Extending an Offer

When I was laid off from my job four years ago, everyone told me that it was not a reflection of my work, skills, or commitment. It was just the nature of the business.

“I know that you are not happy with what happened,” the general counsel who handled my severance said in an e-mail. “However, for what it’s worth – I want you to know that I enjoyed working with you and if you need anything, feel free to contact me and I will try to help however I can.”

I tried not to take it personally, I really did. I secretly hoped that someone would step forward and tell me that my years of service were appreciated. “We don’t want to lose you,” I imagined they would say. “We have an opening in another department we think you’d be good for.”
the corporation

But that didn’t happen. And since then, I wondered whether that kind of thing happens only in the movies.

Recently, though, I overheard a conversation between a couple of colleagues. One said that when she’d first applied to the company, she thought she was well-suited for the opening. But the company liked her so much, they made her an offer for both the job for which she’d applied and one for which she hadn’t. “We know you didn’t apply for this position, but we think you might be interested,” she recalled the HR person saying.

It was two for the price of one for my colleague. Those HR people recognized in this colleague some skills badly needed, which, of course, is as it should be. But more than that, they took the initiative to extend an offer that she hadn’t known was there. I guess the key is having the skills, and making sure that others know you have the skills, that are in need at that time.

So this really does happen. It just didn’t happen to me.

I personally know of at least five people, in addition to me, who were laid off and subsequently rehired by the same company. If you consider the payouts for severance and the subsequent costs to publicize the position and reintegrate the workers into the corporation, it seems like an inefficient process. I’m not sure who benefits from this. I certainly didn’t.

Stay At Home

As much as I like the idea of becoming an unconventionally employed, stay-at-home dad, I get to wondering what impression I would be giving to my kids.

“What does your dad do?” they would be asked.

“He does a lot of gardening, and laundry,” they would say. “Sometimes he plays his guitar.”

“No, I mean, for a living,” the questioner would say.

“????”

We’re told that work is a thing you do, not a place you go – a common saying of telecommuters and the tech industry. Right?Trust me.

But part of being a parent is being a model for your kids to learn from, for better or for worse. They get their impressions of being an adult based on what they see the grownups in their life doing. If I took on the role of primary householder, what model does that present, especially to my son? Would it show the benefits of an unconventional life or demonstrate that dad is a slacker?

A lot hinges on semantics: what do we mean by “do”?  When people say “what do you do?” they really mean “what activity do you perform for which you make money.”  For some people, the answer to that question is obvious and clear: “I’m a doctor” or “I’m a lawyer.”

For many others, however, what they “do” and what they want to be doing are very different, and answering the question can be much more complicated. “I serve coffee, but I’m really a musician,” for instance. Or the job has no recognizable label: “I key summaries of government activity into a database so that others can search and retrieve the information based on topic or stage of government action.”  It does not roll of the tongue easily, or have the same cachet as “I’m a reporter.”

My kids are already at a disadvantage because they don’t really know what I do.  I leave for work every weekday and come home in the evening, presumably having done something valuable in that time. It is hard for me to explain it to them because what I do is very academic and very derivative, and it takes place out of their view and field of experience (more on that another time).

Back during my involuntary hiatus in employment, I was telling a neighbor about how my job search was not going well.  I had hoped to use the situation to find an ideal new job but was close to settling for any job offer that came across my desk. “As long as it’s not soul-sucking,” was his advice.  And he is right, of course, but sometimes you have a trade away your soul because you’ve been left with no choice.  Forget about gaining phenomenal guitar-playing prowess. These days it is enough just to keep the roof over your head.

In this age of declining prospects for employment for the next generations, I see two alternatives.  One is that we continue with the current model for education and career and hope to God that it is not your kid that ends up on unemployment.  That requires a lot of blind faith and wishful thinking.

The other is that we redefine the concepts of employment, career, and what people “do”.  If we did that, we must infuse these concepts with personal passion and social goals.  We must be more liberal about labels and pigeonholes, and what is deemed “okay” for one’s life pursuit. If a kid wants to be a “rock and roll education reform administrator” instead of “lawyer”, we should not just think it is fine; we should encourage that choice and support it unreservedly.

