The Competitive Edge

At the risk of sounding like a crusty old crank – and let’s face it, it’s a descriptor that isn’t all too far off some days- the generations younger than me are getting more and more entitled.  Perhaps it is that they are the output of helicopter parents who structured every minute of their time (unlike my upbringing, which was of the “free range” variety), but I worry about our future knowing this is who we are relying on to care of us as we age.  I’m terrified, actually.

I’ve been watching the workforce get younger and younger over the years, while impressively I seem to remain the same age.  Funny how that happens.  I’m forced to contend with the fact that I have to hire, train, lead, inspire and develop this younger crowd.  It’s no small task, and there are days I wonder how I will manage to pull it off.

I would estimate that in my 24 years in the adult workforce, I have probably interviewed no less than a few hundred people.  Interviewing and hiring is actually my favorite thing to do, and arguably it’s what I do best.  I’ve often said – and I have sincerely meant – that the only important thing I have to do is hire well.  The rest will follow, and I know this because it’s been proven time and time again.  And so when I am in the midst of a search, which is honestly almost always, I take it very seriously.

Part of my strategy in hiring is to simplify what I am looking for.  That is not to say that I will simply accept anyone – quite the contrary, actually.  Anyone who knows me knows that I am famous for quipping that “I only hire stars.”  But how do you find a star, a proverbial diamond in the rough?  You find them by knowing exactly what matters.  And for me, I really only care about two qualities for any key candidate:  a positive attitude and an ability to learn.  That’s right, kids.  Yes, you have to have the right qualifications to get in the door.  But more letters behind your names or rings in your tree trunk won’t get you far with me.  Because truthfully, once we get you in the door we can teach you anything.  Almost anything, that is.  We can’t teach you how to have a good attitude or a desire to learn.

What I’ve noticed over the years, however, is a complacency -an entitlement I want to call it – that is disconcerting.  It’s as if no one really cares.  If I bring you in for an interview, I want you to treat it like it’s a big deal.  It’s like going on a blind date.  You are checking me out, and I am doing the same to you.  We have to establish if we could have a good thing going, if we should take this to the next level.

So now’s the part where you should sit up straight and listen.  Because it’s everyone’s favorite part – the part where I dispense unsolicited advice.  If you want a competitive edge in your job search, you don’t even have to work that hard.  This because no one is working hard.  So to stand out, you just have to be a little better than the rest.  My advice is this:  Dress one step above what you would wear to the job.  Show up five to ten minutes early.  Be polite to the receptionist.  Silence your cell phone.  Bring a folder with clear, crisp, perfectly formatted and spell-checked copies of your resume and your reference list.  Read the company website ahead of time and interject questions about company initiatives in the interview.  Come with a list of your own questions and make sure they aren’t just about things that are self-serving.  Be bold, but not arrogant, in selling yourself.  And, here is the one thing that will set you apart from almost everyone:  Send a thank you note within one day of the interview to everyone who was part of your interview process. I swear, give me a hand written note that makes me feel like it is your goal to be part of my team, and I’m practically a puddle. Because it almost never happens.

Now I’m guessing you just read all of my unsolicited advice, and you thought to yourself, “Well, duh.”  Well guess what?  Hardly anybody does all those things.  Remember that every decision you make in the interview process – which really isn’t that big of an investment of your time – is an opportunity to impress, or not.  Don’t be the girl that showed up to an interview with me with half (and only half) of her nail polish picked off.  I took one look at her and knew she was not of the star quality I was looking for.  It would have taken her one minute to clean up those nails with some polish remover and make them uniform and neat.  But when I saw the mish-mash of a mess on her hands – which was the only thing I could see –  I thought she either doesn’t care if the gets the job, or she’s so lacking in attention to detail she might not know the difference between Zantac and Xanax.  Next!

And believe it or not, that’s really how it happens.  You get one chance to make a first impression, and a whole series of chances after that to get it all right.  It’s all up to you.


Using your Inner Dimmer Switch

The older I get, the less I am sure I know.  But there are a few things that I feel I know for sure, and one of them is this:  There are a whole lot of insecure people in this world.  Truth be told, they’re everywhere.  Sometimes they’re disguised as the arrogant; other times the woefully kind.  I heard recently that you can assume everyone you know is walking around with a broken heart, and I thought that was a good reminder.  It’s probably good to remember that everyone is walking around with a backpack full of insecurities, too.

