Silencing and finding the voice

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Some time ago, apparently in 2013, I wrote the following – but then only put part of it in my blog. In fact, looking at it now, I see it might even have been a part of a letter I had written – I just don’t know. I imagined, upon finding this document, that I had published the whole thing. It comes up again now as I have had so many discussions about writing and how one lives as a writer – or accepts the label or distinction of being a “writer” – what separates those who call themselves that, those who really do it, and those who actually write something useful versus something good? And does it matter if it’s good? Is anything objectively good? And when or how, if at all, do you throw off the doubts, insecurities, past argumentation, excuses and just write and see what happens?

From Valentine’s Day 2013 (?) – Writing, friendship, finding and silencing a voice

Thinking a lot about writing. I have always been prolific and productive … words just pour out. But nothing better than mediocrity. As a child, as soon as I was capable of writing, I was writing. But nothing I wrote was careful or measured. Not that you expect an 8 year old to produce carefully crafted, well-thought-out, plot and character-driven stories. No, but I was even more careless than that. I hurried through everything in life as though it were some kind of race. Every activity in school, I wanted to get ahead, get there quickly and be finished. Finished with what, I don’t know… there was no finish line and things just went on and on. (I have only reached a place in life now – almost 40 – where I don’t feel like everything is a race.)

Spilling over into adolescence, I met a girl who was to become my best friend for several years. She declared very quickly after meeting that she wanted to be a writer and was working on a story of which she seemed rather proud. I remember the first time I went to her house, she shared the story with me. I don’t remember the story very well – only that the main character was a girl named “Kyle” (my brother’s name), and upon reflection I get the feeling this character was a lightly fictionalized version of her troubled self. I suppose like most people who invest any time and effort into writing and stake their identities and reputations on it (even if they are kids), I felt intimidated by other people’s writing, another conceit and insecurity that has fallen away with years and thicker skin. I, too, considered myself something of a writer. Both of us had apparently been tagged with this moniker from youth and had attended all the young writers’ conferences and writing courses offered to people our ages.

I suppose like most “writers” I also felt fraudulent. I was 12 and I had nothing to say. No experience. No insights. Just some random feelings and a cloudy, guessed-at grasp of what I imagined adult reality and experience might be like. I was still plagued by that sense of hurrying up – finish – move on to the next thing. But added to this was the desperate desire to be liked – not by just anyone but by this would-be best friend. I spent every evening dashing off lengthy but at-best mediocre stories for her benefit. I wanted her to read them and love them – we were the thinly veiled protagonists of these ridiculous stories. I wanted to come to school each morning and deliver a new story for her entertainment and her praise. Not because I fancied myself a writer or thought it would lead anywhere but because I wanted her to be happy.

But it didn’t matter. While she loved the stories, and I was eventually counted as her best friend (which had been my dubious, feverish-teen-girl aim – a number of us were competing for this dubious honor. No idea why – this is the adolescent girl way), the whole productive force of what I had created intimidated her. She felt insecure and suffered a crisis of confidence about her writing in the midst of the universal crisis of confidence – adolescence – because she could not keep up with the avalanche. (How many times have I hit this wall of “I can’t keep up with you” reasoning?) The sheer volume of what I had created silenced her. She believed somehow that what she imagined and created was no longer good enough because it did not exist in the same abundance.

We were 12. We did not know about “less is more” and “quality not quantity”.

The strange thing is… this is still a thing. The friend is no longer in my life. I have no idea if she later realized these truths and picked up pen and paper or a computer again and started capturing her thoughts in writing. I hope so. But I find that I have made my entire career on this ability to rapidly churn out reliably decent, mediocre text in which I have little to no personal stake. It’s called B2B marketing, and it is soul-sucking and dry and maybe just a couple of steps above used car salesmanship.

