If You Can’t See My Mirrors, I Can’t See You

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Copyright All rights reserved by KevinCole509On my way to work this morning, I found myself behind a truck as I tried to ease my way onto the LIE. In a large sign on the back of the truck were the words “If you can’t see my mirrors, I can’t see you”. I’ve probably seen this sign thousand of times, but this morning, it struck my a little differently. As those who are familiar with how my mind works, I often process the world through metaphors (or, as one friend likes to call them, “Christaphors”). Suddenly, this matter of fact phrase of caution took on a different meaning as I started to think about how it applied to work…and my latest blog post was born.

Of course, if you could see the inner workings of my blog, you’d notice quite a few unfinished posts just sitting there waiting to be returned to. It was entirely possible that the same fate would have fallen upon this post as well…that is until later in the day I saw (and shared) this article from Fast Company on Mastering the Art of Self-Promotion and the timing was just too perfect. For those who have read my blog or interacted with me on a semi-regular basis, you know one of the areas I have recognized I need to work on is the idea of being my own “PR person”. I am a great supporter of others, and I find any opportunity I can to share the work and accomplishments of the people in my circles. Unfortunately, I do quite the opposite with my own achievements.

Watching others who seemingly have no hesitation “tooting their own horn” has always made me uncomfortable. I’d like to pretend that’s because of some sense of noble humility, but my level of self-awareness pushes me to admit it’s more because I have such a difficult time doing it myself. I could write a novel when asked to author a letter of recommendation, but I labor to put together a short paragraph to document my own work. It hasn’t been until recently that I have been able to recognize that self-advocacy is as important a professional skill as budgeting, resource management, or supervision.

“If you can’t see my mirrors, I can’t see you”. If we aren’t making ourselves known to others, how do we expect them to see us? Too often we can get caught playing the martyr…pining over how we are never noticed and our work isn’t appreciated. But what have we done to make our work known? How are we sharing our accomplishments and touting our achievements? When your office is holding a program or event, make sure you’re the one doing the inviting. When you have the stage, own it – use it to your full advantage. When someone in your office does something noteworthy – share it! You can still make sure people get the credit they deserve while also reminding people of your connection to the individual or the work that has been done.

We cannot always take for granted that our good work will be enough to get us noticed. We need to be comfortable with saying “this is what I’ve done, I want you to know about it, and I’m proud of it”. We cannot assume that at some point we’ll be spotted in the rearview mirror. Locate the mirror, see yourself in it, and smile and wave. Because, remember, objects in the mirror may appear closer than they are…

Introversion is Not an Excuse

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Photo courtesy of Güley Erkin and Win-More & Prosper

Anyone who knows even a little about me knows that I am a proud Introvert. It is a personality trait I refer to often, and wear it as a badge of honor. People who follow me on social media will also often see me post articles referencing topics such as the Myths of Introversion or Harnessing the Power of Introverts. The reality is, though, that while there are oodles of resources about understanding introverts, there are folks who either don’t read them…or just don’t care. The are people who do believe that silence means disengagement or that a need to quietly recharge is a sign of being antisocial. The other reality is that we all either do or will work with people who hold these beliefs, and in work environments, especially those that are highly politically charged, we introverts have to learn to adapt. How do we do that?

Be Strategic About Your “Recharge” Time: Some of us may work in an environment that doesn’t provide much luxury for the needed moments to hide away and regain your energy. We might need to recharge after work is over (a long commute perhaps). Or engage in an activity at work that allows you both to be social and alone (like running with people at lunch). Another strategy is be extra social during peak times where people tend to congregate and use the off-times (such as large meetings we might not be a part of) to take a deep breath. Of course, when all else fails…there’s always the bathroom..

Be Prepared: For some of us, it might be difficult when we are put on the spot. Our need to be thoughtful about the answers we give might, at times, be perceived as not knowing the answer. Whenever possible, try to gain as much information you can in advance of meetings you’re attending. Ask for agendas, read the agendas, and prepare talking points for any items that might even tangentially relate to the work you’re doing. For agenda items that aren’t yours, do some homework. If you have honest questions or a desire for more depth, write it down and bring those questions with you. If you don’t get an opportunity to ask questions or offer input, follow up with the individual after the meeting (on the phone or in person, not just in e-mail).

Play to Your Strengths: If you’re a part of a committee or some type of task-group, volunteer for SOMETHING – but not just anything. Volunteer for tasks that fit the best with your strengths. You don’t necessarily need to be the point person or in charge of the task. If your strengths can add value to the work that needs to be done, your chances of success are higher. Plus, the comfort level of doing something that’s in your “wheelhouse” will help in your engagement level.

