Careers: Making a Life vs. Making a Living

Once upon a time, I worked as an employment counselor. As I work to restructure my life, I thought about employment counseling, the tools I used, and the people with whom I worked. Most of the people with whom I worked had fallen into unemployment. The reasons for their fall varied.

Many found themselves ambushed with a lay-off notice/being downsized (many had similar experiences to the lead character in the movie “Larry Crowne”). Others submitted retirement paperwork and discovered they’d lost their retirement savings or pension in a corporate sale (I’m reminded of the movie “Love Punch”). A few lost everything (in an accident, due to illness, or other catastrophe) (I’m thinking of “Henry Poole was Here”). A few job-hopped so much that as they aged and their charms became more dated, they were suddenly unable to recover. A few had opted for the fulltime mommy-track and when their spouse absconded with the family fortune, they came seeking the skills they needed to secure a job with a living wage…or two jobs at minimum wage.

One of the things I tried to do was encourage people to take the time to find a job that felt fulfilling to them, that gave them the sense they were doing something important and helping others. The counselors at the career center where I worked all encouraged clients to get on a career track that gave them a sense of making their life better, not just making a buck. We also advocated for living-wage jobs (jobs that paid enough to cover basic needs).

Granted, there are career surveys that have a lot of support from employment counselors. They line up the traits, character, and preferences of job-searchers with people in certain career fields. The more they match, the better it is assumed for the job seeker. However, when you consider that most workers (approximately 70% in surveys) state they are unhappy with their jobs, that route may not provide the best results.

One of the most in-depth (and time-consuming) options was presented in grad school as System for Identifying Motivated Abilities (SIMA). The newer version is described in the book The Power of Uniqueness: Why You Can’t Be Anything You Want To Be by Arthur F Miller, Jr., with William Hendricks. The technique is time-consuming, but worth the effort and I recommend it highly to anyone who is interested enough to make the time investment. In a nutshell that I’m certain sells the technique short, it’s about identifying your areas of giftedness and things that motivate you to help you identify a career that inspires your best.

A short-cut option we often used in our time-limited culture of career counseling was to ask people to consider this: most people, between ages 9 and 12, come up with an idea of a career they feel strongly attracted to. This is after the notion of being a pop star, astronaut, or perhaps a race-car driver passes. It could be inspired by a person in that profession, a random idea, a movie or book.

When I was in that age-zone, I had an amazing teacher. She was not the popular teacher. (I had the popular teacher the following year. He was, at best, condescending and emotionally abusive to the non-athletes in the class, but wildly popular among the athletic children.) Mrs. Turner was fair. Never giddy. She challenged all students to do better, behave better, live better. And one homework assignment was to imagine our grown-up lives and to describe how we made a living, including providing an example of a work product. For example, an aspiring airline pilot would describe the job in a few paragraphs and might create a flight log.

I took it seriously. I know that because many years ago, as I helped my mom sift through old papers, I found that assignment. Condensed, and to the best of my memory, here’s what it said.

Because I loved children and didn’t feel they got the respect they deserve, I wanted to be a teacher during the day.

Evenings I would work as a writer for a television show because I felt stories had the power to change lives.

Summers I would travel, explore new places, gather stories, and document my explorations to encourage others to get out to take the roads they hadn’t and to see the world. I thought it the best way to get to really learn about, and possibly understand, other cultures.

Although it was a bit ambitious – finding time to sleep and grade papers would certainly have presented challenges – the things I wanted to do as a child reflected core values that haven’t changed much.

I still believe in the importance of supporting and encouraging children. In my life and work I’ve done that by working with foster family placements; helping homeless families secure safe permanent housing; supporting youth and low-income parents as a therapist, career counselor, or educator; volunteering for Special Olympics and as a Girl Scout troop leader; and other ways.

Exercising my creativity through writing, story-telling, and other activities continues to uplift and fascinate me. As a fund-raising professional, I told stories to encourage generosity and wrote proposals for funding from many different sources. I’ve written newspaper columns, technical manuals, newsletters for multiple nonprofit agencies or programs, and I write and read nearly every day.

My dad loved to find and explore roads he’d never traveled, and travel remains a joy for me. Though most of my journeys have been on the continental US or Hawaii, my road trips have taken me to every state in the continental US except Maine, I’ve seen some amazing places. I also had the privilege of working and living in Hawaii for 10 years.

So, from someone who worked in the field of employment/career counseling, I think we all could do better when it comes to finding careers and making time for our passions. One way to do that would be to look at what was important to you as a child, the core values those desires arose from, and think about ways to incorporate those values in your work, volunteer opportunities, or daily life.

