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!

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.

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! 

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! 

When Your Career Doesn't Fit

Being in a career that you hate is the absolute worst. I get it--I've been there. On top of my personal experience, I find that many of my clients feel stuck in careers that just don't fit their unique skillsets and personalities. They are 100% sure that they don't like what they're doing, but they also don't know what career would be better to move into, so they feel even more stuck.

Feeling trapped--with no light at the end of the tunnel--is a serious downer, and a pervasive problem that is worth solving.

While there are obviously lots of contributing factors to discontentment in the workplace including office culture, management styles, working conditions, and much more, career choice itself can certainly be the problem. In this case, I'm talking to those of you who might like your boss, but don't like your job. You like your coworkers, but have no interest in the work itself.

A lot of us got pushed into making a career decision during our undergrad, long before we blossomed into fully-functioning adults, and we find ourselves stuck on that trajectory, years later.  When clients bring up this topic in our conversations, I generally say something like this: "I'm not a licensed career counselor, but I am passionate about professional identity, individual gifts, and career transition. I geek out over personality assessments. If you're up for it, let's chat and see what we can come up with."

I enter into this conversation with others--formally and informally, personally and professionally--because I know the discomfort of being in the wrong profession. It took me years to figure out that I was wired to work at home and run my own business, and now that I'm finally in a career that aligns with who I am as a person, I'm blown away by the positive impact on my life! It's been radically life-changing, and I never dreamed I could be this satisfied with my career. I never thought I would want to work, but I almost always feel energized and ready to go! Why wouldn't I want to share that experience with others, and see if we can unearth a career that will provide the same freedom and peace in their unique professional journeys? 

In light of all this, I decided to create this post as a practical guide for the career-haters out there. For those of you who feel stuck in your career (not job--career!), let's dive right in. I'll cover two truths to keep in mind, as well as three steps to take in order to make that big career change. 

2 Important Truths to Keep in Mind

1. You're Not Alone

If you found yourself reading the intro to this post and nodding (or crying) along, the first thing I want you to know is that it's not just you. You are absolutely not alone in hating your job.

Believe it or not, you're actually in the majority! 

A recent Gallup poll suggests that 70% of Americans are disengaged and discontent at work. 7 out of 10, people! That's a whole lot of unhappy employees. While I theoretically knew that a lot of people didn't like their jobs, I never felt like I was part of any sort of majority. I looked around and saw people who could be content in the same office, who were much more professionally satisfied than I was. I felt like I was missing something that everyone else seemed to innately understand, and it was overwhelmingly isolating.

Whether they're sitting next to you or not, however, it's clear that a lot of people out there are looking for something better, too. So don't believe the lie that it's just you!

2. You're Not Stuck

For the career-hater, it's tempting to feel hopeless, because there doesn't seem to be a way out. Family obligations, financial restraints, and the huge time investment associated with changing careers--not just jobs, but industries--feels like too great a distance to leap. There just doesn't seem to be a way to the other side without going bankrupt, or disappointing loved ones. Why bother?

While some career transitions are harder than others to make, this is simply not true. You're not stuck! There are a lot of options available to you, especially when you're not sure what you want to do next. And when you do find the career you want to move into, there are options available to you to make the change a reality. It's just a matter of how much you're willing to invest in the process, how patient you're willing to be, and what you're willing to sacrifice to land a position in a career that fits.  

So how exactly do you bridge that gap and make it happen? Where do you even begin? 

3 Steps to a Better Career Fit

1. Get to know yourself.

If you're feeling like your career isn't a good fit for you, the first step is to stop nitpicking the career you know you hate, and instead, look in the mirror. Get to know yourself. How are you wired? What realities about your personality, skill set, and values inform your career preferences? What makes you tick? 

There are several ways to go about this step of self exploration. I'll briefly hash out 3 of my favorite methods here. 

Assessments

I am a self-declared assessment nerd. While they certainly don't tell the whole picture of who you are as a person, assessments can provide some valuable insight into the overarching trends of what makes you, well, you. There are a bunch of assessments out there, varying wildly in terms of quality and accuracy, but the big buckets that you want to assess and explore are personality, values, and behavioral style. 

If you don't feel like sifting through the massive pile of web-based assessments on your own, here is a solid sampling of the five assessments I recommend taking. The first three assessments are free, and the last two are paid tests:

If you can swing it, take all five assessments. Spread the assessments out over a period of a couple of weeks. Take your time, read the directions carefully, and answer honestly.

When you have all of your results in hand, comb through the results carefully. Highlight the descriptions that are spot-on as they apply to you, ignore the stuff that isn't accurate at all, and notice trends that are repeated across multiple sections in a test report, and especially across multiple assessments.

What have you learned about yourself? How do these concepts apply in the workplace? Start to put together the pieces, and see what you come up with. 

Job History Exercise

This is one of my favorite exercises for career direction, and has been one of the most fruitful in my personal experience. My dad actually suggested this activity years ago, when I was feeling especially lost in terms of my career. The exercise was a game changer for me, and I hope it is helpful for you as well.

Write down every job you've ever had, all the way back to your high school days or first part-time gig. Depending on your situation, it might be good to include volunteer experiences as well, or involvement in extracurricular activities.

For every job or activity on the list, answer the following questions:

  • What was your favorite thing about the job? What did you enjoy the most? What energized you?
  • What were you most proud of in that role? What project, result, or client interaction makes you smile the most?
  • What do you miss doing? What do you wish you could do all over again?

After you've answered these questions for every job, look at your complete list of highlights. What trends do you see? Are there obvious themes or careers that are closely related to the tasks and projects you've highlighted? See where this path leads you, and take some time to explore the new opportunities that you identify along the way.

Survey Friends and Family

Sometimes we can't see ourselves as clearly as the people who love us most. Asking friends and family for feedback might provide some helpful insight as you study yourself. This suggestion comes with a big caution flag, however, because some of your family and friends might not be helpful in speaking into your strengths. In fact, in some cases the 'advice' from loved ones might be downright harmful. To mitigate against any unhelpful responses, I recommend coming up with a list of 5-7 people you trust the most and feel safest with. Include people from different seasons of your life, in different roles. Make sure every person on that list is really 'for' you. Do they celebrate with you when you win? Do they grieve with you when you're dealing with a loss? 

When you have your list, ask those individuals if they'd be willing to speak into your professional identity and unique personal characteristics. If they're willing to help, provide them with a list of questions, and ask them to consider them carefully. Here are a few ideas to get you going, but feel free to add your own based on what you want to pinpoint or understand about yourself:

  • When have we been talking, and the conversation caused me to lean in, talk faster, become increasingly animated? What topic(s) seemed to draw me out?
  • What dreams have I mentioned in passing to you, that I (or others) may have brushed off as silly or impossible?
  • When have you seen me be really proud or satisfied with my own work or achievements? 
  • Where do you think I thrive? Excel?
  • From what you've observed, what do you think I'm uniquely wired to achieve? Where do I naturally perform well?

Collect this feedback from your friends or family, and see what stands out. Trust your gut--take what is helpful, leave what is not. What surprises you? What sparks your interest?

