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! 

The Freedom to Choose

The holidays always prove to be a busy season, and this year is no exception thus far. After returning from our river cruise in Europe, I was sick for more than a week. Then we traveled to Indy for Thanksgiving, and I got to enjoy a week-long visit with my family. I came back home feeling well-fed, rested, energized, and ready to work.

Unfortunately, while I was away, I came to an unsettling realization about my current work-in-progress: I had to start over. Yes, all the way over. 

Writing the project had been challenging, more so than I expected, especially the further that I went into the story. While I was away, I realized the problem: my main character was too far removed from the action of the story. My current project is a love letter of sorts to Jim Butcher and The Dresden Files, but I wrote my own main character to be a reporter--not a magician, like Harry Dresden. As a result, the pace felt slow, and I found it difficult to get my heroine believably engaged in the action of the story. 

Reluctantly, I sat down on Tuesday afternoon and made a pros/cons list about starting over. The pro side won overwhelmingly, and I started a draft of a new Chapter 1. Fortunately, the writing has been quick and smooth as a result, and I seem to have accurately identified the problem. But I had to step back and make that decision in order to move forward.

Working from home and being my own boss creates a stream of decisions that I have to make, choices that guide my day, and determine the fruit of my efforts:

When my alarm goes off at 6:20 AM and I technically have no appointments to be up for, will I dismiss the alarm, or get my butt out of bed on time? 

When I do eventually get my butt out of bed, how will I start my day? Will I immediately check the news, which almost always puts my in a sour mood? Will I make myself a hot mug of tea, eat a good breakfast, and do a little morning yoga to wake up my body and mind gently? 

Will I prioritize time with God and the Word so that I am firmly planted in the truth of the gospel, and my identity as a daughter of the King? Or will I rush into my to-do list, frantically trying to tick as many boxes as I can before I have to be in the writing chair at 1:30 PM? 

When I get moving, will I let the dirty dishes, dusty floors, errands, or home improvement projects take priority over my own work? Will I choose to value myself professionally, to value the words that I write, or flee to the immediate gratification of more immediately 'productive' activities?

When I set the new window treatments down in the kitchen, break something, strip the screw for the mounting hardware and subsequently cry all over the clean dishes in the right side of the sink, how will I respond? Will I acknowledge the choices that led me to this moment, and the choices I'm actively making in my response? 

Will I step back, breathe, smile in the knowledge of grace and an eternity in heaven, and thank God that I don't have to have a perfect day, a perfect home, or a perfect manuscript?

When I make the wrong choices and do all the wrong items on my list, will I decide to actively redirect my day and get my butt into the writing chair anyway?

Yesterday was a bad day. It was bad all the way through the kitchen incident where I broke a food storage container, and cried on the clean dishes. It took me all the way until 3:35 PM to take a deep breath, and take a hard look at the day I'd just lived out:

I didn't set myself up for success in the morning.
I made some unfortunate choices about how to spend my time, and ran around like a basket case trying to get things done.
I didn't eat enough food, the rookiest move of all. Hangry people are never happy people.
After several spectacular failures, I still decided to pursue another house project involving power tools and balance, in a storm of raging emotions.

But at 3:35 PM, I made a choice to step back and slow down. I put the power tools away and opened my Bible. I focused my sights on heaven, and got an appropriate and accurate perspective on my life. I reminded myself of the magnificent, mysterious blessing of grace. Because God showed me how, I forgave myself.

I chose to have a better day.

 When life gets frustrating or chaotic, it's so easy to sit back, scream at the heavens, and forget how much control we have in our own circumstances. There is freedom in the decisions that we are able to make for ourselves each day. Even if I make those choices imperfectly, I still have the ability to choose. 

The holidays seem like an ideal time of year to remember that. I can choose to focus on the right messages this season. I can choose family and relationship over busy-ness and material junk. I can choose to do my work, even when it feels like I should be doing a million other items on my list instead. 

And I can choose to have a good day. I invite you to do the same, my friends. 

Travel Review: Viking Rhine River Getaway

Back in March, Andrew and I were in the middle of the inspection period for the sale of our condo. My parents were gushing about their recently-booked Viking River Cruise for mid-November, and we were completely jealous.

On a Tuesday evening, our condo buyers demanded a third radon test--yes, third--for our basement. 

Needless to say, we were a little fed up.

We were sitting at the dining room table feeling a bizarre mix of rage and apathy when we looked at each other and said, "Why don't we call Viking? We can just get information. We don't need to book anything, of course."

Half an hour later, we'd booked a Rhine Getaway river cruise for late October. Impulsive? Probably. Worth it? Definitely. Oh, what a blessing it is to have something to look forward to! 

The pre-trip icing on the cake was Andrew's recent offer and acceptance of a new job, a much-needed change for him professionally. He wrapped up at his previous position two days before we flew away to Europe, and was thus completely detached from work on our trip...also known as the perfect vacation scenario!

Now, I know what you're thinking. Trust me, we got the question about a zillion times on the boat--actual quotes from our fellow passengers were as follows: 

"Aren't you a little young to be on a Viking river cruise?"
"Were you aware that you'd be surrounded by senior citizens?"
"So... why exactly did you decide to book this cruise?" 

The wisest and most polite passengers, in my humble opinion, said something like this:

"Good for you! Travel as much as you can while you're young. We waited too long, and regret not traveling more before having kids." 

The rest of this post is an in-depth review of our cruise, covering the itinerary, onboard accommodations, food, service, pros/cons of a river cruise, my recommendations for those considering Viking, and yes, a description of our experience as young people onboard. I hope that my comments prove to be helpful for you as you consider your own future adventures. 

Itinerary: The Rhine Getaway

Day 1: Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Day 2: Kinderdijk, The Netherlands
Day 3: Cologne, Germany
Day 4: Koblenz, Germany
Day 5: Heidelberg, Germany
Day 6: Strasbourg, France
Day 7: Breisach, Germany
Day 8: Basel, Switzerland

The Rhine Getaway can be experienced in either direction: from Amsterdam to Basel, or Basel to Amsterdam. At the recommendation of the Viking representative we spoke with at booking, we began in Amsterdam and gradually traveled south into warmer weather. 

Day 1: Amsterdam

We arrived in Amsterdam around 8:30 AM local time, and were met by Viking representatives just outside of baggage claim. They cheerfully ushered us outside to a comfortable charter bus, which whisked us--and probably 10 other passengers--away to the docking location. 

Our room was not available upon arrival, because we arrived so early and the previous cruise was wrapping up that day. However, the staff greeted us warmly, offered to store our bags for direct delivery to our rooms, and invited us to rest in the lounge if desired. We were given a helpful, detailed map of Amsterdam, and opted to explore the city on our own for the morning. Viking provided regular shuttles to and from the city center, and distributed paper shuttle schedules from the reception desk. 

Based on some prior research, we ate lunch at a local establishment, and visited a gorgeous local chocolate shop. Conveniently, the chocolate shop was directly across from a cheese shop which offered complimentary tastings. Nonetheless, we were jet-lagged and I was travel-cranky, so we headed back to the boat around 2:00 PM to check in to our stateroom.

Though we were unaware of the option prior to arriving, Viking did offer multiple walking tours of Amsterdam that afternoon. They provided shuttles into the city and local guides for the tour. Again, we were pooped, so we did not attend. However, for those worried about 'missing out' on the Day 1 stop, you may be able to go out on a guided tour depending on your arrival time.

Our Stateroom

A member of the staff escorted us down to our stateroom, located just at the bottom of the stairs near reception. We traveled aboard the Viking Hlin, and booked the cheapest stateroom they had to offer--a standard room, room #100. The friendly staff member pointed out some of the basic features of our room, though he failed to indicate the dial in the bathroom that heats the floor. Don't miss the heated bathroom floor feature, my friends. The dial is located right next to the bathroom outlet, and the result is absolutely glorious

Our stateroom was clean and comfortable, and we immediately unpacked, one of the perks of traveling via river cruise--there was no need to re-pack or move our belongings between destinations. The room included a decent amount of hanging closet space, a safe, shelves in the closet, drawers, and a hidden mini fridge. The TV was loaded with dated but functional Viking applications, including a weather report for upcoming destinations, pre-loaded movies and television shows, itinerary information, and some super-creepy spy cams that allow you to view programming in the Lounge, or to see the view from the bow of the ship. 

The bed was fairly firm, but that's not uncommon in Europe. We tried to research the size of the bed and found that it was not a standard size, but somewhere between a queen and king. We have a king at home, and were perfectly comfortable during our trip. One item worth noting is that there is no clock in the room--the TV has the time on it if you turn it on, but in the middle of the night, there is no other way to check the time. Bring a watch, and plan to use your phone or other device for morning alarms.

