An Unfair Playing Field


“You can be whoever you want to be.”

If you heard these words from your parents in your childhood, it’s probable you were born into an upper middle class family.

“Don’t try and be better than your own.”

If you heard these words from your parent in your childhood, it’s probable you were born into a lower class family; possibly even one in poverty.

Parents in both were doing what they believed was correct; preparing their child for life ahead. How they did this was either by laying the world before their child and encouraging them to dream and then follow that dream, or to keep their head out of the clouds and prepare for a predictable life of work ahead.

The reality for many of the poor is a different value system than those in both the middle and upper classes. While there will always be the odd exception; that child who aspires for more and finds an inner determination to climb the social classes, the majority face what often turns out to be insurmountable struggles. Education for example, highly valued by those who can afford it, is often a precursor to success. For children growing up in poverty, they may have families who frown on education as unnecessary; many of the parents themselves poorly educated and as a result, not in a position to assist with or encourage home study time.

It’s a sorrowful reality of course. Well, to be fair, it’s sad for many in the middle class who work with and support those in poverty. As an example, we might take our own values and beliefs – writing a cover letter and error-free resume as a given. We’d take steps to ensure our applications were proofread, our sentences grammatically correct and the content precise. Many living in poverty would be more inclined to try and get a job by meeting someone and asking for it directly; no resume, certainly not a cover letter. Where a resume is required, it would be of an inferior quality; spelling errors, blunt and repetitive, a single word or two for a bullet, scant in content and length.

This is no knock against the poor, more an observation of reality. It’s a tough life when you think about growing up to be an adult in a world of digital technology and social media when you haven’t got a high school education, you lack basic computer skills, your literacy level is low and more doors are closed than open.  How sad it is that young children start off in life with such roadblocks to success already set in place.

When working to support the impoverished, it’s vitally important to be aware of our own value system and check frequently to ensure we don’t transfer our hopes and expectations onto others. While we might believe we can be whomever we choose; that hard work and persistence will pay off with success, it’s not the case for all. Think about how daunting it must feel for someone living with literacy issues, a skewed view of higher education and to read over and over again that a high school diploma (not to mention a College Diploma or University Degree) is required for many of the jobs they find. Completing high school and graduating with a diploma is like someone in the middle class graduating with a degree or getting their Masters.

One of the best ways to fire the brain at an early age and open a child to language is reading to them as their parent. It’s great bonding time for parent and child as a bonus, and it sends the message that reading has value. Regular, daily reading time stimulates the imagination, each word sounded out and pronounced correctly creates confidence and builds self-esteem. However, a parent who finds reading difficult themselves isn’t likely to showcase their personal weakness to their child, and may either tell them to read to themselves or actually discourage reading altogether as something of little value. “I never needed it and you don’t neither.”

Each day I work with those in receipt of social assistance, I find many have literacy issues. This manifests itself in the words they use in conversation, their inability to spell common words, sometimes their comprehension and as a result their ability to learn and put into practice what they hear.

Here’s the thing though…these same people are some of the most generous, giving people. They are truly inspiring and while their hope is fragile, many show a determination to be better than they are and for their children to have better lives than they have. Hire some of these people and you get paid back with great employees. Not always of course; sometimes their going to make poor choices – but again, likely because they lack good decision-making skills and haven’t had encouragement and supportive coaching.

They have incredible barriers to success to push through however. Having had poor parenting themselves, often having grown up in single-parent families, they don’t have the knowledge or skills to build on many of us take for granted.

Looking for work is difficult because they aren’t on a level playing field. Many of the advantages we have in middle/upper classes we take for granted; not even recognizing or appreciating them.

Want to help? Be kind, understanding, empathetic, maybe forgiving and always courteous. Give someone a chance, perhaps a second chance.

A ‘Staycation’ With Pirates And Pedicure


“So, how was your vacation?”

Whenever you return from time off work; be it a week or more, you can bet you’ll be answering this question or some version of it upon your return. I know where I work, I hear the question a lot, and I overhear many of the people who get asked the question talk of their great trips to foreign lands. Somehow however, when someone says they stayed at home and relaxed, they tend to sound apologetic as in, “I just stayed home.”

Now there’s a lot to be said for the so-called, staycation. I am back to work today after having been off for a week. I really enjoyed the time my wife and I spent together this past week. While we don’t have a, ‘memory of a lifetime’ to paste into some scrapbook, the time off and our choice on how to use it did for us exactly what we hoped it would do.

It was nice I must say to get in a lot of the little things we enjoy: reading for pleasure, gardening, day trips together and one with a friend, visiting the farmer’s market, dining out, a trip to a local Spa and we had some fun going to a few open houses and checking out some travel trailers. Not the stuff of adventure magazines or destined to win the, ‘how I spent my vacation’ essays one always seemed to have to write upon returning to school as a child. Still, our vacation and our choice how to use it.

