Things I actually do now I live on my own

 

white coffee mug on brown surface
Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

Way back when I first put the offer in on this house, before life proper blew up around me, I wrote about what I’d do when I lived on my own. So I thought I’d go back and see if I realised any of that particular fantasy.

  1. Put the lights on in the morning when I wake up – No. But, when I wrote that originally, I expected still to be working and therefore getting up in the dark by now. At some point, I will set an alarm to make me get up before it’s light, but not quite yet.
  2. Get a really good reading lamp in the bedroom – No, but I curse my current lamp every evening. I haven’t bought a new one because I don’t have any money but it’s inching its way up the priority list.
  3. Go back to bed on weekend mornings with a novel and a pot of coffee – Yes! And not only weekends. For a while, it was most mornings, now I’ve managed to shift myself downstairs earlier. It is one of the small but great pleasures of my new life that because I’m not dashing off anywhere in the morning, I get to make a pot of coffee and sit around to drink two cups while reading, or listening to the radio. In fact, it is one of the incentives to make my own business work, so that I have the flexibility to continue to do that.
  4. Or, get all the cleaning done by 9am so I can sit down with coffee and a novel – this varies. I do tend to get the cleaning out of the way as early as possible. It helps that this house is small and easy to clean – 45 minutes tops.
  5. I will buy a beautiful, colourful rug – No, again because by the time I moved I didn’t have any money. But I will when I get some, the impetus hasn’t gone away.
  6. Music throughout the house – Yes! I bought a Sonos speaker months in advance, so that covers downstairs. I’d like another one for upstairs as well, so that whatever I’m listening to can follow me around the house.
  7. Buy more pictures and not have a TV – Yes! I bought pictures from a couple of artists  I visited as part of Oxford Art Weeks. Plus I have a ton of images that I got from my art nude shoot. But, lack of finance is getting in the way again, so nothing new has been framed. In fact, I still have to hang all my old pictures and there is less wall space than I remembered. Definitely no TV though. I did wonder if I would notice this, as during the summer I got quite used to Neflix on a big screen. But I’ve defaulted happily back to my old ways and watch Strictly on the laptop without noticing the difference.
  8. Scent things in the airing cupboard with lavender and rosemary – Not yet, but good idea, Earlier Me! I shall put that on my list. I have rosemary in the garden so I could dry some of that as a start.

But the main difference I’m seeing is not the living on my own, it’s the unexpected change of not working and therefore having so much more time. My dears, it is glorious. I can’t remember the last time I felt this relaxed and it may well be never, given that I’ve been working full time since 1994. It makes the fact that I’ll never be able to retire even more poignant, now that I’ve had a taste of what life could be like.

Of course, I am putting in a good few hours on my own business, but that is currently very flexible. At the moment, I prefer to start later, as a counterpoint to all those early mornings of the last few years. But I spend my time reading or baking or getting other chores done. I also find that I don’t mind working in the evening. I take a break from about 4pm – 7pm, so that I can go for a run, cook dinner, feed the cats and watch Strictly It Takes Two (yes, I am organising my life around Strictly. Because I can.) But then I don’t mind fitting in another couple of hours, particularly if it’s writing work.

Unfortunately, with all that extra time comes less money. But even that has an upside: necessity means that I’m cooking so much more and fortunately, I love a veggie casserole at this time of year. I’m baking my own bread or cakes too, so my grocery bill has plummeted. Over all, I’d say I’m eating less (the workday boredom doesn’t kick in and drive me to snack), but more healthily and for cheaper. I am driven not to waste the fresh ingredients I do have, and that pushes me to be more creative in what I’m cooking. It’s a matter of ‘What can I do with what I’ve got that needs using?’, but I enjoy that, and the knowledge that I’m being less wasteful.

And finally, it’s an absolute joy to spend so much time with the cats. In the seven years I’ve had them, I’ve always been away most of the time. They are older and calmer these days, and spend most of their days sleeping. But they come and find me several times a day, and Belle in particular likes to be nearby. Previously, it seemed that just when they wanted attention, I had to head out the door. Now, I can always stop and make time for them, so I do.