Be Your Own PR Team: This is where I struggle the most. In fact, I have a frequent rider card for this struggle bus. I feel very uncomfortable bringing attention to myself. I would much rather highlight the achievements or others, and sometimes that also means I will defer the credit as well. That’s not a “humblebrag” – I realize this is a detriment. As a manager, bringing attention to the work I’m doing can only help the work of our office as a whole. Plus, the reality is that, especially in politically charged environments, someone is going to get credit for work that is accomplished – and if you don’t take it, someone else will. Some of us are fortunate to work for or with people who are generous with sharing the work of others. I often speak of a former supervisor and mentor who lived for bragging about his employees like he was taking pictures of his kids out of his wallet. But, he was also in a position where he no longer needed to take credit. He had (and still has) tremendous political capital, and his work ethic was rarely questioned (and those who did soon learned better). Not all of us are that fortunate to have such allies on our team. We, and we alone, need to toot our own  horns…so learn to pucker up!

Take a Walk: Simple advice, yes, but advice that can help in a number of ways. If there’s a need to meet with someone, try to offer to go to them versus having them come to you. First, especially if the person is across campus, you might be able to fit in some of that quiet recharge time during the stroll. Second, popping your head into other offices to say hello along the way is an easy way to keep the connections with colleagues, especially if your paths don’t cross very often. Added bonus, if you’re wearing a pedometer you can add to your daily steps!

Whether it’s fair or not, the reality is that the quality of your work will not always be judged on merit alone. It’s not always about WHAT you do, but WHO SEES YOU DO IT. It’s no secret that success requires us all to get out of our comfort zones. The same holds true for our personality types. Go eat lunch in the cafeteria once in a while. Say yes to the fundraiser or happy hour after work. Let your voice be heard in meetings (when you have something valuable to offer). We can still be authentic in our introversion, while also pushing outside of our comfort zone. Introversion is a strength, don’t let others turn it into our weakness.

Daddy, why do bad things happen?

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Me holding daughterI was never much of a crier. That is, until I became a parent. Now I cry at even the most mundane of occurrences. The common thread, usually, is that it has something to do with children. 50 months ago, the lens through which I view the world changed forever. Most of what I observe and experience is taken in as a parent. When I see children in pain or suffering, I react internally as if it was one of my own. I then think of my own child – and how I want to protect her, to shield her, to somehow put some kind of bubble over her to block out the world.

My daughter is not old enough to know what’s going on in the world today, and I’m thankful for that. I’m not quite ready to somehow process it all for her, as I can’t always process it for myself. I do play through the scenarios in my head – I have practiced many of the big “talks” that I may or may not have to have as she becomes older and more aware. Right now, those conversations are limited things like the wonders of nature. I tend to approach my answers matter of factly. I made a conscious decision to give the answers as I know them, versus creating some magical explanation. Granted, this sometimes backfires and causes even more confusion (I actually used the word salient the other day…what 4-year old knows the word salient?)

So, recent events has made me wonder how I will respond should I eventually get the question “Why do bad things happen?” or some variation. I’ve always been a deeply spiritual person, and while how my spirituality manifests has changed as I have gotten older, I still firmly believe in a power and energy that is greater than and connects all of us, past present and future. I don’t believe in destiny…I don’t believe that certain things are “meant to be” or in the concept of God’s will. I do believe that the more in tune we are to our spiritual side, the greater clarity we might receive, but I believe we are ultimately responsible, to some extent, for our own path. I believe that the “price” we pay for free will is that chance that someone else will exercise it in a way that impacts our own. I believe that without tragedy, we don’t experience triumph. Without adversity, we don’t experience accomplishment. Without sorrow and tears, we don’t experience joy and laughter. Some of our greatest stories of heroism and selflessness come out of our darkest hours. Yes, bad things happen, but so do fantastic wonderful things.

I’m not sure how I’d pull all that together into an answer. I guess I hope I will have a while longer before I need to figure that out. I want to believe my daughter can hang on to her innocence and idealism for as long as possible. And maybe I’ll allow a little more magic into my explanations for questions like why are there stars in the sky. I’ll let her revel a while longer in the mystical before the happenings of the world around her make that impossible. And maybe, if I look through her lenses instead of my own now and then, I can get some magic too.

When Life Gives you Cockroaches…

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By 邰秉宥 from Changhua, Taiwan (Cockroach) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsI’m currently in the midst of one of the more challenging situations I’ve had to work through in recent memory. But this blog post is not about that – it’s about how I am responding; how I CHOOSE to respond. Choose is an important word here, and it’s one that was reinforced by two folks while I first started to face this situation. I had the good fortune of chatting up Julie Payne-Kirchmeir at NASPA, who shared with me some of her progress on living her #oneword2013, which was, of course “CHOOSE”. My second interaction was one with Joe Ginese, who offered me the inspiration for the blog title (a little teaser, but I do promise to explain the cockroach). Before I get to that lesson, here are a few lessons I’ve learned along the way…

Own your stuff – when impacted by forces outside of your control , it can be an opportunity to take stock of what still IS in your control. Your actions, your responses, your projects, your responsibilities – there’s always something that is still within your own grasp. Hold onto those strongly and resolutely. It’s also an important moment to let go of the forces that are outside of your control. You don’t own the actions of others or the choices they have made. Take the time to do an inventory of what’s yours, and then take the time to care for them.

