The following was written by our dear friend Sally Vardaman Johnson.
Sally Vardaman Johnson is a health insurance professional and writer. She recently added standup comedy to her endeavors to stretch her creative muscles and show her kids you’re never too old to try something new. You can read her occasional ponderings at sallysmart.wordpress.com, and follow her on Twitter at @vardaman_sally.
Kathy Engen and I met years ago when our boys attended kindergarten together. Those boys will soon start their last year of middle school.
At the time Kathy worked with an outplacement service helping recently laid off professionals find a new job – resume drafting, interview coaching and the like. I barely knew her, but she said something back then that stuck with me. She really believed there was a job for everyone. Each person just needed to find it, and sometimes they need help doing so. When I heard her say it, I immediately believed her.
Many years later, Kathy and Linda Heath published a book, gol: a curated guide to the modern day job hunt. These women are kind, strong and generous contributors to our community. Of course I was going to buy a copy to support them. But I didn’t really need it. Nope. I am not the workbook type.
Not long after their publication date, however, my workplace changed rapidly. Suddenly my own job seemed in jeopardy. I am a self-supporting, single mother, and I was terrified.
You know what is really hard to do when you are scared? Feel good about yourself and promote yourself. Fear fans the flame of economic vulnerability. I knew better than to panic, but I was not sure what to do instead.
Around that time Kathy and Linda appeared on a local news show promoting their new book. They talked about returning to the workforce after a long hiatus to care for young children, which I had done a few years back. It’s hard returning at first, and easy to get caught up doing work that draws praise. You can find yourself following what other people think you should do, instead of discovering what you want to be doing.
I heard that description and instantly identified. I did not even like my job, and already felt the environment did not fit me. But the absence of my paycheck would be an immediate crisis for me.
On a quiet, cold Minnesota evening, I sat in front of a fire with my new copy of gol. I shelved a swirl of negative thinking and excuses, and made myself work through the pages until I ran out of answers. I was sad. I felt I was on the wrong path and it was too late to fix it.
But gol, and my rising anxiety, pushed me into action. I wrote down things I wanted professionally and personally, and stared at them side by side. I thought I had considered such things in tandem, but seeing them on paper was powerful. It grounded my thinking and helped me brainstorm what changes to my existing job would nudge me closer to a different path. In 2012 Neil Gaiman gave a commencement speech to the University of the Arts. In it he describes imaging your big goal as a mountain, and assessing opportunities by whether they move you toward or away from your mountain.
Over the next week I polished my resume and forced myself to send it out without overthinking it. I broke from gol’s advice here and rushed it out the door. I later discovered a horrifying typo on the cover letter of my first submission. But hey, I got it out there. That submission was to a company I had admired for a long time. It won’t matter, I assured myself. I don’t know anyone there. I won’t get an interview.
Turns out I interviewed for two companies, one through a strong professional connection, and the one with my typo memorialized in its system. Fortunately the algorithm gods plucked me from their database anyway. These opportunities were both a better fit than my current job. They required my strongest skill sets, ones not being utilized in my current role.
Here is where my list of personal and professional priorities mattered most. I work in health insurance. This is no childhood dream career. In my list, my long term goals (ahem, dreams) simply could not be executed in the near term. The most realistic incremental change I identified was to consider my vantage point – what parts of this complex and challenging industry would I be excited to see every day? My current job was too far from the big solutions being developed.
As I moved through the interview process at each company, I hung my hat on this idea of vantage point. It gave me something to work toward that mattered to me, rather than escaping a frightening situation. I asked better questions and had more robust discussions with potential managers and coworkers. This focus made me a better candidate. By the way, both companies asked me almost the exact interview questions listed in gol.
Ultimately, I got the job at the company where I sent my typo, where I knew no one. It was the one I wanted. Two months in, I am finding my way and am so grateful for the change. Fear and panic, however uncomfortable, spurred the change I needed.
As I settle into my new role, I think about those dreams I listed – the ones so far from where I am now. In my mind I have built my mountain, as Gaiman said. Change will come again, whether I initiate it or not. My mountain is on paper, and it stares back at me. I have taken a tiny step in its direction, and now I can begin to imagine the next one.