Introducing: New 'Career Exploration' Service!

After months of deliberation, lots of prayer, and no shortage of beta-testing, I’m thrilled to announce the official launch of a new Career Exploration service!

This service is one that I’ve been wanting to launch for months, but was honestly hesitant to shout about openly. Sure, I’ve been providing informal career exploration services for years, but the fact remains that I do not have a degree in career counseling. Some people really get hung up on the letters after your name, don’t they?

After a lot of thought, however, I realized something. I don’t have a specialized degree, true. But what I do bring to the table is a profound interest in professional identity, a passion for individuals who feel lost in their careers, a background that allows me to serve across various professional industries, and the tools to support job seekers with excellence. So no, I’m not a licensed career counselor. But I feel called and equipped to serve others as they work to unearth their professional identities, and I believe I am uniquely gifted to facilitate that process.

So let’s dive right in!

Who is this service for?

Career Exploration might be for you if these statements resonate with you:

  • “I don’t like what I do, but I don’t know what to do instead.”

  • “I feel stuck in my career.”

  • “I don’t see an opportunity to move up from this position.”

  • “My boss asked me about my dream job, and I have no idea how to answer.”

  • “I have no idea what I want to do, but I’m ready to figure it out.

Defining your professional identity and specific career objectives can lead to increased motivation in your current role, as well as momentum for the steps to get you where you want to be. Anyone looking for direction in their career—entry-level, C-suite officer, and everything in between—might benefit from the Career Exploration process.

What does the process look like?

If you’re wincing at the prospect of time-consuming assessments and binders full of charts, fear not! While I will be the first to admit that assessments are useful tools in career exploration, I prefer an approach that leans toward conversational, targeted self-reflection. After all, the goal is to define the professional you and your unique career objectives—not to fit you into a convenient, binder-friendly category.

Every interaction will begin with a conversation to determine your context and goals for the process. From there, the process is completely customizable according to your preferences.

Here’s what an example process could look like following the initial consultation:

  • You reflect and pick the Top 5-10 highlights from your professional history

  • We discuss those highlights, and I ask a bunch of questions

  • You select 4-6 professional and personal individuals that you trust

  • I prepare a survey that you share with those individuals in order to solicit feedback about you as a person and as a professional

  • I share a report with you with feedback from the survey as well as insights from our conversation about your professional history

  • I facilitate conversations that allow us to explore the components of your professional future, like job environment, responsibilities, knowledge areas, etc.

  • We wrap up by exploring career opportunities that capture all of your “must-haves”

Because of the conversational nature of the process, I prefer to meet clients face-to-face. “Unsupervised homework” like targeted self-reflection allows me to facilitate a rich conversation while also reducing costs on your end.

Speaking of investment…

How much will this cost?

If you do a little Googling, you’ll find that career coaching services can run anywhere from $200 to $500 per session. Personally, I find this to be an exorbitant fee! Because I own my own business, work from home, and have minimal overhead expenses, I can keep my rates much lower than a traditional agency or career center.

My pricing strategy for Career Exploration is the same as pricing for my other services: I charge by the hour, and I only charge for time spent on your behalf. I keep my rates crazy-low (seriously, ask my clients!) to ensure that services are accessible for everyone. Yes, everyone, including anyone who is transitioning out of unemployment.

If you’re concerned about fitting this service into your budget, let me know and we will absolutely find a solution that works for you.

——————————

In the beta-testing of this service, I learned that it is one of the most fulfilling and impactful services that I could possibly offer. The opportunity to walk with my clients through a period of professional uncertainty is a true honor. It is a joy to explore with you, to dig into your professional life and see what we find. I delight in the moments when the lightbulbs switch on, when you uncover new possibilities and develop a deeper understanding of yourself as a professional.

If you or someone you know might benefit from a Career Exploration process, contact me today to get started. I’m excited to hear from you!

A Lesson from Patrick Rothfuss

For the last five weeks or so, I haven't been able to write. 

Okay, technically I've written a little. One day last week, I did a freewriting session to dump out all the crap in my brain. And after that, on Saturday morning, I made a list of blog posts I could write to reflect on my upcoming 30th birthday. I scribbled out a few to-do lists, shot off some emails, and did my usual writing on the client side.

Still, I haven't really been able to write. I haven't touched my novel draft, or my short story in-progress. I haven't sat down and brainstormed new ideas.

But that's not the worst part.

Five weeks isn't an alarmingly long period of time to have trouble writing. We've had some things going on...family health stuff, routine disruptions. Life happens, you know? But I didn't see it that way. Instead, I stared at myself in the mirror and came to the daily conclusion that I can't do this. I am failing. And it's never going to get better.

I accepted the fact that I wasn't writing, and adopted it as a rule of life. And that conclusion left me feeling--on top of everything else I was feeling--like a complete waste of space.

Then today happened. 

I hopped over to Goodreads to add a book to my "Want to Read" shelf. While I was there, a blog post from Patrick Rothfuss caught my eye.

Now, if you don't know who Patrick Rothfuss is, you should. He has written an astonishingly beautiful fantasy series that is in-progress: The Kingkiller Chronicles. The first two books are published along with a novella (#2.5). If you haven't read Patrick's work, I dare you to go get the first book (The Name of the Wind) and tell me it isn't well-written. You might not dig the genre or specifics or whatever, but it is an indisputable fact that Patrick Rothfuss knows how to write. The series is one of my favorites, and like many other readers, I eagerly await the day when he brings the trilogy to a close. 

Anyway, on to the blog post. I don't typically read Patrick's blog (or anyone else's really), but this one caught my eye. It's titled "A blog, if only barely," and in it, Patrick talks about why he hasn't been posting much. He shares feelings of exhaustion, busy-ness, and a lack of motivation. He talks about how lonely he is, how dark his moods have been, and how discouraging it is to feel like he doesn't have anything good to say. 

I read the post with wide eyes. It was like living the lyrics to "Killing Me Softly," minus the crippling fear of exposure.

Instead, I felt relief.

Of course it sucks that Patrick is in a bad place--I wouldn't wish that experience on anyone. But I was relieved because this amazing, inspired author whose work I respect is in a familiar place. He described something like the valley that I've been in this summer, and even with Patrick's massive reader base, he's still willing to write and put himself out there. He's willing to talk about the dark crap, even if it feels useless to do so. 

Patrick's words were exactly the kick in the pants I needed to write this blog post.

A few days ago, I was crying in the dining room, trying to explain how I'm feeling to Andrew. I told him I hate socializing right now, because I have nothing to say. People ask "How are you?" and the only honest answer is unacceptable in 99% of social settings. They ask "How's your writing going?" and I just want to crawl under the table and die. Outside of my dearest, inner-circle friends, I can't respond to "How are you?" with the truth.

Even now, with this lesson from Patrick Rothfuss at heart, I wouldn't answer the question honestly in most social settings. A dinner party is no place to dump my problems on the table, especially not with just anyone. I may be in a valley, but I still don't want to be a party pooper.

But my blog...well, it's mine. This is my space, and the only people who read this blog do it because they choose to. They know the content can get real, and they enter in anyway.

So on my blog, at least for today, I am choosing to tell the truth.

Things are pretty shitty. I haven't been writing. My overall self-esteem is in the toilet, and that's extending outside of my professional life. I drew out a literal Venn Diagram of potential mental health concerns that are contributing to my total absence of motivation, productivity, and self-esteem. I frequently stare at the computer screen, paralyzed by this false but prevailing catch-22: it doesn't matter if I write, yet it doesn't matter if I don't write. I know that concept is a lie, but it paralyzes me even so. 

I'm working on all of this. I'm actively seeking solutions for the mess that's going on in my heart and mind. But I think the most important thing to say right now is that things are bad. But I choose to sit here and write about it anyway, even though it's awkward and exposing.

This may seem to you (and me) like a small victory, but I'm still calling it a win. Thank you for reading. Thank you for all of the times you've told me that my writing matters, that I matter. You wonderful people are helping to sustain me in this season, and I could not be more thankful. 

One of the not-really-writing things that I wrote in the last week was a Facebook status on primary election day. It said, "Your voices matter." I can't help but grin just thinking of it! How ridiculous and mind-boggling is it that I can value everyone else's voices, but fail to appropriately value my own?

Cheers to the catharsis of speaking truth, my friends, even when the truth is less than shiny. And an extra special shoutout to Patrick Rothfuss for modeling vulnerability when the words are dark, and yet still worth sharing. And cheers to you, Patrick. May life get a little less crappy for us both, hopefully soon. 

Adventures in Michigan: Holland, Saugatuck, and Grand Rapids

Ah, vacation season! You've finally arrived!

Andrew and I have been calling 2018 "Do Everything Year," because we are literally doing all the things. We're (mostly) out of the ickiness that characterized the early part of our marriage. We're pre-kids. We're young and our expenses are manageable. No time like the present, right?

In planning our 2018 getaways, we didn't fully consider the big picture in regards to scheduling. Our vacations were scheduled for late June/early July, late August, and mid September. So for the first half of the year, we waited and waited and waited to get to this point! Now that we're finally here, we basically get to party for 3 months. Birthday Month (August) and Love Month (September) are already month-long celebrations in our family, and now we get to add Vacation Season into the mix! HUZZAH!

Our first vacation was a family trip to Western Michigan with Andrew's immediate family, coordinated by the world's best in-laws. Seriously, friends, I won the lottery when I married an incredible man, and as a bonus, he came with delightful parents. They sought out the family lodgings, and we ended up staying on the north side of Holland in a big lake-side vacation rental. 

The views were glorious.

OI000150.jpg

Also, this was our first trip with our brand new mirrorless camera, and thus we have even more photos than we would usually have of said glorious views!

OI000355.jpg
OI000368-HDR.jpg

We happened to be vacationing in a heat wave, which is unusual for the Holland area. Temps were in the 90s most of the time, and the house didn't have AC outside of a spare window unit or two. Eeek! Regardless, we managed to have a lovely time, enjoy the scenery, and explore the surprisingly abundant offerings of Holland, Saugatuck, and Grand Rapids. 

Holland, Michigan

If you like to be on the water, Holland is for you. There are plenty of opportunities to get active out on Lake Macatawa: paddle boarding, jet skiing, boating, tubing, and fishing to name a few. And just down the road, you can go to the beach and pretend you're looking at the ocean. Lake Michigan is certainly big enough to mimic a coastal beach environment! There are ice cream stands, hot dog shacks, and everything you might expect to find in close proximity to a beach. We enjoyed walking down to the General Store for some seriously yummy--albeit melty--ice cream with cousins and kids in tow.

OI000220.jpg

Alas, Andrew and I aren't beach people. I don't like being hot, and water creatures freak me out. Andrew also hates being hot, and prefers to be more active on vacation. But even with the beach and water activities out the window, we were not at a loss for things to do and see in Holland. The farmer's market is impressive, packed with great local produce and a surprising number of vendors. The downtown area is charming, lined with fun shops and restaurants in a compact, walkable area.

