Tag Archives: The Artist’s Way

Face-to-face and kept waiting, but who cares

BEST FLIPPER FORWARD in the jobseeking game.
BEST FLIPPER FORWARD in the jobseeking game.

A Writer’s encounter with unemployment, Part Two.

FOUR months and 70 applications since my last job, I gave up applying for work using the internet and employment agencies, doubtful of the software used to scan applications for keywords. Instead, I turned to my local paper.

There was no shortage of positions advertising a “no more commuting” lifestyle and I could have applied for any of them using pen and paper … but I’d have to think laterally about my skills. My interview drought broke.

First time was a local antique shop seeking a part-time sales person. With experience in design and decorative arts, in addition to sales, I had skills to sell. The interview began as most do, but out of the blue I was asked for one word which described me positively and negatively.

Keywords, again.

I panicked, blurting out “perfectionist”. That seemed to go down well. But the next day I got a message saying I’d come a “very close second”. It was during the Olympics, so I wondered if my bank would accept a silver medal for a mortgage repayment.

INTERVIEW INSIGHTS try not to be as weird as they are!
INTERVIEW INSIGHTS try not to be as weird as they are!

My second was for a part-time administration job with a local training company. I was interviewed by the vice-principal and the CEO, who was so enthusiastic about his company that I worried I might be asked to invest. It proved difficult to sell my training and admin skills against that energy, and as I left I was presented with a corporate-branded showbag full of company merchandising.

Lovely. They’d get back to me in a few days.

Over a week later I got a call saying they’d found someone excellent. The showbag went into the recycling bin.

A group interview for a housekeeping job at an eco-lodge started late when two of us got lost in the bush on the way. The manager scanned our physical fitness for bunk-bed making abilities, and said there was no probation – you were either an expert bed maker or not. One applicant immediately excused herself, citing back problems, , and the manager all but gave the jobs to me and the other guy, saying he wanted to increase the male staff.

Maybe I wasn’t man enough, since I got turned down. I saw the other guy at the supermarket later that week with his young family, beaming with new-found buying power, while I still had to budget.

A fantastic job requiring every shred of my communication skills taunted me throughout this period. I spent a week preparing the application but heard nothing for two months, when a call came with an apology for the delay and an offer of an interview. To me, a “delay” is a train 20 minutes late, whereas a two-month silence could be concealing a shemozzle.

Well after the appointed time I was left waiting, fending off annoyance by soaking in the wonderful natural surroundings of this cultural organisation. Finally I was in front of a panel and almost an hour of scenarios and questions. They took notes, asked me to extend on my resume and discuss my future plans and dreams working with them.

By then I really wanted the job, based on the human contact alone. At last I was being genuinely scanned by other souls, not computers or employers who felt they were the only ones with needs.

Two weeks later I got the offer. Relief flooded through my bones as I arranged my start date, which is not for another two weeks. But I think this will be a long, mutually beneficial association worth a lot of patience.

Since my job-seeking began the economic crisis has kicked in and I am no longer in the minority – I have crossed paths with many others desperate for interviews. Employers are advertising fewer jobs and asking staff to move sideways or take pay cuts.

PANEL SHOW Sometimes they're a relief.
PANEL SHOW Sometimes they’re a relief.

Employment agents are attaining minor celebrity status as they are asked how to secure a job in the current crisis. No wonder I had problems earlier on.

But I have come to understand that people get jobs in many unconventional ways. My friend who first told me about the application scanning software recently had a great position created for her because her company “just liked her” at an interview, even though the advertised job went to someone else.

Human contact, not human-computer contact, seems to be the real key – presenting yourself as you are, not allowing yourself to be filtered by technology. I was lucky that my search led me to a company which still expects its human resources staff to select candidates using gut feelings alone.

I’ve been asked my advice about online job seeking, keywords and application scanning, but since none of these involves human contact I avoided them, and stopped applying for any job which did not provide access to a real person within the company. It’s been a challenge to swim against the tide.

Published in the Weekend Australian 2008.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Keywords don’t tell my story, and scans fail me

SCANNING NOW But not by a person.
SCANNING NOW But not by a person.

A Writer’s encounter with unemployment.

