Life Lessons I Learned Through Rescuing a Dog

Over the past few years, I have been educating myself about the horrors of puppy mills, which run rampant in the Midwest. This topic has been consistently on my mind ever since I bought a puppy mill dog off the Internet as an impulsive and unsuspecting teenager. Because of the immense guilt I’ve carried with me for almost 15 years, it was only a matter of time before I would walk the walk, right my wrongs, and adopt a “mother of the mill” (as they call the most tragic victims of the mill industry).

Mika, who had no name while living in a decrepit backyard breeding mill for 2 years, was a classic case: she was kept in a small wire cage that was overcrowded with 2 or 3 other dogs for 24 hours a day; she was never free to run, play or engage in any behaviors that you’d associate with a dog; she was underweight, missing patches of hair and had sustained a broken jaw and lacerations to her neck. She would be expected to produce litter after litter of puppies – which would all be prematurely shipped off to pet stores around the country or sold directly over the internet - until she was physically unable to produce. Luckily, there are people and organizations out there that fight against the horrors of this industry. Because some mill operations are regulated (and there for protected) by state governments, rescues have to wait for some other infraction to be made like improper waste drainage before they can receive a warrant to enter, discover and document the abuse and free the dogs. 

It was going to be a glorious love story. I would offer this little broken dog the most amazing home full of life’s splendors: treats, toys, cozy beds and endless love.

Things did not turn out as I had expected. She hated all things that brought joy for the first few months… including me. She was borderline comatose and unresponsive for weeks straight – to the point where I feared she had suffered a brain injury of some sort.  It was an uphill battle that left me emotionally ravaged at times. This seven-pound, smush-faced fluff caused countless tears, tirades, frustration and a lot of self-doubt. Because I felt more prepared and dedicated than anyone to help rehabilitate a physically and emotionally abused dog, I was heartbroken by the reality that I was failing. 

Throughout this journey, I have reached a new height of obsessing about my dogs. It probably seems extreme to most, but this new level of “crazy dog lady” is a result of how difficult this was and how much of an impact this experience had on me. It was an extreme test of my patience and helped me think about a lot of my own shit.  I learned so much in the first few months (and will continue to learn – we are nowhere near done yet). Here are some of the “life lessons” that stand out the most:

Minding my Energy

I have enough self-awareness to know that I don’t always put the most “mellow” vibes out into the universe. I move quickly, in a clumsy, herky-jerky fashion, doing five things at once, second-guessing whether or not I unplugged my hair curler, and cursing at the coffee that I just spilled on my white faux fur comforter. So when I invited a dog whisperer over to help get Mika out of her shell, the first thing she said is that I needed to chill out. She explained how dependent dogs were on non-verbal communication and how sensitive they were to the energy put out by the people around them. Because I was so nervous about how she was doing and how uncomfortable she was, and because I kept my eyes on her at all times when she was in the room, I was actually contributing to her feelings of discomfort. Eye contact is a very powerful thing – use it to your advantage in a job interview, do not sustain eye contact with a new rescue dog.  This instills terror. In doing this at home, I became more mindful of controlling the output of my energy around people too.  

Slowing down

An amazing thing happens when you have to teach a small dog to walk on grass while leashed for the first time: you are forced to slow wayyyyyyy down. This was something that I had been attempting to work on for a few years but never fully committed to.  Slowing down – literally and figuratively (see above) - opened me up to a lot of joyful experiences. I began to appreciate my surroundings and felt the positive effects of spending more time outside in the mornings.  I heard new sounds and saw delightful things that existed this whole time but had never noticed before. I met new people in my neighborhood and had conversations in the dog park that made me feel happier throughout the rest of the day.  I was able to appreciate and show gratitude for mundane things. I started watching the sunrise, which, it turns out, does magical things for your mind.  