Our favorite downtown Holland find was Cherry Republic, a regional store connected with a farm that sells a bunch of products inspired by Andrew's favorite fruit. The original cherry salsa is a game-changer, and if you don't believe me, you can taste-test it in the retail store along with many other delectable goods like chocolate covered cherries, cherry barbecue sauce, and yes, cherry wines. But back to the salsa. Buy the salsa. Buy a jar, then buy a second and third jar to hide from your loved ones, because this stuff won't last long! 

By divine intervention, a delicious Dutch bakery had a location right down the road from our vacation rental, and people. Listen. The cake donuts and muffins were phenomenal. Ignore the regular donuts, they were mediocre. But the cake donuts and the muffins in flavors like lemon pistashio, cranberry orange, raspberry...oh goodness. I'm drooling. In fact, they were so good that I have zero photos to evidence the pastry feasting that occurred on multiple occasions. We ate them too quickly to even stop and consider taking a picture. Just go to Deboer Bakkerij and try the goodies for yourself. They also offer a full sit-down breakfast menu!

OI000158.jpg

The Dutch influence in Holland is hard to miss. The city was founded by Dutch Americans, and the remnants of that history are evident today. Almost everything in Holland shuts down on Sundays, for example. The Tulip Festival is legendary, and we hope to get up north for that some day. But year-round, attractions like Nelis' Dutch Village remind you that yes, indeed, you are in a town with Dutch history, and darn it, you will immerse yourself in it!

OI000155.jpg

Dutch Village is hard to explain. It's a kid-friendly attraction plopped down in a strip mall parking lot that attempts to recreate the ambiance of an actual Dutch Village. The result is something campy and touristy, but also weirdly charming and fun for young kids. Andrew and I visited entirely because of peer pressure, and with a good deal of reluctance--Dutch Village is not our normal vacation pit stop. But regardless, we had a fun time running around with our niece and nephew. The all-inclusive entry fee is stellar because you can hop on rides as many times as you want without juggling tickets or paying per ride.

OI000167.jpg

Dutch Village also features a petting zoo, including terrified bunnies who are daily harassed by toddlers. Poor lil bunnies. They're also for sale, which means a bunny could be permanently and irrevocably abducted by a not-so-gentle toddler! I wouldn't wish that sort of life upon any of the animals present, chickens and llamas included, but the kids love the animals. And I got my bunny snuggles in, too. Here's a photo of me trying to instill a particularly frightened bunny with telepathic vibes of calm and false safety.

OI000163.jpg

So, if you're looking for a place to let the kids run wild, ride a carousel, pet a bunny, or buy a custom pair of Dutch wooden shoes with your name burned into them, there you have it! Dutch Village has the whole package.

Saugatuck, Michigan

About 15 minutes south of Holland is Saugatuck, a teeny little lakeside town with an artsy vibe and a walkable shopping/gallery district. I cannot overstate how tiny this town is. You can easily walk the full shopping area in half a day, with plenty of time to wander and peruse the goods. There were a lot of B&B's and inns scattered around the town, which left us scratching our heads. Perhaps some people do spend more than half a day in Saugatuck.

We started our morning in Saugatuck at Grow, a cafe I selected in advance thanks to good ol' Google. 

OI000252.jpg

Our breakfast was so good that we went back to the restaurant a few hours later to grab a lavender lemonade, which was also delightful. We shared the off-menu daily special (smoked fish salad with pickled eggs, crudite, and crostini) as well as the carrot cake pancakes. The pancakes were good, but the smoked fish was downright heavenly. 

The service was excellent, our particular server was attentive and knowledgable, and we had an all-around fantastic experience. In the name of review integrity, I have to tell you that the patio chairs wreaked havoc on both of our backs. We actually went to the car, retrieved our ground camp chairs, and nestled them into the patio chairs to improve the experience. Never before have I loathed a chair that much. Uncomfortable seating aside, though, we would certainly return to Grow in the future.

The rest of our morning in Saugatuck was spent wandering the shops and art galleries. We didn't find anything that we actually wanted to buy, although we nearly walked away with some goodies from American Spoon, a gourmet grocer with tempting samples available for tasting. In general, the collection of shops and galleries in Saugatuck seemed scattered and random. It was a fun little day trip experience, but not the sort of place I'd want to stay for days at a time.

We wrapped up our time in Saugatuck with a large group lunch at Coral Gables, a large restaurant with a nice waterfront patio. The menu was basic, but the food was tasty and simple dishes like a veggie wrap had creative touches that were pleasantly surprising. Traditional American diners will be pleased with the gargantuan portion sizes. 

Grand Rapids, Michigan

Oh, Grand Rapids. What an unexpected delight you were!

Long before we actually left home for vacation, Andrew and I planned a half-day date excursion into Grand Raids, an easy 35-minute drive from Holland. We originally planned to go the botanical gardens, but it was a zillion degrees, so we opted for an indoor eating marathon instead. 

Our Google research helped us to hone in on the East Hills neighborhood for an afternoon and evening of foodie heaven. The neighborhood was lovely, walkable, and home to some of truly fantastic culinary finds.

We started the afternoon with a late lunch at The Electric Cheetah. This restaurant is officially my dining establishment spirit animal.

OI000289.jpg

For starters, the entire menu is Hamilton-themed, and bursting with so many references that I photographed the whole dang thing in stupid amounts of detail. 

Exhibit A:

Work! 

The kitchen specializes in craft root beer and mac and cheese. I mean, who came up with that combination? Weirdly, it works. We sampled two varieties of root beer and ordered "The Brothers Mac and Cheese Plate" per our server's thorough recommendation. Everything we consumed was magic, particularly the mac and cheese. 

In case you aren't sold yet, there's an unexplained Karate Kid reference on the back wall of the restaurant.

OI000287.jpg

And because the owners of this place are about as fun as humanly possible, there's a sandwich on the menu called The Yahtzee. When you're finished with your meal, a server delivers dice to your table on a tray. If you get a Yahtzee in three rolls, you can shout YAHTZEE! super loud and get your sandwich free of charge.

Ah! I miss the place already. 

From there, we wandered up to Lake Drive for a digestive respite. Le Bon Macaron was fine. The tea was fine, the atmosphere was fine. We didn't go for the macarons, so I can't speak to those. But after visiting The Electric Cheetah, something about the place left us feeling a little "meh." I probably wouldn't return unless I was really hankering for a place to sit down and drink tea pronto.

OI000295.jpg

Now that I'm spelling out this afternoon in Grand Rapids in writing, it sounds positively gluttonous, but I will press on regardless. From tea we walked next door to Brewery Vivant. Evidently, Grand Rapids has a CRAZY craft beer scene. There are microbreweries and pubs on every block, and the city has lovingly adopted the nickname "Beer City, USA." Founders is actually based out of Grand Rapids. Who knew, right?

Brewery Vivant piqued our interest for a few reasons. First, the beer reputation. Second, the food reputation. And third, the bar and dining area housed inside of an old chapel. The result is a warm, inviting neighborhood pub that just may be the grown-up (I mean, real?) version of the Great Hall in Harry Potter. Andrew and I both felt that we could've stayed there all day, eaten ourselves into blissful oblivion, and probably made a bunch of new friends amongst the local patrons.

OI000308-HDR.jpg

The menu was tempting on multiple counts. Since we had dinner reservations in a couple hours, we skipped the duck nachos, but obviously those would be worth a try! Instead, we opted for dessert and an appetizer from the seasonal menu: strawberry shortcake with grilled berries and a sweet biscuit, and the "bread and butter" platter with bone marrow herb butter, tart berry jam, and house-made spent grain bread.

Though the presentation left something to be desired, the food was excellent. I considered ordering a second round of strawberry shortcake because the biscuit was so tasty. And yep, you saw that right -- that's a photo of a demolished bread and butter plate, because again, too good to remember to photograph in advance. 

We also created our own beer flight, which allowed us to sample four of the brewery's finest. I loved the Tropical Saison, and Andrew, for some reason, was charmed by a limited seasonal release: rhe Blackberry Tart Side. Sours are definitely not my thing, but kudos to Vivant for pleasing my husband's selective palate.

We very nearly cancelled our dinner reservations and stayed put in the comfort of the hall, but our curiosity for dinner won out in the end. Keep doing your thing, Brewery Vivant. We'll definitely be back soon.

Grove is part of a Grand Rapids restaurant group called Essence that quickly rose to the top of our foodie dining list. Though the other restaurants were tempting, we elected to visit Grove because of a seasonally-inspired, creative American menu, and the option to order from a separate vegetarian menu was refreshing in that region. 

The flexibility of the menu was fun. We created our own tasting menu of smaller plates, sampling items from both the regular and vegetarian menus, and the resulting meal was a culinary adventure. We were both uncomfortably stuffed by the time we were done--to be expected with the food marathon we knowingly embarked upon--but we also finished the meal feeling immensely satisfied.

The vegetable carpaccio was appropriately light and refreshing for the hot outdoor temps. Yellow watermelon paired well with tomato tartare, ricotta vinaigrette, and herb tuille. Plus, the presentation was gorgeous. 

OI000319.jpg

The pea cheesecake was next, and it was the star of the show. Our waitress struggled to describe the dish when we asked about it, but after trying it, the dish title really is all you need. Imagine a savory cheesecake made from whipped pea puree and an everything bagel crust. It was unique, it was light, it was seasonal, and we loved everything about it. Perfection.

OI000318.jpg

From there, things got heavy. The duck egg raviolo was too tempting to ignore when perusing the menu, but unfortunately, the description was such that we weren't expecting it to be deep-fried. And deep-fried it was! Imagine a 3x5" ravioli deep-fried in duck fat, and then stuffed with a fried duck egg. Yummy? Of course. How could that not taste good? But it was also stupid and unnecessarily heavy. Why do so many chefs insist on frying things? Food tastes good without frying it. Cut it out, yo! I prefer to eat good stuff without destroying my insides.

OI000322.jpg

Alas, we ate the veggie hand pies with mushrooms after the duck egg raviolo, when we were just about ready to explode. That was a darn shame, too, because the hand pies were right up there with the pea cheescake. Presented with ramps, sauerkraut, maitake (mushroom) ketchup, and chili crema, this dish was surprising and packed a major flavor punch with every bite. Even after I felt that I could not possibly eat another bite of the hand pie itself, I couldn't refrain from eating sauerkraut smothered in the maitake ketchup and chili crema. The combination was absolutely genius. I mean, mushroom ketchup? Amazing.

OI000321.jpg

All in all, I wish we could have eaten in the East Hills neighborhood of Grand Rapids for an entire week. My belly limitations were irritating with such interesting and widespread culinary options laid out before us. Literally, all in one spot. Though we managed to cram three meals into six hours, we barely scratched the surface; we have yet to sample the goods at Cherie Inn, Furniture City Creamery, Maru Sushi, or the Green Well Gastropub, all on the same stinking block as Grove and Brewery Vivent! Man oh man. East Hills, you have captured my heart!

----

Kudos, Michigan. You surprised us! In particular, Grand Rapids is a great spot for the beer connoisseurs and foodie adventurers our there. Gas and food prices were a tad high compared to St. Louis, but other than that, Western Michigan offers an affordable, fun vacation spot that can probably keep just about anyone happy. 

