Thursday, June 27, 2013

Discovering My Town’s Treasures

By Phoebe Farag Mikhail

When I moved to the town I live in, a part of me was overwhelmed – the unpacking, the maintenance of a home, the unfamiliarity of a new locale. But a part of me was also excited to discover my new location and what it has to offer.  With many of us taking “staycations” instead of spending extra money to travel for vacations, it’s all the more important to get to know our towns. More than a year later, I’m still happily discovering, but here is how I’m learning so far:

1- I take walks with my kids (and wish I could do this more). One walk in April led us to a street lined cherry blossom trees – just when I was feeling nostalgic about them during my days in Washington, DC. We also found a beautiful school playground that is open to the public when school is out.

2- I chat with my neighbors. Walks, especially when the weather is good, lead to introductions to neighbors also enjoying the weather. Young children end up either starting the conversations, or are conversation starters. Neighbors help share the history and demography of the neighborhood. During those chats I discovered a local farm that offers pony rides for children in the fall, and that my town has a large Syrian population.

3- I visit the main streets. Despite the proximity of three huge malls to my area, the main streets are not dead. I discovered a fantastic Middle Eastern grocer (owned, of course, by a friendly Syrian woman) this way, an ice cream parlor, our local hardware store, a charity thrift shop reminiscent of London’s ubiquitous (and absolutely awesome) charity stores, a huge dollar store, and a coffee shop where the owners post inspirational quotes for people to read as they stand in line, waiting for their coffee.
4- I read the local newspaper that reports on my town. These newspapers often include information on the local weekly farmer’s market, events in the area, and local government and politics that directly affect us. I learned about children’s events sponsored by local churches through the local paper, and about the town-wide garage sale.

5- I visit the local public library. Public libraries are, thankfully, still very important to communities. At the library I’ve not only participated in library events, but also pick up the free local monthly magazines that provide events calendars, reviews of local restaurants, and other town tidbits. In one of those magazines, I learned about my local MOPS group, in another I found out about the annual touch-a-truck event for my toddler, and in another, I discovered a castle and waterfall that are only 20 minutes away!

6- I sign up for local blogs and newsletters. An internet search on my county and my town, as well as links and bloggers mentioned in the magazines I mentioned in #5, have helped me find numerous bloggers and websites that regularly post about events and happenings in my area. These post great reviews through their own experiences about area sites like museums and parks, giving me information I need to plan for those outings (like whether food is allowed, if strollers are allowed, etc.).

7- I sign up for local coupon sites. Sites like AmazonLocal, Plum District, LivingSocial and Groupon all share deals on local businesses based on zip code. With these I’ve found out about (and gotten great deals on) kids art classes, kids cooking classes, local indoor gyms, and other nearby services I would have otherwise not heard about. 

How have you discovered your town’s treasures? Please share your adventures in the comments:

Thursday, June 20, 2013

To Find Work You Love, Don’t Follow Your Passion (with a Giveaway!)

(What I'm Reading, No. 3)
By Phoebe Farag Mikhail

In this post I’m reviewing Cal Newport’s compelling book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.” I will be giving away one free copy of the book; to enter the giveaway, all you need to do is subscribe via email to my blog. If you are a current subscriber and would like to enter the giveaway, send me an email at listenlearnactandreflect (at) gmail (dot) com with the subject, “June giveaway.” I will accept entries until June 30th, randomly select a winner, and notify the winner by email by July 6th. Unfortunately, at this time I can only ship to US addresses.

“So, what’s your dream job?” I remember being taken aback by this question when I first started my job search after college. Every informational interview, and even some full-fledged job interviews, included this question. How was I supposed to know what my dream job was? I had already changed my mind three times about the field I wanted to get into. I’m sure I came up with some passable answer, but my answer was definitely a dream because I don’t even remember it. In the year 2000, there were jobs galore in the US, and we graduates had the luxury and misfortune of believing that the perfect job was out there for us if we could dream it. It was the decade of start ups, so those who “followed their passion” could easily find an investor. Fast forward over a decade later, and many college graduates are dreaming just to have a job, any job. And yet, according to Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, the “follow your passion” advice is still common in career counseling—and it is bad advice.

