Sunday, April 15, 2007

Career and Fitness Roundup

IT'S BEEN BUSY AROUND here. I spent Thursday and Friday in all-day seminars at the career-counseling office. On Saturday, I ran errands and entered my sixth week of thrice-weekly weight training with a newly revised routine. Between the two, I was capsized by a weird and intense wave of nostalgia for the greatest city in the world. I'll touch on all of these.

I woke up on Thursday grumpy. I'd just spent three days at home working through the career-center materials. This program will leave me more prepared and confident in my job search, so I am not knocking it. The prospect of two more full days of the same, stuck in an office without the local park, library, gym, or even walking path for an escape, was not encouraging.

I got to the office early and found most of the other participants had done the same. Only two empty seats remained. Everyone had already written their names on the cards provided, so I took this as a sign that folks were willing to contribute. My grumpiness began to lift somewhat, if only from seeing other people.

The instructor showed up right on time, and we began with an introductory exercise. She asked each of us to give our profession and describe our last position, our reason for departing, one good thing that's happened in our lives (in work or outside), our hopes and concerns over the process, and what we would truly like to do next in our career. I was fourth in line, so I had some time to think of answers. The "one good thing" stumped me at first; the lingering funk I was in clouded my objectivity.

By the time they got to me, I had recalled a piece of advice from P., the career coach who had visited our office shortly after the layoff news. When speaking on the phone during our job hunt, he said, stand. You project more forcefully when speaking in a standing position than when sitting. Taking this cue, I said, while rising, "I feel more comfortable talking to a crowd when I stand, so I'm gonna stand." I tried to hold everyone's gaze for at least one sentence while I said my piece, which I managed to deliver without my usual storm of "uh"s and "y'know"s. As for the "one good thing" example, I briefly summarized my successful writing devotion.

Hearing the others gave me a sense of their optimism. Aside from one guy who was a salesman and seemed like a bluff-hearty bullshit artist, the others varied from tentative to shellshocked. Putting folks on the spot to speak in front of 10 strangers is rough for some folks. When I learned that two of the most reticent people were also in the business of corporate communications and executive-level event planning, respectively, I wondered how this had affected their work. These professions require effective speech and confidence, both of which seemed muted in their body language and projection. As far as optimism, their manner and tone conveyed more of a "what choice do I have?" attitude toward the learning that lay ahead.

The class that day and next alternated through enlightenment, pulling teeth, and contrariness on the part of some of the participants. The instructor was not forceful enough in keeping the people on track. They easily diverted into areas inessential to the course materials, or even the job hunt. The instructor had a bad habit of engaging folks on these points, rather than diverting the course firmly through its many stages. Worse, when she tried to return to the materials, she would often think of something at the last minute to offer the person who was diverging — a website, an humorous rejoinder to the person's point, a reference to another person's wisecrack earlier that sparks said person to sound off for a minute — and delay our return to the defined path.

I understand it's important to have a dialogue in these events. I know how helpful it is for folks going through the often lonely effort of job hunting to know there are others enduring the same quest, and how others in meetings like this can not only provide advice, but actual leads on jobs. But when the instructor mentions an online networking tool, and the conversation diverts for 15 minutes because the class is split on whether it's a pay service, whether you have to be invited like Gmail, et cetera — I had a strong feeling that we would give the final stages of the process short shrift. One of these stages was the interview, no small part of the process.

The inability of some of the participants to let the instructor help them was disturbing. I know being thrown out of a long-term position is demoralizing and leads one to question one's worth. But the attitude of some of these folks went from submission to surrender. This includes the corporate communications person and the event planner. The former was responsible for producing award-winning annual reports —writing, collating financial data, working with legal departments, contracting artists and printers, and quality control. She claimed she wouldn't be of use to an organization these days simply because she had been doing this one thing, in addition to her other daily duties, for so long. The event planner, who surely had contact with caterers, florists, event halls and staffing agencies, and the executive staffs of the bigwigs throughout her own firm, said she had no connections. The instructor tried to pry some details out of her on what she did, but could not get this 18-year veteran of corporate event planning to do so or even realize the value of her network. This went beyond shyness or poor speaking skills. This was a failure to let a skilled professional help. Few things make me angrier.

Add to this a microbiologist who contradicted several pieces of advice or research-tested techniques that the company had developed. Sometimes he wouldn't even offer evidence, just saying something like, "Are employers really going to accept that?" or "Does [technique] really apply to people in my industry?" At one point, after grinding my teeth through a day and a half of this guy's shit, when the instructor took a moment to describe the details of corporate-recruiter compensation, he said, "Do we really need to know this?"

"Excuse me." I halted the instructor. To him: "I find this useful. I've registered for a recruiter conference that [the firm] is offering on April [X]. [Firm] thinks it's important enough to invite recruiters to tell us how they do their job, so I want to hear what [instructor] has to say on this point too."

