Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Fixer

This week, in my Management class, one of the discussion topics was analyzing a personal flaw and trying to figure out the root cause. Since I have many flaws to choose from, it was a little hard to pick one. Eventually I settled on something and it turns out it’s a little bigger than I thought.

You see, I’m a “Fixer”. No, I don’t pay off boxers to throw fights (though I am currently unemployed, so I’m open to the possibility). I like to fix things. Not just mechanical and electronic things, but relationships and ideas. I can’t stand the idea of something not working to its potential, and I want to analyze and figure out a way to make it better.

This “flaw” stems from my insatiable curiosity to figure out how things work. When I was a wee lad, I used to take apart my Transformers, screw by screw, and put them back together again just to see how they went from car to robot and back. Occasionally I’d have an extra screw or two, but they always functioned more or less the same as when I took them apart. Eventually I became an electronics (and later computer/networking) technician in the Air Force and put my fixer personality to good use.

If you look in my garage, you’ll find many old broken electronics and gadgets that I can’t bear to throw away because I want to try and fix them one day. My favorite things are the ones out of warranty, so if it’s already broken, there’s nothing to lose trying to fix it. I’m sure my kids were disappointed when broken iPhone screens resulted in me repairing the screen on their old phones and not receiving a shiny new one instead.

Almost done
Some of it is part of my cheap nature. I’d rather fix something myself than pay someone more to do it elsewhere. Just this past month I repaired an oil leak, replaced two sets of headlights, replaced a leaking valve cover, installed a new radiator assembly and A/C core, and replaced a hood on our cars.

Some of my fixer mentality makes it difficult for me to sugar coat things. When I reviewed screenplays, I found it difficult to point out the good things because I was focused on the flaws. The fixer in me saw that something wasn’t right and I wanted to fix it. When my kids have a performance or game, I tell them great job, but I also tell them the things that need improvement. I don’t do it to be mean, I just want to fix it. My favorite phrase is "Yeah, but...".

I think this is one of the reasons I enjoyed the transition to management. I now had the ability to fix people and policies. That is certainly my favorite part about management. I want to see things improve. There are very few things that are completely hopeless. You just have to keep adjusting things until they fit.

I probably stayed in my first marriage longer than I should have because I kept trying to fix it. Even if I couldn’t fix the marriage, I wound up fixing myself in the process. It’s frustrating seeing someone unhappy, especially if I’m involved. I feel it’s my job to find the solution to their problem and fix it. Even if that means fixing myself.

This car (and company) survived the impossible.
There are countless people that give up too early on things and call it quits before all possibilities are exhausted. I just finished a biography on Elon Musk (Space X, Tesla, Solar City). Reading through it was like an alternate reality. With all the problems he faced, there was no logical way that not only Space X could be successful, but Tesla Motors as well. Yet the reality is today they both are. And that would not be possible if Musk didn’t insist on fixing something he knew was fixable.

I guess I found a fix to my “flaw”. I’m a Fixer. I make things happen.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Paralyzed By Choice

I’m sure just about everyone has gone through the following conversation:

“What do you want to eat tonight?”
“I dunno, what are you in the mood for?”
“I don’t know. I could go for anything.”
“I don’t care you pick.”
“I don’t feel like making anything, , let’s go out.”
“Okay. Where are we going?”

Eventually, you wind up at a McDonalds because it’s the only thing open after you decided to go out for dinner three hours earlier.

Some would call this indecisiveness, but the technical term for this phenomenon is analysis paralysis, which happens to rhyme. I usually call it “paralyzed by choice”, which doesn’t. I’d make my version of the term rhyme too, but I wound up having so many options to choose from (I actually started this article in February).

Officially, the term analysis paralysis means spending so much time analyzing something that you fail to make a decision. It’s actually something I do quite often, but my version of the term refers to having so many options you waste time trying to decide which one to take. Eventually you do make a decision, but usually because you’re out of time, or the line behind you at Starbucks is getting restless.

