Tuesday, December 13, 2011

end of year introspection

The beautiful thing about the month of December is whether you're working, going to school, traveling or raising a family chances are you'll take a moment or two to sit back and reflect. As you do so, consider asking yourself the following questions:

What do I love about where I live?

If I could change one thing about my home, what would it be?

What three major things are taking up space in my home that I could actually live without?

What do I love about my current place of work and/or study?

Is the amount of time and energy I spend getting to and from where I work or study equal to what I'm taking home at the end of the day?

If I could "stop out" of work or school for three months what would I do with that time?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

re-imagining the american dream

Many of the students I've seen over the years come to me with one of two career goals in mind: medicine or law. Now, in some cases these students have spent a great deal of time researching industries, considering their options, aligning their interests and skill-sets with different fields, and have have chosen an end goal accordingly. But often, folks end up in these aspiration buckets by default. After all, everything around us says that aside from celebrities, doctors and lawyers are on the fastest track to attaining the promises of the "American Dream." The problem is we can't all be doctors and lawyers, nor should we be.

Photo by Chris from Skinned Knees in Short Pants
So my question is what is the "American Dream?" Does it exist? And if so, does its promises make sense for you? These are questions I've considered a lot over the last decade. As a New Yorker, there are many aspects of the "American Dream" that I'll never attain. For example, it's unlikely I'll ever own a home in New York City. And if I did, it certainly wouldn't be the home of my childhood (tall trees, green lawns, white fences). And for a long time, this haunted me. After all, how could I prove to my family, classmates and friends that I was a success, if I had "less" than the generation before me. However, in the last five years, as so many around me have struggled to keep their jobs and homes, I've realized that home ownership is a fickle warranty of achievement. And if it's a primary tenet of the American Dream, well that dream is fairly elusive.

The nomadic lifestyle that many families, writers, artists, and journeymen are embracing these days (see the WiseRoutes Project and EcoWomb for examples) is one way to re-imagine the American Dream. They use this country's awesome landscape to realize their passions and curiosities. And I, for one, am fascinated by their stories.

What about you? How do you re-imagine the American Dream?

Monday, November 21, 2011

is college worth it?

An interesting piece over at CNN Money. What do you think? Is college worth it? Read. Comment. Follow. Share.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

and today from ted talks....

And today from Ted Talks we have Ken Robinson discussing the importance of creativity in the classroom. For more visit, Ted: Ideas Worth Spreading.

Monday, November 14, 2011

let's chat

If you're new to the Simply Defined community - welcome. And if you're becoming a regular - thank you. Either way, I want to invite you to engage. We're a long ways from the time where you just viewed online information like you would a newspaper or a brochure. Technology now offers opportunities to interact with what, in the past, was static content. So, yes read and follow but also comment and share. And, if you're really wanting to jump in head first - take a look at my let's chat section. Powered by BlogFrog, this open forum is a place to either respond to an ongoing thread, or start one of your own. And it's a great place to find others interested in the topics that we're discussing at Simply Defined.

So, grab a cup of coffee and pull up a chair. It's time to chat.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

the informational interview

Following my conversation with Harry, I set out to begin conducting a series of informational interviews. But, I was flying blind. I knew what I should gain from the experience but failed to ask for specific guidelines. Years (and many many informational interviews) later, I can finally narrow the "must dos" to three bullet points.

Research :: Focus :: Expect

photo by Brady Withers
The worst thing you can do is walk into an informational interview with little to no idea about the person with whom you're speaking. Through Google, LinkedIn,  and similar resources, you can quickly learn a few details about your interviewee including:
  • If and where they studied
  • A brief career history
  • And perhaps professional associations with which they're involved. 
Now I don't advise that you walk in the door with a laundry list of everything you've learned (you want to be seen as well-informed not a potential stalker) but having some of this information in your back-pocket may help contextualize your conversation.

The goal of the informational interview is to learn about the interviewee: who she is, why she made the decisions she did, and how she got to where she is today. That being the case, she (your interviewee) should be the focus. Many make the mistake of walking into an informational interview talking about themselves. Not the point and a bad idea.

Now that said, you should expect to answer questions too. Because depending on the interviewee's time and inclination, she may turn the tables on you. Though you aren't expected to know and articulate long-term goals (if you could you likely wouldn't be spending your time conducting informational interviews), you should be prepared to articulate your short-term goals. Know your values and interests and expect that you may be called upon to answer a few directed questions.

