Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Of Humility and Wolves

I work with a great group of people. I recently told my wife how incredibly smart each of these individuals is. Ever my greatest cheerleader, my wife insisted that I fit well with this group as far as intelligence goes. "Everyone I know that knows you thinks you are smart," she insisted.

I didn't grow up that way. I can't remember a time during my childhood when I didn't feel intellectually and physically inferior. Maybe it was just the fact that I had two older brothers and that part of the purpose of an older brother seems to be to make their younger siblings feel inferior to them.

Another theory I have is that Mom and Dad didn't require much of me because they were numb after dealing with my older brothers — one that was ever managerial enough to challenge parental assumptions and one that happily took a devil-give-a-care approach to life. As long as I didn't cause too much trouble, I could slide by with a lot.

In junior high it was fine if I got anything above a D+. Which is good, because middling grades were about all I could produce. As one of the youngest kids in my grade, I struggled to compete physically and academically with my classmates from first grade onward. Ever one of the last picked for teams (for games I never wanted to play anyway), I also frequently had little clue what was going on in school subjects.

None of my teachers or classmates seemed to mistake me for being very bright. In fact, I can remember teachers bluntly suggesting otherwise to my parents. They seemed to have no compunction about doing so in my presence, apparently certain that I was unable to understand what they were talking about.

Then a funny thing happened during my sophomore year in high school. It was like somebody turned a switch in my head and things that had mystified me began to make sense. I started being able to get my work done, often without having to bring schoolwork home. I remember how shocked I was when I was notified that I would receive an award for having been on the honor roll six terms in a row. But I still somehow felt stupid compared to my peers.

Humility is often misunderstood to be equivalent to self deprecation. Humility is an appropriate estimation of one's own importance. Both arrogance and self-bashing are at the opposite end of the spectrum from humility, given that both are wild distortions of the truth.

Nowadays it is not uncommon for me to hear from both direct and indirect sources what a great guy I am. While I appreciate the positive strokes, I am more aware of the reality of my character.

Consider last Sunday, for example. I became angry with my youngest son for behaving in a way that I felt was inappropriate. I lost my temper and cursed at him. At church. In sacrament meeting. Moments after I had made a covenant to take upon myself the name of my Savior, Jesus Christ, and to keep his commandments.

No, I know how broken I am, how prone to failure and mistakes I am. C.S. Lewis said that when he got to thinking of himself as a rather fine chap, that was undoubtedly the time when he was in fact at his worst. He wrote, "The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object."

While unselfishness is a worthy goal, I do not believe it is entirely possible (or even a worthy goal) to "forget about yourself altogether." I think rather that a proper regard for oneself is healthy and is essential to serving both humanity and Deity as well as possible.

Nor do I agree that it is appropriate to think of oneself "as a small, dirty object." How can you think of yourself in that manner without also considering others — fellow beings created in the image of God — as equally decrepit. On our own we are certainly nothing (see Moses 1:10), although, we pretend otherwise. Bill Cosby explained it this way:
God made a tree and said it was (pause) Good. God made a rabbit and said it was (pause) Good.
Man made the refrigerator and said it was Amazing. Man made the car and said it was Awesome or Fabulous.
We are fanatical about our creations. Praising what we have made. Fantastic, Excellent, Awesome, Fabulous, Amazing, etc.
God made the world, and said it was (pause) good.
The refrigerator eventually broke down The car eventually blew its engine. But the Tree still stands, and the rabbit still hops.
What is our definition of Good vs. Great? GOD is great. Man was only Good.
But that's just it. In connection with God, humans have the power to become godlike. C.S. Lewis said, "It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship...."

This seems to stand at odds with Lewis' suggestion that we see ourselves as small, dirty objects. I think he is trying to convey the idea of our duality: the "natural man" that is "an enemy to god" (see Mosiah 3:19) and the heir of godhood (see Moses 1:39) within each of us.

