Work is Raunchier than Fiction

Note: Image above used in a real webinar.  Transcript below has been adjusted to better align with the image’s message. 

Ally:  Okay, so there was a question about the potential fueling options in the New York Metro area.  Johanna can you do a quick on-the-fly evaluation?

Johanna:  Sure!  Let me zoom into the region.  Remember earlier we showed an analysis indicating that natural gas has some penetration in this area, so I’ll turn on the natural gas layers.  As you can see, there are three distinct strategic thrust areas:  the areas outlined in blue.  Those shafts indicate where we have a deep penetration of natural gas stations — indicated by the blue dots — along an interstate.

Johanna:  First consider the shaft from Scranton heading east.  There we have an exciting opportunity for double penetration into both New York and New Jersey.  Next while there is only a single station in White Plains, with some attention, that shaft could rise and stimulate the upstate New York market.  Finally the shaft along the Long Island Expressway has so many stations it almost seems to be ready to explode with potential.

Johanna:  This map makes me so excited about the growing opportunities in the New York region.  Transforming these shafts into natural gas corridors isn’t going to be easy — in fact it’s going to be hard, very hard.  In the end, with a little political and technical stroking, I know our strategic thrusts will climax into a robust natural gas fueling infrastructure in this region.

Ally:  Gosh, you’ve got me worked up!  I can’t believe how huge this opportunity is.  That was a stimulating question and a really deep analysis by Johanna.  Thanks!  Are there any other regions folks would like to explore?

The Wet-Willy Guide to Platonic Touching

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I was born from a non-hugger, so all this current rigmarole about “can I even hug my coworker anymore” has me baffled.  From childhood I learned the discomfort that hugs can cause, and was progressively raised to ask permission before initiating physical contact with another human being.  If you come into my office at work crying I will stand up put my arms out and ask, “Are you a hugger?”  If you are, then you are welcome to step into my hug.  If you are not, then you can shake your head, continue weeping, and I will offer you a tissue.  However, I will not force a tissue upon you and wipe your face, because what if you don’t like tissues?

One of my best friends is also a non-hugger.  For ten years we have worked alongside each other, raised our girls together, and I have never hugged her.  I’ve watched others hug her and seen her tolerate the contact.  She’s never pushed back or rejected the hug, because she’s a polite person, but I always wonder why others’ need to hug is more important than her desire to not be hugged.  Especially when she is in crisis, I marvel at how people unknowingly make the situation worse by hugging her.

As I troll the social network scene I notice person after person commenting on how uncomfortable this “no hugging” mandate makes them, and I think about all the people who have been made uncomfortable by their hugs.  So I have come up with a rubric for hugging which I call “The Wet-willy Guide to Platonic Touching.”  Here is how it works.

The Wet-willy Guide to Platonic Touching

Put yourself in a hugging scenario.  Maybe a colleague has just returned from medical leave and you want to welcome him back.   Perhaps you haven’t seen a client in a year and you find yourselves in a meeting together.  After twenty years you see your old lab partner from college at the grocery store.  Before you hug translate the action of hugging into a wet-willy.

For those of you unaware, the wet-willy is the process of sticking your finger into your mouth and thoroughly coating it with saliva.  You then remove the dripping finger from your mouth and place it into another person’s ear and wiggle your finger around a bit.  It’s a common practice among elementary aged boys.  

So now, consider each of the scenarios above.  Would you give that person a wet-willy?  Of course it will depend on the relationship.  If you and the colleague are good friends outside of work maybe an impromptu spitty finger in the ear will be fine.  The client situation?  Probably never a good idea.  The relationship plus the public venue makes for an unlikely successful ear rooting.  The old lab partner?  Maybe the two of you enjoyed a carefree relationship in the past, but do you know where her ear has been or where she has been?  Maybe she’s just been released from an anger management program and you could cause her to relapse into her old unwelcome bludgeoning ways.  Maybe she’s joined a religion which does not allow for physical contact outside of marriage.  Either way, probably not worth the risk to you or her.

Personally, I would not wet-willy in any of these situations.  It just seems too perilous.  If I’d had a prior wet-willy relationship with these folks, I might ask “Hey you wanna wet-willy?!?” or even stick my finger in my mouth and offer it, allowing them to run forward with their ear proffered.

