MICHAELA FENGSTAD

Writing about life as it happens, trends in career development and new inspiration

3 Questions You Should Be Prepared for When Going to an Interview

stock-photo-business-people-waiting-for-job-interview-153117149

Interviews! I don’t think there is a more conflicted time in the job search process than the time you are invited to interview for a position! Your heart is pounding, the desire to hug everyone you meet, from the friendly postman to the nasty old lady across the street is unbearable, you smile, and jump and cry with joy! For a second only, because out of the blue, the image of a cold office with a suited up, aloof but polite interrogator quickly pops up in your mind and that’s it! Tears start rolling down your cheeks, the smile has changed into a panicked grimace and you start hyperventilating. Where is that paper bag?

Yes, interviews are nerve racking. Yes, interviews can be scary and uncomfortable but we all have a dentist, don’t we? There is not much we can do when we visit their office other than ask for more pain killers. Fortunately there is whole lot that we can and should do before going to an interview.

There is no escape of the behavioural questions. HR people love them because they say the answers help them predict future behaviour. I tend to think that mostly because while you are busy telling the story, they have time to analyze your body language, your communication style, your English level, and how comfortable you are taking the front row. The more prepared to answer them, the more positive impression you will leave. Let’s have a look at the three most often used questions:

  • What is your strength? It sounds easy but don’t be fooled! This is a tricky question that deserves as much attention as any other. When you have a good answer, you score points on more than just one level: you demonstrate your maturity and level of self awareness, you show a glimpse into your personality: too modest versus too boastful, reveal  clues about your communication skills and it is another opportunity for you to explain why you are the best candidate!  Be specific, be relevant and be prepared to give an example! Go for specific skills you identified (awards, specific training, employee of the month for…, special recognitions by your supervisor, colleagues or friends…). Make sure they are relevant to the position you are applying for. Carrying 5 plates without a spill from your part time as a waiter might not be of much relevance for the security officer job you are interviewing but your ability to quickly connect and communicate  with any patron proven by the number of repeat clients that ask to be waited by you might give you the edge. What if they don’t ask the question? Find a way to push in your well thought answer. Chances are, there will be some other questions you might use it: “What do you think you can bring to the company?” “Why should we hire you?” “If I call your supervisor, what will they say about you?” As a last thought, everyone should have about five to ten strengths prepared with good stories as examples. In this way, the only thing to do before the interview is to match the strength with the job description.
  • What is your weakness? “I tend to become the most devoted employee and the company becomes my family. Very frustrating for my other family! That is why I invite my wife and kids over once or twice a year to have dinner at my desk and to make them feel included.” Awesome answer you might think! Every company wants a devoted employee. And yet, this will not score you any points. Who wants an entire family dropping soup and sauce all over desks and documents? Joke aside, try to find something you are really struggling with but it is not the core requirement for the job you want. For example, your weakness cannot be creativity if you want to become a PR specialist, or attention to detail for a watch repairmen. The key to this question is that no matter what you choose to talk about, don’t dwell on it. State the weakness then move on and spend most of the time talking about what you have been doing to improve it. Companies look for people that show initiative especially when it is about self improvement. Possible weaknesses:
    • fear of public speaking; possible solution: attending Toastmasters;
    • too direct of an approach in communication; possible solution: reading on cross cultural communication, conflict management; practising different ways of phrasing ideas with friends
    • obsessed with technology/social media – customized the notifications from all social media accounts, messages and emails, only those from my family will show, the rest I learnt not to think about until later in the day.
    • lack of focus in a noisy environment that can be addressed by learning how to manage tasks: early in the morning dealing with the ones that require the most attention
    • lack of experience in a certain area but being excited at the opportunity to learn and grow your expertise                    Other questions you might use this answer for: What would your former team members/former supervisor say your weakness is? If you could, what would be the one thing you’d change about yourself? What goals have you set for yourself this year? What do people criticize the most about you? 
  • Are you a leader or a follower? I find this question quite tricky as you can easily be fooled into giving a black or white answer or an as damaging quick answer. Both words have negative connotations: leaders are usually difficult to control and don’t really follow directions while followers prefer to … follow, have little to no initiative and even if they see a better way, they will not take charge to improve the process. So, how do you answer then? You will show the interviewer your ability to be a follower and a leader depending on the company and team’s needs. Talk about a time you took an initiative (leader) and solved a problem then take about a time when you were part of a team, following directions and working together with your colleagues to complete a project. And this is how we have identified two other questions might pop up in the interview: Tell me of a time you took initiative! Tell me of a time you worked in a team! Do you work well with other people? 

Yes, interviews are nerve wracking but a couple of hours of preparation will smooth the edges and give you the confidence and right attitude to win the interviewer. After all, the successful candidate is not the one that has the best match of experience, education and skills but the one that proves to have the best attitude! 

Drawing on Closed Doors

135_C

135_C

There are only a few times in my life as a nomad citizen when I can honestly say I could clearly see the road ahead of me. Most of the times the fog was so deep that all I could do was to pray before taking my next step and hope I won’t fall too deep. The path ahead was a mystery with no direction I was aware of. It was a slow movement to nowhere.

I knew I loved being in front of people, leading them to a calm, serene future from a past life that I kept hanging on with both my hands. I just did not know where to start living again. Finding the CDP program and having gone through most of it, I not only see the path ahead, but I have such a clear vision of the rest of my journey.

An article I read during one of the courses was telling the story of this young man who went through a tough interview process for a prestigious company downtown. He was the lucky applicant who got the job and became the object of envy for many friends. On his first day, he presented himself at the door of the company, smartly dressed, coffee in hands and dreams in pockets just to find the doors locked and a big sign on the door: “The company went bankrupt… Sorry for any inconvenience!”

Well, life is unpredictable, he thought. He pulled the phone out of the pocket, called his case manager and started the process of looking for a job… again… Actually this is what I thought the story would go. Instead, he rolled his sleeves, put a smile on his face and knocked at the doors of every office in the building, presenting himself, his skills and his unusual situation. By the end of the business day, he had another job.

Why this story? Because this is the piece I was missing and is still missing for so many other people like myself: looking for a job is not a straight, one way road anymore. Closed doors are not the end. They are blank canvas for us to paint on, using that creativity that lives deep inside and manifests in different ways.

My job as a career practitioner is to make sure each of my clients finds their right colour and the right crayon and starts drawing on their closed door.

