On Updating my Professional Headshot

Photo Credit: Tracy Kumono

Having slowly grown in my platform and public opportunities with both writing and speaking professionally as a nurse over the past four years, one of the greatest learning curves has been with navigating this idea of a public image. Looking to see what other people in the public eye do can be both inspiring and, well, nauseating. There are a lot of voices that come at you about how you should present yourself, how you should play the game of developing a public persona and voice.

I started this journey with a desire to speak from my heart, and if I was fortunate enough to connect effectively, speak to hearts as well. My fear is that without realizing what’s happening, I’ll begin listening to the siren song that says developing a strong voice with the things I write and speak about is for the sake of cultivating my own image as someone “up there.”

This is not to say I never struggle with pride. I wish I didn’t. But I hope to make choices in every step that continually help me remember what the point of this all really is, including my choice of a professional headshot. I don’t judge people who do the arms-crossed pose; I think it can be effective and even friendly when done right, when matched with real character. But my personal comfort level shies away pretty intensely from the corporate look; it simply doesn’t suit me at this stage. I don’t think leadership that talks eloquently all the time without ever truly listening is real leadership. My hope is to always be to others, both in real life and in a headshot, someone who listens, watches, and cares for them more than I care for myself. Introverted as I am, I want to lean in, connect, be with people where their hearts are at.

Because at the end of the day, I follow the model of Christ. He was with all of us in the trenches, loved, served and taught us from that heart. I follow Him and hope to be more and more like Him and only Him. 

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They’ll Always Need People Like Us

I was initially so resistant to the idea. I knew people did it all the time, but it wasn’t something that I ever grew up seeing or experiencing in my own immigrant family. Lack of personal experience wasn’t the only deterrent, though. I personally just felt really uncomfortable with it. I remember hearing a quote years ago, “I would rather live a life that is closer to the oppressed than to the oppressor.” To give into this felt to me that I was siding more closely with the oppressor, the advantaged, the “haves” rather than the “have nots.” Plus, the overachiever in me felt somewhat ashamed at the thought of it, like it implied I was simply failing to do my own proper duties at home.

The husband had suggested hiring a cleaning lady for one or two days to do an extremely thorough cleaning of our home before the baby came. I knew there were certain things that we honestly never touched, ever since we moved in 1.5 years ago. We never dusted the blinds, never truly scrubbed the shower or the kitchen floor tiles. We did superficial cleanings at best but life always felt hectic and other tasks always took precedence. It just never mattered enough to me to tackle these nitty-gritty, time-consuming chores. It was the nesting-driven need for a clean home, and my current physical limitations despite having all this free time on maternity leave, that finally prompted me to give in.

Friends recommended her, so we had her over to first take a look at our home. She was polite, somewhat shy initially but very personable. Her English was limited but I spoke her native language, which helped put her… well, both of us, a bit more at ease. She complimented our home, and then my husband asked me to ask her about the price. She shrugged somewhat awkwardly and I couldn’t read how she wanted me to proceed. We asked how much our friends paid her, and while I felt they paid her well, I wanted to be extra generous. It is back-breaking work, typically for very little money. I calculated a price per hour that was a few dollars more per hour than what our friends were paying her. I told her a lump sum for two days’ worth, and again, her reaction was hard to read. Was she displeased? Was she trying not to be overly enthusiastic? Did she simply not understand if it was a good price or not? I tried to be confident and relaxed about our offer, but inwardly it was terribly awkward. I felt that the more obvious my discomfort, the more I would actually accentuate the socioeconomic differences, and the more I would insult her as a result.

She came to work on the first day, after taking the bus for 1.5 hours to reach our home. She amazed me with her speed, her diligence, and her level of detail. She came here years ago to give her children in her home country a better life, after their father left her for another woman. She asked for cash, not a check. I did not ask why.

I struggled to sit still in the living room as she cleaned. I felt guilty, even though it was obvious at almost 9 months pregnant that I was simply unable to do much beyond light housework. I was compulsive about trying to find ways to make myself busy. I think I might have insulted her when I tried to start vacuuming a corner that I had not asked her to clean.

It was both a rather complicated and a very simple experience.

It was complicated. There were political, social, economic, cultural, and racial issues that shaped her life, that brought her to our home for this one day. She was my employee for the day and I did not feel comfortable in my position, because she was also my hero, and she was a tremendous blessing.