----

By the end of your self-reflection period, the goal is to arrive at a list of possible careers that incorporate the elements of self that you've unearthed. You've taken the time to explore who you are, and now you have some ideas about what might be a good career move for you. How do you choose from the short list? How do you even know you're on the right track? 

2. Test the Waters

"The grass is always greener on the other side" is a nugget of wisdom brimming with relevance for your career journey. Don't leap into something new on a whim, just because it theoretically sounds better; of course it sounds better! You don't know anything about the industry yet, and only see the shiny fun stuff. But career changes are a big deal. Slow down, and safely explore your options before you decide to make a full transition.

There are several ways to explore a career without actually changing careers. Perhaps you can identify a volunteer opportunity inside of the new industry. Get your feet wet in work relevant to the jobs you're considering, and get a peek behind the curtain, so to speak. See what surprises you, what interests you, what concerns you.

Another option is to set up some informational interviews or job shadowing with people in your target industry. If you have a friend or colleague who can make a networking introduction for you, that is certainly best, but cold calls aren't out of the picture, necessarily. As long as your motivation is truly to learn and get a feel for the career (NOT sniff around for job openings), it's likely that the professionals in that industry will be open to helping you out in some capacity. Ask challenging questions, like, "What is the worst part about working in this industry? What challenges do you meet in this job consistently? What trends do you see in your field? Where do you expect this field to be in 10 years? 20 years? What do you think it takes to enjoy this work, and succeed in the field?"

If the industry you're considering is really different from everything you've done historically, consider taking some courses in the subject area. For example, if you've worked a 9 to 5 your whole life and are thinking about being a full-time gardener instead, find a free online class in botany or horticulture. Does the subject matter interest you, or are you bored out of your mind? Does the class inspire you to dive deeper and learn more? 

The point of this 'trial period' is to confirm your interest, and narrow down your short list. Admit you're wrong when an industry isn't actually good for you, and move on to the next career on your list. When you find something that stands out above the rest, it's time to move on to the final step.  

3. Invest in the transition.

Career transitions aren't going to happen overnight. You have to be patient, and be willing to make the change at an appropriate pace. That doesn't mean you're just sitting around passively, though! There's a lot to do as you invest in the process of changing careers. Here are a few things you can do to make the transition happen:

Network.

Okay, so you shuddered at the mention of the word 'network.' That's fair! Most people despise the concept with a passion. But it is still a beneficial practice, and one that doesn't have to make you beat your head against a wall. Try to have a positive perspective on this one, for your own sake.

LinkedIn is your friend here -- figure out what connections you have to your new industry/potential employers, and ask your existing friends or colleagues to make an introduction on your behalf. Have coffee with strangers. Go to industry-specific events. Put yourself out there a little bit! A future blog post on networking will dig into this more deeply, but for a full-blown career change, you're probably going to need an internal referral for someone to take a chance on you. In order to find a solid internal referral, you have to network. Period. 

Pursue training as-needed, but don't make assumptions.

A lot of my clients say things like, "I guess I need an MBA now," or "But I really don't want to go back to school!" In some cases, yes--they really do have to go back to school. You can't be a doctor without the degree. But in a lot of other cases, a traditional degree might not be necessary. Is the degree you assume you need preferred, or actually required? Can you supplement your existing education with something other than a traditional degree? 

Maybe you need some specific skills for your new career--let's say you want to get into mobile app design, but have no coding experience. Your first inclination might be to go back to school for a Computer Science degree. BUT instead, if you did a search for any free or reduced-cost bridge programs in your new industry, you'd find LaunchCode, a nonprofit organization providing FREE classes and job-transition support for careers in technology. They have classes in St. Louis, my friends! They actually put people in jobs. Good jobs. It's a no-brainer! And this is not the only bridge program out there. Explore the possibility before you shell out the cash for a full university degree.

Maybe your desired career utilizes a specific type of software, and a lot of companies consistently use the same program across the board. Take Salesforce, for example, a popular CRM platform in sales and marketing. Did you know that Salesforce offers free online certification? Why not amp up your relevant skills by pursuing your Salesforce certification, while you apply for new jobs in your field? If nothing else, it's a great resume and interview talking point that demonstrates your commitment to making the career change. 

The opportunities here are tremendous. Look for professional associations certifications, apprenticeship programs, bridge programs, training courses, etc. before you commit to a more traditional college degree. Think of the time, money, and sanity you could save in the process! 

Update your resume.

Your resume might be perfect for your current industry, but you have to look at it from a totally new perspective if you're planning to switch careers. Each position in your job history needs to be re-examined, and re-framed according to the context of new job opportunities. 

If you're moving out of sales into social work, nobody is going to care (as much) about your sales results data. They want to see a commitment to people, an emphasis on relationship, and a willingness to work hard. You might find that your resume bullet points need to be "flip-flopped," or re-written altogether. This will help people reviewing your resume as they look over your application--if you don't do this work in advance, you're bound to get tossed aside after a resume screener ponders aloud, "Why is this person applying for this job, anyway?"

Make your intentions clear. Tailor your resume to speak the language of your desired industry, not the career you're leaving behind. 

Consider 'stepping stone' roles. 

If you're making a really big change, you might want to consider doing it in stages. This is especially true if you're looking to move into a competitive company, the ones on the "Best Places to Work" list. Let's say you're a contract manager at Purina, and you're looking to make a transition. You've done your homework, you've narrowed down your list, and you know you really want to land a training and orientation job at World Wide Technology. That's the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and you won't settle for less. It's great that you know what you want--but unfortunately, you have no direct training experience, and everybody on the planet wants to work at World Wide Technology. 

Instead, you could consider applying for a management role within your current department at Purina. Get some training experience. Ask your supervisor for some training responsibilities within your existing role--whatever you can swing, make it happen. Put yourself in a position to be more qualified when your dream jobs opens up. You could also apply for a contract management role inside World Wide Technology, with some management responsibility. Then, it's much easier to make an internal transfer to a different department for that 'dream' training role. 

"But that will take forever!" you say. Yep. Like I said, it isn't going to happen overnight! But that doesn't mean it's impossible. Are you willing to work for a new career, even if it might take some time to get there?

That brings me to the interim. The waiting period when you're still sitting in the career you hate, while you're dreaming of the job you think you'll love.

End well. 

Your current work matters. Your current job performance matters. You're still working for your most recent referring supervisor, my friends. You do not want to give them a reason to discredit you in the referral process. Instead, harness your existing workplace relationships (secretly, of course!) to improve your experience as you wait. Ask for new opportunities that relate to the new field. Request a schedule shift so you can attend a class. Do whatever you can to maximize your opportunities within the bounds of your current work environment. 

It's not necessarily going to be easy, but a career that suits you is still possible. Wait actively. Look forward purposefully. Engage in the process, knowing that it is an imperfect journey.

If you ever doubt that it's worth it, or forget exactly what it is you're aiming for, come back here, and I'll remind you. It is a fantastic experience to be in a job that suits me as a person. The results are life-changing, and every day, I know the journey was worth it

5 Things You Should Understand About Self-Employment

I debated about whether or not I should write this post. The title and content inherently scream 'rant,' and that's truly not my jam. I don't want to eat up blog space with that sort of negative content, whining about whatever is bugging me the most in any given moment. There's plenty of that to go around already. 

