Embracing the Unexpected in 2021

Réveil Samaritain on a rainy night

A chilly, rainy night in Paris back in 2018 brought to mind a good life lesson that I learned, and how I’ll strive to approach 2021. As the introvert in the marriage, I willingly take on the responsibility of vacation planning. This typically involves extensive research about flights, hotels, restaurants, public transport, tours, etc. In doing my research for this particular trip, I came across a crêpe restaurant that looked too good to ignore. It was now on the list. On the night Robbie and I agreed to eat there, the weather looked fine…until we stepped foot out of the hotel on our way to the restaurant in another part of the city, via Paris subway. After a couple of blocks, the torrential downpour turned us back around. Yes, I was glad that common sense had prevailed but I was equally disappointed that our dinner plans were scrapped. We happened to spot this other restaurant a half-block from our hotel that, at first glance, looked like the perfect place only because of its proximity. My initial feeling of having to settle for this “Plan B” restaurant soon changed. The extremely inviting and friendly atmosphere, along with great food, helped get me on board. In fact, our waitress at Réveil Samaritain helped make it a unique experience by allowing me to practice my French with her. It turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences of the entire trip.

Yes, planning, for whatever the situation, is a smart strategy. At the same time, however, it’s equally important to open ourselves up to life’s unexpected twists and turns. For example, we may have an idea or goal about what direction we want our career to go, but things in life often don’t turn out as planned, and often it’s due to circumstances outside our control. Ironically, it’s sometimes the thing that comes out of left field that proves to be the even better option. Personally, I’m excited to see what 2021 will bring, and am cautiously optimistic that it’ll be an all-around better year than 2020. And I’m trying to stay as flexible, adaptable and open-minded as possible to recognize all the unforeseen plot twists and possibilities that could materialize.

Coincidentally, today’s message on my new 2021 “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” calendar says, “We always increase the odds of making something happen when we have a plan designed to take us where we want to go.” I agree with the message for sure, but I also think that things happen for a reason, and sometimes it’s the unplanned, unexpected things that ultimately get us really excited!

Sitting still to get a jump on the day

Doing whatever we can to maintain our mental health, especially in these stressful and uncertain times, is important, maybe the most important thing. As part of my morning ritual, I sit for a 10-minute meditation. For me, it’s a great way to set a positive tone and help keep me grounded and centered for the upcoming steady stream of Zoom calls and other job-related tasks. But all mornings are not created equal. Some mornings I can stay in the present moment more effectively than others.

And that’s really the overall goal when meditating – to try to stay present. As an introvert, it’s not surprising that I tend to think…a lot. My mind goes back and forth, from the past to the future to my to-do lists, etc., etc. But the beauty of meditation is that it’s totally okay to lose focus, no matter how many times, as long as we catch ourselves when it happens to come back to the breath. Completely judgment-free.

So, on those mornings when my mind is in overdrive and it seems like I’m not getting anything out of my mediation practice, I really am. I’m able to bring myself back from my thoughts, every time. But also, there are fringe benefits that can’t be discounted: I’m sitting still, breathing deeply, with no technology/social media distractions. Nowadays especially, any time I can see the positives and be grateful for them is a good day, indeed.

Creating Space for What Matters

As Stephen Covey pointed out, ” The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” Continuing to work from home (until further notice) has motivated me to clarify my priorities and creating space for what matters (hint: it’s not all about work).

Surprisingly, work-life balance, at least during the early stages of the pandemic proved a bit challenging. When working from home (WFH) full-time, it’s all too easy for the workday to blur into me-time. So, I had to set an intention to draw a clearer boundary between work-time and down-time for greater work-life balance. On the other hand, being commute-free now, I have more time to pursue my personal endeavors.