Stay tuned for upcoming travel reviews of New York City, Paris, Dijon, Strasbourg, and Lucerne. Cheers to "Do Everything Year"! 

15 Interview Questions to Gauge Company Culture

During a job transition, it's tempting to focus on a one-sided approach. This is especially true in the interview setting: how do I get out of my current job and into something else? How do I get this company to hire me? 

While it's good and right to consider your professional brand, your interview skills, and your ability to ultimately land a new gig, it's just as important to look at the interview process as a two-way street. In addition to being the right person for the job, you need to verify that the employer is the right company for you. Fit is a two-way street!

I've served as a sounding board for countless friends, clients, and loved ones who felt blindsided and disappointed by unexpected, awful company cultures. Their comments generally sound something like this:

"It sounded so much better in the interview process!"
"This is so, so much worse than I expected it to be."
"The company doesn't treat people like people."
"There's no flexibility or opportunity to have a life outside of work."
"Everybody is exhausted and fed up with management."
"There are no opportunities to move up!"

Sound familiar? While the culture in the average American workplace is a mixed bag, not all employers are bad employers. But how can you gauge company culture before signing on for a new job? How do you preemptively identify cultural red flags instead of being startled by a churn-and-burn culture, or ineffective leadership?

The responsibility is on you as the interviewee to answer the culture question. You have to play the investigative role, and do your homework to get a full and accurate picture of a potential employer's company culture. Nobody is going to spoon-feed you the bad news in the interview setting; to get an accurate picture of company culture in advance, you need to ask the right questions.

15 Interview Questions to Gauge Company Culture

Topic #1: Tenure and Turnover

1. Why did the previous person in this role leave? How long was that person here? 

2. What is the average tenure on the team? What about the organization's rate of turnover overall?

3. (To the direct manager): how long have you been with this company? 

These questions aim to unearth one of the biggest red flags for poor company culture: a high rate of turnover. You might not get ultra-specific data, like the actual rate of turnover for the entire company -- but you can still get an indicative response regardless of the metrics you receive.

Pay attention to how the question is answered. If the interviewer seems to be dressing up their response, talking around the problem, or justifying high turnover, something is wrong. If everyone on the team is new, and the previous round of employees didn't last long, there's probably a major issue with the company culture. Run the other way unless 1) you are in desperate need of a paycheck and 2) you are prepared to accept the consequences of a bad company culture.

Topic #2: Employee Engagement Efforts

4. What does the company offer to encourage and foster professional development?

5. How do managers provide feedback? Can I see an example evaluation form? What time of year are these performance reviews conducted?

6. Does the company have an organized Diversity and Inclusion effort? How does that department impact the culture of the organization in practical ways?

7. How does the company measure and celebrate success?

Good employers go out of their way to ensure their employees feel valued and engaged. Good employers are also smart employers -- they know that happy employees do better work! Use these interview questions to determine how the company invests in its employees. If there seems to be an absence of employee engagement initiatives, you might be walking into a company that treats employees more like bottom-line-driven robots. 

Topic #3: Leadership Styles

8. (To the direct manager): What is your leadership style? What about the second level manager, or the executives of the organization?

9. What impact do the middle and upper-management leaders have on the company's culture?

10. What is the biggest challenge this company faced in the last year or two? How was it addressed? 

11. What growth opportunities do you see for the organization as a whole? How about this specific team?

Leaders at various levels influence the culture of an organization, as well as the culture of independent teams and departments. Liking your direct supervisor in the interview isn't enough -- if your second-level manager and/or the company executives are ineffective, that void of leadership will trickle down and negatively impact your experience. Yes, those individuals might leave and be replaced some day. But if you see evidence of poor leadership at multiple points in the organization, that begs an important question: why are those people in leadership roles? 

Topic #4: Team Culture

12. Can I see the work space?

13. What do people on the team generally do for lunch? What about the organization as a whole?

14. What is the biggest problem that the team faced in the last year or two? How was it resolved, and what did you learn from that experience? If you could change anything about this team's culture, what would it be?

15. Are most people in the office during the same time frame every day? What work arrangements are currently represented on the team (remote, flexible schedules, etc.)?

The idea with this category of questions is to get a tangible, practical sense of the office culture. Check out the vibe in the work space. Do people seem engaged, or is there a thick cloud of dissatisfaction hanging over the entire room? Are people engaging with one another, or keeping their heads down to get out as quickly as possible?

This is also a great opportunity to determine how rigid the schedule expectations are, especially if you need flexible work arrangements in order to make the job work for you. Asking a general question about existing work arrangements is safer than demanding your own arrangements, especially in the early stages of the interview process. 

Beyond the Interview

While the interview is an excellent avenue for gauging company culture, it is not the only way to gather information. With a little bit of extra effort, you can uncover insider details about the company and avoid a nightmare employer in the process. 

Here are 3 ways to gauge culture outside of the interview process:

1. Ask your Network

Know somebody on the inside of the organization? Wonderful! Even if you don't, ask around your network. It's likely that someone you know has heard from employees on the inside, or can connect you with a current employee directly. (Hint: you should have already done this as a part of the application process!) 

Buy an existing employee a cup of coffee, and ask them for their honest opinion about the company culture. If the culture happens to be a negative one, you won't have to work hard to get them talking about those internal problems!

2. Read Company Reviews

Websites like Glassdoor offer user-submitted company reviews, including salary information, and anonymous pros and cons for the organization. Be sure to sort reviews by location for multi-site companies, and pay the closest attention to recent reviews from current employees, ideally in relevant roles or departments.

3. Check out Career Paths on LinkedIn

Yes, they might see you looking, but it's worth it to check out the LinkedIn profiles and professional histories for the people on your prospective team. This is another way to verify employee tenure, check turnover rates, and see if promotions or management-level hires are made internally or externally. Dig around, pay attention to trends, and see what you come up with. 

Summary: Red Flags to Note

If you're looking for a full-time job, you're going to spend an average of 1,811 hours per year on the job. That's a lot of time! Don't set yourself up for a miserable professional experience.

Instead, pay attention to these red flags for unhealthy, negative company culture:

  • Frequent turnover
  • Absence of employee engagement efforts
  • "Put your head down and work" vibe, anti-social culture
  • Expectations that don't suit your individual needs (ie: flexible work arrangements)

There's one other red flag that we haven't touched on yet, and it is one of the most tempting red flags to ignore: inaccurate titles paired with out-of-range pay. 

Sure, it's common--especially in younger companies--for organizations to get creative with job titles. But if you're offered a management title paired with lower-level job responsibilities and inexplicably high pay, the company might have a churn-and-burn culture. They're losing people so quickly that they have to offer new hires up-front incentive to convince them to sign on! This is not the sort of place you want to be. 

Do your research, and know the appropriate salary range going in so you 1) know what to expect and 2) are prepared to negotiate. 

-----------

Ready for more job transition resources? Study up on common interview mistakes, or visit the FAQ page for Job Seekers to explore a broader range of topics.

In Defense of Sad Songs

About a year ago, I was at the theatre with Andrew and a couple of friends waiting for Cabaret to begin. I was the only one in our group who had seen the show before, and I was pumped; I adore Cabaret. Given the content and what I knew of our friends’ preferences, I warned everyone that it was a sad show, and a tad dark. 

My friend turned to me, her smile evaporating into a grave expression. “Sadder than Les Mis?”

I laughed for a long time, and tried to imagine a sadness scale that peaked at a musical infused with the hope of redemption; I couldn’t begin to fathom such a perspective, but was absolutely delighted for her. 

“Yes, sadder than Les Mis,” I choked out. “A lot sadder than Les Mis.”

More conversation ensued, and at some point my friend asked, “Why do you like Cabaret if it’s so sad?”

“I like a lot of sad shows, and sad songs in general.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Really? Why?”

Why indeed? It wasn’t the first time someone had raised an eyebrow over my preference for sad songs, but it was the first time someone directly asked my why. At the time, I had no idea how to answer her. I stumbled through a piece-meal explanation, and ultimately, I came up empty-handed. But the question lingered in my mind, and has buzzed around my brain ever since. This is my attempt at unearthing a thorough—albeit belated—response.

——

My friend was not completely off-base when she said Les Mis is sad.

If I have it right, I was eight or nine years old when I saw Les Miserables on stage for the first time. Our family had a deep-rooted obsession with the story, particularly on my dad’s side of the family, so taking an eight-year-old to see a production with prostitutes in it was perfectly rational. After all, we already played the soundtrack on repeat at home, and regularly wore out the VHS of the 10th Anniversary concert edition. 

So I went to the Murat Theatre in Indianapolis, and sat perched in my seat with my feet tucked up under me for a better view. I hardly dared to breathe lest I interrupt the story unfolding on stage. When it was over, rumor has it that I turned to my mom and asked, “Can we watch it again?” As if it was a VHS tape with a rewind function. 

Even before I was old enough to understand the complicated adult themes explored in Les Miserables, I was drawn to the music, and specifically to Eponine and Fantine. Something about those women and their pain sent an arrow of truth into my tiny, innocent little heart. I felt understood, known, and heard, even though I had no idea why. Their ballads full of longing and sadness confirmed something inside me, a question buried in myself that I couldn’t quite pinpoint. All I knew is that the affirmation felt good, and thus I clung to the music of Les Mis as if it were a part of my very self.

— — 

As a child of the 90s, I was caught up in the boy band fever that characterized the decade. Later on, I claimed allegiance to the Backstreet Boys, but my first boy band crush was Taylor, the middle brother of Hanson. What a devoted fan I was! I saw Hanson in concert, wore out VHS tapes that catalogued their musical journey, and listened to the CDs religiously. And you know what? I stand by that preference as a solid one. How often do pop singers write their own music AND play their own instruments?

There was something more compelling about Hanson than the cute boys and upbeat tunes. Yes, “Mmbop” was catchy as hell, but it wasn’t my favorite of Hanson’s songs. Instead, alone in my room, I played “Weird” on repeat. Looking at the lyrics now, it’s astonishing how much truth was packed into lyrics written by teenage boys:

Isn't it hard
Standing in the rain?
You're on the verge of going crazy and your heart's in pain
No one can hear, but you're screaming so loud
You feel like you're all alone in a faceless crowd
Isn't it strange how we all get a little bit weird sometimes?

Sitting on the side
Waiting for a sign
Hoping that my luck will change
Reaching for a hand that can understand
Someone who feels the same

When you live in a cookie-cutter world, being different is a sin
So you don't stand out
But you don't fit in
Weird, whoa, oh

Yes, the lyrics are drenched in teenage angst. But they also speak to the common human experience of longing to connect, to be seen and accepted as we are. That is a desire that lives in hearts of all ages, regardless of musical preference, whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not. 

At age 10, I couldn’t name that hole in my heart. But I knew Hanson’s lyrics were calling out to the empty space, and for that, they earned my undying devotion until I moved on to my next phase.

—— 

Music and theatre were natural outlets for me as an emotional, over-achieving adolescent. I auditioned for roles in community theatre productions as well as school shows, and I committed myself fully to every cast and role. I felt known in the theatre scene, delighted to be a part of a zany family that shared a common passion. We pretended to be someone else on stage together, and conveyed stories that ranged from absurd to frivolous to heartfelt.

