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Posts Tagged ‘success’

10 ways to rock your first job/internship

In behavior, business, education, journalism, life, US, women, work on May 21, 2014 at 1:25 am

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s graduation season, and time — for the fortunate — to step into their first full-time staff jobs, whether a permanent position or a summer internship.

If you’ve snagged a paid spot (or, likely, an unpaid one), congrats! Time to rock it!

As someone who has hired and managed less-experienced researchers and assistants, and has watched some newsroom interns succeed — or fail — a few hints:

 

INTERVIEW TECHNIQUES

Listen carefully

No, really.

Put down your phone, look people in the eye and give them your undivided attention. Old folks — anyone over 30 — expect you to look at them while they’re speaking to you, not IM or text. Especially if you’re working in any sort of customer-facing work like PR, retail, hospitality or food service — where high quality customer service is expected — this is crucial.

Your ability to soak up information quickly and accurately will make or break you. You may also have to convey key information to other people and need to be sure you’ve got everything right. You may well need to remind your boss of meetings, travel appointments or other tasks. They’re offloading onto you and counting on you to be helpful.

Take notes

Use whatever method is easiest and most reliable, whether a pen and paper, Ipad or verbal dictation. Double-check the spelling of even the simplest names and figures: Jon Smythe, for example. Never assume you automatically know the right answer; even if you do, check to be sure.

Ask lots of questions

Don’t be annoying and sleeve-tugging, but learn what is expected of you, whether hourly, daily, or weekly. If you’ve been asked to prepare a conference room for a meeting, go there ahead of time and make sure everything your boss(es) and co-workers will need is in there, and if not, get it!

Get to know all support and administrative staff and be kind and respectful to them. They hold a lot of power.

Also, find out how your boss and coworkers prefer to communicate — whether face to face, texts, email, phone or Skype. Just because you and your friends prefer texting does not mean those paying you do as well.

Memorize the phrase: “No problem!”

And mean it. After you’ve gotten your responsibilities clear, and you know who to ask or call for help in an emergency, it’s up to you to figure stuff out for yourself. It’s called being resourceful. Your value to your organization is not simply doing the job they hired you into, but to notice and anticipate other issues you might be able to help solve.

Are you including pleasure in your daily life?

Are you including pleasure in your daily life?

Take care of yourself: eat right, sleep 8 hours a night, limit alcohol intake

Don’t underestimate the stress — (and excitement!) — of a full-time job pleasing many new and demanding strangers. They’re not your Mom or coach or professors and (sorry!) many just don’t really care if you’re happy or having fun or even if you succeed. So it’s up to you to take the best care of your body and soul as possible, especially in an economy with few great jobs and little to no room for error, sloppiness, oversights or slip-ups.

Being well-rested and properly nourished will help you stay on top of your game; (i.e. do not arrive at work, ever, hungover. Nor share those details if you do.)

And no draaaaaaaama. Ever. No public tears or tantrums. (That includes stairwells, elevators and bathrooms. The walls have ears and you never know who’s listening.)

Check in with your boss(es)

If something they have asked you to do is heading south, let them know as soon as possible so there are no ugly last-minute surprises they can’t fix.

Don’t constantly ask co-workers or bosses for “feedback” or praise

Seriously! No matter how badly you crave approval or are used to being told — “Thanks! Great job!” — don’t hold your breath waiting for this at work. And don’t freak out if you never hear it there, no matter how much extra effort you put in. We’re all running 100,000 miles per hour these days and anyone who even has a job, let alone a senior position of any authority, is already plenty stressed and tired.

They are in no mood to coddle you as well.

Don’t take shit personally — unless it’s aimed at you specifically

If someone rips your head off, don’t take it personally. They might be a bitch to everyone all the time, or their dog just died or their husband is having an affair or they just got a lousy diagnosis. Get a feel for office politics and culture so you know when someone is really just like that, or when you really are screwing up and deserved to get your head sliced off, GOT-style.

It's not personal! Armor up, kids!

It’s not personal! Armor up, kids!

Do everything to 187 percent of your ability. Everything!

That means getting coffee, running to Staples, booking your boss’s flight, whatever your boss needs. People who run their own business, especially, rely on helpful, cheerful team players — no one is “too important” to do the smallest of tasks, no matter how silly or tedious or un-sexy they appear to be. People really value workers who consistently offer them good cheer, high energy and empathy.

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Your primary job is to make everyone else’s job easier

Don’t focus on your job title or description, if you even have one. Never say out loud, or post anywhere on social media: “That’s not my job!” If your boss says it’s your job, guess what…

Your most valuable skill, certainly as someone new to the workforce building your skills and your networks for the future, is being sensitive to others’ needs and making their lives easier, while accomplishing your own tasks on or ahead of schedule. No one, even at the opera, wants to work with a diva.

Good luck!

 

12 tips for creative success

In art, beauty, behavior, books, business, culture, design, journalism, life, photography, work on February 28, 2014 at 1:37 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Loved this, from Slate:

Most people agree that what distinguishes those who become famously creative is their resilience. While creativity at times is very rewarding, it is not about happiness. Staw says a successful creative person is someone “who can survive conformity pressures and be impervious to social pressure.”

To live creatively is a choice. You must make a commitment to your own mind and the possibility that you will not be accepted. You have to let go of satisfying people, often even yourself.

And this, from writer Myke Cole:

My sub­con­scious con­jured an image of a fab­u­lous party, filled with other writers and pub­lishing types. A place where I could walk in the door to a chorus of cheers, the “Norm” moment, where guard could be let down com­pletely, where there was only shared vocab­u­lary and a fluid ease that would make the jit­ters go away. There was a social circle that would be the payout for all the rejec­tion and worry and sweat equity I poured into my books. When I talked about it with my brother, I simply described it as “that.” I wanted to have “that.”

All I had to do was get a book deal. I would break out of the world I knew and set up in some secret corner of the social fabric, a back­stage pass to the world of writers that I just *knew* was out there, even though I had never seen it before…

There is no party. Not beyond the hour or two at a con or pub­lishing event where you get to show off for a shining moment, bask in the acco­lades for a few min­utes, fan boy gush face to face over someone whose work you admire but never hoped to meet.

And then it’s over, and you’re left with the work.

