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.

Half a year into the new job

And I can’t believe that much time has passed. I love the job and am still so grateful for the opportunity. I actually enjoy going to work most days and I am really excelling. The company is having a strong year and I believe I’ve been a big part of that. The environment is so much better for me – I feel accepted and comfortable and valued.

I’d even thought about ending this blog. After all, it was originally an exploration of school and depression, research and science, and life in academia as a woman scientist. I’m no longer in school, academia, research, or considered a woman scientist professionally.

But, that doesn’t mean the themes of my life aren’t similar. I still struggle with dysthymia, and I’m still in a male-dominated industry. I’m still a young woman figuring out herself and her future. And I still enjoy the outlet of blogging and the companionship of other bloggers (although I’ve mostly been a lurker lately).

So, I’m still here. And I still have things to talk about.

I’ve wanted to start a family for many years now. The time is nearly right, and I’m glad I’ve waited through our struggles with money and career. A few months ago, we started decreasing my antidepressants. Following my friend’s suicide last fall I had spiraled out of control, and it took many months to feel better again. During that time we changed my medication, such that I was on both Wellbutrin and Prozac. It helped me feel alert enough to go to work mostly on time and feel aware in the mornings. It felt like the cloud lifted and my head was clearer.

Then I started the new job in January, and I felt energized and motivated. Also, my students did well and finished the skating season fabulously, earning an invitation to skate at the end of year gala with Olympians, where I shook Evan Lysacek’s hand and watched him give a $100,000 donation to my organization.

So earlier this year I began talking to my doctor about planning for a baby, and we started tapering off my meds. We started with Prozac because Wellbutrin had been the more recent addition and had helped a lot. We dropped the Prozac from 40 mg to 30, then to 20, and things seemed ok. So we dropped it to 10, and then planned to start reducing the Wellbutrin.

But somewhere around then things degraded. The increased stress and long hours of the new job had started taking their toll on me. I began crying too often and worrying and sleeping too much. The doctor said we had probably dropped it too fast, and we upped it half a pill, to 15. That was about a month ago.

Work continued to be stressful even as I enjoyed it and felt proud of it. Night and weekend work that had seemed like a temporary measure dragged on. I got a summer intern which relieved some of the pressure, but the work kept increasing and that wasn’t enough. We won more and more work from new clients, and the projects I led went extremely well, but I was getting worn-down.

The last few weeks I noticed increasing negative and repetitive thought patterns, and I found myself crying alone quite a few times. Finally, on Thursday about a week ago, I got so upset during the work day that I dashed to the bathroom so no one would see as the tears started. I finally had broken down, and I called my husband and told him how much I’d been struggling.

It was disheartening to reach that point, but it forced me to see that I must change something now to prevent a full relapse of depression. I saw my dr that eve and told him how I’d been feeling, and he said I sounded depressed and increased the Prozac back to 30. I talked to my boss and told him that I could not keep working nights and weekends, that there had to be an end in sight for that. Then I worked from home the next day and rested over the weekend. The next week, I forced myself to take full lunch breaks and go home at a decent time. And I took all my meds.

It’s been about 9 days and I’m starting to feel better. I want to keep writing, and focusing on my health and sanity. Maybe I’ll even stop lurking and let some of you know that I’ve been reading.

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!

As December marches on

I am taking each day at a time. Some days I have energy and optimism and the day passes fairly quickly. These are few but increasing in frequency.

Other days, even on a good night’s rest, I can’t stop yawning well into the afternoon and my head feels funny, fuzzy like I have a hangover but I don’t.

Still, things are looking up. I got the job offer yesterday, and am planning to accept it tomorrow when he gets back to me about details. The timing is great because yesterday they fired my best friend at the office – who had just been saying that if I left, she’d need to get out more urgently. Well now she’s gone already, and the desk next to mine sits empty. I want out. Hopefully I can accept the new offer tomorrow and get my resignation in before the day is out.

I’m ecstatic, and yet reserved. I’ve wanted out for so long, it feels surreal to finally be ready to leave. It hasn’t fully sunk in yet. I’ll feel better tomorrow after I finalize and accept the new offer. And start telling my coworkers that I’m saying goodbye…

On Thursday I am meeting my deceased friend’s Aunt (her NY family) to talk about planning a memorial here in NYC. Meeting a family member who was at the funeral with the family will probably be more final – somehow without being at the funeral or wake, or in a community that all misses her, sometimes it feels like maybe it’s not so final and she’s just moved away…

I want to help plan a beautiful memorial for her here in NYC.

When you’re going through hell, keep going

It has not been an easy month, but I am doing better. Finally.  I still don’t want to be at work, I still can’t stand some of my coworkers, and I’m still sad about my friend’s death.  But I have regained hope, and a semblance of normally, and perhaps most importantly of all, I have begun to build a plan.

A plan to get out.

I was so broken up after my last talk with Second Boss in Command.  I went home and sobbed and sobbed, and Husband saw me, and offered comfort, and we talked about plans to get me out.  So now I am going to work, but keeping in mind that I won’t have to work with these people much longer, or spend every day in this cold, uncaring, clique-y place.  And that is enough to help me feel better.

On top of that, a job interview fell into my lap through a connection, and it is promising.  The place is very much what I’m looking for, and I have a second interview this week.  Perhaps I’ll be out of here soon…

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!

Still Looking, and Biding My Time

Since I wrote my last post I’ve still been looking hard. I’ve sent out around 30 job applications since April – its about all I can manage with the full time job, startup company, and lots of time spent with Husband!

I had 3 more interviews, to varying degrees of near success. Two were with a company that would offer an amazing blend of uses for my analytics skills, software savvy, project management abilities, and crafty creativity. The company said they were looking for more experienced people but encouraged me to continue to apply to postings for jobs at their company and suggested that I might fit well once their teams have added some more experienced leaders.

The other went extremely well and appeared to be my dream work environment (a bunch of computer geeks under 35, leather couch and beanbag chairs, huge flat screen tv with Xbox and ps3, and a shared mission I could get behind). The interviewer (a cofounder) even signed up on the spot for a trial of a service I recommended. It was very disappointing two weeks later to learn that they had decided not to hire outside the company. Maybe I shouldn’t have gone so far as to name a service that would help them! Lesson learned.

During all this time, my frustrations at work have increased, although I’ve also learned to deal with them better. I’ve waxed and waned about pushing for changes at work that I think will not only make me happier but also improve office operations, especially for the others in my generation, who now make up nearly half of the staff.

Plugged InOn that note, I recently started re-reading a book that helped me last year: Plugged In: The Generation Y Guide to Thriving at Work. The book is great because it goes over the events and trends that shaped my generation and how older people’s worldviews were shaped and how they view us, and it offers advice for how to navigate the generational gaps and how to find a job you like.

I may write more about this as I find so much of the content useful. On that note, I’d love to hear from my readers about their experiences working together with people who span different generations and have widely varying ways of working. Some of the main conflict points I’ve experienced are due to differences in ways of communicating and using technology, motivations for work, and approaches to hierarchy vs cross-level collaboration.

What did you find most frustrating when working with different generations? How did you make it work?