Whiners Need Not Apply

Sometime last summer I decided to host a pity party and invite all my friends. Well, not all my friends, exactly. Only those whose livelihoods might have, like mine, been suffering from the downward slide of the economy. To make the guest list, invitees would have to possess the ability to grumble, gripe, groan, fuss, snarl, scream, fret, rant and complain -- preferably all at the same time. I wanted world-class whiners at my party. Optimists need not apply.

The idea for the party came about following several back-to-back conversations with different editors, all of whom relayed to me different versions of the same scenario: advertising sales are down, there are fewer magazines pages to fill, so we don't have as many assignments for contract writers like you. Almost overnight, or so it seemed, the regular work I'd come to count on disappeared. "Sorry," my editors said. "But do keep in touch."

But I didn't. And instead of bucking up and marketing myself to new clients, instead of choosing to view this "challenge" as an "opportunity" like I'd been taught in so many motivational seminars, I chose to complain. Loudly. With great chest-heaving drama. Picture Joan Crawford, wrist to forehead, lying in a bed strewn with movie magazines and you have some idea of my approach. Why tire myself getting new business, I argued, when sympathy was so much easier to elicit?

The beauty of my pity party was that it was not time- or location-dependent. Instead it was an ad hoc celebration that occurred on the phone and over dinner, and lasted from mid-summer until well into October. The lengthy guest list included such luminaries as other freelance "worst-market-in-15 years" writers; graphic "clients-just-aren't-spending-money" designers; and software "we're-wondering-how-to-make-it-through-December" executives. These people made the cut because I knew they'd confirm my belief that the economy was in the toilet and there was no work to be found. Anyone whose work might be humming along as usual or, worse yet, improving -- this includes criminal lawyers and unemployment counselors -- were conveniently left off the invitation list.

Whenever I met a fellow partygoer I'd ask, perhaps a bit too eagerly: "So how bad is it? Any bill collectors yet? Tell me again about losing that contract and this time don't leave anything out."

It was such a bad case of selective perception that I interpreted everything around me as proof that work was not available. I'd spot smiling families playing in the park and assume the parents must've lost their jobs. I'd see people laughing at restaurants and assume they were drunk, probably as a way of masking their deep internal misery.

I was so convinced I'd never be hired for another writing assignment that I stopped even trying to find work. I didn't call any of my corporate clients. I didn't pitch new story ideas to editors. Instead, I stayed home, played computer solitaire and wished I'd saved more money.

Then, I met with my personal coach, a wise and wonderful woman whom I pay to keep me on track in life.

"Shari," she said gently. "All of us create our own realities. Your situation seems hopeless because that's how you've decided it should be. How would you act if you knew the economy was good and work was available?"

"Ummm," I said. "I guess I'd line up some story ideas?" I answered her tentatively, as if asking a question.

"Good," she said. "Then what would you do?"

"Ummm, I guess I'd call some editors?"

Then, doing her best not to sound like my mother, she asked me: "Have you called any editors lately?"

I got the picture.

I spent the following Sunday researching potential story ideas and preparing letters for my magazine clients. I sent the letters out via e-mail and within 24 jaw-dropping hours I had three new assignments. A week later, a fourth came in, and two weeks after that, an associate of mine called about some international speaking opportunities.

When I first started in business for myself, an experienced entrepreneur told me that even during down times I should always project a positive, successful image. So what if clients hadn't paid me in months or that I hadn't changed out of my terrycloth robe in days? Every inquiry about my business should be met with the same response: "It's terrific! Never been better!"

I subscribed to this fake-it-till-you-make-it philosophy for a long time and you know what? It works. But apparently, last summer, after years of round-the-clock, worry-free assignments, I had forgotten that success, confidence and happiness are often a matter of where you place your attention. When I finally got out of bed, picked up the movie magazines and began to act like a successful professional, the work appeared with stunning rapidity.

My pity party is now over, thankfully, and friends who grew tired of my bleak line of questioning are no longer darting down the baby aisle in supermarkets in order to avoid me. My professional confidence index is up and I'm now looking for optimists to celebrate with me. Whiners need not apply.

Copyright, 2005, Shari Caudron.

Shari Caudron is an award-winning columnist, writing coach, and author of "What Really Happened," (2005, Ghost Road Press), a collection of humorous stories about the lessons life teaches you when you least expect it. Shari regularly delivers speeches to women's groups about how to transform ordinary experiences into opportunities for personal growth. Website: http://www.sharicaudron.com e-mail: shari@sharicaudron.com

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