Painted_door,_Machico,_Madeira._(16107596171)

New Home, New Life, New Style – How to Approach Your New Life

There are times in life when  we are left baffled by events, actions or people. To make some sense out of these, our brain tries to match them with something in the past. People are more often left confused when they first meet individuals from outside of their community  (cultural, professional, geographical, etc.) or when they take themselves out of their comfort zone. Deciding to live abroad for example, provides an endless number of opportunities to feel just like this. The first week after I arrived in Vancouver, I felt confused and unsure of what to expect and also of what was expected from me.

It is a challenging and conflicting time for a newcomer: on one hand, the wish to start your new life and become independent is getting stronger every day but the normal reluctance in front of a foreign society and its yet unknown rules and regulations forces you to stick close to your community, the people you know and trust by association to your former life.  There was a certain protocol in my community: neighbours of the same nationality, friends and acquaintances would visit and give the advice they considered necessary to help you start making sense of the new land. Imagine every evening having anywhere between two to seven people coming over with drinks and a heart full of good intentions. Once the wine started flowing, the advice would begin on where to find certain foods, on how to find a good job or where to find a nice a park to relax. The problem was always towards the end when we were forced to take sides on who had the better choice. But this is a different story!  Although contradictory and most of the times subjective, one piece of advice seemed to be consistent: as a newcomer you have to renounce your former life,  give up everything you know and start from scratch. Change had happened, now you have to manage the transition from the  former life to the new, unknown future laying ahead.

In his book Transitions, William Bridges deals exactly with this: change and transition as two different concepts. Change is sudden and situational while the transition process is psychological and happens over time. All transitions, he says, are composed of an ending, a neutral zone and a new beginning. The problem I had experienced and I am sure most of you will agree is that it is easier said than done. Theoretically we all know that as a newcomer we need to let go of our old life in order to move on into the neutral zone of the transition. In a time when you have lost your trusted network of friends and relatives, and when even the way you see yourself  is changing, letting go or ending the connection with “life as you knew it” is the most difficult. “[…] ending is making us fearful. They break our connection with the setting in which we have come to know ourselves [..]” says Bridges. How can one overcome this fear?

I think that the most important thing is to reach out of your community. Get out of your community and ask the help of professionals. Most of the people within your community are  extremely nice and willing to share their settlement experience. But their opinions are biased and emotional based on their subjective, unique experiences. By reaching out to a newcomer settlement service you will be able to polish your language skills, learn reliable information about Canada and the specific area you live in, and most important of all, gain confidence and start understanding the Canadian way.

Experience and have fun with something new every day. Except for few basic things, nothing will ever be the same. From the way you used to drive back home to the way the bed sheet is designed, from the way people interact on the streets to the way people address each other, everything needs to be re-wired. Such a process of replacing habits and common knowledge with new habits and concepts can be overwhelming. In the classic action-reaction model, our minds will go into that resistance mode and will fight back as hard as possible to change. Trick your mind!  Be open and instead of criticizing or comparing with what you used to know start having fun with change. Begin with small steps: what about a new way of setting the table?  Find a new park or a new place to discover at the end of the week! Try to use the very Canadian “eh” at the end of a sentence and join into the smiles that will follow, eh? It is not necessarily about what you do but about the attitude that in time will change, and you will become more accepting of the new ways.

Develop a new habit: asking for help! Well, what do you do when you are lost in the middle of a new city and have no idea how to go back to your hotel? Ask for help! When you are new to Canada, or any other country, city, place, there will be more times when you have no clue how to do things or where to find things. From not being able to find the right word when you need it the most to not knowing how to change the colour at the pedestrian crossing, life in a new country will provide a huge number of opportunities to get upset and lost. Ask for help! Instead of wasting time trying to solve something or to find certain information by yourself, develop this very healthy habit of asking for help!

Stop talking and start listening more! We all have been there. There are times when we get frustrated in the process of settling. Maybe because we are lacking the understanding of how things are done and why things are done in a certain way. Or just because we got hit with a not so rare moment of nostalgia and instead of breaking down and crying, we go on the offensive and start explaining how things are done much better in the old country. Sometimes we remember similar situations that happened back in the old life and we feel compelled to tell the story out loud! Well, not only that it makes us sound very pretentious but for most Canadians is boring as there are usually cultural references and jokes specific to our mother language that are difficult to translate. When nostalgia hits, I have learnt to bite my tongue and start asking questions! Showing interest in the way things are done, in people I meet or  places I visit, not only engages them but also provides a very good way of learning new and interesting things about the Canadian way that otherwise would take time and effort to discover.

Vancouver_wtext

 

 

 

About Foreign Credentials in Canada

books

Every year our Canadian government aims to attract a high number of immigrants to help grow Canada’s economy. For 2015, according to CIC News, the target was set somewhere between 260,000 to 285,000 new residents. Among these, more than 65% of the total number are expected to be economic immigrants, looking for better working and living conditions. Canada has a very specific way of deciding who will be accepted based mainly on 3 factors: language proficiency, education and work experience. There is no surprise then, that over 69% of the new residents hold a post secondary credential: Bachelor Degrees , post secondary certificates and even Masters or PhD’s and between five to ten+ years of work experience. British Columbia is the province with the highest percentage of Bachelor Degrees among new residents. Among those an overwhelming 31% are underemployed, as per Stats Canada, as the immigrants with Bachelor Degrees are the segment of population that struggle the most either with unemployment or in under qualified jobs.

Before January 2015, the applications were processed on a first come, first served base while now, courtesy of the newly launched Express Entry system, the approval process will be faster for those with good and very good language skills, higher education and of course some work experience. It is good to see that the government recognizes that Canada needs good immigration policies to maintain and grow its economy. It is refreshing to see that more than ever the government is trying to find and recruit talented and very talented professionals in a timelier fashion. What I don’t see is any money or effort put in helping them get established and employed in jobs for which they are qualified and certified. Little has changed in the last 15 years since I experienced all these fun times, heartbreaks and joys of establishing myself in a new country. The way I see it, all the money and effort the government is putting in creating all these sustainable immigration policies will be only as effective in accessing the maximum out of the new incoming talent as the immigrant settlement policies in place at the time. In other words, unless the government starts looking seriously into ways of removing some of the barriers, especially the credentials barrier, all the tax payers money and effort put into recruiting talent will have only a minimum return, if ever.