Forfeit the blame game – as the computer said to Matthew Broderick towards the end of “War Games”, the only winning move is not to play. Again, when impacted by those pesky forces outside of our control, the easiest reaction is to start blaming – blame others, blame systems, even blame a higher power. That’s all wasted energy that can be put towards more productive ends. Out of my top 5 strengths, the two I normally play to the most often are futuristic and ideation. However, this time I’m focusing on two of my other strengths – adaptability and positivity. In fact, recent events have allowed me to rediscover why those are also in my top five. Letting go of the blame and anger has made it a little easier to adapt and be positive. Understanding that there are others relying on me to be both has made it even more important that this be where I place my energy.

When served humble pie, grab a fork – an ounce of humility can go a long way. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m much better at helping than at being helped. This time around, I’ve point blank asked for it, and I have been both reinforced and pleasantly surprised by the help I have received. The people who have always been in my corner have stepped up, and I’ve discovered other supporters where I didn’t know I had them. I don’t have all the answers and I can’t always do things alone.

Perception is SOMEONE’s reality – in counseling we’re taught to recognize that a person’s perception helps to shape their reality. It may be misguided, it may not be fair, and, logically, it may not even be right. But the fact is that a perception is quite real for an individual, and the sooner we accept it instead of trying to fight it, the sooner we can start working towards reshaping it. Discover why a perception exists and how it might have developed. Invite, listen to, and process feedback instead of putting your hands on your ears and crying “I’m not listening”. Perceptions can change, but to create that change, it is important to approach it deliberatively, recognizing that a perception will not change overnight.

Grace, gratitude, and growth – “This too shall pass” and it’s many variations have been uttered by friends quite a bit. While it is difficult to see that whenever we’re in a moment of stress, I do believe it is the truth. Time will pass and the memories will fade, but what will be your legacy is how you responded. Demonstrating grace can serve as the foundation of that legacy. The temptation might be to burn bridges but keeping them intact will allow you to easily pass back over once the dust settles on the other side. It’s also important to find the instances where you can be grateful – for the people who have offered you support, for the skills and strengths you’ve developed that you are leaning on in the moment, and even for the new opportunities that might present themselves in the current situation. Ultimately, anything we make it through results in growth – we do emerge older and wiser. No matter how wacky a situation might seem, the fact is you will never face that situation for the first time again. Take mental notes, journal, reflect, do whatever it takes to recognize the learning that’s happening. In the end, you will emerge stronger and more adept.

So, now for the cockroach. My friend, Joe Ginese, shared a variation of this story with me, and I will close with it below. It is once again a great reminder that we choose our responses.

Cockroach Theory: Response vs Reaction
(original source unknown)

At a restaurant, a cockroach suddenly flew from somewhere and sat on a lady. She started screaming out of fear. With a panic stricken face and trembling voice, she started jumping, with both her hands desperately trying to get rid of the cockroach.
Her reaction was contagious, as everyone in her group also got panicky.

The lady finally managed to push the cockroach away but …it landed on another lady in the group.Now, it was the turn of the other lady in the group to continue the drama.

The waiter rushed forward to their rescue.In the relay of throwing, the cockroach next fell upon the waiter.
The waiter stood firm, composed himself and observed the behavior of the cockroach on his shirt.When he was confident enough, he grabbed it with his fingers and threw it out of the restaurant.

Sipping my coffee and watching the amusement, the antenna of my mind picked up a few thoughts and started wondering,

Was the cockroach responsible for their histrionic behavior? If so, then why was the waiter not disturbed? He handled it near to perfection, without any chaos. It is not the cockroach, but the inability of the ladies to handle the disturbance caused by the cockroach that disturbed the ladies.

I  realized that, it is not the shouting of my father or my boss or my wife that disturbs me, but its my inability to handle the disturbances caused by their shouting that disturbs me.Its not the traffic jams on the road that disturbs me, but my inability to handle the disturbance caused by the  traffic jam that disturbs me.

More than the problem, its my reaction to the problem that creates chaos in my life.

Let’s Be Stewards of “Balance”

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small_4468087788My friend, Becca Obergefell, recently wrote a post related to “work/life” balance that was spot on. Fortunately, for me, I’m fairly good about taking my time, leaving enough in the bank should catastrophe hit, but not leaving any on the table that I would lose (disconnecting from work when I’m out of the office, however, is a different story – one for a future blog post). While some of us need to be pushed to be more mindful of achieving balance (or integration) I think there are others, especially some newer professionals, who feel like they want to, but can’t. While some of that may be self-imposed, there are colleagues out there who are stuck – working for supervisors who aren’t always the best stewards when it comes to helping their staff achieve the balance they might desire.