I mention pursuing your passion as one possible direction to take while looking for work in my popular blog post, Unemployment Opportunity, but with a very important caveat – one must have the necessary skills and resources to make economic success out of it. In Newport’s book, he calls this “building career capital,” an essential element for finding work you love. Strengthening key skills does two things: it actually increases passion because passion for your work often comes with mastering your skills (not before); and it builds the “career capital” necessary to gain more resources and autonomy and lead the life you want to lead.

One of the most useful chapters I found in this book is the chapter “Becoming a Craftsman,” which discusses a type of discipline known as “deliberate practice.” Newport writes, “if you just show up and work hard, you’ll soon hit a performance plateau beyond which you fail to get any better … deliberate practice might provide the key to quickly becoming so good they can’t ignore you” (p. 85). Newport uses examples of master chess players, musicians, and screenwriters to explain how they used deliberate practice to excel in their fields and end up doing work they love. This involves not just setting aside enough time to practice, but eliciting sometimes painfully critical feedback to continue to improve their craft. The skill that these craftsmen needed to deliberately practice was very clear (chess, guitar playing, writing), but Newport provides steps for determining how all workers can actually determine for themselves what “craft” they need to deliberately practice in order to become “so good they can’t ignore you.” Newport himself schedules as much time as he can for deliberate practice in his own work as a computer science professor at Georgetown University. You can read more about his work on his blog Study Hacks.

Newport does not extensively address external factors that affect workers, such as other colleagues, and issues like workplace and hiring discrimination. In his quest to disprove the “passion mindset,” he also does not address enough how personal interests, abilities and talents do play a role in finding work you love. That being said, I found this book very empowering, challenging the reader to work rightly first, instead of looking for the “right work.”

I read the chapter on “mission” with great interest, since this is a common word used in non-profit work. Newport, however, uses this word in regard to individual careers: “To have a mission is to have a unifying focus for your career,” he writes. “It’s more general than a specific job and can span multiple positions … People who feel like their careers truly matter are more satisfied with their working lives, and they’re also more resistant to the strain of hard work” (p.152). In case you confuse “mission” with “passion,” Newport spends the rest of the chapter talking about how to make mission a reality in one’s working life, and his examples show that it takes some time building career capital in order to formulate that mission. Newport provides one example from the life of evolutionary biologist Pardis Sabeti, but I wish he would have included other examples, especially those of social entrepreneurs (David Bornstein’s book, How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas highlights some very inspiring stories).

Although Newport wrote this book for a US context, I found that it is actually quite applicable to people working in emerging markets like India, China, Brazil, Russia, Mexico, and Egypt. Emerging markets have smaller markets than the US and thus fewer available jobs, the advice in this book would help workers in these markets to stand out even more than they would in the US, where there is more competition. This is in stark contrast to the “passion” mindset, which can only be applied in larger markets where there are more job opportunities and more diversity of industries, thus lending more credence to the (bad) idea that your dream job is out there waiting for you if you can just figure out your passion.

Who should read this book? I find it a great resource for anyone wanting to improve their professional lives, anyone sensing a “plateau” in their careers, as well as anyone just starting out, making it an excellent gift for students graduating from college or graduate school.

Do you love your work? What about it makes you love it?

Friday, June 14, 2013

Out with the New, In with the Old (A post in honor of Father’s Day)

By Phoebe Farag Mikhail

I wonder if I’m the only one that found it difficult, until fairly recently, to truly respect and learn from my elders – in all different walks of life. Perhaps it’s being a first generation immigrant and having to play some adult roles for my parents at a younger age, since I was more fluently able to communicate to the outside world in English than they were, that caused me to be dismissive of what I could learn from them, and others, older than me.
Lately, however, I’ve been learning to listen more, learning to observe more, and learning to reflect on the examples, not just of my parents, but other elders in my life. I attribute this change to watching my toddler insist on verifying different facts for himself, rather than trusting me when I tell him there are really no more chocolate chip cookies, I really did eat them all; or when I tell him that if he rides his tricycle in the rain, he will get wet. My toddler wants to learn everything the hard way – through experience. And as Chinese philosopher Confucius (551-479 BC) said, “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First by reflection, which is the noblest; second, by imitation, which is the easiest, and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” In many ways, I have been living life a lot like my toddler, gaining wisdom, sometimes bitterly, through experience.

