A friend of mine posted an article about the new midlife crisis hitting Generation X women. I read quotes from stressed-out moms and career women and thought, “Somebody has to tell them it’s not that bad.”
Then I remembered that for me, it used to be that bad. I’d be running errands and see someone who was enjoying their work—a postal worker, a sales clerk, a ditch digger—and I’d think, They’re happy. Maybe I should try what they're doing.
There were things to like about my job at the time. (I hesitate to call my working life up until then a career. It was pieced together and interrupted by childbirth. I’m not sorry.) My full-time work in public relations gave me a creative outlet, and it paid more than I’d ever made up to that point. I did not worry about how we’d afford my children’s college education.
But it was stressful. I was trying to be a career woman, wife, parent to older children, helper to parents whose needs were changing fast. I wanted time with friends, but when I went to social events I’d find myself struggling just to stay awake, fighting the sleep deprivation that had become my constant companion. I’d stay up late worrying about family, and wake up early worrying about work.
When I gazed up the career ladder, I saw more of the same. So I quit.
It looked more abrupt than it was. My husband and I went through family finances and we were confident we’d get by on one income, at least for a while. We had savings, which would help. As I write this, I’m conscious of the advantages I had: a supportive husband who had a job with benefits. A lot of experience, gained from my years as a stay-at-home mom, of eating well and enjoying leisure time on a budget. A low debt load. Those things helped.
I took the leap and reveled in enormous, euphoric relief. I fueled up at the local convenience store and smiled at the woman who ran it—a neighbor I had known for more than 20 years. “How are you?” she asked.
“I’m good!” I gushed. “Every day is beautiful!” For months, I’d feel gratitude while doing the simplest of things: organizing the laundry room, cleaning the house, wheeling my dad to a neighborhood store for ice cream when he was having a good day. I was there to share it with him, and those little things really did count for something.
It was also scary at first. My confidence in providing for my children’s education was gone. Many of the “extras” I’d come to enjoy might also be gone. I knew that a budget on paper was often very different from real-life expenses. Then there were the intangible stresses, like wondering how I’d explain the change I’d just made in a job interview without sounding irresponsible.
I looked for part-time work, but I learned that most part-time jobs were intended for people half my age. They were typically low-paying and used only part of my skill set.
But I couldn’t forget that on my last day in the office, three different people asked if I’d freelance for them. I signed up for a workshop on entrepreneurship and collected advice from the local SCORE office. A professional website followed, then a few contracts.
As time went on I made sure I gave myself a paycheck whenever money came in, but I also set aside some money for my business. I used it to I spruce up the home office, engage professionals like editors and graphic artists, and buy the computer and software I’d been coveting. As a family, we had enough money to take vacations and enough time to get away.
A year later, I’m still not rich, but it feels like a Cinderella story anyway. I have met the number one goal I made when I quit: More happiness.
If there’s anything I have to say to stressed-out working Gen X moms, it’s this: you have skills. Life has taught you delegation, organization, and how to recognize when people are lying to you. Stop looking at the years you’ve put behind you and seeing only the wrinkles on your face. Stop wondering if the time you’ve spent building a family is wasted.
You’re right: the world may not have a ready-made work space for you and your skill set. Maybe it does and you’ll find it, maybe it doesn’t and you’ll figure out how to make it. But I believe there’s more out there than the traditional, corporate definition of success.
Really, it’s not that bad.
Nonprofit ventures rely on volunteers, and they all dream of the perfect helper: someone who comes regularly, understands the job asked of them and does it cheerfully.
I can't promise I can help you find the perfect volunteer, but I can offer some tips on keeping the help happy.
And I will confess here, some of the lessons I'm putting down were learned through making mistakes as a volunteer, a publicity chairperson, an adviser and an event coordinator.
The time economy
Obviously, volunteers give up their time. While it's free to you, it's precious to them. Respect it. Don't ask for more than you need.
Coordination meetings can be important, but keep them short and make sure there's a compelling reason to have one before you call it.
And while thanking your volunteers is important, think carefully before asking them to come to a thank you celebration party after a big event is over. (I've been guilty of this.) Your helpers may be looking forward to having more time with family and friends now that the big push is over. To them, the party is just one more time commitment. They may prefer a gift certificate--even if it's just for ice cream.
Know how many people you need, where you will put them and what their specific duties will be. So often, especially with a large event that is staffed almost entirely by time-crunched, unpaid people, it's a temptation to ask for a dozen helpers and figure out what to do with them after they show up. But it's discouraging to arrive ready to do a job and discover you're just an extra body, or to find the coordinator is too busy doing her job to tell the helpers how to do theirs.
