Commuting for a Living

I bought a new car today–an extravagant practice my prudent self tries to avoid for at least 10 years. It’s fun, but let’s face it: it’s a horrible investment and most dealers are not very kind at all, and going through this process is especially challenging for a guile-free idealist like myself.

My old car was less than 6 years old and had just over 70K miles on it. It ran great, and made a fantastic family car. So why did I rush to the dealer to get rid of my vehicle? For the very same reason the masses of commuters are doing the same thing. It’s all about the price of gas.

See, my old vehicle was a Jeep Grand Cherokee. A year ago, I could have sold it for over $10,000. Today, I was thankful I could trade it in for half that. Nobody is buying SUV’s anymore, unless they are wealthy enough to care less about it. The opposite trend is also apparent. Looking for a hybrid car? Expect to pay the same amount you would for a mid-level luxury vehicle if you are even able to find one at a dealership.

But here’s the sad truth, though my new car is not a hybrid, it still gets nearly twice the mileage of my Jeep, and where gas prices are now, most of my car payments will be contained by the amount I have saved in gas. If gas prices go up yet more (and everyone says they will), then I might have my entire payment covered by what I save, so I wasted no time to make this proactive move.

Aside from making the desperate move I made today, commuters are dealing with gas prices in a variety of ways. Take a look at Alexandra Levit’s Blog for some additional ways that my fellow commuters are getting by.

By the way, I have made progress dealing with car dealers, thanks to I was able to get my car at the price I wanted, and was hardly hassled in the process.

Burning Passion

My younger brother has been a Los Angeles City firefighter for over 10 years. Though he has always enjoyed adrenaline and the physical challenge of various sports, for the longest time, I would never have guessed that he would select firefighting as a career.


Well, let’s just say that when he was very little, the sight of flames terrified him. I remember our first family trip to Disneyland, going on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, and him screaming in horror at the sight of fake burning logs as our little ship passed through the ride. This fear remained until he was nearly a teenager, at which point, it became more of a curious obsession. Of this, I remember him rushing out of the house whenever he’d hear sirens to get a good look at where they were headed, and to make sure that the flames they might be reporting to were nowhere near our house.

In his late teens and first adult years, he had little career ideation, but one major event helped him transform a fearful obsession into a lifetime passion. In the early 90’s, Los Angeles was beleaguered with fires, so much so, that firefighters everywhere called on community members for volunteer assistance. This random event (though fires have been common in the area), gave my brother the opportunity to face what he once feared, helping put out flames and saving horses and livestock.

The message here is that we all have the potential to transform. My brother has always had a fascination for fire, but the way he perceived it drastically changed. How can you change your perspective so that what you fear most becomes a welcome challenge that you can conquer and proceed further toward actualizing your dreams?

Passion Portfolio

I like to follow the Careers Section of the Condé Nast website because, among other things, it has weekly career snapshots of individuals in some unusual occupations. This week they did a write-up on professional poker player, Tom Schneider. While Mr. Schneider was once a successful CEO for a midsized company, he now experiences wide success doing something that he is good at, passionate about, and thoroughly enjoys (although he is not crazy about taking money away from friends). And interestingly enough, a professional poker player can make upwards of 12 million dollars annually.

If you are not doing work that you are passionate about, there are many interesting and inspiring stories like Mr. Schneider’s on this web page where individuals have given up successful careers in order to follow their passions.

Invention is the Mother of Opportunity

On a lead from the PSFK blog, I was amazed to find that Daniel Burd, a sixteen year-old kid from Canada, had quite possibly found a solution to a major environmental scourge: the disposable plastic shopping bag.

When you consider that most of these bags are not recycled and thus end up in landfills, and that in the landfills they do not biodegrade, we have a major problem. Moreover, much of this plastic unfortuanately ends up in the ocean, where it endangers marine life, and has even created a shameful mass known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Here’s a video posted by Cryptic Moth:

Hopefully, none of us need to be reminded of the problems created by these plastic bags. What I would like to emphasize is how a young man not even out of high school took the irritation of accumulating bags in his house, and set it upon himself to identify which microbes are responsible for degrading these bags, and resultingly found a natural solution for getting rid of them. It turns out that at the right temperature, some yeast for fermentation, and two microbes, these bags can be degraded in weeks.

Things that can be learned from this kid:

1. Do not ignore problems brought to your attention. Instead, challenge yourself to find a solution. Problems are often opportunities in disguise, but it takes passion, initiative, and dedication. Nobody would have expected somebody this young to make this discovery–and yet he did. Why? Because he took the initiative to solve his problem, and methodically and tenaciously devised a solution.

