Archive by Author

Imagine Ten Alternative Careers: An Exercise

toll booth
toll booth A blogger I admire once posted a list of jobs she’d love to have if she weren’t a writer. They included forest ranger, meteorologist, TV news broadcaster, librarian and a water slide tester. (Yup, that last one really does exist – go check out her link.)

She posted this list for fun, but my guess is that the reason her list ran such a gamut of professional opportunities is that each hypothetical career spoke to a different aspect of her personality.

It’s fun to try to imagine all the things you might do if you weren’t doing whatever it is that currently defines your profession/lifestyle. But it’s also really useful.

If you’re even vaguely contemplating a career change, you need to think really carefully not only about what you’re good at, but what you enjoy. Often, discovering a satisfying career is not so much about the job title itself, but the various tasks you do as you go about your day, and how those complement your skills and interests.

To that end,  for all those out there contemplating a mid-life career transition,  here are my top ten would-be careers. Then it’s your turn:

Read the rest of this post over on Better After 50

Image: New Jersey Turnpike Exit 11 Toll Booth at Night via Wikimedia Commons

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How To Dress for a Portfolio Career

scarves

scarvesOne of the joys of embracing a portfolio career later in life is that it provides an opportunity to integrate different strands of your professional identity. One challenge I didn’t foresee was how to assemble a wardrobe to complement those multiple selves.

But I’m learning as I go.

The Writer: Grad Student Redux

It’s easy for me to dress for the writer/editor part of my new career as a communications consultant. My default style – to the extent that I have one – tends to be fairly casual. Indeed, one of the things I enjoyed most about being a freelance writer back when my children were little was the ability to show up to the school run in some version of my pajamas.

These days, there is no school run. But when I work at home, I still revert to full-on graduate student mode. The other day, I was clad in a pair of baggy Adidas sweat pants, a college sweatshirt and a baseball cap. All that was needed to complete the picture was a bottle of Diet Coke, a package of Oreos and a half-eaten Stouffer’s “Classic” French Bread bread pizza. (Remember those? Bliss…)

The Teacher: Wanna Be Parisienne

On days when I teach or coach writing at a university, that’s also pretty manageable. I’ve got enough basics to easily anchor a five-day rotation. I simply accessorize like crazy.

I’m all about scarves. I used to just loop them around my neck haphazardly until my husband – (who in another life might double as Yves Saint Laurent) –  came back from a trip to France and sent me a video entitled “How to Tie Your Scarf like a Parisian.” Ever since, and taking a page from Margaret, I’ve been experimenting. (The scarf-as-necklace was a complete eye-opener to me…)

Speaking of necklaces, I’ve also got a decent assortment of those – which, like scarves – can add a bit of Je Ne Sais Quoi to the same old, same old. My next move is to invest in some vintage costume jewelry.

Going Corporate: No More Foxhunting

Where I struggle a bit is when I venture into the private sector for a meeting. There – sartorially, at least – I’m a bit out of my depth.

The first problem is that my only suit was purchased in the late 1990’s, back when people were still dancing the Macarena. It’s a decent brand, and I thought it looked all right, until my daughter asked to borrow the jacket to play a “huntsman” in her high school play. Seeing her on stage killed it for me. Sure, I live in England. But I’m not exactly trying to channel Lady Mary from Downtown Abbey on a fox hunt.

My second problem is that because my new business is not yet a year old, I don’t yet have the wallet to afford a suitable corporate wardrobe.

Thank goodness for friends. One of my friends’ daughters works in the corporate headquarters of a high-end retail chain in the UK. This company doesn’t pay its junior staff all that well, but it does reward them with – wait for it – a 65% discount on all items in the store. Guess who just got the keys to the kingdom?

So if you happen to see me wandering around the streets of London’s financial district looking like I own Paris, you’ll know my secret.

Dress for the Part(s)

Whether you’re embarking upon a new position within the same organization or in an entirely new field, starting a new job often requires a new wardrobe. Back-office admin does not require the same look as a front-office sales position. You need to adjust your wardrobe accordingly.

The same holds for a portfolio career. You just need to be a bit creative in your sartorial assemblage, while you wait for your income to catch up with your chosen métiers. (If I may work the French metaphor to death.)

Advice gratefully accepted. Merci.