My husband Jose recently passed a major professional milestone: 30 years as a photographer and photo editor at The New York Times. On 9/11, the day he was to have moved into my apartment in suburban New York from his home in Brooklyn, he instead unpacked his scanner, printer and computer — and helped his colleagues transmit their horrific images from his apartment. His grace under fire helped the paper win that year’s team Pulitzer Prize for photo editing.

photo: Caitlin Kelly

photo: Caitlin Kelly

He grew up poor, the son of a Baptist preacher in Santa Fe, NM, far from the centers of media power and influence. He attended state school on scholarship. He’s slight, quiet, modest. Everyone else in his family became teachers.

One day, shooting for the Associated Press, the White House press corps — accompanying then First Lady Rosalynn Carter, landed in El Paso.

“Someday that’s going to be me,” said Jose, as he saw its four or five wire service photographers emerge from the plane.

Several colleagues snickered at his hubris.

And then he was, during his eight-year career in the White House Press Corps, photographing Presidents Bush, Reagan and Clinton.

Here’s his brand-new blog, Frame36a, (which refers to the extra frame we used to be able to squeeze from a 36-image roll of film), which will offer advice, insights and fantastic back-stories to some of his best photos.

We all won’t have a career like his.

But anyone with creative ambition — musical, artistic, photographic, literary, choreographic — will face obstacles, whether you’re 17, 27 or 57: lack of funds, no representation, a lost prize or fellowship or scholarship.

After a decade or so, they’ll probably morph into different challenges, but it’s rarely easy.

If you think it should be, this isn’t the world for you.

Start small

You don’t have to start out by winning a major prize or selling your work for a lot of money. You just have to get started. I began my career as a photographer, and one of my first sales was to my own high school, an image they bought for the school library. Was I scared to pitch our principal? Hell, yes! But it worked. I also had a show of my images in a Toronto library, again, because I dared to ask. The smaller the ask, the less scary it should be. Those initial triumphs are essential baby steps to your self-confidence as a creative person able to find, and sell into, the marketplace of ideas.

My high school award. Anything to boost your confidence helps!

My high school award. Anything to boost your confidence helps!

Start young/early

Don’t wait for permission to create! You don’t need a certificate or degree from anyone, anywhere, to create interesting, challenging and worthwhile work. Don’t be terrified if your competitor graduated from RISD or has a Phd from Harvard or was a star at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. If you have the passion and drive to find the toughest teachers out there — and they might be someone you meet at a conference or class — you’ll be on your way. I sold my first photos, three magazine covers, when I was still in high school. Jose was selling his photos while a freshman in college to the Associated Press; by the time we both graduated, we had large and impressive portfolios of nationally-published work. We were far, far ahead of our 22-year-old peers competing for work and jobs.

She didn't win, because her goat behaved badly. But she learned how to compete.

She didn’t win, because her goat behaved badly. But she learned how to compete.

Don’t give up if you fail the first (second, third) time

I’m amazed how quickly some people give up. I interviewed three times at Newsweek and was never hired there. No harm, no foul. I’ve had an awesome life and career without them. I’ve applied two (three?) times for the Alicia Patterson Fellowship, and was one of 14 finalists (of 347 applicants) last time. I’ll probably apply a few more times until I get it. In the meantime, I just keep improving my skills and strategies.

If you’re really aiming high, you’re always competing against highly-educated, smart, talented and well-prepared competitors. Expect it and arm yourself accordingly. If you want it badly enough — whatever it is — you’ll keep coming back to get it. Or you’ll find something more interesting instead.

Both of my non-fiction books, both of which were published by major New York houses to excellent reviews, were each rejected by 25 publishers first. Fun!

It’s too easy to watch others win awards and prizes and fellowships and hate them. Bandage your ego and get back in the game.

Find people whose work inspire you

This is essential. People who have succeeded in your field have likely hit (and surmounted) many of the same obstacles along the way that you’re facing. Read, listen to and watch them: at conferences, in TED talks, their websites or blogs or books. Follow them on social media like Instagram and Twitter.

If you’re feeling bold, reply to them or re-tweet their words. A relationship with someone who’s already carved their path is helpful. Don’t expect them to mentor you, though. Successful creatives are really busy!

Understand your industry or field: who has power and why?

The best way to get ahead creatively is not to shut yourself away in your studio or a hut in the woods, no matter how romantic that sounds. If you don’t keep up with the movements, controversies and players in your field, you’re too isolated and have no real idea how to access the powers-that-be, the ones whose choices are going to affect your ability to succeed as well.

Make sure to attend at least one conference a year in your industry so you can hear the latest and network with your peers. Showing up in person helps to prove your commitment; people see that and respond accordingly.

Self-doubt and self-confidence will perpetually war within you

It’s the ultimate paradox: to create means taking a risk, putting your skills and ideas into public view for possible rejection or criticism, but it also requires and demands enough confidence in your work to put it out there in the first place.

No creative person I know, or know of, hasn’t suffered — sometimes mightily — from this internal war.

Writers, even the most visibly accomplished, the ones we envy and admire, (who now have a reputation they might squander), lose their nerve or voice. Performers vomit and tremble before setting foot on stage. Artists burn work they’ve spent months or years to produce.

We’re human. It happens.

Make peace with your fears. Name and number them — “Oh, yeah, self-doubt 34a, how the hell are you these days?”

Then keep moving.

You will have to hustle, self-promote and shout louder than you might ever prefer

If you are a modest, gentle soul — like my lovely Jose — you may find the creative path more difficult, surrounded by arrogant, shouty chest-beaters. If you truly crave Big Success, however you choose define it, you may have to toot your own horn loud and long, no matter how declasse your family or friends or native culture consider that.

Volunteer your time and skills within your creative community

I think this is overlooked as a key to long-term success.

You don’t have time? Make it. People most respect, value and reach out to help those they respect personally — not just someone whose work they read about or saw in a show or in concert. I was only 19, still in college, when I volunteered to interview lions of Canada’s journalism industry for a book. How else could I ever have met or spoken to them, let alone learned their wisdom? Then they also knew who I was. Win-win.

I’ve served for years on volunteer boards for writers’ groups. It helped to hone my people skills, (still a work in progress!), taught me about fund-raising and how to defend and explain my ideas to a skeptical group.

