Talent Is Not Enough!

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I have a book that someone gave me, by feminist icon Gloria Steinem, with the fateful and inaccurate (if deeply optimistic) inscription: “All it takes is talent.”

I wish!

A recent op-ed by New York Times writer Tom Friedman makes the point even more strongly:

In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to. It can’t when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra — their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment. Average is over.

Scared yet?

Unless you have amazing skills or a white-hot degree (engineering or computer science, to name two), you might be.

I work in a field — journalism/publishing/online media — changing at warp speed. In one year, 2008, 24,000 journalists lost their jobs. That’s a lot of people shoved hard out of work they had done well and enjoyed for decades into….who the hell knows.

I took a retail job in 2007, seeing how crummy things were getting, and it brought in gas-and-grocery money, for which I was damn grateful, for 27 months. I’d never had a low-wage job and it was often hard and exhausting, physically and emotionally.

Fortunately, it led to a book that’s been well-reviewed, television rights option (additional income) and paid speaking engagements — none of which were a guarantee and all of which might never have happened. It’s a life, like that of a polar bear in the melting ice cap, of leaping from one moving slab of income to another.

Talent, i.e. being really good at what you do, is the least of it!

You need:

A way with words. Can you write a compelling and persuasive pitch letter or email? Can you describe what you do best in two or three sentences, tops?

Charm. No kidding. You can call it “people skills” but if you’re witty, fun, funny and simply an interesting person to engage with, your odds quickly improve of finding paid work. People hire those they find companionable and sympathetic, not just grunts with a resume. I got my retail job with zero experience because I was able, easily, to engage the two men doing the hiring in lively conversation focused on their needs. That’s what salespeople do.

Stamina. I’ve been an athlete since childhood, and competed in sailing, swimming and even fencing at the national level. If you’re going to work for yourself, or compete for a good job, you need stamina — physically and emotionally. There is a tremendous amount of rejection in many endeavors and those able to best withstand pain will move past those who easily crumple, then whine in the corner.

Learn something new all the time. If your technical skills are weak, you’re falling behind. If you can pick up a new skill every few months, or yearly at least, you’ve got something added to offer beyond the basics. I speak fluent French, decent Spanish and can take excellent photos that have been nationally published. On a few occasions, that combination has been more than my nearest competitor…

Hustle! I grew up in Toronto and was out on my own at 19. I learned to hustle hard, often and relentlessly to earn a living freelance. I wasn’t scared, even then, to offer my skills and services to top editors and my confidence grew with my portfolio. One of my photos was published in Time when I was an undergrad. I never ever take a contact, job or assignment for granted. Too many people are chasing the same dreams.

Know your industry and what matters within it right now. Read trade magazines and websites and blogs and know who’s who and what they need. Go to conferences and attend meetings and read the smart thought leaders in your field so you know what they’re saying. Join as many professional groups as you can and be as generous with your time, talent and skills as possible. People refer people they know, like and trust to their colleagues — not some random needy person on Facebook or LinkedIn.

Go to the places you can meet some of the players face to face. Not a job fair! Think like a reporter and find out where you might run into a few of the decision-makers you need to meet: conferences, public events, a political rally, a school sports match.

Travel. Even if it’s an hour or two outside your usual routines. Fresh ideas and insights are harder to acquire if you keep treading familiar ground.

Meta matters. If you’re blogging or maintaining a social media presence, make sure every post, tweet, message, photo and idea you leave permanently out there conveys the underlying meta message you intend.

Apple products are cool not just because they’re Apple, per se…they’re very deliberately hyper-designed to feel good, sound good, look good. And we like to show them off as metaphors for how cool and put-together we are.

What meta messages are your clients and audience picking up about you? Are they consistent, memorable and compelling? Every single aspect of your presentation, from your handshake to your tone of voice to the shoes you choose to the colors on your website is sending (unspoken, immediate and indelible) messages about you!

Consume a wide array of media and information. If you’re politically liberal, read what the right-wingers have to say, and vice versa. Read media in your language from far beyond your region — Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England, Ireland and Scotland (and South Africa) will offer ideas and points of view that your local, regional or national press may well be ignoring. Trends bubble up worldwide in a global economy.

Underpromise and overdeliver. Once you find some clients who value you, treasure them and give them your very best. I frequently turn in material ahead of my deadlines. In 30 years I think I’ve missed two.

Read smart business publications/websites/blogs consistently. If you really want to understand where jobs are going (or coming from) and why you’ve got to understand the movement of capital, investment trends and global markets. It’s not terribly complicated and might help you see what’s happening before it hits you personally. ( If you’re got a secure government or academic job, lucky you!)