And because I produce a lot – the productivity fools a lot of people. I am somehow “so good at my job” because I create a lot of material quickly. Is it good? Not in the way I consider things good. Yes, it displays an understanding of the discipline/industry/field about which I write. Yes, it’s decent and correct. Would it win any awards (even within the marketing industry)? No. It all does its job and is better than anything a content mill produces.

But it is this volume question again that gets to me. People are deciding that I am good at what I do because I am quick and take on a massive workload.

But is that good?

Back in the years of adolescence again… I recall that I earned this reputation among all the teachers in the school and eventually the school district as a “writer”… and eventually I suppose that intimidated me and made me feel boxed in, in much the same way as my friend had felt boxed in by my productivity. Were these adults not just humoring me? Encouraging me to do something because they are teachers, adults, would-be mentors and have to encourage us? Could my writing actually stack up to anything else in the real world? Eventually I came to resent this “title” and moved away from it. I spent very little time in high school writing for enjoyment. I wrote a lot of research papers, essays, letters – in fact I still wrote all the time, for different audiences and different reasons. This continued in college. Most of my professors echoed the sentiments – that I was a really good writer. But even if this seemed more truthful and objective than earlier applications of this title, I, by then, felt out of practice. I had been writing letters and essays/analysis for so long that I had no idea how to write a story any longer.

To think that I used to write 30 or 40 pages every night without even thinking.

And maybe that is the key – without even thinking.

You can think and edit later. But for now, just write. Get all the words out, let the story flow. Follow it where it goes. But for such a long time I had been writing carefully crafted paragraphs that supported only what my evidence could prove. And this is not creative. It IS what makes me successful in B2B marketing and other similar content creation. But it is not what will lead to a readable novel.

The changing workscape: Women, self-awe and flex(ed) work and muscles…

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The other day, in the haze of being a bit too tired to censor myself and my own moment of self-congratulations, I told someone that I am actually “in awe of myself”. Mostly this is because I felt in awe of the copious amounts of work I was able to complete all at once and my general ability to produce prolifically without a huge effort. I was almost immediately embarrassed about saying something so arrogant, even if it really was an expression of surprise at how much I had done (and can do) more than it was a boastful statement.

But then I thought – why shouldn’t I be in awe of myself? Why shouldn’t we all be in awe of ourselves – or strive to be?

In fact women in particular, finally starting to make progress on finding a work-life balance (supposedly, at least), should start from a place of feeling in awe. Not awestruck as in overwhelmed. But awe as in excitement about all the things that

Being able to “have it all” (which, quite honestly, I know nothing about since I don’t really have it all in the way this expression is generally used) does require a bit of rejiggering and sometimes making choices that no one likes. One way women are starting to be able to “have it all” and do more – and thus feel a more tangible sense of resolve and awe – is by being able to have more flexibility in their work lives. Balance, according to a recent Forbes article, is taking on a clearer shape with remote and virtual work arrangements.

I have written a lot about remote work and allowing for flexibility in the workplace – and I too benefit from negotiating for a bit of flexibility. My own work-life balance has improved – and has actually shaped my ability to be more productive and thus in more in awe. 🙂

Seeing things: Faces in the wood

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It’s been one of those frenzied evenings that is a bit too productive – as evidenced by the sudden disappearance of unanswered emails from my email inbox. In an overzealous and optimistic fit of some sort, I archived a handful of messages and had to go back and find them. Funny how you can think you’re so on top of it, so organized and yet are still doing silly, thoughtless stuff like that.

Sometimes when I can’t sleep (like now) I stare at the ceiling and try to see things in the knots and patterns in the wood. I have never been a visual person (at all) and often don’t see things that are right in front of me – but all my life I have had a strange fascination with staring at pieces of wood or even wood paneling to discern images or – usually – faces. I remember seeing distinct faces in some wood paneling during my childhood and actually feeling some kind of empathy with these people hidden in the wood. One “woman” looked so worried and mysterious. Half of her face was hidden, as though she were standing behind a door, maybe eavesdropping on a conversation in the next room or … who knows what? This was the kind of storytelling that would play itself out in my head as a child (also when I struggled with sleep).

