Back to work!

12 02 2012

So last Thursday I started a new job.

Fortunately, it’s a really great job, with a lot of good benefits and an interesting, wide-ranging scope, and I really hope that I can keep it for a while. Unfortunately, I can’t reveal the name of my employer here because, well, I’m just a little paranoid about these things.

It’s a corporate job, and one which finds itself at the crossroads where doing good business meets doing good for society and the environment. It’s in the relatively new, wide-open field of Corporate Social Responsibility.

Companies are finally figuring out that it helps to consider the ethical consequences of their actions, rather than steering directly to maximum profit and ignoring the world around them, or the problems they may be creating.

Taking responsibility.

CSR is a controversial place. Some (neanderthal) corporate executives complain that it’s an expensive waste of money with zero return on investment. Some (dogmatic) non-profit organizations on the other hand complain that companies are engaging themselves in areas in which they have no expertise – and are going to screw it up anyway. Or that their efforts are not sincere. Or that they are interested only in the public relations benefits (also known as “greenwash”).

I’m very aware of the quandary CSR practitioners find themselves in. Nevertheless, I think there’s a lot to be said for the efforts that are being made. And after all, no single company or person can save the world. My employer has a huge interest in the subject, with a correspondingly significant budget as well.

For me, it’s something completely new. So new that in addition to my (full time) job I will also be attending university courses part-time for the next seven months to get a theoretical grounding in the basics. And that’s another challenge – going back to school almost exactly 20 years after I completed my last degree.

(What do I take with me? A pencil case? Or just a laptop?)

This will be my third career. When I got my Master’s degree two decades ago, I read that this was the direction in which society would be moving: While our grandparents’ generation generally stayed at one employer for many years, members of my parents’ generation changed jobs two, three and maybe even four times during the course of their working lives. My generation would change careers that many times.

Et voilà. Here I am.

This new job is waaaaaayyyyyy outside my comfort zone. In, like, Siberia as far as I am concerned. But judging by the winter we are having, I just also may very well be in Siberia right now. Nothing to be afraid of though, just a matter of dressing warm enough, right?

I know I’m smart (kinda), I know I have my head screwed on right (most of the time, at least), and I know that I have mastered incredibly difficult professional situations before – perhaps not with the greatest panache and elegance, but you don’t get points for style here.

Stay tuned, if you’re interested. This is going to be fun.

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Of journalists and corporations

9 10 2011

Like many employees in these difficult economic times, I am disillusioned and disappointed in the place I have been lassooed to these past four years. While chained to my desk, I have become increasingly cynical and disgusted with the superficial nature of the corporate world as a whole. Of the relentless chase after the almighty buck and the daily soul-crushing acts of psychological torture.

A few months ago, I resolved to return to journalism, to my roots, somehow. I decided that I am probably far too critical of corporate hot air to really ever be able to breathe it with ease and spread it with pleasure. Or to drink the poison Kool-aid like I would need to in order to fully succeed as a media flak.

There is no way I will ever be as comfortable in stilettos and a suit as I was in hiking boots and cargo pants, with a reporter’s notebook in my back pocket.

Last week, I received a painful rejection for a journalism job that I felt like I had all sealed up. The hiring manager had (perhaps inadvertently) signaled this to me during my meeting with her.

After I spent weeks waiting for the final thumbs up (that was supposed to be just a formality), she called to tell me that she could not offer me the job covering the Swiss banking industry. Not because my qualifications or experience were insufficient, and not because I was too expensive either. The reason is much more banal and dogmatic: I was disqualified from a job for which I was the top candidate because… (drum roll)… I am married to someone who works at a large Swiss bank.

She told her own superiors that she really, really wanted me on her team, and that she would reshuffle the reporting assignments, allowing me to cover an entirely different industry and focus on entirely different topics. Her managers reiterated their “no way”.

When she told me this, I was stunned and speechless. I had never before been rejected for a job because of the company I keep or the man I am married to.

For those who don’t know Zurich well, it is a small town chock full of financial service companies. It would indeed be strange, I countered, if I did not have close friends (or relatives) in the industry which employs the most people and generates the most tax revenue and economic value in all of Switzerland.

And the fact that the top editors at a high-quality international news organization would not even consider a change of reporting beats to accommodate a very qualified candidate indicates to me that they are more concerned with doctrine and ideology than finding the best people for a particular position. To me, this reeks of discrimination and middle management that has been intimidated into spinelessness by some corporate policy that is not worth the paper it’s printed on. How ironic.

So after this unusual, unbelievable and stinging rejection, I continue my search to be relevant. My search to find a place that will value my skills and experience, long for my writing and appreciate my personality. A place that will not judge me by who I fell in love with and married.

