Cubelife Chronicles: Pirate’s Pro-Tips for Success

It’s just about the time for my annual review so I’ve been reflecting on my strengths and weaknesses lately. Most of what’s kept me afloat through my working life (and through our recently challenging economy) haven’t been a high-powered degree, a blazing intellect, or insider connections; it’s been a few simple things. Whether you’re in school and wondering how you’ll make your way in the world or looking for a change, let me extend these small bits of wisdom.


1. Learn a foreign language

I finished university in 2007, my senior paper on the developing perception of self in the Middle Ages, specifically as seen through the treatment of death and violence in the evolving short narrative form.


Do you want fries with that?


Actually, I had several job offers right away that summer that were at a living wage. In fact, I was getting offered pay premiums. Why? I spoke a foreign language. Yes, these were call center jobs in the suburbs and far from glamorous. However, I didn’t have any insecurity about whether or not I could find or keep a job, even when the economy crashed that fall. Not only that, I could afford to only work ONE job for the first time in my adult life.

Since then, I’ve had a much easier time finding employment and advancing my career simply because I speak at least one foreign language. It doesn’t have to be French or Spanish (although if you have to choose between the two, take French. Trust me.), but you should practice it every day and get to know the cultures where the language is used. New worlds will open up to you, both in your personal and your work life. Speaking a second language is invaluable.


Think of all the street art you'll finally understand!

Think of all the street art you’ll finally understand!


2. Be able to apply math to the world around you

Everyone groans in school about how useful math really is and scoffs about “when will we ever use this?” We were only half right when we professed that we’d never use algebra in real life, since your boss or a customer is not likely to hand you a quadratic equation to solve. The word problems, though… those are everywhere. Being able to handle basic applied mathematics makes you the person your coworkers go to for insight. Hate your job and want to move? Learn how to solve word problems.


If you’re in customer service, even retail, there are so many everyday tasks that require intermediate math skills.

  • Customers trying to work within a budget is an algebra word problem.
  • Trying to figure out how many of something will fit in a certain space is geometry, whether it’s stocking shelves, packing a shipment, or helping a customer choose a product.
  • Registers will break, so it’s good to know how to figure out something correctly on a calculator.
  • When it comes time to your own performance evaluation you should be able to have a rough idea if your metrics are being calculated accurately – are you handling calls or selling items at the rate your company is claiming?


My job technically has nothing to do with math. My job is to manage the performance of customer service teams, and our company has reporting teams and tools that give us reporting for us to be able to manage performance. However, being able to take one of the bosses’ problem statements and give them analysis of the metrics has made me near-invaluable. While it might sometimes be frustrating to always be running numbers and explaining the methodology to others, it’s a feather in my cap that helps me stand out and stay valuable.

I couldn’t tell you how helpful it would be if more of the people I’ve worked with throughout my career could do more math, or at least learn the applied math I’m describing. It’s the algebra and geometry we learned in high school basically, not any of the fancy statistics and standard deviation. If there were more people to share these projects with, not only would I have been happier but our projects may have even been more successful and provided greater insight. HELP ME HERE, PEOPLE.


3. Travel on your own at least once

I don’t mean disappear in Thailand on your own for three months, although if you want to do that sort of thing go right ahead. Whether it’s a camping trip in the next county or a full-fledged trans-continental or international flight, being able to travel on your own  demands the self-reliance, risk assessment and planning skills that are vital in life. How will you cope with unexpected changes in timeline? Will you be able to entertain yourself? What new things will you learn?

Traveling on your own imparts a kind of self-confidence that is difficult to tear down. Going from Point A to Point B will always have unexpected challenges, from a schedule change to a flat tire, a missed bus, or figuring out exchange rates and navigating new cultural phenomena. In these scenarios you’re forced to problem solve, and sometimes you’ll have to decide whether or not to ask for help and then how to do so.


Then if you end up in a job that requires travel you’ll already be at least a little bit prepared. That never hurts.



Whoops, I should have turned left!

The English need to learn from the French how to riot…


Whether it’s drinking with strangers in a new city, negotiating with long-hauling taxi drivers, or suddenly finding oneself in the middle of a riot, you learn what you’re capable of and how you handle difficult situations in strange surroundings. While these aren’t always pleasant stories, being able to say you survived it and learned a valuable lesson goes a long way towards knowing you can handle anything. You learn what you didn’t know in a visceral way.


4. Have a hobby that involves teamwork and deadlines

This comes straight from my own list of weaknesses. Often in high school and university I would either go off on my own and finish a project because I didn’t want to “deal with” people who weren’t as sharp with the subject, or else I took charge and did the whole thing on my own because the team didn’t know the material as well. As a result I’ve learned to do and enjoy a lot of things on my own; however, it’s been a bit of a struggle to work in team environments and, yes, deal with helping the team learn the parts that I know better than they do.

As such I’m not good with deadlines, either. When it was just myself I didn’t mind taking a lower grade because things were late, and I didn’t learn enough of the self discipline to complete tasks before they’re due and give others time to collaborate. Teachers would always say that not doing your work doesn’t fly in the real world and – shock – they’re right! Sometimes I still practice my “coast until the night before” tactic but I wish I didn’t. It’s a tough habit to break, and I wish I’d learned to jump in line with deadlines much earlier in life.


