A is for action, B is for balance

This month our career coach helps an aspiring writer learn to make ends meet while pursuing a dream, and a worker who is suffering in a workplace full of low morale

BY Ed Vladich

October 04 2005 12:00 AM ET

Dear Ed,There has been only one thing that I have wanted to do with my life, and that is to become a writer. Poetry, screenwriting, short stories, freelance—I don’t care. It is the most important thing in my life right now. 

Here is the problem: I live with my family, and they are struggling to pay their bills. Since graduating from college in 2004, I have struggled with finding a job even though I am not a slacker. 

Even working at McDonald’s or Wal-Mart is out of reach for me. My mom constantly suggests that I get a job at the hotel where she works, but I’ve been reluctant to even apply because I know that I am not qualified (I’ve checked the qualifications) and I feel that this is just another way of curbing my independence. I’m the second youngest child in my very large family, and that is a struggle in its own way. 

I’ve recently decided that I want to make writing my full-time profession. There is no law stating that I can’t do what I love to do (legally, of course) and still make enough money to pay the bills. But I’m scared to tell my family, because I fear being ostracized or even kicked out. 

But I’m even more scared of having to be someone’s servant, or even worse—still struggling 10 or 20 years from now. I just don’t want to end up stuck in a dead-end job forever. Am I in over my head in this? Am I overreacting? Or are my feelings valid?Thank you,Lost In Woods 

Dear LIW,Your immediate attention to action is needed now. An immediate shift in the energy surrounding your career is the task at hand, and that can only be accomplished by stirring up a little energy through gainful employment. Not knowing the full details of why you haven’t been able to land even some basic employment through a fast-food or low-end retail employer to cover basic expenses of food and shelter, I’ll reserve comment.

However, I want you to look at the fallout from not being able to provide for even your minimal care and well-being. First and foremost your thoughts are agitated, and there is a lack of clarity, even though you think you want to be a writer of some sort. Your lack of clarity probably predates your 2004 college graduation and has only gotten worse since then while you have been dependent upon your family. Feelings of guilt over living off your family, who are struggling to make ends meet, as many working-class American families are today, only tend to add to your agitation and lack of clarity.

You may not want to accept what you perceive as an employment that is beneath you, however you must accept reality and responsibility. Reality that one does not necessarily go from zero to 60 or from graduation to a writing career so easily. Career steps go up but not always along a definitively straight staircase. There are many sets of stairs to climb along the progression with twists and turns and ups and downs along the way. The responsibility to fend for yourself and make a way for yourself in life is paramount. The easiest way to kill the soul of an individual is to remove his ability to contribute to himself and to society. The dignity of an individual is the ability to work and produce. Take that away from someone and he is doomed. Please don’t join that party.

Right now you’re not in a position to look down on any employment alternative to a career in writing. Your family needs you—and more importantly you need you. Therefore, let’s get clear on the first step: to begin to swirl the energy around through finding employment. By doing so you will be following in the footsteps of many famous writers who have gone before you. Read the biography of Charles Dickens for inspiration; his personal experience working in a coal factory led him to write David Copperfield.

Allow me to leave you with a thought to ponder: “Out of menial jobs come optimistic attitudes.” Do what you have to do while at the same time being a determined optimist. Never give up your dreams, but dream with your feet firmly on the right path.

Dear Ed,Is it me, or are others finding work morale low these days?I’m an insurance claims adjuster currently employed by a major insurance carrier. I’ve changed jobs three times in the last year, half due to finding workplace morale in the toilet at each employer. At first I thought it was me, but now I’m observing that low morale permeates the workplace environment in general wherever I turn. 

Before I bolt for the door yet again on my current employer, would you be so kind as to share your thoughts on subject? Perhaps I need to hear the truth and find out that in fact (oops) it is me. Or that you’ve been hearing about low morale from other fans of your column.Thanks,Inquiring Mind 

Dear I.M.,In a recent annual employee review survey conducted by Randstad North America, one of the largest temporary staffing services companies, results indicated that employee workplace moral is down in the dumps. Less than half (40%) called employee morale “good” or “excellent,” down 4% from last year. Yup, worker morale in general is getting worse.

Interesting to note that nearly 60% of employees in the survey said that they are loyal to their companies. However, less than 26% of employees felt that their companies are loyal to them. Fear of expendability (downsizing and layoffs) is probably a major contributor to this sense of disloyalty. Even more noticeable from the survey was the number of employers themselves admitting that “good” or “excellent” employee morale fell from 70% to 55% from 2004 to 2005. Wow—now, that’s very significant.

So what to do about it? Let me make a couple practical suggestions.

—Have a balance. Put your career into perspective on the macro scale of things. Understand that your job does not totally define who you are as an overall individual. There is nothing wrong with being sociable with colleagues, but insist on a “no shop talk” policy if, for example, you go out to lunch or for coffee.

—Have a life. Be aware of workaholic tendencies and work on minimizing those issues if you have them. Become involved and immersed in activities outside of work. Volunteer at your favorite charitable nonprofit organization or community action group. Hobbies and sports are other fantastic outlets to explore and become involved in.

In closing, I’d also like to mention the importance of steering clear of toxic individuals in the workplace. Misery loves company, and you will most assuredly be sought out by the most miserable if they know you will be an ally. As you have to work alongside the toxic miserable, diplomacy is key as you don’t want to be perceived as antisocial. However, by consciously choosing not to participate in workplace negatives that lead to low morale, like inane dialog and rumor mongering, keep yourself from the effects of such detrimental participation. “I think I need to get back to my work” is a perfect response when detecting the invitation to lead yourself down the low morale path from the toxic ones.

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