You Deserve Better

Six months ago, and a year ago, things may have seemed simpler for a lot of us, for so many reasons. Today I considered a crucial one that we often overlook.

I have heard a number of friends lately struggle with this concept, as have I. Anyone who is trying to build a brand, or write a blog, or start a podcast, or anything that you are trying to do… you want people to listen. You want people to hear you. And on the surface – in the beginning – ANY reader, viewer, or follower seems important. And everyone IS important.

But.

If you walk one of these paths – indeed, if you strive to achieve any goal at all – you will find trolls. You will find people who want to tear you down. You will find people who always have something to say about what you said, or did, or wrote, or made. But it’s never uplifting; it’s never constructive; it’s never encouraging. It’s never even questioning. Some of these people just always want to tear you down.

I’m all about questioning. I love to have people challenge my ideas (most of the time, anyway). But challenge them with your own thoughts and your own ideas, not just some twisted dogma or vitriol, because you had a hard day, or a hard year, or even a hard life! I feel for you, if you have. Everyone has gone through struggles, but that’s one of the things that connects us.

Many of you will have heard this before, or one of its variations:

“Always be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you do not know.”

Struggles, challenges, courage, hope, overcoming, even grief! These are things that can bond us together. These are things that can help us find common ground, understanding, compassion, for each other. I don’t worry much when someone has a bad day and says one rude thing. (I’ve certainly done this! And no one is too big to apologize.)

Anyone can have a bad day, and anyone can say one hurtful thing. Accidentally, or even on purpose, by lashing out because of some emotional damage they didn’t realize was being externalized in the moment. And if that person realizes what happened and apologizes, the odds are very strong that I will forgive them and we will move on, as adults.

But some people just want to trash talk, and I don’t have time for those people anymore.

I have a tiny blog, with perhaps a handful of readers. But I already don’t have time for people who just want to hate. I have had to part company with some old friends, because while we once had spirited discussions, debates, and even disagreements, they became bitter over something. Anything! Often politics. Sometimes personal losses that weighed so heavily on them that, instead of leaning on their friends for support, they simply became sour, toward everything.

One of them, I had to separate from months ago. I saw him struggling, read what little he shared online, and reached out to him and asked him what I could do. I made sure to take it offline, so there would be no audience, and we could just be two adults who respected each other, having a discussion about our lives. He dismissed me; brushed away my offers, which is fine; that’s his right. But he continued to be extremely caustic in public, and whether that’s his brand, and he wants an audience, or whether he’s just become so filled with frustration that he hates everything most days… I don’t have time for that now.

That’s just one example. If you’re reading this now, you may have encountered what we call The Internet (!), and you can likely think of many more!

If you’re an artist, an engineer, a builder, a designer of any kind, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about.

You need to know this: shutting out destructive people, toxic people, bitter people, who have no room left for joy, encouragement, hope? Sometimes that is the only option you have, for your own survival.

If you have a strong foundation, if you’re in a good place, with lots of resources – time, energy, even money – and you want to help a lot of people… do so! I encourage that, too. If you want to start an organization that can reach people who are struggling in a community, in a sector, in a country… by all means, go for it! That can be a wonderful cause!

Even if you have limited resources, but you’re still in a position to help someone else, and you want to, that’s terrific. But if you’re in a troubled place right now, maybe you should start with yourself. Maybe you should get yourself on steady footing before you try to throw a line to others.

Of course I don’t mean to be rude, or heartless; not ever! Sometimes we find new strength and energy in the very act of helping other people. And that can make us stronger, help bring us more focus, and more confidence. Even fulfillment.

All these aspects of human emotion and psychology and character are real. But if you’re struggling, whatever your work hustle is, or even if you’re just trying to survive this moment, don’t give anyone who wants to hurt you the time of day. Don’t give anyone who has nothing useful to say to you, a minute of your time, or one spark of your energy.

I’ve long said that you can only truly love another person once you love yourself. You can’t appreciate respect from another person until you respect yourself. Plenty of people struggle with these aspects, too. In fact, I wrote another entire blog about my own journey from self-loathing to self-respect, and it has literally turned my life around.

