In times of stress look for the why

Ever have one of those weeks where everything just seems to be falling your way. You sleep great. The kids actually seem to be behaving. Nothing in the house breaks down or stops working. Your colleagues are agreeable and your boss notices the solid work you’ve been doing.

These times don’t happen often, but when they do we feel like we could take on the world. In fact, it is often times like these when our very best work comes out. Most people can perform well when everything is going in their favor.

But how about when the opposite is in effect. How do you perform when the kids are sick and you’re sleeping five hours a night? Can you still deliver when your boss gives credit to another team member who is only riding your coat tails? Is your performance still on target when you are worrying about how to pay for that leaky roof?

It is in times of adversity that we reveal who we really are. I for one often find myself lacking. It doesn’t take a lot to throw me off my game and when it happens I can almost stand outside of myself as an objective observer and see myself crack like a dropped egg. So I know this is something I know I need to work on.

What I try to do is to personify adversity. I look at it like a teacher. This isn’t a new idea. People like Plato, Marcus Aurelius and even Yoda have taught the same. But tried and true methods become cliche because they work. When I see adversity as a teacher I can more easily pull myself out of the situation and look at it as a lesson that I can learn from.

For instance, if a client is really unhappy with a given piece of work even though I have provided exactly what they asked for, I look at it as a lesson in patience. I could get a bit upset and explain how I am delivering on our agree upon project. But instead I step back and realize that as someone who works with people looking for work, I am also working with people at their most vulnerable. Sometimes when people lose control of one aspect of their lives- in this case their job- they try to exert control over something else- our project. When I look at it from this perspective I can see the why, not just the what of the client’s actions.

This is just a small example, but I think it illustrates the point well. When we look at adversity as a teacher trying to help us build character it causes us to look for the why when trouble happens. Why is this happening to me now and in this particular way? What can I learn from it?

It Can’t Rain All The Time

I remember once, back in the early 90’s, right after I got out of college, my future wife and I got to pre-screen a film. I forget how we ended up getting the invite but as movie buffs we felt pretty lucky to get the chance to see a film well before its release date, and tell the producers our opinions. The film was The Crow and it starred Brandon Lee, Bruce Lee’s son, who had tragically died during the filming, much as his father had 20 years earlier. It lent a certain weight to the whole experience.

To make a long story short, we loved the film, said so, and then watched two months later as the film became a hit. Alas, that was the end of our journey as gurus to the film industry.

The Crow is a very dark story, and fairly violent, but it had a hauntingly beautiful song that played a recurring role, titled ‘It can’t rain all the time.” It served as a reminder to one of the main characters that while things were pretty horrible now, that the sun would eventually come out and things would eventually improve. It always reminded me of the quote, “This too shall pass.” It is a simple thought, that contains deep reservoirs of meaning and is something I actually bring to mind often.

  • When work is piling on and I can’t quite see the light at the end of the tunnel.
  • When we suffer one home mini disaster after another.
  • When the kids seem to be double-teaming us parents and we’re down to our last frayed nerve.

It’s a useful reminder that no matter how tough life may seem at the moment, that the page will turn and a new season will come. When we are in the middle of a storm in our lives it is often hard to see that, so we need to be reminded. For me, that reminder comes from a now forgotten action movie’s title song. Maybe for you it is scripture or a saying of a favorite teacher. Whatever it is, try to make it something you can look to when the going gets tough.

Jobseekers in particular need this kind of reassurance that the struggle they are going through will not last forever, that there is in fact light at the end of the tunnel. If you’re currently looking for that next step in your career and you are either enduring a dead end job, or are trying to make ends meet while unemployed, just remember it can’t rain all the time. Eventually the sun will come out for you, too.

A Strategy For Doing the Right Thing

Our careers are full of moral pitfalls.

Of course life has always been thus. However, in the past mankind had a stronger religious or philosophical underpinning that made these pitfalls, if not easy, at least a bit more navigable. But multiple generations of business and technical degrees that have largely abandoned liberal arts and philosophy, combined with falling participation in traditional religion have left us a bit unmoored.