It’s another part of healthy self-care.

A Surprise Visitor

Those days. It was one of Those Days. One of those rare stretches of time without a lot scheduled and when the grandsons had other activities that didn’t require my presence.

I remember the early morning because the heat wasn’t working in the locker room after my early-morning water aerobics class, and the fan blew in the 40-degree dawn air from outside. By the time I showered and shivered into clothes, I could only think of hot coffee, so headed for the nearby Starbucks.

Morning coffee: an indulgent luxury for no-rush-days when the aroma and the first sip receive their deserved savoring. The steaming almond-milk latte did not disappoint me, so I took my time. Checked a few errands off my To-Do list.

When I returned to a 60-degree house, I grabbed my Kindle full of books and carried my laptop to the sun-blasted patio where 65 degrees of direct sunshine warmed me.

Ah, the difference between a protected spot in the sunshine and a chilly desk chair inside…

Before I could open the laptop, I thought about my grandmother. She would have loved that brilliant day.

Grandma Isabel lived with us from the time I was 5 years old, and every morning she filled a mug with coffee, lightened with 2 spoons of sugar and a large dollop of evaporated milk, and carried it to the front porch. She sat there in an Adirondack chair for an hour or two. No gaming device or cell phone on her lap. No book or newspaper.

When my cheeky 6-year-old-self asked her how she could tolerate all that boring time doing Nothing, she informed me she wasn’t doing Nothing and was never bored. She described Noticing. She suggested observing the birds stretching their wings and singing to one another, the cars zipping or crawling by on the busier streets a half-block away, the plants dancing under the weight of insects skittering about, folks pulling into the nearby church parking lot, dew on the grass, children heading to school or parents dressed for work, the wind pushing treetops back and forth. Everywhere she looked, she saw Life, and all of it seemed Special.

Ten years later, after she passed away, I would sometimes sit in one of those chairs on the porch, just noticing things. It surprised me to learn how much of what happened around me I had missed.

But that day, a few short weeks ago, I sat outside, ignoring my electronics while I watched a flock of birds as they made figure-eights toward the southwest. A raven sitting on a nearby power line made shocked noises. Aircraft passed over at high altitudes, leaving their white trails in their wake.

Suddenly, a small group of smaller birds scattered amid a lot of squawking.

From the north, a hawk swooped in, landing about 20 feet away from me on the back fence. I’d read stories about coyotes and other small creatures, displaced by human expansion into what was once their territory, wandering into neighborhoods on this rocky side of Ventura County, but the hawk was an unanticipated visitor.

Standing with it’s brilliant rust-colored chest facing toward me, I never even thought to grab my phone to try to get a photo. Somehow, I knew my time with this large hunter would pass quickly. In my limited reality, the word Awesome came to mind to describe the event. The hawk, judging by the foliage behind him, stood about 18” high. He (I’m assuming, because of the striking color of his feathers), paused for a few seconds, hopped and spread its wings, dipping over the fence and out of sight.

It took a while for me to trudge through websites to find the Red Shouldered Hawk. I almost forgot the incident.

A few days ago, though, I heard a screeching cry from above and watched smaller birds scatter. I stopped everything to look around, hoping to see the visitor again. Sadly, that didn’t happen. Still, I appreciated the pause and the reminder to savor each moment.

Mentors and Angels: My Favorite 3-Year-Old

With the current year winding down and a new year full of possibilities looking us in the eye, I began to think about the many mentors and angels whose willingness to cross my path touched me in one way or another. I tend to think of these mentors in terms of enemies and frenemies as well as friends and family; in general, my angels have been angels in human skin. All have helped me learn and grow.

The mentor I’m thinking about this morning, as I look out at a winter sky the color of faded denim, is 3 years old. In the event you haven’t crossed paths with a 3-year-old recently, I’ll share a comment I heard from a young father recently. The usually chipper guy, who loves being a dad, commented “People told me to watch out for the Terrible Twos. My daughter’s 2s were wonderful. But the threes?! Holy hell. I’m not sure we’ll survive.”

I totally get it, and that’s why my 3-year-old mentor comes to mind. He has a big heart and is quite courageous, but his focus right now, as it should be, is individuality. It’s awesome and terrifying to behold, as he swings between clinging to the adults in his life one moment and screaming at those same bewildered folks to “put me down NOW.” Whenever possible, he fights for his rights, as he views them, whether that’s his “right” to take away his older brother’s newest toy, his “right” to determine his own nap- and bed-time, or his “right” to shove anyone who gets in his way for any reason.