At the moment, I’m facing a career change. I retired after 21 years (and 139 days) in the Air Force and now have to find another job. The problem is that in the Air Force, you may have an official job title, but you spend an awful lot of time doing many (many) other jobs. Officially, I was a Cyber Transport Technician. Don’t bother looking it up, it’s basically an IT installer and maintainer. Unfortunately, while I do have experience in that, I’ve spent the last few years as a manager. Again, in the Air Force you wear many hats, so I’ve been a Project Manager, a Human Resources Manager, and an Operations Manager; frequently all at the same time.

This presents a bit of a problem looking for a civilian job. I’m basically qualified and experienced in four different career fields. I know, the easy solution is “do what you love”. Well, what I love is writing… and it doesn’t pay crap. Maybe in the future I’ll have that luxury, but right now I have a family to support.

I decided to go for Human Resource Management. I’m interested in helping and guiding people, so it seemed like a good fit. I went to the job boards and found a handful of HR jobs, and a few I meet all the qualifications for. While researching HR jobs though, I found some IT manager jobs and Operations manager jobs I’m qualified for as well. And hey, there’s a Communications Manager job I might be interested in as well. Having so many options must be a good thing, right? Not exactly.

Anyone who has looked for a job recently knows that there is not such thing as “your resume”. Oh, sure, you have a resume, but in today’s job searching world, it has to be customized and tailored for each and every job you apply for. Automated software scans for keywords, and everything has to match up to the job descriptions. Additionally, many job application sites require you to basically re-write your resume in a narrative form, plus fill out pages and pages of other information.

This takes time. Hours and hours of time. And having to manage 4-5 different master resumes takes even more time. I am paralyzed by choice. There are so many options to choose from, I feel compelled to choose them all, and I am suffering. I want to be selective, but the reality is that it takes weeks to hear back from a potential job, if you even hear back at all. I’ve seen statistics saying for every hundred resumes you send out, you’ll only hear back from 3-5 of them. I haven’t sent out a hundred yet, but so far, those statistics don’t seem that far off. So, I’m taking the shotgun approach, and frankly, job hunting is a full time job in itself.

Paralysis by choice isn’t limited to job hunting. Like I mentioned earlier, I like to write. I also have about a hundred different ideas I’d like to write about. All these choices make it hard to decide which one I want pursue. I like screenwriting and have about five ideas that are either in progress or I’ve started outlining. Unfortunately selling a screenplay is two hundred times harder than finding a job (probably worse). I have several ideas for novels. Getting a novel published is pretty easy nowadays (making money off it, not so much), but novels take a lot of time to write. So which one do I want to commit to? They’re all good. Or maybe they’re not, but I’ll have wasted a lot of time trying to figure that out. I used to have to wonder what I was going to write about. Now, I have way too many choices.

The good news is that I’ve made efforts to help avert paralysis by choice. When I go to a restaurant, I usually have a policy that I’ll order the first thing that catches my eye. When I dated, I committed to one person at a time and put blinders on until it was time to move on. With my kids, I chose a favorite and let the other ones fend for themselves.

America is a wonderful country. The fact that we have to choose where we want to go eat or what place we want to vacation is a testament to how good we have it. But all things come with a price, and ours is time wasted trying to decide which choice we want to make. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to decide on something to watch from my Netflix queue.


Tuesday, May 5, 2015

For Sale: Me!

As I begin my transition to civilian life, I'm faced with finding a job for the first time in 21 years. Among the many other things I've learned about job searching, I've learned the importance of selling yourself. Actually, I've learned this lesson several times in life. As important of a lesson as it is, you'd think I'd remember it more often. But, like many other things in life, I get complacent and have to learn the lesson all over again. Just keep that between us, though. I am trying to present my best side here.

I used to think that selling yourself meant being arrogant and bragging a lot. It does require a bit of arrogance and bragging, but somewhere on a level between humble and an asshole.

I'm not huge on self recognition. Sure, I like getting credit for doing something, but I'm not all about the awards and stuff. Unfortunately the Air Force is all about awards and stuff. I had no problem submitting others for awards, but I never threw my own name into the hat. I just didn't feel special enough. Plus my airmen and co workers could use the recognition more than I could. This worked fine while I was in the low to mid-level ranks. Work performance dominated my annual evaluations, so all those awards were just desk decorations. Once I started competing for the higher ranks, however, being humble became a career killer.