One summer in high school, I attended a theatre camp at Indiana University. For a week, we had workshops in acting, movement, and musical theatre led by students and faculty at IU. We slept in the campus dorms, rehearsed in the common areas in our spare time, and gushed about our dream roles. My memories of that week are fond, brimming with energy, drama, and junk food. 

Our final performance capped off the weel with a series of scenes and presentations for our friends and family. There were comedic and dramatic scenes, monologues, and musical theatre excerpts. Hell, they cast me as Elphaba in a scene from Wicked! You might expect that to have been my crowning moment, but it wasn’t. Instead, I relished the movement presentation, a choreographed routine set to “Evaporated” by Ben Folds Five. It wasn’t a dance, per se. It was more an opportunity to immerse oneself in the heart of a song, to enhance the message of the lyrics through movement and acting.

Here I stand, sad and free
I can't cry, I can't see
What I've done
Oh, God, what have I done?

Don't you know I'm numb, man? No I can't feel a thing at all
'Cause it's all smiles and business these days and I'm indifferent to the loss

And I've faith that there’s a soul somewhere that's leading me around
I wonder if she knows which way is down

Here I stand, sad and free
And I can't cry and I can't see
What I've done
Oh, God, what have I done?

And I poured my heart out
I poured my heart out
It evaporated, see

Blind man on a canyon's edge of a panoramic scene
Or maybe I'm a kite that's flying high and random dangling a string
Or slumped over in a vacant room, head on a stranger's knee
I'm sure back home they think I've lost my mind

Here I stand, sad and free
I can't cry and I can't see
What I've done
Oh, God, what have I done?

We rehearsed that movement routine over, and over, and over leading up to the final presentation, and I never tired of it. I never tired of the song, of pouring my experiences and emotions out into the world with a freaking fantastic, heart-wrenching song as the medium. I savored the moments in rehearsal or on stage with my fellow actors, relishing the unity as their emotions mingled with my own, and knowing that we were connected in our longing. It was pure magic, and if I could step into a rehearsal room with them right now and do it again, I would be able to recall every step. 

— — 

My junior year of high school was one of my best, but as it came to a close, I wrestled with the reality that I would be left behind. Almost all of my friends were seniors, and I was being abandoned, restrained from the growth and freedom I so desired, only to be held back in a juvenile prison, a waiting room for my future to begin. My friends were off to college in various states. My boyfriend was graduating and moving out of town with the rest of them. Half of my choir friends would be gone, and I feared all of these friends would leave without knowing the full measure of my love for them. The ache felt trapped in my chest, and I finally released it through a reliable channel: I wrote. In that case, I wrote a song.

The first draft of the song poured out of me in one sitting, like a dam bursting. I fine-tuned the details for weeks, but it was mostly finished from the moment it hit the page. The compulsion to communicate how desperately I wanted to go with them, to honor their relational impact on my life…it was too strong to resist. The emotions could not be contained by my body, so the music was born.

The song wasn’t an award-winner, but it served its purpose. I invited the seniors to my open mic performance at the end of the school year and made sure they knew it was important they attend. I sang my song, and I cried through the end of it:

I know that you must go, my friends
Your time here is running out
Soon, you’ll start on a great journey
Go the distance on an unknown route
And though I’ll thank God for each one of you every waking day
It’s so hard to say…goodbye.

Though in time you will be gone, and I will remain
Here you’ll always stay, yes you’ll always stay inside.

I remember one friend’s response in particular. Her eyes were wide as she hugged me, surprised and awed that someone felt that much for her. She was astonished by the depth of sadness I expressed, and the high value I placed on our friendship. She cried. I cried. We connected at a level that I had no other way to facilitate, and I felt a sweet catharsis in the confidence that my friends knew. They would leave, yes, but they would leave having seen me, and having known me fully, with my heart open wide for them to read. 

— — 

My undergraduate years were a low point in my life, a period of darkness and confusion that I hesitate to recollect. I was lost, depressed, dealing with undiagnosed anxiety, and I was a slave to my own foolish decisions. There were many times when I felt so lonely and lost that I couldn’t begin to find a way to ask for help. I couldn’t find the energy, the words, or even a general direction to crawl in.

I would wander the campus at night, find a secluded spot to sit, and cry. I didn’t know who I wanted to find me; I only knew that I desperately needed to be found. With a heavy heart, I sat on shadowy benches or at the top of a fire escape, and I waited for a nameless someone who never came. The lyrics of “Grey Street” by Dave Matthews Band were my only companion, the voice that spoke into my pain and said, Yes, I know. It wasn’t enough to make everything better, but it was better than feeling utter hopelessness and anonymity.

There's an emptiness inside her
And she'd do anything to fill it in
And though it's red blood bleeding from her now
It’s more like cold blue ice in her heart
She feels like kicking out all the windows
And setting fire to this life
She would change everything about her
Using colors bold and bright
But all the colors mix together
To grey
And it breaks her heart
It breaks her heart
To grey

——

My longest dating relationship pre-husband ended in my junior year of college. We’d dated for several years, spanning crucial formative years for me as a teen becoming a young adult. I had no idea who I was without that young man in my life, or how to move forward and find myself in his absence. 

After we broke up, I spent the next summer working as a tour guide at my college. The Admissions office was located in a large building, down the hall from an auditorium. That auditorium sat several hundred people, but was rarely in use during the day, especially during the summer. And there was a grand piano on the stage.

On my lunch break, or even on a longer bathroom break when the day was dragging, I would creep into the shadowy auditorium. Soft light filtered in through stained glass windows along the sides of the room. I crept down the center aisle, just far enough to crane my neck out and see if the light was on in the balcony sound booth. If I saw the light on, I retreated immediately, my heart racing in fear of being caught. But more often than not, the light was off, and the auditorium was vacant and welcoming.

The grand piano on the stage called to me without ceasing. As soon as I knew I was alone, I raced down the aisle and up the steps to the stage. To this day, I still have no idea if I was breaking any rules by playing that piano. They didn’t lock the key cover, and they could have. Other pianos on campus had locks like that. The absence of a lock was the only permission I needed. 

Now that I think about it, I’ve never claimed to be stealthy or subtle. The room wasn’t sound proof, and thus the music must have poured into the hallway. The light booth guy probably caught me in there on multiple occasions, and let me stay and play my song out of quiet heroism. Maybe he listened to me sing. Maybe he’d lost someone, too.

I don’t remember learning the song, the lyrics, or the chords. All I remember is sneaking into the auditorium and sending my voice out into the empty space. Daily, for an entire summer, I sang the same song without variation.

I don't know if our fate's already sealed
This day's a spinning circus on a wheel
And I'm ill with the thought of your kiss
Coffee-laced, intoxicating on her lips

Shut it out
I've got no claim on you now
I’m not allowed
To wear your freedom down, no

Is there a chance, a fragment of light
At the end of the tunnel, a reason to fight?
Is there a chance you may change your mind
Or are we ashes and wine?

And I'll tear myself away
If that’s what you need
Then there’s nothing left to say

But… is there a chance, a fragment of light
At the end of the tunnel, a reason to fight?
Is there a chance you may change your mind
Or are we ashes…
Reduced to ashes…
Are we just ashes…?

I never wanted to stop singing that song, even though it was painful to do so. At some point it got easier to sit down and release the words, a ritual. Eventually, much farther along than I’d care to admit, I was surprised to realize that I’d stopped sneaking into the auditorium. One day, I woke up and didn’t need the song anymore. Lyrics carried me through a summer, and then released me into the next part of my journey with well wishes and a healed heart. 

—— 

Andrew snuck into my life like a ninja; neither one of us remembers meeting the other. We got to know one another from a distance for quite awhile, and then started dating. After a few months, I broke up with him because I wasn’t ready for him yet. A few months later, we were friends, and then we became good friends. About a year after our first round of dating, I humbled myself and told him I changed my mind. I asked him to give us another shot. By the grace of God, he said yes.

One of the defining moments in my relationship with Andrew happened that second time around in our dating journey. We were sitting on the couch in his condo, just talking. He’d asked me a question about physical intimacy, about whether or not there were any triggers from my past that he might not anticipate, any otherwise-innocent words or actions he should avoid to protect my heart. What a man I have! 

In response, I laughed. “You couldn’t sink low enough, you’re too good a person. Just don’t, I don’t know…don’t lock me in a bathroom and make me do anything I don’t want to do. We should be good, then!” 

I laughed again.

His face fell, and his eyes widened. “Someone did that to you?”

My brow furrowed, but I nodded. 

Tears filled his eyes. 

Andrew is not a crier. I can easily recall the few occasions when he has cried, but none of those moments touched my heart as this one did. He cried over a passing mention of my sexual abuse history, a detail that was minor to me and easy to dismiss. He communicated anger that someone would treat me that way, of course, but mostly he shared a profound experience of grief. His sadness mirrored mine, and nobody had ever responded that way before. I looked at him and saw someone who knew me, a kind, gentle man who understood and cared for my heart. In a way, he sang a sad song, one I thought nobody knew the lyrics for except me. He saw how much my past hurt me, and his heart said “Yes, beloved, I know.” 

— — 

Our first year of marriage was hijacked by some really awful external crap; everything but our marriage blew up in our faces. The biggest bomb that was dropped in our lives was a friendship that turned manipulative, and then spiritually abusive. We were submerged in that toxicity for about a year. Afterwards, we tried to pick up the pieces, but we didn’t have the energy. We were in survival mode, and it was miserable.

Because someone had used the beautiful, perfect Word of God as a weapon against me, going to church was hard. We tried going anyway. I sat in the service while people sang songs of praise, clapping their hands and dancing for joy. Particularly at that church, I did not belong. There was little if no emphasis on the broken people in the room, or opportunities for lament built into the structure of the service. It was deeply isolating, being heartbroken and wounded in a sea of smiling people. Being there wasn’t helpful. Sometimes I cried through the entire service, so we stopped attending altogether.

Outside of church, left to my own devices, I found the song I was hungering for. ”Jesus I My Cross Have Taken” became my daily plea. On a regular impulse, I would grab my guitar and choke out the hymn through tears, a groaning prayer that I knew the Spirit would complete on my behalf. It was all I could do to push through the first verses, acknowledge the promise of suffering for followers of Christ, and look ahead to the restoration and healing that I knew God would deliver some day. 

Jesus, I my cross have taken, 
All to leave and follow Thee. 
Destitute, despised, forsaken, 
Thou from hence my all shall be. 
Perish every fond ambition, 
All I’ve sought or hoped or known. 
Yet how rich is my condition! 
God and heaven are still my own.

Let the world despise and leave me, 
They have left my Savior, too. 
Human hearts and looks deceive me; 
Thou art not, like them, untrue. 
O while Thou dost smile upon me, 
God of wisdom, love, and might, 
Foes may hate and friends disown me, 
Show Thy face and all is bright.

Man may trouble and distress me, 
’will but drive me to Thy breast. 
Life with trials hard may press me; 
Heaven will bring me sweeter rest. 
Oh, ’is not in grief to harm me
While Thy love is left to me; 
Oh, ’were not in joy to charm me, 
Were that joy unmixed with Thee.

