My Californiversary

Moving across the country in 2019 changed everything, overwhelmingly for the better. Thinking about my Californiversary, I also looked back and considered my career to date.

I had a lot of odd jobs when I was young, and I learned a lot of skills, had a little fun, learned about a thankless grind in places, and at one point I worked FOUR different jobs: two during the week – both part-time – and two on weekends only. It was crazy, I was very young, and I almost never slept.

For the record? I don’t recommend that. To anyone. But moving ahead:

I’ve had three important segments in my career as an adult. The first was when I was just starting out, and I was hired at a small, family business, directly by the owner, who was ready to retire and sell the company. She wanted two reliable people she knew would help keep things safe. She had one – he’d been there for 2 or 3 years when I signed on. But she wanted a second sharp one to come in, pick things up quickly… and then she could move on with a clear conscience, knowing she left her customers (many of whom she had known for decades) in good hands.

She tried me out, found out I had the perfect blend of broad skills and adaptability (plus a dynamite learning curve) that she needed, and she hired me as a temp. She’d finally turned to a temp agency to let them pre-screen, because hiring straight in had brought more headaches than help for a while. As it happened, I came highly recommended by both my short-term clients to date and my agency, so when she asked them, they had someone promising on tap and sent me over.

On the job, I picked everything up quickly, and she was so pleased that she soon asked me when my contract was up. After confirming with the agency to be sure, I told her 90 days after hire. She said, “You put that on the calendar, and you tell me on the last day, because I want to put you on payroll!” That was encouraging (and welcome!) news when I was just starting out at a new job.

When that day came, she sat me down and said, in short, “Obviously you’re doing very well. I’m delighted to have you, I’m very tired, and I want out of this business that I’ve built. But before I sell it, I’m gonna put you on payroll, and I’m writing you and Jeff into the sale contract, where you cannot be turned over as a disposable asset. You will both be hired in and kept on.” (Unless, of course, one of us were to be fired for cause, but neither of us ever was.)

Of course I was delighted with that news as well! She asked me what I was making from the agency, and since this was the payroll conversation, we were direct with each other. I was making X; she was paying them Y. She took $0.50/hour off the higher number and made that my new wage, effective the next day! I thanked her for her generosity, and she replied, “You’re a young man who’s working to build his life. I’m in a position to give you some solid footing, and I’d like to help.” It was far more than the minimum wage at the time, and we were both satisfied with the arrangement.

Once the contract additions were in place, the owner promptly sold the company, having already negotiated most of the details with a buyer once she saw that I was working out so well. It was then sold two more times, but I stayed with the company – or rather, with that group of people, performing the same roles – for twelve years.

A few years after I began, it was acquired by a large company with an international footprint and a worldwide presence. They had systems for doing everything, and people were just numbers. We were all cogs in a wheel, but at least there were rules.

I learned the rules, I fit in very well, and I was promoted a couple of times. But then the company stalled out; they saturated their market, they eliminated ALL the growth opportunities and the available position I was applying for next, and they literally told me, “You’ve maxed out your pay scale, and you’ll never get another raise, unless you take another job.” And of course, they had just eliminated all of the other jobs in the company at large, with that contraction. So unless someone above me quit, I was stuck.

Needless to say, I started looking and training my successors, just in case. When I found a role elsewhere, I had also found someone sharp who could step into my shoes rather easily. I finished up the project I was leading (giving three weeks’ notice instead of two) and stepped into my new company: a small, family-run business once more.

Now, I had just completed nine years at this international mega-corporation, so the idea of being a more important part of a smaller group again held enormous appeal.

What I didn’t realize was this: at a large company, you can sometimes change roles (unless they decide they’re too big and they must eliminate their open roles instead of streamlining their operations); at a small company, you may wear more hats, but there’s no room for advancement.

There were five people who ran this family business, and everyone else was “floor level”. Either you were an owner/manager, or you were a foot soldier in the workflow. And that was all there was.

I learned this a little way in, but just a few months after I arrived, the Great Recession of 2008 shut everything else down, and everyone did a hiring freeze, so then there was no place else to go, either. Might I have gone and begged for my old job back? Perhaps. But stubbornness kept me where I was, convinced I could make a difference in this place, and knowing that in the smaller company, even with fewer resources, they had greater control over how those resources were allocated. So I thought if I could help the bottom line, surely I could improve my position.

However, small companies have their own issues, and I frequently found myself pigeonholed if I tried to step outside of my primary duties. When I taught myself some new skills, scooped up technical work from in-house, and kept us from having to outsource that (saving money and often time), that was a welcome change. When I learned a new technology for our website or some new device for our office, I could confidently troubleshoot it and bring everyone else who needed to use it, up to competence as well. Translating systems from one person’s lingo into that of another, has always been a strong suit of mine.