A few years ago, I interviewed for a position and was participating in the on-campus portion. I was sitting with the potential supervisor, and was asked if I had any questions for her. Prior to that, she set a pretty obvious tone with expectations of being “present” on campus, which was fine, but I wanted to explore that a bit more. So, I asked her how she created balance for herself and set an example for her staff. It was definitely a curve ball, a question she didn’t expect at all, and she stumbled quite a bit as she tried to frame her answers in a way that didn’t make it seem like most of her life was spent at or with work. While I don’t begrudge the decisions she makes for herself, I knew at that moment that this was not the environment I would want to work in as it became apparent that my own formula for work/life integration would likely be a square peg in this round hole.

So, this post is directed at my colleagues who are supervisors. We are in a profession that espouses believes in being “holistic” and having an “ethic of care”. We talk a good game when it comes to the students with whom we work, but does the same hold true for our employees? We train and develop our staff members when it comes to skill sets and aptitudes, why should it be any different for balance and well-being? Here are a few challenges I’m making to my fellow administrators.

Actively Manage Vacation Schedules: Now you’re saying “of course I manage vacation schedules”. I’m not talking about managing to make sure there aren’t holes in coverage. What I AM talking about is making sure your employees are TAKING their vacations. When you receive vacation requests, are you checking to see if they have a few random days sprinkled throughout the semester instead of just checking it against what events or programs they absolutely can’t be gone for?

Stop the Lunchtime Meetings: Working lunches are stealing. Yes, that’s what I said, stealing. If you’re staff members have a lunch period as a part of the work day, scheduling a meeting in the middle of the day and telling staff “bring your lunch” makes us no different than the playground bully grabbing lunch money. Many of our staff members, especially if they are new, may not feel comfortable saying no. And, actually, if you work in the state of NY like I do, requiring a staff member to work through a lunch is a violation of labor law.

Avoid Monday Morning and Friday Afternoon Meetings: I can’t repeat the words uttered under my breath after working all week, followed by a Saturday event, then to discover I have to be work by 9 on Monday for a meeting. Really? I can’t even come it at 10 after I spent my entire Saturday night watching people Dougie? And the Friday afternoon meeting…well now you’re asking for people to ignore “Boss’ Day”. Yes, situation may require the occasional meeting at those times, but if your staff members are expected to work a schedule outside the 9-5 bounds, protect their sanity by at least giving them some breathing room.

Stop Letting Others Watch Your Clock: I can remember numerous times when, walking in at 10 AM after having attended a 3 hour SGA meeting the night before that was 1 hour meeting and a 2 hour interpretation of Robert’s Rules, and running into a colleague from another office who said “Oh nice to finally see you”. While I have enough witty comebacks in my arsenal, it can be disheartening for a staff member to feel that others think they don’t work as hard or just mosey on in whenever the mood strikes, because the case is quite opposite. It’s important that we advocate outside our areas to let it be known that our staff members are often burning “the midnight oil”. It is especially critical when the mere snickers turn into actual pressure to have your staff “conform” to a more traditional morning schedule. If we routinely want our staff to be present at 9 PM meetings and yet be bright and chipper and in the door just 12 hours later, then our staff members will be burning out just as quickly as that midnight oil.

Be the Guardian of Equity: If supervising multiple professionals, you might find yourself in a situation where one is much more willing, and seemingly eager, to volunteer for the above and beyond assignments. It is probably a very genuine interest, and it saves us the time and hassle of having to “assign” something…but that doesn’t always make it fair. I see this happen especially when some staff have partners and/or children and others do not. The soccer practices and ballet recitals start to take precedence over the “well I didn’t have anything going on anyway, so I’ll take that event, no worries”. If people are in equal positions, then they must also equally share the load. It might not be the most harmonious way, but being a supervisor means having to deal with the flat notes as well.

Stop Micromanaging by Proxy: I realize that some managers are a bit more hands on than I am. I sometimes joke that I’m more of a “macro-manager”. Where it gets a little out of hand is when our micromanaging spreads through our staff members as well and we expect them to be intimately aware of every nook and cranny of our students’ extracurricular lives. Yes, major events and special programs require staff presence (and sometimes they’re actually quite fun to be a part of). But, honestly, do we really need them to be present for every meeting? Any time two or more students gather on the quad, do we really need someone from our office to be there in case there might be a “learning moment”? Academic advisors don’t sit in on every class with the students they advise, why must our staff members sit through every weekly meeting? We’re trying to teach our students to be autonomous, yet we never let them be untethered. Sure, there might be a moment where Robert’s Rules anarchy breaks out…but there’s a book for that.

No, “Because That’s What you Did When You Were a New Professional” is Not a Good Enough Reason: If a student uttered that same phrase, we’d have an entire monologue ready on how we need to “break cycles”, yet we somehow think it’s ok to approach our supervision of staff in that way. Sure, we may have to pay our dues, but that doesn’t guarantee that it was always the best way to learn or to do our jobs. Yes, we might have accepted that having “a life” just wasn’t possible in our first few years in the profession, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work to be more intentional about helping the next phase of new professionals have better balance than we did. We have a responsibility to them; yes they are adults capable of advocating for themselves, but there’s power in our expectations and reactions. The first time we make a staff member feel guilty about requesting a day off for no reason or when we don’t notice that they worked every night of Homecoming week and forget to say “hey make sure you take some comp time next week” will set the tone for the rest of their employment. Don’t let our students be the only ones we act “developmentally” towards – our staff members deserve the same consideration.

