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Lisa Abram Headshot

Finding Happiness Through Self-Expression

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DEPRESSION
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I recently read a heart-wrenching essay in The Globe and Mail's Facts and Arguments section. It's about a woman named Sally who is going through a difficult emotional time and questioning the universe while having a spa day.

Her turmoil was palpable, her angst was raw, and her self-doubt was heart-wrenching. What was the cause for all of this? Was there an untimely death in the family? Did Sally experience financial ruin? Or perhaps she found herself unexpectedly homelessness? No. It was job loss and the inevitable lack of confidence in a competitive job market.

When my husband and I decided to move across the country, I was faced for the first time with an open-ended professional future. What did I want to do after a multi-decade career? I needed to embrace my youthful inventiveness again, but how?

This newspaper story gave me pause for concern, and I reflected on my earlier creative efforts to join the work force in my 20s.

It's easy to assume that a myriad of opportunity awaits each school graduate. But for every job posting I applied to after university, there were many keeners like myself to compete against, each looking to leave their mark on the world.

Back then, I looked around at potential places of employment and zeroed in on the Toronto Convention Centre. With many large-scale events booked at the venue, this would be an exciting place to work and I wanted to be a part of it. The next steps involved cold-calling the receptionist to see if I could meet someone for an information interview. But after repeated attempts on my part, no one called me back.

Self-doubt can be a powerful negative influence when it gets a stranglehold on you.

My father taught me the valuable lesson of perseverance at a young age. I loved jigsaw puzzles and assembled them quickly; eagerly matching up rounded edges with hollow openings. On occasion, and upon completion of the puzzle, I'd notice a missing piece or two. Refusing to give up, I sought resolution and discovered them hidden in the house for me to find. The seeds for inquisitiveness were planted; the lifelong quest for answers was underway.

One summer I was "hired" to help out in my father's office when an epiphany hit me. This job would be my calling card to get in the door at the Convention Centre, but with a different ploy. I would enquire about booking potential meeting space for my "boss," with a strong emphasis on possibility.

Upon arrival at the meeting and after the pleasantries of initial contact were exchanged, I advocated on behalf of myself. Hopeful that I could glean the name of the right person to open the employment door for me, I segued at the appropriate time in the conversation. "This looks like a really interesting place to work," I said enthusiastically. "Is there a colleague I can talk to regarding a potential career here for myself?" The Pandora's Box unlocked and I finally had the key to get in.

While I did manage to talk to the "right" person shortly afterwards, I never secured a job at the convention centre. But the resourcefulness amused my parents, and sprouted confidence in my budding career.

Years later, after I finished a second University degree, I re-entered the job market. I had taken time off to explore the world and lived in Africa for a brief period of time.

When I found myself having an interview at a funky Toronto ad agency, I was far more confident and adept at the interview process than my earlier years. However, part way through the meeting, the owner proclaimed his sudden decision. "I can't hire you," he stated matter-of-factly. "You are painting on a much larger canvass than most people," he proclaimed loudly. I was stunned. He incorrectly assumed I would be bored. Even after reassuring him I would bring worldly experience to the job, he brushed me off and that was that!

There is presently a large amount of literature and anecdotal evidence on how to "do the right" thing in an interview: what to wear, how to present yourself and what not to say. But my wiser self now believes that the best approach to take when looking for work is to simply be yourself. Be courteous. Be respectful. Be pleasantly dressed. Be on time. Even be funny. But above all else, be who you are.

A number of years ago I interviewed a young graduate from a creative design program. His commanding frame caught my immediate attention but he was clearly nervous, playing with his hair and awkwardly showing me a portfolio of imaginative riches. What he lacked in confidence he definitely made up for in talent. Perhaps someone else in my position would have dismissed him as not the "right fit." Then without warning, he betrayed his true feelings and abruptly confessed: "I'm so nervous. I had my hair cut for this meeting and it's too short." His honesty hooked me in; I hired him on the spot and never looked back.

We may get life lessons from our elders for what lies ahead. But we seldom get coached on how to present ourselves when seeking a job to authenticate who we are; it's a split second moment where we get caught between self-worth and self-doubt.

In a powerful University of Manitoba magazine story about Canada's first openly transgender judge, Kael McKenzie says his new mantra is to live with honesty, integrity and openness. "You never have to cover up a lie if you don't tell one. There's a freedom in that." For decades he denied himself the right to self-expression, and now unburdened, he's finally the person he was always meant to be.

I hope Sally found meaningful work after her emotional spa meltdown. If I could call her up, I'd offer two words of encouragement: Love Thyself.

Now if you will please excuse me... I'd like to go and book a facial.

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