Category Archives: inspiration

The fear factor

When it comes to getting over the emotional hurts of failure, it really doesn’t matter how good or bad your personal history is. The only thing that matters is that you face your fear and get moving.       — John C. Maxwell, author

freefall2

Too often, the biggest barrier to making a change or taking a positive step in life is that other F-word. FEAR. It doesn’t matter whether you’re starting over after serving time, regrouping after a divorce or simply trying to get a new project (or long-neglected blog) up and running.

I was reminded of this last night as I sat with a group of 8th graders who will be making their confirmation in our local Catholic church this May.  My role as discussion leader was to go around the circle and have each teen share something that scared them.

As you might expect, there was plenty of nervous laughter. I also got a few shrugs and attempts to change the subject.  One girl pecked away at her cellphone as if she might find the answer there. But nobody wanted to volunteer that they were afraid of anything.  God forbid. It was easier to talk around it or challenge the need to even discuss the subject.

Finally, just when I was despairing we’d spend the rest of our time in silence,  a boy I’ll call Andy spoke up.   “Spiders,”  he said.  “They creep me out.”

The other teens laughed and the tension was broken. Suddenly our circle awash with fears. Bugs. Snakes. Heights. One boy even confessed to being terrified of getting run down by a car.  Sure, these weren’t likely their deepest, darkest fears, or the one they would never voice — looking foolish in front of each other. But at least these kids were sharing something and learning they weren’t alone.

Afterwards, the event moderators upped the stakes by asking for volunteers for a series of “Fear Factor” type challenges.  Teens competed to eat bowls of repulsive-looking “mystery” food.  Some ran an obstacle course with dog biscuits or smelly fish in their mouths. Two girls picked live bugs out of jars of candy. By the end of the night, Andy, from my group, was up in front of more than 100 of his peers, racing to finish off a suspicious-looking green goo and whipped cream pie.

This all happened over the course of about twenty minutes with a group of self-conscious 13 and 14 year olds.  That’s what got me thinking about John C. Maxwell’s quote above.  Maxwell, who’s written two dozen books on leadership and  maximizing your potential, has spent years studying the secrets of successful people.  In his bestselling book, Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success, he advocates learning from your errors, but leaving them in the past. Too many people become mired in replaying their failures and unable to move forward.  The only way to get over your fear, he says, is to take action.  Even if it’s just one small step towards your objective.

So what one step can you take for your future today?  Is it making a list of employers?  Going to a 12-step meeting? Following up with your friend about that potential part-time job? Researching degree requirements at the local community college?  Taking your sister up on her offer to watch the kids so you can visit your local employment center?

Whatever that step is, try to handle it like my teens eventually did.  Acknowledge your fears, but don’t fret.

Just do it.

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Filed under employment ex-offenders, hope for ex-offenders, inspiration, personal responsibility, second chances, starting over, taking responsibility

Finding a job with a felony: a success story

What does it take to get a job with a record?   When I teach, I allude to factors like  knowing your strengths, having a plan, dealing with setbacks and never giving up.  But it’s not often that I get an opportunity to show this in action.

Recently, however, a reader wrote in with a story that allows me do just that.  Although he didn’t want his name used, this man, who I’ll call Thomas, agreed to let me share his experiences on the chance that they might help someone else.

When I first heard from Thomas he admitted he was desperate:  

 I’m hoping maybe you can suggest something that I’m overlooking ….I ‘ve now been a year and a half with no job.  I can’t even get a reply to my Pizza Hut delivery driver application.  Right now it is 4:25 AM and I can’t sleep because my nine year marriage is about to collapse primarily because of the job situation…..

Thomas had been convicted nearly 20 years ago.  He’d done his time, made reparations to the victims and then moved overseas.   There, miraculously, he says, he was  hired at the second place he applied for a job, even after he’d told the employer about his  conviction.  Within two years he’d been promoted to supervisor and then to a more senior position.  This led to a better job at a Fortune 500 company. 

His troubles began when he moved back to the U.S.   Even with his work experience, no one would hire him.   When he wrote me he’d given up on his former profession and was considering going to truck driving school.   He’d found a cheaper program in a nearby state and  gotten a small veteran’s scholarship and a  loan to pay for part of it.  Yet he still wasn’t sure how he could afford living expenses.  He wasn’t writing to ask for money, but to see if I had any ideas on how he could finance it.  

I sent a note of encouragement and some suggestions.  He thanked me and I didn’t expect to hear from him again.   

Two days later, he emailed.  He’d called the school and gotten an offer of work study.   He’d contacted parishes and re-entry organizations in the area to find leads for a place to stay. He figured he could cut meal costs by relying on local food pantries, use free internet at the library and cut travel costs by using http://www.gasbuddy.com   He’d also investigated trucking firms to see which ones were receptive to hiring ex-offenders.  His only concern was he might have to hold off till the next class sesssion because time was running out and he didn’t want to set himself up for failure.   So he also got in touch with some former colleagues he hadn’t talked to in years and three of them agreed to be references.  Then he began looking for jobs.