You must help yourself first. If you don’t put some of your energy into yourself first, you will very quickly feel spent dealing with other people, even people you love, even people you’re trying to help. Thankless work may be fine for saints, but most of us walk a line somewhere in the middle! Most of us want to feel appreciated, at least from time to time. Most of us want to know that we’re doing the right thing, as often as possible.

If you know your path well, you have an excellent start. But if you can filter out some of these people who have nothing to add to your life, and who only take things away, then the struggles won’t be as hard. And your successes just might feel every bit as sweet as you deserve.

Regular pruning helps trees and other plants to thrive, because life is about growth, and growth is messy. How many people do you know whose life has followed exactly the course that they charted for it? At best, I know people who have accomplished one or two major goals that they set when they were younger. But most of us are finding our way every day, and it’s okay to change that course.

If you’ve found your North Star, and you can follow it firmly, so much the better. If you’re still looking for it, that’s fine, too! Some people know what they want in life at age 20; some people are still seeking it at age 50.

Grandma Moses always loved art and preferred embroidery until her late 70s, when her arthritis made that craft too difficult. She took up painting again, and we all know that turned out well. But she found joy in it, and sold paintings for just a few dollars at first, and later for thousands of dollars. Quite the success story, though she started off doing something else.

So there’s plenty of hope for all of us.

Prune your life of people, places, and things that hold nothing but ill will or bad memories for you. If you need to give away something from an old relationship so that you can let it go and finally move on with your life, give it away. And if it was a bad relationship, break it. Burn it. Consecrate it and bury it in the ground. Whatever you need to do.

If there’s a place you can no longer stand to be, consider a move. I know that’s a huge step! I don’t pretend that’s easy or simple. But it is possible. It’s possible, and it can give you the fresh start you need. It can give you a fresh outlook, new energy, and a clean slate.

And if it’s people that are holding you back, or holding you down, or always trying to discourage everything you do, you can change that, too. If you’re brave and they’re reasonable, bring it up. Frankly, honestly, simply. Plan a time, plan a place, make it over a meal, make it in a public place, make it at home – wherever it needs to be – and talk. Tell them what’s bothering you. And if that’s not possible, you can simply break off contact, with or without an explanation. Whatever is appropriate for you.

You deserve to have people around you who support you, who lift you up. My best friend says that you become like the five people that you spend the most time around and invest the most time in. And so he makes sure that those five people are good for him. He feels that I enrich his life and that he can learn from me, and that I help him strive for better things. And I feel exactly the same way about him.

Maybe it’s time you start choosing the top five people in your life. And if you have a close family of twenty or more people, maybe some of your top five will be in that family. Maybe they all will. Maybe none of them will. That’s okay! I’m not telling you to abandon your family if they’re not in your top five. I’m just saying, find the people who lift you up, and make sure to invest your time and energy in those relationships.

It doesn’t have to be five. It can be three, or ten, or whatever you have the time and energy for. Extroverts will have more energy to deal with more people. Introverts may only be able to handle two or three people.

You CAN do this.

You deserve strong, supportive relationships in your life.

Carve out some time to start thinking about this. It could be in your commute. It could be while you’re washing dishes, or sewing, or working out, or cleaning your house or apartment, or sunbathing, or on the beach, or at the library, or hiking through trees, or in any place where you can hear your own thoughts. Write these things out if you need to, and be honest. No one else ever has to see it. But you’ll appreciate figuring this out, and you may have more energy than you ever dreamed possible once you do.

You can do this. Find a safe space and start now. You can thank yourself in six months.

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.

We all need some little victories

Five months of quarantine, working at home or not working at all, and we have had good and bad days. But then wildfires grew from seasonal to terrible, and we’ve been stuck inside all day and night due to the pervasive smoke in the tiny backyard that was once our safety valve to the cabin fever that I know is challenging so many people these days.