But feelings aside, it is objectively true that I run into a lot of professional obstacles because people simply don't understand what it's like to be self-employed, especially as a creative. In an effort to educate, be vulnerable, and explain some of my most frequent professional and personal decisions, I created the list that follows.

From my experience as a self-employed writer and career communication coach, these are the 5 most important and misunderstood realities of self-employment. These are the the most abused characteristics of my professional life, the things I so wish I could get you to grasp in our daily interactions as friends, family members, acquaintances, or strangers. I hope that the items listed will challenge your existing perspective on self-employed professionals, and help to improve your relationships with others who share my professional status.  

5 Things You Should Understand About Self-Employment

Photo by  Laura Ockel  on  Unsplash

Photo by Laura Ockel on Unsplash

 

1. Routine is vital, especially for creative work. 

Being self-employed requires a great deal of self-discipline. I am CEO and worker bee, Marketing Director and Writer, HR Director and Finance Director. I am personally responsible for balancing every single aspect of my work, and as a result, I wear a bunch of different--and competing--hats on a daily basis.

On top of that, creative work has its own set of rules, and there are unique challenges that come along with it. The capacity for creative work comes from a different internal space than more straightforward tasks like running data in a spreadsheet, or drafting emails. The effort to produce creative work requires a crap-ton of intellectual and emotional fuel, especially at the beginning of a writing session. This was earth-shattering for me at the beginning of my writing journey. I was totally caught off-guard by the fact that creative work takes so much fuel. 

Both of these issues--multiple hats and the nature of creative energy--are most easily managed by a consistent daily routine. I work from home, and am surrounded by my personal to-do list every time I get up to use the restroom or get a snack from the kitchen. I see errands that need to be run, and laundry that needs to be washed. Routine keeps me focused, productive, and more empowered to separate my professional and personal responsibilities. 

When I wake up, I put on my CEO hat and tackle strategy for big-bucket priorities. For the next couple of hours, I put on my Consultant hat, making sure my clients' needs are met with excellence. If client work is slow, I put on my Marketing Director hat to develop communication plans, blog about my services, and share success stories. I do what I can to identify new clients, and reach out to new people whom I believe I can provide a meaningful service for.

After lunch, every single day, I put on my Writer hat. As much as I want to fight it because the work is challenging and vulnerable, I sit my butt in my office chair and make myself write. And at that time, every day, by body recognizes that it's time to write. The creative mind 'wakes up' and responds naturally. When I start writing at the same time every day, the hardest part is over, and the words flow freely. Some days are better than others, but the consistency of sitting down to write at the same time every day is huge. 

Disruptions that seem minor--like a doctor's appointment at 1:30 PM--are anything but minor. Trying to write at a different time of day is like trying to push a semi truck uphill, by myself. The next day, when I have no disruptions, my body is not in its usual rhythm. It requires a great deal more effort to get the creative wheels turning, to 'reset the machine,' so to speak. 

That effect is multiplied for larger routine disruptions like vacations. Being away for several days creates an avalanche of mental clutter that I have to clear out upon my return. On top of the time spent away from my desk, I lose a significant percentage of my returning productive time because it takes so much effort to reset the clock. It's true that commitments like doctor's appointments and vacations are inherently good things--of course they are! But that doesn't change the impact that these appointments have, so it is absolutely fair to name them as disruptions for my professional routine. 

2. Professional self-worth is a constant challenge.

The world sends me constant messages that my work is invalid because I haven't sold a book yet, or don't make a certain amount of money each year. We'll explore that more in Item #4. But on top of that, there are little voices in my head while I serve my clients or work on my novel, whispering lies about my professional identity:

You have nothing important to say.
You aren't really helping anyone.

You will never finish this book.
You have no idea what you're doing.
Nobody will ever buy this.
You are a terrible writer.
You are wasting your time. 

This is daily, people. Independent of anything you might say or do, I am already doubting my own professional self-worth. I have to fight the lies every day, and remind myself that the work I'm doing has a significant impact on the people I serve. I have to remind myself that writing touches lives in a way that is beautiful, and profoundly mysterious. It is a constant, uphill battle.  

As hard as it is to admit, your requests for me to ditch work for a few hours, or hop on an airplane and leave for a few days aren't helping. These requests imply, however unintentionally, that my job isn't a real job, and that it isn't as valid or valuable as someone else's. I can pick up and leave whenever I want. Yes, it is technically true that there is flexibility in my situation. But is it right to stop working whenever I want, just because I technically can? Isn't it good to pursue work that matters, to commit myself professionally, to hold myself to a certain number of work days each year like everyone else? 

This leads me right into my third point. 

3. I am at the top of everyone's daytime help list.

This is absolutely the hardest point for me to share with you, because I don't want you to get the wrong idea. I WANT TO HELP! I hope you'll keep that in mind as I explain.

I get a constant stream of completely legitimate requests for my time, ranging from a couple of hours to a full day. I am at the top of everyone's list, because I am flexible, technically available most of the time, and I don't have young children at home.

These requests span a variety of needs:

  • Babysitting
  • Rides to the airport
  • Hanging out at your house to meet contractors or deliveries
  • Dropping you off at the auto shop, then taking you home, then bringing you back later
  • Providing emotional support on a hard day

Well-meaning friends often ask me for my time during the day, frequently for a commitment spanning half a day of work including travel time. As I mentioned above, the hardest part is that I WANT TO HELP! The requests are coming from you, after all--a friend, a loved one, someone I desire to support and serve. But I also have a job, and these requests do--however unintentionally--imply that my work is less important than your current need. Where do I draw the line? At what point do I say 'no' to protect my professional self-worth, and when do I set my work aside to serve others? 

This is a balancing act that I have yet to master. I have no idea how to get it down to a system without feeling like a selfish jerk most of the time. But for now, until I figure it out, I practice saying 'no' a lot. I say 'no' because I get too many of these requests, and I just can't manage them all. I say 'no' because routine is vital, and professional self-worth is a daily challenge. You may see a massive blank-spot in my schedule because I'm not accountable to a traditional supervisor, but that isn't the case. I'm accountable to myself, and to my work, just as much as anyone else is. My husband goes to an office every day and works his tail off so that I can stay home and do what I love. I have a responsibility to him, too, to honor his sacrifice and not waste the opportunity he gives me every day.

The best advice I can give you is to be specific--give me all of the details when you ask for my help, including the specific time range, why you need help, and what you expect of me. In the case of an emergency or extenuating circumstance, I'm more likely to say yes. But you have to tell me that's the case in order for me to know. I am not a mind reader, and I cannot meet every need that comes my way. 

Don't stop asking for help because you've read this, but don't assume I'll say yes because I work from home, either. Identify some other people to rotate through when you have a daytime, weekday need. Maybe acknowledge that my work matters, and that you realize you're asking me to give up something more than just time.

