Career Confusion and the Paradox of Choice

This month marks one year since I took a new job, returning to full time work after a year of part time while my daughter was a baby. My daughter is 28 months old now, and I am halfway through pregnancy with my son.

This past year has been one of the toughest years for my professional life. I’d say it’s rivaled only by the quarter-life crisis years that I experienced in my mid 20s. I’m 32 now, so those pains have faded somewhat, though I’ve carried their memory as a grounding that helps me see the good in the roles I’ve had since then.

That difficult professional time resolved when I moved from chemical engineering to software product management. I’d been spanning both areas for a few years while I worked a day job in environmental remediation and an all-the-other-time job with my husband on our startup, but at the start of 2011, at 27, I made the switch to software for my day job. I was relieved that I had found the right career track for me, one which used my analytical skill and passion for technology and had abundant career options in NYC.

While there have been challenges since then for sure, I can’t remember a period of such sustained professional stress as I’ve had since I took my current job.

So many nights I’ve been so preoccupied and worried about work that I had insomnia. In the fall I had to up my therapy from biweekly to weekly, a frequency I hadn’t needed for a few years. I’ve cried at the office or over work more times than I can count.

And that’s all just from my feelings about this job, not even going into how I feel about working full time while my daughter is under school age (not that the two emotional drivers can be fully separated).

I’m extremely fortunate to be in a career that has more jobs than qualified candidates, but one consequence of this is that I am aware that I have choices and don’t have to be where I am if it’s not the right fit for me. I tested the waters, speaking to recruiters and interviewing at another company a few months back. Already pregnant and feeling I didn’t have enough time with my daughter, I decided to test if I could find a new job while still positioning myself for the work-life balance I sought.

I came close to an offer in a role that was exciting and felt like a sweet spot for me in terms of the product and company culture, but they were only willing to go as far as one day working from home. Working from home with a toddler is either not caring for the toddler or not working. So when my boss finally agreed to my request for a 4 day work week (at 80% pay), I decided to stay at my company, at least for now.

At first that brought renewed peace and confidence that I was at the right place for my values at this point in my life. But the following months saw a lot of change in my role, with a new boss taking over a large portion of my responsibilities, and a lot of stress with the remaining ones. Luckily my old and new boss are really open to finding me a spot that better matches my schedule, strengths, and desires.

So I’ve been soul searching again, assessing what is stressing me out about this job.

I’ve learned a lot this past year, and I believe I’m stronger professionally from these experiences. I’ve learned how a different company works, operationally and culturally, and tried my skills in a new pool of office politics, which were things I sought. But I feel a lot of my distress comes from not liking what I’ve found. I’m plagued by the thought that no matter what the role, this company isn’t the right fit for me.

The amount of discontent I have and the amount I see around me in the peers I admire even has me questioning whether product management is the right discipline for me as I advance in my career. I suspect that it’s not the discipline but the flavor of it that seems expected here that I’m unhappy with. I want to be somewhere where my core motivators of creating great user experiences and working with exciting technology don’t feel like they’re so often compromised.

Perhaps I could find a better fit on a different team here. Is it the role or the company itself that I need to get away from?

And then there’s the question of how much I can stand being away from my daughter and our new son after maternity leave, which should be the last 3 months of this year. Last time I had a really tough time even being away 2 days per week when my daughter was only 3 months old. I think from around 6 months to 16 months I was very happy with the 20 hours per week, 2 days in the office work-life balance. But if I can’t get my hours reduced that much, I might rather stay home full time than be away from home more days than I am there. It would be tough on our finances but I would be willing to take on the things needed to make it work, and my husband says he would support that. I suspect he might even be grateful for it, except for the lack of paycheck.

There are so many options, which I’m grateful for. But with it there are so many questions. And I feel like I’m in some sort of limbo, where I’m in a confusingly ambiguous role and just biding my time until my son is born. I tell myself how fortunate I am to have these options, but it’s tough to be happy when I’m feeling emotionally triggered in meetings, conversations, and emails from my coworkers day in and day out. I’m so thankful that my daughter and husband are there to keep me grounded at the end of each day. I only hope that I’ll be able to make the right career choices for me, and that I can be present for them and enjoy this time together until our family grows.

Happy New Year (Really)

For the first time in years, I am ending the year with a strong sense that next year will be great. Here’s why:

– I just left my office for the last time. I resigned. I’m done there, forever!

– Next week I start at a new job that I am very excited about!

– The new job is in mobile marketing – technology and services – a rapidly growing, changing industry with a strong NYC base.

– The new job is at a 5 year old tech startup, with an atmosphere that is on the other end of the spectrum from the office environment I just left and in which I had such a hard time.

– After just 3 meetings I feel more comfortable with my new coworkers than some my current ones.

– I will work with technology that I am new to and learn more about using regular expressions.

