Dreaming a New Dream

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“You are never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream,” is a popular quote from motivational speaker Les Brown, though it’s often misattributed to author C.S. Lewis.

It’s been on my mind lately, coincidentally because I’m about to encounter another birthday in less than twelve hours. I have mixed feelings this year, namely questioning if I’d accomplished what I’d hoped to since last year.

The short answer is no, but I did stumble into some unexpected adventures.

I also started looking for a job again. I still have my tiny eBay business and enjoy it. But I understood from the beginning it would be useful for a short season, and I feel that season is passing.

There’s still a lot that I want to learn and do, and I think at this point the most efficient route would be to trade skills for knowledge and milk money. Amazingly, after a soul-crushing couple of months of actively looking for work, I managed to land a position with a small company. (Win!)

As excited as I am at the prospect of receiving a steady paycheck again, I had a moment of panic as to whether I was making the right decision. Am I giving up? Am I selling out? Are those even bad things?

More Than What’s On Paper

I attended a job fair not long ago and had my resume evaluated. For my work experience, I had listed out pretty much every job I’d done recently, including my tiny business, childcare, some freelance writing gigs (not all of which I was paid for), and work in comics.

I wanted to show that I hadn’t been idle after I’d left my last full time job, but apparently all those little gigs didn’t add up to a linear work history. That begged the question—did I look like a linear human being?

Upon his advice, however, I scrubbed my resume and tweaked it to death. It was boring as all get out, so I stuck a ninja comic on it. I figured if a company rejected it because they couldn’t understand my sense of humor, they were probably not going to provide an environment I could flourish in.

With that resume, I ended up with gaps that I had to explain in cover letters and interviews. But at least I got interviews.

My Name Is Not ‘Rejection’

Speaking of interviews, I’m terrible at them.

Despite having read tons of expert advice, investing in an “interview outfit,” practicing in front of the mirror, and even recording myself with my web camera, I still get nervous and have a hard time making eye contact. I understand that especially the lack of eye contact can be perceived as an inability to focus or trying to hide something.

So, I attended a webinar in which a career coach shared some of his wisdom on preparing for interviews. One of the first slides he shared had in large bold letters: YOU ARE VALUABLE; REJECTION IS NOT YOUR IDENTITY.

He went on to provide some perspective with recent hiring stats and tips for the interview process. But I made a point to write down those bold words, because I hadn’t recognized up until that point that I had made rejection my identity.

For a long time, I had failed to separate my identity from my work. Whenever I had writing passed by publishers and my resume tossed out by prospective employers, I unfairly owned that rejection. So, I stopped.

The eye contact thing is still something I struggle with. But at least now, I will be working with people for whom it’s not a deal breaker.

Hold Things of the World Loosely

This past December, my baby nephew passed away. Yes, it was hard. It still is.

His parents continue to work through the grief and the depression. In addition to continually missing him, they’ve struggled with letting go of the dreams they’d had for him. Dreams about what they wanted to do and places they wanted to visit and even cities they wanted to relocate to.

They wanted to have great adventures with all their kids. But now, they have to learn what it’s like to live with one of them gone.

One of the therapists they are seeing mentioned a concept we learn in church a lot—to hold the things of the world loosely. My nephew is not of the world, but the dreams his parents had were. And while it’s okay to make plans and have dreams, it’s also okay to let those go when it’s clear that nothing we can do will bring those back.

I haven’t experienced the level of loss that my cousin and his wife have. If anything, the plans and dreams that I had to let go of seem very small and insignificant.

In that sense, as long as I stick to my values, it matters little what I do for a paycheck or what other non-linear entry appears in my work history. Jobs and money come and go. While I will do my best with whatever opportunities come my way, I know now to hold them loosely.

Finding a New Dream

I remember in school being told that if you set a goal and work hard towards it, you will eventually achieve it and everything will be awesome.

It’s been a while since those days, and almost all the goals I set back then haven’t worked out. And everything is certainly not awesome.

But some of it is.

During a recent job interview, I was asked the (rather redundant) question of where I saw myself in five years. Probably ten years ago, I had an answer. Now, I don’t speculate.

I don’t even know what will happen in the next five days. I might be in a fatal car crash. I might get a bad report from the doctor. A million dollars might fall out of the sky and into my lap. (Knowing me, though, I’ll probably suspect it is illegal and take it to the police.)

And there’s always the zombie apocalypse worry about.

For third party viewers, that may seem like I don’t have direction or dreams. And right now, the truth is I don’t.

But it doesn’t mean I’m not finding a new one. And it doesn’t mean that I won’t find other things, like peace, joy, and even a little wisdom along the way.

So, here’s to another year and a new chapter. Held loosely but lived fully.

Broke Ninjas: Origins

 

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There’s a long and a less-long story behind the ninja cartoons that appear with some of my posts. I figure I’d try to share the less-long story here, in the standard 800 to 1,000-word blog post.

Back in 2014, I went to an SCBWI conference in New York and attended the illustrators’ workshop they offered. Mind you, I’m a writer rather than an artist. But I’ve always loved drawing, so I figured seeing how the illustrators did things would be fun.