Above all, know that I care about you and your families, even when I say 'no.'

4. Success isn't measured by annual salary.

On occasion, people literally laugh when I tell them what I do. Others are more subtle in their disapproval and skepticism. I've had people follow up with, "Are you successful?" This is code for "But do you make money, and if so, how much?" I mean, think about that for a second! Imagine meeting someone at a cocktail party. You ask what she does, and she says she's an accountant. Is your follow-up going to be "Okay, but how much money do you make?" How do you think that would feel, on her end? Would you consider that approach to be polite, or respectful of her as a professional?

I know that many people don't understand the reality of creative work, or the value of it at all. I understand that many people are accustomed to working a 9-5, getting a regular paycheck with benefits, and having a certain number of PTO days. Everything is neat, orderly, and data-centric. My work is admittedly different, but that does not make it less valuable. There is no valid reason to be suspicious or disapproving of my profession as a creative. 

It all comes down to how we, as a culture, define and measure success. If you measure success by your paycheck, I'm so, so sorry. That is a narrow, shallow definition of success that leaves your professional self-worth and success dependent on the economic success of your employer. Instead, I try to define success more broadly--by the impact that I have on individual lives with my clients, and the future impact of the stories I write. I measure hours, effort, client satisfaction, and words on the page. 

You may not believe me to be successful--fair enough. But I would ask that you consider why you feel that way. What is it that makes you so determined to measure someone's professional value in dollar signs? What truths do you believe about yourself, about the people around you? I invite you to explore your own perception of identity, and at the very least, to assume the best when you do not understand someone else's job. Ask questions, and be curious. 

5. My work is just as challenging as yours, every day. 

Though the schedule and individual components are radically different, self-employment is just as challenging as a 9-5. These challenges are consistently present, and they are 100% real. 

Here's a quick summary of my greatest professional challenges, with some reiterations of the points above:

Self-Discipline
Doing my job every day, even though nobody is making me do it. When I'm tired, getting up early with no external accountability or appointments. Putting words on the page every day, even though I might never sell a book. 

Boundaries
Saying 'no' to laundry and errands, and 'yes' to my work. Sticking to a schedule, because my work is valuable. Saying 'no' to friends during the day, because eventually I have to get something done. Working a full day, even if my husband comes home early from work.

Isolation
Being alone most of the time, especially during the winter. Managing Seasonal Affective Disorder with the realities of working from home. Finding ways to be social and counter loneliness, without dramatically sacrificing my work time. 

Creative Energy
Understanding the realities of creative work, and how that energy is best fostered. Giving my creative mind what it needs in order to succeed. Being satisfied with 3 hours of creative work, because it takes a lot of fuel to make it happen. Balancing the reality of creativity with my desire to get a project done. Being patient as I learn to understand my creative self.

Self-Worth
Refusing to believe that I am defined by dollar signs. Daily affirming that my work is valuable, no matter what the world says. Charging a fair rate for my coaching services, and having the guts to charge friends or family members. 

Inconsistent Work Flow
Managing busy seasons of multiple clients, and adjusting to slower seasons. Identifying new clients, and maintaining a routine despite seasonal fluctuations. Setting goals when I can't predict how many clients I'll actually have. Budgeting for an unknown amount of work. 

This is not an exhaustive list, of course. There are challenges I'm not even aware of, or items I've forgotten to mention. The point isn't the specifics of each challenge, even--it's the fact that these challenges exist, and that they are significant. I'm not lazy, and I'm not sitting at home every day watching Netflix, even though I'm regularly tempted and able to do so. 

My work is not a playground. Yes, my work is fun, and I love what I do! But it's still work, and it's still broken, just like more traditional jobs. 

-------

I hope these points are illuminating for you. I hope you learned something, and that you came away with an understanding of self-employment that you didn't have previously. That said, this is absolutely not universally applicable to every self-employed person in the world! Don't assume that my perspective is the same as someone's else's. Instead, ask questions, get to know your self-employed friends, and challenge your own assumptions about their work.

Above all, let your self-employed friends--especially the creatives--know how much you value their work. Remind them know that their work matters, and that it's freaking awesome that they get to pursue something like fiction, photography, or dance. We need to hear it. We need to know that there are people out there who don't think we're foolish dreamers, wasting time and wasting space. 

We need people who are willing to read this blog post all the way through, who care enough to ask questions. Thanks for making it this far, my friend! If you have any follow-up thoughts or concerns, let me know in the comments below, or reach out directly

The #1 Most Important Fix for Your Resume

Between my work as a Career Communication Coach and previous roles in executive recruiting and HR, I've seen a whole lot of resumes.

Today, I'm going to let you in on a little secret and share the #1 resume problem that I regularly encounter with clients, along with a few easy steps you can follow in order to address the problem in your own resume.

The Problem: Emphasis on Responsibilities

Most people that I work with for resume writing don't demonstrate a lot of confidence in their work experience. In fact, a lot of the comments that they make are downright apologetic:

"Oh, I know I haven't done a lot in that area. I should've done more." 

"Yeah, I guess I did that, but it wasn't a big deal."

"I don't really think I'm good enough for the positions I'm interested in."

I've mentioned before that one of the best parts of my job is the client reaction--that moment when a client sees his or her professional identity written out accurately, clearly, and confidently for the very first time, whether it be on a resume, a new website, or a grant proposal. Most clients are startled, and they read over the content a few times before saying, "Wow, did I really do all of this?" 

I generally laugh a little, and say, "You tell me. Is anything inaccurate, or even exaggerated?"

They hungrily pore over the details, and are confused when the answer is "No! I actually did all of that, didn't I?"

The resume issue in this scenario is almost always an overemphasis on responsibilities, duties, or tasks. Many people approach their resume as if it were a job description -- they try to capture all of the check-list items they're responsible for, and list those as resume bullet points. 

The problem with this approach is that every single person with a similar role and/or job title has exactly the same list of responsibilities. There's nothing in that list of tasks that sets a candidate apart from other applicants, or leaves any sort of impression on the reader.

Quite frankly, this approach is 100% ineffective. The recruiter or hiring manager reviewing your resume is going to be bored out of his or her mind, and will likely move on to another candidate immediately. On average, recruiters will only spend 6 seconds looking at your resume. While other factors like formatting are definitely part of the solution, responsibility-heavy content is definitely not helping you stand out from the crowd. 

The Solution: Emphasis on Results

The fix for responsibility-focused resumes is a perspective shift toward results.

When I'm chatting with clients about their job history and achievements, a lot of them groan when I ask about results, or just look at me with desperation and shrug. Many people aren't accustomed to thinking about their professional achievements as results, so at first glance, it's hard to come up with anything to share.

But that doesn't mean there's an absence of results.

Many clients shy away from the results question because they're not in a traditional, numbers-driven role like sales. The word 'results' carries with it an expectation of hard numerical data: percentages, dollar signs, you name it. Some of those figures are obvious, as they can be in sales, but they don't have to be. If you're not consistently thinking about measurable definitions of success, then you're bound to be caught of guard by the request for proof of your success.

So how do we solve the problem?

