work/life balance

It seems like 2 years since the last post. Actual time: less than 5 months.

I was right to be concerned about balancing 50-hour work weeks while trying to have a life outside of work. And the 8 or 9 hours in the office (followed by an hour or two of working at home at night) and trying to cook dinner and eat before 9 pm. I should have been concerned with how my new work schedule would impact my relationship with my boyfriend. Frankly I was crabby and, at times, quite difficult to share 600 square feet with.

The good news is, things are getting better. I think I’m finding my stride at work and learning how to have a life and a high-pressure job. Meeting friends for happy hour, getting an occasional pedicure and a massage once a month definitely help. I’m invigorated by new projects at work, and the team continues to grow. (Side note: why do sports phrases like “my team” have such an integral role in corporate life? If we are one team, who is our opponent?)

So I’m working on a work/life balance and taking a few vacation days next week. (Hello, five day weekend) I’m trying to ration my paid time off, in case I want to fly home for the holidays, or to a beach between November and February when the Seattle gray is just too much to take. Paid vacation is one of the most beneficial things a company can give. The New York Times article mentions a study that found the anticipation of a vacation can improve your mood, though happiness drops to regular levels after the vacation ends. Taking vacation days can improve your productivity and lower stress (obviously). I firmly believe that vacation days are infinitely better than weekends, mostly because I don’t get paid for weekends, but vacation days seem to evaporate so much quicker than weekends.

Amazonian

Today was my official first day at Amazon.com. This is the result of a calculated risk I took in August, when I decided to quit a full-time job for a temporary contract job. Today is just the beginning of higher expectations, new challenges, and a very demanding job.

My day started with a 4-hour orientation session on the company’s South Lake Union campus. Orientation reminded me of college orientation and the sense of uncertainty about the future I had at 18, and how I had no idea of what my college experience would be. A year ago, I had no idea that I would be working for Amazon, and I wouldn’t have believed it was possible a year ago. I wonder how much I will change – and how much the company will change – in one year from now.

I’m excited and nervous for the new phase in my career and my life. How will I balance 50-hour work weeks while trying to cook dinner and eat before 9 pm? What about attempting more than 6 hours of sleep a night? Is this possible?

I’ve been plagued by self-doubt since I began working for such a large company. I’ve always feared failure and had high expectations for myself. The corporate life stirred these doubts daily, and often several times a day. The stakes are high, and now I feel like the expectations have been raised again. I’m proud to be working there, and really enjoy the work. I balance the self-doubt by reminding myself that I can do the job, and have been doing it for several months.

It felt like an achievement just to be sitting in a conference room for new hire orientation at Amazon.com. I feel a sense of achievement when I think about 10 years ago, when I went to high school in a town of less than 500 people, and five years ago, when I graduated from college and started working at a newspaper in my college town. Now I’m working for an international company.

To me, this is a bigger achievement than my goal before age 25: leaving the Midwest. (I moved a month after I turned 24) I moved for opportunities like this one, and that has made all the difference.

Women and politics

I hadn’t heard of Kirsten Gillibrand, the Democratic senator from New York, until recently. She was appointed to finish Hillary Clinton’s term in January 2009, when Clinton became Secretary of State. Gillibrand won the special election earlier this month, and she feels strongly that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell should be repealed. She’s the youngest person elected to the U.S. Senate, and she’s a mother of two boys.

When I read a recent Vogue article about Gillibrand, I was struck by what she told an interviewer:

“Very few women want to be in a profession where you will have an opponent who says mean things about you every day, where the news may not be fair on a given day. It’s such an adversarial profession… Many women don’t want to expose their family or their children to something so rough and so aggressive and unfair and not honest.”

It illustrates an interesting difference between the baby-boomers and later generations. Although baby-boomers (my mother’s generation) and their parents (my grandmothers’ generation) paved the way for women to work outside the home, women in their 40s (and 30s and 20s) are still forging ahead in male-dominated areas today, including careers that aren’t conducive to having families. At some point, are all women faced with prioritizing their careers or their families? Or are women faced with that decision every day, after they get married or have kids?

In 2007, several traditionally male-dominated sectors (law enforcement, civil engineering) were seeing huge increases of women. CNN predicted by 2014, men would be about half the workforce. In February 2010 The New York Times reported the milestone had been reached, possibly due to the recession hitting male-dominated industries, such as construction and manufacturing, harder than industries women are more likely to work in, like health care and education. (Now that I think about it, my dentist and my doctor are women, as were most of my teachers until college.)

Politics is pretty much still a man’s world. Take a look at the U.S. Senate and the House — mostly middle-class white men. Gillibrand has a family history in New York politics. She knew how difficult politics would be, because she grew up with a political family.