Arguably the most important item waiting for us in our stateroom was a copy of the Viking Daily, a printed newsletter that is the bible of daily activities each day. Beginning in the evening on Day 1, the Daily is delivered to each stateroom during dinner, waiting for you upon your return to your room. 

Day 1: Evening Activities and Dinner

We took a nap and completely slept through the afternoon programming, which included a wine and cheese tasting in the Aquavit Terrace, a lovely, bright space adjacent to the Lounge on the 3rd level of the ship. Later on, we made our way to the Lounge during the standard 5:30-7:00 PM cocktail hour and were present for the Welcome Briefing at 6:30 PM.

DSC03178.jpg

During this briefing, we met our Program Director Daniel and were given some basic information about what to expect onboard. In addition, we were informed that there was a mandatory safety video loaded on our TVs that we were required to view within the first 24 hours onboard. If we did not view it, the other TV programming would be "frozen" until the safety video was observed. This was a quick video and not a nuisance at all. 

From there, the Program Director proceeded to give his Port Talk, a brief 10-15 minute presentation about the following day's activities, recommendations, and tips. I expected these talks to be boring and unhelpful, but they were actually quite informative as we considered what we might like to see and do the following day. I recommend attending the port talks, or creeping on them via your TV Lounge Spycam.

For dinner, we opted to dine in the restaurant on the 2nd level of the ship, the more formal of the two dining options. The menu in the Aquavit Terrace is much more limited, and as a result we never opted to have dinner in that setting. We did, however, enjoy lunch on the Aquavit Terrace once or twice for a change of pace. 

Dinner was less formal than I anticipated, and I breathed a sigh of relief over that--I'd refused to pack multiple fancy outfits in the interest of space, and crossed my fingers that I would not be out of place as a result. There were mixed attire choices, but most people were in jeans or trousers and a nice sweater or blouse. Very few men opted for ties or jackets, on any occasion. "Dressed up jeans" is a perfectly acceptable attire choice at dinner time, if that is your jam. 

The meal itself was lovely. We're pretty critical about food, and selected Viking largely because of their reputation for quality food and service. Fortunately, we were not disappointed, though I would argue that the effort and attention to meal preparation varied throughout the trip. The first and last meals were the best by far.

At both dinner and lunch in the restaurant, we were presented with a printed menu outlining multiple options for a first course, entree, and dessert. In addition, there were always a few boring standards available for the less adventurous eater, like a caesar salad and chicken breast. Be adventurous, my friends! Options generally included a more interesting salad, soup, fish, and plenty of red meat. Vegetarian options were less common, though I'm 100% confident the ship's kitchen staff would be able and thrilled to accommodate dietary restrictions.

For our first meal, we enjoyed a cheese souffle with sour cream sauce. I opted for a cod with poppy seed cream sauce, pureed peas, cauliflower, and baby corn for my entree. Andrew enjoyed the vegetable quiche with saffron sauce. And for dessert, we shared a "chocoholic" plate as well as a cheese selection. Each evening's menu included cheese as a dessert option, presenting two new cheeses each day. We found everything to be well-prepared, and the service was absolutely marvelous. More on the staff and service later on.

After dinner, the schedule indicated a 9:00 PM program in the Lounge: "Suited: A Nostalgic Music Trio." We were not interested, but heard good things about this Amsterdam-based cover band performing musical selections from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. 

Day 2: Breakfast and Kinderdijk

Ah, breakfast in Europe. There are few things as enjoyable, in my opinion, as an exquisitely varied, massive European breakfast spread. On the Viking Hlin, we were given the option to have a continental breakfast in the Aquavit Terrace from 6:00-11:00 AM, or have a full breakfast in the restaurant available from 7:00-9:30 AM. We always opted for the restaurant, which had a better spread, and was still primarily served buffet-style. 

In addition to the generous breakfast buffet, the daily breakfast menu gave diners the option of ordering french toast, eggs benedict, and other basic dishes. We never opted for these, as we found the buffet to be more than sufficient. Behind the buffet bar, a member of the kitchen staff manned the omelet station, and also was available to cook eggs according to preference.

After breakfast, we left for the included excursion to the Kiderdijk Windmills. The optional excursion--Dutch Cheese Making--occurred early in the morning, leaving those individuals time to explore the windmills also upon their return. 

While interesting and lovely to behold, the windmills were a bit of a 'dud' for us. Unless you're really interested in flood-management systems and the history surrounding them, this might not be your favorite day. That said, our tour guide was solid, and we definitely learned a few things about windmills, including the fact that they are often used as residences for the person caring for the windmill.

We returned to the ship for lunch, again enjoyed in the restaurant, and the ship cast off around lunch time. We spent the afternoon sailing, and as a result, the Daily included multiple afternoon activities onboard to keep everyone entertained.

We skipped the wheelhouse tours on the sun deck--an opportunity to interact with the captain and learn about the ship's navigation features. Later, we attended a Dutch teatime from 4:00-5:00 PM in the Lounge, which was mostly an excuse to eat pastries, desserts, and tiny sandwiches. We did not object.

At 6:15 PM, the captain and staff officially welcomed us on board and handed out various bubbly beverages for a toast. Both the captain and hotel manager individually went around the room to clink glasses with all attendees, something like 175 people. They also entered to the Star Wars theme, which we respected.

We enjoyed the official Welcome Dinner in the restaurant, savoring our two fish options: salmon with corn sauce and caviar, and seared halibut with mashed potatoes and melted leeks. Dessert was chocolate and peanut butter crunch with yoghurt ice cream, an interesting and surprisingly tasty combination.

Curious, we briefly visited the Lounge for the 9:00 PM programming, featuring the regular onboard musician, a pianist and vocalist named Gigi. During lunch in the Lounge, cocktail hour, dinner in the Lounge, and post-dinner in the Lounge, Gigi entertained guests with covers of well-known hits, backed by some sort of digital tracks that were synced with his keyboard. While endearing, we were not terribly impressed by this entertainment, but others absolutely seemed to enjoy Gigi's performances. Many people jumped up to hit the dance floor by the bar.

Day 3: Cologne, Germany

Day 3 was our first example of an unexpected inconvenience with the itinerary--itinerary cities do not necessarily equate to port cities. The ship docked in Zons at 9:00 AM, where passengers interested in the Cologne tour were invited to board buses into the city center. The ship itself did not reach Cologne until 12:30 PM. We had planned to explore Cologne on our own, so this was a little irritating for us. However, we were invited to take the bus into the city with the rest of the passengers, and were reassured that we were welcome to explore on our own and part ways with the rest of the tour groups. 

That we did! Again, we were given detailed maps of the city, including the docking location of our ship. We explored the gorgeous Cologne cathedral on our own, had a pre-lunch treat at the Schokolademuseum cafe, and then enjoyed a wonderful lunch at the Fruh am Dom brauhaus, a recommended stop from a few friends, as well as Viking.

In the afternoon, many passengers opted for the paid excursion to the Bruhl UNESCO Palaces. We opted to enjoy a more leisurely afternoon, but heard nothing but good things about both the morning tour and the afternoon palace excursion. The ship presented an 'Enrichment Lecture' at 5:00 PM entitled "Germany Today," which we also skipped. 

Per our request the night before, we left the ship again for dinner at a staff-recommended restaurant on the river, Fischmarkt. Dinner was fine, but not our favorite experience. It was difficult to tell if we simply ordered the wrong dishes, or if the restaurant was a poor recommendation. Either way, we still enjoyed a lovely evening outside under the heaters, and took a night walk across the love locks bridge to peruse a permanent fair on the far side of the river.

We returned to the ship in time for the evening program, "Classical Music Journey" featuring a cellist and pianist from the Cologne Symphony Orchestra. This was a lovely program, tainted only by the rude behavior of a few select passengers who were apparently bored--and even offended--by classical music. Perhaps it had something to with the fact that bar service was suspended during the program out of respect for the musicians.

During the program, we enjoyed a bottle of champagne and strawberries that were gifted to us in honor of our wedding anniversary. Our actual wedding anniversary was in September, but upon booking our cruise, the Viking representative told us that our 'new' anniversary would be in Cologne, and we would be celebrated accordingly. We did not object!

Day 4: Koblenz, Braubach, and Rudesheim

We were warned in advance that Day 4 was a good day to stick with the group, so we ate breakfast and disembarked for the included excursion to Marksburg Castle. Viking transported us to Braubach by bus, where our ship later met us. The bus ride was comfortable and not too long.