Pres. Dieter F. Uchtdorf disapproved of the practice of criticizing and belittling oneself, saying that this can lead to self hatred (see Oct. 2010 general conference talk). In what manner will we love our neighbors as we love ourselves (see Mark 10:30) if we hate ourselves?

An old Cherokee legend tells of a man telling his grandson that it is as if two wolves are fighting within each of us. One is evil and the other is good. When the grandson asks which wolf will win the fight, the old man replies, "The one that you feed."

We all take opportunities to feed the evil wolf — the natural man — as I did last Sunday. But there are also boundless opportunities for us to feed the good wolf — the spark of divinity within each of us. I make those choices moment by moment and so do you. When the good wolf wins we win. This happens when we choose to "yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit," put off the natural man "through the atonement of Christ the Lord", and become "full of love" (Mosiah 3:19).

With each passing moment I am choosing which wolf to feed. Which one will win? That's up to me.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Job Loss Strikes Home ... But So Does the Miracle of a New Job

"You're home early," my wife said with a smile on her face. "Yeah," I replied glumly. "I was just laid off from my job." The look on her face revealed the impact this event would have on her life as well as mine. Knowing what both of us needed at that moment, she came and gave me a big hug.

I knew that my employer had been having financial troubles. But I rationalized that I probably wouldn't be impacted. After all, we had already lost one member of our small I.T. team due to attrition. Would they really cut one more head from our tiny team?

In truth, I simply wasn't interested in stepping outside of my comfort zone. I had been laid off from my previous job three years earlier and I had discovered at that time that I really disliked the job search process. I wanted to avoid doing that again. In fact, I had told a couple of recruiters just days earlier that I wasn't interested in the job opportunities they had available.

Discomfort aside, the writing on the wall should have been clear to me. The composition of the I.T. team should have given me warning. The only redundant position was the development staff, of which there were two of us. The other guy had designed the company's software framework before I came on board. They needed him more than they needed me. But I rationalized that we had too much work for them to cut me.

We in the I.T. department helped maintain the company financial reports and we knew how tough times were. We kept hoping that new sales efforts would bring more work. But the company simply had too many idle resources for its workload. First a few heads rolled. Then a few weeks later some more went. Then came some very tough layoffs—a number of seasoned people that were key members of the operation. We thought that was probably the end of it.

The following week my boss walked into the office and quietly asked me to step into the conference room. From the look on his face I knew what was coming. Any doubt about that fled the moment I entered the room and saw the HR manager sitting there.

The meeting was brief. I realized this was just business. I have learned not to take these situations personally. It may feel natural to lash out, but you do yourself and your career a favor if you instead handle these kind of difficulties with as much grace and aplomb as possible.

After the HR guy left, my boss pulled me into his office. I think the layoff was harder on him than it was on me and that I ended up comforting him more than he did me. He assured me that my performance had never been a problem and offered his help in finding a new job. There's a good man.

Fortunately I have learned to travel light. I quickly assembled my meager belongings, shook my coworkers hands, and was on my way. No sense lingering. My goal was to get on with the next step as quickly as possible. Before long I was home beginning my job search.

Being without a job and without an income leaves one feeling defective. It hurts. It turns your life upside down and dramatically impacts the whole family.

I had learned a thing or two from the time I had been laid off three years earlier. My first order of business was to carefully craft an email message and to spam everyone I knew. Avoiding negative remarks about my immediately past employer, I explained my situation, my qualifications and what kind of work I do. I humbly asked for any job tips, personal connections, help, or just prayer that anyone could provide. After all, my last job came from such an email. I also updated my status on LinkedIn.

The following morning I made job finding my full-time job. I worked 10, 12, 14 hours per day while I was jobless. Included in my activities was reaching out to recruiters, known in some circles as headhunters. Recruiters are sales people whose job is to find you a job. They earn commissions from companies looking for workers by successfully placing people looking for work in open jobs. Recruiters work to establish trusting relationships with hiring managers. This helps them get businesses to consider your resume where your resume might otherwise be screened out by (sometimes automated) HR systems.