Patience is a Worthy Virtue 

It’s been said that the definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a new result. While this can be true, it is not true for those who are training an adult dog to go to the bathroom, on a schedule, outside after two years of going to the bathroom through the floor of a suspended wire crate - the same place that she eats and sleeps. It takes doing the same thing over and over A LOT, and lots of “I am going crazy” feelings before you get your desired result. Patience is a hard thing to master especially in the everything-instant/Amazon-Now era. Everyday I had to learn to celebrate the small things, whether it is walking an extra half of a block, or peeing out of fear only once a day versus two times a day. I realized that patience becomes a lot easier when paired with visualization.  When you focus your energy on the desired outcome rather than the task at hand each little failure didn't seem like such a major set back. It was important for me to paint a clear "big picture of success" in my mind to give me something to work towards.

Being Fully Present

Prior to adopting this dog, I would interpret my morning walks with Dublin like this: My feet are moving and one hand is holding a leash, but that leaves me with an open hand, two free ears, and 50% of my visual awareness to designate to another purpose. I am addicted to my phone and multi-tasking. In fact, if I am only doing one thing, I become distracted with the all of the additional things that I am NOT doing but could be doing simultaneously. Because of this preoccupation with doing as much as possible, I often feel that I am never fully present. Adding another dog to the mix, especially one that is constantly terrified and unable to casually walk in a straight line on a leash, fixed this very quickly. I no longer have an extra hand so I began leaving my phone at home, and for once, I was reminded what if feels like to channel all of my attention into a single thing for a prolonged amount of time. This exercise was challenging for me and revealed how much I need to work on maintaining a single focus in other areas of my life.

 Passive Support is Unfulfilling  

Social Media has had a positive impact on raising awareness for various causes, surfacing important social and political message and giving people access to information. However, it has also created an army of passive activists. The more anti-puppy mill groups I joined on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, the more upset and angry I get that these things exist. It seemed as though these horrible things were becoming more prevalent which leads to even more frustration as I lay in bed marking stories with an angry smiley face or thumbs down, and sharing things to my Facebook, (which probably created a wave of eye rolls from people used to selfies and pictures of delicious food).  I wasn’t really doing anything to help.

Saving only one dog may seem insignificant on the grand scale, but taking an active approach made a more meaningful impact on me and on others.  The best way to really reach someone isn’t by pushing information in their face that they didn’t ask for, which happens frequently on social media. You have to get people to the point where they seek out the information themselves and then make a meaningful connection. Because people could see and feel her, they were genuinely curious, sympathetic and connected-  and there lies the big opportunity! I have been able to reach people in a more meaningful way and spread a message more effectively than any repost, like or public comment left on social media could.

The Importance of Community

I learned to take advantage of a real life support network. In times of stress, isolation rarely helps you learn what you need to learn in order to pull yourself out of a rut. As I began to reach out to more people, I was shocked at how many were willing to help - even strangers. It turns out that people in my own apartment building had a similar experience and gladly handed over resources and tips.  Additionally, reddit.com/dogs was a huge help and provided a real sense of online community. Generally, I found this site to be more troll-free than your average group of online individuals.

All I had to do was put it out there. Upon seeing a new furry face in the building and in the park, people would ask, “How are things going?” Rather than sugar coat, I answered honestly, “Well, terribly….” From there I would get recommendations, other resources to reach out to, and a general feeling of support. Strangers would sit with me in the park demonstrating training tips – sometimes for 20 minutes! Neighbors offered to check in on her during the day. Even our mail lady would ask for updates from the building staff.  The first time Mika successfully walked home, one of my doormen cheered from the front door.

As a result, and in the case of my neighbor who just lost her 16-year-old pug, I feel compelled to provide comfort to others more often and easily than I ever did. The second part of this life lesson was the reminder to give back and support others now that I know how much it helped me. 

 

I am aware that people adopt dogs every day, every where in the world and that I did not become a superhero through this experience. But I feel validated in being proud of myself for getting through it because at one point, I was convinced we would not be able to keep Mika. I was prodded by some of my friends and family to return her to the rescue because I didn't "need this complication in my life." I missed a whole section in here on commitment because one of the most impactful things that my best friend said to me was, "Well, you decided to this, so now you just need to DO IT."  It's always easier to give up and go the easy route, but you never learn anything by doing that. 