What advice would you offer?


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Can we get anything done without it?

Yet, and yet and yet, I have entire days I think I just can’t: make that call, send that email, ask that favor, knock on that door or send that resume.

People have told me for decades how confident I appear, and the operative word might be appear, for there are too many days I feel like some medieval warrior girding her loins before even picking up the phone or sending out an email.

As someone with no steady income, salary or pension down the line, I’m in lioness mode: I eat only what I catch and kill. That means having to hustle for clients every day, whether reaching out to former or current ones or finding and cultivating new ones.

Either way, it means a lot of people contact and no guarantee of the outcome.

Which, if I fail, means — I’m broke!

No pressure.

I can blame my reticence on a few things:

— I’ve been canned from a few jobs, which has permanently dented my sense of likability, no matter how businesslike a layoff can be

— I was badly bullied in high school for three years by a small gang of boys

— I spent ages 5 to 30 in Canada, a country that has no tolerance for self-promotion or boasting then moved to the U.S., a place with a population 10 times larger, competing with some mighty sharp elbows. Time to man up!

— I faced a tough crowd in my own family, people who often found much to criticize and little to praise

But without a cheery demeanor and the conviction you have something worthwhile to offer, it’s tough to get out there and ask for what you want, whether a job referral, grant recommendation or help with a new project.

I had recently reached out to two people, one an old friend who didn’t call back for weeks and one a new contact whose initial voicemail sounded fairly frosty. So it was with a heavy heart I called both of them back.

Both were delighted to hear from me. Both had lost my phone number and wanted to hear my ideas.

If I hadn’t had the confidence to reach out again, I would have lost out on some cool opportunities.

Do you ever feel lily-livered?

How do you get past it?

More Americans Hate Their Jobs — Even If They Have One

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It seems ungrateful to anyone who’s been desperately searching for any form of paid income in this recession, but the news isn’t good, even for those who have a job, reports the AP:

Even Americans who are lucky enough to have work in this economy are becoming more unhappy with their jobs, according to a new survey that found only 45 percent of Americans are satisfied with their work.

That was the lowest level ever recorded by the Conference Board research group in more than 22 years of studying the issue. In 2008, 49 percent of those surveyed reported satisfaction with their jobs.

The drop in workers’ happiness can be partly blamed on the worst recession since the 1930s, which made it difficult for some people to find challenging and suitable jobs. But worker dissatisfaction has been on the rise for more than two decades.

“It says something troubling about work in America. It is not about the business cycle or one grumpy generation,” says Linda Barrington, managing director of human capital at the Conference Board, who helped write the report, which was released Tuesday.

Some other key findings of the survey:

— Forty-three percent of workers feel secure in their jobs. In 2008, 47 percent said they feel secure in their jobs, while 59 percent felt that way in 1987.

— Fifty-six percent say they like their co-workers, slightly less than the 57 percent who said so last year but down from 68 percent in 1987.

— Fifty-six percent say they are satisfied with their commute to work even as commute times have grown longer over the years. That compares with 54 percent in 2008 and 63 percent in 1987.

— Fifty-one percent say their are satisfied with their boss. That’s down from 55 percent in 2008 and around 60 percent two decades ago.

Striking to me was that workers under 25 were by far the most frustrated — with 64 percent saying they’re unhappy at work.

In his new book, “Drive”, author Daniel Pink says we all need three things (beyond the money) from our jobs: autonomy, mastery and respect. In my own experience, I’d add authority, community and connection.

That’s a lot. Maybe it’s way too much to ask and we should all shut up and keep our noses to the grindstone(s.)

Do you like your job? If so, why? If not, why not?

The Ravages Of Recession: Insomnia, Fear, Shame

Today’s New York Times runs the result of polling of 708 people who are unemployed. It’s a deeply frightening and depressing read, especially in a nation where job loss and financial struggle also means the loss of health insurance, medical and dental care; this week, BBC World News is running a powerful series of radio interviews with Americans and those in nations with government-supplied health insurance. The contrast is also sadly powerful.

The Times’ poll finds that:

61 percent say their unemployment benefits don’t cover their basic necessities

46 percent say they feel embarrassed or ashamed to be out of work

71 percent say their financial situation is fairly or very bad

Perhaps most telling, 75 percent say they think it likely they’ll run out of unemployment benefits before they find another job:

But the impact on their lives was not limited to the difficulty in paying bills. Almost half said unemployment had led to more conflicts or arguments with family members and friends; 55 percent have suffered from insomnia.