Assuming you are in normal healthy relationships, there are probably situations where you don’t have to ask, and those will differ by person.  I’d totally wet-willy my kiddo.  I’d also do it to my husband, who would hate it, but it’s within the norms of our physical relationship.  There are a few friends, and that’s about it.  Now, consider who you would unabashedly wet-willy your life.  Maybe you have a more physical family than I do, in which case your your brother, your sisters, your parents, your spouse or your child might love wet-willy contact.  (And your brother will probably do it regardless just because it makes you uncomfortable, because that’s what brother’s do.  Sibling relationships are based on forgiving cruelty.)  If the person isn’t on your wet-willy list then don’t enter their ear without asking.  Sure, you might get rejected, but a “no thank you” response and the shot to your ego is better than the alternative.

Now, let’s say you assumed incorrectly and the person you thought was accepting of wet-willies is not.  You stick your finger in their ear and they shriek, “Oh gross!  What the hell is wrong with you?” There is an immediate and appropriate response.

You say, “I am so sorry I made you uncomfortable.  I won’t wet-willy you again.  Is there anything I can do to make it better?”

Do not explain to them how you like wet-willies or how you thought you had a wet-willy relationship or how most people really like your wet-willies.  No.  Do not get mad at them because you are embarrassed they rejected you.  Don’t shame them because they do not share your affection for spitty ears.  They don’t need to know about how in your family wet-willies are the epitome of caring.  Finally, in no circumstances is it okay to wet-willy them again, to show how really inoffensive your wet-willies are.

Now, go back and read the wet-willy instructions as hugs.  Hugs aren’t that different.  It involves even more body contact and on sweaty days or in crying situations there’s an exchange of bodily fluids.  A hug can be just as invasive to an individual.  So before you hug, just ask yourself, would I give this person a wet-willy without asking?  If the answer is no, than it’s really simple to say, “Do you want a hug?”  Wait for a response before acting, and respect the wishes of the person you care enough to hug.


Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

Gold Star – 100%

I am a grown up.  My life is measured in vague shades of grey.  At work, the exceptional ratings are saved for the top 5-10% and I’m lucky to see one every 5 years.  (And due to recent changes, I’m certain to not see an exceptional anytime soon.)

As a parent, it turns out there is no “mom of the year” award.  Even if there was, I wouldn’t win it.  While I’d score high marks on basic measures like my daughter being alive and her not getting called into the principal’s office, I would get zero points on unexpected top-mom qualities like “make myself a priority”.  I need to lose 10 pounds and am too frequently unshowered in public.  (True story:  I picked up my daughter braless the other day.  I mean I had a shirt, a sweatshirt and a coat on, but no way do free breasts get you mom-award points.)

Then there is my writing persona.  My short story came back last week with a kind but brief rejection: “We appreciate the chance to read it. Unfortunately, the piece is not for us. ”  I ignored the tiny voice in my head that said, they seem nice, so reply back and see if they know who it IS for.  That would be helpful.  Instead I did what I’m supposed to do:  submit again to a new journal and not be disgruntled.  I’m trying, but so far my publishing career score would be a 0%.

Then there’s graduate school.  Given the vague I’m doing okay, or at least better than nothing scores in the rest of my life, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when my first homework assignment grade gave me a thrill.  I mean, it was just 1 out of 1 – I just had to turn the dumb thing in – but I got 100%.  Now three assignments in my grade is 21/21, still 100%.  My homework grade is perfect.  I have an app on my phone for school, and I can pull up my class for anyone to see and show them that I am perfect at something.  (No, I do not show anyone my perfect grade.  Okay, except my husband, and kid, and a couple of friends at work.  Well, and now all of you readers, but that’s it so far.)

A friend told me I should print my homework assignments out and put them on the fridge, just like I would do with my daughter’s good grades.  I haven’t gone that far yet, but I am wearing my little virtual gold star around proudly.  Only six assignments left.  Gotta go finish my reading, so I don’t break my perfect streak.  100%, just in case you missed it.

Earth Day in my Gardens

It’s Earth Day!  What better way to celebrate than to show you my gardens?  This post was written last year when Amanda Soule of Soulemama asked her readers to submit a piece about their garden.  Each month she selected one to share with her readers.  Well, my gardens never made her blog, but they can sure make mine!  Shall we go for a stroll?


Gardener: Johanna Levene

Garden Location and Zone: Denver, Colorado – Zone 5

Vegetable Garden Size: Home (300 sq feet) School (500 sq feet)

Image 1 - windows into the gardenSpring in the Garden 

How long have you been gardening?

I don’t ever remember not gardening.  My spring and summer childhood memories revolve around Mother’s Day flower shopping, mixing bright blue Miracle Grow water for tomato planting, and sitting very quietly with my mom listening for tomato hornworms as they chewed their way through our plants. When we found one we’d fling it into the street, except the one time we put it in a terrarium and watched it grow into a spectacularly terrifying moth.