Marksburg Castle was probably our favorite excursion on the cruise. Our tour guide was excellent, and the castle itself was fascinating. Even the gift shop proved interesting, and there was a small cafe onsite for anyone who was ready for a mid-morning treat after the tour. This was probably the most demanding excursion, and the terrain within the castle was reasonably difficult to manage for anyone with mobility limitations. The guide, however, was quite helpful in identifying alternate routes for anyone who needed them.

After the castle, we were bused down through Braubach to meet our ship. We opted to have lunch on the Aquavit Terrace for two reasons: 1) the weather was absolutely magnificent, and 2) the afternoon program was scenic sailing along the Middle Rhine with commentary from our Program Director. The terrace and sun deck provided the best viewing opportunities for this scenic sailing.

The staff provided print maps of the Middle Rhine, identifying villages and castles that we would be passing. Program Director Daniel provided commentary over the PA system, available to anyone in the Lounge, Aquavit Terrace, or sun deck. There were absolutely many beautiful castles and villages, and it was a relaxing afternoon spent on the terrace.

The commentary ended a bit early to allow time for the Rudesheim Coffee Demonstration and Teatime, where the staff showed us how to make traditional Rudesheim coffee and served it along with tea, sandwiches, and various treats. Afterward, Daniel presented a program in the Lounge about other Viking cruise opportunities, which we skipped.

At 5:00 PM, we arrived in Rudesheim and left at 6:30 PM with a group for the "Dine in Rudesheim am Rhine" paid excursion. We boarded a multi-car tram dubbed a "mini train" and endured a chilly, bumpy ride into the heart of Rudesheim.

The town itself was charming, but the excursion was a bust. Dinner was a set menu with mediocre food, offered in a boisterous, Americanized setting. The obviously talented band was wasted on cover songs clearly directed at the cruise crowd, and we were pulled from our seats regularly to participate in activities like Schnapps shots or a cowbell performance. 

I would not recommend the excursion for future sailers, but do think Rudesheim is worth exploring in the evening. We walked back to the ship, winding our way around the town, and were charmed by the sights. 

When we returned to the ship, Andrew went up to the desk to make a request that warmed my heart. While we were eating our mediocre dinner on our excursion, the menu in the restaurant on the ship included a white and milk chocolate mousse for dessert--one of my absolute favorites. Around 10:00 PM, Andrew inquired as to whether or not we might be able to have some leftover mousse from dinner. The staff member at the desk left immediately to the kitchen, and return with a fully-plated dessert for us to enjoy in our room.

DSC03232.jpg

This was one of many examples to highlight the exceptional service on board, and the willingness of the staff to move mountains for any and all passenger requests. 

Day 5: Heidelberg and Speyer

During the previous evening's port talk, Andrew and I absolutely groaned over the Heidelberg schedule. The bus would depart from Mannheim at 9:30 AM for a 30 minute bus-ride into Heidelberg. From there, the walking tour would move through various parts of town, including a bus ride midway to a different part of town. There would be some free time, but all in all the excursion would take nearly 6 hours, and most of that would be guided or on the bus.

We opted for Speyer.

After breakfast, a leisurely morning on board, and lunch with probably a handful of other passengers who stayed behind, we docked in Speyer around 1:00 PM. The staff provided walking maps and recommended the Technik Museum, which we decided to explore. My oh my, what a find!

Though this was definitely more Andrew's thing than my own, I was still impressed and overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the Technik Museum's collection. There were two giant hangers filled with cars, planes, firetrucks, and motorcycles. In addition, the surrounding grounds were packed with planes, ships, submarines, and helicopters that you could climb into. The piece de resistance, of course, was the giant Lufthansa 747 suspended high above the ground that we could climb in and on. Children and adults alike squealed as they flew down the enclosed spiral slide, an optional exit.

DSC03262.jpg

After the museum, we walked to Speyer's cathedral and enjoyed a fantastic piece of cherry something in a local cafe.

Dinner on board that evening included a mesclun salad with figs, shrimp egg rolls with ginger sauce, honey bbq salmon with leeks, and a porcini mushroom ravioli. 

Day 6: Strasbourg, France

Ah, Strasbourg. I smile just thinking of you!

One of the reasons we booked this particular Viking itinerary was to explore the Alsace region of France. We wanted to determine whether or not we should return to this region for our next international trip, an in-depth exploration of France.

We learned the we are quite fond of the region, and of Strasbourg in particular. This is a good city to explore on your own, if you find yourself tired of guided tours by this point in the itinerary.

Once again, the ship (unexpectedly) did not dock in Strasbourg. Instead, we were across the river in the German town of Kehl. The included tour bus ride was going well out of the way into the city, taking a one hour scenic tour "on the way". As an alternative, the staff told us how to take Kehl's tram into Strasbourg, a 5-minute walk away and a 20-minute ride into the heart of Strasbourg. I believe the tram cost something like €1,70 per person. 

Upon arriving in Strasbourg, we quickly noticed that every two storefronts or so were home to a boulanger, or French bakery. We immediately found one that looked promising and walked out with some pain au chocolat and another pastry that we could not identify. Neither disappointed--the French know what they're doing with breads and pastries. On top of that, everywhere you turn in Strasbourg is postcard-worthy. 

We wandered Strasbourg, and eventually found our way to our pre-determined lunch choice for the day, Au Petit Tonnelier. Based on our research, we selected this particular restaurant because of their menu, reviews, and proximity to both the Cathedral and Palais Rohan. 

Our meal was lovely, and included a regional pinot blanc, goat cheese salad with bacon from some sort of small bird, vegetable gratin featuring an unknown autumn variety, and a filet of fish with cream sauce. The English translations were a bit vague, so we weren't entirely sure what we were eating, but everything was delicious!

After lunch, we headed back to the Cathedral, the highest medieval building in Europe. Both the interior and exterior of the Cathedral were breathtaking--I could not help but feel that someone knew my exact preference for design and built it accordingly. Photos do not begin to do it any sort of justice. Worth noting: the Cathedral was closed for lunch, and reopened at 2:00 PM.

When we left the Cathedral, we walked to a nearby tea room that we identified in our research of Strasbourg: Au Fond du Jardin. Intimate and floral, they did not have any available reservations for afternoon tea, or speak much English. But the tea house is known for its madelines, delicate, edible works of art. We purchased two to sample, as well as two homemade marshmallows. Many of the treats are infused with various types of flowers, which can be a bit disorienting for the unaccustomed palate--AKA most people.

By mid-afternoon, we felt that we had enjoyed a nice overview of the city, and met a Viking guide at a pre-determined location to walk us back to the shuttles, offered periodically throughout the afternoon.

We skipped two afternoon onboard programs: a cooking demonstration, and an enrichment lecture on Alsace during WWII. 

In the evening, we enjoyed the "Taste of Germany" dinner in the restaurant, which was essentially a giant buffet of German meats complemented by Kolsch beer. There were pretzels, meats, and cheeses on our tables when we arrived, and we were entertained by a violinist and accordionist who wandered the ship playing traditional German tunes. Many of the ship's staff were decked out in their Octoberfest costumes, and they gave a short little chat about lederhosen just before dinner.

The evening program was an International Music Trivia contest in the Lounge, which we again opted not to attend.

Day 7: Breisach and Colmar

Day 7 has very little to do with Breisach, and much more to do with the included and optional excursions available: the Black Forest, Colmar Village, and the World War II Tour of Colmar featuring the Colmar Pocket Museum.

Based on web reviews, we decided not to participate in the Black Forest tour. This included four hours mostly on a bus, touring the Black Forest and stopping at a cuckoo shop. I believe black forest cake was involved, at some point. Our acquaintances who went on the excursion had a good time, but I think they were all seriously interested in purchasing cuckoo clocks, which may have had something to do with it.

Instead, we decided to explore more of Alsace and went on the paid excursion into the Village of Colmar. It took about 30 minutes to get there by bus, but our guide was with us on the way there and provided some commentary along the way. We semi-reluctantly went on the included walking tour, then wandered Colmar on our own for an hour or so before we had to leave. 

The village is lovely and full of history. Its major claim to fame is that it was home to Frederic Bartholdi, sculptor of the Statue of Liberty. There are tiny plates on the sidewalks throughout town to remind you that this is Bartholdi's home town, in case you forget.

DSC03504.JPG

But the rest of the village is quite charming, and lovely to walk through. We enjoyed several shops, including a bakery stop for pastries and a biscuit shop that our guide pointed out on our tour. 