Why is it important to remember this?  While I don’t think it’s our job to accommodate the insecurities of those around us, it might be nice to help people work through them when we can.  It’s one of the reasons I’ve made a commitment to highlighting the strengths in other people whenever I can.  Could I do a better job?  I surely could.  But I’m willing to bet that I give out sincere praise and admiration more often than most – even when I feel jealous of the other person’s success.  I think such small gestures have the potential to have a grand impact.

Truthfully, though, we are mostly responsible for keeping ourselves in tact.  We can’t rely on others to build us up, and I’d argue because of those insecurities lurking around in the subconscious of every fearful heart – you can almost count on the opposite.  People who are unsure of themselves and their place in the world often don’t hesitate to undermine somebody else or tear them down.  Because let’s face it, it’s a whole lot easier to bring someone down to your level than raise yourself up to theirs.

So one thing I find myself doing – and truthfully I’m not sure how I feel about it – is making good use of my dimmer switch.  I’m a keen observer of those around me.  Understanding what makes people tick is my life’s work, after all.  I can detect the insecure in almost any venue and any form they appear.  When that happens, I find that don’t hesitate to reach behind me and ever so discreetly turn the knob to my dimmer switch a little to the left.  No need to let my light shine too bright in their presence.  No good can come of that.

At the end of the day, I’m left feeling unsure.  Am I selling myself short or being smart?  You be the judge.

The Red Blinking Light

voicemail-messagesI don’t remember precisely when it happened, but at some point in my adult life I started hating the phone.  It probably happened when other, less intrusive options became viable ways of communicating.  There are days where my phone’s usefulness is reduced to being a glorified clock and occasional calculator. People who know me well, know this. They know their best bet if they really want to get ahold of me is to text or send an instant message.  But for those who don’t understand this about me, or are unwilling to accommodate it, I fear it’s become a social impediment.  This strangeness about me has exceeded being cute or quirky.  It’s getting in the way of my life and at times my relationships, and while I generally care very much about the happiness of others, in this case I don’t much care to do a thing about it.

If I’m being honest, I know I have a professional fault or two.  Or three or maybe even four.  And one that I’ve tried to remedy for years is my responsiveness to voicemails.  I’ve even made it a professional New Year’s resolution for several years running.  I will be the first to admit, I find almost nothing more rewarding than several hours away from my desk, only to return to the absence of the red blinking light on my desk phone.  Perhaps I love this feeling because it’s so rare.  But I really think I love it because it equates freedom.  No one needs me.  Everyone is all right. Thank God.

I’ve joked for years that I hate voicemail and the red blinking light that represents it for one simple reason:  It never indicates there is good news on the way.  Oh, contraire.  The red blinking light means someone is unhappy, or has an impossible problem they think only I can solve, or the world is about to end.  I can’t think of a single time someone called to say I just wanted to say what a great job you are doing, or the funniest thing happened today and it made me think of you, or has anyone ever told you that you smell like cinnamon toast, in a good way?  No one has ever done that.  Now that I think about it, they should.

So much like all things unpleasant, I’ve categorized listening to voicemail with the likes of emptying the dishwasher, cleaning the litter box, or going to the dentist.  That is to say, I’ll typically avoid it for as long as I reasonably can.  If it’s on my personal phone, I’ll call you back before I listen to the rambling voicemail you left.  (Yes, I am one of those people.)  If it is on my work phone, I’ll glare at the red blinking light, sigh, pick up the receiver, hold my breath, and cringe when the automated system barks at me in it usual judgy tone:  You have 12 unheard messages.  To play your messages, press 2.  

Ack.  That’s twelve things I will probably wish I didn’t have to know.

The Grace of Acceptance

A co-worker sent me an email, short and succinct:  “It seems like your job has been really hard lately.  I put two cans of your favorite soda in the fridge by your office.  It’s not much, but I hope it makes things better.”  I read the email and felt an instant sense of validation wash over me.  Someone noticed.  They noticed that things had been hard – they had been – and they made a small, sweet (literally and figuratively) gesture to right my world that was currently dotted with wrongs.

Later that afternoon, I took a break from my string of impossible problems to solve and popped open an ice cold can of caffeinated, carbonated Sweet Nectar of the Gods.  For the second time in a day, I reflected on the gesture.  I had replied to the original email thanking the person for their thoughtfulness and I meant it sincerely.  But I didn’t go over the top, I didn’t wonder why or what now or sit with any discomfort.  Rather, I just accepted.

We often think of the world as having givers and takers, and I suppose some of that is true.  And if it’s true, I want to be remembered for being on the side of the givers.  I am – I know I am – and it’s one of my most important values to be generous in spirit.  But giving is an art form, and what I think people forget or perhaps don’t understand, is that giving has an ever-present faithful companion at its side. That companion is the grace of acceptance.

To accept, no matter how small or how large the gesture, you are knowingly making yourself vulnerable to the giver.  You are saying, without really saying out loud, “I am okay with you taking care of me.”  You are acknowledging that in that moment, you just might have needs and doubts and insecurities.  But by accepting their gesture, you are giving the giver the gift of joy that can only come from helping another person.  I believe that to be truly generous – generous at every level of your being – you must also learn to gracefully receive.

I know in my heart that the person who left me two sodas in my workplace fridge has been the recipient of my kindness many times over.  It has been a kindness and a generosity of which she was most deserving.  I have no doubts that she will be the recipient of it again in the future – it’s just the nature of our relationship. But what she gave me on this day was far more than a dollar’s worth of soda.  She gave me the reminder that accepting is lovely and important, too.  For that – more than for the soda – I am grateful many times over.

No Apology Necessary

My friend had meticulously planned a party and it seemed she had attended to every possible detail.  Banners were hung, thematic cocktails were lovingly prepared, a loop revealing fun facts about the day’s event was playing over and over on TVs in several rooms.  Even the hand soap in her bathroom had been ordered online weeks prior to accommodate the theme for the gathering.  She loves hosting, and it showed.

In the kitchen, I helped her with some last minute details as the first guests were arriving.  (I was uncomfortably among the first to arrive and the last to leave – hardly a trademark I strive for, but one I embraced that day.)  I went to grab something from the fridge, and the magnetic dry erase board affixed to the front of it caught my eye.  The board was a list of items entitled “Family Meeting” and it went something like this:  1)  Healthy beverage choices; 2) Wiping; 3) Fun summer activities.

Not being able to resist, I made an inquiry about the second item on the list, and wondered aloud if this item pertained to Dad or one of the children.  We laughed as we noted the irony that this was in fact “number two” on the list.  My friend explained that her youngest child had taken a stance that wiping was optional, and said stance was “just gross.”  I told her that I loved, loved, loved that she kept the list front and center on the fridge for her meticulously planned party. She said she thought about taking it down, but then thought, “Why bother?  It is what it is.”

As I reflected on this later, I thought how much I admire this about my friend. She’s right!  Maybe we don’t all have problems with wiping (God help us if we do), but we all have something.  In fact, I would argue that we all have a whole lot of somethings.  Why we do bother trying to hide any part of ourselves from the people around us, especially those who care? My friend may not even know it, but her decision to be herself, unapologetically – to not only accept “what is” but to hang it out there for the whole world to see – is the perfect depiction of freedom.  It’s a freedom I think might look good on all of us.  Let’s try, shall we?

Wheat vs. Chaff

I once invited the owner of a company that provides interpreting services to our monthly all staff meeting.  She had come to describe the services her agency could offer and to give us pointers – etiquette tips, if you will – on the use of language interpreters.  One of her suggestions was to avoid the use of idiomatic language.  Knowing there must be some people in the room who were unfamiliar with the concept of an idiom, I asked her to supply an example.  She said, and I quote, “Oh wow, you are really putting me on the spot.  I am totally drawing a blank.” As I pointed out that her answer to me in fact contained not one but two idioms, we all laughed.  I still giggle when I think of it, because she was so sincere in that moment.  It was spontaneous and wrought with the kind of human foible that can only come from a moment of pressure.

Our language and our lives are filled with idioms – those expressions that we use that have figurative meanings that differ from the literal meanings.  I once worked with a guy who I swore only spoke in idioms.  He could chain two, three, four of them together in a sentence and at the end of it we’d have no idea what he was talking about.  “Let’s circle the wagons, put on our thinking caps and see who is doing the lion’s share of the work.”  Huh?  It was funny, too, because the more intense the situation, the worse it got.  I once quipped that his idiomatic language was a lot like herpes – it seemed to really flare up during periods of incredible stress.

So this past week was one where one of my favorite idioms kept coming to the forefront of my consciousness.  The idiom?  “Separating the wheat from the chaff.”  Stemming from a bible verse, the figurative notion behind this idiom is to separate what is valuable from what is worthless.  And there is nothing in life – nothing, I tell you – that can hasten this process like a good old fashioned crisis.