Go, then, earthly fame and treasure, 
Come disaster, scorn and pain
In Thy service, pain is pleasure, 
With Thy favor, loss is gain
I have called Thee Abba Father, 
I have stayed my heart on Thee
Storms may howl, and clouds may gather; 
All must work for good to me.

Soul, then know thy full salvation
Rise o’er sin and fear and care
Joy to find in every station, 
Something still to do or bear. 
Think what Spirit dwells within thee, 
Think what Father’s smiles are thine, 
Think that Jesus died to win thee, 
Child of heaven, canst thou repine?

Haste thee on from grace to glory, 
Armed by faith, and winged by prayer. 
Heaven’’ eternal days before thee, 
God’’ own hand shall guide us there. 
Soon shall close thy earthly mission, 
Soon shall pass thy pilgrim days, 
Hope shall change to glad fruition, 
Faith to sight, and prayer to praise.

In the midst of brokenness, confusion, anger, complex-PTSD, and spiritual doubt, I found the joy that only the Lord can give. God gifted that joy to me in a way He knew I would be able to receive, even when I was so pissed at Him that I refused to pray or even “let him in the door.” For almost a year, God let me be. He kept a respectful distance and sent a gift by mail, a sad hymn that He knew I needed. I clung to the song, and it carried me through.

— — 

I like sad songs because they are honest. There is something unifying and right in collectively acknowledging our pain, our sadness, our longing and our disappointments. I defend sad songs because I am hungry for the acceptance of emotional honesty in our world, and especially in our church.

There is a poisonous trend in our culture that has influenced the culture of the church;  that trend suggests we must be happy, and anything other than happiness and plastered-on gratitude is wrong. Psychologist Susan David describes this as a cultural value of relentless positivity. Her Ted Talk titled “The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage” is fifteen minutes of gut-punching truth about how toxic our rigid approach to emotion truly is. We’ve characterized valid, normal emotions like sadness and grief as bad! It’s one thing for the secular culture to promote this lie, that we must be happy or we are bad. It is another thing entirely to see that lie infecting the church. 

The Christian Church is a body of individuals who follow Jesus and claim Him as Savior. The Bible is the Word of God, and the compass of the church. And what does that Bible tell us? Jesus suffered. Jesus wept. Jesus blessed those who mourn. The Psalms are full of longing and heartache, danger and profound pain. I mean, there is an entire book of the Bible called Lamentations, people! As in lament, “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow.” We are promised that as Christians, we will experience pain and suffering, that we will bear the cross of Christ in this lifetime. Why is the church not leading the way in creating space for people to lament? Why are there so few songs about fear, sadness, pain, loss, regret, anger, and doubt? Why do hurting people feel isolated and exposed when they step in the door of a church?

I mean no offense to any of my friends, or any particular churches I’ve attended. There are good steps being taken in the right direction toward emotional honesty and courageous vulnerability. But it is simply not enough, and it is still too rare for someone to answer “How are you?” with a truthful response on a Sunday morning. 

As Susan David mentions in her talk, I’m not anti-happiness!  I celebrate the sunny days and laugh with my loved ones. I praise God for the innumerable blessings in my life, and the joy that cannot be taken from me. But enjoying happiness isn’t a reason to negate the valid and important moments of weeping, aching, and grieving. 

Musicians and songwriters have poured their hearts out so that people like me can find consolation when nobody else knows what to say, or how to help. I defend sad songs because they honor the life-giving connection that is established when we share the heaviness of our pain with one another, through our art, our friendship, or our wordless, comforting presence. In today’s world, I will accept that gift of togetherness in the midst of pain, and I will cherish it openly, no matter how unfashionable that may be. 

7 Tips to Survive a Group Writing Critique

In January, I started attending a Meetup group for area writers. It's the bomb, and the group has quickly become an important tool and monthly boost for me as I continue to grow as a writer.

Last week, I participated in my first group writing critique. Broken into two groups, twenty people spoke one-by-one about my submission and told me everything that was wrong with my writing. Each individual critiqued my story live, in front of me, and in front of everyone else present. 

Leading up to that night, I was scared out of my mind. My previous experience with writing critiques was pretty much nonexistent prior to joining this group, and while I knew I would receive helpful feedback, I also knew that the process would be overwhelming for me. Anxiety and verbal processing do not mix well with this sort of exercise!

Now that I'm on the other side of the critique, I can celebrate my own courage in submitting at all, as well as my composure throughout the evening. Seriously, maintaining my composure was a victory worth noting. There were some challenging moments--more on those below!--and I believe I managed to maintain most of my dignity despite some awkward comments. Huzzah!

Overall, I learned a lot from the critique experience, and in this post I share some tips for any of you who may be considering a group critique submission in your own writing journey. 

7 Tips to Survive a Group Writing Critique

#1: Participate Before You Submit

Before I submitted my own piece, I attended four Meetups and participated in all four critiques as a reader. In doing so, I got a good sense of what to expect in terms of both process and people.

I had four opportunities to hear the rules, and to see how closely people followed them. From participating as a reader, I knew I would be sitting in a circle of individuals in a tight space, and that I would feel exposed as a result. I knew that some people would offer more constructive and helpful criticism than others. In particular, I knew there was one individual who would be unhelpful in his critique, regardless of his intentions. I knew I could expect him to offer unnecessarily harsh personal comments instead of constructive, respectful criticism. And I was ready for him.

Because I attended and knew what to expect, there were fewer surprises. I had more capacity to listen and take notes, and was less blind-sided by the logistics. 

#2: Provide Context

Though the rules may vary, you will generally have an opportunity to introduce your work. This is your golden opportunity to describe your piece, define your audience, and ask for what you need. Explain the intended impact, and name any concerns you have that you'd like the critique participants to address. For example, if you're worried that your main character is boring, say so!

As a part of this context, you need to know the intended audience for your submitted piece. This helps for a number of reasons, and quite frankly, you should know this long before you submit! If a piece is ready for group critique, it should be in good enough condition for you to describe the ideal reader. Have a sense of age/demographic/genre for your piece. Know and name that audience as you introduce your piece. 

You might even find it helpful to categorize your experience with writing, or your level of comfort with the critique process. For example, after introducing my story I added, "Also, FYI this is my first critique, and I'm scared." Vulnerable? Yes. Helpful? Probably. In most cases, I believe I got critiques that were tailored to my experience as a writer and were easy to digest at this point in my career. I would say that 95% of the participants respected that context and adjusted accordingly. 

In the future, I look forward to sitting down with my critique group, explaining my piece, and saying "Lay it on me! This is a solid draft. I know what I'm doing and I want all the constructive feedback you can give me. Do your worst." Until then, there's no harm in saying that I'm new to this and need the "big problems" identified more than the less severe nit-picked offenses. 

#3: Capture the Comments

This goes without saying, but for the sake of appropriate and thorough preparation, be ready to take notes! You can sort through the individual comments later, but be sure to capture all that is said. Bring a laptop, write notes by hand, capture audio (with the group's permission), or whatever works for you. Regardless of the medium, come prepared, and make sure you have what you need to get all the details down. 

If you're like me and are freaked out by the prospect of submitting for critique, taking notes is a particularly helpful tool for you. The act of taking notes allows you to disconnect emotionally from the process. You have a job to do, so you can focus on transcribing notes instead of letting the comments sink in too much. By taking notes, you might even protect yourself from overanalyzing what is said, or taking unhelpful comments too personally.

On top of that, you walk away with a good record of the group's feedback which you can reference after the critique is over, when the adrenaline has settled. 

#4: Look for Common Threads

Twenty individuals served up a LOT of feedback during my critique sessions, and it was a little overwhelming to sort through, even when I was home with my notes. To help analyze and organize the feedback for application, I found it helpful to look for common threads. What was consistently named as an issue, by multiple participants? Sure, one line of the text may not have registered for one or two readers. A reference flew over somebody's head. But the majority response is what you want to focus on, especially when considering comments from participants within your "ideal reader" demographic.

Depending on the quality of your critique group and the specific feedback you get, some of these common threads might be drawn for you. During the conversation, pay attention as participants build upon one another's perspectives.

For example, a member of one group noted that several people expressed varying levels of responses to the emotional tone of my story. He accurately diagnosed the issue by pointing to the lack of situational context at the beginning of the piece--that was a gap that I left for the audience to fill in, but the gap didn't serve me well because the responses were so varied. By providing more context up front, I could more effectively contain and direct the reader's response to the character's emotions, thus eliminating the varying concerns that participants expressed about the emotional range of the story. 

If nobody is drawing these connections for you, that's ok! Look for them as you read through your notes. What threads can be tied between comments that fall into the same category, even if they might not be presented from the same perspective? What is the root of the obstacles your readers butt up against? Find the common threads, and note those as the most prevalent issues. 

#5: Celebrate Your Strengths

One of the most beneficial outcomes of my experience is that I know I'm doing some things right! Having never shared my writing for critique before, it was difficult to gauge my own abilities.

Through the critique process, I learned that I have a good grasp of humor and voice. I learned that I have some solid pacing instincts, and naturally incorporate devices that serve the story well in terms of theme and pacing. I learned that the quality of my writing is good enough that people weren't hung up on grammatical issues and mechanics. Finally, and surprisingly, I learned that I can write about sensitive and divisive subjects like faith without alienating readers of different viewpoints. 

If I hadn't participated in the critique, I would never have known these things for sure! It is affirming and encouraging to have these strengths noted, and to have that opportunity to celebrate my "wins" as a writer. 

Writing in itself is fraught with opportunities for self-criticism and self-doubt. We read what we wrote yesterday and feel like banging our heads against the wall because it's so terrible! So even if you only get a small number of positive comments, or maybe there's only one thing you do well, I invite you to marinate in that reality for a few minutes. Celebrate what you got right, and delight in the fact that you are not starting from square one!

#6: Disregard the Haters

As I was preparing for my first critique experience, I was nervous as hell. One of my dear writer friends offered a bit of advice that was tremendously helpful: "It's easy to critique somebody else's work and tear it to shreds. It's much harder to produce that work, much less share it, so you have already succeeded by writing and submitting!"

While you might be tempted to call that advice sentimental, it is also entirely true. We live in a critical, self-centered culture that has been raised on internet comment sections. People are downright careless and disrespectful online, and that attitude occasionally translates in a live critique. From one perspective, I see why. The framework is set up for it; as a critique participant, you literally have permission to openly and thoroughly criticize someone's work. Why wouldn't some people run with that permission?

But it's also true that writing is profoundly personal. In my case, the piece was extra personal; I submitted an autobiographical essay about a challenging day when I was fed up and emotionally wrecked (based on a previous blog post). I introduced the piece as being 100% true, and about me. I set up the context and hoped that people would respect it.

For the most part, everyone did. But there was that one individual I knew would take it too far, and even though I expected some negativity, his comments caught me off guard. To be fair, I believe his intentions were good and that he simply does not understand how to critique effectively and respectfully. Whatever his motives, without accurately naming the problem or providing a constructive comment, he stated that my 'character' (AKA me!) was completely dislikable because she was a brat and had the emotional range of a 9 year-old. Ouch!