Having those outlets at the end of the day is super important, especially on those stressful and frustrating days. With that said, doing something fun or creative or athletic or mindful first thing in the morning is a great way to set a positive tone and mindset for the day, not to mention increase clarity and decrease reactivity. I’ve recently started a “10-10-10” routine each morning: 10 minutes of meditation, followed by 10 minutes of standing yoga (or stretching), followed by a 10-minute cycling class in the newly-created home gym. Mind, body, and spirit! I also make evert effort to end the workday right at 6pm so I can shift my focus onto other things like taking a walk, writing a blog post, journaling, catching up on my TV shows or the current book I’m reading, trimming the shrubs in the front yard, whatever it might be.

Work-life balance has always been a top priority for me. Not uncommon for an introvert, especially to have quality time for myself and away from the steady stream of meetings and co-worker interaction. WFH has presented both challenges and opportunities to achieve it. It’s been an education for sure!

I recently read an article entitled, “Microsoft Thinks You’ve Been Missing Your Commute in Lockdown“. After my initial chuckle (my commute is the last thing I miss), I read through the article and realized that the company is aiming to enhance work-life balance (via new features in Microsoft Teams) and encourage clearer boundaries between the workday and down-time. I give them credit for initiative and intention, but the bottom line is that since it means using technology, it kind of defeats the purpose of disconnecting, at least for me.

Another noteworthy article talks about Feierbend, the German word describing the time period immediately following the end of a workday until bedtime. In Germany, this time period is typically reserved for leisure activities to help create disconnection and a clear distinction between the workday and down-time. The article goes on to describe how certain working professionals are handling and adjusting Feierbend in the age of WFH, where, as many of us know all too well, the lines can blur all too easily.

Taking the high road after messing up

We all try to do our best on-the-job and to keep errors and poor judgment to a minimum. That’s good! But somewhere along the line I think some of us let our egos get in the way, forget that we’re human and mistakes happen. Often, however, it’s not as much about the mistake itself, but more about how we handle it afterwards.

I think everyone at some point has tried to cover up, or at least downplay a mistake at work. Very early on in my professional career, I was guilty of this on occasion. I quickly learned three valuable lessons: 1. Your manager and colleagues will usually respect you more for admitting your error up front and accepting responsibility for it. 2. You won’t have to live with the stress or fear of having your mistake discovered. And 3. Your mistake will almost always be discovered. I know it can be difficult admitting a mistake, so I like to take the “ripping the band-aid off” approach: painful for a couple seconds, but then it’s behind us. Taking the high road almost always wins the day. When we don’t take the high road, it only compounds the problem.

I saw this play out the other night on TV. I was watching the US Open and saw Novak Djokovic being defaulted out of the tournament for hitting a tennis ball (between points), which struck a lineswoman square in the throat. The rules clearly state that this kind of behavior results in immediate disqualification. The primary concern of course is the health of the lineswoman, who after a few tense moments was able to leave the court on her own power. Djokovic initially ran over to check on her, but then it kind of went downhill from there and his concern moved onto himself. He pleaded his case with the tournament officials, essentially arguing that the situation didn’t warrant disqualification since she didn’t have to be sent to the hospital, as well as implying that since he’s Novak Djokovic (the number one-ranked men’s player in the world), he should be allowed to continue playing. (At least that was my interpretation). After the final decision was made, he left the court and the grounds, bypassing the mandatory post-match press conference that all players have to do, regardless. He later tweeted an apology and said he’s going to take this opportunity to examine himself and improve as a person, which, in light of everything, just seemed really disingenuous.

To me, he took the low road pretty much the whole way. The mere fact that he tried to argue any case at all vs. just automatically accepting the consequences of his actions is a bad look. And he did himself no favors in the eyes of fans and his fellow players. Taking the high road would probably have allowed him to move on from this much quicker, but now it will most follow him for quite awhile and further damage his image and reputation. Granted, I was no fan of Djokovic (either on or off the court) before this incident, and sadly this further confirms my own negative view of him.

So in the end, we all make mistakes. But, taking the high road, being genuine and accepting responsibility for the mistakes we make are key to moving forward and real growth no matter what profession we happen to be in!