Falling out of love with your first job

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Broken HeartIf you have read my blog or have ever had a sustained conversation with me, you know that I tend to process the world through analogies and metaphors. I have often thought that the student affairs job search process resembles dating in many ways, this being Valentine’s Day and all, I thought it was the perfect time to put thought thoughts to paper blog. There is the “long pursuit” (checking one college’s HR website almost daily for updates), the “finding love when you were least looking for it” (you aren’t looking for a job but suddenly the perfect opportunity just lands in your lap) the “after various failed attempts, you’re finally both in the right frame of mind to date” (the school you applied to but didn’t get, who then calls you 6 months later to see if you’re still interested, only to discover you just took a new job, now has an opening) and the “Ryan Gosling like infatuation” (gosh, how much would I love to work for Dean Elmore).

Doing a fresh job search can kind of be like entering the dating world after a while of being single. You glance flirtingly across the room (check out the job listing), you might buy them a drink (send in the application) and if there’s interest, you start to get to know each other a little more (the phone interview). You might also get set up by friends (i found this job I think you’d be perfect for). At that point, one of you might not find interest in the other. It could be mutual, or one side might not find interest and the other might move on, or dwell on it and wonder “but it went so well, how could they not be interested” at which point you ask friends to find out more information (call a colleague at the institution) or you might be a little more direct (the email to the search chair asking why you weren’t selected).

If you hit it off, things might progress to the next level (on campus interview, etc). Eventually, you make the decision whether or not to commit. You might not necessarily see it as long term, but both sides are on the same page and decide to see how things progress. At some point, if you don’t see the relationship progressing anymore, you amicably decide to go your separate ways. Sometimes, you decide you’re in it for the long haul and you’re ready to pick out your china (guess I should buy a house). The honeymoon period where everything is new and exciting eventually wears off. But if the relationship is right, you grow together, take the good with the bad, and find ways to renew and make things exciting. Sometimes, however, after the honeymoon period, you realize the other side wasn’t who you thought they were, or you now realize things about yourself that make you incompatible. You realize it’s time to break up, and the other side may not agree. That’s what happened with my first job in Student Affairs.

The year was Aught One and I was a second year graduate student at The University of Maryland. That year, I participated in placement (which, in many ways is a lot like our version of speed dating). I had no less than 20 interviews. This isn’t bragging, but rather an outcome of the convergence of a number of variables. First, it was a year where there were more jobs than candidates (especially in residence life). Second, I was willing to go anywhere and do almost anything. I was fortunate to have had a number of experiences during graduate school which I was able to translate, at least on paper, to being qualified for jobs in a variety of functional areas. Following placement, natural selection took its course, and I had a handful of phone interviews, which were then followed by four on campus interviews.

Out of my four on-campus interviews, two translated into immediate offers. I fell head over heels for a position on the west coast. I had never lived outside of the EST and I immediately clicked with the person who would have been my supervisor. Then I received the starting salary, and my hopes were dashed. You see, since I left home, I had never lived off of a campus either. I had no experience paying rent or utilities. I panicked and doubted my own abilities to figure out how to live independently. I reluctantly turned that job down.

Now, job number two was appealing. The CSAO was (and is) a dynamic individual who had a great vision for doing some transformative work on campus. When he interviewed me (over coffee, off campus) he probably could have convinced me to work on an oil rig in the Article Ocean. The bonus – it was a live-in position. While I had some doubts about whether this really was “the one” I was also worried that, if I turned this one down, nothing else would come my way and I’d end up back in NJ living with my mom (not a bad deal, but not part of my career plan). So, I took it.

It probably didn’t help that no sooner had I signed and mailed back my contract, the phone started to ring. Schools that had originally passed on me were now working off the “B” list (people who’ve planned a wedding will understand that one). All of a suddenly I was getting on campus interview offers in Texas, Tennessee, Florida, Washington, and even Alaska. But, I was (and still am) ethical and as appealing as a free trip to Anchorage was, I had to turn them all down. But now I was already starting my first REAL job with a pang of regret, wondering what might have been.

The first few weeks were great, I was one of four new staff members (the fifth, our direct supervisor, would join us a bit later). We were having a blast planning for a new year, exploring our immediate surroundings (which took about 15 minutes) and dreaming about the Utopian campus experience we were going to create. And then the students moved in.

We quickly came to the realization that the vision that our chief had was not necessarily shared by the rest of the campus. There was a culture that was fiercely defended by faculty and staff, many who had been there the majority of their lives. It was also a culture that the students, their parents, and a very strong and active alumni base (which often overlapped) also fought hard to maintain. Soon we went from creating and innovating to barely treading water. Over 90% of the students lived on campus and the rest lived within 10 miles. Duty, which was technically rotated between the four of us, became a team effort out of necessity. By the beginning of November, we’re were all seriously discussing leaving.