I thought my work performance would speak for itself. This worked well when I had supervisors that worked close with me on a daily basis. When I began a job that was a special duty, I was assigned a Captain as a supervisor. She spoke with me once a year; to discuss my evaluation. My first year I was given a 4 out of 5 for the first time in 10 years (5 was the norm). Officers (her) rating on Enlisted (me) tend to be a bit more critical of our work, primarily because we do vastly different jobs. She pointed out a few things that was holding me back. I argued a few points, but agreed that I could improve. 

The next year, I was supposed to be transferred to an Enlisted supervisor, but it never happened because the paperwork was never processed. So my yearly visit with my supervisor consisted of my annual evaluation again. And I received a 4 out of 5 again. (An aside: Getting a lower than 5 rating was especially insulting because I had to draft my own evaluations.) This time I was ready to fight for my 5. I argued about the markdowns on Leadership and Training because I helped others with jobs outside of my career field, and trained and mentored others. Her response was "If I had known that, I would have considered a higher score". I was livid because I was used to observant supervisors that noticed these subtleties. I felt it was the Captain's fault for not giving me a mid-term feedback and not properly observing or supervising me. After talking with my Senior Master Sergeant, I came to the realization that it was as much my fault as hers. I failed to sell myself and trumpet my achievements.

Not long after, I found myself single again and re-entering the dating game. Once again, I humbly filled out on-line profiles and quietly went on dates expecting my brilliance to speak for itself. I quickly remembered my earlier lesson and made it a point to advertise myself, and all I had to offer. I tried not to sit back and wait to be asked for my accomplishments. I sold myself, and subsequently moved past the first date on more occasions.

Selling yourself is about advertisement. When you see a commercial on TV, you get bombarded with all that's awesome about that product. If they've done their job right, you'll want to either buy, or know more about it. The same goes for you. Most people aren't going to ask what's so great about you. You need to bombard them with awesome. And not just the best stuff. You'd be surprised at how many "little" things make a huge impact. You volunteered to help a friend move last week? No big deal, right? To a date, that could be worth more than that time you met Wayne Brady in an elevator.

Obviously, there is a time and place for advertising your accomplishments. You only need to sell yourself when there's something to sell. The cashier at Walmart could care less about how you saved your company $100K. You do have to remember to keep selling yourself, though. Once you've landed your job, or the second date, it's not time to cut back on advertising. If anything, it's more important to keep selling yourself so they don't face "buyer's remorse". That means mentioning that you helped Carole in Accounting with her Excel issues. It means saying something about cleaning the toilet even though you weren't asked. You can't rely on others to notice your accomplishments while you humbly keep your mouth closed. Yes, in an ideal world, this would happen, but in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately society, you're only as good as your last accomplishment.

Now that I'm re-entering the workforce, I'm not going to wait for people to come for me. I'm selling myself and all I have to offer. I have to remember that even though I won over and married my wife, I need to point out the things I do to remind her of why she married me. If you stop advertising, then people will eventually turn their attention to something, or someone, that is.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Aaron's Got Talent

(This blog is a little longer than normal. If I had an editor (or readers) I'd trim it down a tad. I figured I'd record as much as I remembered. In this case, it was quite a bit)

A few months ago, a friend of mine decided to sign up for the America’s Got Talent 2015 (AGT) auditions in Santa Clara (near San Francisco). Instead of just heading out to support her, a couple other singing friends and I decided to sign up too. We figured even though we didn’t stand much of a chance, the experience would be worth it. After doing it, I’d say it was.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, America’s Got Talent is basically American Idol, but with less signing and more animal acts. I’ve been watching since season 5 after my son showed me a few clips on-line and wanted to watch the actual show. It was family friendly,  had a lot of variety, and very likable judges (Howie Mandel, Sharon Osborne, and Piers Morgan at the time). We were hooked.

I’d always enjoyed singing. I have a good voice, though I’m no Freddie Mercury. I discovered I like singing in front of an audience when I started doing karaoke while stationed in Guam and Hawaii. I experimented with new songs and discovered I had more range than I thought. After seeing America’s Got Talent, I had occasionally flirted with the idea of auditioning, but living in Hawaii made it difficult to tryout. Now that I live in California, I really had no excuse.