To this day, imagination and any visual inclinations long ago beat out of me, I find faces in wood. Just now I looked up and quite suddenly the knots appeared as the face of a baby seal. Hahaha. I know – it sounds crazy. I cling to this in some way though because it is a kind of creativity that is not really a part of who I am – and I think if I had more discipline or interest, I might be able to focus it better to use it for something more than seeing things that are not there in pieces of wood.

(Makes me think of the ridiculous and bad Jim Carrey film The Mask, when his character takes his wooden mask to someone – to get some answers or something – I don’t know, I barely remember the film – and the Ben Stein character dryly comments, “This is a piece of wood” after Carrey’s character tells him an outlandish tale about what the mask can do. Never in my life did I imagine an occasion on which I would cite The Mask for any reason. Oh, and don’t let it scare you or make you feel old or anything, but The Mask turns 20 this year…).

The changing workscape: Going it alone

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Whether picking up freelance projects here and there as a kind of sole proprietor or doing something a bit more formal, setting up a company and running it, the current job market coupled with the difficulty of being “seen” by recruiters (even if you’ve got the experience, talent and skills required) are making more and more people choose to go it alone. Obviously deciding to work for yourself requires a kind of independence, confidence and belief in your skills and ideas that will give you the strength to persevere through lean times. The challenges of launching and marketing a new business – and the need to basically do at least two jobs at all times (the job/specialty you are selling and then the actual selling/marketing of those services) can be daunting. Never mind the bureaucracy and accounting work you will have to consider…

But going into business for yourself isn’t all risk, no reward – or people would not do it, keep doing it and loving it.

Beginning to see the light
The job search has been long and tough – very few interviews, or a lot of interviews that lead nowhere, and you start to think that maybe you would be better off – and much more in control of your professional destiny – if you strike out on your own. This initial “seeing the light” can be deceptive, of course, because on the surface it sounds a lot easier to just take matters into your own hands and go from there. If you’ve never started or run a business, though, you could be in for a few surprises in terms of how difficult it can be. Do your homework. But don’t let the challenges stop you. You will actually be a stronger person and may either become a successful businessperson, recognizing that this is where you belong – or you may just bolster yourself and gain insight and independence enough to know that you do belong in a regular job. But the experience of starting your own business and creating your own job has prepared you in whole new ways you could not even have imagined for the job you eventually seek. You are broadening your horizons no matter what road you take.

But first things first.

How did the “light” first come on that made you consider becoming your own boss?

The hard search – not being seen
The aforementioned “not being seen” in the job hunt is becoming more common. A recent, popular thread on LinkedIn discussed the increasing difficulty of differentiating yourself as a job candidate, particularly when you are something of a jack-of-all-trades. This inspired me to write on the subject of recruitment and HR and the foibles therein. A friend and former professor sent me another article about how HR has begun to embrace “big data” – and this is starting to influence hiring and retention decisions to, as the article points out, an almost creepy degree.

A true jack-of-all-trades, as many people pointed out in the comments to this post on LinkedIn, may be better off channeling all of those myriad skills into his or her own enterprise. If someone else cannot take in and appreciate the generalist, DIY, can-do approach to business, who better to benefit from your work than you – and the stable of clients you eventually cultivate?

When you have done your due diligence – and that means, really taking the time to tailor each application you submit (which may mean cutting back on the jack-of-all-trades theme to market yourself as a specialist in a few key areas, targeted for the specific job) – and you still find yourself getting nowhere, it might be time to apply the same efforts you make in the job search to assessing what kind of business you could do on your own using the skills in your toolbox that others have not seemed to cotton to. Do some market analysis – what needs exist that you can address?

This may be the best way to be seen and to make a mark.

The risk of self-employment 
Most things really worth doing do not come without any risk.

The biggest risk – you might fail. Many small businesses fail. It’s par for the course. But is failure in this case really failure? It’s a mixed bag. You may lose your shirt, but you know that there is always another shirt where that one came from. You will never learn as much as fast as you do in starting and running your own business – succeed or fail. If you fail, you take away valuable lessons and experience. You can either apply these lessons to your next business venture (the entrepreneurial bug is strong once you start) or apply the lessons to your next job. You are richer for it. “..a recent survey of 1,000 small business owners (conducted by Deluxe Corp and reported in Business Insider) shows that the vast majority of them are confident in their endeavors and say they’d rather embrace potential failure than never try at all”. Once you make up your mind, you’re pretty sure that you can live with failure – and need to be optimistic about success, regardless of the statistics, or you would not be likely to give the business your all.

Some might argue that it is a risk to work for yourself because you are sort of taking yourself out of the workforce specifically in your field and thus might fall behind on new trends or technologies because you are not active in that field. I doubt this. If you’re leveraging your former experience, chances are, as a self-employed person in a similar field, you have to stay ahead of the curve on trends to be competitive. This is why companies will turn to you – as your own enterprise, you are expected to be on the cutting edge. You might ultimately end up ahead of the game.

Difficulties & hard times
Money, money, money
I think one of the major reasons that more people don’t go into business for themselves, which goes beyond the not knowing how or where to start is the cash flow situation. Not only do you not have start-up costs on hand, but you, like everyone else, have bills to pay. And many people are motivated in large part by the paycheck. A steady job, even one you hate, pays you and ensures that you keep a roof over your head and all the rest. But, while theory won’t keep the wolf from the door, the idea that you work just for a paycheck is the kind of mindset that you should work to change.

Learning curve
You have a lot of skills to apply to the work you eventually want to do in your business. But to get there, there’s a lot to learn about starting, operating and building a business. This kind of knowledge doesn’t come overnight, and you will have to work hard and be patient, embracing what may be a steep and possibly winding learning curve.

Overreaching & lack of planning
You might try to do too much, too fast and overreach. You can easily lose the plot by doing this – and burn yourself out. Be sure to have very specific goals – and don’t stray too far from these, even if you see opportunities to dabble in a bunch of different areas outside your core business. This can lead to trouble, especially in the early days when you struggle to find your footing. You need to have a good plan from the beginning and, while you can exhibit some flexibility, straying too far outside the guidelines can get you into trouble, mired in projects that you cannot fulfill your commitments to. The temptation to do this can be great, especially when money is tight in the beginning, but you’re better off in the long run if you stick to your guns and do not take on something you cannot handle. Does that mean you should not challenge yourself? No, but definitely evaluate whether a project is within the scope of what your business and your expertise can offer. You risk a big bundle of stress, financial losses and a potential hit to your reputation if you don’t manage yourself and your obligations carefully.

Legal trouble
Further on the previous point, if you are careless about making delivery promises or careless in taking care of all the required aspects of establishing a business legally (especially where it concerns intellectual property), you can quickly find yourself in legal trouble. This is somewhere you definitely do not want to go. Failing in a small business is one thing – getting tangled up in lawsuits is entirely another. Always put in the time to make sure everything is above board and legal.

The rewards of self-employment
Flexibility
One of the biggest bonuses of working for yourself is the flexibility you can build into your work life. Sure, you will probably be working most of the time – but it’s your business and your time. When you need to run out and do an errand, no one is looking over your shoulder and asking you to punch a time clock. Your time is your own, and you know that you get what you put into whatever efforts you are making. For me, the home office has been a boon – I have discovered that unknown levels of productivity are possible for me when I am working at home, so the readjustment to office life has just not worked well. Sure, I need to be flexible as well – but having your own business buys you this kind of freedom.

Nonstop learning
If you are anything like me, one of the battles of working in a regular job is that many of them have an initial learning curve (new company, new project) but then once you have mastered a few things, there is not a lot of brain stretching going on. This is not always true – there is always something to learn but you’ve got to be proactive about seeking it out. Sometimes the traditional work environment, even if you are like a sponge, picking up new knowledge and skills, just wants to pigeonhole you into whatever role you are doing, and the lack of growth that results from your gusto to learn leaves the learning less than satisfying. This is never a problem in your own enterprise. You have to learn to keep going, and you will apply everything you learn all the time. For those for whom endless curiosity is a constant nag, self-employment is one salve for the soul.

Building your network, building your reputation
Don’t give yourself a bad reputation! Building up your network of clients is the best way to get more clients. In my own experience, I have tried various types of advertising and marketing, and the single best way – that keeps paying off after literally years – is word of mouth. Former/current clients are asked by friends and peers for recommendations, and even if eight years have gone by, they will remember the work I did and pass my name along.

This leads to the next point – working for yourself, you are the show, so you have to put your best foot forward and manage your reputation. Clearly building a solid reputation with clients makes you memorable, keeps them coming back and will grow your business even without you exerting effort. The effort you make today can pay dividends later.

Satisfaction
You did it! Whether you stick with it forever and keep growing or just do the self-employed thing for a while, you did it. You stuck with it and now have this invaluable experience to show that you’ve got business experience, sense and acumen.

Seeing the signs Do it alone
The way things are going – both in the job market as a whole and in specific industries, and perhaps just in your own field – you should be able to read the writing on the wall to assess whether the time has come to strike out on your own and make a go of it.

It’s not that I am a vocal advocate of starting one’s own business – I have done it because I found myself unemployed and with few options living in a new country. And if it seems like a bureaucratic rat maze navigating the vagaries of legal, financial and other considerations in starting a business in your own city, imagine doing it in a foreign country in a new language. But the fact that I managed means that pretty much anyone can do it if you have a solid plan, a target clientele, a way to market yourself and a lot of patience – and networking skills don’t hurt one bit. It is hard work – perhaps even harder and much more time consuming than going to a regular 9 to 5 job, but it can be a salvation and even an addiction once you start to see positive results and the fruits of your labor.

The Changing Workscape: The Upsides of Remote Work

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When asked whether the company has meetings, he replied: “Has anyone ever said ‘I wish I could go to more meetings today’?” – President of Automattic and co-founder of WordPress, Matt Mullenweg

While for me, there are no downsides to remote work, I can understand employers’ resistance and arguments against it. It’s new territory for most of them, so it’s easy to throw out a bunch of ill-considered objections: “if I can’t see or monitor my employees at their desk, I don’t know what they are doing” (which essentially means they do not trust their employees anyway and need to rethink staffing or their tendency to micromanage); “we need to work face-to-face to inspire creativity and innovation” (this may be true some of the time but is no reason to eliminate remote work); “we’re afraid productivity will suffer” (most studies conclude the opposite), etc. It comes down to a need for control.

Discussing the backwardness of the move away from remote work (in reference to Yahoo!’s hotly debated 2013 decision to forbid distance work), Jennifer Owens, editorial director of Working Mother Media, stated in a Forbes article by Jenna Goudreau (“Back to the Stone Age?” – sure feels like it!), “It comes from fear. Fear that if I can’t see you, I don’t know what you’re working on. It’s a distrust of your own workforce.”

The trick perhaps is both in making policy and accompanying attitude changes toward distance work – and finding a balanced approach to distance work. As Wharton research shows as part of its Work/Life Integration Project, there is no ideal “one-size-fits-all” way to do distance work. But offering the possibility means that a company has more tools to tackle all the challenges they face in attracting and keeping the right staff for its needs.

Objections be damned. Speaking from firsthand experience, I have benefited from the flexibility, increased productivity and benefits of focus, a better balance with work and home life and a much stronger sense of being trusted and valued in the company I was a part of. Likewise, it was true that I felt healthier, happier and almost felt as though things like vacation or sick leave mattered less; that is, while we do need time off, the ability to stay at home and structure my time and projects my own way (as long as I met deadlines and expectations) made all my time feel like my own. The comfort of staying at home also meant I was better rested, lost the misery of commuting and was just in the perfect spot for personal contentment and professional achievement. (Some arguments employees have against remote work, though, include the opposite – that professional achievement and advancement can be more challenging as a remote worker because you’re kind of “out of sight, out of mind” – you have to make extra effort to be noticed.)