It also shows clients and colleagues my pride in, and commitment to, my larger creative community.

Find, or create, a group that meets weekly, or monthly. Create an on-line listserv or Facebook group. Mentoring others comes back in waves of generosity, for years.

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Make time to reflect, recharge and revive your spirit

No matter what you hope to create or produce, make time to recharge. Sit still in silence every day. Stare at the sky, no matter what the weather. Make notes whenever you get an idea. Keep them!

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Travel as far and as often as you can afford

There’s no better way to sharpen your senses than to step out of habitual behaviors and routines: taking the same subway line or bus route;  eating the same cereal at breakfast; seeing the same faces at work. Even a two-hour road trip to a nearby town or city or nature preserve can offer you new ideas and insights.

Have a clear vision of what you hope to accomplish, today and/or in a decade

You can’t get there, wherever there is, without a clear idea what it is. Only by naming it can you start to lay the necessary groundwork — whether admission to the best program of study, a fellowship, a job, access to a busy mentor, publication of your novel or a gallery show. It’s too daunting to stare only at the cloud-shrouded Everest of your final goal. Focus on the foothills!

I recently started a writers’ group and called it Story Sherpas — no one gets there alone, without the help and support of a team along the way.

Study the work of the very best in your field

Don’t assume the best are working today. They might have powerful lessons to offer from their endeavors — possibly centuries ago.

Bonus:

Save a lot of money!

Creative “success” can, and often does, evaporate overnight — and with it your ability to dick around and await your muse.

Read this cautionary tale, from a New York writer whose book advance was a stunning $200,000, way more than any writer I know has ever received. She blew it.

Don’t ever rest on your laurels. They can wither mighty fast.

What spurs you to creative success?

Creative success — grinding it out one play at a time

In art, beauty, behavior, books, business, culture, design, journalism, life, work on December 7, 2013 at 2:16 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s a wise post about how to sustain a creative or artistic career.

Greta Gerwig

Greta Gerwig (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is from American writer, actor and director Greta Gerwig, whose most recent film “Frances Ha” I loved and blogged about:

I have gotten into baseball recently, and whenever I have trouble writing, I think about the pace of baseball. It’s slow. You strike out a lot, even if you’re great. It’s mostly individual, but when you have to work together, it must be perfect. My desktop picture is of the Red Sox during the World Series. They aren’t winning; they’re just grinding out another play. This, for me, is very helpful to have in my mind while writing.

I play softball, and it’s taught me a lot, as sports will do, about how I handle or manage my emotions and failure, on or off the field.

Many new writers, quivering (Rocky Horror Picture show-style) with anticipation, are quite firmly persuaded that they are going to be become rich, famous, adored by millions. This lies in distinctly naive/annoying contrast to the lived experience of thousands of talented, accomplished, award-winning writers who have never had, and never will have, a best-seller or a movie made of their work.

Working artists get up every day and step up to the plate, as it were, and swing. We might hit a single, or a double. On a very good day, we’ll hit a triple.

A home run? If we focused on achieving that, and only that, we’d probably stay in bed in the fetal position.

Writer's Block 1

Writer’s Block 1 (Photo credit: NathanGunter)

The creative life looks so alluring — wake up at noon, sip an espresso, read, do your artistic thing for a few hours. You know, be creative.

A recent NYT obituary of publisher Andre Schiffrin was blunt about the cost of his principles:

…one of America’s most influential men of letters. As editor in chief and managing director of Pantheon Books, a Random House imprint where making money was never the main point, he published novels and books of cultural, social and political significance by an international array of mostly highbrow, left-leaning authors.

Taking risks, running losses, resisting financial pressures and compromises, Mr. Schiffrin championed the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, Günter Grass, Studs Terkel, Michel Foucault, Simone de Beauvoir, Noam Chomsky, Julio Cortázar, Marguerite Duras, Roy Medvedev, Gunnar Myrdal, George Kennan, Anita Brookner, R. D. Laing and many others.

But in 1990, after 28 years at Pantheon, Mr. Schiffrin was fired by Alberto Vitale, the chief executive of Random House, in a dispute over chronic losses and Mr. Schiffrin’s refusal to accept cutbacks and other changes. His departure made headlines, prompted resignations by colleagues, led to a protest march joined by world-renowned authors, and reverberated across the publishing industry in articles and debates.

Many in publishing spoke against the dismissal, calling it an assault on American culture by Random House’s billionaire owner, S. I. Newhouse Jr., who was accused of blocking a channel for contrary voices in favor of lucrative self-help books and ghostwritten memoirs for the sake of the bottom line.

The truth?

You have to want creative success (let alone a livable income), quite badly, as this recent New York Times piece reminds us:

The point of work should not be just to provide the material goods we need to survive.Since work typically takes the largest part of our time, it should also be an important part of what gives our life meaning. Our economic system works well for those who find meaning in economic competition and the
material rewards it brings…But for those with humanistic and artistic life interests, our economic
system has almost nothing to offer…

The situation is even worse for those who want to produce the literary, musical and artistic works that sustain our humanistic culture. Even highly gifted and relatively successful writers, artists and musicians generally are not able earn a living from their talents. The very few who become superstars are very well rewarded. But almost all the others — poets, novelists, actors, singers, artists — must either have a partnerwhose income supports them or a “day job” to pay the bills. Even writers who are regularly published by major houses or win major prizes cannot always live on their earnings.

Even New York magazine, which birthed the careers of some stellar writers and editors since it began publishing in 1968, just announced they’re cutting back from a weekly publishing schedule to bi-weekly.

David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker

David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker

I spent 8.5 hours yesterday at a conference held in the august halls of Columbia Journalism School, traditionally one of the country’s most prestigious gateways into the writer’s life.

The entire day was devoted to the future of digital longform journalism – how to create, produce and promote work on the web.

Payment for writers — or persistent, bald-faced lack of it — was the huge elephant in the room. No one dared challenge the confident 20 and 30-somethings up on the stage, with their ponytails and costly new shoes, about their insistence they need great writing to actually fill up their sites.

While offering little or no money to writers.