One thing to mention is the AGT auditions are not the ones you see on TV. We weren’t going to sing in front of the judges, fearing the audience would boo enough to make the red “X” buzz in. But we knew that going in.

After letting everyone know the four of us signed up, I found out the first wrinkle in our plan. We had to pick a song, it had to be 90 seconds or less, and it had to be a cappella. My singing experience is about 49% karaoke, 50% the Rock Band video game. Only 1% has been singing a cappella in public, and that consisted entirely of me belting out the National Anthem in the gym during 6th grade (there was no event I was supposed to be opening, and my reward was detention that afternoon). One of the biggest reasons is I can never remember lyrics unless I’m singing along with the song. During Karaoke, my eyes are glued to the screen, even though I’ve sung “Living La Vida Loca” a hundred times.

As anyone would do in this situation, I Googled “how to pick an a cappella song for an audition”. The consensus of advice was to pick something that shows off your range, pick a song that isn’t done to death, pick a song that isn’t original or obscure, and find a way to make it your own. I went to my go-to karaoke list and recorded myself singing a bunch of songs in my car (Privacy is a very rare thing in the Eischens household…). Hearing the recordings made me realize how repetitive most songs are, and how much they depend on the accompanying music and backup singers.
Every showbiz story involves Denny's

 I decided to go with “Drive” by Incubus, with a couple backups just in case (the AGT FAQ suggests you have an extra prepared). It had good range, and it wasn’t too famous or obscure. I even added some twists to make it “mine”. Our audition group decided to try out our songs in front of each other outside of a local sushi bar. We sang our primary and backup and voted on which one was a better fit. The group liked my backup, “Keep Me in Mind” by the Zac Brown Band better. They said it had more passion in it. I avoided it because I felt it didn’t show off as much range, but I was happy with it all the same.

We carpooled from Sacramento, setting sail at 4 AM. When you register, you pick an audition time. Mine was 8 AM, and the rest of my group were 12 and 3PM. The 3PM drove separately, so the two 12 o’clocks drove down with me. None of us got much sleep the night before, so we were chasing our dreams, riding on a caffeine high. We made excellent time, and chose to waste an hour at the local Denny’s because all super-star journeys begin at Denny’s.
The Pre-line line
We arrived at the Santa Clara Convention center, right across the street from Levis Stadium, home of the Santa Clara, er, San Francisco 49ers. The parking garage was bare and we wondered if we were in the right place. We were reassured when several costumed dancers exited a nearby vehicle. Nearing the entrance, we saw the line of the other AGT hopefuls. It wasn’t too bad of a line, considering they hadn’t let anyone in yet. Chatting with some of the other line-dwellers confirmed what we already suspected; the appointment times are merely suggestions. My two 12 o’clock companions were happy that we could all go in together, then wait for our 3PM friend to show up.
Too late to turn back now!

We received wristbands, and a sticker with numbers on it. We quickly made our way through the registration desk and started thinking ahead to what we were going to do with the rest of the day since things were going so smoothly. Good thing we didn’t make any reservations, because we had a long day ahead of us.

The registration line
Immediately after signing in, we went to the large “holding room” where hundreds of other hopefuls sat in randomly placed chairs. The holding room was a giant room, about the size of a basketball gym. In the center was a dance floor which was intended for dancing acts to practice on, but it was used for that and quite a bit of filming as we’d later learn.We located 3 free chairs that were strangely arranged in a circle. I later learned that they were intentionally placed like that. My companions headed off to one of the randomly located makeup mirrors to erase the 4 AM road trip, so I turned my attention to the info sheet every entrant was supposed to fill out.
My life story, as far as AGT is concerned.

Since I am a “good” singer but not a “great” one, my strategy was to play up my military status and how I haven’t been able to pursue a singing career because of it and my kids. Laziness has a lot to do with it too, but AGT is first and foremost a television show. Yes, the people who make it to the televised version are talented to varying degrees, they also have compelling stories to go with it. A couple of mediocre young singers made it to the semi-finals in 2010 primarily because they played up their cysticfibrosis. I’m a slightly better singer in good health, but the show seems to have a soft-spot for singing vets.