To be clear, even the 3-year-old gets no slack when it comes to violence toward others, animals, or himself. We talk about anger and disappointment as big feelings that we learn to express in other ways. Together we seek ways to do so that aren’t harmful. Two of his current favorites are blowing raspberries and screaming I’m so angry with you repeatedly at the top of his surprisingly powerful lungs.

What I love about this amazing boy, my grandson, is that he lives with such passion. He doesn’t pull his punches or edit his words, so when I offer him options like you may sit at the table in the kitchen or on the patio to finish your lunch, he literally stomps his feet and may demand to eat on the floor in his bedroom or under the orange tree in the backyard or in the garage. When I repeat the options, the volume of his voice will increase as he repeats his demand.

After a minute or two, when I’ve reminded myself this isn’t a battle-of-wills or even a personal-attack, when I’ve explained calmly and repeatedly that he can select from sit at the kitchen table, sit at the patio table, or skip lunch, he picks an option. He appears quite offended that he has been forced to choose.

Then he sits down for lunch at the table, smiles, and the topic of conversation drifts a million miles away from the recent battle. He just lets it go.

No torment. No second-thoughts. After giving his all to the battle, he makes a decision, follows through, and whether or not the result is optimal, he has moved on.

Just like that.

This morning I observed him and the way he moved on and was amazed at his recovery speed. Yes, his decisions seem minor in comparison to some adult choices, but they’re huge to him. I’ve held on to toxic relationships, horrible rentals, godawful jobs, and when I let them go, wondered whether I’d given up too quickly.

This morning I remembered my Auntie Frances telling me in my early adulthood to let go of any fears related to making decisions. She seemed very sure of herself when she remarked “most are not fatal, although hesitation can be.” She suggested not taking the time to wipe the dust off my feet when leaving a bad situation. “Giving up?” I asked, “I thought my job was to persevere.” She said “I used to think that, but now I think our job is to lift the world and make it better. We can’t do that if we’re miserable.”

And when I thought it over:

  • All the big decisions I second-guessed and tortured myself about: good decisions.
  • All the self-doubt: absolute waste of time.

In the interest of excellent self-care in this time-limited life, I’m looking to my little mentor.

My suggestion: when something ends, strive to embody that grace that compels us to move forward instead of peeking in the rear-view mirror. Learn from the past, of course, but it seems to me we lift the world whenever we focus on the marvelous moments, one at a time, and we lift our own spirits as well.

Appreciating Food…

As a child we didn’t have a lot of money, so we ate a lot of soups and stews. One big stew-pot full of chicken and dumplings lasted the family three days with extra veggies added daily.

We picked greens, fruits, and mushrooms that grew wild in the country-side; feasted on peaches and tomatoes when they were ripe and canned some for the winter. My dad cured olives. Mom cooked up jellies and jams.

My mother was not one of those 1950s/1960s moms who loved spending time in the kitchen. Initially she took time to prepare meals, most often from a cookbook or a recipe provided by a family member, scribbled on a 3″ by 5″ card and kept in a little metal recipe box. However, as my parents’ income increased and my dad’s business grew (and my mom took over bookkeeping), their time devoted to the home shifted slowly.

By my teens, my parents were better off financially. They were also stressed and tired. At that point, they swapped the homemade meals and reminders of the importance of drinking water for bags or buckets of fast food that disappeared in a few minutes and bottled soft drinks purchased in bargain-rate case lots.

I suspect we weren’t that unusual.

As a single mom working full-time, I cooked every night, but preferred things that were quick to fix, like meatloaf or prepared meals from a box.

About the time my career advanced, the kids had moved away. My days were normally 10 to 12 hours long, often bleeding into the weekends, so my time for cooking felt limited. I often made a pot of something (pasta, beans, rice) to last the week (same meal every weekday, sometimes for both lunch and dinner, if I took time for lunch).

Although on the rare sick day I spent a lot of time streaming cooking-related shows, I didn’t spend much time actually cooking.

It took me a while to realize I have been richly blessed, growing up before so many electronic distractions became necessities and while food was still simple. We considered ourselves an all-American family with a leaning toward Portuguese, Mediterranean, and Mexican food back in the early days.

This year I resurrected an old fruitcake recipe (not like the purchased versions). Yum! Until recently I didn’t know that the tramaços we enjoyed as snacks with Portuguese family (my Italian friend called them “lupini”) were not just healthy, but the beans are one of the highest plant sources of protein. Not available locally, I found some dried beans online and plan to make my own. After taste-tasting tamales sold locally, I’m convinced our old family recipe tasted far better, so there’s another future project.