Step 1: Define Measurable Success

Let's say you're considering a role where you're responsible for managing volunteers. Great--you manage volunteers, but so do a lot of other people. How can you measure and demonstrate that you managed those volunteers successfully?

Think about all of the potential measurable components that are involved with managing volunteers. Here are the ones that come to mind right away:

  • Number of volunteers you work with on a regular basis
  • Volunteer retention over time 
  • Volunteer engagement, or the rate at which volunteers choose to donate their time
  • Average monthly hours of volunteer time from the beginning of your tenure, versus the present
  • Increase in the number of volunteers over time
  • Increase in engagement over time
  • Volunteer satisfaction data collected from feedback surveys

As you can see, an area of responsibility that doesn't inherently lend itself to measurable results can definitely be measured. That said, if you're not actively measuring these areas, then there's no way to demonstrate that you've succeeded. 

This leads us right into Step 2.

Step 2: Start Measuring with Intention, and Do it Now!

Imagine looking at a resume that hasn't been touched in 15 years. As much as we wish we could, it often isn't possible to dig up the data retroactively. Think of all the achievements and professional highlights that could be lost over time!

Most of what you're able to measure in order to demonstrate success needs to be measured with intention, on purpose, while you're working on the given project. Take some time to define measurable success metrics at the beginning of each project, measure as you go, and record the results.

Your efforts will spare you a lot of professional regret down the road during your next job transition, and will also help you identify professional wins that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. 

Step 3: Look for Ripple-Effect Results

Sometimes the most significant results of your work aren't directly numerical. In some cases, they might be entirely anecdotal. On top of that, something great can happen in response to your work that you didn't intend to happen at all! Should we bury these situations or neglect them as professional achievements, simply because they aren't traditional, direct measurements? Absolutely not!

Perhaps you planned and oversaw an event for your non-profit organization. It wasn't a fundraising event specifically, but one of the attendees was so impressed that they decided to make a significant contribution to the organization. You didn't directly solicit the donation--you're not even on the development team, perhaps!--but your work still resulted in a major win for the organization.

Or, let's say you work for a youth development organization, and you've been investing a lot of time and effort in community outreach. Your main goal was to increase visibility, and make sure the community is aware of your programming. During your outreach efforts, you happened to develop community partnerships with a few local businesses. Those partnerships led to unexpected enrichment opportunities for the children in your programs, creating new, fun ways for them to learn and grow. 

I like to call these sorts of results ripple effects. Because of your actions, something unexpected or indirect happened, and there was a positive outcome. There might not be numbers involved, but that doesn't change the fact that something good happened! You should absolutely keep track of these ripple effect results, even if the result is purely anecdotal. Results are results, intentional or not! 

Responsibility vs. Results in Your Resume

In today's job market, it isn't enough to just write down what you do every day and call it a resume. As much as we don't like to do so, you have to take this opportunity to brag a little! Your resume is designed for this--it isn't arrogant to accurately and confidently convey your professional achievements.

It's a good and rewarding experience to be proud of your work, and to communicate your results effectively. I invite you to consider your own achievements today, and how you might better present those career highlights in your current resume. You never know--those examples will very likely come in handy some day!

Food Lover's Guide to St. Louis

Happy Tuesday, my sweet friends.

First of all, I want to take a moment and acknowledge the overwhelming responses to the recent post about my history of abuse. Your words of encouragement and support have been a balm to my soul, and your stories of similar treatment and pain have moved me to tears. It is good to celebrate healing and to challenge abuse in all of its forms--thank you for walking that path alongside me, and for being a part of the conversation.

As the holidays are upon us and I find myself frequently indulging in seasonal treats, food has been on the brain (and in the belly) a lot. This week, I thought it would be fun to share a lighter post about exploring the dining scene in St. Louis.

The love language of my marriage is literally eating together--a specialized category of quality time, in my opinion. We can consistently be observed in the middle of a fantastic meal, when I take a bite of something delicious, make eye contact with Andrew mid-bite, and tearfully exclaim, "I just love you so MUCH!" 

Weird? Probably. But we love our personal brand of weird.  

Because of our great love of food and dining, Andrew and I have surveyed many of the wonderful culinary establishments in the area, and frequently find ourselves in a position where we are delivering dining recommendations to others.

Even though we're self-declared experts of eating in our city, this was a difficult guide to approach. Should I organize it by neighborhood, each with its own colorful personality and emphasis, or by type of cuisine? In the interest of time and in an effort to avoid writing a full-fledged St. Louis dining guidebook, there are good restaurants missing, and attributes that I've failed to list. Nonetheless, for locals and out-of-town visitors alike, my hope is that this guide will introduce you to a new gem in the St. Louis dining world, and that you will enjoy a bite of something scrumptious with a friend, family member, or foxy date. 

A few disclaimers:

  1. I do not claim to be the definitive expert on dining in St. Louis -- the guide below is purely opinion and experience-based. There are still many great St. Louis restaurants we have yet to visit. No need to get saucy about your neglected favorites or despised inclusions!
  2. I do not eat everything. You will find no steakhouses on this list, nor will you find many meat-centric options. 
  3. I value ambiance, service, and experience in addition to the quality of food offered. For example, especially in the fine dining category, if the service is overly stuffy, I generally don't remember the experience fondly. I appreciate it when servers are willing to smile, or heaven forbid laugh. Some fancier restaurants are not listed as a result.

Now that those warnings are taken care of...

Move over, Ian Froeb! Without further ado, I am proud to present...

The Food Lover's Guide to St. Louis

Here it is, my friends. My St. Louis favorites are below, divided into the following categories:

  • Sweets and Beverages -- there may be "real" food, but the treats are best
  • Ultra-Casual -- sweatpants permitted without substantial judgment
  • Casual-Classy -- no-fuss date night, jeans-friendly
  • Special Occasion -- get fancy and celebrate
     

Sweets and Beverages

Clementine's Naughty & Nice Creamery

Neighborhood: Lafayette Square and DeMun
Claim to fame: All-natural homemade ice cream, in boozy and regular varieties

Hannah's Take: Clementine's brings some seriously delicious competition to the ice cream scene in St. Louis. The creative concoctions--boozy ("naughty") and regular ("nice")--are made with the best ingredients, and no artificial crap, including dyes. In addition to their ice cream, they make their own whipped cream and waffle cones/bowls in house. Ice cream lovers, rejoice!

Nathaniel Reid Bakery

Neighborhood: East Kirkwood
Claim to fame: Internationally-acclaimed croissants, pastries, and happiness.

Hannah's Take: If you don't know who Nathaniel Reid is, you're going to thank me soon. This award-winning pastry chef won some serious accolades for his delectable, gorgeous treats, then decided to open an unassuming little strip-mall bakery in East Kirkwood. Go for literally anything that screams your name from the irresistibly gorgeous counter case, but don't miss the croissants. 

The London Tea Room

Neighborhood: Tower Grove South
Claim to fame: A rockin' loose-leaf tea selection in a decidedly English setting. 