Keep in mind that the overall aim of the informational interview is to learn and network. Being prepared, focused and ready to think on your feet will make an excellent first impression and will likely pay off in the long run.

Monday, November 7, 2011

first look at the informational interview

I was twenty-two years old and a professional wreck. I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Theater but was quickly realizing that a career in the performing arts wasn't in the cards; I had neither the stamina nor the confidence. I was working as a substitute teacher and a part-time advisor and was playing around with the idea of going to graduate school - but in what?

Fortunately my boss, let's call him Harry, paid attention. Harry pulled me into his office and asked me about my plans. I sat at his desk and cried. What I really needed was professional mentorship. Harry's advice, the first bit of many, was to set up informational interviews.

But what in the world was an informational interview and how did it relate to mentoring? That's what we're talking about this week at Simply Defined.

Don't forget to read, comment, follow and share!

Friday, November 4, 2011

paisley and stewart talk about mentoring

We're not the only ones discussing mentoring. Last night on The Daily Show, country music star, Brad Paisley said you have to find "those people that are sort of in your corner." Check it out.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Brad Paisley
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

mentors: simply defined

Earlier this week, I challenged the uncollege student (and others looking to "stop" or "drop" out of school) to think about how they will create an environment that fosters intellectual discourse and innovation. And one of my suggestions (though not explicit) was to identify and connect with mentors. So that brings up the question - what is a mentor?

Coffee in the morning
Photo by chichacha
A mentor is defined as "a wise and trusted counselor or teacher" or "an influential senior sponsor or supporter." And it would seem that the college environment is a natural place to find such a person. But even students actively engaged in pursuing a degree (undergraduate or otherwise) struggle to identify and connect with mentors. 

The first thing I would say is, if you have to ask someone to be your mentor - you're already heading in the wrong direction. The mentor/mentee relationship should be organic. It is through mutual trust and understanding that such a relationship develops and thrives. I think back to my own undergraduate career and my first academic mentor; a professional actor who taught theater courses as an adjunct professor at the University of Utah. He was (and is) a smart, creative, and compassionate man who embraced teaching with the same degree of passion that he embraced life. I never left his classroom uninspired. But in all the years I studied, I never once asked him to be my mentor. That said, he was almost always the first person I turned to for academic support and guidance.

I am shocked with how many college students approach the end of their college career with no one they can confidently turn to for advising and letters of recommendation. These are students who showed up, did their work, but never took an active role in their own learning.

Everyone needs a support group, a sounding board, someone (really someones) who has been down this road before, to help lead the way. Who is that for you? 

If you're in school: whose office hours can your visit? From whom have you taken a class, that you can study with again? Alternatively, if you're a young professional or trying to create an independent learning experience, who can you call today and invite to join you for a cup of coffee? Who's advice has been sound? Who's doing what you'd like to do a year, five years, ten years from now?

Over the next week, I will offer you up a set of tools and exercises to help you identify and connect with mentors. Read. Follow. Comment. Share.

and today from ted talks...

Many are calling for a radical change in higher education. Watch this brilliant piece from Liz Coleman. Expect goosebumps. Then, see TED: Ideas worth spreading for other great talks.

Monday, October 31, 2011

you, the uncollege student, who's in your corner?

If you haven't watched Steven Berlin Johnson's lecture on where good ideas come from, you should. He talks about the environment that is necessary to allow good ideas (aka innovation) to thrive. Listening to it for the first time, I immediately thought about how this idea impacts  the uncollege movement. If one argues that you can replicate, if not better, the actual college experience outside of the college classroom, then they must take into consideration the impact of community on intellectual discourse. If scientists actually come up with the "big ideas" around the team table rather behind the lab bench, then the "student" pursuing an unorthodox learning experience must ensure they find a way to get around that table.

So how do you do that? How do you foster an environment that allows for that level of intellectual discourse. Because though I have many students who would say otherwise, I have just as many who see their college experience as their one opportunity to ask the big questions, seek solutions, and find inspiration.

One answer is to find mentors (academics, writers, entrepreneurs, scientists) who will embrace your unschooling approach. And this may not be easy. Keep in mind you are challenging everything they stand for. These are people who have perhaps dedicated their lives to research and academe. But if you can prove you're not a hack...you might just get someone in your corner.