Yes, that was a pretty major burn. But it was also laughably unprofessional and useless as a critique. I don't know what inspired him to frame his critique so personally and harshly, but I made a solid effort to disregard his comments entirely. I redacted his comments in my notes and highlighted more constructive, related comments from other participants. Thanks to the other feedback I received, I identified the underlying issue that his comments were rooted in without having to linger on his specific wording.

As with many things in your writing journey, take what is helpful and leave what is not. Your work is not defined by the haters, and there is no value in lingering on that 'feedback.' Instead, focus on what you can actually do to improve, and on the comments that were presented in the appropriate spirit of constructive criticism!

#7: Identify Growth Opportunities

After the sweating and note-taking is behind you, you come home--blessedly alone!-- with your mountain of notes. You sort through the stack of comments and pull out common themes. At that point, it's time to translate those major points into growth opportunities.

Yes, by all means edit your submission according to the critique feedback! Fix the problems, and improve the piece. But what can you take away from these comments that will translate across the full spectrum of your work? What are the overarching "bad habits" you've developed, and what is submission-specific? 

From my critique, I learned several valuable lessons that apply beyond the scope of my submitted story:

  • I learned that autobiographical writing is particularly prone to gaps on the page -- because the entire experience is in my head to begin with, it's easier to leave out crucial context or information.
  • I learned to avoid text devices that frustrate the reader, like blocks of all-caps text rants.
  • I learned to provide the appropriate context so that I have more control over the reader's response.
  • I learned that it is dangerously easy to offend people regardless of my best intentions, and that I need to amp up my caution or prepare for some backlash.
  • I learned that I utilize good storytelling devices, but don't necessarily carry those through the full piece. I have a tendency to let those devices fall away, and do not maximize their effectiveness as a result. 

That's a good amount of feedback that I can apply to my future work, and those are just the highlights!

----

Yes, critique groups can be scary, but if you can find one that has some ground rules and captures a good variety of perspectives, the feedback is invaluable for you as a writer. I invite you to take the plunge and share your writing for critique. Use the tips above to get you ready for the experience, but believe that you will walk away with some fruit for your efforts.

Trust me...if I can do it, I promise you can get through it, too! 

The Power of Having 'My People'

April has been a bit of a bust, friends.

My most recent post was published on April 6 (three weeks ago -- yikes!), and on April 7, the following morning, a giant SUV pulled out into the middle of the road to turn left. We were chugging along minding our own business, talking about where to plant the flowers we'd just purchased from the Butterfly House. We were going about 40 MPH, and the SUV driver didn't look to see us coming.  

It was absolutely horrifying. I was driving. The air bags deployed, and the car smelled like it was about to explode. Andrew was a pillar of strength and stability. He took control of the situation, got me out of the car, spoke with the police, and conversed with the irrationally angry guilty party. Meanwhile, I mostly sat on the side of the road shaking and crying. A few angelic strangers stopped and held my hand for a minute, assuring me that everything was going to be fine, and that it was perfectly acceptable to be rattled after something like that. (Bless you, strangers, wherever you are!)

Mercifully, Andrew and I walked away with no major injuries. We've definitely experienced some whiplash/muscular discomfort, and I had a first degree burn and bruising on my forearm from the airbag. But we walked away, and it could have been a heck of a lot worse than that. 

Nonetheless, car accidents are followed by a MOUNTAIN of grown-up stuff. I spent gobs of time on the phone with various insurance representatives, trying to get everything sorted out. The other party's insurance company was not cooperating with us. It took almost a week to learn that my car was indeed totaled, and that we would be getting a total loss payout. It took two weeks for me to get a rental car, for a variety of reasons. Finally, we had to involve our own insurance to get everything taken care of on our behalf.

And still, we have yet to close everything out and purchase a new vehicle. The process has been exhausting and time-consuming, and it is super hard not to silently curse the random stranger who pulled out in front of us without looking, inciting this avalanche of crap that landed squarely on my to-do list.

But the biggest 'damage' revealed itself more slowly. It wasn't until later that I realized I was dealing with a variety of PTSD symptoms, and my writing routine was completely shot. I've had trouble sleeping, and couldn't seem to find the motivation to get back into my routine. My anxiety has been off the charts, and I just haven't had the energy or the capacity to pick myself back up again. 

Enter 'my people.' Oh, how wonderful it is to have 'my people!'

I attend a writers' meet-up once a month, and we had our April meeting earlier this week. The impact on my motivation and capacity was instantaneous. 

I spent one hour discussing a writing topic with a group of forty writers, then spent another hour with them in small critique groups. And that was it-- that was all I needed. Energy is contagious. I left feeling known, resourced, encouraged, and motivated. I even spent a few minutes in the parking lot with some of my new writing buddies, who convinced me to be brave and submit a piece for critiques next month.

And you know what? I did it. The following morning, I got up, did an hour of edits, and submitted the story for critique. I chose to willingly subject myself to live, public criticism, y'all. They are going to sit there with my story in their hands and tell me everything that's wrong with it. I can't say that I'm looking forward to it, but I'm super proud of myself for the decision to enter into that process willingly, arguably sooner than I really need to. That is worth celebrating.

No, the writing group did not make my PTSD evaporate into thin air. But they did give me a boost to get back in the saddle and write. In addition to the story submission, I've been able to work on the second draft of my novel, and I'm sitting here writing this blog post with a smile on my face. The sun in shining, the spring breeze is drifting in through the open window in my office, and I feel much better than I have at any point in the last three weeks.

We are not meant to pursue our interests alone. Even for something as individual and private as writing, it is so helpful to have people who get it and understand the process. Without having close relationships with any of them, really, my fellow writers managed to give me a boost and help me out of my rough patch. I can end the month well, and move into May with renewed purpose and restored motivation.

This is a short entry today, but worth stating regardless. To my people: thank you. You know who you are, and I am beyond grateful for you.

To everyone else: if you don't already have them, be brave and go find your people. In addition to the obvious benefits of friendship and resources, shared-interest people possess a power to encourage and motivate you to a degree that will, quite frankly, blow your mind. Find your people, and hang on to them. The fruit is absolutely worth the search effort. 

Transforming Grace

I started attending a local Bible study in December. The study itself has been great, but the social experience has been more than a little mixed. My discomfort has several roots, including the fact that every other woman in my group has children. Also, most of them live in West County, and they find it odd that I can name several tasty restaurants or worthy attractions within the city limits.

But the most significant factor is an experience I've had countless times during the past six years. This isn't the first time I've found myself in a small group of women who converted to Christianity at age 5, and have grown up in a bubble of legalistic faith.

A couple years ago in a similar group of women, a young southern wife was telling her story. "I wasn't a bad girl or anything like that! I wasn't partying, or running around with boys having sex, or drowning in that extreme kind of sin."

It's been years, and it still makes my skin crawl to recall her words. It was that exact moment when I determined I would never tell my story in front of that group. Honestly, I felt perfectly, 100% justified in keeping my testimony to myself. And I continued to feel that way in similar situations, for years.

Even early on, when I was a new believer and felt compelled to share God's work in my life, my closest Christian friends discouraged it. My story wasn't "clean" enough for public consumption, and it was best to save it for appropriate audiences, they said. Mainly, that meant reserving my story for isolated groups of Christian women. Otherwise, sharing my story would be unsuitable. 

But the truth is, my story isn't mine. Every moment of my life, every twist in the road, every mercy I've received, and every horrible decision I've made fall under the goodness and sovereignty of God. My life is His story, and I have an obligation to obediently praise His name for bringing me out of darkness, into the light. It doesn't matter if the story is uncomfortable to share, or if someone takes offense that I've walked my unique path. God is glorified when we proclaim His divine work in our lives, and that is what I feel compelled to do today. I pray that God's work in my life is a blessing to you, and that you are awed by the goodness and magnitude of God's great love for us as you read. 

***

I grew up in a suburb of Indianapolis with a wonderful family. My mom stayed at home with my older brother and me until we were in our teens. Though my dad traveled often for his job, my parents made family time a priority. We ate dinner together almost every evening. Most of our extended family lived in the area as well, so large family gatherings were common occurrences. I spent a lot of time with my paternal grandparents, and I have since come to see them as the Christian foundation of our family. 

My parents took us to church from infancy on, albeit to a church which was less than thrilling as a child. It was a small Disciples of Christ church with an older, traditional congregation, and my memories of it are not particularly fond. I remember wearing a lacy dress, sitting in an uncomfortable pew, and doodling on my program in an effort to stay awake. Nonetheless, I attended Sunday school, ate a lot of gummy worms, and was privy to many felt-board Bible stories. It wasn't a bad spiritual foundation by any means. 

When I was eleven, a leadership change at our church resulted in a major split, and our family found ourselves at a completely different church home. The new church was a massive contemporary nondenominational warehouse, and to a pre-teen girl, it was heaven on earth. With a congregation in the thousands, there were hundreds of kids at church each week, and a stellar youth ministry program. In addition to all of that, I was allowed to wear jeans on a Sunday morning. It was paradise. 

Unfortunately, the aspects of church that excited me the most had nothing to do with God. Sundays and Wednesdays were social events, places to see and be seen. I was active in small groups, the worship band, and youth retreats, but my heart was not focused on God. Though I knew all of the answers on paper and considered myself to be quite spiritual, I had no grasp of the gospel, or my need for salvation. I performed well in school and in all of my extracurricular activities, and was hopelessly full of myself. I was simply going through the motions of faith without any understanding of my own brokenness. 

When I was 13, I went on my first date alone with a boy. The experience of being pursued by a cute guy was a thrilling discovery for me, and I dove into the world of dating. Around that same time, I was severely burned by friends in my church, and the damage was bad enough that I never went back. My parents, having since become disillusioned by failings of the church, did not push me to attend on my own. I was grateful for that. With no history of a personal relationship with God in my life, any interest in Christianity faded quickly, and I ran full-speed into the arms of young, foolish, unbelieving men.

I've already written extensively about my history of sexual and emotional abuse, so I won't rehash that here. Suffice it to say that I had poor taste in men, and I had no sense of what it meant to be cared for and cherished in a romantic relationship. I don't hold anyone at fault for that period of my life, and I don't think it's necessary to assign blame. In fact, I think it was a mercy that God orchestrated those circumstances, and I believe He let me walk through that decade-long period in my life out of love. Just as He always does, He knew what I needed. He allowed me to make my choices, and to fully understand that there was no hope or salvation for me in the affection of mortal men. If I had the choice, I would not change any of it, because I would not risk any of the good that followed. 

And so I dated, dated, and dated. When I got bored or disinterested in a boyfriend, I moved on to another that was more promising. Yes, some of those young men were abusive, but some of them weren't. I broke a lot of hearts, and I'm not proud of that. 

In college, I hit my low point. Hundreds of miles from home, I acknowledged and owned my atheism, and walked through life with no divine guidance or hope. I was studying a major I didn't want to pursue as a career, wrestling with perfectionism and anxiety, and I was deeply depressed. I partied some to escape my emptiness, but mostly I just ached. I had no idea how to fix the hole that I felt in my soul, but I knew something was meant to be there. I assumed that hole was a place for Mr. Right, and so I kept searching for him. 