Before the conference, the workshop attendees were told to illustrate a scene from the classic Snow White fairy tale in our own style. As a non-artist, I don’t have an “artsy” style. My stuff always ends up cartoony.

So to shake things up, I changed the story and placed Snow White in feudal Japan, where she escapes from her evil stepmother the Empress and ends up crossing paths with seven little ninjas. They were thinking of killing her too, because she found their hide-out, but decided against it since they didn’t like the Empress either.

The scene I drew (and finished about five hours before I had to board the plane for said conference) was at the end, featuring Snow White (whom I called Shirayuki), a young samurai (instead of a prince), and the seven ninjas.

In summary, the workshop sucked. The AD who reviewed my work didn’t give me any helpful feedback. Not even a, “I don’t really like this because of …” She had just said, “I don’t know enough about this [cartoon] style to make a comment.”

Waste of an air ticket and conference fee. Did I mention I was unemployed at the time?

Anyway, I started my little eBay gig later, so I forgot about the ninjas for a while. I’d sketch some of them on the paper table covers at restaurants with crayons while waiting for food, but that was about it.

Fast-forward to 2016, and I was feeling like a failure. It’d been nearly two years since I’d lost my full-time job, and I’d gotten another rejection on a book (I’d stopped counting after I’d gotten rejection letter No. 300 a few years back). But I’d been reading Start. by Jon Acuff and several articles on Forbes and Entrepreneur. And I had a crazy idea that maybe I was still a little hirable.

So, for the first time in over a year, I started looking for a job again. The funny thing about looking for editing and writing jobs is that you need to have writing samples. I didn’t want to send potential employers stuff I did for my old employer. For one, I have a much wider and creative range than the mostly bone-dry material I was paid to do in the past. Also, I’d never been paid to write about topics that interested me, like personal finance, professional growth, movies, history, travel, creative processes, and so on.

So, I started writing about things that interested me in my own style here, on this blog. My goal was to post something consistently once a week and build up to more if I could. I figured that if an employer could understand and appreciate my raw writing, then it would be the kind place I’d like to work for.

But of course, with blog posts, I needed some kind of visual. And rather than pull the same stock photos that appear on every other blog on Planet Earth, I thought it’d be fun to draw a cartoon instead. The first post I needed a cartoon for was 3 Reasons You Need a Side Hustle, and I thought it would be funny to resurrect one of my ninjas from years ago and pretend that he needed a job. I gave him a bigger head, a blue mask, and named him Sam. I thought he was cute.

As I wrote more posts, I drew comics with Sam attending job interviews. I sketched more ninjas and found that Sam had three younger brothers—all unemployed and broke just like him. They had left their village together to find work in the city. And they had to share a tiny apartment and take whatever jobs they could get to get by.

One of them, Chris in the green mask, started blogging about their experiences. The younger two are Red (red mask–original I know) and Mackie (orange mask), and their capacity for making trouble is endless. Naturally, being ninjas, they approach things differently. Sharp things don’t scare them, but their landlord on rent day does.

I started posting some of the comics on Instagram. A few people like them, so I think I’ll keep making more. I’ve looked into what it takes to be a syndicated cartoonist, but the rejection rates are high—even higher than trying to publish a book.

Considering my history with rejection, I doubt the ninjas will get picked up. Still, I suppose it doesn’t hurt to try.

Interestingly enough, my blog posts with the ninjas did help me get a couple of job interviews. Fingers crossed that I’ll start work soon.

Anyway, that’s a little bit about my four little broke ninjas. If you want to follow their escapades, follow me on Instagram @brokeninjascomics or visit www.brokeninjas.com. I hope to post a new comic every Tuesday—possibly more frequently once I get more drawn.

Ten Things I Would Tell My Graduating Self

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Graduation season is underway, and a new crop of former college seniors are about to learn that being an adult is a lot harder than it looks.

Just over a decade has passed since I made it out of my university with a newly minted diploma in hand. Since hindsight is 20/20, here are ten things I’d tell my graduating self if I could:

1. “Ditch the ten-year plan.”

You were an ambitious little snot with the best of intentions. But you expended too much energy in working hard, rather than being more strategic by working well. It’s great to have goals and some direction. But just go in understanding that if things don’t work out how you expect, it doesn’t mean the end of the world. It just means the beginning of a new one.

2. “Take a gap year to go abroad.”

I know, you had just graduated with college debt up to your ears. You were anxious about taking any job so that you could start paying those bills. You did what you had to do.

But if it had been possible, I would’ve recommended a gap year abroad. I don’t know if it would’ve made you more hirable, but it definitely would’ve cured some of that wanderlust. Maybe getting a glimpse at how much bigger the world was would’ve helped with some of that anxiety as well.

3. “Have faith in people, but don’t be surprised if they disappoint you.”

People are human, so their capacity for doing stupid things is limitless. Don’t hold it against them. It’s not worth it. There will be times you’ll need to find some grace, too.