Image: Scarf Cloth Colorful Towels via Pixabay

How I Maximized My Productivity as a Writer

cell phone

cell phoneIf you’re like me, you can’t read enough about how to maximize your productivity: Deep Work. The Hunter Method. No Meeting Wednesdays. While the optimal time for achieving your best work varies across individuals, there’s a consensus that you need to have laser focus while you’re doing it.

For a while now, I’ve been following that advice. As soon as I decided that I wanted to write a book, I started to devote 15 minutes a morning to doing just that. Over time, those 15 minutes blossomed into 30 and then 45. Once I was laid off, I began devoting several hours a day to my writing.

Even now that the book manuscript is finished (though still not sold – sniff!), I still write every morning. These days, it’s often fiction. Or a blog post. Or my newsletter.

But a month or so ago, I discovered a fatal flaw in my system. No matter how dutiful I was about prioritizing my writing, I did one thing when I first woke up that was absolutely deadly for my flow:  I checked my phone.

To be clear, it was really more of a scan than a deep dive:  I’d quickly scroll through my emails to see if there were any burning platforms…I’d look at any updates on assorted social media platforms…I’d check personal texts and chats.

I told myself that this mini “phone time” was essential. After all, my mother is now quite elderly. Perhaps something happened to her during the night. I’m in close “What’sApp” touch with various friends back in the States, and often miss out on threads that happen while I’m asleep. I’m also self-employed. So I’m always at the beck and call of clients.

But the problem wasn’t the length of time I spent on the phone. It was how distracting it proved.

Because once I’d digested the updates from assorted platforms, I couldn’t turn them off in my brain, even once I put the phone down. I’d find my mind darting back to a meeting I needed to prepare for later that day… a funny tweet I wanted to share on social media…a text I needed to send a friend. Which, of course, defeated the whole purpose of having dedicated writing time in the first place.

Before I knew  it, my  carefully constructed “laser focus” was gone. Or at least diminished.

Then I read this brilliant article by New York Times technology writer Kevin Roose about his cell phone addiction. Roose went so far as to hire a consultant to help him “break up with his phone.” This person encouraged him, for example, to change the lock screen on his phone so that it displayed three questions: “What for? Why now? What else?”

Brilliant.

I didn’t feel that my problem was that serious. But I did know that I had a problem.

So I instituted one tiny change: I no longer allow myself to check my phone until I’ve finished my writing and executed some of the other key markers of my morning routine like journaling, meditation, and stretching. In practice, that amounts to not looking at my phone for the first 1.5-2 hours of my day.

It was really hard at first. Like an addict, I’d find myself making excuses to sneak a peak. But after the first week or so, I began to find this digital detox a relief.

Postponing my phone time had two other benefits. First, I’m an extrovert, so I love being connected to the world through social media. But – much like my rules about dessert – the joy of checking my phone is now all the greater for putting it off. Second, my writing time is also now that much more focused and productive. A win-win, as they say.

I’ve always prided myself on being the consummate multi-tasker. But I’m coming to question whether that personality trait is really an asset for productivity. So I’m wondering: what small habit have you changed that had a much larger impact on your life?

Image: Apple Cell Phone Facebook Google by Tracy Le Blanc via Pexels

Like what you’re reading? Sign up to my “Good Reads for Grownups” newsletter, a monthly round up of books and films I’ve liked, the latest research on aging, and other great resources about the eternal journey of adulthood, plucked from around the web. Subscribe here

How to Live Forever: Book Review

inter-generational learning

inter-generational learningAt first blush, I didn’t think a book entitled  How to Live Forever was for me.  I was expecting a hard sell on a new killer vitamin that would add years to my life…gene therapy that could prevent chronic disease…botox for the brain. That sort of thing.

As with many books, however, the book’s main message is revealed in its sub-title: “The enduring power of connecting the generations.” The author, Marc Freedman, CEO of Encore.org, wants us to understand that we live in an age-segregated society, one where housing, labour markets, education and pensions policy combine to separate the old from the young. This “age apartheid” is not only out of step with current demographic trends, he argues, but down-right counter-productive:  It impedes the happiness of individuals, who benefit enormously from these cross-generational relationships, and it limits progress on a host of social ills.

Read the rest of this post over on the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing blog

Image: Art and Feminism NYC Generations via Wikimedia Commons

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I Fixed My Back Thanks to Alternative Medicine

acupuncture needle

acupuncture needleIt all began when I got back from a two-and-a-half week vacation in the United States a few years back. As I resumed my normal routine of running in the mornings before going to work, something didn’t feel quite right. Specifically, there was a throbbing pain on the left side of my bum.