Image 2 - Johanna in the gardenMe and Raggedy Ann in my grandma’s garden 40 years ago

I taught my husband to garden when we bought our house and he has taken over most of the maintenance while I still focus on the new plantings and the vegetable garden.  We’ve moved away from the chemical fertilizer of my childhood to organic gardening, but he brings a new kind of technology to our efforts.  As a mechanical engineer he can be found weekend mornings walking around our yard with his AutoCAD drawings of our garden recording the growth, blooms and colors of the plants.  He maintains both an electronic and hard copy of these maps:  he is a modern garden dork.

 Why do you garden?

Gardening is one pastime that brings our family of diverse interests together.  In our life we have two working parents and an only child and it’s easy to get swept away in all the things we “should” be doing.  Gardening makes us slow down and spend time together because we all enjoy being outside together playing in the dirt.

Where do you go for gardening inspiration?

My garden inspiration is largely found in walks through the neighborhood, visits to my parent’s house, and trips to my local nursery.  I have been known to steal seeds from a neighbor’s unique flower or bring a trowel when visiting a friend who has a particularly pretty iris.  

What’s your biggest gardening challenge?

In Denver late freezes, summer hail, and early freezes are the destroyers of gardens.  Last year we planted two Sundays before Memorial Day and our garden was demolished by hail two days later.  The year before we had Japanese Beetles for the first time.  We tried to control their population by borrowing a friend’s chickens for a weekend.  We believed in that solution so much that we got our own chickens last year in order to avoid loading chickens into the back of my Subaru.  Also chickens turn bugs into eggs, which is awesome.

Image 3 - Hail DamageLate May hail damage and our white picket fence.  Poor plants.

 What’s your biggest garden accomplishment?

For the past couple of years we have included our daughter’s friends in the planting and harvesting of our garden, and we’ve loved introducing new kids to our garden.  Last year our family expanded our influence to include seventy-five third graders at our public elementary school.  The parent who had been in charge of our school garden was graduating her oldest child, so when the school asked for volunteers we jumped at the chance.  We plant with the kiddos in late May and harvest in September.  We love every minute of it.  My favorite moment last year was at the plant sale when this tough eighth grade boy came loping down the stairs and said, “Do I smell tomato plants?  I love that smell.” Even the big kids get excited about the garden.  The school garden gives kids a focal point that they look forward to in the younger grades, own in third and fourth grade, and then remember in the later grades.

What do you most love to grow?

We grow flowers and vegetables.  In the veggie garden tomatoes and Anaheim peppers are our standby favorites, but the past few years we’ve grown potatoes, and they are magical.  The plant grows, the plant dies and you don’t know what the harvest looks like until you dig around.  We never fail to miss a spud or two so the potatoes just keep perpetuating.  Oh, and don’t get me started on pumpkins.  One day you have no pumpkins and the next day one has grown so big you can’t get it out of the tomato cage.

Image 6 - pumpkin in a cagePumpkin in a cage

In the flower beds we have tons of spring bulbs: tulips, miniature iris, hyacinths, crocus, and daffodils.  My heart thaws every February when the first crocus appears.  We’ve got color all year, but the flower gardens reach their peak in spring and early summer.  In Colorado, July and August are a bit hot and dry for many blooms.

If you have children, what role do they play in your gardening?

We include our daughter as much as she wants to be included.  From year to year her interest and commitment change, but we try not to force her into gardening because we think nothing ruins a kid’s love of “yard work” like being told they must participate.  Last year my husband and I did most of the planting – both times, stupid hail – by ourselves.  The spring vegetables are her favorite and she’ll head out to the garden before school to snack on lettuce and snap peas.  In the fall she’ll help us harvest the veggies and process them for storage.  Our daughter is also enjoying our new role as garden parents at school and is looking forward to her turn planting the school garden this year.

Image 7 - baby in the gardenGardening before she could walk eight years ago

 Can you share one or two of your favorite gardening tips?

We’ve lucked into a couple of natural pest solutions that make gardening easier:  plant cilantro right next to your tomatoes to keep the hornworms away, and a huge lemon verbena plant in the middle of everything keeps a variety of pests away and smells great when you *accidentally* crush it when weeding.

 Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about your garden?

We have an urban garden at our house, and it supplements our meals, but does not come close to providing all the food our family eats.  Our school garden provides an opportunity for kids to learn where food comes from and harvest a feast for the fourth graders in the fall.  Our gardens are as much about growing our family and community as they are about growing food.