Canada already has a pool of intelligent and highly trained professionals that are wasting their knowledge and experience in jobs that do nothing to use their skills and talent. The old joke that the best place to have a heart attack is in a cab as most of the cab drivers are doctors is still a reality. While attending an information session at SFU, I happened to start a conversation with a very nice lady. It turned out she had two master degrees from a university in Delhi, had been in Canada for 7 years and was still working in a restaurant. The mighty Internet is also full of such stories; we all know at least a person who has lived through or is experiencing the transition or have friends that threaten to leave this country and go back to their native land every time you ask an innocent “How are you?” It is one of those realities that have become so common and it’s been around for so long that the only reaction you ever have is a quick rolling of the eyes and a swift change of subject! We have become immune to it and to the heartache it usually brings.

My story is just another immigrant story. I came to Canada in 1999 and followed blindly the unwritten script of the well-educated immigrant who after struggling to understand why his/her education is not recognized, sadly realized that without re-qualifying would have no access to her profession. A few blows to a small budget and a family that came apart moved the timeline for going back to school further and further away and made my frustrations with jobs that under-utilized my skills grow exponentially. In the meantime, the adorable five year old that got off the plane at YVR in that cold June of 1999 had grown into this smart handsome young man that was ready for University. It was his time to shine and I happily experienced the Canadian student life through him. For me, it’s been 15 years of dreaming that I will be teaching again one day. I am still in love with the profession I once practiced successfully but I have to resentfully let it go and move on. Why? Well, it’s complicated but let me try explaining.

  1. Money. After adding all the costs associated with a full 12-month program and several other mandatory courses required by SFU and the Ministry of Education, the total bill comes close to $30,000. If I were an optimistic I would definitely say not a big deal! Heck, if I were my husband, would definitely say: honey, we can handle. Unfortunately, I am me and any price higher than $10,000 gives me vertigo and nausea.
  2. Prospects for future. I could invest the $30,000 into my future thinking I will recover the costs within a couple of years of full time employment. The reality is different. According to an article published in Oct 2014 in The Tyee, “there are roughly 3,300 certified teachers for 900 teaching jobs in the province every year. That’s about three teachers for every job” with the biggest oversupply in teachers specialized in arts, humanities, and English.
  3. Time. I am not in my twenties anymore. I feel that time is running faster than I can grasp it and I have to take that into consideration. I need 3 years to complete all the courses I am asked to in order to be admitted into SFU, meet the BC Teacher Regulation Board and then complete the full 12 month long PD Program. Next, the first step in getting a full time job as a teacher is to apply for a TOC position (teacher on call) with the district. There are no guarantees that you will be accepted as a TOC and there are no guarantees that you will be on that list for a year or two only. I don’t have time to play around anymore and I have a family and responsibilities here. At the end of the program, if I am not hired in a district of my choice, I cannot pack up my family and relocate in a smaller remote community just to follow my dream.

Resentfully I will let go of my dream and continue on a different path. I feel discriminated against though. Had my degree been recognized faster, easier and less expensive, I would have taken all these chances to be licensed as a teacher here. I wonder whether in a multicultural country such as Canada, these barriers are kept and reinforced as a way of imposing a hierarchy of power as oppose to a hierarchy of competency. There is nothing more degrading for an immigrant that has worked hard for their degrees to be told that here their credentials mean nothing without their skills and knowledge being tested. Different cultures perceive education in different ways but what I have noticed to be the same is the higher social and economic status that comes with a well-earned degree in most of the non-Western countries. Once you trivialize and take away that status, it damages not only the ego but it immediately places the immigrant into a different social class. The real issue from the immigrant’s point of view is that he/she is devalued based on their background, based on a document and the native country issuing that document, not based on their real skills, knowledge and education.

A Statistics Canada (2004) census study provides a conspectus of the characteristics and experiences of recent immigrants residing in Canada’s metropolitan areas in terms of the settlement patterns and the labour market experiences and earnings. The research shows that virtually all immigrants coming to Canada in the 1990s — about 1.8 million — have settled in one of Canada’s 27 census metropolitan areas. These immigrants also have higher levels of educational attainment than people born in Canada. Yet, in virtually every urban region, a far higher proportion of recent immigrants were employed in jobs with lower skill requirements than the Canadian-born. In addition, recent immigrants were less likely to be employed in occupations typically requiring a university degree. In fact, recent immigrants with a university degree were much more likely than their Canadian-born counterparts to be working in occupations that typically require no formal education. Finally, in most urban centres, recent immigrants were at least twice as likely as Canadian-born workers to earn less than $20,000 a year. They were also much less likely to have high earnings, that is, more than $100,000 a year. This reinforces the findings of previous labour force studies showing that recent immigrants were much more likely to work for low wages, were less likely to be high-wage earners and had higher unemployment rates. The result is a drain on social programs and public transportation in the country’s largest cities (Statistics Canada, August 2004). (Foster, Lorne. 2006. “Foreign Credentials in Canada’s Multicultural Society.” In Merle Jacobs and Stephen E. Bosanac (Eds.). The Professionalization of Work. Toronto: de Sitter Publications. Chapter 10. P287)

In a way, I feel that the same wasteful tendencies of the modern society are in full display when looking at the talent existent in Canada. There is a large pool of untapped talent that lays dormant because of the credentials barrier while Canada continues to recruit young, educated individuals whose skills are mostly going to be discarded in the same old pool just because they were born and educated in the wrong part of the world. Maybe it is time to start thinking about a government run body that will facilitate this transition and will look into removing the credentials barrier by working as a bridge between the new immigrant and the employer and remind all professional associations their mandate should be that of “facilitator” not “barrier” and their attitude should change from “tolerance” to “acceptance”.

 

Picture courtesy of johannes.jannson/norden.org

 

 

 

English for Personal Branding

2011-trends-4There was a time, not too long ago, when men and women were putting a lot more effort in the way they looked. Men used to wear suits and ties almost everywhere and women preferred skirts and beautiful dresses. Times have changed, and we are way more laid back and casual in the way we present ourselves. Formal appearance is not that much of a concern and I have witnessed teachers wearing yoga and track suit pants, clients that think there is nothing wrong with wearing jeans to interviews and colleagues that wear flip flops and shorts to meetings. There is nothing wrong with this casual approach to clothes other than the fact that not much has changed in the way people judge and form a first opinion when meeting new people.