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I found this sad, infuriating and highly instructive. I spoke to a few young journalists in the hall — who shared stories of a life without health insurance, flitting desperately from one freelance, part-time or contract job to the next, their hunger for some handhold palpable and often financially unresolvable.

Ironically, the only people who didn’t reek of desperation were those still writing freelance for old-legacy print media (as I do) or those with coveted, rare full-time jobs inside someone’s corporate newsroom where — as one legendary editor suggested from the stage — “find the formula and mimic it. That’s half the battle.”

If you hunger for creative success — what are you willing to give up to get it?

THIS WEEK’S WEBINAR — THE LAST OF THE SUPER-SUCCESSFUL FALL SERIES — IS “YOU, INC: THE BUSINESS OF FREELANCING”; 4:00 p.m. EST DEC. 14. (THE SERIES REPEATS IN FEBRUARY.)

I HOPE YOU’LL JOIN US!

DETAILS AND SIGN-UP HERE.

Crash, burn, recover

In behavior, blogging, books, business, journalism, life, work on November 9, 2013 at 2:03 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

When was the last time you failed?

The sort of shit-storm tempting you back into bed for a week, whimpering?

Crash

Crash (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some recent challenges include:

– An editor killed my story — which cost me $2,200 in budgeted-for and relied-upon income.

One of the dirty secrets of journalism is that, no matter your skills level, some of your stories get “killed” — i.e. they are commissioned, a contract signed, a fee and deadline agreed upon and the editor can simply flap his or her hand and decide “it doesn’t work.” You don’t get to stiff the airline of its fee if the plane is dirty, crowded or late. You don’t get to pay your plumber, dentist or barber a fraction of their fee because…you feel like it. It’s almost always a surprise and it’s expensive and very few of us can just re-fill a four or five-figure income hole in a flash.

– My book proposal didn’t sell

My agent was upbeat and excited. They always are, at the start. But after the rejections piled up, it became clear to both of us this was a no-go. Editors who loved it, and there were a few, couldn’t sell it to the rest of their staff. I spent a year gathering the information and sources for it, and months writing and polishing it. Tant pis, mes chers, tant pis.

– Another editor decided to turn a 2,000-word story with five sources into…captions

That’s a really crappy first in my career. They’re going to pay the original fee, but there’s another piece to that story — having to explain to my patient and helpful sources I interviewed back in August that all the time they spent being interviewed by me is basically wasted. I was so gobsmacked I didn’t argue the point with the editor. Preserving that relationship has meant sucking up a lot of frustration.

– We got whacked with a surprise income tax bill, a big one

We married in September 2011 and my new husband changed the witholding of his income. To…not enough. Holy shit. Add that pile of debt to the kitchen over-run.

– Journalism’s fees remain stubbornly low, stagnant or falling

Everywhere in journalism today, writing has really become just one more commodity, like gas or orange juice. Cheapest wins. I have to fight harder with every single editor on every assignment for a decent contract and higher fees. I hate feeling embattled. It doesn’t build great client relationships, but feeling taken advantage of doesn’t work either. My costs are rising almost every month, but my income will only rise as much as I position myself and argue effectively for my value.

On the plus side of the ledger:

– My individual coaching and webinars have found favor

This is a new venture and one I’m enjoying. When I lost that $2,200 overnight, I vowed to make it up through my own efforts. The hell with snotty editors. I’ve almost done so, thanks to the enthusiasm of students in Chicago, Connecticut, Brooklyn, upstate New York, New Zealand, Australia, Virginia and San Francisco. Thank you! I’ve missed teaching and the pleasure of helping others. One student told me she was having “aha!” moments. I hope you’ll sign up, too!

-- I made a contact with a Very Big Magazine’s top editor, one I’ve wanted to write for for a decade

Some magazines feel like Everest, even to someone with a lot of great experience. They’re career-changers. They pay a lot of money. At a recent lunch with someone I met at a party, I discovered she’s related to a top editor there and I was bold enough to ask for an introduction and she made it.

– Reaching out to new clients in PR has shown me there’s some significant enthusiasm out there for my skills

Of the first three local agencies I contacted, two showed immediate interest.

– I’m trying out new ideas and new markets

Next week, I’m meeting with a younger writer who’s broken into corporate writing and making boatloads of cash from it. It’s an interesting lesson in networking with people much younger, as we’re all working in slightly different says, some more lucrative and less visible, some more prestigious but poorly-paid.

– My agent likes my new book idea

Book ideas are difficult. You have to be able to create a narrative arc with 80,000+ words and be able to persuade a publisher to pony up an advance you can actually live on. But from the embers of the still-cooling rejected proposal came this more focused, more positive iteration of one of the ideas in it. Now I have to go…sigh…write another proposal.

People love to think that writing is a cool, fun easy way to make money. You stay home in your PJs, crank out some copy, then head off to Bali for a few months.

I wish!

The reality is a constant hustle and scramble: for new clients, new markets, negotiating better pay and treatment, finding and wrangling sources for your stories…

Crashing is nasty, (and inevitable.)

But there’s no time to sit and snuffle.

Bills, baby, bills!

I’m not where I expected to be

In aging, behavior, domestic life, life, urban life, US, women on August 20, 2013 at 12:03 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Caitlin Kelly (New York Times), Ryann Gastwirt...

Caitlin Kelly (New York Times), Ryann Gastwirth (Financial Times), Jose Lopez (New York Times) and Jeff Bercovici (Forbes) (Photo credit: Financial Times photos) Talk about unexpected! How on earth did my photo end up on the Internet? Jose is my husband.

I had a business lunch recently with a woman a bit younger than I. We both work for ourselves, battered survivors of the (most recent) recession, hanging on to long-term clients while seeking solid new ones, a combination we admitted can be exhausting.

We’re both married suburban home-owners.

Although we had never met, and knew no one in common, we felt comfortable enough to speak more personally.

“I’m not where I expected to be,” she said.

I sighed, with relief that she had said it, that someone else felt as I often do, that we could talk about it without self-pity or whining — but truthfully and candidly.

Where I live now, in suburban New York, one is expected, from birth onward, to be Very Successful. Those of us who live in apartments or modest homes, driving old vehicles and doing funky creative work with inconsistent incomes are very much the anomaly in a sea of corporate poobahs and tenured academics, like two of my next-door apartment neighbors.

