Posts Tagged 'Career'

Reclaiming the Authorship Rights of Our Career Narratives

When I first moved to San Francisco in the early 90s, I was frequently pegged for being a New Yorker, and it wasn’t because of my barely detectable accent. Within seconds of meeting a new acquaintance, I would inevitably ask “What do you do?”

More often than not, I received responses I didn’t expect: “I paint,” “I windsurf,” “I’m training for a biathlon,” or “I help at-risk kids.”

I wanted to know what they did for a living – they told me how they lived.

Granted I was young and most of the people I met were 20-somethings who didn’t have mortgages to pay or families to support. But this broader paradigm has given me the flexibility to navigate career transitions that would have been difficult had I remained too firmly attached to the letters after my name (MSW, LCSW) or the size of my writing portfolio.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with taking pride in one’s hard-earned status and credentials. But glomming on to titles that complete sentences like “I am a ________________” (stockbroker, lawyer, etc.) can trigger an identity crisis when confronted with precarious life circumstances like, say, a recession.

One of the key factors in determining emotional resiliency is what social psychologists call an “internal locus of control.” A locus of control, which can be either external or internal, is a belief about our power to effect change in our lives. Those with a dominant external locus of control believe their destiny lies beyond their sphere of influence. Consequently, they often feel victimized. People with a strong internal locus of control, on the other hand, believe their decisions hold sway over their future. While they may be unable to avoid natural disasters, the death of loves ones, economic downturns, and similar such crises, they feel empowered because they can choose their response.

Personally speaking, an internal locus of control has helped me remain true to my calling during periods of professional upheaval. Several years ago, I took a detour from my social work career, accepting a position as a development writer at a large philanthropy because I needed a job that paid decently and gave me flexibility to care and eventually grieve for a terminally ill loved one. I had been an unfulfilled journalist before obtaining my MSW and earning my clinical license at an outpatient addiction and mental health counseling center in Maryland. But as a newcomer to New York City, I was in no position to start a private practice and all the social work jobs either paid a pittance or had client quotas that would have impeded my care-giving responsibilities.

Some wise person once said “if you don’t love what you do, love why you’re doing it.” The job worked for me because I was able to support myself and care for my family member. Yet, whenever I gave out my business card with my job title “Senior Development Writer,” I felt a sense of betrayal. I had to constantly remind myself of who I was, why I was there, and where I wanted to go.

Because I remained true to my inner compass, I gradually found my way back. When the cues presented themselves, I spoke with colleagues about my professional background and interests. Eventually, I was invited to serve on committees where my experience as a clinical social worker was recognized by peers and experienced clinicians, leading to connections and opportunities that helped me complete the transition. Today, not only do I have a growing private practice, but I have also taught therapeutic writing workshops (combining my love of writing and psychology) at such high-profile venues as the 92nd Street Y and the JCC in Manhattan. This September, I will try my hand at academia, teaching master’s level Psychopathology at Long Island University’s School of Social Work.

I offer this neither as an invitation for praise nor as encouragement for taking the road less traveled, but rather as an alternative paradigm for job-seekers who may need to temporarily suspend their attachment to their professional credentials so they can reinvent themselves in an “any job is better than no job” economy.

In my workshop, The You Behind Your Resume:  Writing from a Novel Perspective When You’re in Career Transition, my primary goal is to help recently unemployed individuals tap into their internal locus of control and remember that they are much more than their last salaried position.

Most participants are Baby-Boomers. The very same generations that challenged the Vietnam War, broke with social convention and achieved unprecedented levels of affluence now find themselves depicted as hapless victims of an economy that favors youth over experience. These world-weary job seekers tell me they are tired of having their stories told to them – “I’m sorry but you’re over-qualified” – or about them – “Longer Unemployment for Those 45 and Older”  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/13/us/13age.htm.

The first question I pose to the group is “Who would you be if you weren’t________________?”  I instruct them to fill in the blank and answer the question, writing continuously for four minutes. By inviting participants to see themselves as multi-dimensional characters whose sum total of life experiences – as mothers, husbands, sons, rebels, artists, epicureans, caregivers, environmentalists, athletes, survivors, lovers, etc. – subsumes their resumes, participants can reclaim the authorship rights of their lives as they become reacquainted with their larger storylines.

In another exercise, I ask participants to imagine their lives as novels. I instruct them to assign a title to the current chapter of their life story and write a brief summary in the third person narrative.

A 60-something woman from Park Slope shared the following:

Sprung Like Athena
After 35 years with the same company, the only transition she had to make was from one side of the door to the      other. Without ever acknowledging the albatross that was around her neck, suddenly, with two steps, it wasn’t.

Empowering participants to tell their stories from a perspective that is personally meaningful instills them with a sense of well-being that may not only impress a prospective interviewer, but remain with them regardless of whether they are offered a job.

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The Eleventh Commandment: Thou Shalt Have Health Insurance

The Difference Between a Comedy and a Tragedy Depends on How You Define It

Growing up, the first commandment in my family was “thou shalt have health insurance.” This sacred precept was invoked whenever I became itchy at a job or felt the urge to strike out on my own. “Consider what would happen if, God forbid, you got into an accident,” my parents would say. “We would have to sell the house.”

