July 30, 2013

The Art of Writing

I couldn't get the post that was meant for today ready in time -- hopefully it'll be ready by Thursday. In the interim, I wanted to make a short post that asks myself a question that I've been ruminating over for a while.

Why do I write? I write essays and stories, I write blog posts and emails and letters and notes from the interviews I conduct. I compose tweets and text messages and I journal fervently in a notebook on my nightstand. I've put my feelings into words since I was about eleven, when I realized that I could very viscerally describe the sensation of being on the mountaintops of the Swiss Alps. I've journaled seriously since I was 14, and it has been good writing since I was 16, almost 8 years now.

I write because it's release, because it's the only way I know to take a step back from all the confusing emotions and put myself in order. I write because it gives me distance and clarity that simply talking out my problems doesn't offer. Not to say that conversation doesn't help; a lot of times, blog posts are inspired by conversations I've had with friends and colleagues. I write because I want to capture the bright essence of people on paper, to put into something more permanent than my shoddy memory the lilt of their voice as they teased me or the bright flash of white teeth as he smiled crookedly, a genuine smile, at me, a smile he shared with me alone. I write because ruthlessly examining tough situations by working through others' motivations for their actions is soothing and helpful to me. Writing lets me pour out my heart onto a page, where the text won't judge me by its mere existence. I write because understanding other people starts with understanding myself.

I write because stories matter. And, to paraphrase what Neil Gaiman has said, stories that matter end. I write because when the chapter closes, when this phase of the interconnected short stories that make up a life is over, I want to see the connections from place to place. I want to trace my character's growth and development, watch her make important decisions and follow through with them, or fail and learn from her fall.

I love stories, I love that stories are ultimately about change, and how scary and uncontrollable it is, and powerless we feel in the face of change. I write because watching a relationship fall apart -- friendship, romantic, what-if, what-could-have-been -- or grow into something new -- a marriage, a connection, a new friend, a new partnership -- is amazing and beautiful even when it's painful and sad.

I write because the things I love in communities are reflected in the largest and smallest of moments of the human condition, and I write because I want to remind myself of the beauty and the pain, of the risk and the reward.

....And, if I'm being wholly honest: I write because I'm good at it, one of the few things I never doubted I could do. I can carry a tune beautifully, and I can write prose that breaks your heart in 1000 words or less -- a lot less, if I let my ego speak for me. I've broken hearts in a single sentence.

I write because feelings are universal, and realizing that we aren't alone in our depth of feeling or experience is extraordinarily powerful.

July 25, 2013

Equivalent Exchange

I've noticed over time that I have a fairly unique ability relative to others in my various and sundry roles. I find that, if I'm put in a people-facing position, (regardless of if it's public or internal, support or leadership) then the people I interact with demonstrate a loyalty to me personally.

The first few times it happened, it wasn't something I'd orchestrated. It just...happened. I chalked it up to my excellent leadership skills and my willingness to be available and supportive of my subordinates' projects. But then it happened again. And again. As my choral director said: once is luck, twice is practice, three times is mastery.

Case Study: Gary D'Addario

I read David Simon's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which follows the Baltimore Police Department's homicide unit as they solve (or don't solve) murders over the course of a year. In the course of the narrative, we learn a bit more about Lieutenant Gary D'Addario, one of the shift commanders who inspires a great deal of direct loyalty in his detectives:

As a supervisor, Gary D'Addario is generally regarded by his sergeants and detectives as a prince, a benevolent autocrat who asks only competence and loyalty. In return, he provides his shift with unstinting support and sanctuary from the worst whims and fancies of the command staff. [...]

Soft-spoken and introspective, D'addario was a rare breed of supervisor for a paramilitary organization. He had learned long ago to suppress the first impulse of command that calls for a supervisor to intimidate his men, charting their every movement and riding them through investigations. In the districts, that sort of behavior usually resulted from a new supervisor's primitive conclusion that the best way to avoid being perceived as weak was to behave like a petty tyrant. [...] Supervisors like that either grew into their jobs or their best men ducked and covered long enough to transfer to another sector.

Up in homicide, an authoritarian shift commander is even more likely to be held in contempt by his detectives -- men who would not, in fact, be on the sixth floor of headquarters if they weren't eighteen of the most self-motivated cops in the department. In homicide, the laws of natural selection apply: A cop who puts down enough cases stays, a cop who doesn't is gone. Given that basic truth, there isn't much respect for the notion that a cop shrewd enough to maneuver his way into homicide and then put together forty of fifty cases somehow needs to have a shift commander's finger in his eye. Rank, of course, has its privileges, but a homicide supervisor who exercises his divine right to chew ass on every conceivable occasion will in the end create a shift of alienated sergeants and overly cautious detectives, unwilling or incapable of acting on their own instincts.