We returned to the ship for lunch and a leisurely afternoon on board, then reluctantly attended the Farewell Dinner, sad to see the trip coming to an end. 

The meal was a wonderful send off, and was stretched to four courses to mark the occasion. Courses 1, 3, and 4 still included options, while the 2nd course was set. We immensely enjoyed everything that was presented to us, including salmon tartar, roasted forest mushroom veloute (soup) with mushroom chips and truffle sabayon, pumpkin mousse ravioli with lamb loin, grilled marinated perch with couscous and balsamic brown butter, a crisp dark valrhona chocolate tart with mango salad, and apple strudel with vanilla sauce. 

Gigi played in the Lounge after dinner, but we opted to pack our bags and relax before departing the next morning. 

Day 8: Basel, Switzerland

I'm sure Basel is lovely, but we did not see much of it due to our 10:40 AM flight. In the morning, we set our bags out according to the schedule Viking provided and enjoyed one last breakfast in the restaurant. The Aquavit continental breakfast was open extra early for the unlucky few departing between 4:00 and 6:00 AM; fortunately we were not among them!

Just as we arrived, we were bused to the airport and accompanied by a Viking representative to the ticket counter. The airport in Basel is small, and was mostly deserted. It was a smooth trip home, though our connection in Frankfurt--including a pass through customs--was definitely tight. We were half-running to get to our gate in time, but did make it with a little room to spare. 

 

Pros and Cons of a River Cruise

Pros

We booked our cruise because we have been extremely busy and stressed for the last year or two, and wanted someone else to do all of the worrying for us on vacation. The Viking staff, ever attentive and proactive, certainly did that marvelously. It was luxurious to be treated so well, and to be driven around without a care in the world. The staff provided helpful tips about interacting with the local culture, and any warnings that might be relevant, such as pickpocketing on tours near the major sites.

The food was good, the accommodations were comfortable, and I would argue that the service was as good as it can possibly be. By mid-week, staff members were learning our names and greeting us as friends. They went well out of their way to make our trip as good as it could be--Andrew even overheard a staff member on the phone trying to arrange a horseback riding excursion on behalf of a passenger. 

Unlike an ocean cruise, the river cruise allows the boat to get much closer to the port cities. Though we did have to endure a bus ride or two, we were rarely on the bus for more than 15 minutes, and were still much closer to our destinations than an ocean cruise can offer. Because of the size of the boat and the number of passengers, the staff were extremely attentive, and the amenities were a bit more luxurious. From what we've heard, the food on board was significantly better than the food offered on ocean cruises, probably for the same reasons. 

Cons

The two biggest hangups for us were 1) the forced socialization at meals and 2) the lack of introvert space. In the restaurants, tables are laid for 6 or 8. If you want the good food, you have to sit with other people. For people traveling as a group of 4 or more, this was no problem at all. But for us, we often found ourselves sitting with new people, and going through the small talk routine over and over. Yes, most of the people we met were absolutely lovely! But it would have been nice to enjoy a good meal alone on occasion.

By Day 5 or so, we finally caved and migrated toward the other young people. Yes--there were other young people on board! We were as surprised to see them as they were to see us, I think. There were two young couples on board for their honeymoon, another couple celebrating their first wedding anniversary, and a sibling pair traveling together. We found meals with this group to be much less exhausting, as they spent more time laughing and joking, and less time going through the small talk routine.

The boat was on the smaller side, for sure, so there wasn't a lot of opportunity to be on our own. The river cruise really is more about what happens off the boat, as opposed to ocean cruises which offer more extravagant performances and productions. This is all a matter of preference, in my opinion, and not really a con so much as a heads up.

Even though we didn't care much about onboard programming, we still felt that the programming was oriented strongly toward the older crowd. Many of the other young people on board were content to have drinks in the Lounge after dinner, but that just isn't our scene--we're not 'partyers' in the traditional sense. It didn't really prove to disrupt our experience much, but the onboard entertainment left much to be desired, especially as younger people. 

As I mentioned above, if you want to explore on your own there can be some hangups in doing so. We planned to do our own thing in Cologne, Heidelberg, Strasbourg, and Colmar, but were sometimes forced into group transportation at the least, and sometimes into a tour. The logistics were not given in advance, so it wasn't easy to plan our own activities. The staff was extremely helpful in making every effort for us to explore independently, but the trip certainly isn't designed for that kind of independent exploration. 

Recommendations

So who should go on a Viking river cruise? 

For their target demographic, Viking does an excellent job of exceeding expectations. Individuals, couples, and groups in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, or 90s (yes, 90s!) will be delighted by the quality of service and the programming that is tailored for their preferences. Several times on board I thought to myself, "Man, my parents are going to have a blast!"

For young people, there are a few reasons that one might choose to go on a cruise. For us, it did prove to be a relaxing, low-stress way to see places we probably wouldn't see on our own independent international vacations. The world is big, after all, and you can only see so many places. The cruise provides a nice way to 'knock out' multiple destinations in a short amount of time.

For others that we encountered on board--both young and old--the cruise provided a way to "practice" traveling internationally for the novices, or a safe space for anyone anxious about interacting with non-English cultures. Many passengers seemed anxious about attempting to speak the local language, or offending the locals out of ignorance. Other passengers could have benefited from being more concerned about these cultural interactions. We were a little embarrassed on behalf of our country on multiple occasions, but that is to be expected, I suppose.

For anyone into tours, architecture, history, and educational insights in combination with your international travels, you will probably have a marvelous time. The value for the cruise is maximized by anyone who dives in for every included excursion, eats most or all meals on board, and drinks all the free wine they can stand during meal times. 

-------

In summary, we found our time on the Viking Hlin to be relaxing, rejuvenating, and fun. We were certainly reluctant to return home, and would have happily stayed put for another week or two. If you have any additional questions or are curious about aspects not mentioned in my review above, drop me a note in the comment section below! 

Recent Read: The Deed of Paksennarion by Elizabeth Moon

Read on without fear, my friends! Recent Read reviews do not contain spoilers unless otherwise indicated in big, bold, impossible-to-miss fonts. 

A few weeks ago, I offered my thoughts on the first installment of this trilogy by Elizabeth Moon. Typically, I would wait to review a series until I finished the final book, but in this case, I was in a low period of productivity and inspiration, and thus wildly reaching for anything and everything I could feasibly write about. Mercifully, life is starting to swing back toward normal, and I'm off to a good start this week. I mean, it's only Tuesday, and I'm already blogging! Huzzah!  

If you've read that initial review from a few weeks ago of book one, titled Sheepfarmer's Daughter, you know that this is an epic fantasy trilogy written by a woman, about a woman--this was my main reason for diving into the story. Prior to a couple of months ago, I'd never heard of this series, or of Elizabeth Moon. Andrew ran across the series title in an article somewhere, and it was being held up as one of the great epic fantasy triumphs, alongside Tolkien and Rothfuss. 

Hunting down this series can be a bit confusing--originally, the story was published as three separate (and much more digestable) volumes in 1988 and 1989: Sheepfarmer's DaughterDivided Allegiance, and Oath of Gold. In the late 1990s, Baen published a combined version of the series, titled The Deed of Paksennarion. This gargantuan compiled version is the one most readily available in our local library systems, and thus might be the best place to start if you go hunting for the series. 

Deed_of_Paksenarrion.JPG

As I mentioned in my initial review, the first book was slow, cumbersome, and too distant for my taste. The level of world-building detail was astonishing, and an obvious nod to Tolkien, but I felt too removed from the characters, including our title heroine Paksennarion--Paks for short. 

Friends, this is somewhat embarrassing, but I have to give it to you straight: my initial impression could not have been more wrong about the series as a whole. 

Now that I have read the entirety of The Deed of Paksennarion (three books often presented together in one published volume), I can say that it is a brilliant and worthy addition to the classic rockstars of the epic fantasy genre. Moon creates a world clearly inspired by Middle Earth, but also entirely distinct. And in her heroine, Moon develops a fresh and surprisingly complex woman, a heroine worthy of the reader's admiration and respect.

If you're a regular on my blog, you can imagine what a fantastic surprise this was for me. I have been tremendously disappointed with the garbage heroines being written--by women--especially in modern young adult speculative fiction. This comic by author and illustrator Adam Ellis sums it up nicely:

Credit  Adam Ellis , @adamtots. 

Credit Adam Ellis, @adamtots. 