Even Spider-Man plays on a team

Even Spider-Man plays on a team


There’s more to life than work, and most of these tips will help you find more enjoyment in life. Except maybe the math, unless you’re a nerd like me. We’re capable of more than we know: all it takes is a little bit of risk to grow.

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The Prodigal Cheesehead

Alternate title: American Woman


Often, people will say that the point of travelling is to learn how similar the world is – from Bangalore to Berlin to Bumblefuck, Wisconsin. It’s true, people all over the world typically have the same desires and struggles, and getting outside of one’s own backyard is essential to really accepting and understanding the world in which we live. However, past a certain point of globetrotting I came to a profound appreciation of America’s differences and even developed a preference for my own backyard.


This was never the case in my early youth. As long as I can remember, I dreamed of Spain where my grandparents had lived. I dreamed of the Philippines and the jungle, of Korea, of Turkey – the places my family had lived in the military. My grandmother collected souvenir spoons and I would marvel at the display, asking her if she really had visited every state stamped or painted onto the spoon. It was impossible to believe that one person could see so many places but still be my grandma from Chicago! This became my dream.


Early on I learned foreign languages. As childhood grew into the painful teenage years and young adulthood, I saw these languages as my ticket to another world. I always imagined life would be fundamentally different somewhere else, even if it wasn’t necessarily better. I would learn to drink coffee and eat strange French food, my love of romantic and medieval literature a buoy in the cultural tempest. I could travel to South America, my missionary’s accent overshadowed by my ability to adapt to new vocabularies and syntax. Gone would be the anguish of not having a family, since I would be thousands of miles away instead of in the same time zone, same state, even the same house. Always, I dreamed.


So I traveled. Cross country trips in the US are like visiting a foreign country – sometimes you find you can barely understand locals in Appalachia. It’s not the same as the Deep South, it’s not the same as anywhere. Even Minnesota and Illinois can be starkly different from central Wisconsin. As I made my first forays to France and Canada I reveled in the contrast to home. Being able to thrive (not just survive) in a language other than my mother tongue was thrilling! We discussed literature – from my favorite medieval topics to the great American writers of the 20th century. We all had something in common, even the Hungarian girl whose boyfriend had to translate for her. It felt wild.


I fell into the job I have now and travel came. I can be sent abroad for weeks at a time, traipsing through enough European countries to give my bank a heart attack. I love breakfast in Milan, Germany, Portugal; my favorite Thai food is in Sweden. People watching is the best in Amsterdam and Portugal because they’ve got such stunning population diversity. Despite these unique cultural differences the people I worked with all wanted the same things – time off to travel and healthy families; they all had the same hobbies like sports, fashion, reading, and photography; they all voiced the same frustrations with their government about corruption, the economy, fears of pollution and under-funding of public services. Sure, America is very different from Europe when we talk about social policy, but people everywhere want the same basic things.


Maybe it’s no surprise the epiphany came when I landed in JFK after spending two weeks in 5 different countries. I found myself ecstatic to land in a place where I had the right currency, inherently understood the local customs, and spoke the language with native fluency and had no worries about my idiomatic proficiency. Normally language barriers don’t phase me – even in Germany I spoke enough to get by in the shops and could understand printed directions well enough. I’ve been speaking French and Spanish since I was a young girl so it’s no sweat to spend my day “getting by”. Even in Lisbon I started to learn the language and now do fine in Portuguese. I get reimbursed for currency exchange fees and EVERYONE takes Visa. I have no fear about potentially embarrassing myself and learning new customs, so what’s the deal?


Sometimes it’s all just too much. I have no problem being sent abroad for weeks or months and adapting to new cultures, but all told I really appreciate being home. Charles Darwin said it’s not the most intelligent creatures that survive, but the ones most able to adapt, and I truly have taken that to heart. Even though the work is useful and necessary, it still takes a toll. I like instinctively knowing how to drive, order food, and talk to other people when I’m home in the US. I like knowing what’s popular and relevant, and I like having an idea of what the people around me are experiencing. I’ve been far too empathetic since I was a kid, and either I would be uncomfortable when others were or I would be yearning to learn new ways of living and experiencing the world. Maybe it’s a great thing when you’re a kid, since it drove me to learn and experience new things with little fear and a great deal of excitement. Now, I think I might not have the energy for it anymore.


So, yes, the world is a wonderful place full of new experiences and people who often share the same hopes and fears that we do. Get out and experience something different for a while – let it change you and broaden your perspective. Let me know if you don’t grow tired of it after some time and yearn to be home despite all the delicious breakfasts, cool clothes, and fun times you can have in these exotic places.

Categories: getting old, reflection, travel, Workaholic | Tags: , | Leave a comment

My Smartass 15 Year Old Self Wasn’t That Far Off…

Teenagers say crazy things and make terrible decisions, don’t they? With unrealistic expectations of the world and themselves, many are lucky to make it into adulthood with any sense of direction or purpose. I was especially naïve, sheltered from the world and unaware of my own capabilities. Luckily that lack of perspective led me to a pretty wild dream that’s kind of transforming my life as I realize it.