I tell you this; we both return to work entirely rested and satisfied with how we spent our time together. Recharged in body and mind, we’re ready to return to work. While our time off was rejuvenating and yes I admit I commented, “Imagine this being our everyday reality upon retirement”, we’re both ready to return to work. One comment we didn’t make – neither of us – is, “Where did the time go?” No, the days were long and we got a lot out of them.

You know it’s funny and somewhat ironic when I think about the fact that there’s always that person it seems at work who on their first day back talks about needing a vacation to recover from their vacation. They packed in so much and it was go, go, go right from the start to the end that they didn’t actually relax much. Then there’s the person who inevitably ends their vacation with being absent the first day they are due to return to catch up on jet lag.

I must say I truly value the time off work. There are some people working contract jobs who don’t get a vacation at all. They have a prescribed start and end date, working perhaps in the hope of extending the contract they have, taking time off when they can’t string together consecutive, seamless contracts. The time off isn’t the same however from the standpoint of rest and relaxation, as for many they are not sure about how long they will be out of work. The not knowing makes spending time and money for pleasure somewhat difficult as ever-present is the notion of needing to find more income.

This is a curious thing isn’t it? The notion of having, ‘earned’ one’s time off. Sitting side by side in many offices you could find one employee working a contract and another working salaried. The two would certainly seem to be doing similar work to the casual observer, however only one of the two is building up their vacation entitlement. The other is working out their contract. From the work engaged in, how is it then that one is earning their vacation while the other is not?

While off, one of the extravagances I indulged in was what the spa referred to as their, ‘ultimate foot massage’. When I was diagnosed last year with diabetes 2, the Doctor and the Nurse Dietician in the Diabetes Unit both recommended taking particular care of my feet. So, over this week break, I did two things for the first time; a foot assessment at a foot care clinic and followed this up with a first-rate foot cleansing and pedicure (minus the nail polish!). Well a little pampering to be sure but really it was all about making sure from their trained eyes nothing was amiss. It felt good – and isn’t that what vacations are supposed to do? Make us feel good!

It took no time to get through a re-read of Treasure Island; catching up with Long John Silver and Jim Hawkins from my childhood.  An easy read in a comfortable seat under the shade of the gazebo next to the waterfall in the backyard. Love my books and the places they take me. Yes, sometimes the weeding and watering didn’t take precedence.

This is work/life balance; well, one example of it at any rate. Time off is essential; it restores one’s perspective, gives time for reflection and focus. The body as well as the mind get a chance to align with whatever you find fuels your soul.

Wherever you live and whatever time of year it is as you read this, my hope for you is that you get time to spend doing what you want to recharge. Be they big plans or modest in nature, may you find that work/life balance yourself.

 

 

 

Help Yourself; Read


We are increasingly moving towards living in a society where we get our information in short bursts; and whether by design or by choice people are reading less and needing to be stimulated more often. If War and Peace burst were to burst on the world stage in 2015 for the first time I have to wonder if the general populace would have the stomach to even do more than flip through it in a bookstore let alone read a few pages and certainly not the complete vast book it is.

We do however an injustice to ourselves if we fail to read and it hampers us unknowingly when we express ourselves either in writing or verbal communication. I’m afraid when it comes to writing cover letters, resumes and being able to effectively market ourselves in job interviews, many find themselves handcuffed and unable to express themselves to the extent they would like to do. Many have lamented, “I know what I want to say, I just can’t get it out.”

Now I am not perfect with respect to written communication, and while seldom at a loss to verbally express myself, there are times when my vocabulary is tested. Yet while I admit such shortcomings, I still assert my communication skills to be a strength of mine in most situations. But this piece is not about me; it is directed at any and all who have lost or never had much interest or love in reading.

Here is the thing; when you read on a regular basis you get introduced to new words and discover their meaning. New words and the order in which they are arranged spark new thoughts, some of which may challenge your beliefs, and from that we grow and learn new things. Reading can spark change, take us to places we otherwise would never go, and even in reading non-job related pieces for sheer pleasure, our own vocabulary expands. The consequence of reading on a regular basis then allows us to better communicate ourselves when in the company of others, and so you come to my point in including this appeal in an effort to help readers of this blog in their job searching and career advancement.

Look around you and you’ll see a generation texting in 140 characters or less using social media. Instead of descriptive words that build a strong vocabulary it is essential to minimize and reduce words to their smallest denominator that still communicate the intended meaning. So words like, ‘you’ become, ‘u’. Phrases such as, ‘laugh out loud’ become, ‘lol’ to use some of the more well-known examples. Rather than berating Twitter and texting in general, for I acknowledge their appeal in marketing to the desires of people who want to say as much by saying less, I applaud on the one hand the skill it takes to communicate thought in those 140 characters.

Ask anyone who enjoys reading to share one of their favourite titles with you. When you ask them why it appeals to them so much, you will likely be told that the writing is vivid, the text rich, the words depict pictures and images in their head which they grasp, and they come to care about the characters, the fate of the protagonist. If it’s a job-related book, they will tell you how it impacted on how they go about their work, gave them pause to re-think the way they did something, or introduced them to new ideas and best practices.