 Can you tell us about yourself?

By day, Johanna Levene is a manager of a team of ten web developers, database administrators, analysts and projects managers that build web tools about renewable energy and alternative fuels.  In the evenings she transitions to a mom of a third grader which can include the roles of a soccer coach, gardener, meal maker, and pet caretaker of two cats, one hamster, three chickens, and a few snails.  Once the kiddo goes to bed, Johanna’s evening persona morphs into a crafter with a primary focus on knitting, and an aspiring novelist.  When she’s not busy with the rest of that stuff she manages to be a wife too.

Writing away the soul raisin


Have you read the book Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel?  It is one of my absolute favorites.  I’ve read it, listened to the audio-book, and am now experiencing the joy of studying it in my apocalyptic fiction class.  If you read it, be warned it won’t wow you out of the gate.  It’s a long slow dance of a book, and you won’t even recognize there is music until you are a hundred pages in and the true melody isn’t apparent until over 200 pages in.  But I think the symphony she creates is worth listening to on repeat.

I’m talking about those people who’ve ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed.  Do you know what I mean?  They’ve done what’s expected of them.  They want to do something different, but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they are trapped….

I love the story because it’s an apocalyptic mystery punctuated by eye opening life lessons.  One chapter, in particular, speaks to me in such a way it is literally life changing.  Literally, literally, not like Gwen Stefani in The Voice literally.  (Gwen, your head has never exploded.  Just stop.)

…because I think people like him think work is supposed to be drudgery punctuated by very occasional moments of happiness, but when I say happiness, I mean distraction.  You know what I mean?

Section 4. The Starship.  Chapter 26.  Page 160.  No spoiler alert here, other than the life changing kind of spoiling.  Clark is heading in to do his job.  He conducts assessments of executives who need to improve and then makes a plan for their improvement. In this chapter he’s interviewing someone who works for the unnamed executive.  Her words cut through my soul.

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I have moments when I love my real job.  Moments when I feel important and valued and when I honestly believe I am making the world change for the better.  I love my team and the people I work with completely.  But… but… we work in renewable energy.  We are largely federally funded.  The bottom is falling out of everything.  Our leadership team changed and no longer values managers, like me, but values self-managing PhD’s and I have nothing but a bachelors of science.  I have indirectly been told that I am not qualified and not worthy.  The bureaucracy becomes oppressive and there are days, weeks, months when I can feel my soul shriveling to a tiny soul raisin in my gut.  There is enough good at work to keep the soul raisin from drying up completely, but I don’t want to live with a soul raisin.  I dream of a soul grape or, can you imagine, a big plump soul watermelon that fills my entire body cavity.

…they are like sleepwalkers…and nothing every jolts them awake.

So last week I made a change.  A scary brave change.  I dropped to 32 hours a week.  I gave myself a gift of Thursday, so that I can write.  So I can try to publish that short story that is almost perfect.  So I can write the second draft of that book that calls to me on my 45 minute commute to and from work.  So I can finish that second novel that just recently developed a muse who will not shut up.  She’s throwing books in my way that inspire me.  She’s providing workshop comments from my class that make me want to sob with the joy that somehow my story is pouring out my fingers, onto a page, and translated through reader’s eyes to something even better than I imagined.  Stephen King wasn’t kidding.  It’s magic.

So here I am.  I’m doing it.  I told my boss.  I told my boss’s boss.  I told my team.  I told them I am taking time off to pursue a masters degree – which I will get to – and to write.  (The masters degree makes the whole thing more legitimate to the engineers, and will be relevant to book three.)  I told them there was a novel that needed to be edited and another to finish writing.   And like most big announcements it had grown so much bigger inside me than it actually was outside of me.  People were kind.  They were interested.  They said they were jealous of my passion.

…he had been sleepwalking, Clark realized, moving half-asleep through the motions of his life for awhile now, years; not specifically unhappy, but when had he last found real joy in his work?  What was the last time he’d been truly moved by anything?  When had he last felt awe or inspiration?

So here we go.  I’m promising myself a year.  A year to finish what I have started.  A year to write, edit, submit, get rejected, network, and see where this journey takes me.  And even if at the end I don’t end up with a book anyone else will publish then I will do it myself, and I will do it having grown a grapefruit of a soul.  Because I want to live all of my life and I want it to be filled with awe, joy, and inspiration with a tiny contrast of drudgery.  The drudgery is still important, because if all you know is joy and a watermelon soul you can’t possibly appreciate it, right?