These halcyon days can’t last, because I must earn some money. I am gathering all the rosebuds I can right now.

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Being broke

Going from a salary of around £50k to around £0 is a bit of a shock to the system. Especially when you do that immediately after buying a house – not that my mortgage is any more expensive than rent was. I am fortunate in that I can afford to tide myself over for a few months, so I’m not really down-to-my-last-dime broke. But, I very really could be. Oddly, this situation is still a whole lot less anxiety-provoking than my last job was. As time goes on, I’m still unpacking how very damaging that was for me.

I have started my own business offering business coaching to small businesses and for a couple of weeks in, I think it’s ok? Some interest, anyway and I will keep pursuing that. But, I’m also still applying for jobs – full time, part time, anything I can get. Some money is better than no money and fortunately, I never thought I had a career in the first place so it’s not like I’m wedded to anything in particular.

And, inevitably, I have a budget and am suddenly very aware of where my money goes. I don’t have disposable income any more, so unavoidable costs like parking have to come out of money allocated for something else. Probably food, as that’s the one area really under my control that I can whittle down even further.

Other than the fact that having to sense check every purchase adds a lot more decision making to my days, it’s all ok. The luxuries just go, and I don’t really mind. I’m cooking and baking more, which I enjoy. Now that it’s Asda and Lidl rather than Sainsbos and Waitrose, why buy their crappy bread (and it is crappy) when I can bake a better loaf at home?

The interesting thing is with job applications, though. I’m used to being able to drive everywhere and not consider distance. But for a minimum wage part time job, I do have to take that into consideration because I could easily wipe out a most of a week’s earnings in petrol and parking. Or parking and bus fares. Or parking and train fares. So although part of me is thinking apply, apply, apply, that’s not actually realistic. Argh.

Well, all I can do is to keep chipping away at the problem. I won’t say ‘and hope something comes up’ because it’ll take more than wishful thinking!

 

5 things I learned this summer

lessons-learned-SYLVIE

It is safe to say that 2018 is not going down as one of my favourite years. But, I am mostly through all the stressful stuff and safely on the other side, and it’s a very different place to where I was in the first six months of the year. So I’m in retrospective mode, because you might as well learn when you get the chance.

The sit rep is that I finally moved into my own house nearly three weeks ago. I’ve got the cats back and they have settled in here more easily than I’ve known them settle anywhere. If anything, they’ve been more affectionate since I got them back, and Charlie is already back to his one mouse a day diet.

Today, I’m going to a business networking event to introduce myself as a ‘business coach and accountability partner’ (the LinkedIn version), which basically means ‘helping people get the right shit properly done’. I’ve done a couple of planning and prioritisation sessions with a business owner who is prepared to pay me for my time, mostly because the first session contributed directly to a big uptick in revenue for her business. I spy a case study! A few more of those and I’ve got an income…

I turned 47 last week, which seems a weird number to apply to myself but, ok. I still think, overall, this is a good time in my life.

So, what have I learned?

  1. A lot about my own resilience. That it’s not about how you are on the way down, it’s the bouncing back that counts. I had a long, slow fall for the first time in my life but the come back has been quick. I’m tougher than I thought I was, and that gives me confidence for the next time round.
  2.  This year saw several of my big fears realised and when that happened, it was manageable. Not enjoyable, but manageable. I believe that in critical thinking, nothing is off the table for discussion and re-evaluation. And yet, I have shied away from objectively assessing my relationship with my job, and my huge fear about not having somewhere to live, and let those concerns dictate my actions. Now I know that all the worst things have to be faced head on, so that they can’t come and lurk around your bed in the early hours.
  3. What comfort zone? Someone blew up the boundaries to mine and it’s been liberating. From the art nude shoot, to sending in writing samples to a magazine, to attending the networking event today, I am stepping forward in ways that I would not have done six months ago. The thing about giving fewer fucks is that it’s positively re-affirming. It’s getting to the point where I don’t even think ‘Fuck it’, I just get on with it.
  4. Rolling with the punches. Oh, this is a hard, hard lesson for me, but I realised that my control freakery is increased in times of stress. Turns out, ‘time of stress’ has been my single mode of living for I don’t even know how long, until the situation finally hit critical and was so out of my control that I had no choice but acceptance. I’m going to spend my life learning acceptance, but at least I now have a huge, flashing neon example to remind me of the benefits.
  5. Get help sooner. I lived with clinically high levels of anxiety for a long time before getting a counsellor and I don’t ever want to feel like that again. My anxiety was situational, which I knew, but I should not have relied solely upon the certainty of future change to fix things.

