Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Staying in the game

Now that I'm back in the game, so to speak, I feel like there's a lot worth talking about when it comes to staying current while in a period of unemployment -- either by choice or by luck. How do you stay abreast of the topics being discussed professionally when you're not dealing with them personally? How do you keep yourself one step ahead? And maybe most importantly, how do you take care of yourself when the stress of finding that next job are overwhelming?

Staying Current and Relevant
Let's call this part of the post the things you probably already know.

  • Get on social media. Even if you aren't an active yourself, follow along with the conversation on Twitter or in the library blog world. Follow (and interact with, if you so choose) with people who are doing things that inspire you or that you would like to see yourself doing.
  • Take it a step further: talk with those people. Get in touch with them and ask them how they got where they are. It's not always easy to put yourself out there, but sometimes you have to. Most importantly, though, if those people take the time to get back to you, make sure you thank them. Their time is precious, too, and that they took some to give you insight is worth the minute of thanking them. 
  • Read your professional trade journals, but don't limit yourself to them. I read all of the journals I got as a member of ALA/PLA/YALSA/ALSC, but I also read through ALAN's journals. I made sure to peruse School Library Journal, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly, and I read VOYA when I could get my hands on it. In addition to those, I made sure to do a lot of reading of teen-centric websites and web magazines. Oh and the breadth of blogs I read -- not just book blogs or library blogs. I read blogs written by teens, pop culture blogs, blogs about publishing, and more. Different audiences, different authors, and different voices broaden and inform your world view. 
  • Try out the new tools and toys. If you have an ereader, give it some good love so you can know how it works when you're faced with questions in a new job. Try out new social media outlets and figure out how you could use them in a work place. 
    • Write for your professional journals. Pull from your experiences and from your current standpoint to write something meaningful for the profession (and ultimately for yourself). The journals are only as valuable as those who contribute to them, so have your voice heard.
    • Find something you're passionate about -- whether within the profession or not -- and devote yourself to it. Blog about it. Partake in it fully. Aside from showing that you can make something worth your time and energy and effort to get to know it inside and out, it allows you to hone your writing and thinking skills.
    • Read. Read. Read. Read inside and outside of your comfort zone. Push yourself to try new things. Stop if you can't get through something. 
    • Don't worry about applying to every job out there. I know it's against a lot of what you'll hear, but I don't think you're doing yourself favors if you apply to any and everything that sounds remotely decent. Hold off and apply only to those jobs which sound like they would be good jobs for you. 
    • Tailor your resume and cover letter for every single job. There is no such thing as one size fits all. If you're taking the advice of the bullet point above and only applying to those jobs that would be good, then taking the time to write specialized applications for each will pay off greatly. 
    These are all no-kidding ideas, right? Anyone can tell you these things about staying current and relevant and preparing yourself for future employment. But how about those things they never tell you about?

    I learned a lot over the last eight months. Some things were good learning and some were not easy learning. But they were learning none the less.