I’d had recurring trouble with my piriformis muscle before, so I began doing some stretches that I’d learned during my last round of physiotherapy. But after things got so excruciating that I began popping painkillers on a regular basis, I booked in to see an osteopath at a nearby facility.

The pain didn’t go away. Instead, it migrated to different parts of my back over the next few months. There was one point when I could hardly walk. Meanwhile, my migraines – which had grown in intensity over the previous decade – were getting progressively more frequent.

Enter Pilates…

Read the rest of this post over on Better After 50

Image: Acupuncture needle by Acid Pix via Flickr

Happiness in Later Life

happiness

happinessLong ago and far away – back when I was still an academic – I once took a long drive home from a conference with a colleague. It was a two or three hour drive, the kind where you start off talking about work and end up talking about your childhood. About an hour and a half into the drive, I turned to him and asked: “Are you happy?”

He looked at me and shrugged. “I don’t really do happy,” he confessed.

I knew exactly what he meant.

I don’t really do “happy” either. Content…animated…joyous…silly. I do all of those at different times. But “happy” feels more permanent. Like something you need to commit to. And I’ve never been good at commitment.

That Happy Feeling

Lately, however, having finally – 30 years in – fashioned a career for myself that feels right, I’ve started having this weird sensation in my body. I say weird, because it’s so unusual, I don’t recognise it immediately. I think it’s called happiness.

It’s like a friend of mine who – beginning therapy late in life after a divorce – confessed to me that one day in a conversation with her therapist, she felt this strange thing well up inside her. “And I was like ‘What is that?'” she recounted to me afterwards. “And then I realized: Oh, that’s an emotion!”

Damned straight, sister. I think a lot of us walk around for half of our lives carrying feelings inside of us that we don’t even recognize, possibly because we’ve forgotten they are there.

Lessons from Mindfulness

Which is why, among other reasons, practicing mindfulness is so useful.

If you’ve ever practiced any mindfulness, you’ll know that one of the key ideas it drives home is that we all have a “blue sky” inside us – a happy place where the clouds part and the birds chirp and the rays of sunshine fill our world. A lot of the focus is on accessing that blue sky feeling and realizing that it’s not something we need to reach for outside ourselves; it’s something that’s already there.

In my own case, I think I’d gone so long thinking about work as this stressful, difficult externalized thing that I’d forgotten that work could also be an extension of “happy me”… and fun. So when I’d deliver a workshop on public speaking, for example, and feel really great afterwards, I’d be like: “That’s odd; Why do I feel not just OK, but good?”

Escaping the Scarcity Mentality

It’s also the case that some of us just aren’t wired to be happy.

I grew up in a large-ish family where a scarcity mentality prevailed. If you got up from the dinner table to go to the bathroom, you risked having someone still the last potato off of your plate. So I think I have always approached life as if everything were a finite resource that was at risk of running out:  money, love, food, happiness.

Undoing that scarcity mentality has taken  a lot of work. One of the things that helped me most was reading Julia Cameron’s brilliant manifesto on creativity, The Artist’s Way. Cameron views creativity (which for her, comes from God) as a generous, supportive force rather than a punitive, miserly one. The idea is that whatever the origin of your creative process, it is an unending well of ideas and inspiration that never dries up. She encourages everyone embarking on a creative path to adopt this expansive view of how it works.

That has been s a struggle for me. Given my own hard-wired scarcity mentality, I come to the world with more of a zero-sum framework: if I get something, someone else loses something. There’s only so much to go around. But embracing Cameron’s “abundance” mentality with respect to creativity has enabled me to extend that idea to other areas of life.

As a result, I’m able to feel happier now without fearing that at any given moment, happiness might run out.

It’s still a work in process. Many days, I still feel off-kilter when I experience “that happy feeling.” But I’m learning how to live with it.

Image: Woman Happiness Sunrise Silhouette by Jill111 via Pixabay

Women and Money: Crowdsourcing Financial Advice

stock market

stock marketI was on Facebook recently when a former colleague who has just started a new job jumped in with a query about investment portfolios.

“I need advice on stock-picking strategies,” she wrote on her wall. “I want to feel more in control of my finances.”

Within minutes, a whole bunch of us who’d worked with her had glommed onto this thread. Turns out, she wasn’t alone. Several of us – seeing the cusp of retirement in the not too distant future – had taken a sudden interest in managing our money more wisely.

