Transitions, hope, and career planning

Canada is home to many who came here by choice or happenstance. Learning to adapt and succeed in a new culture can be a daunting process when all we have at hand is a bag full of undefined goals. The road sure gets bumpy. Our goals start forming at an early age, they’re more like daydreams about what we want to become. As we grow, surrounded by a microcosm of familiar things and people, they are reshaped, reimagined, and reinvented. Even though our macrocosm pertains to a bigger picture of the world as a whole, we are still seeing it through the specific cultural lenses we have at hand. It gets to be a slightly different picture for every single one of us, depending on our background and our personal perceptions. Our microcosm includes all the customs and traditions linked to our smaller circle, such as family, friends, or mentors, or even just to a single family tree.

Even if this is a multilayered situation, we can quickly see what happens when we move to a different demographic carrying this precious microcosm on our shoulders. Those goals are now uprooted. They require some meticulous planning. The planning doesn’t happen. We’ve packed clothes in a suitcase and moved money into an account and we think that’s enough. The suitcase gets really heavy and we’ll just push those thoughts away. At night we rest and feel this invisible load pressing heavily on our chest. The thing is, all that carefully programmed cultural background cannot be simply deleted. Our system sends desperate warnings. It reminds me of that computer warning we receive when we’re deleting something major – a big red “STOP” sign pops-up and opens a window reading “are you sure?”

In a beautifully exhilarated state of mind (normally called courage) we quickly click “yes” and dismiss the “are you sure?” that popped up. It’s done. We’ve decided to start over. New everything. As our courage and spirit of adventure takes over, preparation is either forgotten or left behind. But this is a real world. Not only everything is new, but everything gets very real, very fast. No matter how prepared, we all know that flawless transitions are a myth. Yet again, we like that saying so much (“if you don’t get hurt, wet, hungry, and lost – you can’t call it adventure!”) and we forget how different we are. We forget that not all of us are necessarily adventurous. We forget that what makes people beautiful is their diversity. Yet in the end, it’s acceptance that makes us glowing and successful. Acceptance of cultural diversity and understanding of cultural integration.

Supporting young talent throughout this transition has inspired me in ways I didn’t foresee. Several work scenarios and life experiences I’ve encountered in one or the other of many roles I’ve taken up along the way (student, mother, homemaker, daughter, immigrant, worker, manager, advisor, educator), made me reflect on the importance of using different approaches when supporting people from various cultural backgrounds who struggle to identify their career goals and reconnect with their calling. Driven by a tool used to measure hopefulness and hope-centered competencies, the Hope-Action Inventory,[1] I’ve started to encourage international students to use self-reflection in the process of finding their career goals. In turn, this supports a better management of their own career expectations. The Hope-Action inventory is based on the following elements:[2]

  • Hopefulness
  • Self-reflection (identifying what is important to you, what you value, what skills you possess, and what you want to develop further)
  • Self-clarity (developing answers to the questions arisen from self-reflection)
  • Visioning (considering future possibilities that are desirable)
  • Goal setting and planning (identifying meaningful goals using the answers you’ve clarified)
  • Implementing (taking action)
  • Adapting (re-evaluating when there’s new information)

Reading ‘Hope-Filled Engagement’ (Amundson & Poehnell), has enriched my understanding of the powerful role hope plays along our life happenings: “We believe that people have been created to be people of hope. It may be very difficult to see hope in some lives; it may be hidden beneath layers upon layers of hopelessness laid over the years, as if they were layers of wallpaper or paint. But it is there. One just has to look at young children to see that hope is a gift given to us at birth”(p.52) [3]. If you just went through a significant change or transition, or had to swim against the current for whatever reason, it’s normal to feel hopeless. Using self-reflection to return to your roots, values, dreams, and hopes, will empower you to move forward and clarify certain questions. Find appropriate supports in your immediate network and take action to discuss the future possibilities you envision and to set meaningful goals. You can do it with grace. Bristle at prejudices, buckle up, and enjoy the journey.

[1] Niles, Spencer G., Yoon, Hyung Joon, & Amundson, Norman E. The Hope-Action Inventory. Online assessment, ©2017, hopecenteredcareer.com/hai/login.php

[2] Niles, S. G., Amundson, N., & Neault, R. Career flow: A Hope-Centered Approach to Career Development. Pearson, Merrill Prentice Hall, 2011.