I recently attended a backyard book party for someone I frankly envy: huge, gorgeous old house; her book an instant best-seller; a tiny, trim figure in a stunning new dress from Paris.

I admit, I find it hard sometimes, surrounded by others’ success in all the areas I’d once hoped for, to look at one’s own life with deep satisfaction and gratitude.

Yet I know mine is good: a loving second husband; a home we own and enjoy; friends, decent work, health, retirement savings.

I never was someone with a Set Plan. I married late, at 35, to a physician, so I basically expected to stay married, and to enjoy a life of growing material ease.

But the marriage was unhappy and brief. I was once more single, living alone on a very tight budget, for six years.

Here’s Niva, who writes Riding Bitch, on the issue:

Sometimes I am still shocked by where I am in life: a widow, former caregiver, film writer/director who still works a day job and barely scrapes by, at 42 years old. Not feeling sorry for myself, just stating the facts. Actually, I was reminded of the facts yesterday.

Before leaving said day job, whether next month or next year, I’m using my health insurance to get everything checked out. There I was with a new OBGYN, from whom I need a referral for a mammogram, getting thoroughly probed and questioned about my family, medical and sexual history. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, the conversation found its way to a subject which I had not anticipated discussing, and inadvertantly brought up the reality of my situation.

“Are you thinking of having children?” the doctor asked.

“I’ve… thought about it,” I answered slowly. “But I’m not really sure what my options are at this point.”

Maybe, at any age, we’re all still waiting and wanting — something.

The long-time assistant to American artist Jasper Johns was recently charged with stealing and selling his works. One comment struck me as naive indeed as unrealized ambition is a powerful weapon:

“It’s crazy. Isn’t being Jasper Johns’s assistant enough?”

Then there’s Woody Allen’s newest film, Blue Jasmine, starring Cate Blanchett in a Blanche duBois-esque role, a Ruth Madoff character who’s plummeted from flying private in Chanel to living in her step-sister’s crowded, grubby walk-up in San Francisco. It’s a searing, depressing, reminder that hitching your entire identity and ego to wealth and power, especially someone else’s, is rarely wise.

According to this New York Times front page story, legal immigrants to the United States awaiting green cards face an absurd delay of 7.6 years.

Here is Angeles Barberena:

A supermarket is not where Ms. Barberena, now 56, thought she would be at this stage in life. After completing undergraduate studies in chemical engineering at one of Mexico’s best universities, she led a comfortable middle-class life in Mexico City.

But she left in 1995 with her husband, two small sons and a sense of desperation. A neighbor’s daughter had been abducted, bringing an epidemic of kidnappings within reach of her own family.

“I lived in panic because I did not have any way to protect my children,” Ms. Barberena said.

In 1996, her father, a naturalized American citizen, presented a green card petition for Ms. Barberena, his married adult child. And the wait began.

It’s an odd thing, this life.

We often grow up with such high hopes, even expectations, of who we will become and where we will live, the people we’ll love and who will love us.

Of our children, our home(s), our studies and travels and achievements.

(Who factors in the stumbling blocks of infertility, miscarriage, divorce, premature death? Grieving takes time and energy. It slows, or stops, our momentum. So do illnesses, surgeries and recovery, job losses and and protracted searches for paid work.)

We — naively — assume, or hope, we’ll earn and enjoy rising, unbroken income streams and good health, stunned and felled when one or both fail us.

We forget, or don’t want to imagine, that people we adore will die, sometimes very suddenly, tearing a hole in our world that no one else can replace.

Of course, as this blog post at key and arrow points out one can simply be content where you are.

Here’s a blog post by my mother-of-two-small-boys friend Sarah Welch, who runs her own company, Buttoned Up:

While still working, I’m doing it well outside the structured environment of corporate America. It definitely feels a little wacky some days. Technically, I think the actual description for what I’m doing is “Leaning Out.” Maybe even aggressively.

At least that’s what the 20-year-old-version-of-my-40-year-old-self thinks I’m doing. And she is deeply, deeply uncomfortable with it all.

My actual 40-year-old self is just fine thankyouverymuch. First of all, she begs to differ with her 20-year-old-version when it comes to the leaning out description. Um hello? Since when did sixty hours of work (even if you put them in at non-standard times) count as slacking?

As for marriage, kids, suburbia, and the unconventional job?

I chose them. Actively, willingly, excitedly, with arms-wide-open.

I want to be exactly where I am. Doing what I am doing. Downshifting, side- shifting, upshifting…whatever the current moment calls for.

Are you happy with where you are right now?

How much do you plan ahead — or wait for fate to dictate your next steps?

Does it ever get (much) easier?

In aging, behavior, blogging, books, business, domestic life, education, family, journalism, life, Media, work on May 27, 2013 at 4:40 am

By Caitlin Kelly

I think there’s a comforting fantasy that being “successful” = easy.

As in, life suddenly smooths out into something calm, cool, stress-free.

Awesome! Sign me the hell up!

While in Tucson, I’ve gotten to know some of the Institute students, as well as some of the Times and Boston Globe staffers here working with them. In a long and personal conversation with one local student, a 21-year-old man who is already well-launched in journalism, he wondered why I still struggle.

Aren’t I successful?

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see “success” as a specific and final destination, and if it is, I wonder if that’s really the best way to look at it.

He asked me to define success. (No pressure!) My answer was very different from what it would have been in my 20s (career!), 30s (marriage!), 40s (finding a new partner/husband). As readers of this blog well know, I tend to be driven, ambitious and obsessive.

But success for me today looks quite different. It’s the hard-earned blend of a healthy retirement fund, a lovely second husband, good friends, health, a nice home and — oh, yeah — work! That order surprised me even as I wrote it, but the sub-conscious is a powerful little thing, isn’t it?

Maybe it’s being Canadian or being a Baby Boomer or having lived in five countries or being a journalist whose industry is “in disruption” — (fucking total chaos is more like it!) But I never expect life to be easy.

I wish it were easier, certainly. Struggle is wearying and distracting. Struggle without any visible, measurable progress is deeply dispiriting.

But just because something is difficult — your friendships, marriage, school, work, workouts — doesn’t mean it’s not worth pursuing.