So, if you're someone who has either decided to "stop out" of school or you're embracing the uncollege movement, how are you creating an environment that fosters intellectual curiosity and innovation? And who is it that's in your corner?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

the last lecture

This is a must-see for everyone. So if you haven't...here it is: Randy Pausch Last Lecture: Achieving your Childhood Dreams

Friday, October 28, 2011

and today from ted talks...

In this video, best-selling author, Steven Berlin Johnson talks about where good ideas come from; something to think about when flirting with radical educational choices like world or un-schooling. The question you need to ask yourself is, "How do I create a community that allows for discourse, debate, and the sharing of ideas if I'm not in a traditional college classroom?" See TED: Ideas worth spreading for other great talks.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

your definition of success

In my last post, the cellist (or how to succeed in music by really trying) you got a glimpse of what it means to create your own definition for success. This, above all other exercises, is critical when creating your ideal life. It's especially critical for those whose ideal life is unorthodox and those who challenge educational and professional norms.

So if you haven't already done so, ask yourself: what's my finish line? How will I know that I'm a success? Will there be a certain dollar amount on my bank statement? Will there be specific diplomas or certificates hanging on my wall? Will I have a family around my dinner table? Will I be my own boss?

You've got to know the answer to this question, because as Yogi Berra said , "You've got to be very careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there."

Saturday, October 22, 2011

making sense of the picture

So you've had a chance to gather photos during stage one of creating your image-driven action plan. It's time to move onto stage two. 

Image-driven Action Plan (In Process)
Arrange: The next stage of the plan to is to arrange. Specifically, to arrange your photos, your thoughts, and your ideas. There are a number of ways to do this. Many people create dream or inspiration boards. I certainly think these are valuable tools, but I don't know that creating a collage is enough. It's important that you also process why you chose certain images and how those images are either in or out of alignment with your ideal life.

I arrange my action plan by choosing one image per one well-defined question. For example I might find an image that answers the question: "Where would I like to work?" Once I've chosen the image I ask the following questions:
  1. What single words best describe this image?
  2. How does the image differ from my current reality?
  3. What would need to change to make this my current reality?
  4. And, what one thing can I do today that will get me closer to making this my reality?
This process, when repeated, can help you define your goals and plan your next steps.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

a picture is worth a thousand words

Are you feeling uninspired? Have you lost sight of what's really important to you? It's at times like these you should create an image-driven action plan.

An image-driven action plan is an exercise in future-planning that allows you, at least initially, to stay clear of articulating specific goals. There are two stages: to gather and to arrange. Today, I want to focus on the first stage.

The Image-Driven Action Plan

Gather: At the gathering stage, you are taking in information. Look through magazines, catalogs, websites and your own photo files for images that inspire you; images that speak to your "ideal" life. (Pinterest may be a useful tool for this exercise.)

Now keep in mind this isn't a craft project. The image-driven action plan is in fact a research project. It's a research project on, what I hope is an interesting topic: you!

As such, you should look for images with specific questions in mind. Possibilities might include:

What do I want to call "home"?
Where would I like to work?
How would I like to dress?
What do I still have to learn?

Don't censor yourself. And, don't worry about how others might perceive your choices.

The picture you see above is what personally speaks to me when I answer the question, "Where would I like to work?" Now, at first glance, my image choice may make little sense to you. Truth is, at this stage, the choice may not make a lot of sense to me. But that's okay. We'll figure out the "whys?" during the next stage of the process; which I'll discuss on Saturday.

In the mean time, happy gathering!

Monday, October 17, 2011

real-time decision making

I'm the last person to discount the importance of future planning, but you must be careful not to let anxiety about the future paralyze your ability to move forward. You must learn to practice real-time decision making. It's simple: when faced with a critical decision recognize that you can't anticipate how the outcome will impact you in a year, but rather ask yourself, "how will the decision I make impact me (my career, family etc.) today?"

It's not as easy as it sounds. We are accustom to weighing the pros and cons; considering every outcome. But we were never gifted a crystal ball and without one, we can do little more than take a leap of faith. We must trust that ongoing real-time decision making will in fact have a cumulative impact on our life's design. ( i.e. a good decision today will lead to a good decision tomorrow and so forth.)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

free-write the things you love

A few years ago I came across The Style Statement: a wonderful life design process with the end goal of creating a two-word statement to guide your lifestyle choices. The statement speaks largely to your aesthetic, what you love, how you define beauty, and what helps you not merely survive but thrive. My style statement is Composed Grace and I often refer to those simple words when making decisions.