[3] Gray R, Poehnell, Norman E. Amundson. Hope-Filled Engagement: Creating New Possibilities in Life/ Career Counselling. Ergon Communications, 2011.

Informational interviews: why and how?

 A career specialist’s guide to securing a meeting—and making the most of it

by Magdalena Mot

Interview originally published at http://www.sfu.ca/continuing-studies/career-help/blog

Why are informational interviews so important during your career planning process?

Real resources are always human, so interviewing an industry professional is most likely the best way to learn about a specific role or an organizational culture. You gain information otherwise unavailable while growing your professional network. Informational interviews are perfect for those who want to enter a new industry, relocate, change careers, or even progress in their careers with another employer in the same field. I usually advise job seekers or career changers to use this tool after completing a full labour market research, just so they feel comfortable with the theoretical knowledge they’ve acquired on a certain position or role.

I am intimidated by cold-calling. Is it realistic to get an informational interview via an email or social media request?

The best way to get your first informational interview is via someone who knows the person you need to talk to. Social media channels, especially LinkedIn, work very well with these third-degree connections. Yet when you send a direct message to someone, mentioning the person who has referred you can make a huge difference. Yes, some may reject your invitation for various reasons, but don’t take it personally and never stop trying; move on to someone else. In a cold-call situation, my advice is to avoid leaving a voice message and instead try your call at a different time.

How can I successfully set up a meeting with a person who doesn’t seem interested in meeting with me?

Practise your introduction (remember that elevator pitch you’ve been working on?) and have ready an articulate reason for your meeting request. Don’t babble. Be flexible in terms of time and mention from the outset that you’re open to a short meeting over a coffee break, during the next two to four weeks. Just move on to someone else if the person does not respond or seems to be too busy. There are tens or hundreds of professionals you can approach, so don’t get stuck just because someone says no. Be prepared to thank them politely and move down your list.

What are the must-do’s of a successful informational interview?

Do your research, be professional and be concise. Find out as much as you can about that specific organization and write down 12 to 14 questions. Ponder them well and bring them to the interview. This will help you focus and keep the meeting short. Respect the time frame agreed upon (time is a very sensitive matter, so don’t risk making a poor impression and ruining your networking chance). Make some of your questions specific to the role and some to the organization. But don’t ask “lazy” questions, i.e., don’t request answers you can typically find online. Not only will you fail at making a good impression, but people may think you’re wasting their time.

What is inappropriate to ask during an informational interview?

As long as you don’t mention you’re looking for a job and don’t take out your résumé, everything else should pass. Those two faux pas are incurable mistakes. Emphasize that this is your research time. You are gathering information in order to be able to make a good decision later on. You’re analyzing your options. Ask about the workplace culture, benefits, turnover rate, the background of the two latest hires, and so on. But remember, you only have 12 to 14 questions.

What are the right ways to keep in touch after the interview?

Have a networking business card on you and ensure you exchange cards at the end of your meeting. Send a thank-you note (or card) and use the occasion to reiterate a point from your discussion or mention how something you’ve just learned may change your perspective for good. Connect on LinkedIn. Offer your help if you can, i.e., contribute ideas to an ongoing project, volunteer with a task, or help facilitate the completion of a project. Show that you also have something to give, as everything involving people is a two-way experience.

 

An Era of Cultural Relativism?

10I grew up in a communist country, a child learning to accept that her religion and ethnic background were not validated by the society. Occasionally, in small family circles, we would talk about our culture or religion, my grandmother would tell us stories from her past, but outside this narrow circle we would keep quiet. We were taught not to bring it up. People’s understanding around what’s acceptable and what’s not is mostly uneven and it bends with the majority. I have moved on and left all that behind. It feels like it happened in a different life, yet that’s a baggage I carry. I’ve learned to understand and love the place I call home today. It’s a place where we embrace harmony. It’s a safe place. A land of equal opportunities. A land where several different cultures and traditions coexist and share their values. A land that encourages an open dialogue between cultures.