The best-run events are thought out: for example, X number of volunteers needed to staff sign-up locations, divided into shifts.
It's easier to heap more work on people who will are reliable than to take a chance entrusting it to those who are not proven--or who have let you down in the past. The danger in this policy: burning out your best people.
Burnout comes from other reasons, too: changing health, the birth of a new baby, the beginning of a demanding job, caregiver demands, the loss of other volunteers in the organization. The best organizations find a way to mentor new leaders and part as friends with those who need to step away.
Keeping a volunteer movement sustainable is tricky, but here are some things that help:
1) Maintain documentation of how the organization is run, including the roles of volunteer officers.
2) Train volunteer officers. Again, this is another time demand, so it's important to send people who are committed and make sure the training is handled in a way that respects their time. Never underestimate the power of good food as a way to cement the experience as a happy, worthwhile one.
3) Keep an eye out for people who can assume leadership, should you lose someone unexpectedly.
4) If your volunteer organization is getting so unwieldy that it is hard to sustain your event, it may be time to consider creating a paid, coordinating position. It will hurt. It will be hard. Your budget officer will protest. But it may make the difference between an event that succeeds and one that struggles.
In my little town, a local grocery store--which many people assumed would quietly fold when its owners retired--is now under new ownership. The proprietors are serious about keeping it alive and helping it thrive. They believe in our little mountain village.
I am rooting for them., As I look around I'm noticing other local businesses are taking hold. Today in my town of less than 2,000 people, you can get a haircut, brow wax and manicure, fuel up, pick up groceries, fix your car, open a bank account, have your wedding catered, get your tractor repaired, engage a custom welder, buy premium steak, see a movie, hire a public relations consultant and have your latest hunting trophy stuffed and mounted, all without leaving the city limits. Some of those businesses have been around for decades, but others are relatively new--and a lot of them are employing people.
It makes me wonder: After decades of businesses migrating to population centers, could small-town business really be a thing again?
I read this book, and I'm a believer.
Main Street Entrepreneur: Build Your Dream Company Doing What You Love Where You Live details the bicycle journey of author, professor, entrepreneur and business consultant Michael Glauser as he pedaled across the nation. He made the trip with team members who supported the journey, shot videos, rode alongside him and drove the motor home where they all slept at night. They interviewed successful entrepreneurs who started their companies in small towns, most of which had populations of fewer than 30,000 people.
I was not surprised that these business owners started with a compelling idea. I was surprised that for so many of them, that idea was: "I really like living here. How can I settle down and support my family?" They found answers that often provided jobs to other people in their communities.
Why is Main Street enjoying a resurgence now? Glauser puts it this way:
"Ironically, we can use the same technology that is destroying corporate jobs to live where we want, reach markets beyond our geographical location, and take advantage of the growing preference for smaller businesses over large corporations,"
He interviewed people who sell products and services over the internet, but he also features plenty of bricks-and-mortar business owners who had a knack for supplying what their customers were looking for. (Many of the businesses featured have some connection to health and fitness. When you consider that the bicycle trek from Pacific to Atlantic encompassed 4000 miles via bicycle, it makes sense.)
So much of what I read backs up the country way of life I already know. Small-town neighbors help each other out. While they understand their businesses needs to sustain themselves, small-town entrepreneurs aren't necessarily in it for the money. They know how to access resources without it. That said, some of the businesses featured were remarkably successful.
I enjoyed a theme that ran through so many of the profiles: these people absolutely love where they live. They contribute to their communities, and their little towns love them back.
The book is also something of a how-to manual. Glauser identified common threads in the entrepreneurs' stories to clarify what made them successful. The book includes questions at the end of each chapter to help a would-be entrepreneur walk herself through the process of starting a successful business.
It;'s good advice, and the stories were delightful. So that's my recommended summer reading for the small-town business.
To find out more about the author, his book and his bike trek, you can watch this keynote address.
PS: This review was unsolicited--I just really liked the book!
I wasn't going to blog. I follow PR bloggers from the UK, Toronto, Chicago, Minneapolis. I respect them. What perspective could I possibly add from a little town between two mountain ranges?
But people, organizations and businesses in little towns need to speak up. Too often, people in the rural West have their stories told for them, by those who are all too willing to shove them into some snarky stereotype. If there was ever a time when the little guy from a rural area has to fight for a foothold, it's now.
I want to help small town people find their own voice, take a seat at the table and join the conversation. So here I am.
What do I have to add? The same tools my favorite bloggers brought with them: Passion. Years of experience. And the love of a good yarn.