Well, these were suitable changes, but when the bottom line was suffering, and the owners told everyone, “We need to increase sales!” I considered this, found a few ways that I thought we could do so, brought them to the owners, and offered to take point, or even just to participate on the side without telling anyone. And the first time I heard, “But YOU can’t do that; you’re not in sales!” I was dumbfounded. It took a very long time for me to wrap my head around this, but I was an Executive Assistant; if I started doing more sales, I might be working with a different group of people in the company. And since I was the ONLY Executive Assistant for all of them, I think the CEO and a couple of others thought that I would be unavailable to handle their needs while I was busy helping us bring in enough money that everyone could keep getting paid on time. Either way, most of my ideas were shuttered, and when that happens often enough, most people will stop volunteering new ideas.

The company stagnated for a while, had a couple of changes in leadership (in and out of the family – not being sold like the other one), and eventually, I left them, too, although I had at least been preparing this change for several months. When that time came, I had built them a series of reference documents for tasks from the basic to the complex, and I taught a crash course for the successor they hired at the last moment, after cross-training as many of my colleagues as possible in the months prior. I kept my personal phone on their speed dial for a few weeks after my departure, and the company officers sent me with glowing letters of recommendation for my future roles.

I moved to California for love, not for employment, so of course I still needed an income. While I’ve done some freelance work here and there, most of my income for most of my life has come from a traditional job, and I am very good at what I do. Though I applied at several places in and around my new hometown, and even walked in cold at a few more to find out what was going on, eventually I registered with an agency in the area, and much as had happened more than twenty years ago, I got a call. The agency told me that this great company with which they’ve worked for years needed an experienced Executive Assistant who can handle a lot of things at once while working for at least five different people, maybe more. I could not hide my smile on that phone call as I replied, “You’re in luck!” The recruiter laughed and asked me a few questions (she was not the same one who had completed my registration, so we were new to each other), and when she confirmed that I had in fact worked for five different executives at the same time, successfully and with glowing recommendations at my departure, she let her client company know that someone might just fit that bill perfectly.

Sidebar: her exact words were, “They basically read me your résumé in their job description!”

That Friday, I had a long, delightful conversation with the client’s in-house recruiter, who set me up an interview for the following Monday. That interview went well; I liked the first executive who interviewed me as a temporary addition, and we seemed like a clear professional match. As I got back into my car, I decided to send the in-house recruiter a simple but gracious email from my phone. I sent the thank-you note, and before I could start the car, I received an email back. She told me that the interviewer had been quite impressed and wanted to give me a shot. Could I start tomorrow, she asked? Of course I did so!

In the past year with this company, I have learned something important. Large companies that are very well-run understand the roles their people play, and that they must develop those people to invest in their teams. Investing well and wisely in your people is a tremendous incentive for them to explore new areas, master new skills, and generally add value every single day. This is reflected in the best attitudes and often the best teamwork, as enthusiastic groups of curious people with even decent communication skills among them, are incredibly productive! Add in an atmosphere of continuous improvement, and you can blow the game right out of the water.

Now I am in a workplace where everyone believes in development. I have been given the chance to explore numerous fields outside of my “generalist” areas as an Executive Assistant. While my primary role can encompass an unlimited breadth of challenges, I have been able to step into specific new roles as well.

Finally I can see a number of options for my future with this company, instead of just the one.

I only moved across the country, but it’s a whole new world where I landed.

Recognizing and overcoming guilt and shame

I have heard a lot in my life about guilt and about shame. These two negative emotions have very different impacts on life and on behavior, and I want to share some of what I have learned, through study, self-reflection, careful thought, and the love of those closest to me. This is how I learned to identify them and put them behind me, and I hope it helps you to do the same, so you can take back your life and live it more fully.

Most simply, guilt is something you feel that makes you regret a previous behavior and want to make amends, and to do better next time, too. Shame is an ouroboros, feeding on itself, going nowhere, accomplishing nothing useful, and providing no help. It is not even fuel to be burned, like anger (properly managed) can be.

Shame ruins everything you allow it to touch; there is no upside to it. It causes self-destructive behavior built on denial and pain. Shame has no opposite to balance it out; the only thing I have found that can counter it at all is a combination of honesty and love. Honesty with yourself, harsh honesty if needed, to see what you really did that makes you feel this way. You may be surprised that it doesn’t hold up as you thought it did. This makes it easier to move on.

Of course, sometimes it truly is as bad as you feared, but when you admit that to yourself first, you take away most of its power at once. Denial is a heavy blanket that weighs you down everywhere you go; it keeps you from breathing properly, from acting effectively, and from seeing what is really around you, even right in front of your face. Allow yourself to stare that pain down and feel it for a moment, then allow yourself to step away without breaking eye contact.

