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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

My Favorite Mistakes, PART ONE - First Crush

“If only my professional life were going as smoothly as my personal life,” I said to my husband over dinner. “If only I could find a job I like as much as I like you.”

It was just an offhand comment, or was it?

My career path has been on my mind a lot lately. Its stops and starts, the surprising turns in the road, and of course, the disappointments. Oh, the disappointments.

Most of all, I have been thinking about where I am headed. With perspective, it is easy to pinpoint what about a past job experience was good or bad, but sometimes it is more challenging to see how each job fits into the Big Picture. What lessons do I need to learn to help me on my career path moving forward?

I have been happily partnered with a man I love very much for several years, but I haven’t been able to say the same for my career partnerships in quite some time.

I find the Big Picture is much easier to see when reflecting on my dating life. I see how past relationships helped guide me to the place and person I am now. Could I look at my professional life in a similar way? Aren’t old jobs a lot like old boyfriends? And would comparisons reveal anything that could help me find a better career match in the future?

Consider the first crush. My first crush lasted through most of my adolescence. Because it was an unfulfilled infatuation, it lurked persistently in the background of my early relationships with other less “perfect” dating partners.

My crush flamed on even after learning in a very brutal way that my fantasy in no way matched reality. When I finally managed to get a date to the dance with my Romeo, he spent the whole night pursuing his crush (obviously not me) in front of all of my friends.

It is not easy for me to admit my fervor for my crush remained mostly unshaken for another three years despite the humiliation of that night. I was not able to drop my infatuation until college, long after Mr. Romeo and I parted ways. I happened to run into him unexpectedly after class one afternoon, and he asked me out. When we finally had the date I had waited all my life for, it was tedious enough to break the spell forever (Romeo who?).

I couldn’t help but see a parallel to an early job I also crushed over for quite some time (though not for several years, thank goodness). It was my first professional magazine job, and I wanted this job so much. The employer played hard to get but I refused to give up. Although it was obvious that I wanted the job more than the job wanted me, it didn’t matter. As soon as they got me, they would see why we were meant to be together.

After almost hiring me three separate times, eventually my dreams came true, and they actually did. Sort of.

I was so thrilled I said yes even though it meant a hefty pay cut to work contract, and they could only commit to me one month at a time. They promised to hire me as soon as the hiring freeze lifted, which surely would happen any day now.

Months later, they were still stringing me along. I offered to work after hours and on vacation for no extra pay to show my commitment, but the promise of long-term employment never materialized.

To make matters worse, I was working in an office about as exciting as a morgue and about as friendly as you would expect any corpse to be. None of my colleagues went to lunch together, so I ate alone most days. The office was quiet as a library during business hours. No one laughed at anyone’s jokes (even mine). Instead of seeing this environment as the unfriendly, unimaginative place it was, I found myself questioning my own talents instead.

Still, I maintained this was the Job of My Dreams…I just needed to hang on a little longer. And then the news dropped: the whole magazine was moving to another state—and almost everyone wasn’t invited. Only then did I realize the job I was in love with existed only in my mind. The reality was crap. Instead of desperately hanging onto the job for the last few months before they dumped me, I decided my contract wasn’t renewable at the end of the month.

Both crushes gave me the exhilaration of hope but were devastating when the spell broke. They taught me a hard lesson in the difference between an ideal and reality. I had imagined the relationship being one way for so long, that even when confronted with a reality that was entirely different, I still saw my fantasy as real.

And while they both gave me a glimmer of the kind of relationship I wanted and hoped to find one day, they also showed me what I didn’t want…once I woke up. I learned to distrust the rush of infatuation, but I also learned self-respect. Compromising that wasn’t an option, so I had to pick myself up and move on, a little broken but a little wiser.

Have you ever had a job crush where the reality didn’t match fantasy? How did you handle it? What did you learn?

Tune in for the next installment when I compare more ghosts of boyfriends past with equally disappointing vocational choices.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Approaching Burnout

10,000 ft up Beartooth Highway in Montana feeling on top of the world.

I have been delaying making the decision for over a month. And every time I said, “Today’s the day,” I would come up with a reason to delay.

I think that usually you don’t realize you have overcommitted yourself until it is too late. When I was laid off from a job I hated 6 months ago, my schedule opened up in wonderful ways. I could write, I could read, I could run. I could even yoga. All of the things I never seemed to have time for.

So of course, the best thing to do when you finally have time to do what you want is to completely pack your schedule until you are out of free time again.

Yes, I will run a 180-mile relay with you in the mountains.

Yes, I will ghost write your book.

Yes, I can do that rush assignment.

Yes, I will volunteer for more training.

Yes, I will be a fundraising mentor.

Yes, I will cook brunch for 30 people.

Yes, I will work every Friday and Saturday night. Who needs a weekend?

Until suddenly, YES becomes a prison of your own making. How did YES become so so wrong? Each YES gives away ownership of real estate in your own life. And then you begin to wonder why you can’t say NO.

I operate under the belief that it is very hard to find that “just right” amount of busy. Life tends to be feast or famine in many ways, and so a certain amount of imbalance is to be expected. Plus, a lot of what I’ve said yes to has been worthwhile. Life is short. Live it to the fullest, right?

In the exact moment when I say yes, I genuinely want to say yes … well, at least 8 times out of 10. And every time I confess to my husband that I signed up for another half marathon or agreed to bag lunches for kids at the food bank or took on a new case, he shakes his head. He knows what I often forget.