“Everything gets touched,” said Colleen Klemm, 51, of North Lake, Wis., who lost her job as a manager at a landscaping company last November. “All your relationships are touched by it. You’re never your normal happy-go-lucky person. Your countenance, your self-esteem goes. You think, ‘I’m not employable.’ ”

A quarter of those who experienced anxiety or depression said they had gone to see a mental health professional. Women were significantly more likely than men to acknowledge emotional issues.

Tammy Linville, 29, of Louisville, Ky., said she lost her job as a clerical worker for the Census Bureau a year and a half ago. She began seeing a therapist for depression every week through Medicaid but recently has not been able to go because her car broke down and she cannot afford to fix it.

Her partner works at the Ford plant in the area, but his schedule has been sporadic. They have two small children and at this point, she said, they are “saving quarters for diapers.”

“Every time I think about money, I shut down because there is none,” Ms. Linville said. “I get major panic attacks. I just don’t know what we’re going to do.”

Here are some videos the Times collected, of people telling their own stories.

Three Little Words I'm Longing To Hear

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We’re in a recession, the worst in 70 years. Millions of people can’t get a job. Can’t even get a job interview.

So here’s my thought for the day: if you have a job right now, do it well. If you loathe that job so much you do it really badly, your boss should fire your ass today and put someone in it who wants and will do it both well and cheerfully. There is something fundamentally obscene — like scarfing doughnuts in front of someone who is starving — if you actually have paid employment and treat it, and the people relying upon you to do it well, like crap.

Three times this week I was blown off, dismissed and dissed by people who work in customer service jobs. How exactly do these people get and keep their jobs? A few weeks ago, a clerk at the grocery store gave me such attitude I called for the manager, who, as he was telling the clerk to behave got even more attiude from him. How does that work? The manager literally chased me into the parking lot, apologizing. I told him I’ll never be back. Why would I?

Here’s the deal: I am the customer, and I expect service. And here’s why I’m becoming the customer-from-hell.

I’ve been working a retail job at a mall one night a week (or more) for two years. I almost always (unless you are an insanely rude person and then I’ll find a fellow associate with more patience, about .0002% of the time) give unbelievable service and, as a result, I sell a ton of merch. People are quite often stunned with gratitude that I am: nice, friendly, competent, helpful. I know where stuff is and what it’s made of and why it’s the right choice — or not — for their needs. I smile, I say thanks, I apologize when something goes wrong or we don’t have it in stock. And I am paid badly and get no commission.(It’s cash, it’s easy and it’s regular. All good things.)

Because it’s my job.

So, the next time the machines aren’t working, or you don’t have the product(s) I want or the copy you’re handing me for an important letter is so dark and scratchy as to be illegible, here’s what I need to hear:

“I’m so sorry!”

That’s all. You don’t really have to mean it, although how great would that be if you did actually care? When someone is trying to buy a product or service, they are often short of: time/money/patience/amusement in their day  — or anyone who cares what happens next in that interaction. Should you work in any form of customer service, do us all favor, give a damn and acknowledge that we, the customer, have feelings. If you’re their manager, do your job and make sure they are performing well.

If you have a job — even if it’s a crappy low-level survival job you really didn’t plan to be doing at this point in your life — do us all a favor. Suck it up and do it well. If not, move over and let one of the unemployed 10 percent do it for you.

What Does Your Lanyard Say?

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In the old days, this is what a lanyard looked like, something official that bespoke clearly-recognized authority — a lifeguard, an umpire, a coach. These days, seems like everyone everywhere is wearing one, usually with the identity of their employer stamped on it, or maybe an expensive conference they’re attending.  Schools and colleges are using them. I get it, it’s nice to feel like you belong, to show you’re a member of some cool clan. You can also feel a little left-out these days if you don’t walk around with someone’s name and logo hanging around your neck.

One British town has started using them to foil purse and wallet-snatchers. Here are some gorgeous beaded ones.

But still. As we head into the Labor Day weekend in the worst recession in decades, I wonder what all the rest of should be wearing, if anything — you know, the 1/3 of the workforce that is self-employed, permalance, temp, contract workers. Let alone the millions of us now unemployed or underemployed. Here’s a place to print up your new public identity.

How about:

“Give me a job!”  “Will work free for a shot at a new career!”   “For this, I went to law school?”

“Heading into foreclosure. Need a room-mate, stat!” “Happily self-employed”      “Brand-new MBA!”    “Fluent in four languages!”     “When can I start?”

If you were printing one up for yourself, professionally or personally, what would yours say?