    • Unwanted advice: I got a lot of unwanted advice while I wasn't working! A lot of it happened to suggest I should consider other career paths or other plans because, well, what I wanted to do (whatever it was -- I never quite defined it for myself) was "hard to get into." I think this is really unfortunate and, frankly, sad advice. If you want to do something career-wise, no one should stop you or suggest you apply your skills and knowledge elsewhere. Your decisions are your own. Yes, the field of information science is broad and yes, your skills are applicable in so many different places. But you know what? If you don't want to do those other things, no one should convince you that you should. Stay firm and positive in your own vision for yourself. Know who you can turn to when you DO need advice, and let those who chose to advice you otherwise say their piece but don't let it deter you from what you want. 
    • Seek guidance when you need it: You will likely need advice in the course of things, so know who you can turn to when you need a shoulder to cry on or when you need someone to read your cover letter and resume for the fiftieth time. Use your system to ask questions, to check your head space, to read those job ads for you that you aren't entirely sure about. Know getting it out with someone else can be the best thing, even if it doesn't answer every question. At least for me, it was rarely about the question but about emptying my mind wholly and fully to someone who just would listen. You don't have to be isolated or alone, even if it feels like you can be at times. Cultivate a support system that gives you what you need (and -- as importantly -- give back to that support system in any way you can). Never be too proud to ask for what you need.
    • Budget: This is essential on many levels. First is the financial, of course. When I left my job, I was lucky I had a husband who was still working (though he doesn't bring in the big bucks as a public servant by any means), but not everyone is in that position or they are and realize losing an entire source of income is a huge change. Budget before you find yourself without work. Write down every single expense that comes up per month and make sure you round up (if my mortgage is $1030, I'd round it up to $1100 to be safe). Look at your margin and be reasonable about whether or not you're comfortable living with it. Budgeting for me required making the decision I would be giving up a lot -- my husband and I weren't going to go out for dates on a weekly basis like we had been, I wouldn't be buying anything unless it was an essential, and travel was to be kept to a minimum (that's my biggest spending area). It also meant figuring out how to pay off the big bills we had before they got any bigger. As soon as we sussed that out and made the decision it would work, the key was sticking to that budget. I tracked expenses like a madwoman. I knew what was going out and what was coming in. I squirreled away what I could. But what's important to keep in mind, aside from the financial budgeting side, is the time budgeting aspect. Now that your day is unstructured, you have all the free time in the world. For me, that was terrifying. I forced myself to find routines, to budget my time around things like writing, reading, chores, grocery shopping, and so forth. I made it a routine to get up by 7 am, to get in the shower and get dressed as if I were going to work, make breakfast, then sit at my desk (away from the television) for a set number of hours per day. Budgeting my time like that was a huge stress reliever. It forced me to work, even if I wasn't "working."
    • Make a to-do list and do it: But I don't mean just a list of things you need to do during the week (grocery shop, write a blog post, etc.). I'm talking a list of things you never have had the time to do but have always wanted to. As long as those activities fit within your budget, there really is no better time to pursue them. Aside from keeping you feeling sane when you're stressed out about the job situation, it allows you to feel a sense of accomplishment. Items on my to-do list were to get involved in a YALSA committee (done), propose a session for a conference (accepted), write a book (wrote a 69,000 word manuscript which I've been revising for months), learn to cook a variety of new vegetables (done and bonus -- I taught myself to appreciate new foods and eat well while doing it), working out harder and longer (I may have signed up for a 5K, which is wild). These kinds of things kept me heading forward, even on the days that were incredibly tough. Learn a new skill you've always wanted to learn. I do believe that kind of stuff gives you an edge because it gives you an outlet for whatever stress you have on the job front. 
    • Make a dream list: Similar to the to-do list, but this is a list of those more lofty goals you have, be they personal or professional. Write down the steps for how to achieve those dreams and put one foot in front of the other. I've always had this business idea in my head, and while I'm not entirely sure it's feasible at this point in my life, I took the steps to not only think about it, but outline it, to solicit feedback on it, and to draw up next steps. It's not dead; it's still active. It's still a possibility. Rather than let it continue to be a "dream," it's been made more concrete by being put down on paper and actively pursued (even if it's on a small scale and even if it's at a place I know I can't go after it with my whole heart just yet). One of the hugest benefits of not working is that you can allow yourself to simply dream and think about the things you want to do and achieve. You don't have work or other commitments clouding the incredibly powerful act of dreaming. Write down those dreams. Once they are on paper, they feel more real. More attainable. 
      • Take care of yourself: My biggest weakness is I don't like to take care of myself in the ways I sometimes think I should. The truth is, I don't think most people do. When I first started not working, I found myself wanting to sleep all the time. I'm not a huge sleeper as a rule -- I function best on 4 or 5 hours -- but I wanted to take multiple naps a day. It worried me that that was my method of coping with change. Whether or not that was the case, I finally let myself sleep when I wanted to. Eventually, I found myself not needing those extra naps and I found myself back in a normal sleep pattern. What I had needed in those first few weeks of adjustment was time to decompress and relax. Denying myself that was more harmful than just doing it. Likewise, it is essential to work out, even if it's a 20 minute walk every other day, and it's crucial to eat well. One of my good friends told me when I first was not working that I should make it a habit to wear shoes every day. That that simple act would put my mind in a different place. And you know what? She was right. It was one small step in taking care of myself because it forced me to care just enough about how I felt to keep my mind in the right place. 
      • Take care of yourself, part 2: Best but hardest lesson I learned while not working? That there are very, very tough days. I remember one day I was driving home from grocery shopping and had to pull over because I was just crying. There was nothing particularly different about that day than any other, but something simply set me off. I have always been a denier of my emotions, thinking it was smarter to suck it up than to let into them. A friend said to me that I needed to stop that, and when I woke up to how powerful a change simply letting myself be sad or angry and let out the tears was, I realized how much better it felt to actually get it out. It was sort of a wake up call to how important it was to take care of the emotional aspect of everything, too. Allowing those bad days was just as important as appreciating the good ones -- and maybe it made those good ones better. In other words, there are going to be things that knock you down and taking care of yourself means letting yourself be upset or frustrated, especially because that'll be enough to help you pick yourself back up and try again. 
      • Treat yourself: Celebrate small victories just like they're big ones. Don't hole yourself up entirely. One of the best things I did was have mid-week lunch dates with a friend. No, we didn't spend any cash. She'd come over in the middle of the day, I'd cook us lunch, and we'd veg for a couple hours. It was indulgent without being indulgent, and it was an opportunity for both of us to relax and share our highs and lows. We'd cheer each other one in what we were pursuing and we'd commiserate about those less-than-fantastic setbacks. On a particularly bad day, we'd buy a carton of ice cream, sprinkles, and indulge on it while watching movies. The effect those sorts of things can have on your mood and on your outlook are big. Even if it comes from a place of feeling like you've hit bottom, treating yourself as someone worth being treated helps pull you out. 
      • Be vulnerable: Passion, heart, feelings, and allowing yourself to indulge in yourself put you in a vulnerable position. It's terrifying. But it's also incredibly powerful to embrace that vulnerability and acknowledge it's part of getting through things. Yeah, it'll cause you to cry some days but that's all a part of the game. It'll make the payoff in the end feel that much sweeter. But if you take the first points of this post -- the practical tips -- and marry them with the second points of this post -- the less practical -- you'll find the vulnerability is motivating, not debilitating.

