Fear, Accomplishment, and Major Decisions?

I’ve spent the last few weeks obsessing about a project. It was very detailed and involved organizing a lot of very technical information. I’m bad at details, I was scared of making mistakes interpreting the technical details, and generally spent a lot of time freaking out in front of my spreadsheets. (Not to mention complaining to my sister, mother, significant other, bestie from high school, Scripps friends, etc…)

But the last few days I’ve been in a meeting at which the fruits of my labor, cards visualizing the development scheduling of different applications’ pieces of interfaces, are displayed all over the wall. My cards are driving the discussion, and as intended, getting moved around and edited. I’ll be updating the spreadsheet to keep track of key changes. Despite my fears of being known as the intern who messed up the big meeting, I’ve been getting a lot of great acknowledgement from my team and the larger project for my work.

This has become a bit of a pattern for me, both in my blog posts (sorry for the repetition!) and in my personal life. I think that I am not up to a challenge, but I am. I imagine every permutation of failure, work really hard, and then…don’t fail. This feels good. It might not be the most efficient or reasonable way to get work done (I wish I could skip the self-doubt part) but it does work for me. And this process, silly as it may sound, is actually an improvement personally from a time where I would get stuck in my worries and never overcome my fears.

I think I’ve gotten better at getting through my crisis worry mode because of practice. Successfully taking math, a subject that reduced me to tears in high school, has acclimated me to tackling the unfamiliar and challenging. I know how to work through the scary stuff, even though it still scares me. The way through is just lots of work, lots of time, and lots of questions. It sounds obvious, but it can be terrifying to do all of those things when the possibility of failure, and all that effort wasted, looms.

I’m a firm believer that practice makes perfecter (clearly I haven’t quite achieved perfection in grammar). Thinking about this habit in my work life and my academic life has helped me solidify my plan to major in Mathematical Economics. Economics fascinates me, and math both interests me and scares me out of my wits. But I want to keep on practicing working through that fear, because out in the working world, I’m going to encounter problems that seem unsolvable. I want the toolkit to face those problems down.

When Things Get Slow

Lately, things have been a little slow in the office. It’s summertime, so folks are either at the fair, at the lake, or in the fields.  While my coworkers definitely have a steady stream of work coming in, sometimes work slows down for the intern. It only takes so much time to transfer the calls that come to the main line, enter the mail when it comes between noon and one, monitor my email, and answer the door. Now that I’ve gotten into a groove with my work and things have started coming in intermittently, it’s easy for me to run out of things to do. And while my manager is great about giving me casework to do, sometimes you find yourself waiting for responses from all of the agencies or constituents you’re working with, and there’s nothing you can do to move forward.

At first, running out of things to do really freaked me out. I felt like I was going to get in trouble for sitting idle, but really I just hadn’t been given enough tasks to fill the day. It takes time for employers to assign tasks to interns, and, at least in my job, assigning work to the intern can sometimes make their jobs take more time. So I’ve gotten good at filling the days so that they don’t feel like they’re dragging on for forever. The tips and tricks I’ve learned for keeping busy on the slow days are also good ways to break up the day if your work feels really tedious or monotonous. As always, here are some things to think about and try if you ever find yourself stuck!

1. Offer to do someone else’s busywork. When I get low on things to do, I pop by each of my coworkers’ offices and see what’s stacking up. I’ve had coworkers ask me to enter their business card contacts into Outlook, file documents hanging out on their desk, print letters and stuff envelopes for them, and other tasks that are obviously important but not necessarily a top priority. They acknowledge that it’s not super exciting, but they still really appreciate it. If you help them out with stuff they wish they had time to do, people will likely pay you back twofold.

2. Let your supervisor know that you’re low on work. I’ve gotten tactful at asking my manager for more to do–at first I felt really bad bugging her, but I’ve found that giving people warning helps ease those worries. Keeping a list of what you need to do can help predict when your work will come to a standstill. When you get towards the end of the list, poke your head in your manager’s office or shoot her an email letting her know. My favorite message is: “I’m getting towards the end of my to-do list, so if there’s anything you need, feel free to send it my way.” This way, they won’t have to scramble to find work to give you, and you’re less likely to have to wait for them to find something for you.