Can’t wait to find out if that place exists out there.





Waiting for the sky to fall

23 08 2011

About two years ago a friend told me her husband was suffering from anxiety attacks. I had no idea why. He has a great personality, a fantastic super-dynamo of a wife, a beautiful home and two very cool kids. What on earth, I thought, is he anxious about? There was no logical reason… at least none that I could see.

Now I know what it feels like. And am hoping no one else notices the state I’m in.

It's like waiting for the sky to fall.

I had made an appointment to see my doctor 2 weeks ago, on the recommendation of a friend. She was concerned about my chronic insomnia and the way it was affecting my personality: I snapped at my colleagues without thinking, my boss’s phone calls sent me into a cold sweat, and my impatience with my own feelings was growing.

Sleep has never been my forte. If I wake in the middle of the night, my sleep cycle is over… it’s like I lose my way to unconsciousness, and I don’t know why. Only in the grey of morning do I sometimes find the key to slumber on my own, just minutes before my alarm clock screams at me to get going – another day has dawned, and I have to darn well make the best of it. And the moments between sleep and awake are tortuous. How will I get through it? I don’t know. I just can’t. But I must. I must get up now. No excuses.

My mother’s voice echoes in the recesses of my brain. No excuses. No excuses. Get up.

I went, thinking my doctor could maybe just prescribe me something to relax.

By asking me a few pointed, probing questions, he touched an exposed nerve that sent me into a physical panic. Suddenly, I saw no way out. It would never get better. I was hyperventilating and blocked. As if a dark wooden plank had been shoved in front of my forehead. I had no words, I saw nothing but black.

I. Cant. Take. It. Anymore.

I can’t do it. I can’t. I can’t.

He diagnosed an acute burnout, with depressive tendencies and the aforementioned anxiety attacks.

And I was like, “Huh? Me? Can’t be. I never get sick. Everything functions. It works. I make it work. And if it doesn’t then I’m a failure. I’ll make it work again. I can. I must.”

And he told me, “Stop. That. Right. Now.”

Pull the rip cord.

Grab the emergency brake.

Get some air.

Stop your world.

Now.

Once I stopped wailing, he asked me the usual questions about suicidal tendencies and thoughts of harming others. He gave me a sick note for two weeks and told me to do things that make me happy: meet friends for coffee, get out into nature, go skate, go fly. He himself is a private pilot and I hadn’t even known it. He said I must take advantage of the healing effects of escaping the burdens of earth for a little while. And gravity.

I don’t know why this is happening to me. I don’t understand the forces that have taken me here. But I accept that going into the cockpit might just help me find a way back.





Real life

17 07 2011

My managers recently told me that my job will be going the way of the dinosaurs soon. As in: extinct. Quite unsettling, especially considering I had no say in the planning or the timing of all this.

I had been toying with the idea of quitting for a while now; I wasn’t particularly happy in my job. The issue of dealing with clueless and socially incompetent superiors is tough enough. But returning from a 3-month sabbatical to find no less than eight close colleagues had decided to flee the institution is a rather large blow to one’s enthusiasm.

Photo out of a recruiting brochure for a large bank. Exciting, huh?

So anyway, I have been chewing on this news for the last couple of weeks and trying to figure out how to make the best of the situation. My concentration often wanders while I am at work, I look out my high floor window at the world below and concoct complex plans involving idealistic notions of the way the world should be – and the positive difference I want to make in it.

The other day I applied to a job with exactly that in the description: “We are looking for people who want to make a positive difference in the world.” Well hell, where have you been all these years, dear potential employer?

The truth is, though, it never is like what they tell you…that’s what bothers me most about being an adult. Parents, teachers and other people of authority dangle this image of the perfect world in front of kids’ noses for the first 18 years of their lives. They are told a million times that a good education and lots of hard work will get them whatever they want, and enable them to live a life of happiness and prosperity. That anything is possible if only they put their minds to it. That there will be a reward in return for years of exertion, good sense and following real and unwritten rules.

When I was a kid, most of us actually believed it all.

And in the second 18 years of life, we found out that that’s simply a bunch of horse manure.

In the meantime – and currently motoring along in my 3rd chunk of 18 years – I am all for telling kids their dreams will never come true, no matter how hard they work or what sacrifices they make. As in: “Forget it kid, your ambitions are toast, especially in this economy.” That would be much more honest than sending them on a wild goose chase for a nonexistent pot of gold.

Certainly every generation has its winners, those superstars who proverbially fly to the zenith of their professions and are not only phenomenally successful, but also genuinely happy. But for all the rest of us who forewent things we believed in in order to bust our chops and never reach that level of success anyway because someone just doesn’t like the way we dress, or the friends we have, or the way we express ourselves, well, then, that’s just time wasted, is it not?