I thought about the fine line women in politics (and probably any male-dominated profession) still walk, despite being about half of the workforce, and the majority on college campuses. Vogue focused on a PR rep’s take on the different standards for fashion in New York and Washington, DC. “You know, skirt length, heel height, cleavage. Let’s just say there are different . . . rules. Such a time warp in Washington.”

Are women judged more harshly than their male counterparts? During the last presidential campaign, no one commented on Obama’s or McCain’s suits. But Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, and Sarah Palin all drew media attention for what they were wearing on the campaign trail.

So women have made impressive gains in the last 30 years, but, in politics at least, women are seemingly still held to a different standard than men. I wonder, is this true in every profession?

Why I love a temp job

Because it’s fun.

I enjoy the work much more than what I was doing before. Now, I schedule site content and work with HTML and XML code for a well-known internet retailer. No more answering phones and ordering office supplies. I’m happier in my daily life because I enjoy my work, instead of complaining how much I hate my job.

The resume boost.

I think the skills I’m acquiring now make me more qualified for the full-time jobs I want. I see possible room for advancement within the company, either as a temporary or full-time employee.

The company is young and motivated.

The company culture is driven, innovative and creative. Ideas are encouraged. My coworkers are highly motivated people who take initiative, and they’re young. I’m 26 and everyone in my department is under 35, including my boss.

A risk paid off.

I’m not a risk taker, but I took a calculated risk to become a temp. The enjoyment I feel after a 10-hour day confirms that I made the right choice, even though I have no guarantee that I’ll be employed in a few months. For me, loving what I do is so refreshing and important.

It’s an adventure.

I’m only there for a few months, so I’m doing my best to take initiative and learn as much as I can while I’m there.

Inspiration at work + coffee

The past few weeks have been a blur of work, two Mariners games, Capitol Hill and Vancouver, BC, the Seattle bus system, and my mom’s visit last week.

Mariners Game

Lovely day for a Mariners game

My job interview was a month ago, on my 26th birthday. I started a week and a half later, and since then I’ve learned a lot. I no longer worry about getting lost on my floor in the building, but I’m still uncertain and slow with certain tasks. But today I worked almost 11 hours, and it was a good day. Remember that saying, “Find a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life”? It’s true. Even if it’s just temporary.

I’m already thinking about coffee tomorrow morning, because I’m not a morning person. And I’m going to need a large cup of the “nectar of the gods” if I want to leave the house at 7 am, as I have done for the past two days.

Chai

It’s not Stumptown, but it works. When I live in Capitol Hill (or Ballard) next year, and Stumptown or Cupcake Royale are a few blocks away, I will drink Stumptown Coffee. My rent will go down, so I can spend a little more on really good coffee.

Today felt like a Seattle day.

I didn’t mind that it was gray, even though I’d love a few more sunny summer or fall days. The view from the office is surreal when it’s foggy. Like we’re in the clouds, looking down from a dark tower on downtown, hundreds of feet above the busses, sirens, taxis and pedestrians.

7 am. Waiting for the bus on my way to work, hating humidity. Wondering if I can rent a tent, sleeping bag, and other camping supplies from REI.

3 pm. Meeting with a copy editor. I wonder how long he’s been working for Amazon. Five years? Ten years? I smile when he cautions me and other employees in the meeting about exclamation marks, and when I see exclamation marks are against company style.

I like this copy editor, because I can tell he has a sense of humor and he’s good at his job. And then I wonder if his cardigan is from American Apparel.

4 pm. REI Rentals has tents and sleeping bags for rent. Luckily I’m an REI member, so for about $20 I can rent a tent overnight. River rafting is still possible this Sunday. I hope it doesn’t rain Saturday night.

7:30 pm. The rain had stopped and I was on the bus, going home after an inspiring day at my new job. Wearing boots and a rain jacket, I was listening to a Death Cab EP on my iPhone, after an 11-hour day at work, I felt oh so very Seattle.

10:30 pm. Listening to This American Life podcasts, and it is delightful. I think about last year, when I used to listen to Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me! and This American Life on Saturday mornings. I wonder if I’ll do that next year, in our new place, while sipping Stumptown coffee and making banana pecan pancakes with the boyfriend. Vegan banana pecan pancakes, of course.

I quit. For a temp job.

A week ago, I quit my steady full-time job to start a new journey.

Tomorrow I start a temporary position at Amazon, as an Assistant Editor/Site Merchandiser in the Apparel Department.