Instead, and at some cost to his own career, Gary D'Addario gave his men room to maneuver, providing a buffer against the captain and those above him in the chain of command. His method carried considerable risk, and the relationship between D'Addario and his captain had frayed around the edges during the last four years. By contrast, Bob Stanton, the other shift lieutenant, was a supervisor more to the captain's liking. A buttoned-down veteran of the narcotics unit handpicked by the captain to command the second shift, Stanton ran a tighter ship, with sergeants exerting more overt control over their men and detectives pressured to hold down the overtime and court pay that lubricates the entire system. Stanton was a good lieutenant and a sharp cop, but when compared with the alternative, his frugality and by-the-book style were such that more than a few veterans on his shift expressed an eagerness to join D'Addario's crusade at the first opportunity.

For the sergeants and detectives blessed by D'addario's benevolence, the quid pro quo was both simple and obvious. The had to solve murders. The had to solve enough murders to produce a clearance rate that would vindicate His Eminence and his methods and thereby justify his benign and glorious rule. (Simon, 39-41).

It's interesting to me, because D'Addario exhibits a lot of the traits I thought were why my first team was loyal to me: he demonstrates a clear loyalty to his crew, he treats them with respect, and (we see later) he's honest about why he is asking his team to take on mundane/ridiculous tasks. He doesn't impose these restrictions on his team for longer than necessary, and he is appreciative when his team follows through with his requests and commands as passed down from the upper brass. Beyond that: he recognizes the skill and talent of the crew working with him and, knowing his interference would be a hindrance, chooses to step back and allow the detectives to do their job.

Put another way, D'Addario is cultivating loyalty in his colleagues by:
  • Being loyal to his team even before they are asked to do anything.
  • Treating his subordinates as equals.
  • Being upfront about why the team has to do something in a specific way that isn't preferred.
  • Abstaining from unpalatable requests when possible.
  • Expressing gratitude to his subordinates for their work and effort.
  • Working with their talents and skills.
  • Recognizing his role is to be a buffer and an intermediary, not to micromanage.

From what I have come to understand over time, this is almost exactly what management of a high-performing team -- development, support/community managers, design, sysadmin, etc. -- should look like. Teams like these are (assuming you've been doing your hiring correctly) filled with A-player types, who work hard and well with little direction, exhibit a significant degree of self-direction, are self-motivated, instinctively understand what the next move is, and are skilled enough to follow through with given tasks/projects. They tend to be autonomous, not requiring a lot of direct management save for resolving disputes or clarifying objectives.

This means that your role as a manager is to basically get out of their way and make sure other people do, too. But, as a manager, you want this team to trust you and, by extension, be loyal to you. Frankly: exhibiting good management is the first way to build this loyalty. Doing this in a way that gets back to the team you manage without you having to be like LOOK LOOK I DID A THING is a good idea but not necessary.

One of the other points that sticks out at me from the quoted section above is how, in being the right kind of manager for his team, D'Addario has had to take on a significant amount of risk. While I don't think his behavior would be risky in most organizations, and certainly not in tech, I do think that the fact of him putting himself at risk for his team was meaningful. As the quote says, D'Addario and his team had an understanding: he would put himself in the line of fire and his team had to rise to the challenge of solving cases. A good manager is both Captain Kirk and Ensign Ricky in the same breath.

Of course, putting oneself at risk doesn't always mean risking your job / career / personal security / preferences for red shirts. Sometimes it just means being willing to express vulnerability and admitting when you're out of your depth. I firmly believe that people are more likely to trust you if you demonstrate trust in them first. I'm not saying you should fork over your SSN and your mother's maiden name upon first meeting someone. However, when you need someone (or lots of someones) to trust you fast, the most meaningful gesture is to share something of yourself first, whether it's your lack of total knowledge about something, a personal anecdote or seven, or simply putting yourself in an image of vulnerability. Something as simple as wearing your heart on your sleeve (or at least projecting that image) can be viewed as a sort of bravery and endear you to people.

Other Techniques

Other things that have worked for me:

  • Staying honest. -- One thing I've noticed is that people are more likely to do what you need them to when you explicitly tell them why. If you can't tell them why, say that you'll explain when you can but for the time being it's imperative they do XYZ. While I first saw this on The West Wing, actual application in Real Life has proven Aaron Sorkin right.

  • Be considerate. -- It's amazing how many people simply just aren't considerate. It doesn't have to be anything arduous, but the occasional considerate gesture makes a difference, whether it's offering to take someone's dishes back to the kitchen or buying the next round. It's often the smallest things (or the things done quietly) that stick out to me. I had a friend pay for a night of drunken revelry while we all weren't looking, then shrug it off. I still remember that, even almost a year has passed.

  • Offer validation. -- This is something I've seen consistently ruin a person's experience, especially while they're being onboarded. Make clear your team's work is welcome and appreciated. Give them good feedback and emphasizing what they did right. (Critical feedback is part of a different discussion.) Each individual should be made to feel like s/he is an integral part of the team; a part of that is making clear his/her work is important and appreciated.

  • Thank your team. -- Anytime someone does something for you, especially at your behest, thank them. If a person goes above and beyond and makes your job easier, thank them. If someone covers a situation so you can focus on a specific task, thank them. Encourage your team to not take each others' work for granted, either. It's amazing how much a little appreciation is appreciated.

  • Acknowledge your errors. -- Occasionally, when I apologize to someone, they'll try to brush off the situation with a simple, "It's okay." When it matters (or, rather, when the incident clearly mattered to them) I'll usually respond with, "No, it's not okay, but I appreciate that. You shouldn't have had to deal with that, and I'm sorry you did. It won't happen again." Admitting you were wrong, and that you intend to learn from your error is the best thing to do in a situation, and refusing to take an easy out demonstrates character.


I think, though, that I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about the other side of building this kind of loyalty.

It won't work every time. -- Some people just won't like you, some people have been hurt too badly to ever trust again (yes, dramatic) and some people just don't want that kind of relationship with you. Understand that it's not a reflection of yourself, but rather a reflection of that person's experiences. If you try to win this person over, you're going to end up compromising your role as a manager and effective team lead. Realize when you're pouring a disproportionate amount of effort into getting someone to "like" you. If they do what you need them to, if they respect you, then asking for more is foolish. Quit while you're ahead and focus on more important things.

Sometimes you're not going to be taken seriously. -- It's a risk you run when you demonstrate vulnerability. There's two pieces to this: first, there is a subclass of personality type that will think that ANY demonstration of vulnerability makes you an inherently weak person. Do not let this personality type wear on you, though their dismissal of your worth will be galling. Work with it and around it, which is far easier done than said. With people like this, I find, the bar is already set to "underpromise" -- by delivering at all, you're already over-delivering.

The second piece is a bit more subtle; depending on how you build this trust, your authority might be undermined. People who report to you may see you as a friend and colleague and not a superior. Again, there's ways to work around this. The easiest, I find, is a super simple trick I picked up in university: command with a smile. After a certain point, I don't ask for anything, I mandate. However, because my declarative statements are made with a smile (or at least in a pleasant tone of voice) most people do as I say without complaining. If people aren't seeing you as an authority figure, they won't rebel against literal authoritative action you take, as well. It's a delicate game; overplay this hand and you risk a mutinous team.

Know when to shut up. -- My greatest weakness. At some point, sharing bits of yourself can cross the line from "building trust" to "dear god shut up" because you're oversharing. I've met a TON of women (and it's especially women) who find that their managers tell them way too much about their personal troubles and then act strangely about it later. It's pretty rich coming from me, but I'll be clear: there's a line. Work people don't all magically convert into Real Friends without any drama, and that almost certainly never works up and down the ladder. There's a point where continuing to share yourself just makes people around you uncomfortable.

Ultimately, I've found that personal loyalty is hard to leverage well. However, it's something an organization should watch out for; the more people who are loyal to that individual, and depending to what extent that loyalty goes, it may well be that when that person leaves there will be an exodus, meaning you'll be losing valuable talent. Even if that doesn't come to pass, the loss of a focal point can be a hit to morale, and the ensuing recovery time is productive time lost. Regardless, identifying these centers of loyalty and using them in functional ways (liaison, marketing, management, etc.) will ultimately prove valuable to them and to the enterprise at large.

July 23, 2013

You Borked It, Bro

Note: There’s some “coarse language” later in this entry. Since I value realism over other peoples’ comfort, I opted not to censor this entry. However, I did hide the bulk of the entry under a cut just in case. If your workplace filter is hardcore or whatever, you might want to save this one for later.

I've been thinking about the moments where a person's character shines through most strongly. Life is filled with challenges and moments that ask you to make a difficult choice, one that demonstrates exactly who you are as a person. And sometimes, that choice is whether or not you tell someone that they've dropped the ball in a way that means people are genuinely impacted.

It's seriously an art to be able to tell someone that they've messed up. And by "art," I mean "a carefully considered series of checks and balances" because hey guess what you're probably an at-will employee. So, let's talk about how to tell someone they've messed up, and how to figure out if that's something you should do.

July 16, 2013

The Clothes Make the Woman

I noticed something lately. Well, rather, I noticed it for a friend and suddenly some things started to click for me.

My friend, whom I will call Karen, and I had dinner some time ago when she divulged that she was somewhat frustrated with her job. As a PM, she had recently had a project sour late in its implementation, leaving her in a bit of a bind. She was unhappy with the feedback about the project, but more importantly it sounded (to me) like she was also unhappy with how she felt she was being treated by her teammates. Now, I had only ever praise about her work, but she was frustrated with her immediate superiors. My take on her frustration boiled down to: although her work is good -- is really good -- she didn't feel she was being taken seriously, and as a result was losing out on upward mobility.

I've seen Karen in action. She's direct, tactful, and all business. Her work is top-notch, her writing skills are exemplary, and I think of her as a consummate professional. Karen is also really beautiful in a traditionally feminine way, with a heart-shaped face and wide-spaced eyes and a softer voice. Her hair is always coiffured well, and her makeup is done without being overwhelming. She also wears dresses and skirts, all strikingly feminine: ruffles, lace, floral prints, etc. In fact, the night we had dinner, she had just come from work: blue watercolor sheath dress with an A-line skirt, tasteful necklace, cardigan, and hair curled. Having spent time with her personally, I knew this was her personal style adapted to a professional environment.

Girls in White Dresses with Blue Satin Sashes

I had another friend, in university, whom I will call Mary. I never worked with Mary directly, but I saw her around school. She was always dressed a touch severely: black or navy pantsuits with simple shirts or blouses, matte neutral makeup, conservative heels, and her hair neatly parted and tied back. Even her manicure was minimal -- usually just French tips if that. Mary was also incredibly smart and confident. Her soft voice and large eyes were expressive, and she was always heard even though she rarely raised her voice save for presentations.

Yet, the one time I saw Mary in a casual social setting, I was completely taken aback. She wore a beautiful floral print sundress, jeweled gladiator sandals, and her hair was long and wavy around her shoulders. I think she was even wearing pearls! The contrast was intense, and I remember complimenting her appearance. She had smiled and said that this was more her style, but she "just knew" that it wasn't appropriate for the b-school.

At the time, I had thought that Mary just meant that her look was overdone for the business world, but as I got older I realized what she really meant: she was too pretty to be taken seriously in her usual attire. She had to look a little more severe in order to be heard for her intelligence and not her aesthetics.

So when Karen asked me if I had any suggestions, I winced and said, "I think you need to dress more masculinely." Her immediate, negative reaction was expected. But I had to point out to her that she's conventionally beautiful, and that means that people are seeing the pretty and not her intellect. My immediate suggestion was to switch to pants, but she balked. So instead I suggested she pull masculine articles into her usual wardrobe: shirtdresses, solid colored blouses, pleat-front shirts (i.e. tuxedo shirts) with cufflinks, masculine prints like stripes, less jewelry, and so on. No more lace, no more ruffles, and no more florals -- or rather, no more of those at work.

I think she found it a little counterintuitive: in order to be taken more seriously, she had to "unpretty" herself a little. But a number of conventionally attractive women I know have had to do this, and I hope it works for Karen. If I'm being honest: I'm pretty sure it will. Presentation matters, and people often take the liberty of categorizing you by your clothes. And, of course, I daresay this happens to women more than men. Then again, there's a hell of a lot more variety to women's clothing than men's.

"You're too intense."

Fairly recently, I've received an interesting bit of feedback from people that I respect and trust which just leaves me confused and angry in turn. The first time I was told this was about eight months ago, by a well-meaning friend who I will call Jane. She and I were chatting over beers and I was complaining about something when she suggested that the root of my problem was that I'm too intense. While the rest of that conversation is, ah, fuzzy, that line stuck with me, and I remember mulling it over at length. Later conversations with my other confidants as well as my mentor offered no real illumination beyond suggesting the comment was a reaction to my intense extroversion coupled with my intelligence. After all, most "loud" people are perceived as a bit (or a lot) shallow. Being outgoing and "deep" can be off-putting.

So I tried toning it down a bit, and in doing so allowed myself to feel increasingly isolated and distant from those around me. I didn't like that feeling of being alone constantly. As an extrovert, my preferred state is to be around people. I enjoy the company of others, even passively. (In fact, I write most of these blog posts in coffee shops, surrounded by people I don't interact with.) However, my greatest fear is being a burden to those around me. I never want the people I spend time around to resent my presence. I could never figure out the line with my colleagues; I figured if they wanted my presence, they would seek me out. I forgot that most introverts don't work that way.

Anyway, the second time I was told this was earlier this summer, at the end of just a really terrible day. In contrast to Jane, Zach is (a) male, (b) more extroverted than I am, and (c) not talking to me over beers. Zach's commentary was almost word for word what Jane said. While Zach's motivations for telling me this are somewhat suspect, the fact that his commentary matched Jane's almost exactly meant I had to shut up and really take a hard look at myself and my behaviors in order to figure out what exactly was "too intense" about them.

Allow me to take a moment for an aside here: I really hate that word, "intense." It means about as much as "interesting" in an academic essay -- it doesn't mean anything at all. Intense is a stand-in word for something else entirely, and I suspect that the behaviors that would fall under that label (intellect, vocal, opinionated, direct and straightforward, critical, sarcastic, ambitious, persistent, takes ownership) would not be taken negatively if I were a man.

That suspicion -- that if I were a man, I would never be called "too intense" for my current behaviors -- should have been my first clue.

Fast forward: when I got home from spending time with Karen, I opened my own closet and took out all the clothes I still fit into and laid them out, and realized that the wardrobe I had described to her was my own. I tend towards solids and masculine pieces: blouses with pleats and minimal ruching, button-downs cut in the Oxford style, and I often complete my outfits with Chucks. I wear my hair tied back and rarely bother with makeup or jewelry. For a long time, I'd stuck to slacks and pants, and I often topped dresses with a blazer. My own personal style values comfort and simplicity -- few frills, not many patterns, structure, and clean lines. Paired with my natural personality, I was both presenting and owning a strongly masculine image, one at odds with the expectations of my gender. Hilariously, being tall probably did/does not help.

I considered how I was treated when I bothered to go "full femme," as I call it -- makeup, heels, hair, dress, the entire thing -- and realized that I was taken more seriously in the ways that mattered. Some of this is also body politics; when I was heavier, my personality was more acceptable because of my weight. As I've slimmed down and approached socially expected norms of what a woman "should" look like, I've lost that protection.

Anyway, it was in surveying my wardrobe that I realized: I had to dress more femininely in order to offset my stature and my outspoken nature. By presenting a more feminine image, I would take the edge off of my message (that is, the aggressive edge that I was unconsciously projecting in my dress and manner) and thus make criticism and my suggestions for change more palatable. My ideas would be better heard for their own merit. Nothing sucks more than knowing your point is being brushed aside just because it's yours.

Presentation Matters: Balancing Gendered Projection

If you're a self-professed girly-girl and sharp, but you find yourself: not being taken seriously, even though you know your work is awesome; or, if you're being told to be more aggressive even though you're speaking up at all the right times; or, if people are doubting your commitment despite you working longer and harder than your colleagues, try altering your wardrobe to be more masculine. This means:

  • More solid colors. -- Stick to jewel tones, darks, and neutrals. Burgundy? Awesome. Pastels? Keep away. White, cream, and champagne are also acceptable. Avoid Easter or baby hues -- you're inadvertently infantilizing yourself. Strong, bold colors are your ally in this.
  • Minimal patterns. -- Cycle through the men's department sometime for a sense of what patterns are commonly attributed to men. Usually these will be stripes, geometric prints (i.e. checkered patterns or tweeds), and the occasional dot pattern. Stick to these, especially pinstripes, which are more varied and more likely to flatter multiple figures.
  • Keep the lines clean. -- A-line skirts, fitted slacks, blazers on top of dresses and blouses. No cardigans! Avoid ruffles and lace, but feel free to include pleats and tucks. Experiment with different types of collars if you feel a need to add a personal touch to your wardrobe. To a degree, you want to emulate the "lined" shape men have -- men's clothes gives them to a triangular or rectangular body shape. For women who want to mimic this, you're aiming for two triangles: shoulders (base) to waist (tip), then waist (tip) to either hips, knees, or feet, depending on the occasion. More femme clothes tend to round out these shapes' edges; your aim is to minimize that "rounding" as much as possible. Structured clothes like suit pieces will help tremendously.
  • Cover up. -- This is sexist as hell, but try to keep everything covered. Skirts should always hit at the knee, aim for blouses with longer, fitted sleeves, and necklines that really only reveal collarbones, if that. Again, I know this is sexist, but remember you're emulating male styling; with traditional masculine wear, you're lucky if you see their Adam's apples, let alone the hollow of their throat.
  • Easy on the bling. -- One ring on each hand, max, and no ring if you're wearing a watch on that wrist. Stud earrings, pearls or a simple necklace, and nothing "jingly". Statement necklaces and earrings stay home.
  • Pull your hair back. -- Buns, low ponytails, chignons, and twists are your best bets here. Here, using a fancier clip is ok; I've seen ponytails clipped with a jeweled clasp, for example. No stray curls framing your face, no loose strands on your shoulders, and try to keep the coiffure sleek. Keep everything back and out of your face so that people pay attention to what you're saying.
  • Matte makeup. -- No shimmer, light eyeliner, natural nails. French tips or a buff/neutral polish are best, if you must mani-pedi. For lipstick: I go back and forth. The simple red lips look forces people to watch your mouth, which usually translates to listening. On the other hand, men don't wear lipstick, so sticking to a neutral shade could be better. Go with whatever you're comfortable with. Also, remember: eyes OR lips, never both!
  • Sensible shoes. -- The phrase that is the bane of women everywhere: sensible shoes. To me, this means closed-toed, medium height heels/pumps. Depending on where you work, this could be the Chucks/Keds I love to wear with my slacks.

Protip: use Janelle MonĂ¡e as your style inspiration! She's pretty great and uses masculine pieces with femme touches in a seriously awesome, powerful way. Plus she's super talented.

If you're tomboyish and sensitive but: you find yourself being told you're too aggressive or "intense," even though you spend more time listening; people find you overwhelming no matter how much you try to remain self-contained; the same ideas / changes / criticisms from other colleagues hold more water than from you, try altering your wardrobe to be more feminine. This means:

  • Add more textures. -- Lace, ruching, ruffles, satin, and knitwork can add a softening touch to your wardrobe. Knits, especially, will round out shoulders and curves, but only up to a point. Too much cabling or too "chunky" a knit can swing back towards that masculine edge. Keep an eye on shoulder shaping when it comes to knitted sweaters and tops. For lace and ruffles, you want these elements to be "statement" -- ruffles should be the single eye-catching element of the piece, for example. The lace should draw attention and soften features. Lace on shoulders or arms is great; ruffles on the front (especially asymmetrical or diagonal ruffles) add interest without overwhelming you or making you look overdone. Ruching is my favorite. It adds visual interest and can be slimming / shaping without you feeling like you've been stuffed into sausage casing. Satin, by nature of being SHINY, should be used sparingly; only ONE article of clothing should be satiny in any given outfit.
  • Go printed. -- Prints! Prints add instant femininity without you having to change the cuts of clothes that are most flattering for you. A-line dresses make your figure less heavy? Great! Buy that dress in a cute polka-dot print instead of a more severe black and white or colorblock. Lean towards florals, dots, and other uncommon prints; I saw a blouse in a butterfly print recently that just blew me away, and postcard prints are gaining popularity of late. Avoid stripes, colorblock, and plaids. Checkers can go either way; gingham is pretty feminine, but it also doesn't work for everyone.
  • Wear your hair down. -- If you have medium to long hair, stop tying it back! I am super guilty of this; I wear my hair tied back a lot because it's just convenient, I'm lazy, and my hair is really thick, so it get uncomfortably warm if I wear it down all the time. But the thing is, wearing it down (or even half-down) can soften your features considerably. For a lot of women, loosened hair also looks younger, which you can use to your advantage.
  • Do your makeup. -- A little eyeliner/mascara and lipstick go a long way. Use YouTube to learn how to better / more effectively apply eyeliner and shadow, and see how you can use cosmetics to give yourself a look that's comfortable for you. Wing-tip eyeliner, a touch of white shadow at the tear duct, and careful use of false eyelashes, for example, can make your eyes look larger and more widely-spaced, a "look" that can be interpreted to your advantage. I'll pass on a tip someone gave me: even if you hate makeup, learn how to use it. Makeup, especially for women, can be an armor. You can't let yourself cry if you're wearing cosmetics.
  • Accessories make the outfit. -- Statement necklaces, chandelier earrings, a good manicure, these are the pieces that can give a softening touch to an otherwise "edged" outfit. The key here is sparkle -- deliberately picking shiny (as opposed to matte or metal) jewelry will give your outfit more color and flexibility. Jewelry is also a relatively inexpensive way to "femme" up an otherwise minimalist wardrobe without having to spend a lot of money. Also, try scarves (ascots! in butterfly prints!), headbands (especially ones with prints and/or bows), and replacing blazers with cardigans. Somewhat counter-intuitively, removing structure can soften your edges without sacrificing a more "professional" look.

For this look, your style inspiration should probably be Zooey Deschanel, whose "twee" style counterbalances her massive success as an artist, actor, and businessperson. She's clearly using her cute aesthetic to allow people to draw their own conclusions about who/what she is. (More succinctly: despite her relative power and role as a boss, no one's ever called her a "bitch," which is more than I can say for myself.)

Style Alone is Not the Answer

I should absolutely warn you: style alone will not solve all of your image issues. However, changing your physical presentation can have an impact on how people take your actions. I'm not going to pretend it's not sexist; it's TOTALLY sexist! Are you kidding?! But part of Real Adulthood, I've found, is knowing how to leverage the game against itself.

The most important part of revamping your style is to make sure parts of yourself continue to endure; stick to cuts that are flattering for you, and color palettes that complement your skin tone. Don't compromise your own styling because of your career ambitions. If you enjoy color, wear colors! Just stick to solids under blazers if you're going for a more masculine look.

Cutting out your personality in your wardrobe is not what I'm advocating; what I'm saying is, look at where you are and where you want to be, and ask yourself if your personal presentation makes that statement for you. If it isn't, find a way to bridge that gap.

A number of trusted mentors have pointed out that this isn't the ONLY solution to this issue. Managing your demeanor, and how that comes across to people of different sensitivities and personality types is also a big part of your personal success. A post about this approach (called "emotional intelligence") is forthcoming.

Arguably, however, altering your wardrobe is far easier in the short-run. It's a good stop-gap solution while you self-evaluate and work on the far more valuable (and difficult) skill of building your EQ.

July 11, 2013

Aarthi Doesn't Work There Anymore

I’ve probably written this entry five times over the last eight weeks. For some reason, I never could quite find the right words to talk about it. Each version seemed to highlight all the wrong things or make me sound like I felt differently than I do.

But at this point, it’s a little awkward for me to not have this entry anywhere. Plus, I keep being asked The Question, the one I keep dodging. Time to man up, I guess. Settle in, 'cause this is a long one.

Guys: I don’t work at Stack Exchange anymore. I haven’t since 7 May 2013.

July 2, 2013

Hello, This is Dog

Listen, I'm a realist. I know I'm not that great at lots of things. I'm kind of clumsy, I really love cookies, and I have no idea where Rhode Island is. But if there's just one thing I'm absolutely, incredibly, incontrovertibly awesome at, it's phone interviews.

Not to explanabrag too much, but I'm pretty bomb at phone interviews. A 30-minute timeslot almost always runs to 40-45 minutes with me, I make the interviewer laugh, and we usually end up sharing great stories about the job and/or our own experiences. I've very rarely gotten a first-round phone interview and not been bumped up to the next round. I think I did the math once, and my "hit rate" is in the ballpark of 85%.

However, I know a lot of people (especially dudes -- guys, I'm here for you) have lots of trouble with phone interview. Here are five tips to make every phone interview a million percent better.

Phone interview Confidential

Turn off all the distractions.

I know you feel you're at your best when you have Trans-Siberian Orchestra blasting along in the background, but this is not the time. Turn off your music, close out all the programs on your laptop (yes, even if you're on a Mac) and sign out of any chat clients you have open in the background.

The only things you want open on your laptop are: your resume, the job posting, and any emails you've exchanged with the recruiter. You may even wish to have a paper copy of your resume at hand instead.

Minimizing distractions means you will be able to focus all of your attention and energy into the call. Respect the other person; there's six other things they could be doing at that exact second rather than talking to you.Make talking to you worthwhile by respecting their time and giving them 100% of your attention.

As an addendum, keep a tidy/empty desk area as well. No fiddly things to mess with during the interview (a stress ball is ok, a racquetball is not) save for a pad of paper and a pen or two. I often fiddle with a non-clicky pen while in interviews, and I take pretty extensive notes during the conversation. These notes are usually what ends up informing my thank-you note following the call, and they force me to keep my focus on the call..

Use a headset.

Recently, I started going hands-free during phone interviews and it's basically been the best choice I ever made. The primary reason for this is that I feel more comfortable physically during the interview. When I still had my old phone, a seriously old-school flip phone, being on the phone for an extended period of time wasn't arduous. However, now that I'm on a smartphone just like everyone else, I find the phone size and weight cumbersome to hold in my hand for 30-40 minutes.

Going hands free solved a lot of problems. My face no longer got hot from an electronic device being pressed against it. No awkward shoulder fumbling to write and listen and keep the phone at my ear. No possibility of dropping the phone like the klutz I am. No struggling to hear the person (I use an earbud-style headset) even with the volume up as high as it will go. No worries about echoing or the mic picking up on background noise it shouldn't. Lots of my own problems were quickly solved by going hands-free. I can't urge people to do this enough -- it takes all of the pain out of this process and costs you less than $10, if that. Plus you can keep using it beyond phone interviews; I've had my headset for years. It doubles as headphones for when I go running.

Keep water handy.

This might seem like a no-brainer but the handful of times I've forgotten a glass of water while I was interviewing have always proven to be the worst times ever. Keep a glass of cool (but not ice-cold) water handy. You'll want it between questions to sip. Shockingly, speaking for two minutes without interruption can leave you parched. Add to that the fact that you're probably in a high-stress mode and you're likely suffering from dry-mouth. Which is the worst.

I usually keep a glass of water at hand, but far enough away that I won't knock into it while gesticulating. Which brings me to my next point:

Treat this as a "real" interview.

Just because they can't see you doesn't mean you shouldn't play this like it's a legit interview. You can't see them? Big deal. This is this The Big Time. You need to give it 100%. Do all the things you would normally do for an in-person interview -- including gesturing at the wall behind your desk.

Why? Well, it boils down to this: you only have your voice to communicate with in a phone interview. They can't see your expressions, they can't analyze your body language, they can't go by any other indicators as to what you mean except whatever you verbalize at them. But what I find is that people aren't able to emote with their voices alone. We just aren't wired that way as humans. It's why the best voice actors will pantomime scenes in the recording booth, and it's why you should gesture and make all the expressions and just generally be yourself while talking. Your passion, your enthusiasm, and (with a little luck) your point will be made. (Plus, good jokes require a wry voice, and it's hard to be wry with a straight face.)

Beyond that, treating this like a real interview means matching your physical state to your mental state. I'll let y'all in on a secret: I never do phone interviews in pajamas. Even if it's just for the hour or so that I'm in/on/thinking about the call, I will always get dressed and put on "going outside of my apartment" clothes. No, you don't have to bust out the suit every time (though, hey, if that suit makes you feel confident and badass and comfortable, go for it) but don't roll out of bed and do the interview.

Ramp up and decompress.

The time before and after the interview are nerve-wracking to the extreme. If your interview is at 2pm, block out the hour from 1-2pm and the half hour after (3pm-3:30pm) for no disturbances. Use the hour prior to prepare fully for your interview:

  • Finish any research you started.
  • Be finished with lunch/meals/drinks by the time this pre-hour is half over.
  • Take care of any bathroom-related activities, including showering.
  • Tidy up your desk and save/close any programs you have open.
  • Pull up your resume.
  • Grab your glass of water.
  • Change clothes.
  • Charge your phone for the hour leading up to the interview. If possible, let it be plugged in while you talk.
  • If you're in an unfamiliar place, call a friend to test the phone signal and call quality, as well as background noise level and how well/poorly you can hear them.
  • Locate, if you have not already, your headset.
  • Quickly pull up your interviewer's profile on LinkedIn.
  • Jot down any notes about the company and/or questions you'd like to ask.

Five minutes before the interview is scheduled to begin, you should have everything completed and be set to waiting. I often play solitaire in the tense moments leading up to an interview; it's just challenging enough to be distracting but not so engaging as to pull me out of my focus.

The hour before is to give yourself a deadline to begin shutting everything else down except the absolute necessary things for your interview. It's about making sure all the pieces are in order so that you can pick up the call without fumbling or frantically looking for something. More importantly, the hour is about tying up outstanding loose ends so that your entire being is focused on the interview and nothing else.

The half hour after is your decompression time. Use this time to take notes about the interview for your thank-you note, as well as to just generally "come down" from the adrenaline rush you'll inevitably be experiencing. Even an interview that goes sour requires this decompression time; you've just survived a high-stress situation and your body is pumped up full of epinephrine. Your every nerve will be firing madly; you're literally a bolt of lighting at that moment. Take some time to regain your composure. Drink more water. Take notes. Sprawl out on the floor if you have to. Whatever you need to do so long as it brings you back to yourself. This also lets you reflect on the interview in the immediate aftermath and lets you analyze how well/poorly it went and why.

In my decompression time, I often drink two glasses of water, lie back at stare at the ceiling for a while, and take quick notes for a thank-you letter. I do this until my hands stop shaking -- my most common physical manifestation of stress.

Other considerations...

There's a few other tips I'd like to share with you:

  1. Avoid dairy products and sodas in the hour prior to the interview. -- This one sounds ridiculous, I know, but trust the classically trained singer, ok? Dairy causes your throat to increase phlegm and mucus production, meaning you'll be ahem-ing all the way through the call. As for carbonated drinks, well. Nothing is more embarrassing than a loud buuuuuurp in the middle of a call.
  2. Keep facial tissues handy. -- If you've got allergies, they'll be a godsend (just warn the interviewer in advance) and if you don't, well. You never know when the dust motes will get you. If you do have to sneeze, remove the mic as FAR from your mouth/nose as possible. Do not sneeze/cough into your interviewer's ear.
  3. Pitch your voice lower. -- I have a big entry about this that I'll write later, but the short version is that pitching your voice a tone or two lower than usual will help your voice carry nicely across. If you've got that Jim Halpert / James Earl Jones voice already, don't alter your pitch. If you're more Chris Rock or Kristin Chenowith, lowering your pitch a tone or two is a good idea. Practice with Skype or with friends.
  4. Do a practice call a few days beforehand. -- If you're unaccustomed to long-ish phonecalls, call someone who is chatty a few days prior. Have a 40-minute conversation with them. Consider it a warm-up. Speaking of....
  5. Sing along to the radio for 10 minutes in the hour before the call. -- Warming up your voice is a guaranteed way to make sure you don't overextend it when you need it. Singing along to the radio (terrestrial or Pandora or otherwise) will help make sure your voice doesn't crack in the middle of an important anecdote. Plus it loosens you up a bit. I may or may not have danced around my apartment singing along to Justin Timberlake in my one hour of prep time.
  6. Smile. -- It sounds like a cliche, but it really does come through when you talk.

I am not going to pretend that these tips will make you the phone interview whisperer the way I am. But they will help a lot. A big part of a phone interview is simply being able to project your personality through telephone wires. That part is a bit more art than skill (though it can be taught) and so is harder to pin down. However, I will say this much: being genuine comes across most strongly, regardless of interview medium or setting. Be honest, be forthcoming, be yourself, and demonstrate preparedness. Together, theose four should yield a pretty nice payoff.