It has happened to me a few times now, and has happened once again.  It has occurred consistently, without hesitation, every single time I’ve gone through a difficult time.  It’s almost as if there is a new clarity, a magnifying glass of sorts, that appears out of nowhere.  You are on my side, you are not.  You care so deeply you will sacrifice as much as is needed, you only care when caring suits you.  You have my back, you’d rather stab it.  One by one, the people in closest proximity sort to one side or the other in record speed.

At the end of the exercise, I’m left with what I know for sure.  It’s a tragic, heart-breaking, lovely and confidence-securing thing.  But – and I say this from the depth of my heart – no matter what the cost, it is always better to know.  And what I can say I know, this time around and every time previous to it, the inventory of the wheat in my life is a robust and beautiful thing.

The Sweetest Sound

new glassesI got new glasses this week, and I can’t stop talking about them.  See them? They are extra, extra cool.  Thus, they are making me extra cool. It’s like I’ve catapulted into a whole new stratosphere.  I almost can’t stand it.

Anyway, I ordered my uber awesome specs last Saturday, and a sales person who wasn’t even helping me was ooing and aaahing and making a big deal about how amazing my glasses were.  In my head, I was like yeah, lady, I know.  It’s your job to tell me that.  But on the other hand, she had a point.  The glasses rocked the house!  Who was I to argue?

So on Tuesday when I got the call that my glasses were ready, I couldn’t wait to stop in the store on my way home from work.  I mean, who wants to delay new levels of coolness in their life?  Not me!  I was there in a jiffy.

When I walked in the store, the same sales lady – the one who wasn’t the one who helped me  – was there and she exclaimed (exclaimed, I tell you), “Jennifer!  I’ll be right with you!”  I’ll admit, I was a little surprised that she remembered my name and when she made her way to me, I told her as much.  And she said, “Of course I remember you.  You ordered those super cool purple glasses!”  (Apparently, they are the talk of the town.)

OK, so enough about the glasses.  I think I’ve made my point about them.  But what I want to say is this:  As I drove home, feeling all self-satisfied and thinking about what I could wear the next day to draw maximum attention to my newest accessory, it occurred to me that the simple act of remembering and then saying someone’s name is still one of the most validating experiences in life.  I live in a sea of Jennifers; they loom everywhere and turn up both in broad daylight and the dark, seedy corners of my life.  And yet, if you want to make me feel noticed, all you really need do is remember and say my name.  I’m going to make a point to remember that, so that I can make sure the people around me feel noticed, too.


I Would Buy Me a Coke

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “I Have Confidence in Me.”

I’ve been told that I have presence, a way of carrying myself, that exudes confidence.  I remember someone once commenting to me, “I wish I had just the amount of confidence you must have in your little pinky toe.” It’s funny to me, because I’m not sure where it came from.  I hear that, and I cringe, because the last thing I want to be is pompous or cocky, and I know it’s a fine line.  On the inside, I still feel like the seven year-old girl clinging to the back of my mom’s pant legs, frightened of my own shadow and afraid to try anything new. But  forty-some years later, I’m not that scared little girl, and it seems I’m someone very different. It’s hard to even begin to connect the dots of how I got here from there.

What I do know is that I didn’t get there on my own. If I look back across the years, I see people – the people who in time became my people.  One by one, they stepped forward and decided they were going to believe in me.  My first grade teacher who, upon hearing I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up, told me she thought I would make a wonderful teacher. The neighbor who took me under her wing, and let me hang around and admire her for reasons I don’t even know.  The uncle who decided to treat me like an adult and tell me the truth, when no one else would. The college residence life staff who thought I had what it took to lead and then showed me how.  The professional mentors – many of them – who gave me chances I hadn’t even earned, and then supported me in all kinds of ways that helped me succeed.

And so, what I know is this:  I am me – “more confidence than some people have in their pinky toe” me – because of them.  Because the difference between one who flounders and one who succeeds is a very simple difference:  the one who succeeds has someone – anyone – and maybe just one, who fiercely believes in them.

I got home a week ago after doing my very first consulting gig in Guelph, Ontario of all places.  I planned but didn’t over-plan, I took my bag of tricks, and I went in and I did my thing.  After months of questioning myself, wondering if I still had it, I got a gentle but exhilarating reminder:  As a matter of fact, I do still have it.  I’m even willing to bet that I had it all along.  I just forgot.