Don’t get me wrong for a second: I know how lucky we are to HAVE a safe home at all, especially during wildfire season and this pandemic. It’s just that we had adapted fairly well to the temporary strictures of limited grocery shopping, extra cleaning and caution, and suspending literally everything else we wanted to do lately. We KNOW we’re lucky.

But when even the tiny bit of equilibrium we had maintained was spun off kilter, things started to break down again.

Last night, I realized that maybe what we need are some little victories. Even tiny little benchmarks can give you a sense of accomplishment, and when everything seems to be in stasis — when it seems like we are constantly holding our breath, all day, every day — having something to look toward and work toward, however small, might be the next rope we can cling to, to pull ourselves back toward solid footing again.

Months ago, I made a list of things I wanted to do each day, each week, and each month. The daily items were small: a few minutes of stretches in the morning, 4000 steps on my cheap pedometer (a relative measure, but one that made me feel sufficiently active), a free Duolingo lesson each day, and a personal goal to clear out my email newsletters whether I read them or not, so that I didn’t have even that miniscule burden piling up on me. The daily goals were fair, but even those slipped at times. My weekly and monthly targets didn’t even come close.

Fast-forward to the present, and we will have to see what tiny things we can do now, even all indoors if that’s what it takes. I don’t care how simple they are: anything we can work on and potentially check off a list, even a list of only one or two things at first, can be the difference between focus and floundering. And focusing on something that is possible, can make the difference between overwhelm and holding it all together.

Holding it all together for a few hours gives you hope. Doing so for a few days gives you momentum. And keeping up that momentum for a few weeks means you have formed a new habit, and THAT can bring you new equilibrium.

As people talk about “finding a new normal” in pandemic times, I prefer to talk about a new equilibrium. Things will never go “back to normal”, and with all of the challenges facing us as a country and a world today, that can only be a good thing. We don’t need to go BACK to how things were; we need to find a way to deal with life NOW, for today and tomorrow.

When we focus on the moment, things don’t always feel so overwhelming. Once we can manage today, we may find that we can spare some energy for new ideas, for tomorrow, and for our fellow humans everywhere. And that is a balance that we can use to help ourselves and each other, to make things a little better each day.

Big steps come after. Today, put a little victory or two in sight, and start with that.

Order and Chaos (part 1)

I think it takes a very different spirit to appreciate the fleeting nature of life, versus that with which so many of us may have been raised.

Navigating to a new store today, in an area with which I was unfamiliar, I spotted a sign that said, “Yummy Bowl: Mongolian stir-fry and sushi, coming soon”. I was reminded of the restaurant Genghis Grill, which was wonderful on my first visit, good on my second visit, and closed on my third attempt. That restaurant closed forever before I got to try it a third time. While disappointed then, I look back today and am grateful that I got to discover it at all.

Which leads me to my Zen wisdom of today. That experiences are what make us richer, and I can always use a reminder to be grateful for what I have, and what I have had, more than I should ever continue mourning anything that I have lost.

Carpe Diem

This morning I heard “Chasing the Sun” by Sara Bareilles, one of my favorite musicians ever. In case you haven’t heard it yet, the song reminds us that life can be rich though fleeting, and that honoring those no longer with us should reinforce the value of our continuing lives. A universal message to be sure, but one too easy to overlook in the hustle of daily life. I’m not doing the song justice, of course. Find it here and listen for yourself: https://www.amazon.com/Chasing-The-Sun/dp/B00DRDSLNU

“Life’s a Song” by Mindy Braasch is another worthwhile listen, available (at least right now) as a free download from her website here: http://mindybraasch.com/

Take a moment to reflect on what you do each day that really matters. If you have trouble finding these answers, that’s okay, but you need this reflection even more. Life is far too short and too fragile to let it slip away without a fight. We’re not all taught that, but it is still true. Step up, step out, and live today as if it is all that matters. Tomorrow will come for most of us, if we’re lucky, but today is really all we have. It’s the most important day, and it means everything. Be grateful, and more than that, be aware. Look, listen, pay attention, and live.