It doesn’t mean you’re not succeeding.

I suspect that most of us rarely publicly admit to struggle; it’s not sexy or slick and it can make us appear ill-prepared or incompetent or dis-organized.

I call bullshit.

Life is sometime just really damn hard. The more we’re willing to be, (optimistically, resourcefully), candid about this with one another, the easier it gets, because then people with wisdom can help (some of them) and our struggle diminishes.

Not everyone is kind or compassionate, of course. But the people who sneer at the notion of struggle, glibly insisting that their path to glory has been 100 percent smooth, are usually lying — or their path is short, flat and well-paved, if not well-funded by others.

Ignore them.

One of the editors here said something to me at breakfast I found helpful and comforting. When I told her how many of us in this industry, certainly those over 40, are scrambling to “reinvent” ourselves, she suggested that this struggle, and it really is a struggle, is something attractive, not repellent.

Not if you’re about to lose your home and plunge into destitution, but having to figure stuff out, no matter if you’re 21 or 71, keeps us alive and attentive and connected and paying attention.

I generally enjoy the challenges of my work and life. I’m easily bored. I like to grow and acquire new skills. I like to test myself and see how many new things I can cram into my head.

As soon as I can easily clear one bar — (the high jump kind, not the alcoholic kind!) — I usually raise it by finding something new and tough to learn and potentially get better at. A life spent coasting, happily resting on one’s laurels, is just not very appealing to me.

(This might be something that runs in my family; my Dad turns 84 in a few weeks and plans to go sky-diving to celebrate.)

How about you?

Does struggle invigorate or annoy you?

NOTE: I leave today — computer-free! — for five days travel and into the Grand Canyon. So if your comments go unanswered until Friday, please don’t despair.

Jose may post a pre-written few things in my absence, or offer a guest blog of his own.

Play nice!

How badly do you want it?

In art, beauty, behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, life, music, work on May 17, 2013 at 2:56 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Here is a powerful essay by British pianist James Rhodes, from The Guardian, about the many sacrifices he’s made for his music:

Admittedly I went a little extreme – no income for five years, six
hours a day of intense practice, monthly four-day long lessons with a
brilliant and psychopathic teacher in Verona, a hunger for something
that was so necessary it cost me my marriage, nine months in a mental
hospital, most of my dignity and about 35lbs in weight. And the pot of
gold at the end of the rainbow is not perhaps the Disney ending I’d
envisaged as I lay in bed aged 10 listening to Horowitz devouring Rachmaninov at Carnegie Hall.

My life involves endless hours of repetitive and frustrating practising,
lonely hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews,
isolation, confusing airline reward programmes, physiotherapy, stretches
of nervous boredom (counting ceiling tiles backstage as the house
slowly fills up) punctuated by short moments of extreme pressure
(playing 120,000 notes from memory in the right order with the right
fingers, the right sound, the right pedalling while chatting about the
composers and pieces and knowing there are critics, recording devices,
my mum, the ghosts of the past, all there watching), and perhaps most
crushingly, the realisation that I will never, ever give the perfect
recital. It can only ever, with luck, hard work and a hefty dose of
self-forgiveness, be “good enough”.

I find this an interesting, and extremely rare, admission of what it’s like to achieve and sustain public excellence.

English: A post-concert photo of the main hall...

English: A post-concert photo of the main hall’s stage inside of Carnegie Hall. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We see and hear, and applaud, (or boo or yawn at), the final product of many talented hard-working people, but often have absolutely no idea what it took to get them there — onto the concert stage, into the corps de ballet, onto the bookstore shelf or into the kitchen of a fine restaurant.

I’m fascinated by process, always hungry to hear how others are doing it and what, if anything, they have had to give up along the way. By the time we see someone becoming famous and, possibly, well-paid for their talents, we’re really looking at an iceberg — seeing barely 10 percent of their story, the other 90 percent often being years, even decades, of study and practice and rejection and failure that led up to this moment.

The Passage of Time

The Passage of Time (Photo credit: ToniVC)

I think it’s worth reading these stories as a way of thinking about our own choices:

How much longer will I devote to this project?

What I never achieve my goal?

Are there smaller, more private, less lucrative successes that would also satisfy me?

If not, why not?

What am I willing to give up?

How much will I regret those losses?

I weary of the widespread fantasy that “everyone’s a writer.” They’re not!

It is damn hard to become very good at something.

Here’s a great recent post by a professional conductor talking about this, chosen for Freshly Pressed:

Recent research and a popular book have theorized that it takes 10,000 hours for a human to become proficient and considered an expert at something.  It seems so easy:  Put in the Time, Collect the Dime.  I think most adults can see some truth in this theory based on their own experiences.  Driving a car is a great example.  While we are learning, we are cognizant of every movement, every decision, every possibility.  After time, we become very natural at it.  It almost becomes a reflexive action.  (For example, when’s the last time you thought about—really concentrated on—operating the turn signal?)

What makes it interesting is that it could apply to anything, from knitting to playing the violin.  The implications for an art form are obvious and the research pointers are fairly sound.  However my question is: Is it enough to make good art?

It is even harder, depending on a wide variety of external circumstances — do you have kids? A big mortgage? Student debt? Poor health? — to make a lot of money doing something purely creative, versus working for The Man and taking home a steady paycheck.

I love this multi-media piece about jockeys in Nairobi – the only track for 3,300 miles. They want it badly!

At Ngong Racecourse in Nairobi, Kenya, the only track in a 3,300-mile swath of Africa between Egypt and Zimbabwe, the jockeys struggle to earn $20 a ride, even in the big races. For the country’s biggest race, the Kenya Derby, the winning horse’s owner may take home little more than $7,200. Grooms, who wake up at 4:30 six mornings a week to muck out stables and brush down horses, make less than $100 a month. Yet, the dwindling numbers of trainers, jockeys, owners and breeders in Kenya are deeply committed to keeping the sport alive.

I started working for Canada’s best newspaper, The Globe and Mail, at 26, after applying for a staff job every year for eight years. I eventually wanted to come to New York and so, after a day’s work, also worked as a stringer (contacts I sought out) for Time, The Boston Globe and the Miami Herald. I needed to find American editors who liked my work and to up my game.