At some point several comments in, someone in the thread suggested that if my colleague was able to obtain the answer to this question, she could share it with the rest of us over drinks. (We’d pick up the tab.)

And then someone else had this brilliant idea: Why don’t we make a deal where one of us is put in charge of making these sorts of vital, grown-up decisions for the entire group on a six-month, rotating basis?

And just like that, the “Designated Adult” (DA) Club was born.

Read the rest of this post over on Better After 50

Image: Stock Market Indices by Karsten Reuss via Flickr

Creativity, Random Words and Self-Definition

random words

random wordsI’ve started reading Tim Harford’s book, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. Its basic thrust is that creativity is fostered not by carefully organizing our time and ideas, but by allowing disorder to interrupt our routines. One way to induce this creative messiness, Harford argues, is by introducing random stimuli to trigger new ways of thinking.

So, for example, when I taught a workshop on creativity recently for a group of researchers out at Oxford, we did a “random word” exercise. I had them open to a random page of whatever they happened to be carrying  – a book, a magazine, instructions for a writing exercise – and select the eighth word on that page. I then asked them to use that word – whatever it happened to be – to help them generate new ways of thinking about a challenge they were facing in their lives:  personal…professional…in their research.

I myself did something similar yesterday. I was on a day out with a group of coaches and clients at The Writing Coach, where I work as a consultant. These periodic gatherings are a way to foster real life interaction among a community of writers that is otherwise largely virtual.

As the gathering was held at The National Portrait Gallery in London, our fearless leader suggested that we might also use this as an opportunity to do some writing. So she handed out a list of random words and invited us to use them as a prompt for some aspect of our writing – e.g., a character, a scene, a setting – as we gazed upon the pictures. It was your proverbial “artist’s date,” in Julia Cameron parlance.

My word was “resurfacing.” Here’s how the Cambridge dictionary defines it:

a.  Covering or adding layers (as in to put a new surface on a road)

b.  To rise to the surface of the water again

c.  To appear again after being lost, stolen or absent

As I strode through the early 20th century wing of the museum, I reflected upon this word and its myriad meanings. And I realized that “resurfacing” was a wonderful prism through which to think about the current stage of my professional life.

As I embrace a portfolio career,  I am in many ways “resurfacing” the different aspects of my professional self: the writer, the editor, the coach, the teacher…even the project manager. Just as I could readily detect where some of the modernist artists had applied new layers of paint to their renderings of, say, James Joyce, the original image was still visible underneath. Together, they yielded one person, rendered simultaneously through multiple angles.

At the same time, however, I also feel that I am reappearing to myself  – as my whole self – after being absent for a long period of time. And in so doing, I am rising to the surface of the water in a new, more integrated form.

I’ve long been an advocate of choosing concepts, not lists, to frame my New Year’s resolutions. As of yesterday, however, I think I’m also going to embrace the idea of choosing words as a metaphor for self.

Is there a word that’s helped you to redefine yourself? Have you ever used a randomness strategy to stimulate your thinking?

Image:  Random Words Make a Sentence by Steve Snodgrass via Flickr 

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Tips for Adulthood: Five Tips for New Entrepreneurs

Freelance

FreelanceOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

I started my new communications consultancy almost a year ago. Since then, I’ve been hard at work delivering a combination of mini-courses, workshops and one-on-one coaching. What’s odd is that although I’ve worked as a freelancer before, I’m learning a whole new set of skills this time around.

This post is aimed particularly at those of you who’ve always dreamed of setting up your own businesses. Here are five things to bear in mind:

a. Negotiate your deliverables in detail. That might sound obvious, because, hey, what are contracts for, right? But I’ve got news for you:  contracts can be super vague. Trust me, in my previous job, I wrote them all the time. And especially if you’re working with a client you know well – deliverables can be vague and fuzzy – because, hey, we’re all friends, right? The only person who benefits from a fuzzy deliverable is the person paying for it. It gives them leeway to claim that whatever they are asking you to do – including work neither of you initially discussed – plausibly falls within the contours of the agreement. So be precise. Super precise. And if they ask you to do something that doesn’t match the original deliverable, ask for more money. Which brings us to money.

