home and miss out on a cool experience. I did meet some very interesting people…and I did order half pints, which was plenty anyway.
OK, here's the segue: In our work lives, it’s important to think about the extent to which we want to fit in culturally versus wanting to blaze our own trail or stand out. What does it mean for you to work in an environment where you are expected to conform to a clear set of cultural rules (such as a dress code or clear hierarchy) – like a woman ordering half pints to fit in? What does it mean to work someplace where you’re expected to be highly unique or to take a novel or creative approach most of the time – like a woman who’s expected to place an unusual drink order and then get up and sing or tell a story to everyone at the bar? What would it be like to work in a place where you don't fit in much at all – like a woman made to feel that she shouldn’t be at the pub in the first place?
This isn’t as black and white as you might think. Just because you’re a creative person doesn’t necessarily mean you’re looking for a job in a place where you need to stand out as particularly creative or bold every day. Some artistic people are seeking structured workplaces with well-defined expectations and cultures so they can work for their paychecks and save their creative energies for after hours. Others demand workplaces that call for nonconformity, or that challenge them to think or act outside the box every day.
One thing is clear – if you feel like you don’t fit in culturally to a work setting, it’s probably going to be tough. So it's important to give some consideration to what kind of culture will be comfortable for you. What people will you be comfortable with? What types of settings and work activities will not stifle you but will also not require overwhelming creative energy if that's not what you're looking for?
(special note: I procrastinated completing this post for five days)
At my house, we put a sign on our dishwasher when it's time to empty it. The sign says "CLEAN," as in "the dishes are clean." We are then able to freely use the dishwasher as a cupboard until we get around to emptying it – the sign reassures us we'll be taking out shiny clean plates instead of crusty ones.
It's also convenient to have clean clothes in the dryer. That way, I can get clean socks from the laundry room without having to stuff everything into my bedroom drawers. Too bad when it's time to actually use the dryer again.
Why do some of us procrastinate the simplest things, like emptying the dishwasher or dryer? How does that bode for our time management on the bigger issues, like delving into the question of "what do I want to do with my life?," looking for a job, or completing the novel (or painting, song, play, etc.)? Or does it mean we blow off the stupid household stuff so we can fully focus on those other things? Or a combination, depending on the circumstance?
We all know it often does pay to get of our asses and do things today…and conventional wisdom (and planning systems like Franklin Covey) tell us to prioritize and plan on a daily basis. They tell us that procrastination is BAD. Indeed, sloth is one of the 7 deadly sins, and isn't sloth pretty much like procrastination?
Admit it – a smug, humor-laden satisfaction often accompanies procrastination. We laugh about it. Procrastinating little things around the house offers a comic excuse to procrastinate the big things ("I can't even remember to take out the recycling, so there's no way I can start that new e-mail campaign to potential customers – ha ha.") And you've got to love the Demotivator posters. One says "Procrastination: Hard work often pays off over time, but laziness always pays off now."
Still…there are things we'd like to get done that just don't happen on their own. We all have to find our own remedies for procrastination – the life coaches emphasize taking things one manageable step at a time and keeping organized to-do lists. It's also about getting a sense of what motivates us to be unmotivated in the first place. How many of these de-motivators might be lurking in your life?
- A secret feeling that you have to be perfect at the thing you're going to do.
- The feeling that there are more important things to do than the thing you keep putting off.
- A concern that once you begin the task you've been procrastinating, you'll be obligated to follow through with other related things, and won't that be a pain?
- A sense that people, yourself included, might have a hard time adjusting to a new, non-procrastinating you?
When we get down to it, it's often related to a deep-seated fear or concern that we're not very aware of. Why do I procrastinate my dishwasher duties? I'm giving that some thought, but right now I'm leaning toward #2 above (the feeling that there are more important things that I should be doing) combined with #4 (what if I become one of those people who always empties the dishwasher? what expectations will I need to live up to then?).