But do we live in an era of cultural relativism? If yes, all we need is to know and understand the culture of a people and that will help us understand what the people are doing and why do they do it. It applies to any cultural or ethnic group. If we agree to this, does this make the truth relative and reliant on everyone’s cultural environment? For example, if a woman does not have a say in deciding her own path in life, because that is the traditional way in her culture, than the truth is that she isn’t deprived of any human rights, but merely following her traditions. Of course, many argue that the truth will always be absolute and, while cultural diversity is a beautiful thing to share and enjoy, certain practices are dangerous and quite frequently they have a hard time to co-exist with practices belonging to other cultures or religions. And then we turn to the universal declaration of human rights. I’m always amazed by the number of people who never read it yet.

All around the world, most issues connected to culture are relative. This makes cultural and religious diversity a slippery and rather difficult to handle matter. Rooted in a certain culture or religion, traditions are sometimes interfering with basic human rights or basic safety issues. Or politics. Certain dangerous practices may, on occasion, hide behind a cultural or religious tradition. There are issues we don’t even discuss, or talk about, because it would be ‘culturally’ wrong.

We are usually very careful when it comes to accommodating people belonging to other cultures, refugees, new immigrants, foreign workers, international students. We want them to feel accepted and included; we make sure they are exposed to a number of supporting services and they have a fair shot at learning about our Canadian culture and our life values. But what about people who live here? Do they have access to support? To something that would help them understand the process their newcomer neighbours are going through while trying to integrate? The effort cannot be the same on both sides, by all means, there are certain proportions and the big lap has to be covered by the newcomers, but…

How many workshops on “The Cultures and Religions of the World” have you seen around here? Any community college teaches this course? We live in an era mildly ignorant when it comes to the study of culture or anthropology, the study of first nations’ arts and history, the study of world’s mythology. I don’t mean to ignore those who are actually involved in this at an academic level. But there’s only a handful of people doing it, and they don’t ride the bus.

What do we know about legends and traditions of other people? Not much. This is quite understandable when you think that a degree in arts or history won’t pay someone’s mortgage and people know better than that. We cannot afford to waste time and money on unnecessary cultural or mythological nonsense. And that begs many other questions, but I will stick to this one: if we see ourselves as a tolerant people, and agree that other cultures are not ‘wrong’, but ‘different’ then isn’t it time that we start improving our understanding of these ‘other’ cultures?

Tourist or Traveler: that’s the Question!

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Sharing about myself was never easy, even though I’m a talker. This is a story of change. Too short to call it a story, maybe a tale of change sounds better. How do our travels and our destinations change whom we are. And so I start…

Who doesn’t want to see the world? To be in all those beautiful, faraway places, and send out pictures that make everyone else jealous? But are you cut to be a tourist or a traveler?

Several years ago, when I met my partner in life, I had many dreams about traveling and visiting places shaped  by hundreds of years of history, places I’ve been inspired by, like Paris, Athens, Rome, London, or New York.

Imagine how thrilled I was when my partner told me that his biggest desire was to see the world!

How long, do you think, until we realized how different our travel styles were? Well, after a couple of short trips done in the sweet honey-moon style, we went on our first “real” vacation. During this four week trip that took us driving from Germany, to Check Republic, Poland, Belarus, Russia, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and back to Germany, we clashed a few times quite badly.

The first real stop was St. Petersburg, only about 2,500 KM and 5 countries away. The plan was to spend 5 days here and then move on to Helsinki, Finland – only a 4 hour drive from St. Petersburg. To me, the highlights of this trip were the big cities and their history. I left home with my mind set on certain places I had to see. So, tourist or traveler – that’s the question.

When we entered ”the land of a thousand lakes” in Finland, spread between the cities of Kuopio to the northeast and Savonlinna to the southwest, I almost didn’t know how to open up to that kind of beauty. Wild. And they call it “a thousand lakes” only metaphorically, because there are over 187 thousand of them!

These were places I haven’t visualized on my little agenda.

One evening I went to the Finish sauna. Coming from Germany, I wasn’t surprised by anything because people there like  to sweat in the sauna naked. But the Innkeeper tells me the sauna is open in the evening from eight to nine for women and nine to ten for men… this kind of startled me, but I thought… ok. I went to the sauna at eight, only to find myself all alone in a room that could fit up to fifteen people. Apparently, I was served the tourist “Menu” as everyone else knew that the actual time to go to the sauna was nine to ten, the so called “men’s hour”. And so, on my way back to my room, a jolly group of about ten men and women were making loud jokes while going to the sauna. Oh, well.

