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Days of Our Work Lives: An unvarnished look at work today: Part II: Susan's Saga. Episode 10: The Dinner

Part II: Susan's Saga  

Episode 10
The Dinner

In the previous episode, Ben gave Susan quite the lesson on how to reduce her procrastination. But more potent than his tips was his suggesting they postpone their first date--his coming over for dinner--until she felt she made progress on her job search.

Well, the next week, Susan job-searched-up a storm: She wrote custom-applications for the ten best-fit jobs she could find on the superjob sites: Indeed.com and SimplyHired.com. She looked at the websites of local colleges--She pictured herself happiest working on a campus, especially as an academic adviser. Alas she found nothing on-target so she defied herself and phoned the director of academic advising at each college. And lo and behold, at Central Washington State University (where she had taken that impenetrable Excel course,) the director said, "We'll be posting a position for an academic advisor. It will only be part-time/temp, but if you like, I'd be pleased to have you come in for a cup of coffee."

As soon as Susan got off the phone, she called Ben: "Dinner is served."

Of course, the dinner's first minutes were awkward. They'd have to be, even  if she weren't a new widow and he hadn't just broken up with his girlfriend. It is rather unusual for a woman to--for their first date--invite a guy to dinner. 

But they relaxed more quickly than either of them predicted. Part of it was that he had been tutoring her, part was that they had an obvious topic of conversation: her upcoming job interview, but the biggest part was that they somehow felt magically compatible. They couldn't explain it but they both felt it. But they both knew that the place to start was to talk about the job interview.

Ben began, "You sound really excited about the job."

"I am but I'm terrified about the interview."

"Remember, I'm always having to work on contract. That means, every few months, I have to go on another string of interviews. So I've read a zillion articles on interviewing, even Marty Nemko's.  ;-)  And I joined Toastmasters, which made me much more comfortable talking in front of people, and actually, I met someone there who got me a job. But there's no time for that now."

Susan asked, "So what are the most important things you've learned about interviewing?"

"It basically comes down to three things: First and maybe most important, create chemistry."

"How do you do that?"

"It's hard to say but the obvious really helps: have good eye contact, smile when it feels natural to do so, err on the side of being positive, and be enthusiastic. For example, ask a question or two that shows you read the job description carefully."

"What else?"

"Have ready a few one-minute PAR stories that would impress that employer: some problem you faced, the impressive way you approached it, and the positive result."

"But I don't think I've done anything that would impress him."

"Everyone has. Think."

"Well, how about this? I had a singing student who was thinking of dropping out of college. We talked a lot and I was very patient. Finally he told me it was because his girlfriend broke up with him and he couldn't bear to run into her on campus."

"That is the perfect story!"

"And the third thing I need to remember about interviewing?"

"You can't anticipate all the questions but be prepared for two. The first is the question you're most afraid he'll ask."

"I'm afraid he'll ask why I left my previous job. I can't tell him I was accused of creating a hostile environment for gays."

"You were acquitted."

"Acquitted or not, he won't take the risk of hiring me."

"If you tell him the whole story, all that detail will make clear that you really did nothing wrong. And unless he's a silly guy, he'll really appreciate that you answered honestly rather than making up some stock BS answer. Honesty may be the most important ingredient missing in job interviews."

"And in society. Deep down, all of us crave integrity."

"Susan, if he sees integrity in you, he'll see your telling him as a net plus."

"What's the other question I should be prepared for?"

"Some version of "Tell me about yourself." 

"Do I start with where I was born?"

"No. Take about one minute to tell the pieces of your life's chronology that would convey that this job is a logical next step for you. Wanna try one?"

"How's something like this: "I always liked college and really appreciated my academic advisor. He was very helpful in steering me to the right courses and majors. Then more recently, I worked with at-risk kids and spent quite a bit of time advising them and I loved it. So I was really excited when you invited me to come talk with you about a possible academic advisor job here."

"Susan, you're amazing!" He looked into her eyes the way Rory had. But this didn't feel like a technique. This felt real. 

He leaned over toward her but she got scared. "Ben, I think it's time to call it a night."

"I understand. Will you see me again?"

"If next time, you'll let me come see your place."

With thoughts of Ben and the interview tomorrow, she couldn't sleep.

The next episode is HERE.