I challenge all of us in the new year to consider the "whys" behind our procrastination and commit to working through the things that keep us from moving ahead. You can start with your version of emptying the dishwasher, and move up to more substantive challenges.
And guess what – I did empty my dishwasher this morning, and it was easy. My next challenge will be to fold the laundry tonight.
Networking event nightmare 1: It's 7:00 a.m., much too early to be wearing a black skirt and top with earrings and makeup. I pull my Subaru up to the Golden Holiday Inn, get one of the last parking spots, and walk in the side door. Lucky for me, the breakfast meeting is right around the corner. I stop in the ladies' room – an introverted woman's best friend at events like this – and then approach the dining room. When I peek inside, I see a sea of black suits – all men, every last one of them. I make haste for my car and enjoy a bowl of cereal at home with my cats.
Networking event nightmare 2: "Hey – welcome!!!! Sign in here, we're soooooo glad you're here today!!!!" I should have brought my earplugs. I sign in, write my name in red on a paper name tag, "Betsy, guest," and scan the room for a chair that looks unoccupied. I put my purse down and grab a glass of water – always better to hold something, and to have something to do with my mouth besides talk, at a women's networking luncheon. A stylish woman in a red sweater and gray skirt approaches me, shakes my hand, and begins a monologue about her new nutritional supplement business. When's lunch?
Now that I've gotten your attention with this post's title and these two true stories (my own), I'll say that networking events do not have to suck…but for me, I'm just not extraverted enough to truly enjoy these situations. You'll have to decide for yourself.
As a career counselor, I talk about networking quite a bit with my clients. It's super-important to be connected, to meet people in your field, to put yourself out there and let them know how enthusiastic you are. This is old advice, and it really is true. Yet what about these networking events? Do they "work?" Are they worth the discomfort (and, often, the $30+ fee)?
I have been to a lot of networking events – breakfasts, lunches, dinners, after-hours, brownbags, Christmas galas…you name it. I went to most of these when I started my personal history business before I became a counselor. I am now extremely selective about what I attend, and I mostly stay away.
In my opinion, networking is really about developing relationships. It is not about frantically telling people about your strengths and skills, or handing out your business cards to as many people as possible, or seeing how many other people's business cards you can collect by the end of the evening, or doing a 10-minute commercial about your job qualifications or business. It's about connection – is there anyone with whom you can relate and who you'd really like to get to know better?
Part of my problem with networking events is that not everyone gets this. But then I am a connector who likes deeper conversations that get past the superficial, and not everyone sees it that way. If you like going to these events, go for it. If the thought of stepping into a room full of complete strangers sends you straight for the nearest library, you have a couple choices: either go anyway and learn how to make the most of it, or don't go. Before making your final decision, read Networking 101 for Introverts and How to Network (Even If You Hate Networking). (I always recommend the "don't knock it 'til you try it twice" approach….)
I'm not going to reinvent a list of networking tips – those abound on the Internet – but here are a few more of my thoughts around networking, especially as it relates to artistic people:
Start with friends and family. This is your comfort zone, so why not ask if anyone in your inner circle – or the next circle removed – knows anyone doing the sort of thing you're looking to do. It's a really good place to start.
Find people with mutual interests, and connect with them. If you're an amateur musician trying to get a job in IT, talk to other amateur musicians about music, but don't forget to mention your job search and computer interests as well. They might be in that industry, too, or they might know someone who is.
If you're hoping to find buyers for your art, it does help to network with people who have the interest and can afford to buy, but then talk to those people about the art, the themes behind it, how you got started doing these things, what they love about art - anything personal they can relate to and then say "Oh wow, I know this artist!" Your artwork may suddenly become much more meaningful to them.
Ask people about themselves. It's not all about you! Even if you're shy, you can train yourself to ask people questions that reflect an interest in their lives. Just don't forget to tell them a bit about yourself, too.