3. Internet! (Productively). Because my coworkers do outreach (and some of them also work for my lawmaker’s campaign on the side), they’re responsible for knowing what’s going on around the state and attending events with or on behalf of my boss. We also keep an eye out for awards people have gotten or other exciting things like that (we had a lady in town who turned 103 last month) and send out letters congratulating them. So browsing the websites of local newspapers or–I’m serious–Facebook can actually be a good use of time. Reaching out to contacts way out wherever to see what’s been going on can also be helpful. If your office isn’t doing outreach, figure out what news (or even gossip, *wink wink*) is relevent and useful in your industry, and start poking around. You’ll learn a lot, and you may be able to contribute something really useful. Also try stalking the websites of other important people or companies in your industry–in my case, I look at people who are campaigning for political seats in my area, for example, and at people or organizations my coworkers are visiting soon for outreach. This helps you keep up with what’s going on out in the world from your desk chair.

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That Allie Brosh–always full of wisdom.

4. TV! (Also productively). If watching the news (CNN, CSPAN, BBC, PBS, local news, The Weather Channnel…) is relevant to your organization’s or office’s work (e.g. if the Supreme Court is handing down an important decision, or what Congress is up to can affect what’s going on where you are), tune in and keep an ear trained towards the TV. If you don’t have a TV nearby, check out Twitter–if you have to, make a “business” Twitter that’s just for news outlets so that your very important work doesn’t get interrupted by Kimye. Unless keeping track of Kimye is part of your work (I spy you, Pitzer alum with a job at MTV!). In which case, carry on.

5. Change the scene. If I can, I grab something I can do not on the computer–reading the newspaper, marking up a draft (again), or sorting what I should file and what I can shred–and take over the countertop near my desk. Standing up and moving somewhere else gets my blood moving and helps me not feel all sluggish from sitting in the same place in the same position all day. If standing for a while isn’t your thing, moving somewhere else (in my office, I could take over the table we use to greet people, or even turn around and use the back part of my desk) can be just as good–it gets your eyes, ears, and hands away from your computer screen for a little bit and gives your mind different work to do for a few minutes. Even just getting up to go to the break room for a quick snack (I am a regular patron of the little bowl of chocolates in the back) will help keep things from getting really monotonous.

6. Take a late lunch. Don’t ask me why this helps, but it does! If your lunch time is flexible, try taking your lunch more than halfway through your day. Since I get to work at 8 and leave at 5, I normally find myself taking lunch at 11 or 12. But if I take lunch at 1, that means I get back between 1:30 and 2, so I have less time left between lunch and close. Since afternoons are the time when the day seems to go by so. slowly., I find it helps to cut the afternoon time shorter by making my morning longer. I know it sounds goofy, but bring a snack to tide you over till a little later in the day, and you’ll see what I mean.

7. Check your email and update your to-do list. Realizing you missed an email asking you to do something because you were poking around the website of the local telephone cooperative isn’t fun. It’s easy to zone out when things get slow, so be sure to keep your email open and updated. Adding every little thing to your to-do list can also help keep you focused and make it easier to get back to the work assigned to you as the slow period passes.

As I was writing this, I kept wondering whether this problem is unique to me–do you get slow days, or are you always swamped? Do you have tips for dealing with either of those situations–what do you do when you’re slow or swamped?

Take That Down!

I’m way too unreliable to keep a journal.

The last time I consistently kept a journal (of sorts) was when I blogged while studying abroad—and then I had the fact that my family was worried for my well-being to motivate me. I’m just not one to record my day-to-day life. Time always seems to slip away from me.

Don't tell Cleo.

Don’t tell Cleo.

But when it comes to knowing my stuff—both what’s relevant to my professional goals and to my personal interests—I am very consistent. Keeping a record of things that are important and storing the records in an easily accessible place has become an indispensable part of my professional and personal growth. My little black notebook has saved the day many times.

Anyone who knows me well knows I carry my little black notebook around with me pretty much everywhere. I keep a record of anything I read or hear that I find to be important or particularly poignant in that notebook. I never thought something so simple would make my life so much easier and more organized, but now I’ll never look back.

The great thing about this method of thought organization and documentation is that it can be modified to fit pretty much anyone’s preferences or needs. Here are my basic tips for keeping your own idea journal.

Gather your supplies. Before I went to a really important conference last spring, I bought a hardcover, well-bound, black notebook. At the time, I mostly wanted something that would look sleek and professional, but I’ve since realized that anything else wouldn’t have worked. If you want to keep track of things in a notebook, you’ll want to find one that’s durable. My poor little book gets thrown into every bag, dropped on the ground, shoved off my bed—I’m notorious for spilling food on things, so I’m just awaiting the day when that happens. Get something that’s going to last. You won’t regret it.