During my junior and senior year of college, I started dating someone seriously. My new boyfriend seemed nice enough; he was always saying things like, "We never have to do anything you're not comfortable with," or "You don't have to do XYZ until you're ready." I told him about my history of abuse, and he seemed to take an interest and be somewhat sympathetic. My bar was low, so that was good enough for me. 

Everything would've been great, except for the fact that he was simultaneously expressing dissatisfaction in our physical relationship, and suggesting that he might break up with me because of it. Talk about mixed messages.

By then it was 2011. I was depressed, my self-worth was deep into the negatives, and I had no idea who I was. I had graduated college earlier that year, and had no idea what I wanted to do with myself professionally. My boyfriend was communicating more and more often that he was dissatisfied with our physical relationship, and I was afraid to lose him. I was afraid to be alone.

During that time, I lived with 3 Christian women. I was the token house atheist, and we made jokes about it. I asked them to consolidate their belongings because I felt like I was living in a Christian book store, but for the most part, faith wasn't a huge source of conflict. As an observer, I watched them live together as believers, and love one another through difficult conversations. I heard them speak grace into each other's lives, and watched them depend on Jesus. It was appealing, but also intimidating and isolating. They lived together in a way that seemed exposing, vulnerable, and yet profoundly fulfilling. But I was not part of their circle, and that fed my loneliness. 

Late in 2011, I was at the end of my rope. My boyfriend was depressed as well, though he would never admit it, and I fell back into the lesson that I learned years ago: it was my job to make him happy. So I gave myself over to him completely, an act I'd somehow managed to avoid in all of my years of dating and sexual abuse. 

I wept in a pit of emptiness and guilt. In that moment, I realized that I did in fact believe in God, because I knew He would be furious with me for what I'd done. I knowingly committed one of the most 'severe' sins according to the church, and I was ashamed. I was bound for condemnation and the fires of hell, and there was no hope for me at all.

In the midst of my assumptions and shame, Jesus spoke grace into my heart. 

I remember it vividly. I sensed that Jesus was present in the room with me, and He was weeping. I hadn't expected Him to weep--I'd expected Him to shake His finger at me, and condemn me for eternity. Maybe yell a little. But my sense of His compassion and grief was overwhelming. I felt Jesus speak directly into my heart: "I would never ask this of you, child. This is not what love is." And my heart broke.

For awhile, I thought I was a little crazy. It wasn't an overnight, immediate fall-on-my-knees experience. But Jesus's words of grace and compassion had left a permanent imprint on my heart, and I did not forget them. I broke up with my boyfriend weeks later, for no better reason than that I knew I needed to let him go.

Soon after that, I woke up on a Sunday morning with a deep sense of confidence and urgency to go about my day in a certain way. I called in sick to my second part-time job, though I was perfectly healthy, and I was absolutely confident it was okay. I spent the day visiting with my roommates, and asked to go to church with them that evening. They were delighted, and we carpooled to church together.

The sermon was nothing profound, to tell you the truth. It was a December sermon on materialism, appropriate for the holiday season. But I heard the gospel clearly, and that night, I finally fell to my knees. I understood that I had no hope apart from God, that I was irreversibly broken apart from the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. I gave my heart over to Him, and admitted that I needed Him desperately. I acknowledged that in His wisdom and mysterious love, He was more qualified to lead my life than I was. 

I haven't been the same since. The change in me was astonishing, and though some patterns and habits lingered, my old self died away to be replaced by someone entirely new. My roommates gave me books to read, and I started attending church regularly. I started to get glimpses of God's great love for me, and I hungered to learn more. I felt a softening in my heart toward others, and a joy that could not be dampened by any obstacle or injury.

It wasn't a smooth road, by any means. It was difficult for some of my closest friends to believe and accept the change in me, even the Christian ones. Many relationships were lost, and to this day those relationships remain damaged. I grieve that, but also understand why it happened. Evidently, it's common for people to have trouble maintaining existing relationships when they convert, because it is truly a complete personal transformation. Why should I expect to live the life I led before, when I have no desire--or ability-- to return to that life?

***

My first Christian dating relationship was an absolute train wreck. I was smitten, because we both loved Jesus and therefore must be soulmates. Oh, how naive I was! He told me he wanted to marry me three months in, and I foolishly believed him. Soon after, he broke up with me, and I descended into full-blown despair.

God always knows what I need, and He definitely knew that I needed to have my heart broken by a believer. It wasn't really about the guy himself. We were horribly mismatched, and he later grew a mustache which left me with absolutely no regrets. In truth, it was about my own obsession with finding Mr. Right, and the weight I assigned to a dating relationship. God used that breakup to expose the deep idolatry of romance in my heart, and to break the patterns of my old life.

It was a painful, long process, but it worked. God healed a part of me that I didn't even know was broken. He told me that I was enough, and that I didn't need a man to justify or define myself. He showed me that I belonged to Him, and that in Him, I had everything I would ever need. Is marriage a tremendous blessing? Absolutely. But it is not essential. Grace is the true foundation of my identity, and the well from which I drink daily. Jesus is my sustenance and hope, the only hope that cannot be taken away from me. 

I've learned a lot over the past 6 years. God has turned over rocks in my heart and exposed festering sin that I never knew I possessed. He has lovingly allowed me to go through trials, that I might grow nearer to Him and walk the path He has laid out for my life. 

The blessings and fruit of His work are innumerable, but nonetheless, the highlights are worth naming:

  • God brought me the (earthly) love of my life, and a loving marriage that I'd almost given up hope of finding. He uses Andrew's presence to heal, challenge, and nurture my soul. He brought me a steady, loyal man to ground me in my roller coaster craziness. He gave us a friendship that awes me, and that continually surprises me in its depth and delightfulness. Apart from grace, Andrew is the best gift I've ever been given, and I am often surprised and completely shocked by the fact that we get to enjoy one another for the rest of our lives. 
  • God allowed me to go through a long season of suffering and spiritual abuse, exposing my idolatry of the local church, and also leading me directly to my current profession. I never would have found this work on my own, and never would have had the courage to choose it for myself. But I am more professionally content than I have ever been, and I rejoice daily that I'm able to do work that I love. 
  • God used that same season of suffering and complex-PTSD to restore my image of Him, and give me a greater understanding of the depth and mystery of His love for me. He healed wounds that I never thought would close, and continues to restore relationships that were broken. The fruit of that suffering hasn't stopped revealing itself, and I stand in awe of God's ability to use sin and suffering for His good. 

These are only the highlights, but God moves daily. He lovingly rebukes me in my selfishness, and draws me back to Him. He sustains me in challenging moments, difficult conversations, and dark days. And He daily feeds me with the knowledge of heaven, that anything I endure in this life will pale in comparison to the glory of His kingdom. 

***

I remember reading a book soon after I became a believer. I don't remember the title or author, which is probably for the best, because I would publicly shame the heck out of those authors right now if I did. But I do know that it was a book written for young women who desired to dive into their faith.

I was sitting in the lunch room at Opera Theatre, reading a chapter on sexual morality. I'll never forget reading the words on the page that stunned and outraged me:

"You should not have sex before marriage, because in doing so, you reduce the value and impact of your testimony. By breaking this command, you make yourself less believable as you share your faith, and more of a hypocrite."

I threw the book across the room, and eventually threw it in the trash. I considered burning it, but didn't want to put forth the effort. Sure, sex before marriage isn't part of God's plan. But that didn't make the book's claims any less false. Mercifully, God revealed that false teaching in real time, preventing me from drowning in shame because of a lie.

But what is the truth, then?

Sin--no matter how ugly or shameful--is not a barrier to sharing the gospel. It is an invitation to fall at God's feet, and to praise His name for His mysterious grace and forgiveness. 

For the unbelievers: If you have something in your life that you are ashamed of, something that lives in the dark shadows of your soul, I want you to hear me. I want you to know that God doesn't find you dirty or broken, but that He loves you in the midst of that sin. He has already covered every mistake you've made--and every mistake you will make--with the atoning death of Jesus. You do not have to be a slave to shame or guilt, but can walk freely in the light of Christ, knowing that God sees Jesus's perfect record when He looks at you. I invite you to give your life over to the God of love and grace, who sent His Son to die that He might bring us back to relationship with Him. 

For the believers: Remember that we are all the chief of sinners. Do not slip into the habit of ranking sin, or disqualifying someone because their version of brokenness is different than your own. Watch your words, and love everyone as the brothers and sisters we have come to be in the kingdom of God. Preach grace, not condemnation or judgment. Leave the burden of condemnation to our good and perfect God. Instead, outdo one another in love, especially with people you have difficulty understanding. 

"But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong." 2 Corinthians 2:9-10

5 Ways You're Bombing the Job Interview

Last week, one of my clients gave me a call. I helped him with his resume a few months back, and hadn't heard from him recently.

When I picked up the phone, he said something that was absolute music to my ears:

"I have a phone interview coming up. I've had a handful of other interviews with no results, so I'm guessing that I'm doing something wrong. I think I need some interview coaching."

Oh, how refreshing to see someone acknowledging his own potential shortcomings in the job interview process!

In my experience, most people don't respond this way. Instead, they complain all day long about the irritations of a job search: people won't call them back, they don't know the status of an application, the recruiter asked a bunch of insane questions, a hiring manager caught them off guard and didn't give them time to prepare for the interview....you get the gist. 

Yes--candidates are often treated poorly in the hiring process. It is a tragic reality of the current job market. 65% of job seekers rarely--or never--receive notice of their application status. Candidates are often left in the dark, slowly losing hope about an opportunity, and that stinks. 

But despite the frustrations of the application and interview process, the candidate is still responsible for his or her part of the experience. If you're getting called in for interviews and aren't getting any responses after the fact, guess what? You can only blame the recruiters and hiring managers so many times before a pattern starts to emerge. More likely than not, there is something that you're doing in the interview that is ruining your viability as a candidate. 

For a lot of people, this is not an easy fact to accept, and doing the work required to practice interview skills and admit your weaknesses is exposing. I mean, who relishes the idea of practicing a job interview while someone takes detailed notes about everything they're doing wrong?

But examining your own interview skills, identifying weaknesses, and practicing to improve interview performance are all in your best interest as a candidate. The more you practice (the right way!), the more likely you are to shake those bad habits and nail future interviews. So, if you're bombing interviews consistently, here are a few of the biggest and most common mistakes you might be making.

#1: Failing to be likable.

Your nonverbal communication has a gigantic impact on how you're received in an interview. This is wildly unfair, and honestly not beneficial as a hiring tactic. There are lots of people out there who bomb this part of the interview who would also make stellar, loyal employees for the positions they're applying for. But alas, here we are. You have 45 minutes to prove that you are likable, whether that's fair or not. 

"Likability" covers a wide range of habits, and sounds like it would be a subjective thing to pinpoint. In some ways, that's true--every individual hiring manager has preferences. But in a broader sense, there is a standard set of components that add up to general likability: 

  • Smiling
  • Making eye contact
  • Laughing at a joke, or cracking one yourself
  • Dressing appropriately
  • Speaking clearly
  • Resisting fidgeting
  • Leaning in to the conversation
  • Keeping arms open, as opposed to closed/crossed

The result of failing to meet even one of these items can be completely devastating for your candidacy. 67% of bosses say that failure to make eye contact is a common interview mistake. They specifically call it a mistake, meaning you messed up the interview because you didn't make eye contact. 

