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Follow the Signs

15 Feb
Old lady

Old lady

As I have spent the last few weeks considering what it means to do satisfying work, I have noticed signs everywhere that seem to be pointing me in this direction. A dear friend posted the photo above on Facebook. I’ll repost the text below just in case it’s not legible from the picture:

Some day you may be as old as I am. Take my advice, and don’t waste your short life. Invest your youthful vitality in your art. Share the best of your spirit with the world. Your body will die, but you cannot die. So, don’t worry about petty things like bodies, money and possessions. They pass with the body and are meaningless. Don’t worry what anyone thinks of you. Don’t seek approval, except from yourself. Your art and ideas are signs of your spirit. Your beauty endures forever, as do you.

I’ve been back at work from the Christmas holidays (remember them?) for a month and a half, but I’ve still had a difficult time adjusting. I don’t know what happened in between December and January, but I have found it difficult to do the work. During my first four months at my new job, I dove in with enthusiasm. But recently, it’s been a struggle to get through the workday. Don’t get me wrong, I still do my job the best I can, and work as hard as I can, but I often find myself thinking, how can I spend day after day nose deep in Excel spreadsheets? I alternate between liking the work and not. But unfortunately, the days of not liking it are adding up.

I always identify as a creative person in a non-creative line of work. My best friends are creative (my closest friend in San Francisco is a writer). I tend to fall for men in creative professions (artists in particular). I acted from elementary school through college, enjoying it as a pastime but never as a serious way to make a living. I always enjoyed writing as a child. When I think back on what has been a constant in my life, writing and reading are the biggest ones. I have always been a voracious reader, and when I was little, I fearlessly thought, “I can do that”. I wrote my own stories based on The Babysitters Club (this is before fan fiction was a thing). But the older you get, the more you talk yourself out of these things. You learn to apply your interest in language into a career that allows you to live independently as a woman in the city. My current field, digital advertising, has allowed me to live comfortably first in San Francisco and now Mexico City. I am respected and known in my field, and I appreciate that aspect of my career. It’s one of those things one is not supposed to say out loud, but recognition is an important aspect of one’s professional life. It’s why people like me who have some ambition choose to pursue demanding careers and eschew helping careers like teaching.

But I’m rethinking it all. I’m rethinking what’s important. How can I work at a job where I feel that my true talents and interests are not being used? What’s it for, to watch the clock for 40+ hours a week only to come home to a nice apartment on evenings and weekends? I want to do work from Monday through Friday that fulfills me. Is it possible to do that without taking a vow of poverty? How does this vague desire to find a more fulfilling profession translate into concrete action?

I think it’s entirely possible that I could reread this post in a year and roll my eyes, at how naive it all was. Or, another result is possible. I could reread this post in a year and realize that I was onto something. That it was right for me to listen to my instincts.

One of those other signs I saw recently? Another good friend posted this song by Sade that I had never heard before. It’s all about making a living while not being an office drone. We weren’t born to sit immobile all day manipulating data points and formatting cells. Sade knows that. The old lady above knows that. And deep down, I know it too.

Prolonged Adolescence in Silicon Valley

9 May
Stats on Mexican Facebook users

Stats on Mexican Facebook users

Yesterday, through sheer luck and twist of fate, I ended up having lunch at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, followed by a quick tour of the ‘campus’. Strolling through the central plaza of the campus, where young people in cutoff shorts were eating ice cream cones, riding bikes, and eating at cafeterias stocked with a salad bar, pizza, and sandwiches, I was transported to my freshman year at UC Santa Cruz, which looked and felt eerily similar (even the music playing in the cafeteria, such as Incubus and Third Eye Blind, was right out of my freshman year). As a mere thirty three year old, I normally don’t feel old. I stride comfortably between the carefree abandon of the 20’s and the sweet responsibility of family and career that many experience in their thirties. And yet I was torn while walking the Facebook campus yesterday, between yearning to work in such a carefree place and being a bit put off by a such a place. A publicly traded company that does everything in its power to keep its twenty something employees in a state of prolonged adolescence?