Moving north, we crossed the border into Norway, drove past the Arctic tree line, and went all the way to Nordkapp, the last piece of land you can set foot on in Europe. Here we spent a couple of hours just gazing into the Arctic Ocean and looking at peculiar tiny flowers growing bluntly on rocks, a myriad of colors. So be honest and tell me, wouldn’t you be happy to be there right now?

But I wasn’t! Nope, not me. I was this miserable tourist, complaining about how windy and cold it was and wondering how much longer until we get to a decent coffee shop.

And that question pops in again: tourist or traveler?

A tourist’s plans for a trip include places to visit. A traveler’s plans include tips on how to stay alive. Time and again I was taken out of my comfort zone and overall, this whole trip was one cold traveler’s drop – added to my touristy garden.

When I look back at it now, I see a lot more than a charming vacation. I see a discovery journey, where we’ve learned about secluded places, tried local foods, but most importantly, discovered each other.

At the end of this trip I was still a tourist, but perhaps a better one. My partner and I continued to disagree on vacation styles until life shaped us into the travelers we’ve become. And I’ve gotten to the point where I understood why Henry Miller said that “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”

What about you, are you cut to be a tourist or a traveler?

Bristle at Prejudices

More often than not, prejudice takes in several aspects at both individual and group levels, making it rather difficult to determine what causes it. Are we prejudiced? Yes, naturally. Most of us will not be too enthusiastic about revealing their prejudices, let aside the reasons for them. Some of us may have become prejudiced through some hurtful events experienced in the past, but more often we become prejudiced while trying really hard to meet the requirements of the society we live in.

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Gordon Allport, one of the first American psychologists to focus on the study of human personality, often referred to the fact that all societies have experienced prejudice in some form and to some degree (The Nature of Prejudice, 1954). It’s been always there. According to Allport, prejudice emerges, to some extent, as a result of normal human thinking. When we try to make sense of the world around us, we apparently sort information into mental categories and once we form those categories, they are the basis for normal prejudgment. Allport affirms that it is impossible to avoid this process.

However, there should be a way to improve our ability to avoid negative prejudgment. How can we bristle at prejudices? Perhaps try harder at educating ourselves and our children while the above mentioned categories are forming? In a book I totally love, Jane Eyre, I’ve read something that triggered this whole idea of starting a “Bristle at Prejudices” online battle and it wasn’t long before this became my personal branding message. Because everything evolves and circles around our prejudices. They shape us. Yet, of course, it should be us shaping whom we want to become, while enjoying this unique journey of transformation and crescendo that we call life. Unfolding and running under our eyes us just like a pianist’s hands dazzled by Chopin’s Nocturne.
This is what Charlotte Brontë wrote back in 1840s: “Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilized by education: they grow there, firm as weeds among stones.” When I first read this book in my early twenties I didn’t stop along those lines to ponder their heaviness. But many years later, when I took Brontë’s book in my hands again, I came across these lines and I suddenly paused. It got me thinking. What is a prejudice? It’s an opinion we form about something or someone without having any evidence, it’s an unreasonable bias. If you would like to look into more dictionary definitions, you’ll find that common features of prejudice include most often negative feelings, stereotyped beliefs, and a tendency to discriminate against others. And it seems so ordinary to humans, naturally driven by pride and vanity, to cultivate opinions and grow them into deeply rooted prejudices. Some consider that the lack of self-confidence is yet another reason for prejudice cultivation.

Being an incurable optimist – I actually believe that knowledge, self-learning, and our undivided willingness, are capable of successfully shaping us away from negative prejudices. And here I go again, one has to try it: bristle at prejudices! Not only will we get hurt in the long run, but we will feel constantly drained, our energy moving in all wrong directions. Just think about it for a moment, try to envision a powerful you, someone with a purpose, someone who has a map to follow towards pursuing their own happiness. Someone whose energy is completely focused towards shaping a world we all see with our mind’s eye.

…saddle up, and enjoy the journey!