Don’t get me wrong, it is entirely possible to be moral without these things; it is just that they presented us with road maps that made the proverbial pitfalls easier to see. And so we are left to answer the questions that our careers present us with on our own.

Every decisions seems to cry out for a self-serving analysis. How will this affect me? Will I profit from it? Will it gain me attention from the higher ups? Can I use this as a spring board for promotion?

These are all valid questions. We certainly want to pay attention to the things that can aid us. There is nothing inherently immoral about success, justifiable pride in our work, or peer recognition. These are all part of being human. We crave them at an almost cellular level.

The problem comes when we fail to measure the cost, because rarely are these choices free and clear.

While the above questions come naturally to mind, the following, the self-sacrificial ones, are often much harder. How will this affect my team? company? clients? Will the profit generated be fair and just? Am I stealing some of the credit from someone else? Can I use this to help a colleague rise up the ladder? Is this small success worth the extra work it will create for those around me?

Having a mechanism in place for dealing with consequential decisions would provide us with a solid framework for answering both the self-serving questions as well as the self-sacrificial ones. There are quite a few different mental models used to accomplish this task. Just Google “How to Make Decisions” and see for yourself. However, I like the following the best as it is also fairly straightforward, and we know if it is simple enough, we will normally use it.

Hammond, Keeney, and Raiffa suggest 8 steps in their book Smart Choices:

1. Work on the right problem.
2. Identify all criteria.
3. Create imaginative alternatives.
4. Understand the consequences.
5. Grapple with your tradeoffs.
6. Clarify your uncertainties.
7. Think hard about your risk tolerance.
8. Consider linked decisions.

Whatever strategy you opt to use, use something. Don’t let only the self-serving questions guide your career decision making. In the end you’ll have a much more satisfying career.

The First Step Towards a Personal Brand

If you are a job seeker I’m sure you have heard of the importance of building a personal brand by now. Ideally you will have spent the time building it before now so that it is in place when you need it. However, even if you neglected this part of your professional life, it is never too late to start. In fact, building your brand is and activity you can engage in almost immediately. As in about 5 mins from now. I’ll show you how.

First, let’s remove two misconceptions about what a personal brand is. I think when most people hear the term they automatically start thinking of product brands and their tag lines-

  • I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis.
  • Nike: Just Do It.
  • What’s in your wallet?
We know these brands because their taglines are catchy, and yes, those lines are certainly part of each company’s brand. But you are not a product, your brand is something different. So put away thoughts of turning yourself into a catch phrase.

The second thing most people start to think about when hearing the term “personal brand” is creating their online identity, such as their LinkedIn profile, their social media accounts and possibly their own website. While having a digital footprint is important to your brand, it is not everything. In fact, it is not even the most important thing. On the one hand, all of these things can help create your brand. However, if they are not built on the right foundation they can also just be showy pieces of fluff.

There is something you need to start doing first, before you worry about building an online profile. This is the thing you can start doing as soon as you have finished reading this article, and it is the thing that will be your professional foundation: You need to start being helpful.

That’s it. Sounds simple, right? Well, it is and it isn’t. You see the first thing about building a brand is forgetting about you and focusing on others. Start being a person of service and you’ll start building a brand. It doesn’t happen overnight; it takes time and consistent effort, but in the long run you’ll become known as a go-to person in your field. You’ll be the person people seek out for advice, a word of encouragement, or simply a sympathetic ear.

You don’t need to be an expert, you don’t need to have all the answers. What you do need to be is sincere. Then, if you are genuinely seen as the helpful one in the room, you can create an online identity to match. You do not have to be flashy or look like the celebrity of your profession. You just need to be honest about your own strengths and weaknesses. Show yourself trying to improve and honestly caring about other people’s struggles as well.

Offer advice
Be of service

That is what creating a personal brand is all about.

When writing a resume simplicity is key

When reviewing people’s resumes I have seen the same issue come up a lot lately. There is simply too much there- long narrative descriptions, endless lists, timelines that go back too long. For the past 5+ years there has been a trend away from this style of resume and towards something else, so to me, as an executive resume writer this fees like old hat. Then I remind myself that five years ago, today’s jobseekers were happily employed and not thinking about recent job-seeking trends. In other words five years ago might as well have been yesterday to them.