Image consultants and career experts agree that it takes an interviewer about 30 seconds to make a first impression about a candidate. Dressing appropriately and wearing the outfit with confidence increase your chances of getting hired. The most controversial piece of clothing for men tends to be the mighty tie. Steve Jobs never wore one and Sir Richard Branson thinks that ties kill creativity while the editors of GQ magazine, stated “when you’re sporting a tie, you can pretty much stroll in anywhere you want; it’s like an Admirals Club card that you wear on the outside. Whether you’re suiting up for the office or laying out a look for the evening, a tie allows you to pull together the disparate elements of your wardrobe with a touch of texture or complementary color.”

At this point you are wondering what would appearance have to do with English and personal branding? Proper English with correct grammar and punctuation is the outfit for your “on paper” persona. The recruiters, the hiring managers will make that 30 seconds judgment based on your resume and LinkedIn profile. The best way to get noticed, or for your name to be kept in the potential winning candidates bag is to wrap your profile in the best outfit possible. The Internet abounds with articles on the most common grammar mistakes and typos that you need to avoid at all costs. I will not dwell on them. I will touch only on the TIE you might want to pay extra attention to when writing your profile.

Tautology is a figure of speech and the way of expressing the same thing using two or more different words with the same or almost same meaning. It can be used to emphasize a concept but more often than not it is used in the wrong way and becomes a needless and annoying repetition of the same fact or thing. Very close to pleonasms, tautologies are a real turn off for any hiring manager. Before even getting to your skills and experience, their first impression is that you lack the basic ability to write and edit your work. In a global workplace, where business is often conducted through emails, having strong English skills has become a basic requirement for any job. The examples below were gathered from LinkedIn profiles:

  • Internal Intranet (Intranet is an internal network)
  • I saved $10,000 dollars on the project
  • A brief summary of achievements
  • A necessary requirement of the job
  • Drafted wills and testaments
  • Absolutely necessary
  • And etc.
  • CAD design (Computer-Aided Design design)
  • Helped the parties enter into a contract
  • Sills previously listed above

Have you ever heard of the term illeism?  Do you remember The Jimmy episode of Seinfeld? “Hands off Jimmy!” “Don’t touch Jimmy!”, says Jimmy. “Illeism is another figure of speech, and it denotes the habit of referring to oneself in the third person. In an interview with The Guardian, Pelé, the famous soccer player said: “I think of Pelé as a gift of God. We have billions of billions of people in the world, and we have one Beethoven, one Bach, one Michelangelo, one Pelé. That is the gift of God.” You get the idea now! We all, at times, have fallen in the habit of using it: “Give mommy a good night kiss!” or  “Daddy’s busy now, go play with your brothers!”   I would like to think we all grew out of it. I think that once you move on from watching Elmo, you should stop talking about yourself in the 3rd person. In psychology, illeism has been linked to narcissistic behaviours and in a business environment narcissists don’t make good team players.  Psychology aside, let’s just say it rubs people the wrong way. My first question when I read a resume or a LinkedIn profile written in the 3rd person is who actually wrote this document? Was it the owner or a third party? It confuses me in regards to whom I should address my questions to and it creates an unnecessary barrier in the communication flow.  One of the important objectives when writing a resume or a LinkedIn profile is a direct, honest approach that attracts recruiters and hiring managers.

The use of ellipsis on resumes baffles me. I am killing it today with all these smug words! Ellipsis is nothing else but the nerdy word for those three dots that we use but not sure where and why. It is very simple: they can be used in two instances. First and most common use is to replace text in a quote. Let’s consider this full quote from Arthur Miller Biography by Rachel Galvin:  “In his writing and in his role in public life, Miller articulates his profound political and moral convictions.”  I find the sentence a bit too long and having too many distractions from the simple idea I need to convey. I will use the ellipsis to simplify it and yet keep the integrity of the quote. “In his writing … Miller articulates his … convictions.” The second use of these three dots is in creative writing to express hesitation, a long pause, uncertainty or even a change of moods. (See also The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation by Jane Straus) For example: I… don’t know… I think… I … must have… turned off the stove. A resume is or should be unique presenting your skills, your experience, and your knowledge.  Unless you are quoting from your work, you should never use an ellipsis. As for the second use, I don’t need to explain anything anymore! Managers need employees that can take decisions in a timely manner, with little to no hesitation and pretty stable from an emotional point of view.

The devil is in the details! The same way a tie can ruin or enhance a perfectly tailored suit, paying attention to the proper use of grammar concepts like T(tautology), I(lleism) and E(llipsis) can ruin your chances to an interview or advance your career with little effort. There are no short cuts or easy ways in writing for career advancement. The better you become, the closer you get to your dreams!

 

Photo courtesy of MyInfoToGo Magazine  http://www.myinfotogo.com

The Myth of New Year’s Resolutions

Anothenew-year-chapter-oner year is gone and, not to be left behind, I join the rest of the world in putting together a comprehensive and very well thought out resolution list. I cannot sleep anyway because of the lethal combination of fattening unhealthy food drowned down with industrial quantities of alcohol in an attempt to preserve my other organs when my liver will fail. If I cannot sleep and as my desk is close to the kitchen, I thought I could have a guilt-free middle of the night snack  while jolting down my list. After all, my future depends on the thoroughness of this list! I can’t let a growling stomach distract me.

Every year around this time, the world goes into frenzy: we don’t like anything anymore about ourselves. For about a month around New Year’s Eve, we suddenly discover all our flaws: we are too fat, too lazy, too distracted, too distant, too sappy, too happy, too flirty, too self centered, too this and too that… Open any newspaper or magazine in any format (traditional or on line) and count how many times the phrase “New Year, New You” catches your attention.

At the end of my first year in Canada, I got quite confused: after 11 months of upbeat quotes when the theme of the day was alternating between: “Be Happy with Yourself”, “How to Get Happier with Yourself”, and “Embrace Yourself” all of the sudden, in the 12th month when you are supposed to be happy and party till you fall into unconsciousness, people were getting all depressed and unhappy. Reality was swiftly landing on earth, hand in hand with Santa Claus and was giving away mirrors to all mortals together with the Christmas gifts. I found out that the merry ceremony of gift unwrapping was followed up by a mandatory two-hour introspection session when old Freud’s psychology books were coming off the shelves to help compose the resolution list.