So there I was at 1:25 a.m., grime from the flights tarnishing my clothes, my hair, and my soul.  I felt two opposing emotions at the same time; strikingly content and still a little shaken from the adrenaline rush of the week that had just passed.  And I sat on my bed in this compromised but perfectly blissful state, eating a chicken shish kabob sandwich from the gas station/Greek diner drive through, and I thought this, for the first time in a long time:  “I like me.  I would buy me a Coke.”

And while I like myself enough to buy me  a Coke, I know who gave me the change to do it.  It was my people.

Candy Hearts

candy heartsI love those little candy hearts that come out around Valentine’s Day.  Or, Valentimes, as we like to mockingly call it among my friends and family.  The hearts, though, they are hard enough to crack a tooth, chalky, almost flavorless. There is very little that is redeeming about them.  But they are nostalgia, they are tradition, they are love.

The candy hearts have changed over the years.  I’ve admired the candy-maker’s tenacity to stay contemporary.  The taste (or lack thereof) has stayed the same, but the messages have not.  Back in my day of exchanging classroom valentines, no one would have known what “Text Me” or “LOL” even meant.  I haven’t seen this year’s candy hearts, but I would not be surprised if there are some that  make reference to SnapChat or Amazon Prime.

So another year passes and I’ve yet to find the everlasting love that I think I want, that I know I deserve.  I’m getting closer, though, I can feel it in the depths of my soul.  I’m getting closer, because I’ve made commitments to myself and I have done some hard work and I have steered the arc of my life to bend toward self-actualization, even though I’m quite sure it will never fully get there.  I’ve cleaned out the cobwebs and tidied up the debris and made room for what is yet to come.  I feel good, and I feel sure.  I like who I am and what I have to offer.  I am ready.

So my custom-made box of candy hearts would reflect exactly what I want.  I imagine the hearts would say things like this:  I’m Finally Ready. You’re Amazing. So Am I. Better Together. Order Takeout. Cuddlebug. Stay Up Late. Sleep In. Awaken My Soul. Let’s See The World. I’ll Lift You Up. Laugh Every Day. Make Me Think.  Grow Together.  And last, but not least:  Let’s Do This.

Tripping on Power

I love my job.

I’m going to say it again, because it’s been a hard week for me to consistently believe it.  I love my job.  I LOVE MY JOB.  Ilovemyjob!  Wink! Smiley face emoticon!  Love it.

Sincerely and putting all kidding aside, I love many things about my job (and in spite of the challenges, this week was no different).  I love that I have had the opportunity to hand-select some of the most talented, dedicated, passionate people in this town to be part of my illustrious dream team.  I love that the people we serve have stories that shatter my heart into a million pieces and in the next turn meld it back together with unthinkable stories of warmth.  I love that no two days are the same.  I love that every day – every single day – I will be faced with a question or a problem that I don’t yet know how to solve, and yet nearly every time I somehow find a way to know in the end.  I love that I get to lead, to research, to write, to speak publicly, to work and play alongside an incredible community of providers.  It’s a job that lets me do all the things I love to do, while at the same time requiring me to do very few of the things I don’t.

Because part of my job (one of the parts I like least) includes helping to disperse a proverbial bag of money, there is a fair amount of power that comes with it. I’ve never cared for that part, that kind of power makes me uncomfortable in my own skin.  I don’t care for power.  Power is fueled by ego and there are few who can handle it with the required levels of grace and aplomb.  I suppose like any human being I have my own moments of unbridled narcissism, but I really do try to keep those moments in check.  I don’t need power, and you know why?

I don’t need power because I’ve got something much better.  I’ve got Influence. In the Changing the World family, Power is the drunken asshole brother who dropped out of community college, drives a big over-sized truck, wears Ed Hardy T-shirts and pokes fun at everyone in a way that isn’t fun at all. Influence, on the other hand, is the quiet, soulful, thoughtful brother  who got straight A’s, quietly led the debate team to conference championship and was kind to the kids everyone else was picking on.  Influence may not command as much attention as Power, but is infinitely more effective.  That is because Influence thinks with his heart.  And when you think with your heart, you simply aren’t reckless with the hearts of others.

So following a week that was harder than most, I remind myself of this: Influence is my friend.  Every feeling of positive regard I have for the people around me.  Every belief I have that the people we serve deserve equal footing in this world.  Every bit of positive energy I have to infuse into this world of mine. It’s all propelled by influence, and that is a beautiful, wondrous thing.