The trend is simplicity. You can see it everywhere. It started with a minimalist movement that had people clean sweeping their homes to achieve a less cluttered look, and achieve a little peace along the way. But as with all newer movements some people took it too far. Then you had the extreme minimalist on the web who would strive to cut their personal possessions down to 100 items. (Fine if you’re a world traveling 23 year-old, not so much if you’re a 40-year old with a family.)

But the trend has reached that level of equilibrium where it is not a fad any longer but a part of our culture. Nowadays you can even see it on magazine covers and web site design. Simple clean looks without a lot of excess words. Pages that are not afraid of white space because they direct people’s diminishing attention spans to one or two key ideas and count on the power of those ideas to keep the reader coming back for more.

So what does this have to do with your job search? Everything. From your resume to your cover letter to you LinkedIn profile, simplicity is the key. Don’t say with a sentence what you can say with a few words. Don’t try to be all things to all people, just be the person who can do the one job you are applying to. Don’t let your documents be afraid of white space. Make them short and to the point- something that can easily be scanned in a few seconds, as that is all the time most first readers are going to give you anyway.

What does this look like in practice? Here are a few pointers for the resume, which is the foundation for all your other career documents.

Keep it to 2 pages, 1 page is even better
No text blocks should be longer than 3 lines
No list should have more than 5 bullets
Nothing should be listed prior to the year 2000
Strive for brevity in all of your wording, placing an emphasis on numbers

Now before I get angry emails or start a comment war- yes, of course rules are meant to be broken and sometimes the above recommendations should be ignored. But if you keep them in the back of your mind as guiding principles you are going to end up with a document that is more in line with the simplicity trend than not.

Remember, fewer words doesn’t mean a less powerful message. It just means the words used carry more weight.

Don’t worry, do this instead: Jobseeker Edition

If you are out of work, or underemployed, then it feels like there is a lot to worry about. Looking for work is hard. Growing your network is hard. Supporting a family is hard. It is easy to let worry take over. But if you let it, worry can also defeat you.

I can’t take all the stress away from the process of job searching, but I can tell you that these are 3 common worries that you can let go of.

Worry one: How will I find a recruiter?
This is an easy one, you won’t. Not really. It is a common job searcher myth that if you can find a recruiter then they will find you a job and all your problems are over. However, this isn’t how it works today. Recruiters do not work for job seekers. They work for companies that hire them to fill specific positions, and they only get paid if the position is filled. So all of their time is spent searching for a very specific kind of candidate. If that’s you, great, but more often than not the recruiter will simply take your info and disappear. So stop worrying about finding the perfect recruiter; he doesn’t exist.

Do this instead: Spend the time you wanted to devote to finding a recruiter to instead research 3-4 target companies you want to work for. Try to connect via social media with someone with hiring power. Interact. Make a positive impression. Then when you apply for something in one of those companies you are not a completely unknown entity.

Worry two: Why isn’t anyone responding to my job board applications? What am I doing wrong?
You are not doing anything wrong. This is simply the way the game is played now. For a variety of reasons- too many for the scope of this article- HR departments are flooded with applications nowadays, more than they can realistically handle in many cases. With hundreds upon hundreds of resumes sent in for every opening many HR departments have turned to ATS programs to scan the resumes first looking for preprogrammed keywords. If a resume has these keywords then the system triggers it for review. This way probably better than 70% of resumes are weeded out never having been seen by a human being.

This is why job seekers rarely hear back. But don’t waste time worrying about it. No one is being rude or ignoring you. They are either so swamped with applications that they can not realistically respond to every one, or a machine has read your resume.

Do this instead: Network you way into the company and get your resume in front of someone with the power to move it up the chain. Circumvent the ATS by not relying on the job boards which can often be a black hole.

Worry three: It has been a month now. How long will I be out of work?
This worry is harder to dismiss, because of course everyone’s situation is different. Someone who planned well and has six months of reserve funds set aside can weather this storm much better than someone who was living pretty much paycheck to paycheck before losing their job. The time it takes to land a new job also varies by job type, with some taking weeks and others months. However, worrying about this one does not get you hired any faster.