Hannah's Take: An accessible, bright English tea shop actually owned and operated by honest-to-goodness Brits. The loose leaf tea selection is unparalleled in St. Louis--visit for a casual pot of tea in the storefront seating area, or book a reservation for high tea in the more formal dining room. Pastries, quiche, and lighter fare available. 

Gelateria Del Leone

Neighborhood: South Grand
Claim to fame: Thoughtful hot beverages and the creamiest gelato on earth.

Hannah's Take: Don't be fooled by the name--the Gelateria offers much more than delicious, creamy gelato. In addition to an impressive pastry selection, be sure to try a hot beverage. My order is always a London Fog--steamed milk, Earl Gray tea from the nearby London Tea Room, and a hint of vanilla. In good weather, the patio is divine.

The Cup

Neighborhood: Central West End
Claim to fame: Great cupcakes, and the world's best buttercream frosting

Hannah's Take: Seriously, the buttercream frosting is to die for. There are seasonal, rotating, and standard cupcake flavors available, and none will disappoint. The Cup has even been crowned as the official cupcake of the St. Louis Cardinals--what more do you need to know? They've even added delivery service. You don't even have to leave the house, so your excuses not to try The Cup are down to zero. 

Handcrafted by Bissinger's

Neighborhood: Central West End
Claim to fame: Handmade chocolates including caramels, truffles, and creams--oh my!

Hannah's Take: Though they've recently expanded to a full cafe menu in the Central West End, the chocolate is still what shines the most. Try a truffle, caramel, and cream for a good sampling, and don't miss the more expansive dine-in dessert menu offered exclusively in the evening.

Vincent Van Donut

Neighborhood: Clayton
Claim to fame: Inventive, delicious donuts

Hannah's Take: Only Clayton could house a donut shop with such flair. These uniquely square treats are ultra-decadent, and not for the feint of heart. Rumor has it that they also make homemade poptarts, but you have to get there crazy early to snag them! I have yet to try one. Instead, we go for regular donut varieties like the cookies and cream, or blueberry cheesecake.

Pint Size Bakery

Neighborhood: Northampton
Claim to fame: Seriously delicious, inventive, gorgeous baked goods.

Hannah's Take: Pint Size is a recent discovery for us, and Andrew and I are both obsessed. After reviewing their holiday goodies menu, we immediately texted Andrew's mom and said, "Umm, can we please bring dessert for Christmas?" So far, I'm convinced you can't go wrong here, but try the salted caramel croissant or a hand pie for a delectable treat!

Ultra-Casual

Andrew's Pizza Pick: Pi Pizzeria

Neighborhood: Multiple including The Loop, Kirkwood, Downtown, Central West End
Claim to fame: Pizza nested in a deep-dish cornmeal crust.

Hannah's Take: I don't really understand everyone's obsession with Pi. That might have something to do with the fact that it took me several years to try it out, and people raved about it constantly until I finally tried it. I was underwhelmed, but Andrew still insists that Pi is his favorite pizza in town. Give it a try and decide for yourself!

Hannah's Pizza Pick: Blackthorn Pub

Neighborhood: Tower Gove South
Claim to fame: A pizza on top of a pizza, with the city's best sauce.

Hannah's Take: Blackthorn Pub is definitely the weird uncle of the STL pizza scene. It's a dive bar in Tower Grove South, with dollar bills taped all over the walls and ceilings. They have one oven, limited pizza toppings, and less-than-awesome customer service. But the pizza sauce is perfectly balanced with just the right amount of heat, and the pie is essentially a pizza on top of another pizza--double cheese, double toppings. Call ahead--wait times can exceed an hour, but the pizza is worth the effort. 

Pho Long

Neighborhood: Olivette
Claim to fame: Pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup you never knew you needed.

Hannah's Take: If you've never tried pho, you are missing out! Enjoy a warm, flavorful, satisfying noodle soup with varieties for every diet. If you're like us and tend to be more flexible in your restrictions, try our personal favorite: the vegetarian pho with tofu, swapping in the beef broth from the classic house pho. 

Colleen's Cookies

Neighborhood: Clayton
Claim to fame: Baked goodies and an impressive menu in a neighborhood cafe setting.

Hannah's Take: Colleen's is an absolute gem. Their baked goods selection is overwhelming, but you can't go wrong no matter what you choose. The cafe menu has expanded over the years, offering a great--albeit random--selection of breakfast and lunch items, including some wonderful homemade biscuits. There's some patio seating out front, and the staff are all warm and welcoming. You'll feel right at home!

Salt + Smoke

Neighborhood: The Loop and Southhampton
Claim to fame: Texas-style BBQ and thoughtful sides.

Hannah's Take: The trashed wings alone are worth a stop at Salt + Smoke. I can't attest to many of the center stage meat options, but this BBQ joint definitely knows its stuff. Don't miss the surprisingly inventive side dishes, like the white cheddar cracker mac. 

Sweet Art

Neighborhood: Shaw
Claim to fame: Vegetarian and vegan fare, including bakery goodies.

Hannah's Take: I'm 150,000% certain that Sweet Art makes the most flavorful, amazing veggie burger that I will ever eat in my life. Try the "Make it Funky" for an extra good survey of what they have to offer. The kale salad is a worthy and surprising compliment to the main entrees, and no stop is complete without a cupcake--vegan or regular. Breakfast is good, too. Everything is good. Just go. 

Like Home

Neighborhood: Grand Center/SLU
Claim to fame: French cuisine made by actual French people!

Hannah's Take: If you aren't charmed by this place, there is simply no hope for you. Run by a young French woman and her mother, this cafe offers fresh, quality French dishes and pastries in an adorably homey corner cafe. Mind the operating hours--the schedule can change seasonally. 

Zen Thai & Japanese Cuisine

Neighborhood: Crestwood
Claim to fame: Cheap, authentic Thai food with bonus sushi.

Hannah's Take: Tucked back in a strip mall with Aldi, this hole-in-the-wall restaurant is easy to miss. During my undergrad, a Thai professor brought our class to this restaurant for an authentic Thai food experience. You simply will not believe how good the lunch deals are on weekdays, but even outside of those times, the food is reasonably priced and well-prepared. 

The Mud House

Neighborhood: Cherokee
Claim to fame: Hipster-friendly cafe fare that doesn't disappoint.

Hannah's Take: The Mud House is bittersweet for me because it's so excruciatingly busy on the weekends, but still absolutely worth a visit. Go during the week if your schedule allows. Breakfast and lunch dishes are consistently fantastic, as are the beverages and baked goods. If you can snag a table in nice weather, the back patio is glorious. Don't miss the chocolate chip cookie, my favorite in the entire city (thus far)!

Seoul Taco

Neighborhood: The Loop, and wherever the food truck is
Claim to fame: Korean-Mexican fusion, on the cheap.

Hannah's Take: My first experience with Seoul Taco was their food truck--I had a taco, and it was not super noteworthy. I later visited and ordered a chicken burrito, and I have been singing the praises of Seoul Taco ever since. Don't underestimate the heat, or overlook the restaurant for the simplicity of the menu. A cheap, delicious burrito awaits! 

Benton Park Cafe

Neighborhood: Benton Park (duh)
Claim to fame: All-day breakfast and diner-style fare, except way better.