Now, I will own my own mistakes in this process. First, I misjudged quite a bit, having always lived right outside or in a major metropolitan area, I didn’t realize how living a removed rural town would isolate me. Also, I have always been one who needed clear boundaries, and not only living on a campus where students came to expect almost constant access, but were reinforced in that by the culture, chipped away at my sanity. Add to that the fact that the college was in a two restaurant town (one of which was a McDonalds) made it nearly impossible to quickly venture off campus and not run into a gaggle of students. Finally, there was the fact that it was a more conservative Catholic institution, which was actually a plus going in for me. At that time in my life, I was a practicing Catholic who had spent all but the last two years of schooling in a Catholic school. However, I severely misjudged the difference between attending a Catholic institution and working for one. What I could get away with challenging (either overtly or covertly) as a student just was nearly impossible here, especially with a seminary next door.

I was actually determined to stay through the entire academic year, but serendipity intervened and I ended up sitting next to someone at a regional conference who had interviewed me at placement a few months back. He had now moved on to another institution, one that just do happened to be 20 minutes from where I grew up and where many of my friends and even my sister attended. In what seemed like a blur, I interviewed, was offered a position, and accepted in the span of a week and a half. Simultaneously, my three colleagues also had made the decision to leave at the end of the semester. I wasn’t entirely thrilled with leaving. I felt like, one, I was being a quitter and, two, I knew having spent just one semester would stick out on my resume (and, in fact, I’ve never had an interview since where someone hasn’t asked about it). But I also felt this wasn’t the position I had signed on for, and was honest about that with the CSAO when I had my exit interview.

Since that point I have been fortunate to have a job that I only left because of an opportunity to move into my current position. I’m now finishing up my 7th year at Suffolk. I’ve gotten married, had a child, and bought a house. It hasn’t always been perfect on either side. I’ve had my frustrations and cause my bosses some consternation, but some of it had come from the fact that I am here for the long haul. I learned many lessons about myself in those 8 months spent at my first job and I am a better professional and person for having worked there.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, when I left to work in NJ I did, in fact, move back in with my mom.

What’s Your Kryptonite?

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Picture of kryptonite

Photo credit: http://expatspost.com/author/garry-crystal/

Early on in a counseling program, you’re taught about the concept of “counter-transference”. In my own words, it happens when a client exhibits an emotion or behavior that elicits a response from you because it triggers your own realizations that you’re dealing with something similar. You might react negatively because of your own guilt or anger towards yourself. You might react over-sympathetically, working above and beyond to help the individual because you feel like you can give this person the help you didn’t get or still need. No one is immune; we all have our buttons that, when hit just right, can trigger a response we didn’t expect, don’t want, or may not be able to control.

I chose the metaphor of “kryptonite” intentionally. Our buttons aren’t weaknesses in themselves. Rather, they are triggers that can lead to a vulnerability or weakening in our usual self-controls. We’re implored to “know our stuff” so that we can prepare for how we will deal with these situations. However, no matter how prepared we might be, the best of us can still be caught off guard. A student’s story of a struggle can evoke tears. Seeing someone exhibit behaviors we dislike in ourselves might lead us to be short or over-critical of them. Our kryptonite moments can come and go before we even realize it, leaving us to lament and wish that we had handled the situation better.

I’ve known for quite a while that my kryptonite is confidence. I have always struggled with my own level of self-confidence, and sometimes seeing others triggers my counter-transference. While age and experience have muted my more destructive responses, I still have moments I’m not necessarily proud of. Where I have faced the most difficulty is in my own reticence to be confident when necessary. My supervisor, who is extremely intuitive, called me out on this early. During our first year-end review, one of the goals he gave me for the following year was that I needed “sell myself” more. I was too comfortable allowing others to take full credit and to slip into the background. Most people just think it’s humility, but he knew it was more about discomfort. I was usually able to pass this off, since generally it only impacted me. But I was now a supervisor, and my actions or inactions had an impact on my entire area. Realizing I had to be an advocate for my entire area has helped a bit.

My lack of confidence, and my reacting to those who exhibit it is probably rooted in a number of things, far too in depth to recount here. But I can think of times where it has impacted my own professional practice. In my previous position, one of my primary responsibilities was the advisement of our fraternities and sororities. I can say now that I was ineffective in my work with the fraternities, keeping them at arms length on a regular basis. Part of it (generalization alert) is that in my mind males are more conditioned to be comfortable with bravado, that we’re usually taught early on to puff out our chests and exude confidence. I carried that assumption chip on my shoulder and tried to avoid it as much as I could. Almost all of our leaders in that community were women, and I did not make the attempts I should have to cultivate the male leadership to compensate. Unfortunately, this reflection came after the fact, but it is something I carry with me as an important lesson.