IMG_4566.JPG

 

Millennials: the Curse of Being "Well-Rounded"

Source: http://www.slideshare.net/CoreyBarnett/the-state-of-the-seo-industry-google-penalties-rankings

Source: http://www.slideshare.net/CoreyBarnett/the-state-of-the-seo-industry-google-penalties-rankings

For the longest time I identified myself as a "Jack of all trades", even going as far as to include that phrase in various cover letters and conversations with potential employers. The age-old cliche seemed to express the unlimited potential and impact I could have on a company in a concise manner.

In my mind, it meant:

  • I can do anything I put my mind to (and will do anything you want me to).
  • I am relentless in my desire to demonstrate value to my managers and team in whatever form that may take (I will do anything you want me to).
  • My degree of creativity and problem-solving skills paired with a solid work ethic makes me an extremely employable individual, perfect for a variety of tasks (I will do anything you want me to. AND I will do this better than next person who applies, even if they have a better school listed for undergrad).

The short version: I am a multi-dimensional and well-rounded kid. 

However, as I advanced in my career I became aware of and fixated on the latter half of this phrase:  a Jack of all trades, is a master of none. Since realizing its negative connotation and feeling a strong desire to acquire marketable skills, I have challenged myself to shed it from my persona. 

My academic upbringing is largely responsible for my well-rounded nature.  Dubbed a "lifer", I attended the same small private Quaker school in Baltimore from pre-kindergarten through the twelfth grade.  The Friends School of Baltimore is often compared to a Montessori School: very touchy-feely; on a mission to provide equal opportunity and inspire students' intellectual curiosity. Because the message of acceptance and diversity was widespread, Friends did not like to pigeon hole students into any one corner - we had quarterbacks who starred in the spring play, the most popular kid in class sang in the men's a cappella group and all holidays were celebrated in a main-stream manner. For the most part, kids supported each other and found comfort among our differences. With ninety kids in my graduating class, it was difficult to avoid any one student or group of students so we all coexisted in a suburban utopia with a strong sense of what we could accomplish as individuals. 

friends school of baltimore
 
Friends School develops in its students an enduring passion for learning by raising their capacity for inquiry and for navigating complexity; It fosters in students thoughtfulness, maturity and purpose; And it inspires students to seize the world of possibilities by engaging them in a rich mix of co-curricular opportunities with students from diverse social, cultural and economic backgrounds.
— - HEADMASTER, MATT MICCICHE

Indeed, Friends School exposed me to a lot: multicultural practices and beliefs where as many private school environments graduate kids of a single faith or similar economic status. I was introduced to a variety of hobbies and activities. The school succeeded in igniting passion and encouraged kids for try as many different things as possible in an effort to show that we can do anything we put our minds to.

However, I do not feel like I left with a realistic take on what it meant to be successful in the world. Like many of my peers, I just assumed I would be. The emphasis on participation and well-roundedness contributed to an inflated sense of our abilities. In high school, I played Varsity sports, sang in the group chorus, was accepted into the 7-member acapella group called the Pleadies, participated in theater productions, created interesting and thought provoking art (at least, it was for me), wrote and filmed movies, was president of the SAIF community group protecting kids from drunk driving, and had a bustling social life. I felt great about myself and my prospective future. If I ever failed at something, I was patted on the back for trying.  

It wasn't until I got the the University of Maryland at College Park, with its student population of almost 38,000, that I realized it was impossible to sustain this journey of exploring diverse interests. Or at least to really invest in this many interests. The stakes were higher, the kids were more talented and being well-rounded was not celebrated.  Here, students devote their entire 365 days a year to their singular interest. People wanted to know, "what is your thing?"  Kids who shared passion for a similar "thing" quickly glommed together and continued down their path of improving skills, networking and further chiseling a clear portrait of their future.

university of maryland students

They were masters of their crafts, and I was master of none.  