In addition to Adam's observations about young adult heroines, I would add that they tend to be bitter, vengeful, violent, and romance-obsessed. Anger is lifted up as their most redeeming quality, and ironically, this makes me want to punch some people in the face. Is this what we want to promote in our culture, and for our young women? Do we really want our friends and nieces and daughters to admire these heroines who are obnoxiously broody and selfish? 

This is one of my primary goals as an author--to write flawed heroines who can still be admired and respected for the right reasons: heroines who inspire young women to be brave, kind, independent, intelligent, and thoughtful. 

So you can imagine my delight when I got deep into Paksennarion's story, and completely fell in love with her. Is she my ideal heroine? No. Her behavior is more passive and meek than I might hope to promote in my own work, but even so, one could argue that her choices are context-appropriate, and the best decisions she could make in the world that she lives in. 

One particularly compelling aspect of Moon's story is spirituality, and the interaction between various characters and the gods they choose to serve. Paks' journey is certainly spiritual, and takes her to a place of open-handed obedience and faith in her path and decisions. This, in my opinion, is a woman worth admiring--a woman whose faith leads her to do good, who acts according to the leading of her god, and who does not respond with selfish ambition, but instead with selfless sacrifice and tireless commitment to do what is right. 

My only surviving complaint from my initial impressions is that the character development for secondary characters is so sparse. There are many, many characters that Paks encounters on her journey, and they are given very little attention in the way of development. Even Moon, whose character development is so subtle and effective, has left me feeling that I don't really know many of those characters beyond Paks. By the end of the series, I still had trouble visualizing other characters and keeping their names straight. But perhaps this was intentional--perhaps the reader is meant to feel the fleeting moments with these individuals as Paks walks a lonely road. Regardless of intent, this left me feeling a little cheated as a reader, and hungry for more information.

That said, The Deed of Paksennarion is a magnificent, fresh take on an epic fantasy, centered on a well-developed heroine. Paks' journey feels new and unusual because she is so different from the women who are elevated in our culture. If you are looking for a surprising and patient read, I strongly recommend picking up this series.

Recent Read: Sheepfarmer's Daughter (The Deeds of Paksennarion #1)

I don't know what it is, but there's been something in the air or water this week. Everyone I've spoken with has been exhausted, unmotivated, and driven to bury themselves deep under the bed covers. Perhaps it's the fickle summer-to-fall weather, or the hurricane vibes wafting up from the southern coasts. Whatever the cause, I've had an unmotivated week, and am struggling to get back in the groove.

The one thing I can always do--no matter how sleepy or unmotivated I'm feeling--is read. 

A few weeks ago, I picked up a massive volume titled The Deed of Paksennarion, written by American author Elizabeth Moon. Seriously, it is a giant brick of a book, and more than a little daunting to haul home for a bit of fantasy reading. We're talking 1000+ pages, y'all. Buckle your seat belts for this one. 

Prior to a couple of months ago, I'd never heard of this series, or of Elizabeth Moon. Andrew ran across the series title in an article somewhere, and it was being held up as one of the great epic fantasy triumphs, alongside Tolkien and Rothfuss. That, in combination with the fact that the series was written about a woman and by a woman, was plenty to capture my attention and add the series to my reading list.

Hunting down this series can be a bit confusing--originally, the story was published as three separate (and much more digestable) volumes in 1988 and 1989: Sheepfarmer's DaughterDivided Allegiance, and Oath of Gold. In the late 1990s, Baen published a combined version of the series, titled The Deed of Paksennarion. This gargantuan compiled version is the one most readily available in our local library systems, and thus might be the best place to start if you go hunting for the series. 

paksennarion.jpg

Now, it's worth noting that I read fast....really, really fast. I've attempted to slow myself down in the name of retention and focused attention on writing techniques; that's a battle I'll fight for years, I think. But regardless, I generally tear through fiction like a starving animal pouncing on fresh meat. I tell you this so you have some context when I say that Sheepfarmer's Daughter is a slow, slow, sloooowwwww read. 

Really, really slow, friends. If you are into action-packed fantasy with kick-ass battle scenes a la Brandon Sanderson, you might find yourself banging your head against the wall. There is a realistic pacing to Paksennarion's journey, a little too realistic, perhaps, for some tastes. There is a good deal of this sort of narrative, a direct excerpt from the book (spoiler-free!):

"It was a long three days' march to Fossnir, down the river from Valdaire, with a baggage train much larger than the year before. Peach and apricot orchards were still pink, though the plum blossom had passed. Paks missed the more delicate pink and white of apples, and the white plumes of pear. When she mentioned this to a veteran, he said that apples were grown only in the foothills of the Dwarfmounts, or far to the west. Pears did not grow in Aarenis at all.

The road they marched on was wide and hard: great stone slabs laid with a careful camber for drainage into ditches on either side. To one side was a soft road, for use in good weather when the road was crowded. Northbound caravans passed them, one made up of pack animals instead of wagons. They had a nod and smile from the caravaners...

The next day after Fossnir, they made Foss, oldest city in Foss Council. Here they left the river, following the Guild League caravan road to Pler Vonja. Villages were spaced a few hours apart along the way, and great walled courtyards for caravans to use were never more than a day's easy journey apart. Wheelwrights, harnessmakers, and blacksmiths had their places at each caravan halt; the villages offered fresh food and local crafts."

This is entirely a matter of preference, but I found the frequency and duration of this type of setting description to be monotonous and tiresome. Sure, it accomplishes a purpose--as the reader, you (theoretically) share the interest and awe of the world that Paks is experiencing, and you experience the boredom as they trudge around the country in between the action segments. But even still, it's a little too much for my taste, and I found myself groaning when this sort of passage came up by the final third of the book.

Even the action is described in a way that is unimpressed and unmoved by the change of pace; what happens simply happens, and there is little lingering on those moments, or change in the tone or voice. Boring days and busy days are presented realistically, from Paks' perspective, and hers is a remote and level observation style. 

That said, it is difficult to find fault with Moon's writing. As a main character, Paks is complex and certainly unique when compared with today's broody, angsty heroines. She is likable yet flawed, relatable and cheer-worthy. The most remarkable thing, perhaps, is how Moon uses little to achieve much in the way of character development. Her writing is subtle, smart, effective, and efficient. 

Moon is so good, in fact, that the pacing pain-point did not deter me from devouring the story; Paks' story is a compelling, engrossing adventure. One of the reviews for the series notes Moon's intentional assimilation of Tolkien's Middle Earth, and praises her for using his influence well to create something entirely new and interesting. Though I'm only partway through the second book at this point, I think it is fair praise to award the series--while there are reflections of Tolkien's work in Moon's world, these do not feel stolen or imitative. It might be more appropriate to call the series a love letter to Tolkien. I'll have to wait until I've read the entire series to confirm that, though.

In addition to pacing, there seems to be a missed opportunity when it comes to description. As the reader, I absolutely felt a misbalance between setting description and character description. Sure, I know what the buildings looked like in every town, and precisely what colors the tree leaves have turned, but there is a limited amount of description about the characters themselves. I still have a difficult time picturing Paks, and am at a complete loss with characters who are only passing through.

Some of that is an issue of quantity, I think; there is such a deluge of names thrown at the reader that it is difficult to keep track of minor characters at all. The same goes for the names of cities, villages, regions, and landmarks. No one could argue that Moon's world was not thoroughly conceived and imagined, but I'm not sure that anyone but Moon could accurately depict it or map out its intricacies without a great deal of effort and research. 

This has been an unusual reading experience for me, in all; there have been irritations along the way, but I have had no desire to put the series down. Moon has demonstrated her mastery in several areas, and has written a character and adventure well worth our effort as readers. I would recommend this series for anyone wanting to read a well-rounded, medieval-fantasy-era heroine, or anyone desiring a study in fantasy setting description. I'm not sure where Paks' journey is leading yet, but will be sure to post again when I've finished reading Oath of Gold.

In the mean time, I send my best wishes to anyone else experiencing the drag of this week, and the incessant desire to crawl into bed. Stick with it, my friends; tomorrow is another day! 

Salary Expectations: Addressing the Dreaded Interview Question

We've all been there before.

You're excited about a new opportunity, rocking a preliminary phone interview, and feeling confident about your experience and fit with this particular company. The big picture is coming together in your mind, and you're confident that this could be a phenomenal career move for you!

Then the recruiter drops the bomb:

"So, let's talk about salary for a minute. What are you making in your current role?"

All of a sudden, your confidence evaporates and you wonder how everything went from fantastic to terrifying in the span of two sentences. Also, when did it get so hot in here?

The good news? You're not alone. Addressing salary expectations is a universally dreaded experience for job seekers. 

The conversation generally starts in one of two ways: 

  1. What are you making now?
  2. What do you expect to make in this role? 

No matter how it is presented, the salary question is one that consistently catches job seekers off-guard and puts them in a difficult position. And truth be told, there is good reason to take the question seriously; there is a lot at stake, a lot riding on the content and delivery of your response.

Let's visit the potential--and common--negative outcomes for a moment:

  • You aim too high, and the company can't afford you.
  • You aim too low, and the company wonders what's wrong with you.
  • You aim well, but lose your negotiation ability by providing a specific figure or range.
  • You fumble over the question, mumble your response, and the company doubts your self-confidence and overall value as a new hire. Will you be this twitchy on the job?
  • You get a little too heated in your response, and suddenly the tone of the conversation balances on the edge of a knife. You've put a bad taste in the recruiter's mouth, who now sees you as a self-defensive hiring risk. 

When you look at that list of outcomes, it's easy to see why the salary question is so troublesome for job seekers--there are countless ways to get it wrong! But that doesn't mean that the question is impossible to prepare for, or that you are automatically backed into a corner with no way out. Let's back up for a moment, and zoom in on the heart of the problem.

Root Problems in the Salary Conversation

There are a number of root problems in the salary expectation conversation, on both sides of the table. 

The Hiring Organization

The motives of the recruiting company can vary, but often the hiring side is worried about wasting time and resources on you as a candidate. It is the most economical and effective choice if they can determine your affordability upfront, before they spend time vetting you in-depth.

The hiring side also holds a lot of power at the interview table--and with power comes the opportunity to abuse it. Job seekers, from a position of perceived powerlessness, are easily manipulated into sharing more information than they'd prefer to. As a result, it is unfortunately quite common for recruiters or hiring managers to bully you into caving under pressure in an interview setting.

The Job Seeker

The greatest obstacle for the job seeker is ignorance--many job seekers assume that they are required to divulge their salary history in an interview, which is simply not the case. You are never obligated to share your salary history; this is private information, and the hiring organization does not have any right to the data. 

So if caving and providing your salary details isn't the solution, how should a job seeker address the salary question?

Nailing the Salary Conversation

The key to addressing the salary question well is simple:

  1. Have a plan.
  2. Do your research.
  3. Adjust your strategy as-needed.
  4. Always keep it positive. 

Preparation is your greatest tool for interviews in general, but it is crucial to prepare your strategy in advance for the salary conversation. Consider the two possible ways that the question will be presented, and prepare thoughtful, rehearsed responses. Write them down verbatim, if you need to! This one is worth getting right.

Here are some basic sample scenarios to help you get started and deflect the salary question:

EXHIBIT A: SALARY HISTORY - BASIC DEFLECTION

Hiring Manager: "Let's talk salary. What are you making in your current role?"

Job Seeker: "You know, this opportunity is not identical to my current role. Let's discuss my qualifications for this particular position, and we can discuss what a fair and appropriate salary would be based on the responsibilities of this job."

EXHIBIT B: SALARY EXPECTATIONS - BASIC DEFLECTION

Hiring Manager: "Okay, let's talk about salary. What are your salary expectations for this role?"

Job Seeker: "My greatest concern is finding an opportunity that best suits my skills and experience. I'm confident that you are offering a fair compensation package for this opportunity. I'm open to discussing the complete package when we get to that point." 

Basic deflection is a good tool to have on hand, particularly early on in the process. Whenever possible, it is in your best interest to avoid discussing salary before the company has fallen for you as a candidate. Sure, you might have to discuss details later--but to the best of your ability, delay that conversation until they've gotten to know you better. Later in the process, they are more likely to value you as a candidate. 

Spoiler alert: nobody is going to be happy about you deflecting the salary question. You are going to get some pushback, and the recruiter is going to press you for some specific numbers. If you're definitely interested in the position and want to keep the conversation moving forward, there are ways to humor the hiring manager without showing all of your cards.

This is where research comes in. Before you get into an interview conversation, do your research to identify a fair salary range for the role you're pursuing. Websites like Glassdoor are good resources for finding salaries at the company you're applying for, as well as for similar companies. Find some solid data, and determine a decently-wide range based on your research. For full-time salaried positions, I'd recommend cushioning your range with a span of $10,000-$15,000.

Let's look at a specific scenario to apply this to, using an extended version of Exhibit B:

EXHIBIT C:  RECRUITER PUSHBACK

Recruiter: "Okay, let's talk about salary. What are your salary expectations for this role?"

Job Seeker: "My greatest concern is finding an opportunity that best suits my skills and experience. I'm confident that you are offering a fair compensation package for this opportunity. I'm open to discussing the complete package when we get to that point." 

Recruiter: "Yeah, but let's be honest--it's a waste of everyone's time if our budget doesn't align with your expectations. What do you think would be fair for this sort of role?"

Job Seeker: "Well, from my research, it seems that an appropriate salary for this sort of role would fall in the $50,000-$65,000 range. I'm sure you are offering a salary that is competitive and appropriate for the industry."

The beauty of this strategy? You demonstrate your own industry savvy, while also proving that you are a solid negotiator who is not willing to buckle under a little pressure. You've done your research and are willing to stand your ground. The recruiter's appetite for specific salary data is sated, but you've managed to withhold your personal salary details. Everybody wins!  

Special Case: Required Application Fields

There is no greater opportunity for a hiring organization to abuse their power than in the web-based job application. Technology is a great ally in this effort. 

Don't be surprised when you run across restricted, required fields demanding a single figure as a salary expectation. Yep, you heard that right -- those monsters won't even allow you to enter a range

When possible, thwart the system. Enter "Negotiable" or "Open to discussion" in unrestricted fields, or provide a wide research-based range when you are forced to provide a range of numbers. Fair warning: the more you bend the rules, the more likely it is that you will irritate someone on the receiving end. Arguably, it is still in your best interest to keep your salary history and ideal salary to yourself for as long as possible. 

If you absolutely cannot avoid entering a single salary figure on the application, rely on your research, and aim above your ideal salary within that range. I would argue that it is better to overshoot and affirm your professional value, rather than undersell yourself. 

Friendly Reminder: Context Matters

As helpful as some of these tools and examples may be, there simply is no universal "correct" response to the salary question.

Be present in your interviews, and always keep the tone positive. When it's obvious that the recruiter is not going to be pleased until he or she gets a range out of you, offer the research-based industry data. Pay attention to the context and tone of the conversation, and be flexible with your approach. No two job interviews are ever going to be identical. 

And if you've done your homework, but are still feeling unprepared? Consider enlisting the help of a coach to practice various interview strategies and develop some confidence at the negotiation table. 

Measuring Progress: Thoughts on Effective Goal-Setting

'Type A' is a little bit of an understatement for me.

My Passion Planner—a gift from my intuitive, thoughtful friend Rachel—is a goal-tracker’s playground. There is enough structure to get you focused and to encourage reflection, but there’s also enough blank space to make it your own and have some room to play. It's one of my go-to tools for goal-setting and progress-tracking, another being the Gleeo Time Tracker app. 

At the beginning of every month, I dedicate some time to reflect and project; I review my progress on goals from the previous month, and then set my goals for the next month, breaking the larger goals into weekly segments. I feel like I’m constantly re-evaluating these goals; at first, an approach seems like it will work, but in practice something about the goal is off, and I end up tweaking something for the following month. 

Honestly, it’s a little annoying. But I also believe this is a process worth digging into. 

Here’s why:

When setting and tracking goals, we get the most accurate picture of our progress when we’re measuring the correct goals with the appropriate units.

Let’s use my previous goals as an example. For July, I set the following targets:

  • Read 3 books
  • Write 20,000 words for my work-in-progress first draft
  • Write and share 1 blog post per week

At first glance, this is a perfectly reasonable list of goals. As a writer, I should definitely be reading and writing; these tasks are my bread and butter. Blog posts are also a logical step for developing my business while simultaneously getting some additional writing practice.

It all sounds good, right? But in practice, these goals were not working at all. Why? What got in the way? 

As I took a closer look, the major issues related to my goal-setting fell into the following categories: the motivation behind each goal, distinguishing action items from goals, and measuring success appropriately and accurately. Let’s break these down individually.

Goal Motivation

Why? Why is the tool with which we determine goal motivation. 

Reading is important to me; I want to be consistently absorbing the work of other writers, learning from their techniques and developing my vocabulary and writing toolbox. I chose the goal of at least 3 books per month because that would allow me to more-or-less reach my reading goal for the year: 40 books. 

Here’s the rub: establishing a reading goal measured by the number of books completely fails to support my motivation for reading! The goal that I set encourages me to read for speed over depth, to select shorter books, and to read without really dedicating much time to unearthing the nuggets of wisdom in the text. 

So how can I repair the issue? I go back to my original motivation for wanting to read regularly: to develop my own writing abilities, and improve my vocabulary.

When examined in this light, my truest, most motivation-aligned writing goals would be to 1) read the right books and 2) read them slowly, with space to take notes and absorb the information.

KABOOM. All of a sudden, my title-hungry reading goal has no business sticking around. With a clear purpose at the forefront of my planning, the goal becomes reading the right books, and reading them well. Is this goal still measurable? Sure! All I need is a list of books worth reading, and consistent time spent reading them with intention. 

One might even go so far as to argue in favor of the following effort: Spend as many hours reading a good book as possible. 

Goals vs. Action Items

Oh, reading...you sneaky little fiend.

Guess what? Reading isn't one of my goals at all -- it is an action item. By incorrectly viewing it as a goal, I lost on two fronts: 1) reading received more priority and weight than it deserved, and 2) the actual goal that reading is related to was distorted and did not receive an appropriate amount of attention and effort. 

Try this exercise that helped me get my goals and tasks in order. 

Make a chart with three columns, or whatever organization works for you. In one space, list all of the professional goals you want to achieve. Don't worry about being specific or giving a timeline for the goal just yet -- really dig deep and lean into the heart of what you want to do. 

To make sure that you're really listing goals, ask yourself WHY you want to do each item on your list. If there is an answer to that question, the answer is probably your goal. If your response is "Because that's what I want to do," you've probably arrived at an actual goal.

Here is my version:

Core Goals

  • Serve my existing clients with excellence, meeting their needs efficiently and effectively.
  • Practice and become a better writer.
  • Serve more people via career communication services.
  • Complete my current work-in-progress trilogy.

Now, in the next space, translate these general goals into SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-Bound versions of what you've listed on the left.

This is where things get interesting.

Core Goals

  • Serve my existing clients with excellence, meeting their needs efficiently and effectively.
     
  • Practice and become a better writer.



 

  • Serve more people via career communication services.


     
  • Complete my current work-in-progress trilogy.

SMART Goals

  • Effectively prioritize any existing client to-do items over other tasks on my list. When client-related work arises, address it ASAP.
  • Average 3 daily hours of writing time, not including blogging. Read something of high-quality, daily. Spend at least 1/3 of my writing time "playing," writing outside of my work-in-progress.
  • Identify 3 referrals or new clients every month through network conversations, web-based content, webinars/workshops, or other outreach efforts. 
  • Finish the first draft of Book One by the end of November. 

It was SUPER tempting to put action/task items into the SMART Goal column. For example: blog weekly. I had to add and delete "blog weekly" from the SMART Goal column next to "Serve new people" more than once during this exercise. Why? Because blogging weekly isn't my goal. Finding new people to serve via communication services is the goal--my goal is to identify new clients or referrals. People I can serve is the unit I'm measuring...not blog posts. Blog posts are just a task that I will schedule that will actually support 2 of my SMART Goals: becoming a better writer, and identifying new people to serve. 

Closely examine your lists, verifying the connection between Core Goals and SMART Goals, and ensure that no action items have snuck their way in.

Got it? Okay--now you actually get to translate goals into action items. Time for Column 3:

Core Goals

  • Serve my existing clients with excellence, meeting their needs efficiently and effectively.
     
  • Practice and become a better writer.






 

  • Serve more people via career communication services.






     
  • Complete my current work-in-progress trilogy.

SMART Goals

  • Daily prioritize any existing client to-do items over other tasks on my list. When client-related work arises, address it ASAP.
  • Average 3 daily hours of writing time, not including blogging. Read something of high-quality, daily. Spend at least 1/3 of my writing time "playing," writing outside of my work-in-progress.
  • Identify 3 referrals or new clients every month through network, web-based content, webinars/workshops, or other outreach efforts. 



     
  • Finish the first draft of Book One by the end of November. 

Action Items

  • Block client-specific time into the first two hours of my schedule, daily. Create daily to-do lists and ensure client priority.
  • Schedule 3 daily hours of writing time each afternoon. Identify writing prompts or "play" topics. Log writing time in Gleeo.


     
  • Make a list of people to speak to and get in touch. Blog weekly, cycling in career communications content. Plan, promote, and execute free webinars. Offer free workshop for job seekers.
  • Add to the draft daily, resisting the temptation to edit yesterday's work -- use comments in Scrivener instead to make notes for future edits. 

Neat, huh? Suddenly, we are left with a thorough breakdown of SMART goals with corresponding, ready-to-go action items. It's super tempting to drop this blog post right here and get all of this incorporated into my Google calendar and planner; in the name of productivity and follow-through, I will resist!

Measuring Success

The last hiccup that I identified in my goal-setting was that I wrote my goals in such a way that I was measuring the wrong thing, or at least measuring inaccurately. Let's look at writing as an example.

My July writing goal was 20,000 words for my work-in-progress draft. As I began writing and editing, I realized that I was being cheated in my progress tracking--often, I came in and started working from a mid-way point in the text I wrote the previous day. Because I'm human, I found sections or words that I didn't care for at all, deleted them, and re-wrote them. But because I was measuring the amount of words added to my draft that day, I didn't get any "credit" for the work that I did on top of existing text. 

Writing isn't easy, folks. Don't make it worse by minimizing what you've managed to achieve.

There are a couple of ways to solve this particular problem. One option would be to completely refuse to edit any of yesterday's work, and only move forward in the draft. For me, that just isn't feasible. For the sake of continuity and sanity, I have to be allowed to back up and overlap my efforts each day.

So in my case, the answer is to stop measuring words and start measuring time. After all, writing is not all about typing out words -- thinking, staring into space, visualizing a scene, having out-loud imaginary conversations with your characters, Googling facial expressions as visual aids, and various other insane strategies that we utilize as writers do not get included in your progress when you only measure word count. What is the one thing that all of these tasks have in common that is measurable?

The time that I spend working. Voila. If I measure time, I measure success.

Friends, I hope that this reflection is helpful for you today. If we know what our target is, we can identify what actions we need to take to aim appropriately; ready, aim, fire.

Now all that's left is to get moving! 

Cultivating Joy

I wrote the post below almost exactly one year ago. After receiving some surprising and heartbreaking news yesterday, I found myself hunting for these words again this morning. 

Though this post was written for an old blog in a different (and much darker) season of my life, the wisdom and truth that I reflected on are just as relevant today. I hope that these nuggets of hope--one from my grandma, and one from the lyrics of a favorite hymn--will be encouraging to you in the midst of your circumstances today. 


My Mamaw was a strong, vivacious woman. And she loved to dance.

 

In the photo above, Mamaw is dancing with Papaw at my brother’s wedding. If you’ve seen this image before, you probably know why it’s so special.

Mamaw and Papaw stood up for the song she requested (“I Hope You Dance”) and they made their way to the dance floor. Despite her health condition and the difficulty she had standing up and walking, she was not about to sit this dance out; it was the song she requested after all. And if I have my dates right, in this moment, she got one last slow dance with her husband before he passed away.

Mamaw seized every moment. She was present, and loved her family fiercely. I admired that about her.

The last time I saw her, she was in the hospital, and I went with my dad and brother to visit her. We were fairly certain that it could be our very last visit with her — Mamaw knew it too. Nobody wanted to waste that time. So we prayed over her, and she shared some of her life lessons with us as a parting gift:

“Spend time with your family and loved ones, as often as you can.”

“You can’t always find happiness, but you can always have joy.”

Now, I’m going to be completely honest. That last one has been kind of irritating for the last 6-7 months. There isn't a lot of joy in the mess we’ve been walking through, or at least it doesn't feel particularly joyful. But that is only true if I am measuring and mourning an absence of happiness. Joy, on the other hand… joy is much more resilient.

For this icky season of life, I have been absolutely obsessed with a hymn that I don’t hear very often in church. And I think that’s a real shame, because it speaks so much hope into seasons of darkness. I have played it on the guitar over and over and over again and cried out to God in some of my most desperate moments. The entirety of the lyrics are below, or for the music people, you can check out the Indelible Grace version at this link (fair warning — you will feel all the feels if you listen to it):

Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve known the joy of Christ before. With certainty, I can say that I lost sight of that joy in this season. It’s so easy to get bogged down in the “now”, the discomfort and needs and pains of today. But even on those worst, awful days, and also on the increasing number of light days, I live for the 5th and 6th stanzas, and seek to saturate my soul with these truths:

The Spirit of Christ dwells in me.
My incredible Father smiles upon me, even when I suck. Or when the world sucks. Or when absolutely everything seems to suck. 
Jesus died so that I could know His love and draw near to God.
Someday, everything else will melt away, and I will finally be in my true home.
And NOTHING that ever happens in this life is going to change any of that. At all.

That is the joy that Mamaw wanted me to know, daily. She had a deep understanding of this gospel truth, that the love of God is resilient, and that the good news of the gospel can warm my heart, even when everything else is falling apart. Maybe she even knew that I really needed to hear her say those words, right at that moment, in the middle of a storm.

“You can’t always find happiness, but you can always have joy.” Always. No matter what. 

Women and Work: Acknowledging Achievement

Friends...I really love my job. 

Yes, I get to write fantasy and sci-fi and mentally reside in amazing places. What could be bad about that, right? It's nerd paradise.

But in addition to writing, I get to do something pretty amazing. I have the great honor of helping people realize how awesome they are. Then, I show them how to communicate their awesomeness via Career Communication Services. And it is an absolute joy to be able to do so.

Recently, I coached a client who had been with her current company for a very long time in various capacities. She'd worn many hats, and was frustrated that her resume wasn't generating any interest. So we got together over coffee, and I got to know her a little better.

As she described her professional experience, my heart broke a little bit. This is the sort of phrase I heard consistently: "I mean, I've conducted hiring interviews and exit interviews, and I've led staff training, and I've screened resumes...but I don't have any real HR experience. I was never the HR manager or anything." 

Sound familiar?

Based on what I've seen in my work, I'm willing to wager that this is a fairly common occurrence, especially for women. There are so many societal pressures on working women, and it is easy to see how we have been encouraged to minimize our achievements, instead of owning those accomplishments with pride and confidence. Our societal messages tell us that a confident woman who is proud of her work is intimidating, arrogant, difficult to work with, bossy, or bad at delegating.

It's pretty unfair, isn't it? I also happen to believe that it's a load of crap. There are still a lot of battles to fight on a grand scale as women in the workplace, but this is one that we should be fighting just for ourselves. 

Culture, coworkers, and bosses aside, when the doors are shut and you can freely reflect on and examine your professional journey... Are you proud of your achievements? Are you proud of your work? 

In almost all cases, I think the answer should be yes. Most of us are working our tails off in various capacities, and rarely take a minute to stop and celebrate our achievements. It was a joy to do this with my recent client, and to make something very clear for her.

"I don't have any real experience," she said.
"Guess what?" I replied. "The only difference between you and an "HR professional" is the title. You have done the work, and you have the experience. Don't minimize or underestimate your history. You have a lot to be proud of!"

We continued to walk through her experience, and I helped her write a resume that showcased her achievements clearly and confidently. Yes, that resume will hopefully help her land a job. But more importantly, she looked at that resume and was delighted and startled by the quality, depth, and breadth of her own experience. She saw her professional self clearly, and was equipped with language to be able to discuss those achievements in her job transition. I get tears in my eyes just thinking about it, because she is everything that the resume communicates and much, much more! 

Maybe you feel pretty good about your work -- that's awesome! But how is your comfort level when it comes to discussing it? Pay attention next time you're discussing your job with a friend or family member. Do you minimize your involvement, or the results of your work? 

It's the difference between these two statements:

"Yeah, just doing the same old thing...working on a project for so and so. It's fine."
OR
"Yeah, I'm actually working on a project for XYZ. I'm excited about it because of THIS, and I'm really looking forward to the results because SOMETHING GOOD WILL HAPPEN."

Admittedly, some of this comes down to perspective in addition to your own pride in your work. Sometimes it's extremely difficult to identify the value in what you do. I used to be an executive assistant, and that work didn't feel like much of an accomplishment because I didn't have an obvious product or service that I was consistently delivering. But now, as I reflect on that position, I see how incredible it was that I juggled so many competing priorities, responsibilities, projects, and stakeholders. I made a major difference in my boss's day, every day, and was able to make his crazy life a whole lot easier. On top of that, I gained a wide range of professional experience that allowed me to move forward on my career path. 

It took me a long time to get that perspective. But every job has an impact, and every responsibility eventually leads to a customer... a measurable result. And that result contributes something to the world, however minor the impact may seem. Hair stylists help people to feel good about their appearance. Dog walkers make pups feel really, absurdly happy and loved. Janitors create a safe, clean environment for others to go about their day. Managers inspire others to success and help them to nurture their professional and personal abilities. Uber drivers get people where they need to go safely. 

What is the value of your work? When was the last time you sat down and thought about your own professional self-image? How do you describe your own responsibilities, achievements, or ongoing projects?

I invite you to join me in this endeavor today. Take a few minutes to reflect on the work you've done across your entire professional history. Remember the projects that you lost sleep over, but were able to complete with pride. Celebrate the people that you served in your work: the satisfied customer, the stressed out supervisor, or the coworker that benefitted from your efforts. 

Your work has value. You have value. And it is anything but arrogant to acknowledge and celebrate your accomplishments.

Go forth with your head held high and conquer your work week with confidence, my friends! 

Recent Read - The Divine Cities

Oh, how blind we can be to our own selves.

Last month, as I was contemplating my goals for June and sharing them with a friend, it seemed perfectly rational that in the midst of moving into our new house, I would still be able to START writing my trilogy project and average 10,000 words per week. It's important to establish routine right away, I said. It will be a welcome distraction from unpacking and decorating. 

My dear friend just nodded and smirked at me. "Okay," she said. "Go for it."

Today is June 30, the last working day of this month for me. What do I have to say for myself, and my June goals?

Yeah...that about sums it up.

As the end of the month approached, I struggled to tear myself away from unpacking boxes, drilling holes in the walls, and periodically swearing at said walls. I was determined to have something to show for myself and my June goals... so I did what I can always do, no matter how creatively drained or distracted I am. I read a bunch. 

Read on without fear, friends -- there are no spoilers in this blog post!

If you're unfamiliar, The Divine Cities is a series of books written by American up-and-coming author Robert Jackson Bennett. The series is composed of three books: City of StairsCity of Blades, and City of Miracles.

I read the first book (City of Stairs) back in February, and at the time, I was somehow under the impression that it was a standalone novel. I'd heard about the book as a "Book of the Week" recommendation on the Writing Excuses podcast, and the description was so compelling that I decided to read it right away. When I finished the book, I was completely depressed that it was a "standalone," and moved on with other items on my reading list.

Lo and behold, City of Stairs is not a standalone novel, and is actually the first installment of this wonderful series. Robert Jackson Bennett has accomplished one of my favorite feats in this series--it is an undeniably genre-bending story. He has created a believable world that is bizarre, unique, and utterly compelling, blending elements of fantasy, mystery, science fiction, and much more.

The basic premise: for ages, the Continent ruled Saypur with the might of their gods. But somehow, Saypur managed to rebel, murdering all of the Continent's divinities. The story begins after this substantial upset of power, when Saypur has taken over the Continent and is just beginning to explore the mysteries of the nation's divine history. 

Though each book is written from multiple perspectives, each book also focuses primarily on one main character: Ashara Komayd, the brilliant and curious scholar; General Turyin Mulagesh, the hardened military servant; and Sigrud je Harkvaldsson, the lonely assassin. Each character is brilliantly written, and fascinating to explore. 

The over-arching story houses countless mysteries and adventures, all set in a gritty, modern industrialized setting. There are a million questions that you find yourself asking as the reader, because the components are so curious and imaginative. I guarantee you have not read anything like this before.

But the most impressive part of the series? It gets better as it goes. That's right, people. Book 1 is not, as we often find, an ultimate triumph followed by two disappointing sequels. My interest and delight only grew as I tore through Book 2, right up until the very end of Book 3. Part of the magic of Bennett's structure is that each book really maintains the feel of an independent story, much more so than I've experienced in other trilogies. I was satisfied at the end of each novel, yet ready and willing to read more. At the same time, the third book closes the series in a deeply moving and satisfying fashion, without tying up the ends too neatly. It is an ending worth waiting for.

If you don't mind some gruesome descriptions of violence and the frequent use of the F-bomb (Books 2 and 3 especially), this is a series you might love. Be warned: The Divine Cities series is definitely firmly housed in the adult literature section, mostly for its language and violence. I believe it would be a particularly useful read as a study for multi-book series structure, unexpected fantasy settings, mystery elements, utilizing supernatural elements, culture/world-building, and just about anything else you might want to dive into.