One of the most valuable exercises in The Style Statement process is the free-write you use to discover what they call your foundation word. And I encourage you to go through a similar process which I've outlined below:

free-write the things you love
(as inspired by Style Statement: Live By Your Own Design)
  1. Set your stopwatch (or smart phone, or iPad) for five minutes. 
  2. Using only words and short phrases begin writing down everything you love. 
  3. After five minutes, circle and highlight words that have the most resonance. 
A couple of notes. List everything not just everyone you love. So yes, you may write  family, or your child's name, but realize that those things will be right there on the same list as peanut butter. And, that's okay. Also, if this is a true free-write, your words and phrases will likely be disconnected. Again, that's okay.

Still confused? Take a look at a subset of my original list on the Things I Love tab.

So what's the goal? The goal is to think about what drives you to do the things you do. Or, even more simply, the goal is to create a list of what gets you out of bed in the morning. Because once you know that, you can create a lifestyle that feeds those motivations, interests, and dreams.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

anything worth doing is worth doing well

A few days ago I was at an event, sitting around a table with fellow educators and college administrators; people who I had just met. And as new colleagues do, we began introducing ourselves; talking a little bit about our lives. At some point, I mentioned that I was married to an actor/screenwriter and before I could say another word, someone at the table said, "You know I've been thinking about doing a little acting work myself." I wasn't surprised. I rarely mention my husband's or even my own experiences without someone "jumping on the bandwagon." But, I gave the gentleman the benefit out of the doubt and said, "Well, I always love chatting with an artist, what's your story." Turns out the guy had a degree in computer science, had been working in information technology for years, and had from what I could tell zero acting or performing arts experience.

I said, "Well, I could connect you with some wonderful teachers or studios in the city, if you're looking to take a few classes." His response was the kicker. He asked, most earnestly, "Do you think that's really necessary?"

We live in the age of celebrity. Watch ten minutes of cable television and you'll see that very little talent is required to get your fifteen minutes (or three season run) of fame. And I worry about the impact this phenomenon has on the professional performing arts. People are under the impression that you can just wake up one morning and become an actor, writer, singer etc.

Keep reading Simply Defined and you'll soon realize that I am very pro career assessment and transition. I have no problem with people taking a 180 degree shift and pursuing something radically different than what they've done before. But any shift requires thought, preparation, and intention. I can't wake up tomorrow and start doing a little computer engineering work any more than this gentleman could (or at least should) do a little acting work.

The lessons are these:
#1 Don't take your interests lightly, because I guarantee you that someone takes those same interests quite seriously. And she will run circles around you when it comes to execution. 
#2 As the old saying goes, "Anything worth doing, is worth doing well."

Monday, October 10, 2011

the gap year

It's no secret that finding a job, even with a college diploma in hand, is tough. That's why I often encourage recent college grads to consider a "gap year."

The term "gap year" usually describes the time that high school students take before enrolling in a college or university (also something I recommend and will likely touch upon in a future posts.) But given the current economic landscape the "gap year" shouldn't be reserved for the 18 year old. In fact, it's not a bad idea for the recent college grad as well.

Why a gap year?
  1. If  you're a college graduate you may still lack the skills and experiences which many employers need.
  2. Though the college experience may have given you a better idea of who you are you may not know what to do with your life. 
  3. And finally, the number one answer to why a gap year...because you can. That's right. This might be one of the few opportunities in your life to work without the burden of significant responsibility. Five years post-graduation you are much more likely to have people (a partner, children, aging parents etc.) that depend on you. But at this time in your life, you likely have fewer ties that bind.
But what would I do for a whole year?
During the year, you should accomplish three goals. Let's call them the "triple threat."

This is your chance to get the skill-set you're lacking. Even if you have to wait tables so you can start paying off those college loans, find something that will give you valuable professional experience.  

Expand your professional network. Make a list of everyone you know and make note of what they do, then start sending emails and setting up appointments. Meet with someone new every week. Even if you're not  interested in what they do, find out why they do it and how they got where they are today. The goal is to further define your own aspirations and eventually break into the job market. Google "informational interviewing" for some insight into the questions worth asking.