Days of Our Work Lives: An unvarnished look at work today: Part II: Susan's Saga. Episode 9: Procrastinating

Part II: Susan's Saga  
Episode 9: Procrastinating

In the previous episode, a claim by a student's parent that Susan had created a hostile environment toward gays was found baseless. But disgusted by the unfair inquisition, Susan then quit. 

But now what?

That job had fallen into her lap, the result of her volunteering. But now she needed to find a job, with no time for additional months of volunteering and schmoozing in hopes it will lead to something. 

She dreaded having to look for a job:

No matter how she carefully she crafted her resume, if honest, it would unlikely be top-of-the-stack for any job, even a menial one. She felt she needed all her ducks in a row but had few ducks, in a row or otherwise. 

She found the networking game distasteful. She was, for example, repulsed at using social media for leads, for example, retweeting someone's posts not because they were so wonderful but because it makes the person more likely to tout you. As a result, judgments are made not on merit but on scheming.  She didn't mind getting together with her close friends but they'd be unlikely to have a useful job lead.  

Cold-calling target employers is a surprisingly effective job-search strategy but Susan was shy even about stopping someone on the street for directions. The thought of bothering employers not advertising a job and pitching herself felt anathema. That was especially so because she felt she brought little to the table, basically saying, "I'm not great but would you hire me anyway?"

Nor did she feel good about requesting an informational interview. Even if she told the employer she wasn't expecting a job from him or her, she feared it would be perceived as a ploy to access an employer, like cutting in line at a movie theater whose performance will be sold out. 

Even answering ads--the least offensive of the job-search methods--felt onerous. She knew that many people carefully answer dozens of ads and usually don't even get the courtesy of a rejection--silence is today's rejection letter. And reports of hundreds of applications even for jobs at Wal-Mart could make anyone procrastinate. 

And indeed procrastination had been Susan's career cancer, indeed life cancer. So often she knew what she should do but couldn't make herself do it. She'd rationalize that she'd feel more like doing it tomorrow but too rarely did. Even though she was well aware that the short-term pain of doing the task would be outweighed by the long-term gain, she rarely could get comfortable being uncomfortable.

She did step-up the Excel tutoring sessions with Ben. That would add a duck to her row. 

One day, Ben asked her how her job search is going. When she tepidly answered, "Okay," Ben said, "It's easy to put off looking for a job. Part of my tutoring service is being a loving taskmaster."

The word she mainly heard was "loving." She thought, "That doesn't sound like what a guy with a girlfriend would say. Maybe they broke up?" But after being rebuffed when she invited him to dinner, she'd keep those thoughts to herself. "Okay, loving taskmaster, what should I do?"

"Obviously, you have to break the job search into baby steps. Write it on a whiteboard or something. Then, every time you get an item done, erase it or put a check-mark next to it. When you're tempted to procrastinate, picture how you'd benefit if you landed a good job...

"Like be proud of myself. Be able to afford stuff." 

"And what could happen if you did procrastinate."

"Be a bag lady."

"I doubt that would happen but...

"I have a hard time getting started."

"Maybe be more conscious of that moment of truth, that moment you're deciding, usually unconsciously, whether to do the task or something fun."

"The problem is the task of landing a job seems so enormous."

"Might it help to ask yourself, "What's my next one-second task?" That's a friendly, unintimidating amount of time."

"Like even turn on the computer."

"Yup. Even that can get you started. Then ask yourself, "What's my next one-second task?"

"And then I'm an object in motion, which tends to stay in motion."


"I really procrastinate when I reach a hard part." 

"Maybe you should struggle with a hard part for just a minute or so. If you haven't made progress by then, chances are that more struggling won't help. It'll just make the process more odious which will make you want to procrastinate more."

"So what do I do when I reach a roadblock I can't make progress on in one minute?"

"Either figure you can let it go and work on something else, or if you can't, call someone to get help. Even me." 

Susan didn't want to jump on that lest she reveal her feelings about him but she didn't want to ignore it either so she said, "I worry I won't stay on track."

"How about this? Every night, you make a list of what you hope to accomplish tomorrow and email to me. I'll make a point of checking my email every night before I go to bed."

That sounded sexier than if he offered to check in the morning. "Was he flirting?" she wondered. And she got her answer. 

"Susan, is your offer to make dinner still good?"

"Still good."

"Would it help if we don't schedule it until you feel you've made good progress in your job search?"