With my co-audtioners all prettied up, we ventured forth to see what kind of people were milling about in the holding room. I kept myself amused by trying to pick out some of the people I’d expect to see on the show when it aired. There was “Bruce Leroy” who took his karate very seriously. 

There was a quirky opera(ish) singer wearing a purple shirt and a conquistador helmet. Another guy wore a Next Generation Starfleet uniform and had an Enterprise hat (I can only imagine his “talent”). A KISS era gene Simmons look-a-like, a belly dancer with a chandelier on her head, and a robot that
didn’t appear to do much other than blankly stare off into space were some of the other highlights.

We came across a teenage country singer hopeful and a trio of musicians who played jazzy acoustic versions of Frank Sinatra songs. They asked the country singer what song she wanted to sing. She requested “Ring of Fire”. We got kind of excited because we all knew the song and were going to sing along. I especially wanted to show off my baritone, Johnny Cash voice. They asked what key she wanted and she kind of stammered. Before she could answer, she was whisked away by a producer who wanted to film her and her grandfather. I’m not really sure why she stood out enough for them to want to film her, but I could never quite figure out why they picked most of the people they did.

The stray country singer we picked up.
Once she left, the musicians asked what we were singing. My co-talent nudged me and I told them my song, “Keep me In Mind”. Then they asked what key.  This was when I realized how much of an amateur I really was. I never knew I had to know what key my songs were in. I always just let the music guide me. I told him I didn’t know, so he told me just to sing it and he’d figure it out. I was suddenly nervous. I hadn’t sung to anyone other than my group and the unfortunate passersby outside the sushi place. I had a false start, but got it right the second time. He told me it was an A flat, then asked if I could find it on a piano. Despite my limited instrumental career, I actually did know how to find it. He said that there will be a keyboard in the audition room and to hit that key before I start so I can be in key. I thanked him and before we started a song, they were called away to audition.

Actual talent.
In the two hours we had been there, they had only called about 50 acts to audition. We were numbered 261-263, so it was going to be a while. The initial excitement was wearing off and the reality of waking up at 3 AM was beginning to hit us. The cell service was almost non-existent, so our batteries drained quickly due to the phones trying to get a signal. I had the foresight to bring an external battery, but smacked my head when I realized I forgot the cable. Fortunately, the producers rounded us all up (well, anyone who wanted to go) and we headed outside to recreate our registrations.

One cannot have enough AGT selfies.
One poorly kept secret about “reality shows” is that many parts are staged or recreated. AGT is no different. I had already figured out a while ago that the interviews and shot of people waiting practicing before they went before the judges was filmed from an earlier audition. With the thousands that try-out for AGT (and other talent shows like American Idol and the Voice), it would be impossible for everyone to do it in front of the judges and an audience. They would be there for days. What I never realized is how many takes they did of those “candid” shots.

I had been a rainy morning, and the sun was finally peeking out. The producers wanted us to wait in a large line/gaggle and pretend to register when we got to the front. We were told to be happy and smile  (we all gave him a wide berth while he demonstrated). I chatted with my companions, one of whom was trying to get us all to sing a song together, but we were all drawing lyrical blanks. I “registered” again, which involved chatting with a guy at the table and receiving another number (no paperwork this time!). Once we were done, we were ushered to the end of the line to start over again. Fortunately, they finished before I had to register for the third time.
a lot, oh, and don’t look at the cameras. Many hopefuls saw this as an opportunity to stand out and we heard many singers, and saw several breakdance fights. Plus, Bruce Leroy made a cameo with his nun-chucks

Fell asleep mid-chip
We went back to our seats, hungry and tired. Our 3 PM friend was on her way and took orders for Subway. One of my co-auditoners took a nap, and I went on a quest for caffeine. I decided I wasn’t tired enough to pay $3 for a bottle of soda, and kept myself entertained by watching the film crew make the performers they filmed do their acts over and over again. I think it’s assumed all the large group acts (dancers, etc) will automatically move on, so they concentrated extensively on them. When they filmed some wide shots, I found out why our chairs were in random locations; they didn’t want it to look like we were all facing the dance floor as if it were a show and we were just the audience.