There’s a timeless story about the follies of not learning from your elders in the Bible. The biblical nation of Israel had its most glorious days under its kings David and Solomon. The famous King Solomon, who was known for his wisdom, died, and when his son Rehoboam succeeded him, the Israelites gathered before him with a request: “Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.” (I Kings 12:4). Rehoboam took three days to consider the request, first asking the advice of his elders who had served his father Solomon, then asking the advice of his friends.

The elders advised, in wisdom now oft-repeated in leadership literature, “If today you will be a servant to these people and serve them and give them a favorable answer, they will always be your servants.” (12:7).

His friends advised, “These people have said to you, ‘Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but make our yoke lighter.’ Now tell them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist. 11 My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.’” (12:10).

Rehoboam took his friends’ advice and returned to the Israelites with these words. The Israelites then rebelled against him and took another person as their king, and the Rehoboam’s tribe (Judah) is the only one that remained loyal to him. Rehoboam’s failure to heed the advice of his elders caused the once glorious Israel to descend into civil war. (You can read the full story in I Kings 12:1-25).

One way I am trying to prevent myself from Rehoboam’s folly is to start writing down the things I am learning from my elders – my parents, my older relatives, my older family friends, and older colleagues and supervisors at work. I am also not just listening for words of advice, but waiting to learn from the wisdom of their actions before passing my own judgment on the decisions they make.

How are you learning from your elders? Please share in the comments below.

Friday, June 7, 2013

It's About Time

(From paper to electronic planning, with a free resource!)
By Phoebe Farag Mikhail

Starting today, everyone who subscribes to my blog by email will receive a free resource that I developed: “Keeping it together: the essential elements of a time management system.” It’s a one page checklist of the five things necessary for an effective planning system. Please allow 3-5 days to receive the resource when you subscribe. Current subscribers will automatically receive the resource via email. In this post, I’ll share the specific five examples I use in my system, and contains affiliate links to the products I use.

Call me a geek, but nothing beat the feeling of putting new planning pages in my FranklinCovey binder, the excitement of all the future plans that would be recorded on those pages, the inspiration from the quotes on every page, the notes that would be taken during interesting talks and productive meetings …

Those days are over. My husband got a tablet and converted to electronic planning, and it only made sense that I follow suit so that we could share calendars. So finally, I made the move to a hybrid electronic and paper planning system.

For my calendar, we decided on Cozi, a wonderful (and free!) app that allows the whole family to share an online calendar through a common family password. Every family member is color coded so that we know which appointments pertain to which family members, and the app synchs with the online K12 calendars and with Microsoft Outlook, which many people use at work. Its visually appealing user interface and ability to print out calendars to post in the kitchen or on bulletin boards almost replaces that paper planning feeling.

I access my Cozi calendar on my smart phone and my Amazon Kindle Fire, which I purchased mainly for its low price considering all its features, its smaller size compared to other tablets, and its “Free Time” feature for kids. Cozi works on Kindle Fire, Android tablets and phones, Ipads, and Iphones. It took me about two hours to transfer all my appointments and tasks from my paper planner to the online calendar, but the ability to share calendars with my husband (and potentially my kids when they get old enough to use it) has saved us hours and frustration trying to coordinate our daily changing schedules.

I keep my master list on Cozi, but I use these Moleskin Cahier Journals to keep my daily task lists and notes. Some of the pages in these notebooks are perforated, making them perfect for disposable notes like shopping lists. I use this inexpensive pen/stylus combo to keep with me (the package contains five), and keep it all together in this Kindle Fire Folio, which also has pockets to hold things like business cards and my kids’ vaccination cards. 

My planning system

Finally, I store my completed notebooks (and unused ones) in this plastic bin that I bought in a package from Costco:

How do you keep yourself organized? Please share your ideas in the comments!