And, here we go. Into the last quarter of the year with a whole lot working in my favour. Maybe 2018 will redeem itself yet.

In which I do not have a home

Last week, when I started packing boxes for the move, it was tiring but it was also exciting. Because the boxes needed labelling as to which room they were destined for in my house, and so I had that image in my head of the unpacking and the sorting and the arranging. After months of waiting, my own place was finally in reach.

Now, I’m finishing the packing and I don’t know where the boxes will go. On Monday, the chain collapsed. One of the vendors further down the line doesn’t even have their mortgage approved; my vendors decided not to go ahead with the sale. While this saved me a decision, it also crash landed my hopes and wrecked the day dreams that have basically gotten me through the last few months. I had a lot riding on that house, and I am bereft of that vision of my future, of my own home.

On Tuesday, I had a conversation with my manager in which I negotiated my exit from my job. (I’ve just realised that was yesterday, but time seems particularly fluid at the moment.) I’ll take a few days to wrap things up, some paid vacation time and then three months’ paid gardening leave. It will see me through to October, and in the moments when I’m not panicking I think it must be perfectly possible to find a job, any job within that timescale.

Also on Tuesday, I took a lunch hour and spent it sitting in my car, phoning letting agents and trying to book appointments to see rentals at the weekend. The usual conversations ensued: ‘No, the landlord won’t accept pets’, ‘Oh, I’m really sorry we’ve just had references back on that one’, ‘Well, we’ve got four viewings on that today so I think it’ll be gone by the weekend’. And so the whole, tedious process began.

Then I came home to a half empty house because A had moved out. Odd how a half empty house can seem emptier than one that is fully vacant. I suppose because what is missing is emphasised.

Today I tricked the cats into their carriers and took them to the cattery. We all cried, until I realised that I would absolutely never forgive myself if I had an accident and they got hurt, and so pulled myself together. I don’t know when they’ll be coming home or where home will be.

If I could pack myself away in one of the boxes, I would. It would be dark, and cosy and safe. It would be time stolen from time, and I would just sleep, dreamlessly.

In which I’m not being performance managed

I now have a counsellor, as my anxiety achieved a sudden spike one day and I thought ‘I’m not sure I can do this any more’. She immediately made me feel better by listening to all the shit that is happening at the moment and saying ‘Well, of course you feel like it’s too much, it is too much.’ So, not just me being a whiny ass, then. We agreed that the anxiety was situational and that as soon as I moved house, I’d feel a lot better. Hurrah!

But, that was at the point when I still thought I’d be moving house next week and I would take a week off to move and get myself settled. Now there’s a problem with the chain, and someone is going on holiday and maybe I’ll be moving end of July. Maybe. This gives me pause for reflection, given that the removal company is coming on Thursday and the new owners are moving into my current house about four days later. Short term lets are crazy expensive and you can’t have pets. The cats are facing six weeks in a cattery. I was freaking out about one week. This is not good.

A day after all this landed, I had another one of those ‘Is this the right role for you?’ chats with my manager. Parsing this out of corporate speak, what it means is ‘I have decided that this is not the right role for you and I would really prefer it if you could hurry up and arrive at the same conclusion and hand in your notice. Please jump so I don’t have to push you.’