Two weeks later, I received this note:

I got a job offer yesterday.  After reading a study that said 90% of people would not consider hiring someone with a violent felony conviction, I was getting pretty discouraged, but then it dawned on me that if 90% don’t that still means 10% do…so logically then it is just a numbers game.  Assuming that the study was accurate, that means that submitting 100 applications will result in 10 people who are willing to give an ex-con a try.  I have to admit, that after 30+ “No” answers, it takes a certain amount of determination to believe that the “Yes” is still lurking out there…but it was.  Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to go all the way to 100.

 It turned out the position for which he was hired hadn’t been advertised.  He’d simply seen a new business opening and gone to apply.   “The job was one that I had no direct experience with,” he said, ” but I decided to apply anyway because what is the worst they could do…tell me “no”?”

Obviously, things didn’t happen overnight for Thomas.  But what I like about this story is that even when he was asking for help, he was helping himself. He was  researching possible options before asking for suggestions, and he kept on doing his homework afterwards.  When truck driving school seemed like it might not work, he went to Plan B, contacting references and looking around for potential jobs.  He also went beyond employment ads, contacting companies directly and ultimately finding a job that hadn’t even been advertised yet. 

My hat is off to him, and to everyone else  out there who refuses to give up.  

 Is there something you can do to jumpstart your job search today?

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Filed under companies hiring ex-offenders, criminal records, education ex-offenders, employment ex-offenders, inspiration, job search ex-offenders, job training, personal responsibility

Take a journey of hope

Today I’m over at Journey of Hope,  talking with host Rodney Mathers about, among other subjects:

  • Answering tough interview questions
  • How to handle gaps in your resume
  • Whether recent discrimination lawsuits and action by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will make it easier for people with criminal records to get a job.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the site, Journey of Hope is a terrific weekly podcast that deals with issues affecting ex-offenders.  Mathers started the program after he was released from prison and learned just how difficult it was to start over. His goal was to help others in this situation by offering somewhere they could  turn for help and encouragement.  On previous shows he’s dealt with everything  from job scams that target ex-felons to finding financing for further education or to start a business to dealing with the stresses of reintegration.

It’s a great resource, so check it out.  You can hear my interview here.

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Another employer who gets it…

I’m caught up with other projects this week, but would be remiss in not posting this story about Eric Smith, a carpenter in St. Paul, Minnesota who has no qualms about hiring people with criminal records.  Why?  It’s been his experience that if a  person is hardworking and good at what he does, his background has no relevance to the job. Smith says:

I tend to hire people I like personally — no indicator of talent, but I have to spend a lot of time with them. I’ve discovered over the years that I’m drawn to people who have a little bit of darkness in them — people who have peeked over the edge, maybe even gone over it, at some point in their lives.

People with this kind of background are not uncommon in remodeling, probably because it’s one of the dwindling number of mentally challenging careers that require almost nothing in the way of qualifications except a strong back, common sense and a willingness to work hard.

For people who’ve been unable to fit into standardized corporate slots, or haven’t passed the tests or graduated at the top of their class, construction can offer a rare second or third chance.

I love the wisdom in this.  You can read the whole story here:  The Healing Power of Construction Work

Enjoy!

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Will Tim Riggins be able to find a job after he’s released?

I usually try to keep my facts and fiction fairly separate on this blog.  But watching this season’s final  episode of “Friday Night Lights,” I was struck by how well the show captured the character of so many who end up serving time:  good people who’ve just made very bad decisions. 

With Tim Riggins, the troubled, but talented football heartbreaker from Dillon, Texas, you always got the sense that here was a guy who could go either way.  Abandoned by his parents, he was essentially raised by his nere-do-well brother Billy, who’s forever  coming up with get-rich-quick schemes that skirt the edge of legality.  In the first couple of seasons, Riggins weaknesses for alcohol and women, as well as his tendency to take the path of least resistance  were a great source of drama, but more often than not his downfall.  

Tim Riggins in happier times

This year, he’s graduated from football stardom and headed off to college to finally make something of himself. Only college isn’t for him and soon he’s back in Dillon, living in a trailer owned by a cocktail waitress he hooked up with and working in a repair shop with his brother. When he finds out Billy is trafficking in stolen cars on the side, he knows it’s illegal, but can’t resist one last chance to make a quick buck. 

Same old Tim, right? Were any of us surprised when the police showed up?

But here’s where the writers did something interesting.  Yes, Tim is caught, but he’s also already changed more than even he has realized.  For one, he’s spent the year resisting the high schooler who’s been throwing herself at him.  He also refused to take advantage of her mother.  And in the ultimate act of self-sacrifice, he takes the fall for both himself and his brother, so Billy can stay with his wife and his newborn.  In other words, as he throws off his old “football star” persona to begin serving his time in jail, he’s already on the path to redemption.  

It will be interesting to see what happens next.  What will Riggins do after he gets out?  Will he be able to find a job?  I know that actor  Taylor Kitsch, who plays Riggins,  has gone on to feature films might not be back next year, which is too bad.  It would be interesting to see the writers explore his reentry.   Perhaps they could shed a similarly realistic light on the challenge of starting over. 