Knowing I planned to leave Toronto within a few years also meant not settling down and getting married and having kids, (not a dream of mine anyway.) I moved to New Hampshire in 1988, leaving family, friends, career and country, then moved to New York just in time for a horrible recession, with no job. I got one after six months, earning $5,000 less in March 1990 than I’d made in Montreal in September 1986 — in a much costlier place to live.

Every move we make is a choice that carries consequences and every one carries a cost — physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, professional. Sometimes all of those at once!

That’s why they’re called sacrifices, and why it’s so much nicer to just avoid them. And the worst fear, perhaps, is that you make a ton of them and still don’t get what it was you really wanted.

So it helps to figure out what you really want — the fancy job title and shiny new car or a life with enough room in it to travel three months every year? A bunch of kids or the creative freedom to fail at new ideas and still pay your monthly bills? A loving spouse or the sort of work that moves you from one conflict spot to the next, in an NGO or aid work or journalism? (They are not all either/or, but they will enact sacrifices.)

No matter who you are or where you live or what you hope to achieve in life — non-materially — the fewer your financial obligations, the easier it is to focus on that.

Do you have a specific dream you’re trying to achieve?

What are you willing to do — to give up — to get there?

Is being generous a smart move? (Is being a tight-fisted (^$@#*#?)

In aging, behavior, blogging, books, business, journalism, life, Media, urban life, US, work on April 1, 2013 at 12:04 am

Is this really a question?

Apparently so…

From the cover story in this weekend’s New York Times Magzine, (for you non-journos’s, a spot so visible and prestigious some writers would {and possibly have} kill for).

It profiles Wharton professor Adam Grant, 31, whose compulsive generosity seems a little…weird…to the writer, who is, (I met her, competing on the same story), ferociously ambitious and competitive:

Grant might not seem so different from any number of accessible and devoted professors on any number of campuses, and yet when you witness over time the sheer volume of Grant’s commitments, and the way in which he is able to follow through on all of them, you start to sense that something profoundly different is at work. Helpfulness is Grant’s credo. He is the colleague who is always nominating another for an award or taking the time to offer a thoughtful critique or writing a lengthy letter of recommendation for a student — something he does approximately 100 times a year. His largess extends to people he doesn’t even know. A student at Warwick Business School in England recently wrote to express his admiration and to ask Grant how he manages to publish so often, and in such top-tier journals. Grant did not think, upon reading that e-mail, I cannot possibly answer in full every such query and still publish so often, and in such top-tier journals. Instead, Grant, who often returns home after a day of teaching to an in-box of 200 e-mails, responded, “I’m happy to set up a phone call if you want to discuss!”

Grant suggests we each fall into one of three categories: takers, matchers and givers.

Givers give without expectation of immediate gain; they never seem too busy to help, share credit actively and mentor generously. Matchers go through life with a master chit list in mind, giving when they can see how they will get something of equal value back and to people who they think can help them. And takers seek to come out ahead in every exchange; they manage up and are defensive about their turf. Most people surveyed fall into the matcher category — but givers, Grant says, are overrepresented at both ends of the spectrum of success: they are the doormats who go nowhere or burn out, and they are the stars whose giving motivates them or distinguishes them as leaders…The most successful givers, Grant explains, are those who rate high in concern for others but also in self-interest. And they are strategic in their giving — they give to other givers and matchers, so that their work has the maximum desired effect; they are cautious about giving to takers; they give in ways that reinforce their social ties; and they consolidate their giving into chunks, so that the impact is intense enough to be gratifying.

I find this question of professional generosity interesting — and always have. I’ve been a giver for decades.

Grants

Grants (Photo credit: Steve deBurque)

Oh, I’ve seen the looks of confusion or bemusement or pity when American colleagues — big-time takers, highly skilled matchers — see me giving away my time, expertise, contacts or skills.

The idea of actually helping a potential competitor best me, at anything, marks me, in zero-sum America, as slow-witted, a rube, someone who simply doesn’t know any better.

The default position, certainly in journalism in New York City, is to stab everyone in the eye who stands in your way and suck up really hard to anyone you think could possibly advance your career.

Trick is — which one is which?

The old farts who used to rule this town journalistically are all desperately trying to re-invent themselves at 55 or 63 or 47, while the 23-year-olds are running the ship. Even A. J. Jacobs, a 38-year-old best-selling author, only half-jokingly, describes himself as “doddering.”

So I make a point of being nice to some people half my age — these days, in my industry, they’re the ones with jobs and work to hand out!

I also give away my time far less often than I used to, I admit. I’ve watched some people I once helped skyrocket to positions of power and acclaim. And, yes, it pisses me off that they’ve never once thought to reciprocate or even drop a “Thanks!” email or note or call.

But that just tells me what sort of selfish ingrates people they are.

In my view, helping someone succeed (intelligently), doesn’t mean choosing a life of ramen and homelessness. It means we both get to celebrate success, maybe not at the same time.

It does mean having the self-confidence you, too, will succeed. So, for me, being helpful is also a powerful measure of confidence in what I can do, and have done. And will still do.

I’ll still extend a helping hand whenever and wherever it feels right.

Because — it feels right. Helping others, judiciously, is the right thing to do.

Do you help others professionally?

Which one of the three are you?

The value of doing something really badly

In aging, behavior, business, children, culture, education, life on August 22, 2012 at 12:04 am
English: The picture being uploaded is a from ...

English: The picture being uploaded is a from Evergreen Golf – Driving Range located in Martinsburg, Wv (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When was the last time you tried something new — making an omelet, writing a screenplay, drawing your dog?

Were the results really awful?

What did you do next?

I bet some of you wailed in (premature) despair: “I suck! I am the world’s worst cook/screenwriter/artist!” And possibly swore that was the last time you would road-test that particular patch of hell.

But I think there’s tremendous inherent value in doing something very poorly. Because, unless you’re an absolute genius (ooooh, lucky you!) you will not be amazing at pretty much anything new right out of the gate.

So, being lousy at something doesn’t mean you’re always going to be lousy. It means you’re a beginner. If you don’t indulge in the ego massage of frustration, (says the chick who once threw her fencing helmet across the salle), you’re bound to start getting better if you keep at it.

Babies fall down a lot when they start walking. It’s a new skill.