While you’re at it, go get some pens and toss one in every bag you carry, and in the pocket of your jacket/coat/blazer/etc. Learning something good and not being able to write it down is the worst.

Keep good records. Before I start writing down something I learned, I like to make some notes about the context. Check out these notes I made on a post from Beyond the Elms blogger Mia last month! This is a good example of the average entry in my notebook.

Always good to keep in mind.

Always good to keep in mind.

Start writing. At first, I thought I would just pull out my notebook when something interesting happened. I would wait for the occasion to arise and then whip it out to start writing. Now, I see it as a way to challenge myself to find innovation in places I wouldn’t always expect. Here are some things to get you going:

1. Facts & Figures. The easiest place to start is to write down important hard information and statistics you encounter. When you read studies or listen to lectures, jot down the argument made and try to learn as much of it as you can. This way you can whip out those percentages and other figures when you need them.

2. Not Just “What?” but “How?” To dig a little deeper, try to take a step back from the message and look at the messenger. How are they presenting their information? What makes them convincing or not? Does the layout of the fact sheet they give you work? Are their visuals useful? Is the meeting or conference space conducive to the work they’re trying to do? Write down what they do that works—or doesn’t. You’ll be grateful you did.

3. Day-to-Day Bits of Wisdom. What can I learn from a discussion my coworkers have about how the seating at an important event should be organized? What wisdom can I glean from my coworker who always brings treats and snacks to the office? How does the way my manager talks on the phone help her accomplish her goals? It’s easy to jot down straight information, but you can also push yourself to get more out of a situation by looking for off-the-cuff wisdom and innovation.

4. Good Advice. Whenever you get the chance to sit down and get advice from a superior—your boss, manager, mentor, even someone who has been at the company longer than you have—take out your notebook and write down good advice they give. This way you can always look back on your notes later to make sure you remember their suggestions correctly, but more importantly, taking notes shows your advisor that you’re really listening and take their advice seriously. Win-win!

5. Must-Reads. Always having your notebook handy is great when people are constantly recommending books for you to read. I probably have 10 or 15 in my notebook, and they will be wiring patiently until I find the time to sit down and read them.

6. Powerful Words. I was at a town hall a few weeks ago where I got to hear my lawmaker speak candidly with folks who had concerns. I had my notebook at the ready whenever I was sitting down, and I was really excited about getting to write down soundbites and wise words from my boss and from folks who spoke up. Keeping a record of important themes will help you better remember details of what happened on the day.

Analyze. As you can see, keeping a record of things to remember not only helps you remember what happened, but also what’s important about what happened. Numbers 2 and 6 in particular suggest that writing down wise words will also help you recognize who’s really running the show in a given space. If someone’s words keep falling flat, try to figure out why—are they badly or under-informed? Do they lack the passion that others possess? Are they being spoken over or ignored? Are they disorganized? Try to get a sense of the dynamics of the room and figure out what’s happening that isn’t being said.

Keeping a record of important things in your office is also really useful for better understanding how the workplace functions. Everyone has official roles which they play based on their job descriptions, but everyone also serves a role the dynamics of the office. Taking notes of useful things people in the office say will help you understand how people work the way they do and how best to approach a situation where you need something. Either way, writing things down in a handy place helps you dig deeper for a better understanding of what you’re learning as you go through your professional life. Best of all, those of us who can’t keep up with a diary will still be able to look back on ourselves and our growth as long as the notebook decides to stick around.

Darn kids.

Darn kids. Think they know everything.

Do you keep a journal like mine? What do you suggest keeping record of? Let me know what you think!

Hello, my Name is…

People always call my boss by her first name.

I took a call from a man a few weeks ago who had a question about her view on something–he started out by calling her by her official title and last name, but then interrupted himself: “You know,” he said, “I just don’t feel like I can call her Sheriff Jones. I just have to call her Jessie.”

 

(Note: No, my boss isn’t a sheriff, and no, her name isn’t Jessie Jones. But she would be awesome at it if she was.)

 

Then again, I’d probably never hear the end of it.

Then this week, one of my coworkers noticed something. “When did they start writing ‘Jessie’ on our newspapers?” The folks in the main lobby keep our daily newspapers for us when they arrive in the morning, and I pick up our copy on my way up to the office. They write each office’s name on the front page so we know which is ours. When I first started, they were writing “Jones” on the front page, like they were doing for the guys in the office, Senator Butcher, Representative Baker, and Mayor Candlestick Maker. But sometime in the last week or so they stopped writing “Jones” and started writing “Jessie.”