So now I wait for a new employer who will graciously invite me to exchange my brainpower for a pay check. I am “talent”, waiting for a place to be “managed”. Nothing more. My next job will be a transaction – a deal sealed by two signatures on a piece of paper – performed five days a week, for 47 weeks a year, for the number of years it takes before the one side is sick of the other.

Maybe I’m just tired. I know there will be idiots, intrigue, incompetence, injustice and inequality wherever I go, and I will make a sincere effort to deal with them in the best way I know how: to (try to) never again allow myself to get emotionally involved.  Hence, the positive difference I make in this world will be elsewhere.

And never the twain shall meet.





On writing

18 04 2011

I took off three months from work to get cracking on a memoir. That was my declared goal. Before it started, I created an excel-spreadsheet timetable, like in school, with slots for everything from breakfast to yoga to food shopping to skating to flying and, of course, to writing. According to my timetable, I was due to write for something like 7-10 hours every day.

Unfortunately in my immense wisdom and unbridled ambition, I forgot to schedule slots for basic things like showering, phoning with my husband, reading, vacuuming, paying bills and paying attention to the world around me. There was no time to “veg”. And I discovered (and perfected) the fine art of getting in my own way.

Though I have been a writer of sorts for more than 20 years (journalism counts, doesn’t it?), I’m finding that the act of writing, the physical undertaking, is much more difficult and excruciating than I expected. Or maybe I have just forgotten how to do it. Wit, truth and insight are buried deep. Wherever they are lurking, they seem to like it there.

Lots of words on a page. Easy, huh? (Not really.)

In the past few years, I feel like creativity has bled out of me, replaced by ordinariness and tedium. Like my craft has abandoned me. I can’t put a finger on the time or the place – it was a process… it happened much like a stealth bomber approaches a target, creeping in under radar, with folks on the ground not noticing it’s there till it’s too late.

But perhaps I was never the fountain of ideas and the visionary of originality that I thought I was in the first place. Still, the (perceived) end likely came after I traded in my journalism combat boots for corporate 6-inch heels. Press releases, communications strategies and report launch plans do not inspire me. At least not in the industry in which I am currently caged.

This afternoon’s visit to the local bookstore was a sobering experience. Hundreds of biographies and memoirs, most of which are probably exquisitely written, lined the shelves, each story more compelling in its shock and tragedy than the next. And I only skimmed the back covers of maybe 30 of them.

I once read somewhere that a good story is one where the protagonist changes somehow. That through some event or encounter she matures, grows and becomes a different person. It’s this transformation, this emotional evolution that forms the core of a good story. And in many books I saw today, this transformation happens through one or more of the following: death, disease, drunkenness, denial and destruction.

So that’s another thing I’m wondering as I wade into this ocean of words. Must one have hit rock bottom in some way in order to write a convincing and gripping memoir? Must the road of personal growth always be paved with catastrophic and wretched experiences? Doesn’t that get old after a while? Is this the only formula that works? Or that publishers publish?

There are thousands of websites that offer tips and advice to hopeful writers, and the glut of information makes your head spin. If you read enough of them, you will find absolute contradictory information. One “expert” advises one thing on her blog, and the next advises the opposite on his. This wealth of data leaves the nascent yet increasingly insecure creative non-fiction writer to pick and choose to the best of her knowledge and belief. She’s left guessing what’s important and what’s not. This seems like no way to be successful.

Some famous writer in ages past once said something like: writing is one part inspiration and nine parts perspiration. If I was inspired, I would go on google right now to find out who it was. But I’m not. I’m already sweating and overwhelmed by the information I already posess. And with every passing day my discouragement grows. Do I just not have what it takes? What does it take? And why does every writer go through these toxic fits of paralyzing self-doubt and hesitation? And who wants to read about my lousy, insignificant life, anyway?

My writer friends tell me this is all quite normal. But honestly, it is truly crushing. And I’m not sure anymore that I am cut out for the job.





Unemployment and resilience

19 03 2011

It’s hard not to notice the after-shocks of the financial crisis here in South Florida. There are still a lot of houses with “for sale” signs on them and the media are still reporting about long, soul-crushing job searches. Millions of highly-qualified, experienced folks looking for work. Anything at all. Going back to the basics they thought they had graduated from and left behind years ago.

Too many people, too few jobs.

And as I come face-to-face with these stories, I am increasingly thankful that I made it through the crisis with a stable job, in a stable environment. I complain a lot about toxic levels of arrogance, but yes, okay, it’s complaining at a very high level.