2. Do what other people aren’t doing. When Daniel Burd researched what other people were doing to solve this problem and discovered that they weren’t doing much, he then took it upon himself to do something. This is the source of invention, innovation, and opportunity. You should always be looking for this sort of opportunity in your life and career.

3. Think big. Daniel Burd could have stopped his experimentation when he identified that plastic in a bacterial culture degraded faster than in a control setting. That alone might have secured his winning a national science fair, but even after winning this fair, he plans to further his study to see if his idea can be implemented on an industrial level. By thinking and devoting himself on a larger scale, this young man made a profound discovery instead of a mere curiousity. The difference may be small, but the results are big.

Nightmare Interviews

Career advisors often tell anecdotal stories of interviewing faux pas in order to help clients understand common mistakes that are made in interview situations. There are plenty of stories of interviewees that interviewed wearing white tube socks (or no socks at all), having some nervous twitch like head scratching throughout the interview, or the many tales of candidates just saying the darnedest things.

What I have not seen so much are the nightmarish stories from the interviewees perspective. Sometimes the interviewers themselves are lacking a sense of etiquette, creating an immediate turn-off for the potential candidate.

What made me think of this was a recent story I heard of a poor woman whose interviewer decided that the interview was a perfect opportunity to multi-task and ate her entire lunch during the interview. All people do need to eat, but wouldn’t it be more considerate to schedule a lunch interview so that the interviewee could eat too? I am familiar with a similar story where the interviewer checked, sorted, opened, and read her mail during a person’s interview. Both actions were potentially good psychological intimidation tests for the interviewees, but too blatantly rude and disrespectful for me to acknowledge as being appropriate or professional.

I am wondering if any readers have stories to share, and perhaps even somebody has the story what could be qualified as the worst job interview experience ever. If you think you have a story, please do tell!

A Whole New Opportunity

Of the many career writers I (try to) follow, Daniel Pink has become one of my favorites. I first became aware of Mr. Pink when he was the keynote speaker at a career conference I attended a few years ago. And once I read his book, A Whole New Mind, I was hooked.

I now follow his blog, and his Twitter. Mr. Pink is creative, resourceful, and witty. And he will forever hold the distinction of writing the first career book in MANGA.

Now we will all have a chance to explore the mind of Daniel Pink. On Friday June 6, at 9 AM (PST), he is going to host a teleconversation on Learn from My Life.

I will be hard at work at that time, but for the rest of you fortunate enough to have a free moment, register and enjoy!

Three Steps to Writing a Cover Letter for a Career Change

So you’ve spent years working in a less than satisfying field, and now you are looking to change into something that fits you better. Problem is, your background is in a different field or you feel you do not have the exact experience that they are asking for. Before you give up or become too anxious thinking that what you are applying for is too much of a dream or not the right fit, focus your mind on why you thought you should apply for the position in the first place. Even if it was from a friend goading you on to something they thought you would like, try to allow for the fact that if you or somebody else at some point thought you would be a good match, there is probably something in it that would convince the employer the same. Here are three helpful steps in devising your cover letter to give you some leverage in making a major leap:

1) Research the position extensively.
Perhaps the most convincing argument you can use to convince an employer that you would be an excellent match for a position is to express an understanding for the position that goes beyond what is merely stated in the job description. What would the position really be like? How would your background prepare you for potential challenges? What things are congruent in your history? With research, you have the opportunity to identify congruent items that are not defined in your resume, such as company culture. The more you are able to express an understanding for the company/position you are applying for, the more they might be willing to consider you despite your work history. Please appreciate how critical insider networking can be to establish this step, and do not be afraid to call upon your friends when doing this research.

2) Put your best foot forward first.
Once you have researched the position, you need to make sure that what you mention in the cover letter are your most persuasive points. The best way to do this is to take inventory of your greatest achievements in all of your history, and consider which of these would be of greatest value or interest to the potential employer. If you “wow” them with your achievements, they are more likely to see your potential, since rarely does any candidate perfectly match a description anyway. The idea is if you have a history of achievement in your former work, you are more likely to be the same in your new capacity.

3) Connect the dots.
This may be the third step, but it is no less important than the other two. These connections are what we call transferable skills. So you never used the main proprietary software that will be your main tool for the position you are targeting. But for your last two positions, you quickly adapted to their software tools. This can be a real challenge to come up with relevant experience, but you cannot rely on your potential employer to figure out how you fit.