Shame cannot survive being spoken. Fears, too, often lose their power when you can put a name to them and call them out.

Face up to your deepest fears, your worst shame, and you lift the blanket of denial. Like coming up for air, you will immediately feel lighter, even if the shock of that air and that brightness may overwhelm you at first. To carry this metaphor to fruition, this also lets you move freely again. It can feel very different, suddenly having the ability to reach out and say or do something that felt unattainable before. But when you do this, you immediately take back some of the power to help yourself and to change what you’ve brought to be.

After honesty comes love.

Part of shame’s power to imprison your mind and heart is that it wields fear like a physical weapon. Fear hurts, and you can shy away from its touch, even for years. Many have this ingrained in them. But I have only found two things that can beat back fear. One is courage: not the absence of fear, but the determination to act from knowing that something else is more important. Sometimes clear thinking can help you reach this point, when you realize something new, or when someone else helps open your eyes to a truth you had overlooked.

But even more powerful and more sweeping is love. Love can wash fear away like the surf of a rising tide. This does not always happen automatically. Sometimes you have to burn away the denial with that lens of honesty before you can find the love beneath it, for denial can hide even that, when you give it enough power over enough time. But love unveiled can be your strongest defense and your greatest tool.

Love for another can make you choose to risk your life, or to give up something valuable, if you can help them. It can help you to overcome your lifelong shyness or your fear of embarrassment to step up and say a kind word to someone in need, or to someone in pain. This can be the protective love of a parent for a child, or a friend for another, or the selfless love of anyone for a stranger. It is all the same power, and it can inspire awe and help you to master any fear you have, as long as you can feel it openly.

Honesty can help you to see someone you love who is hurting, and to recognize that your love can help that person. This person can be someone with whom you are close, or someone distant to whom you want to reach out, or a total stranger you encounter seemingly by chance. It can even be yourself. Be honest, first, and then allow yourself to love someone – someone else, or your own being. No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.

If you have lived with shame, you are almost certainly telling yourself lies. Maybe someone else put them there in the beginning, and whether you hear their voice in your head and your heart, or whether you hear your own, shame does nothing but erode everything you are that matters. It saps your energy, it keeps you cold and still and quiet, and it robs you of your very life, one inch and one drop at a time. It serves nothing but pain and fear.

Guilt over actions means you see that you can do better. THAT is a fueling emotion that you can use to reach out and help someone. Even yourself! If you committed some offense that no one has even discovered yet, but you feel guilty about it, you can make yourself feel better if you take action to make it right, and right now. If you wronged another, honesty and love are still your best tools to set things right again. Speak the truth with humility and show that person some love. No, it may not always be possible to make things truly right, but you only have a chance to do better if you take action.

Don’t wait. Do it now. Look inside, talk with someone you trust, or talk with yourself in the mirror. But be honest. Then be kind. Even if you think you don’t know kindness, then you already know everything else that hurts. Say something that you’ve never heard anyone say. See how it makes you feel. If it surprises you and lifts your heart, start with that. You may have just discovered kindness on your own. And when you share that with the world, honestly, you will quickly find that kindness attracts more kindness, and you will learn even faster how it feels, and how to cultivate it everywhere you can. Then you’re making yourself and your world a better place.

Every day.

Soldiers as Guardians… and more importantly, as Humans

Soldiers are celebrated as heroes, as well they should be, putting their lives on the line to defend what they believe in. But problems arise when people can no longer believe in anything real. Artificial borders, political affiliations, religious zealotry… these are ideas that are meant to divide humans from each other, and they do so quite effectively.

I heard something tonight that got me thinking more than ever about this issue. Whether fictional or not, the very concept of a “NQK” (No Questions Kill) mission is troublesome on the face of it. The supremely destructive act of taking a life, while sometimes necessary for the greater good, should never be undertaken lightly, nor blindly. Well-trained soldiers with understanding from an informed populace make the BEST soldiers, because they understand the reasons behind their orders, and so can follow them with conviction when right, or know to question them when wrong.

The problem with “blind loyalty” is right there in the name: it is BLIND. And of course, “there is none so blind as one who will not see.” If someone refuses to consider new ideas, that person has stopped learning and indeed has stopped thinking. Confirmation bias is a widely-known psychological phenomenon to which no one is immune; the only way to avoid it is by constantly questioning one’s own reasoning and conclusions. Sound reasoning can stand up to this. However, rationalizing what we already want to believe is no way to live, and it is the antithesis of truth.