Do this instead: Put your head down and do the work, that is the only way to make this worry go away. Know that the job search is going to take as long as it takes. If you are growing your network, tailoring your resume to each application and moving forward every day then know you are doing all you can. Don’t be afraid to make a lateral move or even a step down to get a regular paycheck coming in. There is nothing that says you can’t continue your search, and this way you’ll be searching from a position of strength. Another benefit of searching while employed, even if it is a step down, is that you can now take the time to build your network to get even better opportunities.

I’ve been reading up a lot on Stoic philosophy lately so I’ll leave you with two quote if taken together can do a lot towards putting worry in the right perspective.

“He suffers more than necessary, who suffers before it is necessary” – Seneca

“Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens” – Epictetus

Career as Craft

When I think of the image of a craftsman I think of an older guy in a cluttered studio. He is wearing well-worn overalls and a rough chambray shirt. The air is thick with saw dust and he is working with a chisel to put the finishing touches on an intricate piece of furniture- the swiveled legs of a chair, the inlay on a table side, or maybe a decorative flourish on a cabinet front.

The feel of my mental image is one part shop class, one part Santa’s workshop. But the overpowering impression is one of a person dedicated to the perfection of his craft. Even the tiniest details are wrought with a loving care.

There is something very appealing about this image of the craftsman. The simplicity of purpose, the dedication to quality and the satisfaction of a job done well all appeal to my inner worker. Sadly, as my wife will attest, I can barely nail in a picture hook to hang a frame straight. Any dreams I had of being this romanticized ideal of a woodcraftsman died in 8th grade shop class when my bookshelf came with a 10 degree slant.

But why can’t I apply the ethic of the craftsman to my own work? As a writer, why can’t I also have a simplicity of purpose, a dedication to quality and feel the satisfaction of a job well done. The answer is: I can. And so can you.

Thinking of our work as a craft gives it an almost sacred quality that allows us to more easily transcend the day-to-day grind of the job and see its inner significance. Granted, it may take some effort to conjure up this feel and view of our jobs, but I think with practice it is doable. At the very least it would foster a greater appreciate and self-respect in regards to what we spend our days doing. At most it will inspire us to perform at our best, take pride in our products and simply be better at whatever it is we do.

So how do we do this? What concrete steps can we take? 3 things immediately spring to mind: location, tools, attention.

Location. This is your workshop. Whether it is in a cubicle, a car, an office or a kitchen, the space where you work is your personal studio. Treat it like one. Take a cue from the chef’s world an create a mise en place, a french term for “everything in its place”. It refers to the set up required before cooking, and is often used in professional kitchens to refer to organizing and arranging the ingredients. Set up your work space intentionally so that your day can move smoothly from one task to the next.

Tools. As a writer my tools are paper, pens, notebooks and laptops. My fantasy wood-craftsman would not use a cheap and flimsy hand saw purchased from Walmart (no offense Walmart, half of my house is filled with your items!). He would have a high quality tool, perhaps one that had been passed down from his father. He would treat it with respect, cleaning and oiling the blade to keep it ready to use.

So maybe I shouldn’t use the $1.50 a dozen throw-away pens and $.50 spiral notebook. Maybe I can skip a night of take-out and put that money into a nice moleskin and a quality erasable gel pen. It isn’t that these tools will magically make me a better writer, but they will tell my subconscious that I am respecting my craft. It is all about attitude.

Attention. This is something that is easy to get sloppy with. When we do the same type of thing day after day it becomes easy to have times where we just mail it in. Not every article I write has to be Pulitzer Prize worthy. Not every client call you make has to be injected with warmth and humor. But our imaginary craftsman does have to make every chair perfectly, because he realizes that each chair he makes is for a unique person who will only have the experience of this one chair to judge his work. And if we look at our work that way it really isn’t any different for us. This may be the only article of mine you every come across. Shouldn’t I treat it with just as much time and care as I would a prize worthy investigative article?

With a little practice maybe we can all be craftsman.