Clothing could destroy your chances for the job, even if you nailed every other component of the interview! 65% of bosses say that clothes could be the deciding factor between two similar candidates. Remember, the interview outfit is the only outfit your hiring manager will see you wear. You have one chance, so you better make sure it's sending the right message.

All of these little habits and choices are minor in the greater picture of your overall value as an employee. But in the interview, every piece matters. Why risk losing a job opportunity over something as simple as smiling? Practice is the best way to avoid such an unnecessary disappointment.

#2. Bashing your current or previous employer.

I know. You hate your boss, you hate the company that you work for, and they treat you like scum on the bottom of your shoe. They expect you to work 15 hour days, log on at 10 PM, and work all weekend. They've taken away your favorite projects, and given them to someone incompetent because that guy played basketball with your boss 15 years ago. I don't doubt it at all--poor work culture is the most common reason that my clients give for wanting to make a move. 

But the interview is not, not, NOT the place to complain about your boss. Or your previous boss! Or the culture of your current employer. Think about it. If you're willing to sit there in a formal job interview and discredit your employer, why should your potential employer doubt that you would do the same for them? You instantly become a liability for the company's reputation, and they will NOT want to hire you. 

On top of that, your bitterness is unattractive and concerning. Your inability to let it go and maintain some level of professionalism is a huge red flag for how you will behave in the work environment. How will they expect you to behave if the workload increases for a season, or you get stressed?

Though your intention may be to explain a situation or discredit your unjust employer, the only person you're really discrediting is yourself. Instead of harping on the crappy culture at your current office, focus on what you're looking for and what you hope the new job will offer. Save your rant sessions for private, informal conversations with family and friends.

#3. Showing your cards.

Yes, there is absolutely such a thing as being too honest in a job interview! This can play out in a couple of ways, both of which can be devastating for your interview performance.

The first is desperation. No matter how badly you need the job, it is NOT in your best interest to beg for it. Don't talk about how badly you need the job. Don't offer to work for a lower salary. Don't say that you will do anything to get out of your current job! As soon as you do this, you weaken your position as a candidate. Even if they do like you and end up hiring you, you have thrown away all of your negotiating cards, because they know you'll take the job no matter what. 

The other way that this plays out is by emphasizing or blatantly stating your "true" career goals. Let's say you're interviewing for a lateral move into a sales role. You hate sales. You'll take the sales job to get your foot in the door at a good company, but you still want to move into a management position as quickly as possible. 

They're going to ask about your career goals in the interview, one way or another. They're going to ask why you want to work there, and why this specific job. You will be shooting yourself in the foot if you communicate that the job you really want is not the job you're applying for. Don't get me wrong--there's no harm in saying that you have management aspirations, and want to know about the traditional career path for that role in the company. But you definitely don't want to communicate that you have little interest in the job they're hiring for. Bad news--they want someone to stay in that job for a while. If you don't prove that you really want the job, they're going to give it to someone who does.

This leads nicely into #4. 

#4. Not doing your homework. 

Hiring managers want to bring on candidates who are enthusiastic, interested, and motivated. In order to demonstrate that you actually want the job, you have to do a little homework in advance.

Get to know the company. Talk to people who work there, and get a feel for the culture. Read articles about current issues facing the specific company, or the larger industry. In doing so, you will be able to speak knowledgeably in the interview, while also demonstrating your interest in this specific opportunity.

If you fail to do your homework, you also will fail in developing a list of specific, thoughtful questions. You should always have questions prepared for the interviewer, but they should not be general questions applicable for any job at any company. Get specific. Demonstrate that you are a serious candidate, while also gaining information that will help you determine your own level of interest in the company.

These advance efforts take a little time, but they will certainly be noticed, and will increase your value as a potential employee. 

#5. Winging it.

Even if you're super outgoing, friendly, and good on your feet, preparing for an interview is in your best interest. No two interviews are exactly alike, and it's easy to be caught off guard by a curveball question, especially if you're nervous. 

This is particularly useful as you prepare for behavioral interview questions. These are the questions that generally start with "Tell me about a time when..." and ask you to reference specific anecdotes from your work history. It's impossible to prepare for every potential question that someone might ask you in an interview, but you can still prepare well. Review your experience, and practice giving a concise version of a few select anecdotes. Choose some examples that highlight your strengths, as well as your ability to overcome obstacles or learn from your failures. 

The more you practice, the more comfortable you will feel in an interview. But it's best not to practice alone with nothing but a blank wall across from you. Enlist the help of a friend or loved one, or consider video-taping your own responses as you practice. If you feel like you need more help, interview coaching is always an option. 

---

If you'd like more resources on interview strategies and tips, check out this post on how to address the salary question in an interview, or hop over to the Job Seekers FAQ page

Happy interviewing, my friends. Don't forget to smile! 

Life in the Gray

I'm not a big fan of winter. More specifically, I detest the darkness that winter brings. 

Yes, it is technically spring as of Tuesday. Yes, daylight savings happened. But you know what? My experiential spring is not here yet. March thru mid-April is this pesky transitional period that makes me want to curl up in a ball and hibernate all over again. The temperatures are rising, but not consistently. The sun comes out occasionally, and when it does, it is glorious. But more often than not, the forecast looks like this:

Screen Shot 2018-03-22 at 11.21.09 AM.png

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real thing, my friends. Winter wasn't too bad this year, but as usual, the gray of early spring has caught me by surprise. And it's not a good surprise. 

For the past couple of weeks, we've fallen into a routine. Andrew comes home from work, and asks me about my day. I shrug, because it was fine but not great. He asks what's wrong, and I shrug again. "Nothing really. I just miss the sun." Yes, I literally say that. Then we decide to snuggle on the couch and watch The Office because the show is funny, and neither of us feels like doing a whole lot more than that after a full day of work. 

I get out of bed. I serve my clients. I write. I eat. But for this brief time of year, it is a mechanical sort of existence. A pause in the hallway, an intermission between acts. The sun is coming back--I know that cognitively--but that fact alone is not enough to pierce the gloom. Early spring is a halfway happy, a lackluster shade of gray.

***

I've been attending a weekly bible study since December, which has been a positive experience for the most part. I enjoy the daily time in scripture, and the fruit that comes from consistently hearing from God. Daily study is a game changer, but I wouldn't stick to it as well without the structure provided by the class.

We're studying Romans, with frequent references to other parts of the Bible, and most of it has been so, so good for my soul. The gospel is good--why wouldn't it feel amazing to remind myself of that daily? But along with that goodness, I've found myself clouded by the gray in-between, the "gaps" I perceive that, if filled, would allow the Bible to read more like a how-to manual.

Proverbs is filled with warnings about types of friends to avoid, and when we should say no to a relationship. Yet verses throughout scripture call us to love one another, to bear one another's burdens, to forgive, to be sacrificial. Where is the line between being a godly friend, and having biblical boundaries? There is no definitive answer given, no authoritative black and white. 

Then we arrived at Romans 12. "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them." The commands and intentions are clear--as Christians, we are not to be neutral or passive in loving our enemies, but actively good. That's peachy when I need to be kind to someone who cuts me off in traffic, or I need to forgive a stranger for her unkind remark about my profession as a creative. 

But praying for your enemies is an eye-popping, mind-boggling request when God asks you to pray for your abusers.

God commands me to be "for him," to let go of angry speeches that I've rehearsed in case I run into him at a grocery store. Neutrality isn't enough.

Oh, how silly of me to think I'd mastered my bitterness and conquered my anger! "I've forgiven him," I'd say. In loving response, I imagine God chuckled to Himself, then brought me to Romans 12. He always knows me better than I know myself. 

I tried praying for my most recent abuser, and it brought me to my knees. I found myself weeping in this tension of acknowledging his behavior as evil, but knowing that he was no more tainted by sin than I am. I caught a brief glimpse of our equal need for Jesus, and while it was cathartic, it was also exhausting. I had to pry my fingers away from my beloved anger to get there. 

Confronting evil in a broken world brings me right into the heart of the gray. This world is the waiting room for our eternal, true home. I know it's coming, but it's not here yet. What to do while I wait leaves me feeling clouded, and more than a little frustrated with the gray. I ache for the glorious light of God's presence. But it simply isn't time yet.

***

There is a conversation I'd been avoiding with Andrew since the day we were married. A topic I've mentioned, but fiercely refused to discuss for two and a half years, possibly even longer, dating back to our engagement. I dreaded the conversation with a bleakness that words could never express. But I also knew we needed to have it, mostly for my sake, so we put a block of time on the calendar and prepared accordingly.

On Sunday, we talked about death. We talked about what we want to happen if we're seriously ill or wounded, especially if we're not able to make decisions for ourselves. We talked about our bodies, and what we want to happen to them when we're gone. We talked about each other's well being, and what we would hope for one another in the event that one of us died and left the other behind.

I started crying approximately 30 seconds into the conversation.

Andrew smiled gently, and asked if we should have the conversation another time. "Oh no," I said. "I'm going to cry no matter when we have this conversation. We might as well do it now."

Imagining Andrew's death is one of my primary sources of anxiety. It is a difficult fear to combat, because you know what? He could die today. He could die next week, or next year. He probably won't, but there is absolutely no way for me to know that for certain. It isn't necessarily a fear that lives at the forefront of my mind, or one that prevents me from staying present in my life.

Instead, the anxiety lurks under the surface of my consciousness, rising up like a shark when I least expect it. I glance at the clock, and it's 4:30 PM. Andrew is typically home by now, but I haven't heard from him. What if he's in a car accident, bleeding out on the shoulder of a highway somewhere? I shake my head, and I move on. The fear recedes into the depths of my self, where I can't see it or touch it. But it's there, and I know it will come back.

Anxiety feeds on the gray, the unknowable and the unanswerable. The questions that have no answers. More accurately, perhaps, anxiety feeds on the questions for which the world has no answers. 

***

Like the gray of winter hinting the return of the sun, the unanswerable and the unknowable grays can point to a coming dawn. No, the fullness of spring isn't here yet. But it's coming, and I can see the signs of it. Flower buds poke up out of the mulch, trumpeting the forthcoming warmth. On days like yesterday, the sunshine is so startling and restorative that I can't help but tear up, close my eyes, and drink it in with my arms outstretched.

Finally. Yes. I needed this. 

It is the same experience when I sit in stillness, letting the full truth of God's sovereignty and faithfulness fill my soul. The ambiguous questions are still pesky, but at last, they have answers. Not just any answers...good answers! Answers that invite sunlight into my heart, scattering the clouds effortlessly. 

What should I do about....

Trust me. I am good.

What if something bad happens...

Trust me. I am good.

What if I never...

Trust me. I am good. 

The gray of winter lingers far longer than I would prefer, and the season feels interminable. But my perception doesn't change the fact that the sun is coming. While I wait, I cling to the scattered, precious rays of warmth, knowing that there are blissfully sunny days ahead.