b. Always charge more than you think you should. A year or so ago, when I was still in the concept development phase for my new company, I got some great advice from the women in my Ellevate squad: if a client accepts your budget up front, you’ve charged too little. Damned straight. Entire books have been written on how to sort out our collective discomfort with asking for money (The Soul of Money is top of my list… ). But once you work throught all of that, you need to remember that you are running a business and that time is money. So there are two reasons to ask for more than you think you should. First, everything in life is a negotiation. However high you come in, they are likely to come back with a lower offer. Adjust for that in advance. Second, when you’re starting out, much of what you’re offering is new. So if, like me, you’re delivering workshops or mini-courses, you need to factor in not only your delivery time, but your prep time. This doesn’t meant you should never charge less than your day rate, once you’ve determined what that is. It might be a client whose name you’d like to see on your resumé. Or it might piece of work you’re so passionate about that you’re willing to charge less. Or, because you’re new to this  line of work, you might decide that you’d like to demonstrate how much value you add – and get some testimonials under your belt – before raising your rates. Whatever you do, remember that failure to talk openly about pay usually translates into lower rates.

c. Learn to say no. I’ve said this before, but it really does take a while to let it sink in: learn to say no. When you’re starting out, it’s tempting to say yes to everything. But – take my word for it – that can quickly erode any balance you might be hoping to establish in your life. Just as there are good reasons to accept work that doesn’t pay as well as you’d like, there are equally good reasons to turn down work even if you have time. It might not be something you enjoy very much, so the opportunity cost of doing it is higher than for other jobs you might take on. You might not need the money all that much. Or you might foresee that it’s going to be way more work than you bargained for, and will simply amount to a headache. I have taken this approach to editing. Editing is part of my current portfolio.  But because I’ve done so much of it in the past, it’s not as exciting as the other work that I do. So I only take on editing clients who either pay exceptionally well or who represent clients I’d really like to cultivate. (See b)

d. Fake it Til You Make It. When I teach public speaking and my course on life skills for offices, I encourage my students to adopt that adage “Fake it til’ you Make it.” A year or so ago, a friend of mine, who’s also a very seasoned communications consultant, gave me this piece of advice: “Never tell people you ‘could’ do something. Always say that you ‘can.'” And how. Before they hire you, people want to know that you can do something. And chances are, you can, even if you haven’t. So while I never accept work that I don’t think I can deliver to the very highest standard, I have been in the position of saying “Yes I Can.” It’s amazing how empowering those three little words can be. And guess what? Once you’ve done it, you can do it!

e. Learn when to give up. Much like asking for money, it can be very uncomfortable to pester someone to get back to you on work you’ve pitched them. So how often to ping? I used to approach people only three times before giving up. I assumed they just weren’t interested, but were too awkward – or busy – to bother telling me “No.” Then I started asking around. One colleague told me that the magic number is “seven” – assume that your name has simply filtered to the bottom of their inbox and they need a quick reminder. People are busy, after all.  Seven sounded high to me, but I tried it. And in one instance, after five tries, I got a gig. Another colleague told me that his approach is to “pester them until they either give you work or tell you to F#$% off.” Works well for him! The one thing I would say is that if someone has made it clear to you that he or she isn’t interested, leave them alone. If you push too hard, it can actually be off-putting and alienate them permanently.

My best advice is to be patient. You won’t make a lot of money during your first year while you build up your portfolio of offerings and client base. But if you remember that “Every Day is Groundhog Day” and persevere, you may end up really glad you sallied forth.

How about you? What advice would you give your newbie entrepreneur/freelancer self?

Image: Notebook-iPad-Freelance work by jeunghwaryu0 via Pixabay.com

Teaching Writing: Editing vs. Coaching

Ballerina

BallerinaThere’s a scene in one of my all-time favorite films, All that Jazz, that addresses the perennial question about innate talent vs. learned ability. In the scene, the protagonist –  a choreographer modeled on the legendary Bob Fosse – confronts a ballerina in his company who’s crying because she knows she’s not as good as the other dancers.

“I can’t make you a great dancer,” Fosse consoles her. “But I can make you a better dancer.”

That’s how I feel when I work with writers.

I don’t know if there’s such a thing as being a “natural talent” in writing. You can definitely see when a writer has a gift – David Foster Wallace, Amos Oz, and my new idol – Anna Burns – all come to mind. But, as we all know, years of half-written sentences and crumpled up drafts – not to mention gallons of self-doubt – lie behind any prose that looks effortless.

For most of us mere mortals, however, writing is mostly about putting your bum in the chair and being willing to write shitty first drafts. So then the question becomes:  how do you help people become “better dancers?”

Read the rest of this post over on The Writing Coach UK

 

Image: Ballet Ballerina via Wikimedia Commons