Now, time to write.


Credit for all quotes go to Emily St. John Mandel and her glorious Station Eleven.  Thank you for the amazing book, and for providing words to convey my unhappiness,  which motivated my change.

Personality Evolution

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Image from 16 Personalities.

People, people, people.  The past few days I’ve been obsessed with personality and character, which is not in my comfort zone.  As someone with a degree in engineering who works with a bunch of computer programmers I have spent my life interacting with other humans (because cyborgs aren’t perfected yet) but not always understanding other people.  In my work space I use personality tests and data to try glean information about those around me.  I’m really fond of the Strength Finder analysis and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).  Oftentimes with those two pieces of data I feel more comfortable knowing those around me.

The one bummer about Myers-Briggs is that it’s ridiculously expensive, and depending on the year my company may or may not foot the bill to let new people take the test.  Well, this week one of my colleagues sent out a link to 16 Personalities.  You get a Myers-Briggs-ish result at the end, with an additional “identity” trait and it’s free! The price point is great, and there is an added benefit of a really spectacular website design.  In about 10 minutes I’d answered all the questions and got my result: INFP-A, The Mediator.

Reading through the results they seemed as accurate as any of those test are, but the F shocked me.  My entire life I’ve been a thinker (T), not a feeler (F).  (The third letter is either thinking or feeling.)  When I first took Myers Briggs in 1999 I was an INTJ (Introversion, Intuition, Thinking, Judging.)  From the MTBI website:

INTJ:  Have original minds and great drive for implementing their ideas and achieving their goals. Quickly see patterns in external events and develop long-range explanatory perspectives. When committed, organize a job and carry it through. Skeptical and independent, have high standards of competence and performance – for themselves and others.

About 10 years ago I took the test again, and had shifted slightly.  My structure, or how I deal with the outside word, had changed from Judging (J) to Perceiving (P).  I went from being settled and organized to being more flexible and spontaneous.  I was always on the borderline there, neither a strong J or P, so the switch didn’t really surprise me.  Also, my husband is a pretty strong J, so I think I naturally needed to provide some flexibility in our family unit.

The rest of my traits have always been pretty cemented.  I am a pretty strong introvert (I), I love interpreting information (N) and when I make decisions I am logical (T).  For example, I used a spreadsheet and a formula to name my daughter: happy to send you a copy if you want to try it out.  When I need to make decisions I take squishy ideas and turn them into hard numbers, then evaluate those numbers to make sure that I’m not just making a decision on a whim.  I was confident those three character traits defined me, until now.

This new test has me at 59% feeling, so not really even borderline.  The 16 Personality site says,

Feeling individuals are sensitive and emotionally expressive. They are more empathic and less competitive than Thinking types, and focus on social harmony and cooperation.

Okay, well I am still not sensitive and emotionally expressive, but the rest of the definition seems pretty spot on.  I am regularly commended at work for not needing to get credit for my work and collaborating.  My team is built on maximizing everyone’s strengths and acknowledging that we all bring very different but important skills to our work.  I, as the manager and client liaison, am not more important than our programmers, analysts, testers, or system administrators.  We all provide critical pieces to our work in different ways.  Similarly, as a parent I’m the one who listens to the woes of third grade and says, “Man, that sounds so hard.  I’m sorry you had to go through that.”  My husband, a T, has a million suggestions for every conflict.

So I’ve had this new personality suit I’ve been wearing around all weekend to see how it fits.  For highly-self aware people I’m sure that news like this isn’t even news, but for me having a new definition of who Johanna Levene is will take some adjusting.  I’ll continue to dig through my results, and compare it to my husband’s and my kiddo’s to better understand our family dynamics.  As people at work take the test and share their results I’ll figure out if that changes the needs and work of our team.  I’m also going to research if the differences between MTBI and 16 Personalities to see if may there is a difference in methodology.

All that said, I did have a moment of clarity with these results, that might help with my whole writing in a closet dilemma.  According to the 16 Personalities site, Mediators are led by their interests, and not rewards and punishment.

At their best, these qualities enable Mediators to communicate deeply with others, easily speaking in metaphors and parables, and understanding and creating symbols to share their ideas. Fantasy worlds in particular fascinate Mediators, more than any other personality type. The strength of their visionary communication style lends itself well to creative works, and it comes as no surprise that many famous Mediators are poets, writers and actors.

Oh… well at least that helps explain this insatiable need I’ve had over the past three years to start writing and telling stories.  Because really, this new passion of mine is really incongruent with an INTP/INTJ personality type.  See, eventually my inherent N trait will sort this all out…unless I become an S someday…

If you take the test I’d love to hear your thoughts on your results!