Our Subway Saviors!
They were about 25 numbers away from our group (They called people in by groups of 25 to 50). We didn’t dare venture too far in case we missed our numbers being called. Our 3 PM friend and her boyfriend let us know they were here. I rushed out greet our sandwiches, er, them. Even better, she had an iPhone cable! I rushed the cable and sandwiches back to our spot in the holding room. We ate and shared the charging cable like it was a joint. Not long after, they finally called our group of numbers.

Our group of 25 was led up to the audition area and we were broken up into smaller groups. There were about 10 different audition rooms. Most were for small ones solo acts, and a few were larger to accommodate groups. We waited outside of our room for about 10 minutes, then headed in.

The sign made no sense to
this guy either.
A smiling producer, hiding behind a Macbook sat at a table near the front of the room. Our group of 8 was told to line up on one side of the room, while any guardians of those under 18 sat on the other side. The producer cracked a few jokes to set us at ease. One of my co-auditioner volunteered to go first. She was directed to stand on an “X” made of tape and do her 90 second performance facing the producer. She let us know that the 90 second rule wasn’t absolute, but she’d cut us soon after if we exceeded the 90 seconds. My co-auditioner did a great job, then the rest of us were called up in random order. With the exception of a young saxophone player, we were all singers. Fortunately I was the only adult male (a 10 year old boy belted out a beautiful “Ave Maria”) so I didn’t have to worry about comparisons.

5 hour wait to get in
another line!
While watching the others, I noticed a lack of a camera. I had heard they filmed all of the auditions, which made perfect sense. They supposedly do not make decisions on the spot, so how else would they remember each performance? I also noticed there was no keyboard. Oh well. I would have to use my newly learned key trick some other time.

Everyone was pretty impressive. My heart sank for one 14 year old whose nerves got the best of her, and she couldn’t perform. I wound up being the last performer. I went to my X, answered a few questions, and then started my song. About the only thing I was nervous about up to this point was forgetting the lyrics (especially in my shortened version). Once I started, the words just flowed out effortlessly and my nerves were pretty much gone. The producer maintained eye contact with me the whole song, which made me wonder how much eye contact I was supposed to return. She was either a really good producer or she genuinely enjoyed my song because I felt like she was into my performance. Either way, I finished my song with a rush of relief.

We'll see these guys again
The producer gave the 14 year old a second opportunity to sing, but she refused. The producer let us know that we’d find out if we’d made it to the next round in 3-4 weeks. She thanked us and told us to wait outside until we were dismissed, in case she needed to call any of us back. None of us were and we were finally done with the day! Well, kind of…

We had initially planned to stay the whole day and support each other all the way through each audition. I knew it would be a lot of “hurry up and wait”, but didn’t expect it to take 5 ½ hours from registration to audition. Our 3 PM friend was facing another 5 hours herself. I boldly announced we’d stay a couple hours then head home. About 20 minutes later, my co-auditioners asked 3 PM if she wouldn’t mind if we left. She said no problem and understood. Besides, she and her boyfriend had a lot of freshly charged electronic companions to keep them entertained. We wished her luck, then headed back to the car.

We stopped at a Mexican restaurant and the Coffee Bean to fuel up for the trip home. 3 PM excitedly texted us while we ate. She had been filmed by the AGT crew right after we left. They did some shots of her getting ready. I joked that we were the reasons the cameras were shying away, so she was good to go now. We wished her luck, then headed back to Sacramento.

As of the two-week post-audition mark, we haven’t heard anything back. I’m not really expecting to. A generous estimate would figure about 95% of everyone that auditioned that day won’t make it. It’s not that they aren’t talented enough. Like I said, America’s Got Talent is a TV show. They need the best (or worst in some cases) combination of variety, talent, and backstory. A lot of it is being in the right place at the right time. The thing is, you’ll never be in the right place if you don’t get out in the first place. I know I don’t have much of a shot, but I got out there anyway.