It was simple. She not only did what she needed to do for herself and her family to survive, but she took pride in her work. When my husband emerged from his office in the late afternoon, she asked, “How do you like my work? I tried to do as much as I could while I was here.” It was simple. She came to do her job, to do it well, and we simply needed to pay her well, treat her respectfully, and say thank-you.

But no. It just wasn’t that simple. I keep thinking of what another immigrant friend said to me when we worked together years ago conducting research in nursing homes. He had been a Certified Nursing Assistant in long-term care facilities for many years, and he worked magic through his compassion and strength with the frail elderly. He took excellent care of them – toileting them, changing them, feeding them, helping them exercise. He commented to me once, “This society, they’ll always need people like us. People who are willing to do the dirty work for cheap. It’s ok. I know that’s just how it is.”

I feel humbled, I feel guilty, I feel both thankful and ashamed to be on the privileged side. It’s as simple as just needing and appreciating help at nine months pregnant. And it’s just not that simple at all.

this odd simultaneous pursuit

I’m not cut out for this job. Not entirely, not always. My ego bristles against that truth, fights that truth with all its emotional strength. There are days when I picture some unreal, superhuman nurse who knows everything (as I approach the still very young two-year mark into my nursing career), who has the skills and smarts to perform every skill be it my first or my hundredth time, who does every task for every patient without disappointing, who listens patiently and therapeutically to an anxious parent, and then goes home unfrazzled to cook a hearty dinner, tidy up the house, and engage in meaningful conversation with loved ones. Well, to the Supernurse who lives in this illogical place of my brain, I want to ask you to please stop lying to me about the reality of your existence.

My ego would love for me to put flesh on this elusive idea of Supernurse. There are days when it strongly, strongly insists. But until I can lay Supernurse to her final resting place, my ego will never fully understand how much I need others, how important it is for me to let myself need others, how this really is the only way any of us will be cut out for this job of caring for children and families in a pediatric ICU.

I need my coworkers to help me and teach me. I need my respiratory therapists to do what they are so good at doing. I need my social workers and chaplains and child life specialists to be that calm, therapeutic presence for my patients and families when my necessary tasks are calling. I need my patients and their family members to take ownership of their own needs where they can. I need to recognize and value my role in this team, not too small, nor too grandiose. I need to let myself let my husband sit me down when I get home, despite all my compulsions to clean, so that I can just be.

False (or at least incomplete) humility is so vastly different from true humility. It’s the difference between, “I don’t know how to do that, so please don’t hold me accountable for it,” versus “I don’t know how to do that, but yes, please teach me.” It’s the difference between, “I’ve got a lot of demands on my plate but no, no, I don’t want to trouble you,” to “Thank you so much for offering to help me, and yes I will take you up on that.” I am sobered to see how much I still operate in the former rather than the latter. It’s got to change. A right heart, not only in nursing but in all areas of life, means that I work hard on learning and growing in my own skills, and that I lean more on others too. Both can be hard. Especially when you’re aiming for both at the same time.

I’m not cut out for this job. Not entirely, not always. But the team around me, the team I am a part of, is. And I am cut out for my role in this team, so long as I continue, diligently, intentionally, in this odd simultaneous pursuit of both independence and dependence.

on breeding fruit flies and the fruit of it

I saw this story about fruit flies and sex on NPR’s website this morning, and it brought me back to the days of my first job in college. Breeding fruit flies. I made it happen. Well, not really, because apparently it’s the smell of rotting fruit that really makes it happen. But I helped. My bosses ran a genetics research laboratory, and sadly I can’t honestly even tell you what bigger picture genius they were aiming for in their research. They might have been fighting cancer as the fruit of my labor with these little buggers. All I knew at the time was that I came in every day to boxes containing vial after vial of many different lines of fruit flies. Each vial contained rotting banana at the bottom, and that’s where the squirmy larvae would grow and eventually hatch. Sure enough, after a week or so of transferring a mini swarm of flies into a new vial, the larvae would appear, followed by the next generation of little Justins and Annas. (Apologies if your name is Justin or Anna. I chose these names with no particular people in mind!) Sometimes, not many youngin’s would appear, and there might be only two or three flies in a new vial that should have ideally contained at least ten or so. My job was then to look to see if there was at least one male and one female (distinguished by the rounder abdomen of the male, as opposed to the longer, pointier abdomen of the female), transfer those two into a new vial, and pray that they would find each other attractive enough to want to make new baby larvae together. Other times, a vial would contain just a handful of some lethargic, sickly-looking flies. If that was the case, I would bring the vial to my boss who would immediately put the vial into the fruitfly ICU. I never actually knew what that meant. Did they get intubated? Were their wings restrained for awhile so they could conserve energy? Were they sedated with the fruitfly version of Versed? Alas. It wasn’t a glorious job, and it took me awhile to master the art of transferring flies from one vial to another without losing the whole swarm when I removed the cotton ball cork from the original vial. I was surrounded by unintentionally freed flies a lot in my first couple weeks on the job and probably bred some mutant strains as a result, but eventually I got the hang of it.