Gratitude for a full life 

April started and the Afthead life ramped up to a new level: gardens to plant, soccer games to play, school and work chaos to wrangle, and why not throw in a construction project to top it all off?  Things are busy, not passive aggressive whiny busy, but filled with things we love to do.  Today as I rode my bike home from dropping my car off for an oil change I thought about all the things I’m grateful for right now:

  • For the computer glitch that allowed me to book an oil change appointment even when there were no slots available, and for the kind man who said he would fit me in.
  • For the ability to ride my bike home past Craig Hospital where two people were outside in their wheelchairs enjoying the beautiful weather.
  • For the stunning flowers this spring made more precious by the snow forecast this weekend.

  • For soccer season, the girls on our team, the parents of those girls, and my own daughter’s growth in skill and friendship and enjoyment of the game.  Also, because she’s learning how to “suck it up” when things don’t go her way – a life lesson she desperately needs.
  • For unexpected bravery ignited by soccer friends which has led to my daughter desperately excited about going to sleep away camp this summer.  My baby at eight wants to go to sleep away camp?  How does that happen?

  • For warm cats in sunshine and remembering how much her brother loved sunbeams.

  • For having the means to do this to our basement just because we are tired of having no outlets and two sad overhead lights. It just feels decadent to get rid of the old dropped ceilings and flickering florescent lights and build a real grown up basement…just because we want to.

  • For a free cinnamon roll!

  • For amazing colleagues who leave mysterious tiny unicorns on everyone’s computer and can be counted on to creatively find a way to keep us going even after losing a huge chunk of funding.

  • For the patience to believe my writing is only in hibernation while the rest of the world is waking up and that it too will return after this season of fullness ends.
  • For friends, which is a whole series of posts coming.  I am so grateful right now for friends.

Happy Thursday readers!  I am so grateful for you too!

Is pole-dancing or writing a more embarrassing hobby?

The answer might surprise you.


Today my daughter, who wanted to be a doctor when she was three, announced that now she wanted to be a singer or an artist when she grew up: the singer part is new.  When she was out of earshot I asked my husband, “At what age do I tell her that under no circumstances will she be a singer or an artist?”

“When she’s a junior in high school and she still says that’s what she wants to be,” he replied.

I am a hypocrite.  I aspire to be a writer, but do not want my daughter to want to be an artist.  Somehow it’s okay that I want to be a writer in my spare time because I have a real job.  Since writing is just a hobby, it’s okay…except even then it’s not really.  When I was at a work meeting recently with 60 people we all had to go around the room and tell our “secret talent.”  One woman said she used to have a food blog with over 100,000 views.  One woman can herd goats.  A man explained his art – oil on hammered metal – and when my turn came I said, “I am a knitter.”  Others went on to reveal things like a competitive pole dancing talent and I wondered why I couldn’t bring myself to say that I am a writer or that I recently finished my first novel.  Why is writing more embarrassing than pole dancing or knitting?

One of my issues is that in all areas of life I am in a rut.  My real job isn’t going well and inevitably the place I spend 40 (+ or – 20) hours a week impacts the rest of my life.  When work goes down the toilet so does my general outlook on life, and as a result  work starts going even worse and the spiral continues downward.  Eventually I don’t want to work, parent, write or knit or do much of anything but sit in the parking lot at work and dread my day.

I’m bad at my job which means my whole outlook on me is a mess.  I’m obviously a crappy writer and mother and wife and child and knitter: you should see the mess I just made out of the blanket I am working on.  When things get like this nothing will convince me that I don’t suck and I’ll find endless examples to support my theory.  (My husband will tell you I am a joy to live with when I get in this place.) If I’m getting consistent external feedback that supports my crappiness vision then things go from bad to worse, and I’m getting that right now in vast quantities.  Ergo, I am not in a good place.

Then today I read this amazing article in the Washington Post that promises to fix my “negative self talk” problem.  I am supposed to write three things I liked about myself everyday before I go to bed and read the ever growing list when I wake up each morning.  I emailed the Washington Post article author to commit to the project, because I think accountability is important for me to stick with this.

So here I am at the end of the first rotten day and I need to start my list.  As much as I want to rant about my shortcomings I’ll do the assignment, mostly because I need a deadline to stop being miserable.  If things are not better in 30 days, either due to this exercise or some other reason, I can assess bigger changes.

My first list:

1. I like people even more for their quirkiness: for example my daughter’s friend who only eats ~6 foods.  It makes her parents crazy, but I just adore that uniqueness about her.