Suddenly faced with the pressure to declare our intentions for the next four years, I found myself unable to comfortably commit to extra-curricular activities, not to mention a career path.  How do I go from ALL THE THINGS to ONE? What if I choose something and end up sucking? What if focusing 100% of my time and attention on this one thing makes me hate it? What about all of the other doors I would be closing as a result of choosing something? 

All of the things that I did in high school were available to me but this environment required something that my high school did not prepare me for: commitment. Rather than navigating through college with a sense of hope and confidence, I felt like I had peaked. All the cool and interesting things that defined me were now in the past tense and I sought comfort by floating in an ambiguous middle-ground. I refused to give in to the stress of choosing a future and hoped that it would choose me somewhere down the road.


In talking to my peers, I see that many others identify as well-rounded commitment-phobes with multiple points of view on how it should be perceived. Depending on where people grew up or how parents approached parenting, millennials are plagued with a resistance to commit, especially as it relates to our professional future.  One perspective is that the reluctance to commit is perfectly fine and we should continue to grow, blossom and develop multi-faceted series of interests without declaring any one thing as our ultimate path. We owe it to ourselves and the world - we are just too interesting, too talented and too full of potential to fit within any one profile.

Because millennials feel pressure to avoid the foreboding mid-life crises that we associate with baby boomers and gen x'ers  (resenting careers, feeling regretful for not following dreams, wondering "what if?" And taking it out on their loved ones) we declare nothing. We get married later, live more in the "now", and make sure we don't over-commit to any one thing - literally, even agreeing to a happy hour can be a challenge.  We don't invest too much in our day jobs because we want to save enough energy for when we receive our calling. 

But from my perspective, this is a very small-private-school-way to think about a being a professional even in the modern world. Millennials are so non-committal and  busy remembering to follow their dreams that they are making themselves  invaluable, unpleasant and a huge pain in the ass. The reality is, most millennials are not going to invent the next Facebook, develop a successful app, or even become a doctor. Why? Because all of those things require commitment, dedication and a shit ton of work.  Even more terrifying to millennials than commitment is the time required to advance in a typical career or industry. Real skill and expertise in a field are developed over time.  According to Malcolm Gladwell, it requires 10,000 hours of practice. And when you split your time among multiple things, it'll take you a hell of a lot longer to become a master of any of them. 

To ensure that I don't remain in the ambiguous middle-ground far into my career as a marketer, I decided to declare that I am a creative marketing professional which means that I am not a technical-marketer. This cuts a deep edge into my well-rounded marketing resume, but for once I feel joy and reprieve. The more I shave off, the sharper my skills can become in other areas.   My expertise is in branding, visual identity, content and messaging - all within the context of e-commerce and online consumer experience. My skill set is growing to include graphic design and UX/UI, which is validated by my decision to pay for and attend classes at the School of the Art Institute. I will still happily remain fluent in the technical aspects of a marketing program because my goal is to be the lead decision maker within the marketing department (Director or CMO) but I will rely on others - those who are experts in this area - to meet me halfway. 

I am still somewhat happy with being perceived as well-rounded because I value being an open-minded and curious individual. But, in an effort to emphasize the marketable aspects of myself I decided to actively seek new skills - which means I need to be comfortable leaving things behind in order to advance in this goal. For example,  I like taking pictures, but I am not a photographer. I enjoy singing and music, but I am not a musician. I like to paint, but I am not a working artist.  I have an exuberant personality, but I am not a performer. I have confidence and people-skills, but I am not a good sales person.  I like getting thoughts out of my head, but I am not a writer.

Friends School succeeded because I do think I could be any of these things. And, If I decide later that I do want to be any of these things, I have now acquired the decision-making skills that are necessary to make that choice. 

 

Remembering my worst interview experience

After my college graduation in 2009, I hit the interview circuit and learned quickly that it’s the type of thing no amount of literature or detailed second-hand account can prepare you for.  Fortunately, within a year after graduation, I found the position of my dreams and that interview experience was pleasant  and invigorating simply because it was the right fit. However, within the several months before I started at bambeco.com, I had plenty of time to fall on my face. All of these memories rose to the surface last summer when I participated in the intern hiring process at Abesmarket.com. It’s been over 5 years since my initial attempt to enter the professional world, but the whole process still sends shivers down my spine.