Long story short, I’ve been enjoying a culinary trip into the past. Back to lentil soup, our style of Portuguese soup (not nearly as loaded with meat as some restaurant versions I’ve tried), chicken stew, tortillas, scratch biscuits (not difficult at all), posole, chicken salad, quiche, apple pie, and many delicious plant-based entrees. A quick blog search helped me find more foods to try.

As the year wraps up, rather than make resolutions, my self-care plan is to take some time each week to prepare one new dish and bring back one of my childhood favorites. Who knows? Maybe I’ll find a new favorite that one day my grandkids will share with their grandchildren.

And Then There’s Food…

Over the last 60 years I’ve had some time to think. I’ve also had lots of time to try different approaches to life. As an older fat woman with a cringe-worthy history of dieting – from the family doctor handing me amphetamine-based diet pills while I was in high school to starving myself until I passed out when jogging one day (there’s nothing like waking up with your face planted against a sea-wall) – my only explanation for jumping on way-too-many faddish programs is… uh… I dunno…

As an intelligent woman, I might have decoded the honest-truth about the dismal prospects that accompany the diet-mentality, but it’s difficult to tune in through the static and disapproval littering the atmosphere.

Without mentioning program or product names (remember, I’ve tried just about everything), I had surprisingly few successes. Worse, those successes were fleeting. I’d hover weight-wise around the higher limits of “normal” until a personal calamity sucked all the optimism out of the air, leaving me bracing for another catastrophe. In those days, when a close friend repeatedly reminded me I was “born under an unlucky star,” avoiding self-reflection seemed a good idea.

Surgery eventually popped up as an option as I moved up the scale and watched my best friend intentionally gain weight to make herself eligible for what she saw as “an easy” solution.  Then I watched her post-surgical turn to alcohol. “You’re killing yourself,” I pointed out during a drunk-and-dial episode. “Yes,” she responded, “but at least I’ll die thin.” And she did die thin. And young. That loss convinced me surgery definitely didn’t fit for me.

After paying attention for a while, I grew weary of the obvious gap between the marketing push toward eat-drink-and-be-happy (consider photos of bikini-clad slender women gobbling fast food) telling us we deserve to eat while the culture upheld the no-such-thing-as-too-rich-or-too-thin value. Really?!

During the 80s and 90s, a lot of good information started invading bookstores and, later, the internet. I still had my heart set on a magical, brilliant, flashy, easy-peasy resolution to my relationships with food and my body. I knew it rested between being furious at the way fat folks are discriminated against to looking suspiciously at an uninformed medical community.

Years ago I examined some data, then picked up Health at Every Size and several other outside-the-norm books (The Diet Myth, The Obesity Myth are others that come to mind, though I know there are a lot more!) ; a couple of years ago, I reached for Intuitive Eating and I thought what the heck – I’ll give this an honest try.

It’s surprisingly basic and easy…almost magical. I committed to eating when and what I believed my body wanted, to noticing when I felt hungry and when I craved something (and wondering, without judgement, what the craving was about). I committed to paying attention to how I felt after eating different types of foods, to paying attention when eating, to enjoy eating, and to not feeling guilty about eating with gusto.

It sounds a little crazy, but I also rediscovered my love of real food and cooking. I quit allowing others to determine what’s “healthy/delicious” and started letting my body tell me what’s good for me. No weighing, no self-shaming, no long lists of forbidden foods. And I’m healthier and happier. The practices described eloquently and in detail in the book earn my two-thumbs-up as an important component of self-care for me. Both books deserve to be on every medical practitioner’s bookshelf.

For now, suggest anyone who feels beaten-down related to food- or weight-issues read Intuitive Eating. There’s data (I am, after all, a geek) to support the effectiveness, but I’ve known since I was 10 years old that one size doesn’t fit all.

May we all find our own best path and may we all enjoy the journey!

Guilty as Charged

Over the weekend some extended family decided to attend a small community event, and I opted out. Folks immediately offer suggestions (such as how to get a disabled parking placard), but this time I explained, not too articulately, it’s not a lack of mobility but that I need some alone-time.  I think, at worst, I hurt some feelings, and at best, confirmed I’m quite peculiar and possibly standoffish.

I really don’t mean it that way.

