The koan that is my professional life (or, ‘How did that phone job interview go?’)


The site of my most recent job interview, on Walloon Lake.

It wasn’t your typical setting for a job interview.

I sat with crossed legs on a white, cushioned wicker chair (where I’d done a short, 12 minute meditation just moments before); wore my black Ragdale t-shirt and gray, ankle-length, lightweight travel pants (having forgotten to pack more business-appropriate wear); looked out, through leafy limbs, at sun-glittering Walloon Lake; and made sure my earbuds were firmly inserted.

Unconventional, perhaps, as interviews go, but also not a bad way to approach this age-old ritual.

And I’d done my homework. Though I’d initially attempted (and failed) to push for a 30 minute phone interview slot the following week, after our planned extended-family vacation in Boyne City, I ultimately found myself strategizing about how to prepare while surrounded by eleven kids and adults in a rented house.

Breaking it up into parts, I thought, was my best bet. So I spent a bit of time on Sunday perusing the organization’s YouTube channel, while also studying the website and its social media presence; I watched the head honcho deliver an hour-long speech about how things are going, and what’s new, on Monday; and on Tuesday, I researched some of the most common interview questions and jotted down ideas for how I might answer them.

You’d think that with all this prep – way more than usual, I might add – I’d be bursting to share when, during Wednesday’s interview, a woman kicked things off with, “Tell us about what you did to prepare for today.”

I had that moment where you feel like rubbing your hands together, so confident are you about what you have to say – and then I gave a lame, vague answer that didn’t lay out precisely all the prep I’d done.

Even in the moment, I was like, “Uh, what just happened there, Jenn?”

The rest of the interview, though, went quite well. Plus, I later decided that when I sent a thank-you email to my interviewers, I’d mention how looking into these various channels before speaking with them made me even more enthusiastic about the position. Which was true.

But I must say that despite feeling stress in the days leading up to the call, I let it all go the instant I hung up; and I have not once experienced that “sitting by the phone” anxiety about moving on to the next phase of the interview process.

That’s because of a few different reasons. One is, I feel I represented myself and my experience well during the interview, so if I don’t advance further, it’s likely because my skills aren’t a good match for the job. And finding that out at this stage is best for them AND for me.

39109199_10155943395517632_7278290526565040128_n (1).jpgAnother reason involves my fairly recent adoption of mindfulness meditation into my (almost) daily routine. Though it only requires about twenty minutes, on average, the practice has made an enormous difference in my perspective and outlook this year. I’m much less reactive and pessimistic than I used to be, and the “big picture” is more often at the forefront of my mind than petty annoyances are. (During vacation, I was reading ABC News journalist Dan Harris’ excellent “10% Happier” book – a kind of skeptic’s memoir about finding his way to meditation – and so much of it rang true for me that I felt validated about being on the right track. Previous to that, I’d read Dinty Moore’s “The Accidental Buddhist,” which was also great, and signed up for a local, weekly meditation workshop. I recommend any and all of these things as starting points.)

It helps, too, that since hearing from a sleep expert (featured on “Fresh Air” last year) regarding the importance of getting eight hours of sleep each night, I’ve been shooting to get something close to that for a while.

But maybe most importantly, there’s this: I’m currently feeling pretty good about where I am, and what’s happening in my life. So if nothing changes, I’ll remain content. And if I do get an offer, I’ll need to consider whether the lifestyle change of a forty hour a week job, plus a hour-round-trip commute, would be justified by the intellectual and financial rewards.

Because at this point, I’ve adapted to a slower, more deliberate pace. After throwing myself into freelancing last year, to see if I could really make a go of it financially, I ended the year by seeing precisely how little I was paid for a huge amount of labor and care. It was a bit soul-curshing, to say the least. And one of my main clients started the year by explaining that their budget was going to be scaled way back.

To me, this was the universe telling me, “Stop spinning your wheels. Do the projects you really want to do, take the opportunities you want, and put your time and effort elsewhere.”

To this end, I applied for a job at the public library down the street, and in March, I started working there as a part-time page.

Which means I shelve; I pull hold requests; I “shelf read” for order accuracy; and more recently, I’ve started training to work the circulation desk.

What does this have to do with my years of training as a journalist and writer?

Absolutely nothing.

And I’ll admit to feeling, well, humbled by filling out an application with a ballpoint pen instead of submitting a resume; and by getting paid minimum wage again, for the first time in years; and by being trained by a young woman who’s less than half my age.

Starting any job is rough, of course. You’re inevitably “the village idiot” for a time, as you find your way through a foreign world. Plus, since training is a gradual process, having your tasks curtailed to the basics felt crazy-dull for a while. (Try shelf reading for a couple of hours and see if your eyes don’t cross.)

But with each shift, I get to know my co-workers better, and I learn more and more about how to do my job well. I love the library, and I like the idea of supporting an organization that’s a linchpin of our small community. (I see families I know through the girls’ school and activities almost every day.)

And you can’t beat a half-block commute. I mean, really.

This doesn’t mean, however, that my ego never flinches.

A few months back, when a woman working on a grad school project about displaced former journalists asked to talk with me by phone, one of the first things she asked was, “What is it about your journalism background that helped you land a job with the library?”

“I don’t think it did,” I said. “I think it had more to do with my past experience working at bookstores and a college library.”

Which is to say, the work I did before I felt like I got a respectable, fulfilling, grown-up job.

It’s hard not to feel like you’re in decline – that you’re taking a huge step backwards – when this is your new professional trajectory. You start wondering what more you could have done, where you went wrong, what poor decisions led you back here.

You wonder why your former colleagues are writing books for major publishers, and appearing on CNN, and winning more awards than they can carry in their arms, while you’re right back where you started.

You tell yourself that all kinds of factors are involved – you were older than many of your colleagues when the rate of change ramped up, and the rug started being pulled from beneath you; you were working while having and raising kids; your corner of journalism was more hard hit than some others – but this only goes so far in explaining the ever-widening achievement gap.

So you make a choice, given your current reality.

You decide that even though it terrifies you, and hurts your feminist heart, to know you couldn’t support your kids alone on the money you make, you’re grateful for your supportive, hard-working, way-better-paid partner, who believes in your talent and never belittles, but instead champions, your various contributions.

You decide that working almost twelve years in what began as a dream job is a pretty good run, and more than many people in this world will get.

You decide that getting to be more involved in your daughters’ lives and classrooms, while the girls are still at an age where they really, REALLY want me to be there, is a good, valuable thing in its own right.

You decide that what initially looks like going backward in your career might instead, from the long view, be a loop, and that there’s a whole new, surprising future ahead. (Lily kept stating, as I prepared for my interview each day, “You already have a job. Why do you have a job interview?” I explained the different between a job and a career, but it didn’t hold much water for her. The girls absolutely love that I work at the library now.)

And you decide that being out of the house, in a place where the community gathers, and where you’re surrounded by others who really care about (and voraciously read) books, is a pretty nice thing for now.

So here I am, spending some time writing what I’m inspired to write (while the kids have a ball at this week’s day camp). In a little while, I’ll pack my bag and walk to the library, say “hi” to my co-workers, and see what’s listed in my column of the staff schedule for closing tonight.

Feeling a bit unsure about whether I’ve given up the fight, or whether I’m on my way toward Zen mastery?

Me, too. But on most days lately, it feels like the latter – which ironically also feels like progress.

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