I was surprised to learn that a bad interview is still uncomfortable no matter what side of the table you are on. I squirmed when I could sense the applicant having an internal emotional breakdown but whose stiff  wide-toothed perma-grin made it all the more awkward. Also uncomfortable was the girl who sat back in her chair, spoke with the assumption that she could “totally” reinvent the company and smacked her gum as she listed off the best traits about herself. At times I would get frustrated at the major faux pas knowing this crop of interviewees couldn’t seem to muster up the motivation to type “best tips for interviewing” into Google’s search box.

But then I remember all of my major offenses, and they were plentiful. I will try to make a long story short out of my biggest train wreck interview experience. To this day, I am not clear what the company actually does (likely the foundation for my failure to be hired). I do however, have distinct memories of the interior being an exact replica of the movie set from “Office Space”. Cubes. Everywhere. Chunky kitten heels and ill-fitting suit pants. Deflated Happy Birthday balloons (the company’s claim to fame for promoting a “company culture”) to match the deflated energy of the office environment. In the moment, I was fascinated, intrigued and inexplicably compelled to work there.  I may have turned into a sterile drone like those surrounding me, but I was probably going to get BUSINESS CARDS!  

First, I met with the friendly and welcoming recruiter who led me to a room in which the hiring manager was waiting.  Immediately upon sitting down at the table, I felt the air being sucked out of the windowless room by the cold, off-putting presence of this woman. She was not a happy person and could’ve used a few extra balloons on her cube. As the HR Manager walked towards the exit, I was overcome with a similar panic to when my mom would drive away after dropping me off on the first day of school.  This woman seemed skeptical about every aspect of me and dissected my resume as though I was a known convicted felon. Upon asking questions, she would stare at me with a quizzical look, and at times was surely struggling to hold back a snicker after hearing parts of my answer. We did not gel, but she deserves a special honor for being the driving force behind my worst interview experience to date.  Here are the biggest flops:

QUESTION #1: Do you have direction?

MY ANSWER: No.  

The Hiring manager asked me where I saw myself in 5 years. At this point in my life, I assumed when you’re applying to work at a company, it should be the center of your universe and all life aspirations should originate from your professional occupation.  “Crap!” I thought. I didn’t look up the senior positions and titles at this company. Trying to do a quick mathematical application of how many years it would take me to rise through the ranks within this particular office park, I simply answered, “in management? Within a structured organization like this one…”

This is now one of my favorite things to ask myself, and a huge pet peeve when candidates don’t have an answer prepared.  This question should inspire feelings of hopefulness, drive and imagination. Out of the 8 or so candidates that came through our office, none of them had a plan for themselves. It seems to be an old wives tale that says if you lay out a plan out loud and deviate from it, you fail. EVERYTHING worth anything starts with an initial plan, even it that changes along the way  (and it will).

My dad once told me that the only way to score a goal in soccer was to close your eyes the night before and lay it out step by step in your head. Picture yourself on one end of the field taking the ball all the way down the field, imagining your opponents and how you’ll move past them, ultimately putting the ball into the net. The more specific you get with each step of the process, the more likely it will come to fruition. This is the same for planning your career path.   Planning means not only are you outlining what you DO want, but also  making a very clear exclusion of things you don’t.  This can be challenging for those of us who want to do it all. But in an effort to sound focused and cohesive, just pick one path and talk about it genuinely, with enthusiasm and interest. Hopefully your long term goals  are relevant to the industry you interviewing for, or else you should probably answer with “management”.

 

QUESTION #2: What kind of person are you?