The Power of Routine

After I was downsized from one of my past jobs, I discovered a very important thing: having a daily ritual really helped keep me grounded. I was now unemployed, at home, and suddenly with a lot of free time on my hands. It started with just a desire to get out of the house, heading to the local Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts every morning for some coffee, either hanging out there with my laptop for a bit, or taking it back home. As I continued doing this on a consistent basis, however, I realized the real and positive effect it was having on me, beyond the morning caffeine jolt, of course! I was re-establishing some semblance of a routine, restoring some degree of structure that I had had when I was working. It seemed kind of silly at first that it could be anything more than just grabbing coffee, but I soon realized there was something to this. Part of it might just have been the fact that I’m an introvert, and introverts in general tend to prefer knowing what to expect.

Whether an introvert or extrovert, however, being laid off can make us feel isolated and do a number on our self-esteem. If we have something to do, preferably something that will consistently get us out of the house for a bit, to look forward to and make us feel like we still have something to do on a day-to-day basis, that can definitely help improve our mental state.

These days, in the midst of a health pandemic, it can of course be more complicated and challenging as our options are a little more limited outside the house. But even if coffee shops don’t have in-house service, many are now offering grab-n-go, drive-thru, or socially-distanced outdoor seating. If coffee isn’t your thing, think of another (socially-distanced) activity that you will get you out of the house and honor your comfort level at the same time.

With all of this said, virtual events and “outings”, especially now, is an equally valid path to follow, and may turn out to be the more appealing option to some people anyway (especially for the introverts among us!) It may come down to just testing it out, striking the right balance and seeing what combination works best for each of us.

The Office of Tomorrow?

The open-office concept with densely-clustered cubicles was pretty common before the pandemic hit, but I think it’s safe to say that we’ll see a much different configuration if/when we return to the office. What that’ll actually look like is anyone’s guess, but it could look kind of like what’s pictured here:

This was a concept was created, pre-pandemic, resulting from the collaboration between Susan Cain, author of Quiet, and Steelcase, a workplace design firm. The goal was to create a workspace where introverts could thrive. The really interesting thing is that, if you take a close look, it could potentially address important health and safety issues that organizations will have to put in place. Notice the enclosed workspace, the 1-person lounge area with a glass partition separating socially-distanced desks (facing away from each other). Incidentally, all that natural light coming through is pretty nice bonus. I like working from home, but I have to say coming back to an office that resembles this might possibly tempt me. Might.

Life in Spain vs. the US: Quarantine Edition

I recently spoke with my friend, Leonid, who I know from DC, and who recently relocated to Sitges, Spain. Below are photos from his library of his new hometown. If I didn’t like him, I’d hate him for living in such a beautiful city! 🙂

Anyway, in this podcast we compare and contrast the quarantine situation between Spain and the US, and how we’re both handling it, not only on an individual level, but also from a national perspective.

In the next podcast, we’ll be “traveling” to Germany to visit with friends to see how they’re doing in the face of the pandemic.

Momentum has never been as important as now

The protests that have recently ensued in the wake of George Floyd’s murder have been a source of hope and inspiration for me. It feels that this is sort of a tipping point, not only because of the global protests, but also because of the innumerable conversations now happening everywhere around racial injustice and inequality, and white privilege. This is especially significant since engaging in these kinds of topics is uncomfortable, often painful, but critical to confront nonetheless. As with so many things in life, maintaining momentum is key to positive change. The typical pattern with past tragedies has has been a determined effort to make change followed by political inaction. I often LA_protesttell myself after, for example, a school shooting, an incident of police brutality, or any other act of senseless violence, that surely this will be the thing that effects change. But I’m often left disappointed and disillusioned. One notable exception is the formation of Black Lives Matter as a result of the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer in 2013.

Of course time will tell, but this time it feels different. It feels like the momentum is there, and only getting stronger, to create meaningful and positive change. Peaceful protesting, continued conversations, education, many people speaking out, legislation – these are just a few of the key ingredients to help bring about a fairer and more equitable society. There are thankfully a ton of resources for people to access on the subject. Here’s but one to learn more. 