The other night out at the beach, I met a woman, about my age… let’s call her Carrie. We got to talking. She had a very slight British accent and she told me that she moved to Florida from London 20 years ago, and then from here to the West Coast in 2005. She was back east on business this week.

She asked me what I was doing in Miami, and I told her I was on an unpaid sabbatical.

Carrie said she had just gotten off a sabbatical of her own about a year ago. It was 18 months long, and involuntary. The sabbatical she had, however, is generally known under another name: “unemployment”. She had been a marketing manager for a global motorcycle manufacturer, and was laid off after 15 years in the industry.

Carrie spent more than a year and a half with no idea what her future would bring, living off her savings and hoping every day for some kind of turn for the better. She sent out more than 200 job applications and heard little, if anything, back.

“It was just like writing into a big black hole,” she told me.

I had heard exactly this sentence on the radio earlier that day. And now the story had a real face. Carrie said she ended up doing what she called “internships”. But, I asked, what company was willing to give someone in their mid-40’s an internship when there are long lines of young university graduates applying for the same thing?

“Well, they weren’t internships in the classic sense. More like… loose consulting. Or just sitting in on conferences, going to company events, volunteering my time to do… anything, really, and networking.” All for free, of course. And she never gave up.

Her big break came just over a year ago, as a direct result of one of these “internships”. She got a job as the national sales manager for a maker of motorcycle protective clothing. She now supervises more than 100 sales representatives working for her and regularly travels across North America visiting and training her employees.

“It’s my dream job,” she told me, back in the industry and sport she has loved since she was a kid. But it came at a high price. She said she had to take a 65% pay cut. “It’s been really, really hard. Really hard. But it’s getting better now.”

This looks dangerous. But hey, if it's your thing....

Carrie’s story had a happy ending. She made me think about myself, and how I might react in a situation like hers. Four years ago, I was unemployed for three lousy months, resting in a generous European social security net, and still I was close to a nervous breakdown.

I’m wondering if I could be as resilient as Carrie, if I found myself in her shoes. What would it take to not lose faith in my skills and abilities, in humanity, and in the system? Where would I get the positive energy to keep trying? And what would be the alternative?





Stuffed shirts and other friendly co-workers

25 10 2010

They say you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family. How very true. But – surprise! – you can’t choose your work colleagues either. As most of you who are laboring in the workforce have already figured out, every group has its real winners. One has to learn how to deal with them, somehow, respecting them for who they are, and loving each for their own special…shall we say…talents.

Now that I have been back from vacation for a while and interacting with my co-workers again, here is a short list of a few folks with whom I spend most of my waking hours. We will soon even get to spend a  w-h-o-l-e  weekend retreat together. Oh I just can’t wait!

The Stuffed Shirt

  • a yes-man extraordinaire with arrogance oozing out of his pores.
  • has no qualms about telling you directly how stupid he thinks you are.
  • will kill and then step over (and sometimes on) the dead bodies to further his career.

Not really my type.

Queen Shit

  • acts like she owns the place, including appropriating the parking spot closest to the door.
  • spends most of the work day taking breaks, sipping green tea and gossiping.

The Tragic Heroine

  • one of the longest-serving, hardest-working members of staff.
  • was forced to watch helplessly as most of her department was decimated in a cost-cutting exercise.
  • bends over backwards to accommodate others and always delivers ahead of every deadline.

The Ogre

  • tolerates no resistance, takes prisoners.
  • always in a bad mood and always right.
  • always.

The Ageless Intellectual Hippie

  • spent the final years of the 1960’s tossing Molotov Cocktails from barricades across Europe.
  • hairstyle and politics have changed little since the summer of love but ideals have been modified to suit the modern mainstream.
  • is most comfortable quoting Ché Guevara while nibbling on sashimi and sipping a flute of Veuve Cliquot.

Onward comrades!

The Snake

  • female, sinister, cold.
  • has a sharp tongue but can also inflict lethal injuries with a single nasty look.
  • “it’s all about me, me, me.”

The “Office Mattress”

  • is an explanation really necessary here?

The Consciencious Objector

  • smart as a whip and possesses an uncannily accurate bullshit radar.
  • has a strong sense of justice and is very vocal about it.
  • an excellent source to have hanging around the watercooler.

The Company Clown

  • free entertainment, no matter what the occasion.

The Company Joke

  • a detriment to the collegial atmosphere in more ways than one.
  • spineless as a tasered amoeba.

The Fish Out of Water

  • obviously uncomfortable in office clothes and shaky on high heels.
  • has not mastered the art of silly management politics yet and probably never will.
  • regularly invests in EuroMillions lottery tickets.