They don’t form complete lucid sentences when they begin speaking, nor do we expect them to. It’s a new skill.

When I took up fencing in my early 30s, when I moved to New York and didn’t have a job and didn’t know anyone beyond my fiance, I was pretty lousy at it for a while. Being a driven, stubborn perfectionist, (in New York, the equivalent of having a pulse), I did not take kindly to being shitty at something.

I hadn’t sucked at anything in ages.

One night, worn out and sore and deeply frustrated by my lack of progress, I went and wept in a stairwell. I never cry. I didn’t come back to class for about a month. Then, to my coach’s surprise, I did. A two-time Olympian, he knows how hard it is to get good at fencing. To get really good at anything.

I needed to get comfortable with “failure”, to dredge up the necessary humility to learn something new, and do it poorly for a while until I improved. Or gave up.

But I very rarely give up. For the next four years, I was a nationally ranked saber fencer, knocked out at nationals each year just before the final eight. I learned a great deal about myself in those years, most of it about mental blocks and anger and what a toxic waste of time it is to beat yourself up for being lousy at something.

Who isn’t?

This past weekend, I suggested to my husband, an avid golfer, we go to the driving range. He couldn’t believe his ears. My standard line is that I hate golf.

I haven’t learned a new skill in far too long, so I had him teach me as we ploughed through a large bucket of balls.

Some of my swings were so shockingly bad that I didn’t even get near the ball. I’m a highly athletic person, still, with terrific hand-eye coordination. So I cursed and sulked a bit.

Then I took a long deep breath and reminded myself that I had deliberately chosen the exercise of doing something completely new and unfamiliar.

In my work life, as a full-time freelance writer, I’m expected to be excellent all the damn time. I need the relief of being awful. To try new stuff out in privacy. To see if I can still learn, and how I’ll handle the frustrations that come with that process.

So, when I whacked that ball soaring into the air, landing a satisfying 150 yards away, I was ecstatic. Then I did it again. And again.

I was wildly inconsistent.

That’s what it means to be a beginner, a learner.

In an era of rushrushrushrushallthetime! we often don’t allow ourselves, (or our sweeties or our kids), the luxury of failure and experimentation. Of being a beginner.

High school students feel tremendous pressure to get good grades to get into the right college, where they feel tremendous pressure to choose only the classes they know will get them the high grades to get them into the right grad or professional program and into the right job and…On it goes.

We’re squeaking our lives away in a hamster wheel of perfection.

When was the last time you savored being lousy at something you’re simply new at?

Are you still willing to be a bumbling beginner?

Your life looks so much better than mine

In behavior, children, culture, domestic life, family, life, Money, women, work on July 8, 2012 at 1:01 am
Portrait of John Jennings Esq., his Brother an...

Portrait of John Jennings Esq., his Brother and Sister-in-Law (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a great essay from Salon:

“We bought a new house,” my older sister said a few months ago, in one of our rare phone conversations.

“I’m so happy for you,” I said, though I’m sure the octaves and intonation were off. “You deserve it.” And she does. My sister has worked tirelessly ever since I can remember. Unlike me, she’s always been responsible, never leaving a job before accepting another, and certainly never leaving a job and then, instead of finding new employment, flying to Southeast Asia and staying for three months.

“We’re finally going to live in a grown-up house,” she continued. (By “we” she meant her two girls, ages 4 and 7, and my photogenic, equally successful brother-in-law.)

I loved this piece because it unpacks what we sometimes feel but rarely say out loud: I’m jealous, dammit! I want your life(style)/income/husband/wife/house/country house/cottage/car(s)/job/body/wardrobe/kids.

I want to feel like I’ve made it!

And I don’t.

Do I?

House-sitting for a friend was an eye-opening experience: a lovely, huge rear garden shaded by towering pines; a large swimming pool; multiple bedrooms; a home office; enormous closets; a washer and dryer unshared with others. I’ve never lived in a house with so many accoutrements.

She makes more money than I do, and I’m certain her husband significantly out-earns mine.

So, it’s comparing apples and oranges, right?

I’m hardly lazy, but I don’t work nights and weekends and really don’t want to, even if (which it could) it doubled my income. I take as much time off every year, and travel as far away, as I can afford.

I also chose the wrong industry for big wages — journalism — which pays, at the very top, in print, what 24-year-olds earn in their first year in corporate law or their Wall St. annual bonus. If you make it as a writer, you can make some very big bucks.

But if you don’t, you wonder what you did so wrong…

I avoided sibling rivalry by not having any, then, as the only child of my parents’ 13-year marriage. But I also have two younger half-brothers, one 10 years my junior, the other 23 years younger than I.

My 10-years-younger brother drives a very sexy shiny new car and owns a large house. He also lives in an airplane, traveling the world selling the arcane-but-popular software solution his company created.

Jealous? Moi? Well, yes, actually.

But my brother has a totally different skill set and works in a burgeoning field. He’s also been willing to risk his savings  to build his business and has also won a ton of VC cash.

My much-younger brother also travels the world, doing policy work so sensitive he needs a security clearance from the American government.

My father’s partner, a woman I really like and admire, has super-accomplished adult kids a bit younger than I am. One is married to a gazillionaire and speaks fluent Chinese. Oy.

I like feeling I’m doing OK. But, by many conventional measures, I’m not. People my age own and run major corporations or universities. They boast about their kids and grandkids; we have neither. They look like grown-ups while I often feel (and am, happily, mistaken for) a decade or so younger.

So — which is it?

Life is cool? Life sucks?

It’s too easy to look at other lives and find the flaws in our own.

My 10-years-younger brother, when I was once — as I often do — flagellating myself for my relative lack of success, pointed out that my generation had a hell of a lot more competition for jobs and a lot worse economy within which to get one, or several.

It’s all relative…given that millions of people in this world survive on less than $1 a day in income. The challenge is to remember this, not to focus on the in(s)anity of the material wealth flaunted before our eyes, by friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, let alone the mass media.

Times are tough, and with growing income inequality — with American CEOs typically pulling in 475 times the pay of their least-paid workers — it’s getting even uglier.

Do you find yourself feeling envious of others’ success?

Do you compare yourself to more successful/settled siblings?

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