2. I said hello to my friend’s stepdaughter when I saw her at the garden store, even thought she was with her mom. It was a little awkward explaining the relationship to her mom, but worth it to see the joy in the girl’s eyes at being recognized by a grown up in an unexpected place.  I like that I think kids are people too.

3.  I asked a friend to recommend a recipe so I can make a dinner for a family friend whose dad died.  She is a very healthy eater, so my normal comfort food options are no good.  I like that when I comfort friends I try to do it in a way that is thoughtful.

Now I need to transcribe these into my notebook and read them tomorrow morning.  Hopefully in 30 days I’ll have a perspective that helps me realize my dreams, gets me out of my own way, and let’s me confidently claim my unique talents.

 

The troll mirror 

Remember the magic mirror at work?  The one that makes this aging wrinkling expanding lady feel a little bit pretty?  Well, I found its evil cousin this week.

Prior to the beginning of my two-day meeting I used the public restroom at the Residence Inn hosting us.  After washing my hands I went to check that my dress wasn’t tucked into my tights.  There before me was a fat squat version of myself.  I gasped and checked to see if I had an evil ugly twin sister standing behind me, but no, this reflected troll was me!  I raced out in horror, but did check to see if my troll underware was showing before I fled.

It was a scarring experience, but I am brave so immediately told a friend, “I am either a hideous troll person or the mirror in that bathroom is horrible.”  She is brave too and went to investigate.  Thankfully she also reflected a squat version of herself.  (Well, I was thankful anyway.  I don’t think she was.)

For two days I warned all the women at the meeting with whom I had even a passing relationship.  Why?  Because this was one of those dress-up meetings.  A meeting where you try on your outfits at home before you pack, and bring coordinated accessories.  A meeting where you check a bag because you want your full sized products.  It wasn’t a beauty pageant or a meeting about how we looked, but it was a business meeting with posturing and politics and one of our female weapons is looking good. Nothing can diminish that power like the fear that our carefully prepared shell is ugly.  No one else deserved the self-esteem hit I took.

Something magical happened with the sharing.  The mirror became a joke, “the troll mirror.”  A joke shared only between the women of the group.  The men heard about the horror, but claimed they had no portal to the bizarro world in their bathroom.  We would laugh with each other in the restroom as our features gently expanded, stretched and shrunk if we moved in front of the mirror.  We all celebrated that we didn’t really look like that.

In the sharing of our secret worries about how we look and our insecurities we grew closer. The inside joke will make us evaluate mirrors at future meetings.  The experience made me bolder at the meeting: more willing to ask hard questions and risk embarrassment.  The troll mirror had a different kind of magic then my office mirror.

In the end, it made me really brave.  Brave enough to take a troll picture of myself and post it on my blog.  In my hipster troll outfit of jeans and my winter coat the effect is diminished, but not entirely.  I am not this squat.

Oh, and the sunglasses I have on?  Those are my rose colored glasses.  So while I might look hideous, the colors were bright and beautiful to my eyes.  Tomorrow I’ve got to get a picture of myself in the work magic mirror in the magic sunglasses to heal my self image.

It isn’t just about payday

I graduated from college almost 20 years ago with my degree in Chemical Engineering. Most of the open jobs were with oil companies drilling on the north shore of Alaska.  After having spent 3 years interning in renewable energy I didn’t want to go rape and pillage the Alaskan wilderness.  The other options were limited.  Caterpillar was hiring in Peoria, IL but that interview started with a large man with a large hat scanning my 22 year old self and slowly asking, “So little lady, why would…YOU…want to come work for Caterpillar?”  I didn’t get a second interview.  The other opportunity for me was to go work in the hugely growing world of computer programming.  I’d taken a few programming courses, I liked them, and I was offered a job with a huge consulting firm in Chicago.   They said I was smart and they would train me to code.  I’d be surrounded by people my own age.  It seemed like a great opportunity, but why?

Your first real job offer.  Do you remember it?  Did you spend a lot of time figuring out if your job was a good fit?  Did you wonder if the corporate culture fit your needs?  I didn’t, or I didn’t evaluate my opportunities consciously beyond “How much do they pay?”  Twenty years later, I know that for me, that’s one of the last questions I need to ask myself.

Last year I was invited to a women’s networking event where the featured speaker was going to present on “Women entering the C-suite.”  The presenter was a woman, 5 years younger than me, who was a career coach that charged between $15k – $45k per person to coach women into finding C level positions.  You know, for those of us dying to become a CIO, CFO, CEO, or COO.  Personally, I have no ambitions in this direction but I have friends who do, and there was free food and wine, so I went and what I learned was eye opening.