Putting books and the printed word aside for a moment, think too of people you find interesting to listen to or conversely grow weary of as they drone on and on and on in some tiring address. Those of interest capture the listener with stories and examples sprinkled in their talk. Their voices vary in pitch, intensity and volume. When making a speech they need not shout to be heard but hold everyone’s ears with their content, mixing in humourous antidotes, getting serious when needed, and they can evoke laughter and tears with equal acclaim.

I would caution you too that you are in danger of revealing much about yourself whether you intend it or not just in your own choice of words which can limit you or serve you well. It’s true, for our vocabulary often reflects our education level, and in an interview you might wonder why some interviewers will suddenly ask you the name of the most recent book you’ve read. This is not a harmless, random question. It is designed to gauge your interests, your level of comprehension, your literacy and your general commitment to your own development. If you say you aren’t reading anything at present or the last book you read you can’t even remember the title of, well that’s telling on you.

Start with anything that interests you – but read. Be it a fantasy novel, a short story, a daily read of newspapers, blogs, news articles on the web – whatever you find motivates you to read more. Re-introduce yourself to a library if you can’t afford to buy books and have no library of your own. The more you read, the more you may find your spelling improves, your grasp and understanding of words becomes.

You may find in reading more that you gain a stronger ability to communicate and express yourself both in the printed word and in speaking to others. And selling yourself to a potential employer is all about communicating your value!

An Hour With Jacques Demers


So today I find myself out-of-town attending a conference with several of my work colleagues from my own office, and many more from across the Province of Ontario.

In addition to the planned workshops on topics of interest to those in my field of Employment Counselling, yesterday we were fortunate enough to have Jacques Demers address us as a keynote speaker. For those of you that don’t know him, Jacques is a former coach in the NHL, and won the cup back in 1993 with the Montreal Canadiens.

Now being a fan of the team, I was intimately aware of Jacques and thought I knew his story. In short, I knew he had literacy problems and that he revealed these upon his retirement and wrote a book about his problem in an effort to help others.

The man had the groups’ attention from the moment he took to the podium. Speaking from the heart, he described his early life, raised by an alcoholic father who abused his wife and son. He described hiding his literacy problem from his sisters, his teachers, his fiance and others all the while living in fear that someone might intentionally or accidentally reveal his dark secret and destroy his dream of coaching in the NHL. What fragile self-confidence he had, was constantly just a word away from being stripped from him. What he told us was that he didn’t have option of having people like us in his early life who could have given him a chance, and reached out to him.

It saddens him to realize that there are more illiterate people than ever in an age of electronic readers, I-Pads, Blackberry’s etc. and while the climate has changed and people can be more open about their literacy problems, the problem nonetheless grows.

While I had gone to hear Jacques because of his affiliation with the Montreal Canadiens, what I really heard was an ordinary man speaking about his problem with literacy growing up, dealing with an abusive father, and making a commitment to himself to improve his situation. Back then he didn’t have the opportunity to speak up and get the professional help. He said that in those days you kept your problems to yourself for fear of being branded as stupid and dumb. No way could he risk being found out and his career aspirations destroyed. Hockey would provide his family with its livelihood.

Upon his retirement from the NHL and subsequent revelation, he was contacted by Stephen Harper and asked to accept a position as a Canadian Senator. “Why me?” he asked. After all, he was a hockey guy not a politician. Apparently the Canadian Prime Minister said he needed people like Jacques who had overcome adversity and knew what it took to succeed. Jacques was being given an opportunity to take his past experience and use it to better the lives of others through his new role as a Senator.

Funny how life sometimes works this way. In order to end up in a position where he could inspire others and help them to better deal with their problems, the man himself had to endure a tortured youth, constant worry, hide his problem from those he loved most, and throughout the entire ordeal, still find a way to get by. He didn’t plan on ending up as a Senator working with Aboriginal people to improve literacy and their quality of life but he did.

The message Jacques also conveyed was one of thanks. He thanked all of us seated there for choosing to do what we do. He said we were people of character, and he thanked us on behalf of all those who don’t stop to express their thanks. I don’t know what it cost to get Mr. Demers to come and speak to the group yesterday. I do know now that his words made an impression on me personally and perhaps I would say on most people in that room. When he spoke, he spoke with genuine sincerity. He brought no notes, he used no script, he just stood at the podium and shared his story and expressed his appreciation for our capacity to care when helping those less fortunate than ourselves.

So to you on his behalf I say this. If you have a problem or secret of some kind, whether it be literacy, alcoholism, drugs, anger, or any other of the many issues that can get in the way of living a better life; the life you want to lead, seek out help.
And if you happen to be in the people profession, dedicated to helping others, I extend my personal thanks echoing Jacques, for doing what you, what we, do.

Oh yeah and I did get his autograph!