As they drove off, I felt guilty and realized for my own peace of mind I need to find a better way to explain to them why, as an introvert, I need quiet time to recharge. After that, if they don’t understand, I can let go of the guilt and know I have done my best.

In those dreaded workplace personality inventories, I often tested in or near the middle of the scale – in a vague area between a never-alone extrovert and the living-alone-in-a-cave side of introversion.

When I worked in a busy office with lots of noise and people flowing in/out, I enjoyed the ebb and flow, the challenges, and the opportunity to help. The chaos had a purpose. Then I came home to quiet.

I didn’t play the radio or need a television for background noise.  I came home, showered to clear away the day, cooked a meal, and took some time for silence. On weekends I learned I benefit from one day going nowhere and doing not-much, engaging in what my dad would call “piddling around.”

I know folks sometimes confuse depression and introversion, but they’re not the same. Having worked in a community mental health center, we asked if folks felt hopeless, helpless, irritable without a reason, felt sad (without a loss or explanation) for weeks or months, experienced fatigue and/or thoughts of worthlessness, or even considered suicide. However, I’m not sure people understand Introverts aren’t depressed or personality disordered or shy.

Jung, who seems credited with the personality theories that use extroversion and introversion, felt everyone had both sides, with general preferences in one direction. For some, a big loud party feels like heaven; for others a gazebo in a quiet garden feels the same.

Now that I’m thinking about it, someone once explained the difference between extroverts and introverts as this:

  • extroverts feel energized by being around people, sometimes the more people the merrier they feel, so they often prefer to be with others (that’s where they recharge);
  • introverts feel energized by spending time alone or with a few trusted folks, so generally prefer small groups or alone-time (that’s where they recharge).

To me, that seems a simple but sufficient explanation. Think I’ll try it soon as part of my self-care practice of taking time to recharge in my own way.

Life in Slow-Mo

Just ripped another page off the calendar as a new month begins. I tell myself the start of each new month provides opportunities. Still, my benchmarks seem to hover around Perfection. Self-care and Perfectionism. Hmmmm.

After joining a gym almost 3 weeks ago, I’ve been twice. My self-care plan dictates at least three visits a week (though I imagined 4 or 5), leaving me with a growing net deficit that I avoid calculating. The question I ask myself is: Why is it so hard to pull into the parking lot, park the vehicle, and walk inside?

Initially I came up with excuses. The staff I encountered seemed abrupt. The classes I want don’t fit the inflexible pieces of my schedule. The promised tour of the facility never materialized and after some solo-exploration, it still isn’t clear what’s what. One day I pulled into the parking lot and realized I sported mules (against the rules) instead of sneakers.

After struggling to get a membership I can barely afford, why can’t I suck it up and (assuming proper footwear) walk in the door?

Really. It’s not the first time I’ve walked into a new-to-me environment alone. I’ve moved half-way across the Pacific alone. I’ve traveled for both work and vacation as a single mom and, later, a single woman. I’ve changed jobs. Moved to new homes. Been through a hurricane, a small tsunami, a flood, gale force winds. I’ve survived many uncomfortable, and a few life-threatening, situations. It amazes me that something so simple has me confounded.

Since my days lack moping-time, though I admit to a talent for finding ways to distract myself, I decided some action is in order. What can I do? Push myself to suck-it-up and go daily? (Hasn’t worked so far.) Cancel my membership or just not-go? (Also hasn’t worked for me.)  How about figuring out why the building feels so intimidating?

After brief consideration, I decided to create a simply-easy plan to test whether exposure to the environment makes it feel less intimidating/more comfortable.

Since there are two days a week when I have a 4-hour block of alone/unscheduled-time, instead of pushing for perfect attendance at perfect classes or a specific workout for a specific length of time, I’ll keep those two time slots open and commit to making a trip to the gym on each of those two days during this month. No big plans. No worrying about the mismatched class schedule. Just showing up, going inside, asking some human there a question to learn my way around, hanging out for 10 or 20 or 200 minutes, and trying on the place as if it were a potential new pair of jeans.

By the end of the month I’ll know if the gym feels like worn, comfy jeans or something else entirely. Either way, I can make an informed decision. Who knows? Maybe I’ll fall in love with the place.

Week One Update: Tried the gym floor (got help with the treadmill) one day; the second gym day I attended a beginner-level aerobics class (survived + instructor invited me to return even though I’ll start late because of other obligations).

Week Two Update: Thought I’d enjoy the classes in the water best, so tried two different classes on two different days with two different instructors.


Graphic thanks to Creative Commons and this link: <a href=””>Surprised Sneaker (PDF)</a>

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