But what was I suppose to do? I kind of liked myself the way I was and this resolution list thing, although tempting, seemed unrealistic to me. Don’t get me wrong, I did not think I was perfect and need no improvement, but could not bring myself to switch so fast from “I embrace myself” to ” I need to change” in a blink of an eye and for a month only.

I struggle every year to come up with a list of resolutions because I don’t believe in the concept. And yet people expect you to have a list no matter what or you become an alien with which any known form of communication is doomed to fail. Please allow me to explain again why I think that a resolution list is nothing else but an exercise in futility:

  1. To change a habit with willpower only is almost impossible, unless you are a direct descendent of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Changing any kind of habit involves understanding first which are its psychological triggers, and then you need to slowly retrain the brain to change. It sounds easy but it is a complex process studied through social psychology, clinical psychology and neuroscience and yet, there is no known prescription or recipe for change. What we know is that by practicing a new habit long enough, the human brain has the capacity to rewire, to acquire new habits. But over night, it can only rain or snow but a change of habit will never happen! You can drop now that line “As of Jan 1st I will stop biting my nails” for example.
  2. Diets, gym passes, life quotes by themselves will not work. You have to be willing and working hard to change your life style if you want to be successful in whatever goal achievement you desire. As an example, when you are offered bread at dinner, instead of saying: “Thank you but I am on a diet!” refuse politely with: “Thank you, I don’t eat bread.” Diets are associated with a beginning and an end date, they are temporary fixes and by acknowledging that you are on a diet, you unconsciously already plan to eat that bread once you are done with the bloody diet. Temporary fixes are just short-lived remedies that in the long run will make you more miserable than happier. Think about your last diet: you struggled to follow a very strict food plan and you could have killed your trainer at the end of every session, if you had had an ounce of energy left. Sure, you dropped a few pounds but as soon as life threw a few curves at you, the sugar moved back home and you kicked the trainer to the curve. This happy event caused you to gain back all the pounds lost and some.
  3. All lists are unrealistic and doomed to fail. First of all, think about the definition of a list: “A series of names and other items” according to Dictionary.com.  Not one, not two items but a series of. I am wondering at what point during the Christmas meal or after how many glasses of the alcohol of choice ingested, the idea of having more than one item to work on in the new year seemed doable? Let’s take the most popular item on the resolution lists: get fit. What is a realistic target? I think it depends on everyone’s fitness level and commitment but if you target going to the gym 5 times a week and this year you averaged once a month, good luck with keeping that resolution.
  4. Resolutions are a waste of money that you could use in a smarter way. Make a short inventory of the things you bought over the years as a result of a New Year resolution. Mine is quite extensive: expensive notebooks for the novel I intend to write, weights, yoga mats, Swedish balls, an elliptical machine that has been hardly used, a bag full of wool yarns and an impressive number of patterns purchased and safely stored, overly inflated gym memberships, and the list can go on and on. Buying stuff makes you believe for a while that you are committed to change, committed to take up a hobby. Fast forward a couple of months and they are a sad reminder of your failure and another reason to stress out over the credit card bill.
  5. Getting richer, fitter, slimmer or promoted will not make you happier.The ultimate reason why we want to change habits and appearances is the thought that with change, the elusive happiness will finally reach us. Once we lost the 20 pounds, or once we got the promotion, somehow magically, happiness will be sprinkled on us from somewhere high above and the sweet angelic music will forever accompany every step we take. Wrong! Happiness is a choice, happiness is your choice! You can chose to allow yourself to be happy in present or, you can make lists with resolutions and postpone experiencing happy feelings till sometime in the future. In an interview to Huffington Post, Rick Hanson, psychologist and author of the book Wiring Happiness was noticing that we’re surrounded by opportunities — “10 seconds here or 20 seconds there — to just register useful experiences and learn from them. People don’t do that when they could.”

My final advice to you all: stop taking yourselves that seriously during this time of the year! Enjoy great food, have a drink or two, make time for your family and laugh a lot with your friends! Keep things in prospective and don’t waste time making lists with resolutions you will get depressed about later in the year! Instead of grandiose resolutions, set reasonable small goals that you can attain without spending a fortune or having to rearrange your and your family’s entire schedule and keep positive! Yes, you will fail sometimes, and it is ok as long as you get back to it and laugh out loud as much as you want!

Happy New Year! 

 

Caution! Hot Beverage!

I remember my first cup of coffee in Canada. I was so excited to take my first sip and I was so ready to be amazed! Yet I was trying to make that moment before my taste buds would be blown away last a bit longer. I wanted to be amazed, not because I can’t live without a good cup of coffee, but because I wanted to be reassured that I made the right choice leaving my family and friends behind. At that moment, the way that coffee tasted was of critical importance and I was not ready yet for it Trying to drag that moment before a bit longer,  I started reading the writing on the sleeve of the cup.  “Caution! Hot beverage!” I read it again and again…  Were they making fun of me? They must have realized I was new in the country. It must have been my accent when I asked for the coffee. No, it can’t be… The lady in front of me had troubles with her English too. Hmm… my head started spinning and all the emotions before and the excitement were gone now making room for a new bunch of feelings… none of them on the happy, positive note. It must have been my dress. They all told me that I should give away my beautiful lilac suit and the skirt with big red roses that I loved so much but I never listened. I loved my colourful wardrobe, with floral patterns and ruffles. I used to get only compliments on the way I dressed. My students, my colleagues, my neighbours were all so full of compliments. Even the old lady selling Turkish  pretzels glazed with honey and covered with  poppy seeds  smiled at me every time I wore this purple skirt with big lace ruffles.

I swiftly turned and left the coffee shop, embarrassed with the way I thought I must have looked, but not before glancing with regret to the comfortable chair on which I was planning to enjoy my first sip of Canadian coffee.  Under normal circumstances, It was a 30 minutes walk back to the rented apartment. It took me only 10 that day.  It was a feeling of helplessness, mixed with embarrassment and fury that fuelled my run back.

Once back in the apartment and out of the once pretty skirt my old, sometimes reliable common sense returned. My mind started making sense too. It was the last time I wore my beautiful purple skirt with lace ruffles as although I knew it did not make any sense, and against my strong logics, I continued to blame the ruffles of my skirt for the way these simple “Caution! Hot beverage!” words made me feel.