This woman, who had to make 3 times my salary, explained that in order to reach your career goals, you first have to understand what you want out of your career.  She then challenged us to make a list of things that we want out of a job.  I have no real notes from this discussion, because I have since lost the notes I took in my daughter’s notebook with her colored pencil, but I have a strong recollection of our list.  It looked like this:

  1. Money
  2. Flexibility
  3. Benefits
  4. Friends
  5. Learning opportunities
  6. The mission
  7. Mentors
  8. Potential for advancement
  9. Leadership opportunities

She then told us to pick the top three things we wanted out of a job and shared her choices.  She picked money, potential for advancement, and leadership opportunities.  She went on to tell us that she owned her own company because she wanted to be the leader of whatever she did, and her goal was to make enough money so that she could have three homes when she retired at 45: one in Aspen, one near her family, and one on the ocean.  She wanted to be able to use these homes to host her family and live out her days in luxury.  Those were her C-Suite career path values.

If the notepad with googly eyes wasn’t enough of a clue that I’m not destined for CTO, her list solidified my lack of interest.  Mine said: mission, flexibility, and friends.  I want a job where I can go every day and know that what I’m doing is making a difference in the world.  I need a job where I can go to my daughter’s Halloween party, or coach her soccer team.  I want to go to work everyday with people I really care about and who care about me.  Don’t tell my boss, but money and benefits aren’t even on the list.  Of course, I want to make enough money to support my family and keep our house, but our needs are pretty simple.  I don’t want three homes.  I don’t want to retire at 45.  In fact, I dream of a life where I can work into my 60s or 70s, but be able to take sabbaticals have opportunities to pursue other passions mid-career.

Okay, so what’s the point of all of this?  Well I’m a manager, and I have conversations with people who say things like:

“I need opportunities for advancement.   There is nowhere to go in this organization.”

“You don’t respect my skills here.  I am a great software developer, but I can’t move up without content knowledge.”

“It’s your fault that I don’t have enough work to do.  That’s a manager’s job.”

“I’m an expert.  I don’t need to change.”

“Just tell me what to do.”

The truth of the matter is that those are all valid opinions and statements and these people are really unhappy.  The other truth is that those complaints cannot be resolved at my company.  For example, in my job family there are six levels and I was hired at the third one.  In twelve years I’ve received one promotion.  I have grown and developed, but unless I want to get a PhD, I only have one more promotion I’ll ever get. The “I need opportunities for advancement” person is doomed for disappointment if they don’t leave. We aren’t going to create new promotion levels.  Sometimes you can’t make your needs match what your company provides.

The flip side are the people who say:

“I never want to work anywhere but here.”

“I don’t jump out of bed excited to come to work everyday, but I’m always happy to be here.”

“I really appreciate all the opportunities here.”

“This really is an amazing place.”

Same job, just different people.  What I find fascinating about management is that every person is different, and what is stifling to one person is invigorating to someone else.  The job isn’t bad and the person isn’t bad, there is just a mismatch.  Of course it’s hard to leave a job, but you spend at least 8 hours a day at work.  If you can, try to find somewhere that can give you what you need.   If you can’t leave at least there is some solace in understanding why you are unhappy.


 

Final Thoughts

List out your three must haves from your job and think about if your needs are being met. Then think about if it’s possible to make your needs met given the corporate culture.  If you don’t know how to answer that question, find someone you trust who you think might know and ask them.  If you can’t make your needs align, do you get enough out of the job to stay without being completely disgruntled, or is it time to find another job?

If it’s time to find another job make sure you are going somewhere that can meet your needs.  As a manager, I try to be very upfront when I hire people about the culture of our team and our organization.  I explain what success looks like and what we expect from teammates.  I am honest about what’s amazing and what sucks about the job.  I don’t want to hire someone who will hate their job, and no one wants to work at a job that they hate.  If you interview for a new job and don’t get that kind of feedback ask.

As a worker, I try to evaluate my values from time to time and make sure they align with where I see my company going.  If I do find my needs are no longer being met, I’m realistic about expecting wholesale changes to my workplace to make me happy.  For example, I hate bureaucracy, but my current position is awash in it.  However, I can take a step back and realize that my three key values are supported by my workplace and for now I can overlook the things that suck.  It’s empowering to know that you are putting up with something for a good reason.


 

Thoughts and comments on the new Monday Management posts are appreciated!