Use the Internet – that's what LinkedIn is for. The primary goal is not to make a bunch of new online buddies, but to meet face-to-face with the people you find through mutual online connections. My Denver Career Counseling Resources page has some additional information about LinkedIn.
Finally, if the word "networking" bugs you, change it to "making connections," "making new friends," "relationship-building," or whatever term is not going to make you cringe and want to stay in bed all day. Semantics do count – creating your own terminology around your job search can make it more palpable and bring some humor to it, too!
My mother-in-law is very nice, most of the time. She's also – well – rather boring. My husband is a curious, interesting guy who likes to travel and learn about random things like sparrow migration and the Colorado mining strike of 1913. I can't believe he came out of her. As far as I know, she hasn't changed the decor in her house since she bought it back in 1951. On each visit, she tells us about her saga with the free magazine subscriptions – who she's giving them to, how they made a mistake in someone's order – mesmerizing stuff like that.
Now, this is where I'm supposed to stop and way "Wow – I'm being a judgmental lout." And it's true – but I can't help these feelings creeping up on me every time I visit her. The thing is, I know it's not really about her, it's about me. I mean, what does it matter to me how she likes to set up her house? Whenever I engage with her, though, I have to deal with my own stifling discomfort around two of my greatest personal fears – being bored and its sinister twin, being boring.
But what if it's not so bad to be bored? This New York Times article, You’re Bored, But Your Brain Is Tuned In, cites research suggesting that when we feel bored, we're actually getting some brain space to become more creative.
If the science isn't convincing enough, you can also look to the meditation experts, who contest that boredom is something to be accepted and to delve into. This blog post I found quotes the meditation guru Osho:
What exactly is meditation? Facing boredom is meditation. What does a meditator go on doing? Sitting silently, looking at his own navel, or watching his breathing, do you think he is being entertained by these things? He is utterly bored!
The whole effort in meditation is this: be bored but don’t escape from it; and keep alert, because if you fall asleep you have escaped. Keep alert! Watch it, witness it. If it is there, then it is there. It has to be looked into, to the very core of it.”
Meditation is great and has tons of benefits, but – ouch! Why is this boredom concept such a hard one? We like to be productive, creative, engaged, as much as possible. Being bored seems to signify being unproductive and, worse, uncreative. But the paradox is that if we're always busy, we lose the ability to get into the really "juicy" parts of our creativity.
At the same time, being bored at work, or bored with the creative work we're doing, is very draining. Most of us have a really low threshold for performing dull tasks at work or attending droning meetings…that's why we create all sorts of visions, ideas, songs, etc. while we're inputting data into Excel or watching another insipid PowerPoint presentation. We can't help it!
Still, maybe there's space for a little bit of boredom. It might free us up to be more creative on the other side. I am going to make a commitment to allow some boredom into my life – and it's scary! And, to tell the truth, I'm not sure how to do that, since I'm definitely not willing to visit my mother-in-law too often.
(As for being boring, it seems that we should all be entitled to that a fair amount of the time. Striving to be non-boring is OK until it's a setup for feeling like a failure every time we don't make someone laugh heartily or completely entertain or enthrall people with our creations. What do you think?)
Are you an artistic person who has found a way to make a living and do your art (could be visual art, music, writing, acting, or anything)? Or do you know someone who is? If so, I'd love to interview you for this site!
Perhaps you are (or your friend is):
- working full-time in non-artistic jobs that allow time on the side
- working part-time gigs to pay the bills
- pursuing art full-time
- following another model…
Please share this page with anyone you think would be a good candidate to be interviewed, and please contact me here. If I choose to interview them, I can keep their identity confidential (if that's what they want), or I can provide a link to their web site and give them a little publicity (if that suits them better). I'll conduct the interviews in locations convenient for them and, if they're local, treat them to coffee and snacks…should be a good time for everyone!
~ Betsy ~
*By "successful," I don't mean rich and famous, although if you want to hook me up to interview one of my favorite bigshot musicians, I won't mind! I really mean people who are relatively content, having found success however they define it.