“Good enough” has never been truer than now

To quote Maya Angelou, “You alone are enough. You have nothing to prove to anybody.” During the pandemic that we’re all trying to navigate, I’ve been seeing too many people on social media, including some career coaches, saying things like, “if you’re not learning a new skill, or taking an online course, or getting certified in this, that or the other, then you’ve been squandering this golden opportunity of “24/7 stay-at-home time”. Judgmental and short-sighted are a couple adjectives that immediately come to mind.

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Our dog, Timmy has “productively unproductive” down pat.

I come from a different school of thought: it’s most important to make sure we’re taking care of ourselves and doing what we need to do to reach that goal? If that includes taking an online course or learning a new skill, great, but if not, equally great. Everyone is on his or her own journey and dealing with the challenges that come with it. Add an extra layer of a global pandemic and the stresses that come with that. There’s no one-size-fits-all advice that can be applied in this situation, and no shame in not conforming to some other person’s definition of being productive.

 And here are 10 more things I don’t need to do, although there are a couple things on the list that I did do, because I wanted to, for me. Some days I want to turn over my to-do list and just focus on the fun stuff totally unrelated to my professional development. I call it being “productively unproductive”. I find that those days are just as important, self-nurturing, and good enough! The bottom line is that happiness and growth mean different things to different people, and the key is to find what works best for you.

Building relationships and social distancing: LinkedIn to the rescue

Using LinkedIn as a career and professional development tool has always been a good idea, but now that we’re in the midst of social distancing and self-quarantining, and relying even more on getting things done remotely, it’s more important then ever to be active on LinkedIn.

Having a profile on LinkedIn is a great start. But it’s just that – a start. Now what? The first step of course is to make sure your profile is complete and current, including a photo (usually professional dress). Also, don’t overlook or underestimate the “About” section: this is a great opportunity to highlight in a concise way relevant work experience, education, skills and accomplishments – in other words, how you can contribute to the success of an employer or solve problems for a client in your target industry. Keep in mind that employers often use your profile as a basis for hiring decisions.

OK, moving on. What’s next, now that you have an awesome profile? Ask for a few recommendations from former supervisors and co-workers, as well as past and present professors, for example – really anyone who can attest to your skills, qualifications, work style, etc. is a potential recommendation for you. But remember we’re still networking here, so it’s important to be willing to reciprocate and offer to write a recommendation for those same individuals when appropriate. SocialDistance

You’re making progress: got your profile up, with a couple recommendations. What now? Get active. Join some of the groups related to your target industry, or perhaps your school’s alumni group. for starters. And now that you’ve joined, what’s the next step? See who the group members are with whom you can potentially connect. Participate in the discussion forums by posting relevant articles and commenting on other members’ posts. This is a great way to increase your overall visibility on LinkedIn.

What else? LinkedIn can be a valuable tool when it comes to informational interviews. How does this work? Do a search on an organization you’re interested in, and LinkedIn will show you which of your connections have some sort of association with that organization. Requesting informational interviews from 1st degree connections is usually straightforward, but with 2nd degree connections, try to get an introduction from one of your mutual contacts if possible. As many of us are now seeing in the world of social distancing and mandated work-from-home, online meetings can be just as productive and fruitful as in-person ones, and this is true for informational interviews too.

So this is just a small taste of what you can do with LinkedIn, but hopefully this will get you moving in the right direction if you’ve been wondering about some positive next steps to take with your networking strategy. Final thought: LinkedIn is a very effective tool, but use it as just one of several approaches, especially when we return to “business as usual”. For now, however, I would recommend making it your primary source.

Oh, and what if you’re not on LinkedIn at all? Well there’s no time like the present to start. Contact me at joe@careeroptimum.com to learn more about my career coaching services, including getting the most out of LinkedIn!