Regarding leadership, some people have been shown to thrive with firm guidance, but most people can do so much more with encouragement, education, and opportunity than with slavish obedience. There are people who are so scarred, mentally and emotionally, that they need structure imposed upon them to function at all, but “breaking” people so they can become better at following orders still requires BREAKING in the first place. If breaking the spirit of horses is innately cruel (since they have a right to life), then breaking the spirit of humans is just as cruel (since they have a right to life, too). There is no difference unless we close our eyes and cry dogma, and that difference is artificial and deadly to all life.

With compartmentalized knowledge and secret missions, police become simple tools of the person or group in power, and military soldiers become no more than pawns in power struggles, and not the guardians of their people that they should be. Even our so-called National Guard simply protects financial interests in other countries much of the time. Soldiers should be entrusted with the protection of their people, and the full understanding of what and whom they are protecting, and why.

People with strong tendencies are easy to steer. This is not necessarily the same as passion. Passion for something is a choice you make, something you are happy to pursue. Drives, however, can compel you to take actions, good or bad. These can stem from healthy convictions or from poorly-understood emotional obsessions. The detective who never misses a clue at the crime scene may still feel compulsions that capture his attention in daily life, even to the point of letting him walk right into danger unawares. The officer or agent who remains cool in the face of most criminal activity may still lose his self-control in the presence of someone who did what was done to him in his youth. If it made him feel powerless and victimized years ago, he may overreact to the newest villain and even lose sight of his training, perhaps even compromising the prosecution against the new monster before him. Mature children of manipulative parents who outgrow the oppressive grip under which they were raised, still may find the old reactions coming back years later, even after just a phone call with a parent or someone who reminds them of that time.

All of this speaks to why blind obedience is just as dangerous for soldiers and the people they would protect, because blind followers can be used like tools if you know how to grip their handles; sailed like winds on the sea if you know which direction they blow and how to tack. Rich metaphors for certain, but the same is true for those who train people too narrowly.

Soldiers who are best suited to protect themselves, their families, and their homelands, are well-rounded, intelligent people who understand their own psychology as well as that of their opponents. Enemies of humanity abound, but they can only climb to power and work from within if they first train their guardians not to look inward. True heroes may or may not be patriots, but if you believe that this is the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, then the Free and the Brave must be free to question their leaders and brave enough to do so. Everyone is wrong sometimes. The wisest among us understand this, value honest feedback, admit our own mistakes and learn from them, to grow wiser and stronger over time. This is true leadership. The stubborn and the strong may defeat a person, a group, or a nation, but they will never be handed victory without a fight by anyone who knows who they are but questions everything honestly, to ensure that they stay true.

Any path through the chaos of life is never easy, and we must always remain vigilant to know upon what ground we stand, and which way we are facing as we move across each terrain that we encounter. Stop and rest, recover your strength, look inward at yourself and at those around you, and you will see which way to go after a time. Life is like travel by foot. Sometimes there will be fog all around; sometimes visibility is clear for miles. Sometimes everything seems uphill, but there is always a balance to that if you just keep going. I read once, “If you’re going through hell… KEEP GOING!” Anywhere you stop and give up, you will remain. Even if you settle in a fertile valley by a river, if you do not pay attention and tend to the land around you, you will stagnate and start to decay.

Only through challenge can we grow stronger. The person whose injuries are healing but who will not test his muscles because they still hurt, will lose what muscle he had, and will continue to weaken. The person who never pushes the boundaries never learns what she can do. The child who never encounters bacteria or dirt may never develop the immunity to carry him through the dangers of adult life. The adult who stops questioning her values stops understanding them and shrivels into a creature of blind habit. The elder whose habits and traditions have never been challenged collapses upon himself and may wonder one day what all he has missed by never looking the other way. Or he may never wonder at all, and lose even the benefits of hindsight and the wisdom of reflection.

Struggle, in modest doses, makes us stronger. It makes us wiser, as we learn where we thrive as well as what always hurts more than it helps. It broadens our horizons whenever we take up something new, even for a day, a year, a decade. Exercise your body when and where you can. Be careful, but take risks. Push a little every chance you get, then reflect on how it made you feel. Even fear cannot rule us when we understand it and call it by name. Everything you learn makes you stronger. Insight is a tool at least as powerful as a strong back. Experience opens more doors than you can count. “New” may be daunting, but growth can be inspiring. The endorphins people talk about when they exercise are from pushing themselves in the right ways and the right amounts. People can feel the same invigorating release of energy from mental accomplishments and emotional milestones.

Work. Push. Think. Learn. Reflect. Discuss. Understand. Find peace in motion and growth in sharing, whether you connect with other people or with everything else around you even while seemingly alone. There is always something. No part of this planet is truly empty. And if you are there, it can be a rich place indeed.