Well, he is right. I hate my job, I would never have applied for it, I would never have been recruited for it, and I have never claimed to have the requisite skills and experience. It’s just where I’ve ended up after unofficial departmental re-shufflings.  Since January I have been calling out that I don’t have the experience and could I have some help or training please, so I’m finding it a bit ironic to be informed of the gaps as though it’s a surprise to anyone. My manager did say ‘I think you’re good at thinking and strategy’, to which I managed not to reply ‘No shit, Sherlock, that’s what I was hired for.’ Unfortunately, that thinking role never existed as other than an outgoing hiring manager’s dream.

Of course, this isn’t an unusual situation in a large company, and the official line is coaching, training and finally, performance management, all of which is supposedly intended to upskill the relevant person so they can stay in role, or in the business. I’ve done that with someone who reported to me and it takes time and effort and determination on both sides.

But performance management is also a very easy process to exploit. It’s subjective and there’s no oversight and by the time you body slam an employee with what is seen as a threat, they’re scared. They don’t know the process, they don’t know their rights, there is little HR support. Consequently, performance management has a bad rap in the business because it’s usually done to make someone’s life so uncomfortable that they leave, and that is exactly what happens. I’ve been told just this week that managers should have 10% of their reports on performance management all the time, because that way you ensure that a proportion of people will always be leaving. So it’s a way of managing headcount and staying lean.

In my case, my manager can use all of this to circumvent going through the hassle of doing the right thing. He’s told me that he already knows what the outcome would be (very capable, but in the wrong role), so he wants to avoid going down that route. He’s also done some not-so-subtle cuing up by telling me that he thinks I’m stubborn and I don’t like to give in. Right again, but surely being pretty focused on trying to do a good job is a positive trait…? Yes, except when it isn’t.

This creates a clever trap, in that even if I force the issue (stubborn!), the outcome is pre-determined. He’s also using the perception of performance management as a lever: ‘You’re well respected in the business, I’d hate to tarnish your reputation’ style messaging. That’s a threat neatly wrapped up as concern, all dressed up in the wide-eyed guise of ‘I’d much prefer to have an honest conversation.’ Really, you’ve got to admire the tactic, even if not endorsing the ethical standards it evidences. This is how managers get to say ‘I’ve never performance managed someone out of the business.’ The system is weighted so that they don’t have to.

So, next steps? Jump or be pushed. Or more likely, ‘reach mutual agreement that I will leave the business’. Either way, it’s a three month notice period so the only conversation is around whether I work those three months or not. I’m thinking not, as I can’t afford to be unemployed so I’ll need that time to get something else.

I have to think seriously about whether proceeding with buying a house at this point is the right thing to do, or whether it’s too risky. I could still get my deposit back and that would buy me a few more months’ survival without a job. I will need to move fast because if I have to rent again, it will be impossible without a job so I need to still be technically employed.

I don’t think 2018 is going down as one of my favourite years.

I’m starting to hate LinkedIn

I know I’m not the first person to realise this, but LinkedIn is the Facebook of work, and I gave up on FB over a year ago. It’s bad enough that at work I can’t just do my job and we all have to play the game of cheerleading about ourselves to as many senior people as possible, while ostentatiously collecting ‘Recognition events’ for ‘Living the company values’. I realise it’s difficult to tell, but those things in quotation marks are real; I am actually not making this ridiculous shit up for effect. A great deal of money, time and effort goes into creating corporate values. Loads of companies have them and without fail they can be summed up as ‘Don’t be a dick’. Recognition platforms are becomingly increasingly gamified, too, with managers now having points they can allocate to their reports as reward for scoring highly on the values. And what do points mean? Prizes!

Admittedly, I am a miserable, cynical old cow, but I started work in the era before objectives, 121s, recognition and managers who were supposed to talk to their direct reports. You were just left to get on with your job, and if you did it, great and you probably got a bit of a payrise and eventually a promotion, and if you didn’t, you got shunted off to another department or life was made a bit miserable until you left.

So, as far as I can see, nothing has changed in terms of end results, there’s just a load more hoop jumping and specialised vocabulary along the way.  Oh, and more people being signed off with stress.