MY ANSWER: One who is full of shit

I dislike resumes and really anything that is still in the same general format as it was in our parent’s generation. Resumes are the standardized testing of job seeking- archaic, inefficient and a poor representation of what someone is capable of achieving. Luckily in the digital age, candidates can expand their presentation with a personal website to hopefully convey more of who they are and what they value in life. Back in 2009, it was limited to the “interests + skills” section of a resume. 

After we got through intern experiences and a recap of my college job, the Millennial Predator across the table, paused, and with a half smile said, “Por lo tanto, usted dice que usted habla español . Vamos a tener una conversación.

” Excuse me?,” I say not even attempting a Spanish accent.

“Well, you have here that you are proficient in Spanish, so I see no reason why we couldn’t have a little conversation to demonstrate that, ” she said. (Keep in mind that Spanish is in no way relevant to the job role.) I explained to her that having taken Spanish classes starting in 6th grade and throughout college, I felt it appropriate to include, but that I have never been immersed in an environment that fluently speaks Spanish and  was not as comfortable speaking as I was reading and translating.  I was humiliated and later that day  promptly removed that line from my resume. 

While this action vilified her even more in my mind, she was right. I should have put something in that section that I would be excited to talk about and better demonstrated the complexity of my personality. Perhaps my devout anti-factory farming beliefs or the fact that I had been making and selling clothing and jewelry since 6th grade. Rather,  I chose to include something about language, because the Internet told me to. 

 

QUESTION #3: What is your ideal role and work environment? 

My ANSWER: Whatever you tell me I want… Plus, the ability to be creative.

When the Millennial Predator posed this question to me, she already had a rebuttal prepared but reluctantly allowed me to answer. 

“I’m looking for an opportunity to learn about a new industry and be part of a team dynamic. It seems like there is a great opportunity here and I could put my creative problem solving skills to use.”

“ I don’t buy it,” said the predator as she slumped back in her chair with folded arms. “What you’re saying here to me, I don’t buy it. I don’t know that there is room for your ‘creative’ aspirations. For example, we have a phone script and you are not to deviate in any way. Nothing in your presentation or on this paper has indicated clearly to me why you are a fit for this position.”

At this point, the mounting silent tension finally had come to a head. The hostility had been released. I had to grip both my thighs under the table with enough force to keep me from slamming my fists on the table walking out and popping all the half-filled helium balloons on the way out as to put them out of their own misery.

Without fail, every candidate in our interview process included some variation of the phrase “I want to do something creative/be in a creative environment."  I now realize that to management, this sounds like, “I want to day dream and doodle all day long.” It is a meaningless,  aggravating waste of an answer. I always ask the follow up question. “What does being creative mean to you?” I have since realized my own answer to this question. My definition of being creative is to seek out the opportunities to delight and improve an existing framework or process, to go beyond the status quo and build or propose something new. To never stop asking questions or challenging the existing solutions to a problem. I seek environments that nurture and inspire this kind of thinking and motivation. I hope to be in a role that accommodates flexibility so that the organization as a whole can iterate and improve.

There are many facets to this very general question. If you are not one who requires a creativity quota you can talk about the team dynamic, how much independent vs. team work you seek, comfort level with excessive meetings, or really anything down to the amount of ambient noise you can work with.  How important is it to you that the company can teach and nurture new skills? Many companies don’t have the bandwidth or resources so if this is important to you, state it so you’re not eternally frustrated and unfulfilled at the start of your career. It will be these earliest experiences that provide the foundation of being a valuable employee in 5-10 years. 

 

To all of these questions and conversation points, there is NO right answer. I found that it was always the fear of this looming, mythical “right answer” that led me down the road of interview destruction. I realize that a potential crash-and-burn interview will never go away even after years of employment and practice. Often times, it comes down to the quickness in which you can establish rapport with the current team members.  This is almost as cliché as including an exaggerated ability to speak a second language on your resume, but the more comfortable you can be with yourself, and the more you can BE yourself the bigger impact you will make on potential hiring managers. Sometimes that will backfire and you will create a bigger divide between both sides of the table as I did with the Predator, but at least you will save yourself from the potentially disastrous long-term situation of actually being employed there.