 

I’ve even heard folks refer to her as Jessie and others by their last names in the same sentence–”If I don’t get a response from Jessie, I’ll be contacting Butcher, Baker, and Candlestickmaker too!”

 

Now, being, well, me, I was immediately skeptical of all this. Why only use her first name? She’s the first woman from our state to hold her current position, and she was also the first woman to hold several prominent positions prior to her election to this one, and it’s very obvious that she’s popular, at least baseds on the calls I get to the office.

 

But is it a sign of disrespect that folks call other leaders and politicians in our community and state by their title or last name and my boss by her first?
My boss herself doesn’t think so. The coworker who noticed the newspaper thing told me that she asked our boss if it bothered her. She replied that no, it didn’t bother her–in fact, she loved it. She loves that people feel comfortable enough with her to call her Jessie.

 

The more I think about it, the more I have to agree with her. While calling her by her title is certainly respectful (I definitely call her that in person), the fact that people call her by her first name does not put her at a disadvantage as a politician–who would you rather vote for, Mayor Candlestick Maker or your best buddy Jessie?

 

As I’ve said before, this part of the country can be a funny place. I’ve had men call me “sweetheart” on the phone before (and he was not a 90-year-old man thanking me for helping him with something, either–he was a 40-something guy who asked me whether he “needed to repeat his phone number, sweetheart”). And, full disclosure, we’re one of those states that currently has lawsuits pending because of our gay marriage and abortion laws. But at the same time, folks out here have a reputation of being friendly people (if not always the most forward-minded), and I think that my boss is right to take it as a compliment.

 

In fact, that’s my career advice for the week, folks–if you’re representing people, you need to make sure they like you. A lot. Enough to vote for you and maybe even donate some of their hard-earned money to your campaign. Or, if you’re managing a company, follow you and not despise you. It’s a delicate balance, though–people might not take you seriously if you don’t take yourself seriously. But my boss is really good at striking this balance: people take her seriously because she’s smart, speaks directly, and doesn’t back down from the principles she promised people when she ran for office. But she is also a casual, friendly, smiley person who is as quick to crack a joke with you as she is to hit you with a hard question when she needs to. So if you’re doing your job right, you might as well take the compliment and run with it.

 

Thoughts, folks? Would you rather be called by your first name or title? Is one more respectful? Does it depend? Have a good week!

Perception and Professionalism

This post was prompted by a discussion with my mentor, who was also on the panel for my phone interview. She was describing why they chose me, and made a comment that unnerved me a bit. She said that at first it seemed strange to do just a phone interview, but she saw now that in some ways it was more fair.

I wasn’t sure what she meant–was she referencing my height, my disability… or even my nose piercing? I knew the sentiment underneath was positive–that they loved my phone interview, and that my supervisor was very happy with my performance–but I was scared, and even slightly shocked by the implication that I would not have gotten the job with an in person interview.

I don't wear this dress to work. But the rest of me, professional or not, is pretty inescapable.

I don’t wear this dress to work. But the rest of me, professional or not, is pretty inescapable.

 

It never seriously occurred to me that my persona–tiny, quirky, and as I tend to say, vaguely disabled, could be dragging me down. I think of myself as professional: I try to be tactful, appropriate, and focused at work. I don’t show lots of skin, debate politics, or talk about wherever I danced or slept the night before.

At the same time, I want to be me, not bland corporate worker #237. I do have a nose stud, I dye my hair, I’m politically active, and I was raised with an ethos that many would describe as hippie-dippie. Of course, I know it’s not professional or appropriate to bring all of my experiences and identities to every situation. I try to walk that line as best I can. I don’t want to sabotage my reputation professionally or academically, but I’m also critical of the homogeneity of “professionalism”. A lot of advice to young people about being professional really seems to be telling us to hide who we are if we fall at all outside the norm.

Right now, the way I’m handling this is to be politely myself. I wear appropriate clothing, but my business casual is perhaps slightly on the earthy side (I have a lot of scarves.) I’ve tried to wear more makeup and sheath dresses, but I feel uncomfortable and less confident when I don’t look like myself. And ultimately, my professional strength depends on my confidence. It doesn’t matter how great my ideas are if no one hears them. And to my surprise, despite all of the ways I don’t resemble a generic young professional, people listen to me at work because I know what I’m talking about. They see that I work hard, that I ask questions, and that I speak with clarity and confidence.

I’m getting to know myself pretty well–my weaknesses (real and perceived by society) and my strengths. I can compensate for my weaknesses and capitalize on my strengths. That doesn’t stop me from freaking out occasionally, but it helps.