I couldn’t help thinking of the broader connection to bro culture and the infamous Peter Pan syndrome of many San Francisco men. They are able to live a life of little responsibility, having fun all the time and never committing to a community, a home, a woman, a career. And again, I’m torn. I don’t deny that it’s an appealing lifestyle. But it’s essentially a prolonged adolescence, a state of arrested development. It ultimately bothers me because at some point in life, we must grow up. College is awesome, from ages 18 to 22, but do I really want to relive that lifestyle as a woman in her thirties? No. I am free from the responsibilities of family, as I am unmarried with no children, but I do feel a sense of responsibility to myself and my community. I realize there is more to life than having fun (though having fun and enjoying oneself is important). Serving others, being a good daughter, sister, friend, girlfriend, using one’s talents for good. I think these things are the hallmark of maturity. And because I’ve wanted to be a grownup since I was about 5 years old, I look on at the extreme youth culture of Silicon Valley with some bemusement. I mostly think, grow up kids.

Having said all that, Facebook, if you ever want to hire me, give me a call!

How to Decimate Company Morale

29 Apr

Today, a beloved work colleague quit. It was somewhat surprising, and would have been alarming had it been the only employee defection of the month. Or the week. But last week two employees also quit, one right after the other. At a company of 13 people, to lose 3 in one week is hard. And yet, I am sadly not suprised at the departures of my friends.

When I was a kid I would sit in class and observe my teachers, evaluating their performance and thinking, “When I become a teacher I am NOT doing that!” I now observe how my employer manages me and my colleagues and I make similar observations. How would I be if I owned my own company? How would I incentivize employees to succeed, how would I punish sluggish results and reward good performance? I think about how I would approach all of these things as an employer and business owner, and I realize that all of my answers contradict my employer’s. Would I reward salespeople who met and exceeded sales goals by reducing their commissions and micromanaging them, insisting on a number of calls made per day that rivals those made by telemarketers? No. I would give my salespeople the room they need to succeed and take a consultative, rather than micromanaging, approach to supervising them.

Would I invest money in furthering employee training, in marketing my company to the industry, in ensuring that our product offering remains relevant to our industry and clients? Absolutely. I would understand that it is either evolve or perish in this unforgiving marketplace. I would also offer employees a means towards advancing within the organization. One employee who left last week had an entry-level position with no opportunity for advancement. It shouldn’t be puzzling why she left after years of grunt work. It would have been puzzling had she stayed in this dead-end job. But she has left for a larger company that has provided her an opportunity for career growth. She is young, bright and ambitious, and our company’s loss is this other company’s gain.

As salespeople leave, they will join our competitors, and all of our time and money spent training them will have been for naught. A successful salesperson who was fired last fall is now selling up a storm for one of our main competitors. I fear that this pattern will continue, and our sales will be impacted (I believe they already have been). It is odd to see these changes in the company and not say anything. Which is why I am moved to write this here. I spoke with our CEO last December about flagging morale, and he shrugged off my concerns. I am afraid that at this point, losing one third of the company in one week will make him reevaluate the importance of morale. Because seeing my colleagues flee makes me less inclined to stay (and I suspect I am not the only one who feels this way). It has been a textbook case in how to decimate company morale.

Working with Millennials

29 Sep
World's best entry level employee

World’s best entry level employee

I work with several millennials, and one of them recently shared this Wall Stree Journal article with me. “Older Workers Should Think Young”, it urges. I really don’t know why she shared it with me, because as I read it all I could think was, these young brats need to stop thinking so highly of themselves and learn to listen to their elders.

I have read that millennials are considered to be those between the ages of 18 and 34. Well, I don’t know who came up with this estimate, but I am 32, and I definitely don’t consider myself a millennial. I feel closer to the generation known as Generation X, the kids of the Baby Boomers (my parents boomed late). And the reason why I don’t relate to millennials is that I remember a time before the internet. It’s as simple as that. But I think that there are some characteristics of the Millennial generation that set them apart. Thinking that the world revolves around them is one.

This is the generation that records every waking thought and perception with Instagram, Snapchat, iChat, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and whichever social network will come to replace them. For me social networking is about community and sharing; for the young twenty somethings it’s about me me me. So how does this relate back to the topic of working with millenniala? The WSJ article states that older workers need to learn from the twenty something millennials who surround them at work. Let their hair down, so to speak. But to presume that older, experienced workers need to learn from their colleagues with zero experience is rather arrogant. Yes, maybe older workers aren’t fluent in social media, but I respect professionals with experience, especially those who have managed to make themselves successful and relevant in this age of youth-obsessed work culture. If an older worker is still around at your place of work, don’t presume to know better than them. Listen to older colleagues, and you may learn a thing or two.  Yes, I believe listening to older people can be beneficial. I guess I really am not a millennial after all.

In Defense of a Humanities Major

8 Apr
English major

English major

STEM careers seem to be all the rage. When we read about China’s ascendance on the world stage and America’s fall as a world power, we often read about our lack of college graduates in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  It is true that many of the cerebral muscle powering innovation in Silicon Valley comes from abroad, and I have been told by friends in these fields that there is indeed a lack of preparation by American college grads to work in these fields. But does this have to come at the expense of preparing young people in the humanities, arts, and social sciences? To some, the answer is yes.

After reading Michelle Singletary’s recent Washington Post column, “Not all college majors are created equal”, I had to respond. This recession has been hard on everyone, and I have had discussions with friends about this very topic: namely, do we regret majoring in something like history, geography, Spanish, visual art? Do we even think college is necessary in this day and age when so much is being replaced by apps and outsourcing? It is a precarious time in which to be a college graduate, when a degree does not lead instantly to a job and 401K. A major in engineering may be a sure bet in this climate- it instantly leads to a high-paying job, whereas a degree in psychology or sociology may not. But I think it is worth looking at what a college education is for when looking at the value of one major against another.

As a literature major, I know that I will rarely need to cite my senior thesis on how two Caribbean poets reconciled politics in their work, while a lab biologist will have to use her knowledge of chemistry every day in the lab. But in addition to learning certain facts and figures within our chosen field of study, we should walk away from college, regardless of major, armed with the knowledge of how to think and solve a problem. Biology majors apply the scientific method to the study of the natural world. Hypothesis, experiment, recalibrate, repeat. Psychology majors use the methods of the social sciences to set up studies of human behavior, constantly refining their findings in light of new evidence. And us literature majors? Ideally, we learn to read critically and write clearly. As a professor of mine from graduate school stated simply, “Clear writing comes from clear thinking” (naturally he never read some of the literary theorists I read in college). And as a family friend who is a successful defense lawyer said recently, the best major for a young person who wants to pursue a career in law? English.

Learning a discipline that will teach you to think, and think critically, is essential to a career in the professions- those careers pursued by young people who go to college in the first place to advance their chances of entering the middle class. Are STEM majors the only way to go? I certainly hope not. We need these students, yes, to develop the technologies of the future. But we need business executives to fund them, politicians to craft policies that support them, journalists to analyze them, and more. Steve Jobs spearheaded the biggest technological advances in recent memory, and yet it can be argued that his emphasis on design helped to make Apple what it is today. The look and feel of Apple was influenced by Jobs’ admiration of calligraphy, based on a class he took at Reed College.

I think that colleges need to do a much better job at preparing students for life after college. I know that my alma mater had a dismal career center when I was a graduating senior: I recall being disheartened by seeing a job posting for a manager at a retail store at the local mall. All this work to graduate, I thought, and they want us to go work at the mall? Nevertheless, career services at my university must have improved over the intervening years, because I recently participated in an alumni event to help students prepare for post-college life. I regret that I only worked one summer during college. I would advise students to work, volunteer or travel EACH summer during college, as well as seek out internships to know if a given career is a good fit.  But I would advise a student inclined toward majoring in the humanities to pursue what they love both during and after college. It will truly pay off.