This kryptonite is something I still struggle with at time. In all likelihood, the vulnerability I carry with this will always be there in some form, it’s my response to it that I can control. I still have moments of weakness, moments I react negatively to someone else’s display of confidence and it’s a moment too late before I realize the issue isn’t with them but with me. Social media has also added another element to this, as it becomes that much easier exude both confidence and lack of it. I was recently telling someone about a webinar I was scheduled to do but that had to be rescheduled because of a lack of registrations. Her response to this was “you were doing a webinar?” She wouldn’t have known…no one would have. And I should have told people I was doing it. Kryptonite struck again. I haven’t found the solution to this one yet…as so many areas, this is a part of my Life in Progress..

So what’s your kryptonite? Do you know your “stuff”?

Student Affairs – Career for Some, Detour for Others?

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A new calendar year is upon us (not to be confused with the academic year, which is just one way we confused the people we try to explain our jobs to). Grad students coming to the end of their programs will begin the job search in earnest, while others ready to take the next step will start monitoring the Chronicle or HigherEdjobs more feverishly. Still others, with New Year’s resolutions (or OneWords) fresh in their heads, might start considering a career change or shift. For some, the soul searching might result in a renewed interest in the profession or a desire to shift into a different functional area, while for others, there might be the “how did I get here and how do I get out of here” moments.
Almost half of the members of my graduate school cohort are not in student affairs. In fact, a few of them did not even pursue jobs in higher education upon graduation. A few years out of graduate school, I started thinking about a career shift, entering a program in school counseling at the institution where I worked. Ultimately, I realized I wasn’t looking for a career change, but actually an escape from what seemed to me at the time as endless nights and weekends of work. Fortunately, with the help of a supportive supervisor and co-workers, I found better ways to balance my own time (which I actually used to work a 2nd job as a youth minister at a church, but that’s another post for another time) and I once again found the career satisfaction I had been lacking.

Student affairs will be where I forge the rest of my career path. However, I’ve recently had conversations with folks who don’t see their futures in the same field. I’ve started reflecting on how we all end up on the “SAPath” in the first place. I’d venture to guess almost none of us came to college thinking “Hey, I’m going to be the Director of Campus Activities one day”. This is a career many of us find as we’re in the process of finding ourselves. How often does this scenario happen:

A third or fourth-year-student who started out in sociology, or psychology, or even mechanical engineering has started to realize “I don’t really like any of the careers that come out of this major”. Yet, the student is so far in, with all of the general education classes finished (except for maybe that math course you’ve been avoiding because it was only offered at 8:30 AM – or maybe that was just me) the student has now embarked on the classes that are major specific. The student is starting to say “Oh crap, I’m graduating soon…what the heck am I going to do”. The student also happens to be very involved…could be a SGA Vice President or a RA. The student gets even more involved because, at this point, leadership is much more fulfilling than coursework. Then, the magic moment happens – it could be that the student expresses the career doubt out loud or he or she says “Hey, how do I do what you do”. Then, like someone has activated the “SASignal” we go into action. All of a sudden we’re forwarding them grad school applications and connecting them to our colleagues. We get so excited about the opportunity to mentor a new professional into the field, we might forget to ask the probing questions like “Well, what is it about student affairs that you think you might like” and help them to explore all of the options that might also fit that criteria. When the student announces which graduate school he or she will be attending and what assistantship he or she is taking, we shed a tear and proudly send a new “SAProgeny” out into the world.

A few years pass – the now grad students learn there’s actually theory and years of practice behind what we do. They excitedly move on to their first position and get ready to cut their teeth. Then, another magic moment happens – the moment they realize that working in higher education is much different than being a student leader in higher education. It might happen when the new professional is required to support a policy he or she would have organized sit-ins against as a student. Or it could be the moment that the students who made excuses to sit their office just to hang out with them are now writing angry facebook statuses about them because they had to hold the students accountable. Or it could just be the last night of homecoming week, when, as a student, he or she would have been out celebrating with friends, but instead he or she is left cleaning up the confetti with the grounds crew. And then a familiar feeling creeps in again – the feeling they had their third or fourth year when they realized their major wasn’t for them, only this time they have student loan payments, car payments, and cat litter to buy.

Of course, I’m being a tad cheeky about this. I know a great many professionals who are in this for the long haul like me and are more than happy to be here. But I think we can also name folks we know that are probably on a career detour right now – whether they have realized it themselves or not. Is this something we need to talk more about as a profession, or is it just par for the course in any profession? Can we be better about helping students explore other professions that might also meet their goals? I’d love to hear thoughts from other folks about this…even thoughts that I’m way off base on this one.

My #oneword2013 – Finish

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Ideation is one of my top five strengths, and I definitely do excel at having ideas. My imagination is more cluttered than my desk, full of random thoughts, inventions, solutions for the problems that ail the world. I often think that if a mind-reader ever tried to enter my subconscious, they would run away screaming from sensory overload. The thing is, very few of those ideas ever leave my brain. Of those that do, even fewer make it out of the brainstorming phase.