I don't care how many diversity courses you took in college, chances are there is still a lot of the world you don't know anything about. Take this year to explore. If you have the resources to travel, then absolutely that's what you should do. But even if you can't travel you should start seeing your home town through different eyes. Visit schools, clinics and shelters. Volunteer at the VA or the food pantry. Go to foreign language films, dance concerts, and heritage events. Attend service at the local mosque, synagogue, catholic cathedral and buddhist temple. Be vegan for a week. Do whatever you can, to explore different cultures, ethnicity, lifestyles, and faiths in an effort to broaden your world view.

Where do I start? 
There are a few organizations that really specialize in the gap year (or years) experience. City Year and Teach for America are two examples. Or maybe you want to spend some time abroad, in which case teaching English through something like the Jet Programme might be an option. But even if it has to be something closer to home, the point is to give yourself at least one year to do something you'll likely never give yourself permission to do again.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

the internship: not just for college kids

One of the proposed answers to wide-spread unemployment in the United States is an expanded Georgia Works program. Georgia Works allows businesses to put the long-term unemployed to work for free. The business goal is obvious but there is also an added bonus for the unemployed. The time "back at work" gives people an opportunity to continue collecting benefits while they develop new skills and broaden their network. It's an internship program for adults.

College students often ask, "Which office do I visit if I want an internship?" And though most colleges and universities have a career placement or development office, the truth is that anyone (even the non-college student) can get an internship. It just takes initiative, commitment and compromise.

So what exactly is an internship? I think an internship is any experience that is designed to expose or train an otherwise unskilled worker for a particular job or industry. For example, in 2006 I was considering transitioning from college advising  to a career in arts administration. I had strong ties to the New York theatre community, had a genuine interest in marketing and strategic communications, and was ready for something new. At the same time, my place of employment was offering a 4-day summer work schedule, meaning I would have either Mondays or Fridays off for a ten-week period. My husband, a writer and actor, had close ties with one of the leading professional theatre companies so I asked if he would connect me with the associate producer. Within a few days I was working as a marketing intern.

Now keep in mind I had a full-time career and had been out of school for years, but because I expressed  genuine interest, commitment, and willingness to work for free, the company brought me in without hesitation.

Now I ended up not making a career transition. But, I did significantly broaden my network. And when I had an opportunity to move into a performing-arts centric position in my given field, I brought a unique skill-set to the table.

Sure it helps, but you don't have to be connected with a college to get an internship. Check out company websites, professional associations, and job boards. Talk to your network of friends, family, and colleagues. Send emails, make phone calls, and find the experience you need to take your career to the next level.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

expect the unexpected

Something to consider: the jobs, the information, and the technology of tomorrow, don't exist today. In fact, in many cases,  they are yet to be imagined.  So what does that mean? It means that you need to be multi-talented, adaptable, and willing to embrace change. You need to expect the unexpected.

I saw this video a couple of years ago and it still blows my mind. Let me know what you think.

Monday, October 3, 2011

know your values

You have to know what you value before making any major life decision. But, I find that people become really uncomfortable around the word "value." There's this idea that some values have more weight than others. Many think they should value things like faith, family, peace, and the common good. Some worry they will be judged should they admit that stability and reward actually drive their decision-making.

An important thing to realize is that one value doesn't cancel another. It's possible to value both money and family. And in fact, one might argue that valuing money or financial stability, is how you best express your commitment to family.

My heart breaks just a little as I head out the door every week-day morning. I love my work, but of course I would prefer to take my son to toddler time at the New York Public Library, or join him and my husband for croissants and pour-over coffee at our neighborhood hangout. But the way I've framed my decision to work outside the home (because yes it is a conscious decision) is that it's one of the many ways I tell my family that "I love them."

My point being; there is nothing wrong with financial stability or even prosperity being your primary value. But, you need to know that it is before you make critical life decisions.

A great deal of my personal and professional life has been spent working with artists. And I find that more often than not every artist comes to a point in their career where they have to decide, "Do I really want to keep this up?" Well-established, wealthy artists are the exception not the rule. And though many artists are able to keep a roof over their heads they aren't necessarily living the life they had imagined. Knowing what one values is critical for the working artist. If financial stability, for whatever reason, is the primary value - then rethinking one's career trajectory may be essential. If, on the other hand, creativity, autonomy, or inspiration is the primary value, then continuing along the given path may be the only option.

The question is, what do you most value? Let me know by taking this week's poll.