FOR three months I’d been applying for jobs like a mad thing, sending my details to agencies, job sites, networks, and written whole novels responding to advertisements. Yet in 70 applications I’d completely failed to secure a job.

Advice columns advised: “Don’t take it personally”, but that was getting harder to cop as I endured a shame spiral. I was a highly employable, qualified, and experienced media worker, with a resume spanning 16 years and three continents. I couldn’t see what made me so unattractive to employers.

Counselling from a fellow jobseeker gave me a clue. I was under the illusion that I was communicating with the gatekeepers of the land of the employed – agents, human resources staff – people, basically. But my friend enlightened me about the software used to scan many job applications.

I felt complete shock. All that time I’d been blocked by a computer? What did they want? Keywords, apparently. Like passwords in fairy tales, they hang in the air magically bestowing access to an income – if only I could name them.

I did some footwork and found whole websites devoted to keywords and sample resumes which made sample applicants sound like Orwellian robots.

The software had been around since my career began. A decade ago it was the tool of Fortune 500 companies wanting to filter top applicants from time wasters. Now no one is keen to admit how prevalent its use is.

Sympathetic friends suggested I cold-call companies. It became apparent that this once tried-and-true technique is now used by agencies seeking jobs for their clients and commissions from employers. Human resources departments don’t take calls or give out contact details much anymore. They don’t need to if their agency is seeking candidates for them.

The online resume forms for employment agencies smacked of the software, so I tried a few keywords I’d seen suggested in advice columns. Mirroring the vocabulary of the selection criteria, I just regurgitated the kind of words found in annual reports and mission statements. I was dumbing myself down to a degree I’d never experienced.

FILL THE FORM If there's a form to fill, that is.
FILL THE FORM If there’s a form to fill, that is.

I yearned for the good old days, when a job application letter and resume was acknowledged with at least a written response.

Now the average job application takes days to complete and months for companies to process. By the time you’ve responded to all the ‘essential’ criteria, the ‘desirable’ criteria loom on the horizon like the second half of a marathon. If you still apply knowing you don’t possess all these wish-list skills (could any candidate on earth match them all?) you must then relate a demonstrated ability or some proven skills in all of them, and keep the application short. It still baffles me how it’s possible to demonstrate or prove anything using words alone and remain succinct.

If you’re lucky you’ll hear the outcome of all this work. Invariably you’ll hear nothing.

One of the few replies I received was a rejection letter for a job I didn’t even apply for. Wonderful to open a letter from a real person, but pitiful they were letting me know the outcome of my non-application and my non-addressing of the selection criteria.

I have no problem admitting there are a few challenged in employing me. I live a two-hour commute from the city. I have some anomalies in my resume resulting from a bereavement period and a temporary illness. I have a mainstream career pathway in media, but also worked in sales, hospitality and aged care at times to get by.

Does this not exhibit tenacity, lateral thinking and honesty? If the software didn’t value such keywords, then I was going to need a bit of self-help.

I started doing Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Working through much anger to unearth what I enjoy doing, I realised that in all those job applications, I was seeking validation, an answer to that most judgmental of social questions – “so, what do you do Mike?”. When I can’t answer that, I feel a deep sense of shame.

Not securing that validation this time around could be the best thing that ever happened to me. I have dusted off my writing and illustrating skills, converted the shed into a studio, downsized my finances, applied for local jobs, and started telling people I’m using skills which I love.

It feels frightening at times, but I am forging ahead regardless.

I don’t want my epiphany to let employers off the hook. A wish list of what is required in an employee deserves to be met, and the candidates thrown up by the software might meet all the criteria and more, but isn’t that just a system being cleverly played?

Whatever – you won’t ever know me if you just scan me.

Published in the Weekend Australian 2008.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Me and my crazy

HERE'S JOHNNY! Crazymakers are skilled break-in-artists.
HERE’S JOHNNY! Crazymakers are skilled break-in-artists.

IF Writers got medals for creative courage, I’d have received one this week, for surviving my summer with a crazymaker.

It was the author of The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron, who introduced me to the playful poison of crazymakers.

These are the chaotic spirits who swan into town and demand three nights on your sofa bed, just as you’re starting that dream job and need calm nights at home with your loved ones to be at your best.

Or the drama queens who recruit you into their grand schemes, but won’t answer the call to action when you suggest they lead the way.