She thought, "That will motivate me more than all those procrastination tips." But all she said was, "Okay." 

The next episode is HERE.

Days of Our Work Lives: An unvarnished look at work today: Part II: Susan's Saga. Episode 8: A Hostile Environment

Part II: Susan's Saga  
Episode 8: 
A Hostile Environment

In the previous episode, Susan's volunteering at King Middle School paid off: She got a six-month contract to fill in for the school's attendance officer.

On her first day, she arrived early, both to check out her room before the school day's chaos began and because she wanted to go into the teacher's room, that inner sanctum she had never penetrated except when, as a child, Susan's teacher told her to bring in her coffee cup from the classroom. 

After congratulating Susan, the teachers settled in to their usual talk, which often pitted the idealists against the burnouts. The idealists, for example, were excited about the latest innovation: The Common Core Standards, which would establish high standards for all kids: "High expectations are so important!" In contrast, the burnouts had been through many cycles of innovations du jour: hope followed by a disappointing reality followed by the next innovation du jour. This morning, one burnout read from the 6th grade math standards: 
Apply the properties of operations to generate equivalent expressions. For example, apply the distributive property to the expression 3 (2 + x) to produce the equivalent expression 6 + 3x; apply the distributive property to the expression  24x + 18y to produce the equivalent expression 6 (4x + 3y); apply properties of operations to y + y + y to produce the equivalent expression 3y. "
The burnout's punchline: "You really believe the best use of our time, of our kids' time, is to teach them 1,000 standards like this?"

The principal, Ms. Wright, had been through many such cycles and at a staff meeting cynically took the middle ground: "I'll support you when you want to adopt the new program and I'll support you when you're ready to drop it."
For Susan's first three months as attendance officer, everything went fine. She was able to track down more truants than did the regular officer, who had been doing it for years. 

Then one day after school, Ms. Wright came to Susan's room:
"Susan, the mother of one of the student assistants claim you have created a hostile environment for gays."  

"What?! Who?!


"What? I can't believe it. He kept asking for days off for no good reason and after a while I kept saying no. I'll bet he went to his mother and made up that hostile-environment stuff so he could get his days off."

"Susan, whenever an accusation is made related to race, gender, or sexual orientation, I'm required by law to conduct a thorough investigation. You might want to contact the union lawyer. And our lawyer advised that it's safest if we suspend you---with pay, don't worry--until the investigation is concluded."

Susan was so offended. "I'm not at all anti-gay. I did absolutely nothing anti-gay. And now I have to endure this?!  For nothing?!" Still, she felt scared.

Two months and three depositions later and still no feedback. Susan was really scared now. "If they were finding me innocent, Ms. Wright would be saying things like, "Don't worry, it's just a formality." But nothing. 

Finally, she received a terse letter, "Dear Ms. Sapian, the investigative panel found you not-guilty of any wrongdoing. You may resume your position at your earliest convenience. Thank you for your patience in this matter." 

She was relieved but incredulous at it all. And she was embarrassed because she was pretty sure all the teachers knew about it and assumed she must have done something: "When there's smoke, there's fire." Every time a teacher would see her, she'd be thinking, "There's Susan the gay-basher." Especially with just a few weeks left on her contract anyway, Susan decided to quit.

Ms. Wright said all sorts of nice parting words but when Susan asked whether her employment reference would make any mention of the bogus claim, Wright decided to cover her legal ass: "If you agree not to file any employment claim, I'll give agree not to mention it."

Susan was again incredulous: "I deserve a great reference. You just said I deserve a great reference and now you want me to give you something so I can get what you should be gratefully giving me, especially after what you've put me through?"

This time, Susan won.

"I'm sorry, Susan. You're right. You'll get a strong reference with no mention of that claim.

"That bogus claim."

"Right, that bogus claim."

Susan couldn't resist a parting shot:

"You let that parent trigger a massive, demeaning investigation of me whom you know did nothing wrong, yet you ignore terrible, burned-out teachers who, year after year, damage kids."

"Those burned-out teachers didn't start that way. After two years, they get tenure and I can't touch them."

"You can't?"

"Not without years of remediation efforts you know won't work, documenting every little thing, and then the union's high-powered lawyers usually find some a way to get the teacher off on some technicality. It's easier to just use my time and stress where it's more likely to make a difference."

And with that, Susan walked out, again back to the starting line. Now what?