      I can think of a billion other lessons I learned. As much as it sucked, not working gave me so much time to learn about myself and to think about what I want out of my life in a way I never was able to before.

      Do you have any tips -- practical or otherwise -- for those librarians who aren't working? How do you suggest staying in the game? In staying ahead? In taking care of yourself?


        1. I think that lists are a big part of Life - and your strategies for making the mundane and the dream ones realistic goals is great. It can be hard to remember to take care of yourself, whether working or not, and to take care of the skills you have! Thanks.

          1. I'm a stresser and an analyzer, so it's hard to sometimes step back and just remember that in the bigger picture those things matter less (the worry/stress) than taking advantage of the time in a mentally/emotionally beneficial way.

        2. Not librarian specific, but... one thing to consider when trying to get into a field or into a new position is to look for volunteer opportunities that fit with your current schedule (if you need to keep working in the job you're in before dream job materializes) and that will lend you specific credibility, contacts, and boost your self-esteem (especially if you're in a non-work phase).

          1. Absolutely. Volunteering is a great option. And not to contradict that -- because it is a great option and definitely a way to get a foot in the door -- it's important to know if volunteering isn't your thing, that's okay, too. I think sometimes the notion of volunteering can be a pressure for people who...just aren't into it for whatever reason.

        3. This is a great post, Kelly. Really great.

        4. Terrific post! Just what I needed!
          I've had to start playing two mental games to help me through. One is to just make myself stop when I start worrying about the money. As long as we are doing the best we can to make it go as far as we can, there's no reason to think any more about it beyond that.
          The second is to ask myself what I would want to do today if I *was* working. Job hunting and being unemployed can just suck the life out of you so quickly somehow. So I pretend I have a job and I get so much more done *and* enjoy it more as well.

          1. YES! Making yourself stop worrying about money is huge. All you CAN do is do the best you can. If you have to make changes and sacrifices, you just do it. If it means you can't put as much -- or anything -- into savings, you don't. If it means you go into savings to pay off a credit card or to cover a loan payment, so be it. You can make up for it down the road.

            I think your second point is huge, too. That's a big part of the mental game and a big part of getting through, period.