My latest crazymaker arrived on the scene just as I was ascending the Everest of playwriting – executing the latest draft of a ten-year project.

It had been years since I’d had a crazy around my neck, and I didn’t see it coming. Time for a reminder about how to spot ’em.

Crazymaking clue: If someone asks for too much information at first meeting, they’re a crazymaker.

We met through writing, theirs so beautifully expressed that I decided the person behind it was worth meeting. Apart from the slightest scent of networking at our first meeting on neutral territory, and their propensity for over-apologetic texts, all seemed well.

We staffed the same project from different territories, me and my latest crazymaker. I’d started a lot earlier, enjoyed the exploration and the calm group achievement, but when they began, so too did the turbulence.

Crazymaking writers can present as brilliant communicators, until they meet their equals.

Then, despite a lifetime working with words, they profess a sudden inability to interpret emails when they just don’t like their contents.

Next, they command that phone calls and meetings are the only way to have dealings with them, yet they’ll rarely pick up the phone and instigate a conversation.

Prolific use of “I did this” manifests in their expression of group projects, leaving others to amend to the truth of: “We”.

They have no time for a project’s first draft, but want to change everything once it’s done.

And they demand to be paid, even when everyone else is volunteering.

My role was suddenly called off. It was the crazymaker who informed me. They’d swung the drama in another direction which benefited them.

Crazymaking clue: If someone on equal footing tells you what the status quo of your contribution is, they’re a crazymaker.

I write to a very strict schedule, every weekday. The world of my characters and their stories is my solace when turbulence hits in the ‘real world’ of group projects, day jobs and financial survival.

I have one foot in the economy, and one foot in art, so it’s a delight to dive into my creative space: an old desk on a breezy enclosed verandah, down a quiet street at one end of an invisible island.

Here, I can lose myself in a world I have spent many years making. Through loss, difficult choices, honesty with loved ones, ignoring bad advice and relying on my gut feelings, I have earned my creative space. Creative cards very close to my chest, I use my space wisely, and I protect it well.

Crazymaking clue: If they follow you into your creative space, they’re a crazymaker.

POOR PUSS Wants in, but don't be fooled!
POOR PUSS Wants in, but don’t be fooled!

Retreating into your creative space can trigger a crazymaker’s attack.

Like a cat at the door, my crazymaker yowled for creative shelter and soul food, and worked on my sympathy buttons with well-rehearsed moves.

But I kept my head down and wrote, despite the storm brewing outside.

With sudden, pesky emails, harping on about work already done, the crazy cat tried to claw a hole through. I stomped and boarded up the breach.

A few days later, it returned and professed angrily that a phrase I had published caused the world pain, and, caring fool that I am, I bought the lie.

I hit ‘pause’ on my climb, and opened the door. Like a bear woken from hibernation, I growled: “Show me, where is this pain of yours?”

The cat mewed that it had none. I cross-examined it for signs of suffering, but there were no wounds offered for healing, and no grievances uttered for salvation.

Puss dodged solutions to its imaginary issues left and right, and made a crazy offer: now that it had disturbed me, this crazymaker wanted us to work together, and they would take care of everything.

Call me crazy, but I said: “Yes, I’ll collaborate with you, pussycat.”

My lie bought me peace.

Thank you.

I returned to the summit. I’ve walked that country so often I could get there blindfolded. At base camp, I was concerned the conditions up on the mountain were not as good as they had been before I came down, but I bravely set off.

I declined that easy, feline yowl of failure that I had at my disposal if I too were tempted to self destruct, and on a beautiful island day, later than planned, I reached the summit.

Crazymaking clue: If they start your association with an apologetic tone, which is gradually replaced by a suggestion that you need to apologise, they’re a crazymaker.

I deserve my medal because I’ve fought-off crazymakers before, but it’s taken years to have the strength of character to name one and hold it to account so speedily.

Far from my island, the crazymaker went silent (as they do); built boundaries of their own (about time); broke them with high drama (go figure); told the world that I’d destroyed them (so schoolyard); and sent me an email as though nothing had ever happened (seriously?).

Crazymaking clue: If you come to realise you’ve allowed a crazymaker into your life, you’ve been a bit crazy too.

I’ve grown.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.