Of course a coffee is hot; unless you ask for an ice coffee. Ice coffees are cold, as cold as ice, therefore we call them  ice coffee… right?  But taking the time to spell the obvious out was such a new concept for me! Where I came from, you spill your (hot) coffee and burn your hands, the maximum you get is a “Well done, dumb ass!”

In all these years since that happened I learnt that there are people that ask for coffee without realizing that you need hot water to brew it and in the 2 minutes between you putting in the order and the coffee resting comfortably in your hand there is no enough time to bring that hot coffee to a more comfortable temperature: not too hot to burn you but not too cold to impede on your pleasure of sipping out a hot coffee. And then there is the issue of a 3rd party accidentally grabbing your coffee  without knowing that a coffee cup might contain hot coffee. It all makes sense to me now!
For the last almost 20 years now I have considerably enriched my knowledge with extremely useful information. For example:

  • A curling iron is “For external use only” ; I am a bit  uncertain if it refers to a cold iron or a hot one. I mean, the warning is a bit confusing here.
  • I found out that I should not use my hair dryer while sleeping and cannot feed  the shampoo for dogs to the fish. Interesting, eh?
  • I was a bit disappointed when I read in the microwave manual “Do not use for drying pets.” I was hoping for a faster way to  dry Roscoe, my adorable Jack Russell.
  • My disappointment gave way to pure joy when I found out the Christmas lights I bought were “For indoor or outdoor use only”. What a relief!
  • Last year I decided to give Midol a try as I was having a bit of a tough time. Well, lucky me, I had no other health concerns as the warning on the box was quite clear: “Warning: do not use if you have prostate problems.” 

 

50 Shades of Friendship

funny-friend-vs-best-friendI was bored the other day and to amuse myself I googled friendship and friends. I got approximately  312,000,000 results varying from friendship bracelets to speeches to organizations, definitions, messages, articles, quotes and so much more. It must be a very popular subject and one that does not need specialists to help you define or understand the notions, you might think.  I spent about one hour reading and browsing through the articles and comparing their insightful theories with my own believes, values and experiences. I learnt, yet again, that one’s culture and basic, elementary education shape their future values and beliefs. I can see you rolling your eyes, thinking: “Of course they do, no breakthrough theory here!”. Reality is yelling otherwise: too often we forget that people come from different backgrounds and their values are not always aligned with ours and what we hold the highest might not even make their list of must have’s.

My favourite quote on friendship is Steven J. Daniels: “A good friend will help you move, but a true friend will help you move a body.” It defines in very simple words how much I value friendship. No, I have not killed anybody yet but hey, I am hopefully only half way through my life! I need to cover all my basis. Joke aside, I grew up divinizing the friendship Athos, Portos and Aramis shared in Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Three Musketeers. Later on, after reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice Darcy and Bingley were an odd couple first I could not understand, but then I fell in love with their relationship. Bingley is just a nice guy that likes everything and everybody, easy going and docile, always listening and following Darcy’s advice. On the other hand, Darcy is a rich landowner who doesn’t understand why he should be nice with people that are neither as rich, nor as educated and sophisticated as he is. And yet, Bingley is his most devoted friend, constantly putting up with his negative attitude and rude behaviour.

I read somewhere that real life friendships are not that easy to  find as most of them are either short lived and easily breakable or they take place only in your head. History, on the other hand, provides us with examples of real, quirky, long lasting friendships. Take the friendship between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway for example. Their love for writing and literature brought them together but their friendship went far beyond this, although not the conventional or the overly loving type. When Hemingway sent Fitzgerald a draft of A Farewell to Arms, Fitzgerald sent it back with 10 pages of edits, to which Hemingway wrote back: “Kiss my ass.” When Fitzgerald confessed that Zelda, his wife, complained about the size of his penis, Hemingway took him to the washroom to analyze it and reassured his friend that everything was normally developed.

Al their lives, my parents had just a couple of friends and a lot of acquaintances. This was due partly to the fact that we were very close to our large family that provided enough drama to keep us busy, and enough support in time of need.  They were left with little to no time or emotional support to give to friends. Things were also simpler and categories very well defined: there were acquaintances, friends and close friends. The difference between friends and close friends was the amount of trust involved in the relationship. If you needed to move, for examples, you would call your friends to help you. If you needed to cry and expose your vulnerable naked soul you would call your close friend. It was easy, without confusions and everybody knew which category they belonged to. The status of close friend was not something that could be bargained, bought or negotiated. Being friends with somebody would not give you the status of close friend by default. This was something that was earned through trials and challenges along the years. But what a rewarding feeling knowing not wondering whether somebody has your back!

Moving from the old continent to North America, among so many other differences I’ve had to accustom myself with, the redefining of the notion of friendship proves to be one of the most challenging. I don’t like too many people to begin with. I don’t believe in the networking idea promoted and so highly talked about by the North Americans. I view it as an expression of the narcissistic side of a society infatuated with high school behaviour where the absolute dream is to be the most popular kid.

The main difference might come from the fact that I come from a “saver” society and live now in a “consumer” society. Back home we tend to keep few quality things/people for a longer time while on the new continent, the Dollar Store philosophy guides all our decisions: everything and everybody comes in cheap and is replaceable.  To me, all relationships here are governed by cordiality: the dialogue is informal and friendly and usually goes around the area of interest that brought the group together without going deeper or wider than just that. The term “friend” is used quite loosely to name  golf friends, riding friends, work friends, shopping friends, travel friends and so on… each and every compartment of our lives here comes with a set of “friends” but the connection is superficial and with no expectations of durability or depth. Once the golf season ends, the friendship goes into the hibernation until spring.

It makes sense if you put it in the context of life in North America: mobile and transient. People move at a drop of a hat for a better position, more money, a better opportunity, a better lifestyle therefor they are reluctant to invest more in human relationships. Friends tend to fulfil the need of pure socializing as for the times in need when sickness strikes or divorce, depression or just blue moods settle in, we turn to professional services who make good money for providing the “friend in need” support. I understand the logics behind it, but will it be enough for me?

Some time ago I read Hedrick Smith’s book The Russians. A journalist who spent time in Russia in the early 70’s, and wrote this beautiful book that provides so much insight into the culture and mindset of the Russians behind the Iron Curtain. Some or most of what he wrote applies to all of us that have grown up and formed our characters during those times. I will leave you with this paragraph about how we define friendship. I could not have written as accurate and beautiful as he did:

“Their [the Russians] social circles are usually narrower than those of Westerners, especially Americans, who put that much stock on popularity, but relationships between Russians are usually more intense, more demanding, more enduring, and often more rewarding.