My instincts towards financial self-preservation guided many a decision in my dual career as a clinical social worker and professional writer.  Lest I sacrifice my benefits, I often remained at jobs well after they lost their luster. I was horrified by statistics on the uninsured and perplexed by self-employed friends – mostly holistic health practitioners – who seemed unfazed by their insurance-free existence, as if health coverage was a perk akin to joining a fitness club.

My parents’ admonishment haunted me last March, when I learned that the grant funding my position at a large philanthropic organization would expire at the end June, in the dead of summer, in a recession. In other words, I was about to be unemployed.

Although I yearned to be liberated from the 9 to 5 grind to pursue other career aspirations, like expanding my psychotherapy practice, the prospect of dedicating a large sum of unreliable freelance income to pay for Cobra – on top of school loans and other expenses – made me wonder whether it was I, and not my parents, who would end up homeless, unable to pay the rent on my modest Manhattan studio apartment.

I explored other options. I didn’t have enough documented freelance hours to qualify for health coverage under the Freelancers Union. I could sign up with Atlantis and similar insurance companies that cater to the self-employed. But, as a healthy middle-aged single woman, I would probably pay at least 10 times more than my current monthly contribution for far less coverage. Financially and ideologically, this troubled me.

Granted, I knew the Obama administration had passed a generous 65 percent subsidy on healthcare insurance premiums as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The Cobra reduction, which had been extended several times to addressing rising unemployment, was due to expire May 31, a month before my scheduled departure. The Senate had approved an extension through the end of the 2010. But it remained to be seen whether the House, which needed to ratify changes in the Senate’s legislation, would follow suit.

With the subsidy, I would pay $210 instead $600 a month for 15 months, amounting to nearly $6,000 in savings. I would also retain my current level of coverage without having to change doctors.

Faced with an absurd no-win situation, I opted to ignore it and hope for the best. I reassured my colleagues, “They’ll extend it. How could they not?” This strategy worked until the last week in May. The expiration date was approaching with no extension in sight.

On Monday, May 22, I raised the subject with the managing director of my department. She had invited me out for lunch to apologize about my situation and see if she could help. I explained my quandary, and she offered to lay me off a month early so I could qualify for the subsidy. I posted a status update on Facebook. “So it boils down to this: whether or not I have a job next Tuesday depends on Congress. Go figure?” A friend replied, “Oh dear, oh dear. You’re screwed.”

Yet I was reluctant forfeit a month’s salary if an extension was imminent. Seeking guidance, I consulted an attorney with the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), a pro-bono firm which offers consultations on unemployment compensation and related matters. The attorney advised me to call my Congressman.

Since I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, my Congressman is Charles B. Rangel, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, which sponsored the aforementioned legislation. I called his office for regular updates. Was the bill coming to the floor this week? Most likely but not guaranteed, a young aide explained. Would it pass? Probably, since it had sailed through the Senate. But there were no guarantees.

Although I am a registered Democrat and I voted for Obama, I regard politics with the same disaffection I reserve for football – I am vaguely aware that there are two teams who seek the destruction of their opponents, using muscle and intimidation to score points and and galvanize fans. Generally speaking, I root for the home team.

But this time, it was the 11th hour, and the score would determine whether I would say goodbye to my five-year job at the end of the week, or in another month. On the morning of the last day of eligibility for the extension, there was still no decision. I felt like an actual football — just an object in the game of politics, with my future being punted back and forth.

I checked the online news at frequent intervals, proving the old adage about watched pots. I called the aide at Congressman Rangel’s office, who referred me to Washington, where the resident expert on healthcare was in a meeting, presumably about the legislation.

At 4 p.m., there was still no news. My colleagues in Human Resources advised me to leave and call them after the Memorial Day holiday to let them know whether I would be coming back. Was this really happening?

I returned home to meet up with a former co-worker who happened to be visiting from Rochester. A year ago, I had comforted her when she lost her job. Now, she stared at me with a worried expression as I scanned the Internet for news of my fate.

And finally it came. Around 6 p.m., I spotted an article on CNN online. I read it aloud. “The final version (of the bill), approved by a 215-204 vote, extended the deadline to file for unemployment benefits through November, but jettisoned sending $24 billion in Medicaid assistance to the states and extending the 65% federal subsidy for COBRA health insurance premiums.” The article went on to explain that Republicans and moderate Democrats had balked at the price tag of the proposed bill.

Suddenly, my mind went blank. “What does ‘jettison’ mean?’ I asked, somewhat embarrassed. We were both professional writers. “I think it means to propel or push forward,” she replied with some reticence. We both really wanted it to mean that. But the conjunction separating “approved” from “jettisoned” suggested otherwise. I handed her an old Random House dictionary.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, locating the entry. “I was wrong. It actually means to discard or throw out.” I looked up at her in disbelief. “I just lost my job,” I said. “Yeah,” she replied, “and you found out in the dictionary.”


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