The upsides are myriad for those employers who will embrace and allow distance work, not dissimilar to things I list as benefits in my personal views on distance work and telecommuting.

Increasing productivity & time savings
With more actual time for working (less time commuting or just sitting around talking – or being disrupted/interrupted in the office), productivity increases. A professor of management from UCLA, David Lewin, mentioned in the same Forbes article that a number of studies show that telecommuting correlates with higher productivity levels.

Boosting focus & eliminating interruptions
Improved focus is a key aspect of working at home that ties directly to improved productivity. Working in an office environment inevitably leads to a number of interruptions, and interruptions have a real cost. It takes time to focus, and every interruption disrupts that focus. Among other studies, University of California at Irvine research indicates that it takes up to 23 minutes to regain that same focus level. It only takes three “little interruptions” then to waste more than a hour of each day! It’s possible to make office rules, which we’ve tried at my office, to reduce these kinds of interruptions, but the truth is – in the destructive open landscape office environment that most companies seem to favor these days, no-interruption policies can never really be enforced. With people walking in, out and through all day long, someone saying, “Do you have a minute?” is enough to derail serious, hard-won concentration (I am a writer, and I need this!) But even the people in the big open room talking to each other – not to you – is more than enough to do the damage. All of these factors lead to the sense of not having enough time to do what needs to get done, which creates considerable anxiety and stress.

Building the dream team
A company can pick the cream of the crop if they are flexible enough to choose employment talent from anywhere. Not restricting a search to the local search area or requiring the right team members to uproot and relocate, a team can be comprised of the best in the world, not just the best in the local commuting area.

Retaining the best – creating loyalty – improving satisfaction
Showing employees that they are trusted and valued and giving them the flexibility to do their jobs creates goodwill and a sense of loyalty. A 2011 WorldatWork study found that “Organizations that have a stronger culture of flexibility also have a lower voluntary turnover rate. In addition, a majority of employers report a positive impact on employee satisfaction, motivation and engagement.”

Fostering corporate agility
Real savings can be achieved by reducing onsite workforce – that is, major real estate and other overhead and infrastructural expenses. With these savings, a company can have a lot more agility and freedom to operate more flexibly and manage expenses. By selecting best-in-class staff wherever they happen to be, a company may be able to take advantage of time zone differences (these are not always a drawback). Sometimes with a distributed staff, a company has staff closer to its customers who can handle those relationships more effectively than from a centralized location much further away.

Another aspect of this kind of agility is the ability to streamline activities. In companies that are really meeting-heavy, where people struggle to get their actual work done, because the tendency is to schedule extraneous and sometimes unnecessary meetings, a remote workforce has to adapt. It’s not that they will not continue to have meetings, but the number and scope of meetings can be pared down to what is needed rather than just what is convenient to have.

In my current company, there is not just meeting overkill but there used to be two annual marketing meetings to which all employees traveled. (And there is a lot of absolutely cost-ineffective travel taking place still). Finally the company decided to embrace the concept of a webinar to deliver this twice-yearly information to all the local markets. While the company is still firmly committed to an overabundance of in-person meetings, at least the step toward using technology to make up for cost cutting measures moved us in the right direction.

Work-life balance & health
I don’t have the hard and fast numbers on me, but it makes sense that people who want to work at home achieve a better work-life balance, which contributes to greater job satisfaction and to life satisfaction overall.

Companies should move away from self-destructive, factory models of work where people are rewarded for arriving early and staying late.” – Matt Mullenweg, Automattic/WordPress

All-or-nothing nature, mistakes and poetry: Oat fudge bars

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