I’m taking a risk in my career, but 26 is a great time to take risks. If not now, then when? I’m not a risk taker. Especially when it comes to my financial stability, I like guarantees and knowing when I’ll see my next paycheck. Taking a temp job is out of character, but I could see the benefits of this adventure outweigh the risks.

The interview was on my birthday, which happened to be Friday the 13th. Note to self: if possible, schedule future interviews on my birthday, or Friday the 13th. I wasn’t sure if I’d get the job, but I was relieved to have the interview finished. It was a gorgeous sunny day in Seattle, and life was good. After the interview and lunch at a great sandwich shop in Capitol Hill with my boyfriend, we left for Vancouver, BC, where I tried not to think about work.

Friday was my last day at my old office – my first full-time job in Seattle. It was surreal to give my boss my notice. She was surprised, but wished me luck on my new path. I’m trading stability for a big opportunity, even though my new adventure has no guarantees. I could be unemployed in three months, and I’m well aware of that. Goodbye paid vacation, sick time and reliable paycheck. Hello, scaled back health insurance and uncertain financial future.

I see this temporary job as a stepping stone. Perhaps a stepping stone to a more fulfilling full-time job, either at Amazon or another company. This will build my skills and add a well-known company to my resume. (Couldn’t hurt, right?) I was ready for a change, and this will certainly be a drastic difference from my former workplace, a small non-profit in the north end of Seattle.

It would be a gross understatement to write that my new environment will be a BIG change from the old workplace. Much different location, job tasks and company culture. This is an entirely different world. And one I think I’m lucky to be in, if only for a few months.

Interestingly, I was at my first job for one year and nine months, before I quit to move to Seattle. I spent the same amount of time at the old place – a year and nine months – before taking the temporary job. This timeline illustrates how I’m representative of my age group.  Typical twenty-somethings change jobs every 18 months.

So wish me luck. This time tomorrow, I’ll be working at Amazon.

Does being an entrepreneur mean cutting your own hair?

While reading an article in the June Vogue magazine, I was struck by a quote from Net-A-Porter founder and millionaire Natalie Massenet in the interview:

“Choose the right husband and nanny, and then don’t worry about a social life. Everything but family and work has to go.”

This was alarming to me. And that surprised me a little.

Me, a self-proclaimed feminist who wants a successful career. Those words struck me because I realized I want success, but I want a life beyond work and a family (in the event that I have a husband and child at some point in the distant future.) I like standing on my own two feet, and being able to pay all my bills on time, without depending on someone else’s income.

I don’t usually read Vogue. The only reason I saw the June issue was that I’d arrived 45 minutes early to a pedicure, a luxury I enjoy once every few months. And since June in Seattle was in the 60s and mostly rainy, I have hope that in July, I’ll wear sandals more often.

I was reading about Massenet’s company, and how she recently made $76 million dollars by selling Net-A-Porter to Richemont, the company that also owns Cartier. Before reading this, I had never heard of Net-a-Porter. I’m not the demographic (I don’t buy $1,200 shoes.) But if I did, and I wanted them within 24 hours, NAP is the place to go.

I admire Massenet’s entrepreneurship. Ten years ago she had the idea for this business of selling high-end fashion online to women who were too busy to shop. So-called experts kept saying the business would fail. It didn’t. The Vogue interview revealed that Massenet cuts her own hair, does her own makeup, and has a husband and two kids.

I want a successful career. I want to be self-sufficient and to buy an expensive bottle of wine on occasion, or get a pedicure if I want one, and go on vacation once or twice a year. But I’m not willing to sacrifice my social life, at least at 25, for the almighty career. Maybe I’ll feel differently at 35 or 45. Then again, I don’t think I’ll ever be a millionaire. Regardless, I want a work-life balance that involves 40 or 50-hour work weeks. And haircuts by a professional.

Innovation

While watching the movie “Up in the Air” earlier this week, I started thinking about what the movie said about the modern workplace.

1. Clash of Generations at Work.

The young, fresh-out-of-college employee is trying to streamline the company. She proposes a way to embrace technology, cut cost and improve efficiency.  The seasoned, respected employee (and protagonist) is skeptical. He likes the way business is currently done; he’s good at it, and he enjoys what he does. Which I think is something that not a lot of people can say about their jobs.

The dynamic between them is interesting. The young, inexperienced employee handles some situations poorly. Because she’s young and inexperienced. She’s also innovative and willing to embrace change. But big changes bring bigger risks of failure.

The experienced employee does his job well. He’s done this task 10,000 times, so he should be much better at it. His fear doesn’t seem to be failure – it’s change. If he doesn’t embrace the new way of doing things, will he be out of a job?

