Monday, April 16, 2012

Career Lessons from Kathryn Erskine’s “Mockingbird”

First published elsewhere; republished with permission. Spoiler alert!

A love for reading is something my boss and I share, and we have even managed to send each other books apart from often sharing opinions on recent reads. Mockingbird is one of the books she sent me. I was so hooked I couldn’t stop thinking about it until I had finished it (and for some time after). It is a beautiful, powerful story of a ten-year-old girl with Asperger’s syndrome who recently lost her brother to a tragic incident. While struggling with the social anxieties of school and dealing with the shock of losing the only person who ever understood her, Caitlin also looks for a way to help herself and her grieving dad achieve closure.  But as I put my reading away and transitioned to workday mode, I realized that this book isn’t just about dealing with disability or loss: it has profound lessons for all of us, and many of these lessons can be applied to work life.

1. Do something you love.

Caitlin is smart and has an advanced vocabulary, she used to like spending time with her brother, and she likes candy. But what Caitlin spends most of her time doing is drawing, which she is very good at.  She draws every single day: it’s a refuge when she wants to get away from other people and all her social anxieties.

I love writing and I love that my job allows me to do so much of it. There are times when I feel overwhelmed and stressed out, and then I take out a little time to sit down and write a new blog post, and I’m reminded again of how much I love my job.

No job and no life is perfect: you’ll always have some stress and some setbacks. But find something you love to do and you have somewhere to retreat to when the going gets tough, only to emerge stronger. Find work you love and work is, if not easier, much more interesting and meaningful.

2. Expand your existing skills.

Caitlin hates colors: they are warm and blurry and melt into each other and she has trouble deciphering them. But she begins to realize that they are beautiful and that it’s maybe not a bad thing that the world isn’t black and white. So she decides to learn to draw in color.

One of the things I love about my job is the many different things it allows me to do. In the same day, I work in print and in social media, in research and in writing. And these aren’t separate skills: they complement each other and by learning to do better at one of them I’m making myself a better marketer.

Keep learning. Know what’s current in your field and learn it. Challenge yourself to do better, to explore new avenues.

3. Learn new skills.

One turning point in the book is when Caitlin hits on what she thinks will give her and her father closure: finishing the chest her brother was building for his Eagle Scout project. She finds a list written by her brother that indicates he wanted to teach her woodworking, and she decides to learn.

I am more interested in writing copy for marketing communications (be it blogging or email newsletters or something else), but I keep reading about SEO because that’s an important part of a marketer’s job. I’m not a designer, but I taught myself a little HTML so I can make quick fixes to our campaign emails.

Even if you find work that you love, that’s just the core of a job. Most jobs need some peripheral skills that you should learn to become a smarter professional. If you’re a freelance consultant or entrepreneur, for example, you have to learn selling and marketing skills. If you are a designer for a provider of marketing production, you have to learn about advertising and marketing communications to do your job well.

4. Remember your manners.

Caitlin has difficulty understanding social cues and reading other people’s emotions. She likes being alone and even resists working in a group project, insisting to the teacher that she would rather work alone. However, she knows this is something she has to do, and she works hard at it. As the book progresses, you silently cheer every time Caitlin remembers to say “thank you” or “welcome”.

No matter what you do, social skills are part of your job. (Unlike Caitlin, most of us don’t have the luxury of saying “no” to teacher.) You have to get along with your co-workers, and every job requires some interaction with other people, if only with your boss or (if you’re a freelancer) your client. Remembering to be nice to people around you can not just make your workday pleasanter but your work much smoother too.

Besides, it’s just not cool to be mean. Even Josh, the bully in Caitlin’s class, realizes that and mends his ways.

5. Learn empathy.

One of the hardest lessons for Caitlin is trying to understand what other people are thinking and feeling. But under the kind auspices of Mrs. Brook, the school counselor, she begins to get it. And as she starts reaching out to and being kind to other people, she realizes it’s not that difficult to make friends.

Empathy is especially important in marketing: unless you can put yourself in your customer’s shoes and understand their problems, how will you offer a solution? But it’s also important in all aspects of life: by understanding where other people come from—your boss who seemed to be unreasonably sharp this morning, or your subordinate who has been slacking off this week, or your client who called up and made an urgent request on Friday afternoon—you can deal with the situation much more effectively and be a partner and colleague everyone would love to work with.

6. Making friends is worth the effort.

When Caitlin finally makes friends, she finds that she likes it. She befriends Michael, a younger boy in school, and then some of her classmates. Before the end of the book, she’s happily working on group projects and sitting at lunch with other people. Other people also help her along in her journey to closure: Mrs Brook helps her work through her issues and encourages her to be stronger; Michael shares her grief at losing a loved one and teaches her the meaning of empathy; Josh shows her that the same person can be both mean and kind; Mr Walters encourages her to draw in color; and her father supports her in spite of his own grief. Caitlin is surrounded by people who support and cheer for her and that makes her journey much easier.

All of us need help: that’s the raison d’etre of business networking. Mark Granovetter’s research and Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point highlight the strength of weak ties: it’s not your closest friends, but your acquaintances who are most useful when you’re looking for a new job.

7. Keep working at it.

At times, Caitlin hides away in her brother’s room or screams and screams because it is too hard and she doesn’t feel she can keep trying. But she does. She keeps “Working At It” till she finds what she is looking for.

And that’s what we all need to do. Even with a job you love and friends to cheer you on, you can’t get anywhere unless you keep working at it.

Best of luck.


cfp123 said...
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Anonymous said...

loved loved loved this post...So much to learn from a book ..I would have just read the book and never thought of 'applying' it to my life :) and what I loved about the post is the way you have described it so that its easy to apply in our life....

Unmana said...

readingthroughrsmind: Thank you. I loved this book so much and couldn't stop crying while I was reading it. It's time to reread it, I think!

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a lovely post, Unmana! You gave me a whole new way of looking at my own book. I'm honored by your amazing tribute! You're a beautiful writer and I'm glad it's both you're determined to "work at it!"
Kathy Erskine

Unmana said...

Kathy Erskine: OMG, I'm so excited! That you even noticed my post, let alone commented... Thank you so very, very much!

Simplyme said...

HI Unmana
It was a real inspiring piece to read... Its really inspiring to see that you make time to read, think and write inspire of your professional commitments!!