I suffer a similar malady when it comes to projects. If you did a scavenger hunt in my house, you’d likely find oodles of goodies from Home Depot that all started with the best of intentions. My curse is twofold – I get easily distracted and/or discouraged. Rarely does the reality match what I pictured inside my head. It can either be because what I pictured was just a little too unrealistic, or it turns out I didn’t have the tools or abilities to complete what I started out. It’s time to change that.

Ironically, this is the point where my post takes a detour. You see, my friend, Sue, just announced that her #oneword2013 was finish. At first, I thought of changing it, because after all, I should be “original”. But then I thought, there I go again…I’m going to let some artificial reason derail me from completing a thought. So, I’m going to “finish” what I started in this post…and really I can’t think of a more àpropos word, especially now. Plus, there’s some comfort in knowing someone else is committing to the same goal. Now, back to my regularly scheduled post.

Paramount in my list of things to finish is my dissertation. Some of you might have forgotten and not had realized that I am, in fact, “ABD”. I don’t talk about it much, more due to a self-imposed shame at not being done yet. That changes this year. I’ve got everything in place to complete it, including a support system – I just need to get by buns in gear and write. So, I’m putting it out to the world (all 20 or so of you reading this) that some time in 2014, I’ll have some extra letters at the end of my name.

There’s a few other items on my list – I’m running a half marathon in May in NJ. To even write those words would have seemed ridiculous to me a year ago. Yet here I am, having reached almost 9 miles in my longest run and preparing to run 10 in a few weeks. Even if I’m down to a “slog” (that’s the slow jog) I will finish that run. There are a few other ideas and/or projects piling on my list. I will tackle them, one at a time, and not move on to the next until I finish the previous.

Finally, I WILL finish War and Peace. Yes, it might seem a little silly, but what started out as a joke has become a mission. It is also a bit symbolic of the patterns I described above. So I have made my intentions known to the universe (and now my wife as well who is given full permission to gently remind me to finish putting the shelves up in the closet). So let it be written…

Looking forward to seeing what other folks have in store for 2013.

Making Time for the Laughter: My #OneWord2012 Reflection

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Me and the ToysLaughter has always been the most important tool in my life-navigating utility belt. Laughter began mostly as a defense mechanism. As a child, I was a pocket-protector away from being a character straight out of Revenge of the Nerds. Suffice it to say, I was an easy target for even the least creative teasing. My response was to beat them to the punch through self-deprecation that was much more creative than anyone else could come up with. Eventually, I would no longer be an easy target simply because, at least externally, people weren’t able to get the rise out of me they wanted.

As I matured, so did my sense of humor. Laughter became my coping mechanism, my way of processing stress or uncomfortable situations. Admittedly, my humor hasn’t always come at the most appropriate of times and occasionally something that sounds funny in my head is anything but when it hits the air. Ultimately, though, laughter has served me well – it keeps me from taking life or myself too seriously, grounds me, and provides me with perspective.

It was my sense of humor that led me to my #OneWord2012 – Shipoopi. For fans of showtunes (or Family Guy fans who remember the episode where Peter Griffin plays for the Patriots) Shipoopi is a nonsense word that makes up a musical number that opens up Act 2 in The Music Man. As person after person was picking profound and deep words to frame how each of them would tackle the year ahead, I decided to go the silly route and pick a word you can’t even say without snickering. Yet, I think my subconscious was being a bit more intentional than I had originally intended.

A man who some friends once compared to Peter Pan was hurtling into true adulthood at a hurtling pace. Already a parent, 2012 would also bring about, among other milestones, home ownership and the fact that I would now be closer to 40 than 30. Like Peter Pan in the movie Hook, Neverland was becoming out of sight in my rear view mirror and I needed to find my childish humor again. While “Shipoopi” might have been me not taking the idea of the OneWord seriously, it was actually the perfect selection to remind me rediscover my childish joy.

Of course, “Shipoopi” held a special place in my own memories. As a high school freshman (that’s what we called them back then) I had a very difficult time acclimating and adjusting. It wasn’t until I was the only freshman cast in a lead role in our school musical, The Music Man, that I finally found my niche and, with that, my voice. As I sang my solo and showed off my dancing prowess with a wicked jazz-square, I gained a confidence that had been severely lacking. It wasn’t until that moment that I enjoyed high school and it was the first time I was able to let go of the self-deprecation that had been my hallmark.

I believe I did a fairly decent job at reminding myself to laugh this past year. Fortunately, I had help – whether it was the ridiculousness that came out of an aging actor’s conversation or the overall silliness of getting lost in my daughter’s imaginary worlds, I realized I would never be at a loss for sources of laughter as long as I remembered to look for them. And if I reach a moment where laughter is a little harder to find, I need only remember a nonsense word that makes me chuckle. Try it. Say it with me just once. Ready? 1-2-3 ….. Shipoopi!