4. “Don’t buy the first iPhone.”

5. “Or the first 3-D printer.”

6. “Beware of the entitlement ladder.”

In his book Start. author Jon Acuff warns of the entitlement ladder. It’s a short cut that you think will get you to where you want to go, but it only leads to disappointment. Surer foundations for your career (and life in general) only come with experience and are tempered by time.

7. “Be patient.”

Especially with yourself. Things are not going to work out as planned, and you’re going to make some mistakes. It’s okay. Learn, grow, and roll with it. You’ll have a much better time than beating yourself up over what could have been.

8. “Sleep well.”

Unlike what others may say, losing sleep is not sexy. It’s unhealthy, and your body was not designed to go without restful sleep for long. The deadlines aren’t going anywhere. Get the rest you need, and your work will not suffer for it.

9. “In 2015, Dad will find out he has cancer.”

In 2016, he’ll get the official report that he’s cancer-free.

10. “Go through the fear.”

Acuff called it “awesome.” C.S. Lewis called it “joy.” Whatever it is to you, there’s usually a nasty chunk of fear standing between you and it. Don’t be afraid to go through the fear and get what belongs to you.

Red Flags Behind Low Ball Job Offers

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Imagine for a moment that you’re on the hunt for a job. You’re invited for a couple rounds of interviews and about a week or two later you get your offer. Congratulations!

But there’s a catch. Your salary is far below competitive. You research on PayScale and Glassdoor and discover others in a similar role are making more elsewhere. So, you call your new boss to negotiate.

You might get several different excuses behind the low ball offer. Many of them are red flags that you seriously can’t afford to ignore.

Possible Excuse #1: “The salary may be low, but we have great benefits.”

Red Flag: Skewed Priorities

Unless your benefits include free food and guaranteed income when you retire, they aren’t really benefits. Health insurance is no longer a benefit in the US—it’s a mandate.

And as fun as they are, foosball tables and espresso machines don’t pay the electric bill or for your kid’s braces. You’re an adult with real world responsibilities and possibly a spouse and children counting on you. You owe it to yourself and them to get what’s fair for the value you plan to bring to the table.

Possible Excuse #2: “We are a startup/small business that can’t afford to pay competitively.”

Red Flag: Instability

This might be an indication of the health of the organization. The last thing your resume needs is an employer that is probably failing or stagnating. Not only will you likely be back on the job hunt soon, you also might not have any helpful references either.

I once came across an advertising agency that paid all of its employees nearly half the national averages. While they worked with some impressive brands and espoused a great culture, the red flag arose when I saw that they had been in business for almost 19 years. A firm that old that can’t pay near national averages is a clue to look elsewhere.

On the startup side, it may indicate the company isn’t funded enough. That shouldn’t be a turn-off completely, but it will mean a lot of hustle, late nights, and instant ramen on everyone’s part to reach profitability as soon as possible. If the salary is low and there’s no attractive profit-sharing package on the table, as well as a contingent if the company is sold and those shares made worthless, it might be better to just walk away.

Possible Excuse #3: “Your experience level is a little lower than what we were hoping for.”

Red Flag: Lack of Direction

So why did they offer you the gig? Are they saying that of all the candidates they interviewed, you’re the one that sucked the least? Do they even know what they are hiring for? A response like this is at worse insulting and at best a waste of your time and the company’s.

Something that’s (sadly) often forgotten is that companies are people—not conglomerations of skill sets. If a potential employer is hung up on the lack of what you’ve done elsewhere versus the potential of what you can for him, he is likely not going to understand or appreciate the value you bring. Your salary may start low and stay low.

Possible Excuse #4: “It’s based on what you made at your last position.”

Red Flag: Undervaluing Employees

What if you were underpaid at your last position? You were probably on the job hunt in the first place because you wanted to grow your career and sought fairer treatment.

Forbes columnist Liz Ryan says that whatever you made at your previous job is actually irrelevant to potential employers. If it’s rude for friends to ask what you make at your job, then it’s rude for strangers (including recruiters) to ask the same.

The only reason someone would want to ask for your last salary is to bargain hunt rather than to invest wisely. Bargain hunting is great when you’re acquiring socks and toilet paper—not for on-boarding amazing talent.

Bottom Line: You’re Worth It

When it comes to salary, you should definitely be realistic and not arrogant. Asking for more than what your experience and expertise calls for is entitlement—regardless if you’re a millennial or not.

Maybe you just need the paycheck for now to keep your house while you finish a degree or certification. Or the job is a strategic part on the path to your dream job. Or the work you’ll do is meaningful, helps others, and makes you a better human being. In that sense, it’s perfectly okay to take a low ball offer.

Whether you’re starting your career or have decades of experience under your belt, you know best what sacrifices you and your family had to make to get to where you are now. You’re a unique individual with life experiences and perspectives that no one will ever be able to duplicate.

You shouldn’t be afraid to ask for what is fair. After all, if your work is really as good as you know it is, then whoever hires you will reap benefits far beyond the cost to bring you into the fold.