That was his last interjection.

I had a break between these classes when my friends Jen and Steve held a dinner party Thursday night to give me, Felix, and his girlfriend a chance to see their new house. It was very relaxing and gave me a chance to speak about anything but the job hunt for a few hours. I confess, I woke up Friday morning even more grumpy than Thursday, faced as I was with another full day with these jokers.

It was a grind. The incident I mentioned earlier with the online networking tool occurred Friday. We were just about to enter the networking chapter, which is one of the areas in which I am weakest, and it was all I could do to keep from screaming as the instructor kept letting herself get diverted from the coursework. I had 2½ weeks left to exploit the services of the career counselors. Any distraction over useless bullshit took unrecoverable time from that total.

I went home Friday feeling very drained. I had taken lunch across the street to avoid contact with any of the students (though I wasn't able to avoid the salesman, who unfortunately came into the men's room where I was trapped and kept asking me questions about myself, despite the implicit signals of my one-word answers to fuck off). I knew there was great value in the course materials, and I had been hoping to explore them in greater depth with a career expert and willing students. Instead, I found that this path, like many in my life, would most profitably be followed solo.

My guard was sufficiently down by bedtime to feel deeply nostalgic about not going to New York City each day. I couldn't get the various experiences of the past 7 years out of my head. The Manhattan skyline capped with dense, low clouds from the vista of the Lincoln Tunnel helix. Neon reflecting on wet Times Square pavement. Empty avenues barely lit with dawn and free of cars when I came in before 6 a.m. to bust out a newsletter on tight time. The cannon knocking down the toy soldiers atop the Radio City Music Hall marquee each Christmas season. The steps of the Treasury Building downtown, where traders, bankers, and the statue of George Washington watched a presidential hopeful address the creche of world capital. The feeling, wherever in the city I was standing, of being in the center of the universe, which I have not felt in Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, or Las Vegas. I know I can return there with a quick dash down to the Hudson, either via tunnel or ferry, but 2 weeks without walking on its streets hit me at a vulnerable moment, and I felt sad to have lost the daily opportunity.

Eight hours of sleep set my mind right. I had other matters to worry about. Saturday marked the beginning of my sixth week of devoted gym visits. Though the close of my last job and the need to launch my career search led me to move the specific dates around, I still got to the gym for a full-body weight-training workout three days a week. I also used the aerobics floor at least one day on top of those each week. I've added a little muscle, and my weight dropped by a few more pounds.

Now that I've established the habit, I want to return to one of the more successful routines I used when I was still going to work. It is a two-day split of body areas, done twice per week with a day separating the visits. Rather than using one long set per exercise, this one broke it into three shorter sets, with more weight each time. In the past, I allowed schedules, mood, or other distractions to pull me off of the program, but when I stuck with it, it worked well. This time, I have clear early mornings and late afternoons — the perfect time to push the advantage. I've taken a break from the Thursday night game to keep my sleep cycle on track (work or not, and winning or losing, recovering from a 3 a.m. bedtime is rough).

I wrote up a sample routine and hit the gym late yesterday afternoon to try it out. I found my intro circuit, useful as it was in establishing a habit, missed some areas I wanted to cover, like my lower back. (Whatever else I did at the gym, I always made sure to work my back muscles, to avoid the problems many of my friends were now encountering in their late 30s.) I lowballed the weight so I could get my form down, as I hadn't performed a couple of these exercises in a few months. I got a good start, hitting abs, back, chest, and biceps. Today is legs, shoulders, and triceps. Once I get the specific exercises chosen, I'll make up a new chart and get my progress on paper.

One useful tip: I left space on my last chart to jot notes. Nothing too complex; little hints for the next visit, like "Strong throughout. Move up," or "Weak form past rep 12." Just something to keep my progress steady but forward. If I've been stuck on a certain resistance or even a whole exercise, I want to know. I've also been writing down what aerobic work I've done between weight-training visits.

I am hopeful that my job hunt and my fitness work will mesh. Success in one field has to build confidence in other areas. Plus, if I have a frustrating day searching for work, I can always dash over to the gym for 30 minutes on the elliptical trainer or take a long walk. And I am documenting all of my work in finding a job, not unlike the records I'm keeping of my gym visits. The program actually mandates that you track your time in searching, all the contacts you make, the volume of correspondence you send out, and other tangible markers of job-hunt work, so if you're lingering uselessly in one area, it becomes evident, and you can correct course.

I have solid notes from the seminar on what to do next, despite the distractions. I will let the other students inspire me to dig deep into my abilities and to inquire constructively, rather than hide behind my achievements and let cynicism paralyze action. As for the gym, well, completing a long walk up and over a tall hill yesterday without stopping or losing my wind was solid evidence of my progress. I have a long way to go, but at least I can see results.

If I can still fit into my interview suit when the time comes to dust it off, I know I will have passed major milestones in both fields.

No comments: