Taking the measure of a year

I’ve been in transition for so long now that uncertainty and discomfort had become my life’s norms. How strange to be able to look back on a year and notice the extent of my transformation. Where once was a void, there now is a path. No doubt, I am still trailblazing (can I say trailblazing even though it still feels like bushwhacking?), but now I can clear the way for longer stretches at a time. If I had to distill 2013’s biggest lessons into pat formulas, I would say they were:

1. When facing your fears, the immediate objective is not to become “good” at something, but to become better at being a beginner.  Continue reading

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Decision-making with an #emergingleader

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Emerging Leader Maurice came into office hours last week wearing his red power tie. Our initial plan was to unpack his “hustle” from the Work On Purpose workshop we did in our last Emerging Leaders meeting, but he announced that he wanted to share some “good news” and a “dilemma,” which were in fact related. It turned out that Maurice needed to choose between two very different housing options that each appealed to conflicting values, and the decision was overwhelming him. With his permission, I’m sharing some of the details of our meeting because it contains an exercise that might prove useful to the young people you work with (or to you yourself, if you’re in the market for a decision-making tool).

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Knowing whom to reach out to (and a meta call for help)

[For Dawn] So I’ve been going through a very specific experience lately that I haven’t really shared with many people in my life, including (perhaps especially) those nearest and dearest to me. Since it’s a situation I’m unfamiliar—and therefore unequipped to deal—with I decided to turn to someone whom I know has handled something similar with tremendous grace and strength. From an outsider’s perspective, it may seem strange for me to bring something so personal to someone whom I’ve only recently met. But our limited number of interactions this year have been so enriching and energizing that I knew she would have a lot of advice and words of wisdom for me. [And thank you very much for all of it. Your kindness is overwhelming.]

This happens to be another good example of how I walk the walk and pass what I’ve learned on to my youth. I recently turned in a proposal to contribute to a transition curriculum for a mentoring program (more on that later), and one of the final activities that I have planned is for each young person to map out a personal support networkand then to label each individual in that web of relationships with the type of emotional and/or practical support s/he provides. 

I think it would be helpful for mentors to prompt their mentees with questions such as:

    • Whom do you turn to when you’re sad?
    • Who is the first person you call with good news?
    • Whom can you rely on to give you relationship advice?
    • If you’re in a silly mood, who’s the best person to laugh with?
    • If you just want to be quiet in someone’s company, whom can you sit with?
    • If you feel like dancing, who is your partner in crime?

I prefer a digital contact list myself, but in the context of this workshop I think it would be better for the youth to collect these contacts in an old fashioned paper notebook. Each page would have someone’s name and contact information, but also important details about that individual (e.g., activities they enjoy, skills they have, etc.). The notebook would be solid evidence of the existence of a community and safety net.

Of course for this exercise to have any value, it’s not enough that young people know they can reach out for help, not enough that they know how to reach out for help. The very first step is ensuring that they are ready to receive help. This is a whole nother ball of wax, as they say, and something that’s been weighing heavily on me lately, because I’ve been learning that even when people explicitly ask for help, they also have their own particular ways of resisting it.

Look! Here is another call for help: If anyone has any bright ideas about helping people who aren’t ready to accept help even if they ask for it, please ping me. I’d love to brainstorm with you. (Y gracias de antemano por cualquier ayuda proporcionada.)

Nahjee stretches her wings

It would take a long paragraph to list out all the awards and honors that Nahjee has won, but I won’t go into any of it here because I’m convinced that the foundation of a positive self concept is not built on the external validation you get from jumping through other people’s hoops, but the feeling of self respect you earn by working toward challenges you set for yourself.

Nahjee has accomplished a lot these past few days! Aside from sending off an email on a delicate topic and having a difficult conversation with someone, she also took it on her very own initiative to sign up for a networking event. To practice, she told me. And, ever the clever one, she made sure it was an event outside of the child welfare space. (Basically, she’s going to try out her networking skills on a bunch of randos that she’ll “never have to see again,” so that if she “messes up” it won’t impact her career.) Lady, you crack me up.

But seriously: my how you’ve grown.

When the enormity of your dreams begin to overwhelm you, just remember: you are a giant. And you’re so very very dear to me.

Someone actually thought I was an extrovert

[For Nahjee] My husband and I got a big ol’ chuckle yesterday from your assumption that I was an extrovert. If I am the most extroverted person you know, you need to get out more (HA!), because in my not-so-secret life I’m a classic introvert. In fact, I have a stunningly high tolerance for aloneness. When I lived on my own I could go weeks at a stretch before yearning for company. It got to the point where I would force myself to go out three nights a week because I actually started to forget how to talk to people in coherent sentences. Do you know when I joined Meetup and began networking for real? In February. It was a New Year’s resolution to get out of the cave I’d been living in.

All this is to say that anything I do that gives you the impression that I “can walk into any room and talk to everybody” is well within your reach. All of it is an acquired skill that with practice you can master. And, yes, your smiles will be genuine, because in the right crowd—that is, in the company of wonderful individuals—networking will begin to feel less like a chore and more like something you actually enjoy. The generosity of people will buoy you.

I am so excited that you have joined a Meetup group. Since you’ve made terrific progress in the handshake with a smile and eye-contact department, I’m giving you two new assignments:

  1. Enter the bar by yourself without throwing your defenses up. Walk in like you belong there (because you do); walk in believing you are terrific company (because you are).
  2. Ask at least three people how they entered the field of youth-serving work. Remember, the point of inviting you out is so you can get an idea of how people launch their careers.

If it seems like your tasks are getting more difficult, that is totally intentional. Don’t worry—I won’t have you approach strangers yet. You will know a handful of people there, and I promise to be waiting for you inside with bells on. xoxo

How NYU’s career center prepares students to connect to potential mentors

Part of my consulting work for NYU’s diversity and inclusion team allows me to learn about different mentoring opportunities across the university’s schools and divisions. Yesterday I had a terrific conversation with Leah Lattimore, Associate Director of Multicultural Programs at NYU’s Wasserman Center for Career Development, about their Mentor Network. What is really outstanding about the program is the training students and recent alumni (within a year of graduation) undergo before they get access to a database of potential mentors.

Potential is the key word here: part of the student orientation process involves drawing boundaries and managing expectations. Wasserman stresses that students should never ask the question “Will you be my mentor?” explicitly and risk overwhelming their contact. Unless the professional specifies an interest in a long-term, high-contact relationship, they should not expect more than an informational interview.

Wasserman also instructs students in appropriate, professional conduct: on the tone they should use in their written and oral communications, how they should dress, that they should research their contact’s background/company beforehand, that they should send email confirmations and thank you notes, etc. After their training, students must sign an honor code affirming that they promise to abide by these standards or risk access to the Mentor Network. Access, furthermore, lasts only a semester, in order to ensure that students refresh their awareness of professional conduct as they continue building out their networks.

If professionals complain of student behavior, Wasserman steps in. In the worst cases, students are asked to halt communication with their contact, but more often than not, they just need a gentle reminder and an explanation of why their behavior made their contact uncomfortable.

I wish I had known of this program as a student/recent alumna, and I urge all NYU students to take advantage of this great resource.

Teaching young people professional protocol and other skills

I had a very productive meeting with one of my youth advisors today. What made it especially great was that we got to practice skills that were “on the agenda” (how to reach out to strangers over email; how to join groups on LinkedIn), as well as some that were incidental. Here is what Nahjee and I worked on today:

1. Feeling that she is not “bothering” anybody by approaching the front desk

I’ve been noticing that Nahjee had gotten into the habit of texting me whenever she arrived at my office, rather than having the front desk message me. When asked, she explained that she didn’t want to “bother” them. It’s important to me that any youth I invite to my office feels she belongs in this space—and frankly any other space where she would not have the luxury of announcing her arrival by text message. 

2. Building a network out of cold contacts

When I switched careers two years ago, and for reasons that still aren’t clear to me, I did not think to tap into my alumni networks the way I did when I explored traditional teaching jobs a couple of years earlier. I reached out to many of my very first contacts as a total stranger. To demystify this process for Nahjee, I gave her print outs of actual emails that I had written (to Priti Kataria and to Betsy Krebs and Paul Pitcoff) and asked her to read them and identify the elements that made the correspondents write back and want to meet me. Nahjee did a stellar job, so I am posting her work with her permission!

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As practice, she typed up her own email to reach out to a warm contact. It was fabulous.

3. When being introduced to someone else in the office, make eye contact, shake hands, and smile!

We are still working on this one. 😉 Nahjee isn’t convinced that she can benefit from introductions to “totally random people” that she’ll “never meet again.” I’m going to have to push on this one (but I promise I’ll push gently!).

4. How to join groups on LinkedIn

We’ll see how she balances wanting to join a bunch of groups and not getting overwhelmed by email alerts.

5. Blogging is not the same as writing a research paper or thesis! 

[I was just having a conversation about this with another person (ahem) who I know is capable of writing and maintaining a stellar blog.] For now I am giving Nahjee some prompts of topics I am genuinely curious about, and I’m hoping she will feel comfortable enough to share her brilliant insights herself.

The importance of networks, of community

This has been a tough week for a lot of my friends and colleagues, but what is getting many of us through has been time spent in the company of like-minded, big-hearted people. Just as it’s vital for young people to have caring adults in their lives, it continues to be necessary for all of us grown-ups to cultivate circles of support. That said, I surprised myself a little while ago by deciding that I was no longer going to wrestle with how to build out a mentoring component to my program, because I realized that what I really want to do is to help young people build their own networks. A network, after all, is a web of connection, a safety net. In order for youth to be able to make these connections, we need to equip them with certain tools: how to create professional social media profiles and a meaningful online presence, how to reach out to professionals for informational interviews—of course. But most fundamentally of all, young people need to learn how to nurture a confident, positive sense of self, so when they do take the risk of reaching out to strangers for a favor, they do so in the knowledge that they have something of value to offer in return.