Remember, for each opportunity, the competition ultimately dictates the outcome–and that is one variable that you have no control over. What you do have control over is whether or not you take a risk. The timing might just allow you to succeed in this stretch if you take the initiative of putting yourself out there first. You can never win or lose if you don’t try.

Nice Niche

Presently, I work for an organization whose primary mission is to promote higher education, including the value education has in creating career opportunity. I wholeheartedly share this vision, which is largely why I why I work there. But, there is something to be said for those who are able to identify a unique skill that they have or a need in the world that few, if any are addressing. And though an education can certainly help one accomplish this, there are some who are fortunate enough to find this niche without one.

My example originates with a problem sliding glass door. The wheels on this 50 year-old door were so worn away that I nearly separated my shoulder everytime I had to open it. After living with my door this way for over a year, I finally resolved to do something about it. Since the door was so very old, the dimensions were no longer manufactured. Buying a new door and having it installed would be too expensive. Maybe somebody could fix it.

With the Internet and yellow pages, I began calling glass vendors to see if any of them provided door repair service. I called at least 10 places, and got all negative responses. With each call, I asked for possible referrals–and nobody had any helpful leads.

Finally, one of the vendors knew of a man who did this service. Excitedly, I took down the unlisted number and called. The man who answered the phone did not go out of his way to sound customer-service friendly. I shared my problem, and he told me that it would be $260 to fix. $260?!!! I told him that I would go and buy a door instead. Confidently, he said I would spend at least $1000 that way, and told me to feel free to call back, but if I wanted service that day, I would need to call back soon. With a bit of resentment, I consented to have his service.

This man was amazingly efficient. With a small hammer and a wheel that he had to customize to make it fit under my door, he had my door fixed in less than fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes! I handed the check over, but before he left, I asked him a few questions about his career. (Career Counselors can be notorious for this!) He apprenticed straight out of high school and had been fixing doors for over 20 years. With a quick glance at my door he could spout off the brand name, the years of manufacture, and some of my door’s uniquie attributes. He told me he averaged at least 10 jobs a day. I mumbled something about not even making a fraction of that money with my Master’s degree, and he had a very insightful response, and that was that door-fixing was the only thing he knew.

This man was the only sliding door fixer around. He had found a niche, and had a tremendously successful living as a result of it. He was passionate enough to be a true expert in an area where apparently no one else cared to be his competition.

What is special about you? What creative niches can you identify or develop which will bring special value to your work? Challenge yourself to find this. Soul search, work with a career counselor, and keep your creative mind vigilant for opportunity; and you too can identify something that is rare as it is valuable within yourself.

Follow the Freak

I know I mentioned Dave Rendall in a recent post, but he has been posting some amazing stuff in his Freak Factor blog, so by creating an entire posting on him, I hope to encourage everyone to follow regularly what Dave writes. His posting for today, (#101) titled The Puzzle Freak, is a wonderful and inspirational analysis of the life and success of NY Times puzzlemaker, Will Shortz. Check it out!

Virtual Success

Today, a coworker left a copy of the WSJ Weekend edition at my desk to have me look at the article My Virtual Summer Job, by Alexandra Alter. It was notably fascinating to see economic resiliency in action, as times of recession are often the mother of entrepreneurial invention. This article documents teens making substantial money in virtual worlds such as Second Life and Entropia. Not that it is the most difficult thing to do, but some of these teens are making more money than I am, when their “real” opportunities are minimum wage or non-existent.

I am fascinated at how the Internet continues to change the landscape of enterprise. Where people once had to locate themselves near cities in order to maximize their work opportunities, here is another example of a person being able to live in a somewhat remote area, and have access to millions for their goods, trades, or services–all thanks to the Internet. Perhaps this is an extension of Seth Godin’s new standard for conferences and meetings, where people can meet in virtual fashion, cutting out commutes, etc. And in a virtual world I can look like George Clooney if I thought it would help me.

Positives aside, I am sure I am not the only one who wonders where this is all going. I sometimes hear the voices of naysayers admonishing that our attachments to technology separate us from the spiritual, truly intimate, and sublime. Or that technology ultimately threatens our knowledge and ability to survive. Truly, I could be enjoying a starry night or some community event right now, but instead I chose to sit for additional hours in front of my computer to read other blogs and add to my own. I can honestly say that I know individuals in my online community far better than I know my real next door neighbors.

That said, I am inspired to go out and connect again with the real world. And while I’m out, I’ll stop somewhere where I’m likely to meet lots of people. Perhaps I can make it to a major social gathering like the midnight release of the Nintendo Wii Fit. And after I buy one, I will focus on finding my spiritual center by playing the yoga game.