Personally, I think fax machines are obsolete. Why fax something when you can scan and email it in less time, while using less paper? But I think I’ll have to use the fax as long as I’m at my company. Partly because the senior staff members are in a different generation. They’re accomplished and experienced. They’re the decision makers, and they are the same age as my parents. And we are all aware of this age gap.

As one of the youngest people in the office, I question how my ideas sound to an older veteran employee. Will they think an idea that challenges the standard is just a stupid suggestion from some kid who doesn’t know how things are done?

Maybe it’s a generational thing. Tom Brokaw thinks of Twitter as junior high students passing notes. And I respect Brokaw a lot, not only because he’s another South Dakotan who found success on a coast, but because he’s trusted and built a successful career in journalism. But social media is an integral part of marketing, especially to the golden 18-24 age range.

Brokaw is very respected, but every 20-something I know is on Facebook, Twitter, or both. I don’t know my boyfriend’s cell phone number, or the numbers of any of my roommates, because the numbers are all saved on my iPhone. And the only reason we know each other’s email addresses are from our Facebook profiles.

2. Challenging Generation Y’s Expectations

23-year-old Natalie’s goals are somewhat traditional, but career driven. Her character went from Cornell to Omaha, passing up a job in San Francisco to follow a college boyfriend. (I’ve been to both cities and I would have chosen San Francisco.) She wants early career success, but she also thought she’d be engaged or married by 23. And when the romance fails, she has a hard time when things stop going according to plan.

Perhaps the “Quarter-Life Crisis” is the process that 20-somethings go through when their expectations are challenged, while simultaneously adjusting to the working world. I don’t know if I believe in the “Quarter-Life Crisis,” but I can relate to having your expectations challenged, and going through big life changes in a short span of time. Like last fall, when a long-term relationship ended but I started to really feel at home in Seattle. And then there’s my life at work… If the crisis exists, I think it spans most of your mid-twenties.

3. Dealing with Unexpected Changes

I used to say “That was never the plan.” My plan was this, and that was never an option or a footnote. But you can’t plan everything. And if you try, you better learn how to let go and improvise. I don’t talk much about “the plan” lately. Because at this point, I don’t really have one. I have aspirations, but I don’t always know how to get there from here.

The plan, for me, started from a bullet point on a timeline. And once that task was achieved, my personal life changed significantly, and I threw out the rest of what I thought I wanted in my personal life. No more browsing Craigslist for apartments we’d share. No more expensive plane tickets. No more talk of hypothetical ages to get a dog or get married.

Instead of planning, I just started living, which is much more fun than making plans and waiting. And so far, so good.

Monday is the longest day

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about where I am in life, and where I thought I would be at this age. Geographically, I’m exactly where I want to be. My career could use some improvement.

I look at my current job as a good stepping stone. It has taught me a lot about what I want, and what I don’t want in an office environment. After a year and a half in my current job, I know I want a different role at a company with a little more structure.

When I worked at a newspaper in the Midwest and earned less than $24,000 a year, I was constantly stressed about money. Reading “The Bonfire of the Vanities” probably didn’t help, but I could barely afford rent, groceries, student loans and a credit card payment. Now I’m not as stressed financially, but like a lot of Americans, I’m still living paycheck to paycheck. I have a savings account and I’m making progress on the mountain of student loan debt. But for a lot of people my age, work is about more than the paycheck.

On weekdays we spend more waking hours at work than with our families, roommates, friends or significant others. Fundamentally I think it’s ridiculous to spend 8 hours a day doing something you don’t like. Why stay at a job if you’re not satisfied? Because it pays reasonably well or it’s comfortable or quitting is not a financially viable option. But it’s not fulfilling and I think happiness should factor into the equation somewhere.

Once I got complacent in my job, I started buying things (mostly clothes) as a way to validate going to work every day. After wanting one for months, I got an iPhone last fall. And boots from Nordstrom. I thought maybe if I had work clothes I liked, the idea of going to the office might be less dreadful. But the thrill of new clothes wears off after a week or two.

So I searched for ways to improve my skills and updated my resume. I wonder about going through a temp agency, because two friends had positive experiences as temps. I’m leery about the inconsistent paycheck. I think it comes from being raised by a single mother in a working poor household. And in the past year I started to depend on a comfortable paycheck; losing that and my health benefits is scary, because I still feel like I could be two weeks away from financial ruin.

I remember when my mom and I were on WIC and dinner was Mac and Cheese with tuna, or refried bean burritos. I know how to eat relatively cheap because we did when I was a little kid. But I have friends who grew up eating sandwiches made of Miracle Whip and white bread. My mom and I were never that poor; and I’m fairly certain I’ll never eat a Miracle Whip sandwich.

But that doesn’t make Monday any less dreadful.