Recession-Stressed? Go Shooting, Fence In Your Driveway, Play Poker…

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Like many of us, I’m really sick of this recession! I lost my last full-time job in June 2006 and some of my wary, strapped freelance clients are paying 60 to 90 days late. Things were slow enough I recently took a six-day break, grateful to be able to stay with my Dad in Toronto, (free, the right price) just to feel human again.

Today’s New York Times business section has my story about how some Americans are managing their recession-related stress of lost/lowered income, disappearing clients, late payers, restricted access to credit. For many of us, it’s not a two or three-month sprint through a temporary rough patch, but a brutal, wearying year-long-plus marathon with no finish line anywhere in sight and tightening your belt means adding a new notch almost every month.

One female contractor in Connecticut heads to the shooting range and blasts off a few cathartic rounds. Another contractor, in suburban New York, who’s had to lay off half his employees, counts on the low-key, low-cost comfort of his longstanding poker game. I found a guy who happily admits he’s seen as a tad eccentric by his suburban North Carolina neighbors, who goes out and fences in his driveway. He’s not putting up a fence — but putting on a fencer’s metal mesh mask and publicly practicing the noble art of swordplay. As a former saber fencer, this makes perfect sense to me. It’s a lovely, elegant, time-tested way to burn off some angst.

If you, too, have been hit hard by this rotten, relentless recession, what are you doing to stay sane these days?

After the Axe Falls, She Steps In

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Hey, only about a quarter of a million people got fired last month. That’s the good news. We’re at 9.4 percent unemployment, officially.

Of course, in a recession, there are growth industries — like people whose paycheck derives from helping those who’ve just lost one. However ironic, they make their living catching the newly terminated as they curse, cry and stumble into their new lives as the freshly unemployed.

I’ve been fired a few times, never kindly and never with the option of a helping hand hired to ease that process, so I was intrigued by this Washington Post feature about a woman from the Five O’Clock Club, a job-search organization, who spends her workday helping others adjust to the fact they no longer have one. And, yes, she chews Tylenol to cope with the stress of facing others’ pain. As anyone who’s been canned knows, just because it’s hitting thousand of others in this recession, losing your job, income and professional identity can still feel deeply and miserably personal.

This website, written by a freelancer who specializes in business, has some good tips as well.

Have you been fired recently? Was the process handled with any humanity? How are you doing?

Census Work Finished in Record Time: Why You Should Hire the "Overqualified"

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I heard this last week from a friend of mine, whom Census rules strictly forbid from identifying further, as this person, like everyone in their position, had to sign confidentiality forms to get the temporary full-time job. According to the Census:  “Each worker will take a lifetime oath to keep census information confidential. By law, the Census Bureau cannot share respondents’ answers with any other government or law enforcement agency. Any violation of that oath is punishable by a fine of up to $250,000 and five years in prison.”

This person is educated, and used to work in a demanding and highly competitive industry, now utterly ravaged by the recession, that relies heavily on intellectual ability. Walking alone around unfamiliar neighborhoods in sun and rain and humidity with a hand-held device checking addresses — the crucial initial work of the 2010 census that begins in earnest next spring — wasn’t a dream job. But, in the area where we live, it paid more than $18 an hour and that’s damn good money in this recession, especially for steady work that doesn’t demand lifting or carrying. What I was told stunned me, although it shouldn’t have: people with qualifications far more senior than this person showed up in droves, grateful and eager to grab the opportunity to work, if only for a month.

As a result, Raul Cisneros, a spokesman for the Census told me, the census workers hired nationwide did indeed finish their workverifying addresses way ahead of schedule. They hired 140,000 people across the country, paying them between $10 an hour and $34/hour for the most demanding supervisory jobs. Another Census spokesman confirmed: “We did not have the turnover we’d had in the past. People were sticking around to do the job and in some places they finished that job ahead of schedule. In some places, they did finish very quickly.”

People want to work. It’s deadening and depressing to sit alone at home week after week after week sending out resumes into deep space. It doesn’t have to be a dream job or the job for the rest of your life. Ideally, even if for a while, it needs to put you in touch with other smart people whose very presence reminds you you’re not dead. That’s one of the toughest parts of being out of work. Chatting up random strangers at Starbucks or the library isn’t enough.

People with enormous amounts of talent, skill, experience and savvy are going to waste and the wise are snapping them up whenever and wherever they can. Even the smallest temporary job is worth it: people crave colleagues, somewhere to go, something smart to do and knowing they’re making a contribution. And, yes, the chance to pay some bills. Any income is better than no income!

The Census won’t be hiring again until March 2010, when, they told me, they’ll recruit 3.8 million people to fill 1.4 million jobs.

At least someone has definite job openings.