I knew a couple sent off to Cuba for  two-year assignment, and another family put up their teenage son in an already crowded two-room apartment. When Bela Akhmadulina, the poet, married the third time, she and her husband were broke and their friends bought them an entire apartment full of furniture. Let a dissident intellectual get in trouble and real friends will loyally take the terrible political risk of going to his rescue…

They commit themselves to only a few, but cherish those. Within the trusted circle there is an intensity in relationships that Westerners find both exhilarating and exhausting. When they finally open up, Russians are looking for a soul brother, not  mere conversational partner. […] Russians want a total commitment from a friend.”

My best friend and the bravest man of all is my husband. He has been firmly by my side, never put off by my temper tantrums, by my deepest fears and depressions, by the storms that I continuously create and the never ending curve balls I throw his way in my struggle to keep my core values and my Romanian heart while carving my place into the Canadian world. The easiest way would be to drop the Romanian heart and dive deep into the Canadian culture but this would not be me and I am so grateful for him never asking from me to do just that.

 

Being Straightforward: Flaw or Quality?

tumblr_n0n1o3uNSm1rwn2euo1_400Growing up on one continent and living my mature life on a different continent has been challenging at times. The best way to describe it would be: being trained to run a marathon but competing in a triathlon now. As a marathon runner, your focus is on building your strength, your endurance because you want to be able to run for a longer period of time effortlessly. As a triathlon athlete, you need to swim, ride a bicycle and run fast. Your training has to be now divided among the three segments, with a focus on speed, not necessarily endurance. Sure, you can build on the skills and fitness level acquired as a marathon runner to become a very good triathlon athlete but the transition needs time and a shift in focus that is not happening over the night.

A few years ago, I attended a training session as I started volunteering for ISS of BC as a Settlement Mentor. In the group there were a few born Canadians, a couple of new Canadians like myself and about 4 new Immigrants that were working with ISS to improve their communication skills and to gain that mandatory Canadian experience without which their resumes were worthless. During those 4 hours I found myself quite a few times bursting out with laughter at the shocked faces of the born Canadians every time one of these new people would express an opinion or pass a judgement. It was quick, witty, refreshingly sincere and horrifyingly (for some of us) direct. I had a good time as I clearly understood where they were coming from, their tongue in the cheek remarks at times and their direct approach. There was no time wasted dancing around issues, there was no political correctness in anything they said only their truth and their perception of the reality. I found it comforting and refreshing to hear somebody’s sincere opinions after  years of trying to solve puzzles and understand what exactly was the truth hidden behind so many smiles and standard phraseology.

One of the biggest differences between North Americans and Europeans, especially Eastern and North Europeans is the degree of straightforwardness we allow in our relations. Eastern Europeans don’t believe in playing games or in beating around bushes which make things easier and less rigid. There is no script that we need to follow when trying to connect one with the other in any kind of relationship: friendship, love interest, business or just casual dating. In North America relationships are much more defined. They need to follow a script and  they rarely go deeper than two inches  from the surface. At least this is my perception of reality. Friendship or love is as deep as the depth of your knowledge and involvement in each other’s lives. When you follow a guided script with no comment areas or subjects, when you are allowed in only one compartment of one’s life, how well do you really know that somebody?

My tongue is blistered most of the times because instead of just blurting out what I really think, I am biting it.  To the every day Canadian I may sound rude and too blunt, but the Eastern European will appreciate and value my sincerity and honesty.  I am yet to learn to shut up if your new hair style sucks or what you have just done is kind of stupid and immature. I have learned not to talk about money or religion partly because I have never thought they really mattered but I am still judging people based on the number and quality of books they have been reading, their views on education and politics. Yes, politics! I don’t really care what party you vote for as long as you pick one! No voice or opinion on politics means that you are one of the many that likes the state of status- quo.

Most probably that if you are a Canadian reading my rant, you will value “strategy” and “political correctness” over the Eastern European bluntness or their  inconsiderate way of dealing with people. The Eastern Europeans view strategy and political correctness as insincerity and hypocrisy. In North America as well as in Eastern Europe being direct can and usually does create anger, frustration and hurt feelings which, in turn, prompt people to take action and change. The loss of frustration and anger or even hurt feelings that political correctness is promoting, creates a passiveness, an acceptance of the things as they are that to me equals with regress, an undesirable acceptance of the default as a personal choice. What do you think? Is straightforwardness a flaw or a quality?

[yop_poll id=”2″ tr_id=”101″]

 

Biggest Challenge of a Princess: Packing for a Motorcycle Road Trip

Finally, the glorious day when the 8 of us would leave busy Vancouver behind and ride to sunny California was right upon us. The night before, I somehow managed to sort through the mountain of clothes I wanted to bring along and the much smaller remaining pile was carefully stuffed into the two minuscule side bags we could take with us. It was my first time packing for a long riding trip and no matter how much I researched and how much I asked around for advice, I was still moderately confused about the “needed” and the “desired” items to be taken along. Our Honda Valkyrie Interstate came with 2 hard case side saddle bags and a trunk so when we started planning the trip, the first thing we ordered were 3 pieces of luggage inserts that proved to come really handy. One tip: never stuff them or you will have a hell of a time to get them in or get them out of the saddle bags. And because my husband knew whom he married, he ordered an extra bag to sit on top of the trunk, which proved again, to be a great investment.

IMG_0026To settle the confusion I basically took my whole wardrobe down and started sorting through clothes, pairing them and trying to put together two outfits for each day. I ended up with no less than 20 outfits. The pile was getting bigger by the second but I was still oblivious to the fact that I will have to fit everything in no more than one side bag – that was everything I was allotted as the trunk and the luggage on top had to be kept lighter. I did not know why and to tell you the truth I felt it was a ridiculous thing to invest money in this beautiful piece of luggage and keep it lighter than the other ones; then, the light bulb came on: everything has to do with weight distribution or weight centralization where one might want to keep heavy items close to the centre of gravity.OK,  I had help lighting up that bulb, I admit it! My husband gave me a technical lecture on the subject. Anyway, we decided we will load the heavy stuff on the 2 side bags and will keep the back one lighter.