So anyhow, if you’ve actually read this far, I owe you a cup of coffee or something just for indulging me in my crazy and somewhat disgusting reminiscence. All this to say, I sure have come a long way in articulating my career goals and moving towards them. I am certain that my boss in the fruitfly research lab knew I wan’t planning to make a long-term career out of it. But I was there to work, and to work honestly. To learn how to be responsible with coming in when I was supposed to come in, show respect to my bosses and coworkers, and breed those little bugs to the best of my ability.

I remember looking for another part-time job during college, and hearing from a friend how she had really enjoyed working at Olive Garden as a food server. I didn’t know the slightest thing about food service, and I was so shy and awkward at the time, I was certainly not really cut out for it. Plus the fact that I had very few interviewing skills under my belt. I remember randomly walking into a local Olive Garden that had a sign posted, “Hiring Now!” The manager sat down with me and asked, “So, why do you want to go into food service?” My answer? “…Ummm…. I don’t know….” Needless to say, he kept that interview short and I never heard from him again.

I am grateful that through the course of much soul-searching, a number of very different experiences in different kinds of work, and not a small amount of tears, I have come to a place where I know with 110% certainty that I love what I do, and I have the privilege and opportunity to actually do it. Sometimes it’s so hard to see where the road is taking us, but there are lessons to be learned with each unexpected stop and detour along the way if we are open to them. Moving forward through the rougher patches on the road helps to clarify and refine our desires, and it makes the reaching of our goals that much sweeter. Don’t get me wrong; my job is not my life, nor is it my identity. But I do find it so wonderfully fulfilling. Yes, believe it or not, even more fulfilling than bringing new fruit flies into the world.

a search for a sort of life

I recently started reading a most curious book titled Working by Studs Terkel, a Pulitzer-prize winning author. Written in the 70s, the book is a collection of interviews with an unpredictable variety of people about the work that they do, day in and day out. Interviewees include a heavy equipment operator, airline reservationist, hooker, sanitation truck driver, film critic, cabdriver, bar pianist, gas meter reader, piano tuner, hospital aide, gravedigger, and many more. I’m only a few interviews into the book, but already my perspective is changing, widening. That’s one of the things I love about reading, the way certain authors are able to cultivate affection and deep concern in your heart towards the characters they present. Some fantastic reads this past year that have had this effect on me have included Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon.

Anyhow, I digress.  This book by Terkel is brilliant, and it’s gotten me thinking about the work we do. It’s a curious thing, how work can be such a huge part of our lives and yet be so far sometimes from who we really are. I love my job as a nurse, I feel very much called to it and shaped for it, and yet I have plenty of insecurities in my capabilities. Even after very wonderfully rewarding days at work, I am always happy to be going home because… well, home is home. Despite my very personal sense of calling and belonging in this profession, I also experience these other moments when it’s so clear that while this is my work, it is not me. After all, things like writing or photography express and bring out parts of me that most people at work will probably never see. And yet somehow I think that if I were to ever become a professional writer or a professional photographer, my feelings about these activities would change once those became my work. It’s funny how that is.

A lot of times, when I see custodians in the hospital or in hotels where I happen to be vacationing, I wonder a lot about how they feel about their work. I don’t mean to be patronizing. But I think it is safe to say that the majority of people who work in these positions would most likely prefer to have other occupations, if they had the opportunity. I remember attending a conference at a lovely hotel in Chicago many years ago, and I saw an older custodian in a hallway as I was headed to the ladies’ room. It had obviously been a very long, busy day for him. I stopped and said to him, “Thank you so much for serving us.” I didn’t say it because I’m so noble or virtuous, I just really meant it. He had done a lot for us and I just felt like I ought to thank him. I remember the startled but most sincerely grateful expression on his face. “Oh…!  …You’re welcome.” A number of people in Terkel’s book talk about how they feel like robots, animals, anything but human in their work. Less than human.  And so Terkel says,

It is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.

How do you feel about your work? Do you find it life-giving, or the opposite? Or both?