Anyway, if you haven’t seen the episode, you can catch it here for a few more weeks. 

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As an additional note:  this will probably be my last posting for the summer.  It’s time to take some time off for fun and family.  In the interim, I hope you all enjoy the rest of the summer.   See you back here in September.

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The humility challenge

A pedestal is as much a prison as any small, confined space.

— writer and feminist Gloria Steinem

The student was a young woman, not long out of high school.  And she seemed extremely sure of herself, which might have been why she was struggling with this particular job interview question.

“But I don’t have any weaknesses.”  She looked me straight in the eye.

In previous classes, we’d discussed the reason employers often ask about what you consider your strengths and weaknesses during interviews.  We’d talked about how everyone has weaknesses and how bosses often look for a measure of self-knowledge and maturity in your responses.  The key to answering this question, according to most career experts, is using it to highlight an area or trait you know you need to improve, and hopefully to demonstrate how you’ve either worked to correct it, or learned to compensate for your shortcomings.

A classmate, for example, had offered that she had struggled on occasion to learn things from manuals.  “But I’m very hands-on and I’ve demonstrated repeatedly that I learn quickly by doing.”

“I tend to take on too much responsibility,” said another.  “But over time I’ve become much better at delegating some of that work to others.”

This particular student, however, was stymied.

“There must be some area where you’d like to improve,” I offered.

She thought for a moment, then smiled slightly.   “I’m too competitive,” she said.  “I just always have to be the best.”

It wasn’t necessarily a bad answer, particularly in a society that loves victory as much as ours.  So just to see where she’d go with it, I asked her — as a recruiter no doubt would — how her competitiveness had hurt her.

Again, she looked perplexed.

“What about times when you couldn’t be the best,” I suggested.  “How have you handled that? ” What about academics?  Had she excelled there and been competitive too? Or had that been an area where she had a harder time?

“Grades didn’t matter,” she said.  “I didn’t go half the time.  That’s how it was if you were an athlete.”

Say what you will about this answer, she was honest at least.  And hardly alone in her attitude.  One of the challenges of revealing your weaknesses is that there’s seemingly no upside to it. Our culture doesn’t just love winners, we worship them.   We put them on a pedestal where they can do no wrong. We make allowances.  We go out of our way to revere “specialness” and ignore anything that might smack of less than perfect.

Then we expect that somewhere along the way, the same people that we’ve elevated are going to become introspective and acquire some humility. We expect the kids who look up to them to understand this.  At the same time, we seldom teach it, we don’t emphasize it.  Yet as a character trait, humility is as essential as perseverance — for all of us, but particularly for those looking to start their lives over.

For one, a sense of entitlement, lack of humility, feeling that you don’t have to play by society’s rules — spin it as you will — is often a direct contributor to criminal activity.  Researchers  long ago identified a distorted feeling of being “special” or above the law as a critical component of the criminal mindset.

Secondly, explaining your past to the general public is a humbling experience, as countless ex-offenders will attest.  As a former felon you may be forced to take a job you consider beneath your abilities because it’s the only way to feed your family.  You may be denied jobs for which you’d be perfect.  People may doubt what you say and question your character.

Dealing with this is going to require not only an ability to accept your situation and persevere, but as James Walker noted so eloquently in his recent guest post, the humility to acknowledge your mistakes, and yes, your weaknesses.

Otherwise, as Gloria Steinem observed, you do risk trading one prison for another, don’t you?

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Don’t sell yourself short: any experience counts!

After posting for 31 straight days as part of WordCount Blogathon 2010, I know I’ve fallen off a bit this week.  Please  forgive me.  I’ve been catching up on everything I’ve neglected, and working on some more involved future stories. I’m also in the process of putting together the final resumes for the students in my latest class, which is invariably a multi-step process.

Yesterday, I gave back their rough drafts  with my questions.  As always, I was amazed at the work experience and achievements people had left off their resumes.

Some examples from this and previous classes:

  • Developing  a fundraising campaign that brought in $5,000 over three days for a non-profit.
  • Helping with the relocation of an automotive business.
  • Managing the books for a clothing business.
  • Being selected employee of the month.
  • Winning the volunteer of the year award.

In four of these cases, the reason was because the work was done on a voluntary/unpaid basis.   To which I say, so what?  Experience is experience and if I were an employer I’d be very interested in someone who was a natural fundraiser or an organization’s best worker of the year, unpaid or not.

So when you’re making a list of what you have to offer an employer, don’t rule out volunteer work, or projects you’ve undertaken on your own. And don’t forget awards or recognition you’ve received, even they don’t seem that important.  Theses are the achievements that often make you unique, and hence, just the person the employer wants to hire.

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Filed under companies hiring ex-offenders, employment assistance ex-offenders, employment ex-offenders, inspiration, job search ex-offenders, jobs ex-offenders, resumes, Uncategorized