As we were to go through 4 states, with different weather, on top of the chosen outfits, I needed warm hoodies, and swimming suits, a whole bag of toiletries and first aid items, curling irons and brushes… At this point I started looking for ways I could persuade my husband to give up his side bag and let me fit all my items on the list. After all, as a guy, you really don’t need a whole lot of clothes! But then, I remembered all our trips and the amount of luggage I tend to carry with me and I never use it: dresses and blouses, high heel shoes and sport shoes, T shirts and tank tops. Plus, on a motorbike not only quantity matters but weight as well! As I will discover later, while travelling, once you add luggage, the braking distance increases, handling becomes more challenging at times, and tires get hot—which at the worst could cause a blowout. Between vanity and safety, I smartly chose safety. It also became my challenge to pack light and still have enough items to feed my vanity.

The first items to go were my curling iron and styling brushes. We were planning a riding trip, with the intent to cover over 400 km every day, or anywhere between 6 and 9 travelling hours. Wearing a helmet for most of the day, not only makes any attempt to style your hair futile but it also adds extra stress to it. Sure we would have a few hours everyday to either chill, sightsee or just go out to dinner but all of the sudden, the idea of spending time styling my hair became ridiculous. I am lucky though as I have a naturally wavy and fine hair with major frizzy tendencies. I opted for a natural look and I packed just a small container of mousse to use at night, after I shower, and before I go out. That, my friends was a very good idea and worked wonders not only at night but the hair somehow held some of its volume even the next day, under the helmet. I did not take any shampoo, conditioner or body lotion  as every motel or hotel these days will provide these items. They might not be up to the standards all the time but no damage has been reported after using them for short periods of time. What I did bring with me was a very small container with coconut oil (I found them at a dollar store and I use them to store beads). A drop of it is an awesome leave in conditioner for the dry hair, dry skin or lips.

My make up kit usually consists of two big cases containing every eye shadow possible, 3 or 4 black eye pencils, three or four lipsticks, and various other items that a lady might need to create the perfect face. I eliminated most of my items and kept my face cream, my foundation, one eye shadow that I never used, two eye pencils and 2 lipsticks, one small pack with make up removing serviettes and a small tube of apricot face scrub that I used almost entirely. That was all I needed and all I used. As I love perfumes, I periodically visit The Bay and ask for samples. They are extremely handy when you travel: light, you can squeeze 3 times use or four out of each and they barely take any room.

The next step was to divide tIMG_2147he mountain of clothes into riding gear and dinner outfits. For the riding part of the day, underneath my jacket and riding pants I packed the following:

  • A pair of long running pants and another pair of short running pants (for both cold and hot days). They are light, comfortable and don’t take lots of space. I used them both.
  • 3 sports bras for riding ( I could have done it with two only) and one bra for the evenings;
  • Rain gear that I barely used but I would never leave without it
  • Helmet and gloves, obviously, together with a few dozens of serviettes for cleaning lenses and visors
  • 2 T shirts, 1 long sleeve shirt and 3 tank tops – I used them all
  • 3 fitness tank tops I never used
  • One bathing suit that I did not use in a swimming pool but while riding through Nevada, under my riding gear.
  • Socks of different thickness – among them one pair of Hot Paws, to keep me warm especially in the first part of our trip.
  • Underwear – one pair for each day plus one more just in case.
  • Sunscreen, sunglasses and lip balm – so much needed.
  • Contacts and eye glasses – as I was not the driver, I did not use my contacts; I wore them one day but I decided it would be a waste and I preferred to wear my eye glasses at night, after we stopped for the day.
  • Advil, Polysporin, and a couple other creams and ointments  that proved to be useful, together with a small bottle of Aloe Vera gel. After the first two days of riding long hours, the skin gets irritated and at night, after having a shower, the gel adds a very soothing relief.
  • Feminine hygiene products – I never leave the house without them, whether I need them or not, especially after reading several articles about the mighty power of those unused tampons and their various uses!

For the times off the bike, I packed the following:

  • 5 or 6 nice blouses for afternoons – all made out of very light materials that really took no room at all, were light, wrinkle free and could be washed and dried out in no time. I used them all.
  • 1 pair of jeans and 2 pairs of shorts – I should have got only 1 pair; 1 pair of very light capri that I used a lot.
  • 1 pair of walking sandals and one pair of high heels sandals; after being all day in the riding boots, changing in the light sandals felt like heaven, especially after we rode through the desert, in high temperatures and my feet and hands doubled in size!
  • One hoody that I did not want to take first but I was so very happy I had it with me when the weather did not quite cooperate with us!

One thing that I completely forgot to do was to leave “out of country” messages  on my cell phone. The result: several phone calls from my dentist, that I could not answer. I am on their cancellation list. We also chose to add a roaming package to only one cell phone.

Looking back, I would have kept my insert to the jacket as for the first part of our trip I could have definitely used it to keep me warm and break the wind. One lesson learned though: when leaving for more than one day, be prepared and pack for all sorts of weather: from stormy rain to exhausting heat.

Other items that were extremely useful in this trip and I would not leave them at home:

  • Passports and Nexus cards (if needed)
  • Some cash, Credit card and bank card
  • Driving license
  • BCAA Travel Insurance and Out of Country Medical Insurance ( thankfully none of it was needed!)

IMG_2154To make sure that everything fit in and that I won’t have to empty my bags every night just to have to put them back together the next morning, I made up Zip lock Packs for each day: I stuffed in one Zip Lock bag a T shirt, a pair of underwear and 1 of socks, then rolled all the air out of it and placed the almost flat package into the bag. By doing this, it allowed me to fit more, to add extra protection in case of downpour or accidents: broken liquid or cream containers. At the end of the day, the dirty items would go back into their Zip lock bags, safely quarantined away from the clean changes.

I had more than enough clothes for the whole trip and in Reno, we also did some laundry which proved to be more fun for my husband who indulged into some beer and quality time spent with some of our friends. No, they did not ride to the laundromat but they shared a cab ride – both were quite affordable, the ride and the laundry machine. So, for our next trip, instead of trying to fit so many clothes,  will go with the essentials and, unless we decide to ride through the wilderness, will keep in mind that there are stores along the way to pick up an item or two. In this way I will also make sure I do not get that ugly shopping withdrawal symptoms that can definitely put a damper on our trip! 🙂

« Older posts

© 2017 MICHAELA FENGSTAD

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