I think I’m too stuck in the old industrial model of dad-commutes-to-work, dad-brings-home-the-bacon for there to be any hope for me.  But I hope my kids can find not a career in the conventional sense but a life’s work. And if that means staying at home, let it be so.

Finding My Way Along the Career Path

“Why don’t you go to any professional development seminars?” my boss asked me once. She wasn’t just my supervisor; she was the division head. Since our division was relatively small, I had frequent interaction with her. Rarely did she ask such a pointed question.

I mumbled some reply and moved on to another subject. But it was a valid question. I had done little in the way of career development training and it left me with a vague feeling of dissatisfaction. And now I know why.

I didn’t know what career I was in.

Back in 1994, I joined a journalism organization with the intention of becoming an environmental journalist. Think Bill McKibben. I started as a researcher but figured that, before too long, I would be able to move up to more prominent writing positions. Years went by, however, and I ended up not doing much journalism. I am partly to blame for that because I was, I now realize, ambivalent about journalism in general.

In college, I worked on my student newspaper but never took a journalism class. After graduation, I tried to write for newspapers, but never applied for a staff position. Writing held an allure for me, but pursuing journalism for its own sake–all that interviewing and beat reporting–did not spark my interest.
23

After college, I saw two paths to where I wanted to go. One was that of the environmentalist who was also a writer. The other was the journalist who specialized in the environment. I preferred the former but left myself open to the latter if the right opportunity presented itself.

I once asked an editor whether he was looking for the environmentalist writer or the specialized journalist. “Journalist,” was his answer. I was dismayed because I did not believe that journalism was the only path to being an effective writer.

In the area of nature and the environment, some of the nonfiction writers who I admire the most–Annie Dillard, David Gessner, John McPhee–do not consider themselves journalists at all.* And in spite of that–or because of that–I feel they have contributed the most to the conversation. Not needing to fit into the constraints imposed by modern-day journalism, they are free to push the boundaries.

Journalists appear to believe that they have exclusive access to the facts, and that writers who are not journalists are sloppy or unable to grasp the story. Journalists act as members of a club–the Fourth Estate and all that–and consider writers to be wannabes lingering around the fringe. (Writer Joan Didion refers to “the contempt for outsiders” in her article about journalists and the political types they report on.) Needless to say, I disagree.

To many people, the terms “journalist” and “writer” are interchangeable, which is not surprising since the majority of the current generation of writers came up through the ranks of journalists. But it’s worth asking whether that was just a historical coincidence. Today, when news is published on what one writer calls “the vaguely Soviet-seeming syndication-fed news pages,” journalism and real writing seem to be drifting further and further apart.

Frankly, journalism as a career path for a young writer is dying. The website CareerCast, in its annual Jobs Rated report, lists newspaper reporter as the number one worst job in America in 2013. “The opportunity to climb the [career] ladder disappeared,” says one reporter who was interviewed. Furthermore, according to one recent poll, only 28 percent of the public think of journalists as contributing a lot to society’s well being. This does not make for an enticing career choice.

The writing I’m interested in is less about a recitation of the facts than the finding of greater truths. To do that, writing must have a strong voice and an informed point of view. Journalistic objectivity doesn’t allow for either of those.

Gould

I’m no longer afraid to make known my lack of journalistic ambition. Journalism is not my career, and being around journalists day after day has not provided the professional development that one would expect from over 15 years on the job. I’m not entirely sure where I’m headed, but I’m sure of one path to avoid.

*McPhee, in a piece in the July 2, 2012, issue of The New Yorker, refers to himself as a “writer of long fact” and that he teaches “factual writing.” Another writer who I deeply admire, William Langewiesche, studied anthropology in college and “does not want to be viewed as a straight news reporter” according to one interview.

 [Do you think you might be in the wrong career? Take The Glenn O’Neill Test and see.]

It’s Time For a Revision: An Addendum

In any given situation, behavior can be at odds with one’s feelings about the situation. In such cases, people become discontent and seek ways to make their behavior and feelings consistent with each other. The condition–known in psychology as “cognitive dissonance”–is solved by either changing one’s behavior or changing one’s attitude towards it. Frequently, the chosen response is to adjust one’s attitude rather than trying to change one’s circumstances.

People have cognitive dissonance in connection with a great many things because, sadly, things are not always as we wish them to be.  We rationalize and make excuses, always hoping that if we keep re-framing, we can set things right. But many times, the situation is what is wrong, so that is what must change.
the Door

Recently, I came to realize that I’ve had cognitive dissonance  in regard to my career, and decided that it was time to do something about it.

Yet I have continued to wonder why it has taken me this long to seek out alternatives, and I think that maybe I’ve found an answer. A classic psychological study demonstrated that the more invested one feels in a situation, the less likely one is to abandon it and the more likely one is to try to change one’s attitude to fit. Such efforts to relieve the cognitive dissonance are not always successful. “It’s worthwhile, and a bit alarming, to ask how many…projects we fail to abandon – bad jobs, bad marriages, bad wars – because we think we’ve invested too much to turn back,” notes Oliver Burkeman, who writes about social psychology for The Guardian.

I’ve spent more than 15 years pursuing a career that I thought would bring the satisfaction of making a difference in the world. It hasn’t, and no amount of attitude adjustment is going to make it so. I had thought I’d invested too much to turn back, but my lay-off forced me to confront the absurdity of sticking with it. I see that clearly now.

I can close the door on this stage of my life. I’m ready to open a new one.

It’s Time For a Revision

 

A Manifesto

I’m tired and I want out.

Until recently, I was pretty sure I was in my choice of career, acquiring the knowledge and skills that would allow me to be a purposeful part of society. But perhaps the traditional career is not my cup of tea after all. Instead, perhaps I need to reexamine what set me on this path in the first place, and redirect my efforts into work that is more personally rewarding.

When I lost my job in 2009, I basically panicked. I have a wife, two kids, and a mortgage. I had to do something. Unfortunately, this obscured my ability to see any alternative opportunity. Like a drowning man, I lost hold of any rational view of the best course of action. I ended up being re-hired by the same company, doing work related to my former position.

Revision camp
As the panic has subsided, I am able to look at my assumptions. One is that I wanted a traditional career, the conventional man-as-breadwinner model.  It seemed a reasonable assumption, being the best way to make my mark in life and provide for myself and my family. However, I’ve realized that when my job was eliminated, the idea of my career had been eliminated too.

This has not been an easy realization for me. I wrote an essay that was published elsewhere about my conflicted feelings concerning my career, or lack thereof. (I was given a pseudonym by the publisher as protection from potential career damage.) I said there that for many people, and men especially, the career goes to define the adult self. Without the recognition that a career brings—amongst peers, colleagues, and maybe also the public—life lacks direction.

Now I’m seeing that I committed career suicide a long time ago–I just didn’t know it.

Honestly, though, I’ve never had a clear vision of my course in life. I’ve flip-flopped many times, with few consistent threads to hold it together. But I had a dream, an ephemeral idea of who I saw myself as. Essentially, it involved being an effective part of finding a solution to what I saw as the critical issue of my generation—the environment. And it involved doing so in a creative fashion, most likely writing.

But my dream had some flaws. Specifically, my pursuit of a career has been misguided in regard to corporate life generally and specifically work on environmental issues. Neither has been as satisfying or successful as I had hoped. I thought that, given enough time, the personal rewards would come, but it just hasn’t happened.

Time to set a new course.

A writer friend of mine once pointed out that the word “revision” actually is “re-vision”, as in “to see again.” Recently, I’ve come to see that my life, post lay-off, will require a revision.

But long-standing points of view do not change overnight. And I see, with the help of some time and distance, that my insistence on sticking to the corporate comforts and the environmental path was blinding me to other possibilities.

This means that I need to stop clinging to what I think I ought to be doing. Says writer Amy Gutman, “The more wedded we are to a specific outcome—the more we narrow our sights—the harder it may be to craft a fulfilling life with the materials at hand.”

Changing entrenched habits requires new methods. To borrow from the “tactical urbanism” lexicon, I need to take a deliberate, but phased, approach to change, making short-term commitments and keeping my expectations realistic. In other words, I need to make a choice, set small goals, stick to it, and take baby steps.

Furthermore, I need to see the problem in its component parts. Only then can I eliminate what is unnecessary and cast off the extraneous. What remains is what I need to live.

Thoreau wrote “I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely.”

A vision is forming, and I think I see a way. I’m letting go of the dream…to find a new one.

Note: See also the addendum to this post.