Anyway, so where Facebook was the platform on which people carefully curated their lives, LinkedIn is the professional equivalent. Even more than Twitter, it’s the place where personal and professional boundaries blur, to create an environment where curated professional personalities perform their jobs. At one extreme, people just whore out their accounts to their employer’s social media agency.  Those accounts then become simply a stream of airbrushed marketing fluff, patently superficial. Disconcertingly, the odd real post can still sneak in, which only goes to underline the falsity of the majority of the content.

At the other end of the scale, you can continue to manage your own account, but following all the best practice tips to maximise views and interactions. This is the slightly sneakier way, a more personally crafted version of authenticity, which still manages to showcase either your own awesomeness, or ideally, lavishes awesome sauce on your company as well. Sometimes, it’s an inverted way of showcasing awesomeness, when you write a ‘triumph over adversity’ post that starts off by outlining the problem/thing you didn’t realise, and ends up with the solution/lightbulb moment. It’s best if you can ensure that the realisation is either due to teamwork or your own moment of humbleness and genuine learning.

No one ever just posts the reality that they’ve had a great day because they had one good conversation that unblocked a difficult situation, or someone fixed the vending machine; or a shit day, because your budget just got wiped and now you have to deliver all the same stuff but with no money and fewer people.

Because we must all be our best professional selves all the time on LinkedIn. It’s like doing your job twice over, once during the working day (assuming you’re a hold out who has a working day and doesn’t live in the interstices between emails), and then again, by booming out the edited highlights into the echo chamber.

I’d like to propose an alternative site, LinkedIntrovert. We can all just post our CVs or any jobs we’re recruiting for, and then shut the fuck up.

Interview don’ts for women

I’ve been reading/seeing/hearing a lot of information about how women unconsciously undermine themselves at work recently, and I see some of it in practice too. Partly because I’m job hunting and partly because I’ve reviewed a couple of CVs for friends lately, I started thinking back to the last interview I had. It was for an internal role that I did not get, and at the time I was fine with that. I knew I didn’t have much experience, the role would have been a step up for me, and I was looking forward to working with someone new that I could learn from.

Scroll forward a few month and now I’m witnessing the entirely mediocre performance of the person who did get the job, and I’m feeling the burn. It goes along the lines of ‘How did I lose out to that?’ and all I can think is that they talked a great game and I did not. So I offer this up in case anyone can learn from my mistakes. I’m not saying that I’d have gotten the job if I’d take a different approach, but I do think I could have been a stronger contender. Instead, I downplayed my own abilities because I knew going in that I didn’t tick every box on the list.

  1. What I did: because it was an internal interview, I assumed an element of familiarity –  I figured that the interviewers would be aware of both my past career history and my history within the company. I thought that this conversation was part of an ongoing discussion about opportunities for development within the company. (I still think it should have been, but that’s a different story.) What I should have done: Put on my best game face and treated it as though it was an external interview.
  2. What I did:  downplayed my own management experience and talked about the fact that I still felt I needed to learn more formal managerial skills to help me have better conversations with a team. What I should have done: Talked up the fact that since joining the company, I had rounded out my considerable existing experience with the in house training available, although, of course, as a manager you never stop learning.
  3. What I did: let my awareness of what I didn’t know overwhelm what I did know. What I should have done: Focused on everything I did know about the business, my stakeholder reach, my industry knowledge. Unless a role demands a specific technical skill, then say ‘The rest is just common sense, isn’t it?’ Because mostly, that will be totally right. I have yet to have a job that at base, is any more complex than that.
  4. What I did: Fail to make the most of the interim role I was doing. In retrospect, I think I was almost apologetic about stepping up. What I should have done: Owned my own capability.
  5. What I did: Felt like I was getting a favour by even being at second interview and that maybe if I was lucky I’d be given the chance to develop into the role. What I should have done: Recognised that I had every right to be there, based on my existing professional competence and acted like it.

I did what I think a lot of women do – I focused on my weaknesses, and not my strengths. Because we don’t think we’re good enough, right? And that can become a self-fulfilling cycle because we’ve sabotaged ourselves.

So next time I interview, I have promised myself that I will go in saying ‘I am good enough.’ No apologies.