Hannah's Take: Also excruciatingly busy on the weekends--especially in the AM--Benton Park Cafe offers diner-style American fare that is a step-up from your average diner. The food maintains the fatty-indulgence of a traditional diner (ie: the McGrittl This, a pancake sandwich with eggs and sausage in the middle), but with some quality alternatives and good ingredients. Don't miss the breakfast potatoes, best enjoyed with a little sriracha or hot sauce.

Kounter Kulture

Neighborhood: Northampton
Claim to fame: Carry-out spot with incredible Asian-inspired fare. 

Hannah's Take: Another recent find for us, Kounter Kulture is a delightful surprise. They offer no indoor seating, but what they do offer is an outrageously yummy take on sweet buns--basically a gigantic taco wrapped in a massive sweet bun, filled to the brim with slow-roasted pork, tofu, or spiced catfish. There's other stuff on the menu, but why would you not order a sweet bun taco?!? The service is incredible, especially given that this is just a carry-out joint. You will not be disappointed. 

Casual-Classy

Taste

Neighborhood: Central West End
Claim to fame: Craft cocktails and delectable small bites.

Hannah's Take: When you mostly want a craft cocktail but also want some quality small plates, Taste is the place for you. Everything that Gerard Craft touches turns to culinary gold, so have no fear--for the non-locals, just take my word on this one. 

The Fountain on Locust

Neighborhood: Midtown/Grand Center
Claim to fame: Ice cream and soda fountain in a hand-painted art deco setting. 

Hannah's Take: The specialty ice creams desserts are well-known, but the food is just as delicious at this Midtown gem. Try the dill pickle soup for something unique and, frankly, magical. Obviously don't skip dessert--the ice cream is sourced from a dairy in Wisconsin, the only one known to age their ice cream. All toppings and sauces are made in-house.

Element

Neighborhood: Lafayette Square
Claim to fame: New American fare with a killer view of downtown.

Hannah's Take: We've visited Element several times, and the food seems to improve with every visit. The setting, of course, is impossible to beat--enjoy a rooftop bar overlooking downtown St. Louis. While you're there, check out the view of Climb So Ill, the city's go-to rock climbing gym housed in the same building. 

Prasino

Neighborhood: St. Charles
Claim to fame: Actually delicious food, west of 270. 

Hannah's Take: If you suddenly find yourself west of 270 and surrounded by fast-casual chain restaurants, don't panic! Prasino in St. Charles provides a welcome relief from the tragic, far-west county dining scene. Offering "craft New American cuisine," lunch and dinner at Prasino are great, but brunch is the real standout. Don't miss the truffled potatoes!

Russell's on Macklind

Neighborhood: Southhampton
Claim to fame: Neighborhood favorite with stellar local fare. 

Hannah's Take: Whether it's a breakfast pizza, gooey butter cake, pulled pork sandwich, or a simple salad and sandwich combo, Russell's knows how to dish out good food. They get crazy on the weekends, and the patio fills up fast in good weather, but this neighborhood favorite is still well worth your time. 

Cafe Osage

Neighborhood: Central West End/Fountain Park
Claim to fame: Farm-to-table fare, right in the heart of the city.

Hannah's Take: Hungry for some home-grown goodness in the midst of the city? Look no further than Cafe Osage, a combination garden store and cafe. They grow many of their ingredients on site, and the freshness is evident in both the breakfast and lunch menus. For the best experience, come when the weather is nice and enjoy a thoughtfully prepared meal al fresco. 

Small Batch

Neighborhood: Grand Center
Claim to fame: All-vegetarian fare, and a massive whiskey selection. 

Hannah's Take: Vegetarians rejoice! You can eat everything on this menu, and the flavors are anything but bland. Known for an impressive whiskey selection, this member of the Bailey's family is also a welcome addition to the St. Louis food scene. Small Batch is a great stop for a pre-show dinner in Grand Center. 

Whitebox Eatery

Neighborhood: Clayton
Claim to fame: Counter-service cafe with a pinch of sophistication.

Hannah's Take: Every time my mom is in town, she says, "Oh, maybe just a soup/salad/sandwich place?" And every time she asks, I rack my brain trying to come up with a place. Fortunately, I can turn to this surprising little cafe in downtown Clayton. Order at the counter, and enjoy quality food with refreshing service attention. Brunch is especially good. 

Avenue

Neighborhood: Clayton
Claim to fame: European cafe with a rock-star staff.

Hannah's Take: A little piece of Europe tucked away in downtown Clayton, Avenue is the stop for anyone used to the quality food and service found in overseas dining. Weekend brunch is excellent, and they've managed to hire the best servers in town for an enjoyable experience at breakfast, lunch, dinner, or brunch. Ask to sit in Becky's section, and visit John behind the bar. 
 

Special Occasion

Bar Les Freres

Neighborhood: Clayton
Reservations: Probably a good idea.
Claim to fame: The best French restaurant in STL.

Hannah's Take: If you've got a pretty lady you're looking to impress, this is the all-around best date stop in the city. Start to finish, the experience is exquisite--excellent cocktails, incredible French food, attentive service, and a quiet, romantic setting. If you're calling for a reservation and get persistent busy signals, keep trying--they often leave the phone off the hook on accident. Don't worry, they'll make up for the minor annoyance at dinner!

Stone Soup Cottage

Neighborhood: Cottleville, MO (40 minutes northwest)
Reservations: Definitely, probably a month or more in advance.
Claim to fame: Incredible farm-sourced tasting menu in a charming setting.

Hannah's Take: Not for the feint of heart, Stone Soup Cottage offers the ultimate fine dining experience in the St. Louis area. Dinners are hosted on a farm in Cottleville about 40 minutes northwest of the city, in the romantic dining room of a charming farmhouse. The service is exquisite, and the tasting menu is an experience you don't want to miss. The worst part is driving back to the city afterward--consider booking a nearby room for the night instead!

Claverach Farms

Neighborhood: 20 miles west of STL
Reservations: Definitely, probably a month or more in advance.
Claim to fame: Farm-sourced, family-style experience in an open-air barn.

Hannah's Take: I like to think of Claverach as a less-intimidating, family-style Stone Soup. Dinners are held in an open-air barn on the farm about twenty miles west of St. Louis. Best experienced with a group, enjoy a seated dinner at long picnic tables featuring the freshest seasonal ingredients from the farm. 

Sidney Street Cafe

Neighborhood: Benton Park
Reservations: Probably a good idea, but drop-ins have a fighting chance.
Claim to fame: Inventive New American in the ideal date-night setting.

Hannah's Take: The exposed brick and street lamps in the main dining room of Sidney Street Cafe combine beautifully to create a charming, romantic, laid-back date night setting. Ask to be seating in that main room, and enjoy a fantastic meal with someone special!

Brasserie

Neighborhood: Central West End
Reservations: Probably a good idea, but drop-ins have a fighting chance.
Claim to fame: Excellent French fare, and a procrastination-friendly brunch.