Not only are there only so many hours in the day, but we each have finite energy reserves. We can only make withdrawals from that internal bank so often without depositing before we reach burnout. We can schedule each day down the second but if we don’t allow ourselves time to recharge, things we once enjoyed doing just become another obligation, another box on the To Do List to check off. And that is no way to live.

To make matters worse, whenever my husband relaxes with a FIFA soccer video game or goes off to play golf, inside I think, “Gee, must be nice to have so much free time.”

How ridiculous is that when my own lack of downtime is entirely my own fault?

Last month, I began looking at the October calendar with all of its colorful dots marking future obligations, and I felt anxious. How is so much of my time already spoken for? A lot of these dots represent things I want to do—a vacation with family, a football game with friends—but taken as a whole, I felt trapped.

I knew it was time to drop something from my list. I say “something” but I knew what that something was. I wanted it to be anything but THAT something. I couldn’t deny, however, that my weekends were becoming a battlefield between family obligations and my hours at the restaurant. So after an intense, month-long war with myself, I decided to take a hiatus from my apprenticeship.
So hard to say goodbye!

I am sad. I am relieved. I am sad again. But it is only the close of one chapter. And I when I start writing the next one, I won’t try to jam a whole book into a few pages.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Saying No to Your "Dream Job"

About a month ago, I was offered a job at the restaurant where I am learning to be a chef.

On one level, this was a huge personal victory for me. Part of the reason that I decided to see if I could hack it in a professional kitchen was to prove to myself that I wasn’t just a home cook “playing chef.” The question in the back of my mind for a long time has been, Am I talented enough to make a living at this?

I wanted to test my culinary competency by actually putting myself (and my ego) on the line.

Don’t get me wrong. I know I am not a chef (yet). I know I came into the restaurant as a complete amateur.  Having a passion for food and a working knowledge of basic cooking techniques in no way prepares you adequately for the demands of a professional kitchen. And to become a chef takes years of hard work and dedication.

Before I made the jump, I asked my friend Ike how he got started in the restaurant business. His advice was simple: work really hard, be polite, be eager and be honest.

And that advice was spot-on in every way. If you lie about your culinary skills in a restaurant, it takes about 5 seconds before the gig is up. You have no other option but to walk the walk or take a hike. And you cannot be above doing any task. Everyone does their time washing dishes, cleaning up fish guts and dumping grease in the rusty barrel by the dumpster.

It is hard work. It is not glamorous work.

If you are willing to risk, willing to fail, willing to look like a complete fool, and willing to keep working when you just want to pull off your apron, tell everyone to F--- off and go home, then you can make it in a professional kitchen.

My early weeks at the restaurant highlighted everything I didn’t know about a topic I have studied as a hobby for more than a decade. To say it is a humbling experience is an understatement. But the challenge is also exhilarating. It is a steep learning curve, but certainly not an impossible one.

I have succeeded in a professional setting in ways I didn’t think were possible, and that is empowering. Perhaps my biggest disappointment with this whole experiment is that my success has less to do with my innate culinary talent (or lack thereof) and more to do with me just being stubborn and persistent.

So I was surprised when instead of feeling happy that I had been offered a position, I felt tremendous anxiety. My response confused a lot of my friends. Isn’t this what I was working towards? Isn’t this a dream come true?

The answer that began to emerge from the quiet deep of my mind is: No, this is not the right choice for me.

Do I want to work in the culinary world?  Yes.

Do I want to work in a restaurant?  Ehhhh.

Consider a few of the realities of working in a professional kitchen:

1. You lose your weekends or nights or holidays or all of the above, meaning, you lose your social life. At first you are invited to a lot of things you can’t go to. Eventually, you just will not be invited to anything any more.

2. You have family coming up for the weekend? You want to take a week vacation to France? Tough. Good luck finding someone to cover more than one shift ever.

3. You work without any breaks most of the time, including breaks to eat or use the bathroom.

4. Your back will hurt, your knees will hurt, and your hands will be covered in scars from various cuts and burns. And you will come home wired at 11 pm when everyone else is ready for bed. (Which, I now realize, is probably why most line cooks are about 10 years younger than me.)

5. Your starting wage will be not much above minimum wage, and if you finally make it to executive chef, you will likely still have servers who make more money than you do.

Of course, Chef told me from the beginning how crazy I was to want this life and exactly what I was getting myself into. So he was not the least bit surprised when I turned down the “dream job.” Though if I’m honest, it was never my dream to begin with.

The other night, Chef was telling each of his staff members what he envisioned their next step to be. For one person, a move to the grill, for another, to become a sous chef at a bigger restaurant. For me? To quit all of this restaurant business and go back to writing. When I want to cook, I can make canapés for dinner parties with my girlfriends.

I laughed and shrugged it off, because I certainly had thought about quitting all of this restaurant business, but the implications of his statement stayed with me. Have I just been Susie Homemaker “playing chef” this whole time? Should this whole experiment end with me returning to my home kitchen to lick my wounds, or at the very least, make bacon-wrapped shrimp and fiesta pinwheels for the next Dancing With the Stars premiere?

I say, no to canapés, no to Dancing With the Stars premiere parties (sorry DWTS fans), and no to giving up on a dream much larger than this small chapter.  I am a writer. I am a cook. And I am not that easy to get rid of.