– The company is small and thirsty for innovative, driven people.

– I get to dress casually most days – even jeans. I will feel like me again!

– My husband just increased his freelance rate by 20% and the main client said sure.

– My skating students are doing well and I’m loving coaching them.

– My own health has improved. I’ve lost around 25 pounds in the last year, and dropped my low density (“bad”) cholesterol by 50 points down to a healthy range.

– After over 3 years of hard work, perseverance, and sacrifice, we launched the beta of our website!!!

(due to pseudonymity I won’t link to our website here, but email me if you want to know what it is)

Our work is paying off. We’re going to have a great year!

On top of the long view, I’m psyched for the weekend because my brother is visiting, he gave us a Kinect for Christmas which is very fun (and generally amazing), and I’m on holiday until I start the new job next Wednesday. Time to celebrate!

Seeking engagement in the workplace

Or, Seeking a Job That Fits You

Happy Worker

Photo credit: thechrisdavis (flickr)

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m enjoying (for the second time) the book Plugged In: The Generation Y Guide to Thriving at Work. One important topic covered is engagement. Engagement, in this context, means actively contributing to the workplace in a way that goes beyond just “getting enough done.” Engaged workers bring energy, creativity, and commitment to the job. They think of new ways to do things and choose to put in the extra work to make sure things are not only done, but done well.

The alternatives are satisfied workers – people who are just doing enough and are just satisfied enough to keep doing the same things as they look toward retirement, or worse – unhappy workers.

Apparently in older generations it was less common to seek engagement in the work place. Work and play were thought of as two completely different things. When I think of what I know of my father’s generation’s work attitudes, it certainly matches that. You had work, which mostly men did in order to support a family, and home, where mostly women managed households and family activities. Some people were lucky enough to love their work, but many more went through the routine and built traditional careers, trusting that if they were devoted to the company, the company would provide. Reasonable, since in those days, it usually did.

Today things are different, and separation lines are blurred or gone. We’ve been encouraged to think outside the box since we were children. I’m thankful for that. But the freedom to stop and think about whether the traditional ways will make you happy and satisfied can lead to a different view of the purpose of work, marriage, and life itself.

Less willing to accept “it’s always been done that way” as a reason to do anything, I, anyhow, came to the conclusion that if I’m going to spend so much of my time working to make a living, I might as well get as many benefits as I could. Why not look for fulfillment, a challenge, a chance to learn, a career that makes you feel good about your work?

Propaganda Poster for a Happy Worker!

Propaganda Poster for a Happy Worker!

I certainly saw this difference in expectations for engagement when I started in the workforce in 2009. Coming from an excellent university where I was surrounded by the most engaged, passionate, inspired, and inspiring members of my generation, I naively asked my co-workers a number of what I thought were “getting to know you” questions such as “what made you want to be in this field?” only to receive puzzled stares and flat responses such as “I didn’t.”

While I’ve obtained marginal help from elders in my field in trying to determine where I could find what I’m looking for, I’ve also been disappointed by how many people seem to have barely considered how a position aligns with their passions, interests, desires. I can’t help but think they’re all floating in a big river, turning this way or that because that’s how it’s done and that’s where the currents took them.

I don’t know if it’s because of my propensity for depression, but that sounds horrifying to me! What if that next fork in the river splits, one side a relaxing and fun path with just the right amount of challenge, and the other either leads to raging rapids or a desolate flat stretch with nothing to look at or do? I’d want to pull up google earth and figure out what the options are, not just let the currents carry me where they will.

Anyhow, for a number of reasons, my generation (sometimes called Millenials, Gen Y, or the Net Generation) seeks engagement in greater numbers than before.

So, how does one find engagement at work? The author, Tamara Erickson, suggests that a good place to start is by identifying times in the past that you were engaged, and noting the conditions such as where you were, what you were doing, who you were doing it with, and what type of pressure you were doing it under.

Here are a few of her suggestions of what type of experiences to recall:

-A time when you lost yourself in your work, unaware of the time that was passing or other distractions

-A time when you felt proud of something you accomplished and happy to acknowledge your involvement in it

-A time when you put in extra effort and time to make sure a job was not just completed, but done well

-A time when your enthusiasm and energy to work on a project led you to successfully convince others to invest their efforts too

Those are just a couple of her suggestions. I know they’ve certainly given me a lot to think about. I hope they’ve given you something to think about too – I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Looking again

Well it’s a year since I last job-hunted, and here I am ready to go again. I’m eager to move on from my current place, but this past year hasn’t been a total bust career-wise. I’ve learned about a field entirely new to me – environmental remediation. And while there are aspects of it that I am quite happy with, I think when looking at the big picture it’s not the right field for me. The other integral thing I’ve learned this past year is about what type of work environment I want, and what will and won’t be conducive to my happiness.