Hannah's Take: Another of Gerard Craft's victories, Brasserie is a French stop in the Central West End, now offering lunch during the week in addition to dinner, and brunch on the weekends. The patio is spacious, and if dinner is a little too intimidating for you, go for brunch. The croque madame and benedict are both marvelous, as are the breakfast potatoes. Unlike many of the area brunch stops, you have a chance for a table if you show up sans reservation around 10:00 AM.

Herbie's

Neighborhood: Clayton (formerly Central West End)
Reservations: They have gobs of space--you're probably fine without one.
Claim to fame: French-inspired American fare with quality service. 

Hannah's Take: The recent move from the Central West End to downtown Clayton makes sense for Herbie's. This fine dining spot now boasts a massive patio, and the neighborhood suits the sophistication of the menu, service, and ambiance. While arguably less inventive and more traditional, the food is well prepared, and the service is excellent. 


Honorable Mentions

Vicia

Neighborhood: The Cortex
Reservations: Definitely, though not too far in advance.
Claim to fame: Vegetable-forward fare that is turning heads on a national level. 

Hannah's Take: I had to include Vicia, because absolutely everyone is talking about it! We have yet to visit, but are excited to give it a go in January. For a preview of a similar philosophy, watch the Chef's Table episode about Blue Hill. The team behind Vicia spent several years with Blue Hill, and the philosophy is noticeably similar.

Pieces Board Game Bar & Cafe

Neighborhood: Soulard
Claim to fame: Super fun board game cafe with better-than-expected fare. 

Hannah's Take: Go for the games, stay for the food! This innovative board game bar and cafe is thriving, right next to the farmer's market in Soulard. For a $5 game fee, play as many games as you like for as long as you'd like. For every food or beverage item you order, they'll deduct $1 off your game fee. The food is better than expected, and the service is fantastic. Basically, Pieces is heaven for foodie nerds. Get your geek on!

------

And that's a wrap! I'll try to update this guide and re-post it periodically, when we've visited new favorites. In the meantime, I hope I've left you drooling for something listed above. I'd love to hear your thoughts if you try any of these places out, and if there is something not listed that you think I should try, drop a suggestion in the comments below.

Updated: January 22, 2018

Capturing Your Professional 2017: End-of-Year Reflection

There are less than 3 weeks remaining in 2017 -- can you believe it? Before you let your mind race ahead to your personal holiday festivities, Christmas shopping, and the inevitable feasting to uncomfortable fullness, I invite you to take a moment and reflect.

Sure, you have personal goals that you want to identify based on the previous year, and resolutions that you want to set for 2018. 

But friends, don't miss this opportunity to reflect on your professional 2017. 

What are you most proud of in your work this year? What have you achieved? Perhaps you'd rather skip all of that and dig into the holidays with your families--understandably so! Sit tight for a minute and allow me to present an argument for professional reflection and proactive resume updates as we celebrate the close of another calendar year. 

End-of-Year Resume Updates

Though December is always busy and chaotic, this is absolutely the best time to sit down and document your professional achievements for your resume. Whether you are an active job seeker or 100% content in your current role, periodic resume updates will serve you in the long run. 

Why now?

There are 3 primary arguments in favor of end-of-year resume updates, regardless of your job status:

  • Fresh perspective on the closing year's activities
  • Availability of metrics and specific results
  • Avoided frenzy and effort in the event of a future job application

We've all been there. For years, you never expect to leave a job, and all of a sudden you realize it's time to move on. You happen to run across your dream job in a listing on LinkedIn, and you realize that the application deadline is tomorrow.

Frantically, you dig through your computer files and an eternity later, you locate your most recent resume draft. You groan as you review it--you haven't updated it at all since you accepted your current position! You rack your brain, trying to come up with some impressive-sounding bullets for your current role, with the clock ticking down in the back of your mind.

That doesn't sound fun, does it? On top of the experience factor, the resume points that you develop in a pinch will not be as compelling or accurate as they would have been if you'd done them periodically throughout your tenure. 

Although keeping a pulse on your achievements throughout the year is ideal, end-of-year is a great time to consider your professional highlights and to document them thoroughly. Look back on the previous year, referencing your calendar, documents, and other materials as needed, and consider the following questions as they relate to your professional 2017:

  • What are you most proud of this year?
  • Where did you grow professionally this year, and what efforts are evidence of that growth?
  • What projects stretched your skills this year?
  • Where did you see the most noticeable and satisfying results, such as an extremely satisfied customer, major financial savings, etc.?
  • Are there any efforts for which you received formal or informal recognition? Don't overlook 'less significant' recognition, such as a heartfelt thank you note, or a particularly thoughtful comment from a coworker, supervisor, or client.
  • What were your most significant projects this year, in terms of both effort and impact

Reviewing this list, it's easy to see that you are best equipped to answer these questions and identify the relevant metrics now, as opposed to months or years down the road when you find yourself ready to apply for a new opportunity with a fast-approaching deadline. Keep your resume fresh, and capture the best details by reflecting on your achievements in a timely, proactive fashion.

How do I document my professional 2017?

So you're sold on the idea--you're ready to sit down and capture your year. How exactly do you go about doing so in an effective way?

Take a look at those reflection questions above--take some informal notes electronically or by hand according to your preference. Don't worry about getting the language 'resume ready,' or stating your achievements as spectacularly as possible. Just get a good sense of your 2017 highlights.

When you've got a good list of your major projects and 'wins' for the year, sit down and answer the following questions for each project:

  • What was the context? What was the major problem you needed to solve?
  • What obstacles did you face, and how did you achieve your goals?
  • What results did you achieve? Consider measurable data points such as financial savings, increased sales, or event attendance. Also consider 'ripple effects' that occurred as a direct result of your work--perhaps a donor was impressed with a project, and decided to make a significant contribution as a result. 

Your goal in answering these questions now is to 1) get all of the results documented while the data is fresh and available and 2) capture all of the details you might need for future interviews. The STAR method is an approach to behavioral interview questions ("Tell me about a time when...") that highlights the Situation, Task, Action, and Result of any given project. As you look over your details, be sure you've touched on each of these categories for your project summary. 

At this point, you've got a big, messy list of notes related to your professional year. That's great! I highly recommend storing that original note document in addition to your working resume--throw it in a file folder with your professional documents, or keep a digital copy stored in the cloud. 

Finally, it's time to add a few bullet points to your resume. Focus on the highlights of the year, and create a bullet point on your resume for each of your major projects. As a guide, the following fill-in-the-blank format is a good starting point:

"Led the team to (ACTION), resulting in (MOST SIGNIFICANT RESULTS)."

For example: "Led the creation and execution of the special event series, leading to 50 new community partners and $1,000 increased annual sales." Don't forget to include any formal recognition or awards you may have received for your efforts.

---

That's all there is to it--you're done! Save your draft, save your notes, and take a moment to sit back and celebrate. It's so easy to get bogged down in your to-do list, the frenzied pace of the holidays, or the upcoming year. But take a few minutes for yourself, and acknowledge what you've achieved in 2017. It's a beautiful thing to feel proud of your work, my friends. 

If you have any questions or thoughts about the resume update process, I'd love to hear them in the comments below!