One recruiter soon had an interview lined up for me. It didn't look like the greatest job on the face of the earth, but I resolved to consider anything that wasn't completely outlandish. That interview didn't go so well. But it helped me hone my rusty interviewing techniques.

One note. When you work with recruiters, it is important to let them know about your other job search efforts. It is easy to apply on jobs online nowadays, but very few jobs actually get filled that way. Moreover, you can harm the ability of a recruiter to work with a business if you apply to that business online. Each recruiter you work with is your partner and you need to treat him/her that way. Depending on what they have available, a recruiter may or may not take much interest in you. Keep looking until you find those that do.

I soon found that it was not difficult for me to get interviews. But I also soon learned a thing or two about interviews. Some were just brutal; more like inquisitions than interviews. For example, it is common for some organizations to ask hoards of arcane questions about specific software syntax and concepts rather than trying to discern the candidate's logic and programming skills. But some interviews were wonderful, more like discussions among peers. One of the early interviews I loved was for a company that was just so far away that I couldn't stomach the commute.

Management of one's mental health is very important during a job search. I was certain I would eventually land a new job. With that certainty as a basis, I tried not to become demoralized when an interview went badly or when a different candidate was selected for a position. As I crossed a place or a job off my list I had to convince myself that I had just crossed over one more stepping stone on the way to a new job.

Still, I found that it was difficult to keep depression at bay, especially on days when nothing seemed to be happening on the job front. One day I realized that I was experiencing symptoms of depression. I didn't feel like doing anything. I had to force myself to do what needed to be done, although, I didn't feel like doing so.

One night I accompanied my wife to a sacred place, although, I really didn't want to make the effort to go. I didn't feel like leaving the house. But I went because I knew it was important. In that place I felt my burden lifted. The oppressive gloom I was experiencing was lifted by a higher power. My job situation hadn't changed, but I came out of the place feeling hopeful and happy.

As we walked to the car I turned my phone back on and found a voice message from a firm asking me to come in for an interview. This opportunity sprang from a recipient of my original email sharing my resume with a friend of his. The following day I arranged for the interview to occur a few days later.

Later that afternoon a different company called. They didn't have a full-time opening, but they had a short-term need for the kind of work that I do. They asked me to spend a few weeks doing contract work. It wasn't a full-time position, but it did offer much needed income and dignity that comes from working.

My temporary stint offered me insight into an organization that felt like home. I would like to have worked there permanently. Moreover, I think they would like to have employed me permanently if the situation had allowed for it.

In the meantime I had two wonderful interviews with the other firm. And then ... silence. A week went by with nothing. I had already pestered these people as much as I thought prudent. I figured that they had passed me over. Then one day they contacted me and offered me a job that seemed undeniably better than the one I had lost. A few days later I was working for this company. It was as if I had to loose my job to find a better job. To me the whole thing seems miraculous.

Another thing that helped in my job search was something that I did two decades ago. I shifted careers. I moved from being an accountant to being a software developer. Then I went back to school and earned a bachelor degree and a master degree in the computer field. The job market for software engineers is healthy right now. If you work in a field with less opportunity, you may need to consider a career revision. This process can be painful, time consuming, and difficult. But for me it was well worth it.

A few years ago a friend of mine told me that he had made peace with the fact that job security is an illusion. I think he's right about that. You may not want to market yourself. But the reality is that in today's economy you have to constantly be ready to do so, regardless of your line of work.

Among the things that I believe helped me on the job search trail are:
  • Involving everyone I know in the job search.
  • Working with recruiters.
  • Accepting almost every interview opportunity. You can learn something from each interview, even if it doesn't go well or lead to a new job.
  • Considering imperfect and temporary employment opportunities. It's better to look for a job when you are employed than when you are jobless and frantic, even if the job you take is not ideal.
  • Working full-time at finding a new job.
  • Involving God in the process. A whole lot of prayer and fasting helps, especially when others combine their faith with yours. I can't thank enough those that prayed and fasted for me.