It has been 10 months since I started this job, and for the past 6 I have been various levels of unhappy with it. It was December when I started thinking I should look elsewhere, but not until January that I really came to a firm conclusion that I want to leave.

My final reasoning is based on what I was looking for when I took this job, which is rather low-paying for my skill set. There were 3 main reasons I was happy to accept that pay:

1) I wanted to learn about environmental engineering and environmental science.
2) I wanted to be making a positive contribution to society.
3) I wanted a job that wouldn’t ask me to be a workaholic.

I think I only got 1 of those for sure, and that one (# 3) was in overkill! Not only are most of my coworkers not workaholics, anumber of them seem to be perpetually in do-the-least-possible-without-getting-fired mode.

The other two I got to some degree, but from what I’ve learned, I don’t think this field will wholly fulfill my needs, especially for challenge, creativity, and connection to the people whose lives I’m working to improve.

I actually think it may be time for a career shift, staying in STEM but moving to a different field and industry. I have a clearer understanding of my needs in a career and in a job, well beyond the factors I considered when choosing a major for my degree. I now realize how much I value community, work culture, location, societal effects, and the structure of a typical workday.

As I explore this further, I’m reading a book about career change, with the major questions to consider in order to determine the career path that is best for all of your needs. I hope to write about this as I ponder these questions.

Career Questions

It’s been nearly 3 months since I last wrote. I did write a post in December, an enthusiastic review of “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” but it was lost when my phone crashed, and I couldn’t bring myself to rewrite the whole thing.

And of course there were the holidays – work to do and visitors and visits to be had.

But there was also the greyness. A feeling of running in a hamster wheel. Days of happiness, excitement, and energy – followed by days of stress, worry, or exhaustion.

I’ve seen the psychiatrist monthly, and I really think my current combo is helping. In a sense, the world has gone from gray to colorful again. It’s merely that I can see intense blue as well as bright yellow.

Work is… Disappointing. I feel less of a sense of purpose and direction than, frankly, ever before. Even as my passion waned somewhat in my darker times, I’ve always known what I wanted, where I wanted to go. And usually I had the determination to work hard to find it, to earn it.

But now, I’m unsure of what I would like next. There are things that call to me, but with each there are aspects that take my excitement down a notch. I know this is common for young adults, but the feeling is foreign to me.

I know that I am lucky that I have so many skills on which I could base a career – and likely a successful one. But I feel equally pulled toward each, but unwilling to yet give up any. As of late I’ve been dreaming up ways to incorporate them all. I may have an idea, but I don’t know yet how realistic it is. But I don’t like to leap without looking. I wish to gather information.

And that’s why I’m writing now. I would like to interview people with knowledge or experience in a number of areas. It could be over e-mail or phone (or in person if you can meet in NYC). I could write a post about it, feature you and links, or I could keep it private or anonymous.

If you have knowledge about or experience in a career in any of the following areas, please contact me!

Figure skating coach – basics
Figure skating coach – freestyle/test track
Figure skating program director
Environmental eng/scientist – government regulator
Environmental eng/scientist – government researcher
Environmental eng/scientist – consultant for private companies
Environmental eng/scientist – consultant for government
Environmental scientist – public interest researcher
Science writer – magazines, news, or books
Science professor – adjunct (lab instructor and early undergrads)
Project manager – web company
Pro blogger
Etsy shop/home business owner
How-to writer

I’m extra interested in hearing from you if you are a mom!

Still trudging along

I’ve been so busy, doing so much, over the past few weeks, that I haven’t taken the time to sit down, reflect, and write about it.  It’s been up and down, emotionally. But things are going well, as well as they could be, really, in this economy.  At this point it’s abundantly clear that the economy is in the shitter, and this is of course affecting us as we try and launch a new web company.

But it doesn’t mean we can’t do it.  A handful of strong companies built themselves after the first dot-com bubble burst, and there are things to be said for starting a company in a recessive economy.  The key is to know how to use the economic environment to your advantage.  There are some ways that we can do that – I think chief among them making use of our young, cheap, and agile workers.  Although, of our team members, Husband and I have the most financial burden to worry about, even we don’t have a family to feed, school tuitions to pay, a mortgage, or even a desire to keep up a moderately well-off lifestyle.  So we can run our company in “ultra light” mode and still produce and develop at a rate that would cost older, more developed professionals much more.  I see that as a strength, especially in this environment.  But it’s still an uphill battle.

Cat Wisdom Wednesday

It’s time for a new Cat Wisdom Wednesday.  This week, I’ve chosen a quote that talks about going for something that’s challenging and learning along the way:

Don’t wait until everything is just right. It will never be perfect. There will always be challenges, obstacles and less than perfect conditions. So what. Get started now. With each step you take, you will grow stronger and stronger, more and more skilled, more and more self-confident and more and more successful.

~Mark Victor Hansen