The next episode is HERE.

Days of Our Work Lives: An unvarnished look at work today: Part II: Susan's Saga. Episode 7: Luck

The Sapian Family Saga
Part II: Susan's Saga  
Episode 7: Luck
In the previous episode, Susan's bravery, this time in inviting her tutor to dinner, again didn't pay off. He had a girlfriend, he lived too far away, blah, blah, blah. 

So she was back to the starting line, except that she was enjoying her after-school volunteer gig directing Rent at that gritty middle school. Those same kids who wouldn't sit still for geometric theorems and Shakespeare's intricacies were, in rehearsal, as focused as a dog on a bone.

Alas, Susan's bad luck continued. During one of those rare moments the kids were acting up, between acts of the brush-up rehearsal before the final performance, the principal, Ms. Wright walked in.

Susan thought, "Oh my God. I'm going to get fired. Then I'll have nothing. Absolutely nothing." And when Ms. Wright said, "Would you step outside a moment, Ms. Sapian?," Susan was sure she was a goner. The principal wouldn't want to embarrass Susan in front of her students. She was going to tell Susan that today is her last day.

But sometimes only when it's darkest do we see light. When they got outside, Susan said,  "I'm so sorry Ms. Wright, they're usually quite good. I..."

Ms. Wright interrupted "Don't worry. It happens to all of us. That wasn't why I came by. You've done a great job with Rent. Very impressive with quite a tough group of kids. How'd you like a paying job? We need a attendance officer for the rest of the school year. Ours just got into a car accident and will be out until next September and I thought of you. $44,000 a year plus full benefits."

Susan couldn't help herself: She started to cry. "Yes, oh yes, Oh thank you!"

Susan thought, "So the career counselor was right! Volunteer and do a good job and you may get a job!"

"Can you start tomorrow?"  

"Yes, oh yes!"

The next episode is HERE.

Days of Our Work Lives: An unvarnished look at work today: Part II: Susan's Saga. Episode 6: Excel

Part II: Susan's Saga  
Episode 6: Excel

In the previous episode, Susan left her job as a clerk in a fertilizer store after just two hours. Even a $12 an hour job required a lot, including knowing how to use Excel, which she didn't. She was embarrassed and decided she'd take an Excel class.

"Should I take it online? No, I probably wouldn't finish. I like students around, the teacher there. "One of those Microsoft-approved private classes? Maybe. Expensive. They offer one at North Central Washington State U" (fictitious.) $450, not too terrible. If the instructor gets good ratings on RateMyProfessor.com, I'll sign up." Alas, the instructor was listed as TBA but Susan decided to take a chance. 

After the half-hour drive, ten minutes to find parking, and a five-minute walk in the rain, she arrived at class, thinking, "God, I'll have to do this in reverse after class is over. Maybe the online course would have been a better idea."

She felt even more that way after class started. The professor, while unquestionably brilliant, just couldn't explain things well. For him, how to use Excel was natural, so intuitive that although he tried, he just was unable to explain it clearly enough to mere mortals who need to learn it cookbook-style.

And it wasn't just Susan. When almost half the class failed the midterm, she dropped out. 

Now what? She still wanted to learn Excel. "Maybe a tutor?" She looked in Craigslist and an ad jumped out at her: 
  • Kind, patient person loves tutoring beginners in all Microsoft Office applications: Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Access. I live in Moscow, ID but we can work by Skype. Don't know how to use Skype? I'll show you. It's cool. Call me. My name is Ben: 206-730-3958.
Susan called him right up. And the tutoring went very well. 

While Ben was always friendly, he never really said much about himself. So one day, she took the first step: "Why do you tutor?" 

"I'm one of those software engineers who's good but not great so I can now only get project work. So every few months I have to spend a couple of months looking for my next project. Tutoring helps pay the bills"

"Do you like project work?"

"Sort of. You're always working on something new and the adrenaline rush of deadlines can be exciting. But I always feel that, hanging over my head, if I'm not good, fast, and willing to work 14 hour days, they'll hire an H1-B immigrant or offshore my job to India...Tell me about you?"

Susan couldn't believe the next words that came out of her mouth: "Maybe we can talk about it over dinner. Would you like to come here for dinner?"

"Susan, I could make the excuse that I live four hours away but it's really that I'm still involved with someone."

The next episode is HERE.

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