Daydreaming with fellow smartass coworkers one afternoon at the local burger joint, I boasted that I’d speak 7 languages as an adult and be a superstar international businesswoman. French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, German, Chinese, and Portuguese, if you’re curious. Now I’ve always had a knack for languages, but I had no idea it was possible to travel and speak French for a living since my career didn’t even exist in the early days of the internet. There were plenty of things I loved growing up, but as much as I loved math, biology, and the dozen instruments I played in band I couldn’t see myself pursuing any of those as a career. So, I studied French in college and focused on finding a job that would pay the bills until I figured out how to follow my passion of speaking French.


Fast forward to the present. No, I’m not a mogul, but I work for a European travel company and get to go spend time with our teams in a dozen countries. Fluent in French, I also get by with Spanish and spend more time with Portuguese, German, and Norwegian than I ever imagined. When I went to Italy I was able to read/understand about 80% of the signs, and since we work with the 3 major Nordic countries I’m often sifting through Swedish and Danish right alongside Norwegian. It’s only too bad the Latin I studied in college doesn’t get much opportunity to be used.

That afternoon in 1999 I picked Portuguese on a whim, trying to impress and out-do my friends. This was years before the birth and explosion of Orkut where we realized how many Brazilians there are online! I had no idea I’d spend 3 months living in Portugal.

Faro, Portugal

Faro, Portugal

I tried Arabic in college during Linguistics courses and frankly it’s totally lost on me. I traded French lessons for Russian lessons in college, but the learning was so slow going that my tutor and I gave up. Chinese never happened. It turns out that French has done more for me than I’d ever imagined, and being able to add German and Portuguese to my arsenal have opened more doors than I knew existed. Russian would also be helpful, but if I’m honest I just don’t have the time. For now.

I’ve always said that being able to speak Spanish is what kept me employed throughout school, but being fluent in French is what unlocked my current career path and has been a springboard to my professional success and happiness. Spanish never really grew on me, but relying on it for work is probably what kept that forgotten fire burning. Every time I remember my parents telling me not to study French in school because nobody speaks it, I look at my annual review and the stamps in my passport.


What other dreams did we have as teens and young adults that could also unlock our passions and drive us to happiness?

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Professional Adventurer!

In exactly two weeks an 12 hours I’ll be heading out to the airport for a work-required week in Europe. I have the luxury of landing on a Sunday and getting to take an extra day at the end to do some sight-seeing, and the rest of the time I will be shuttling between offices located in different countries.

It’s a hard life. I know.

The Houses of Parliament

Work’s challenging, but it’s the rest of it that’s driving me the kind of crazy my friend Amanda reserves only for her mother.  My job is kind of demanding but actually incredibly rewarding, so I can’t complain and am really interested in keeping it.  I noticed yesterday that some of the stress at home has been taking a toll on me mentally, diminishing my ability to pay attention to detail.  If that weren’t one of the key requirements for my position I wouldn’t freak out too much.

To put myself in a good humor yesterday I started looking at weekend getaways, either to stay with friends across the US or to take a road trip in my new(ish) car.  Yesterday evening the tension culminated in an atomic blow-out from the Girl Cookie so I made the decision that time to unwind is absolutely necessary.  Yes – even though I have a European Mini-Tour scheduled for two weeks from tomorrow morning.

The Fairmont Dallas. Best poolside waiters ever.

This time tomorrow I will be stretched out in a bikini on the beach (or just at my hotel pool) reading a book and having a drink.  Maybe I’ll hole up in the hotel room and play video games all night! Regardless, I’m going to be cherishing quality alone time without kids, pets, boyfriends, and any other responsibilities whatsoever.

Life doesn’t have to be hard 🙂

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I Am Not Your Mother – I Am James Bond

I know I haven’t posted in a while – there hasn’t been much to post about aside from family drama. Living with a 13-year-old who thinks she’s 23 can create drama.  Add into the mix the fact that I’m now an authority figure but neither her mother nor married to her father and it leads to nothing but trouble.

I’ll let you imagine that mess – no need to post about it.

What I have been up to lately, however, has been driving like I own a race car.  I have a speedy little import (manual transmission, dual exhaust), but it’s not tricked-out or anything.  When I drive it, though, I feel like I’m James Bond.  I love feeling like a spy, but it’s not quite satisfying my car-driving needs.

This is me, in my head

I have always loved driving and road trips. I don’t have to be behind the wheel in order to enjoy a good ride, either. Riding along is soothing – the motion of the car, observing the surroundings, even cursing out other bonehead drivers.  When I was just a tot, before I went to school, I learned how to read a map. Ever since I’ve been my family’s official navigator, even for the long trips from the Midwest to the South.

Since I’ve been able to drive I’ve seen my car as a sanctuary – the open road inviting and really my only destination. A radio, a few snacks, and sunglasses were all I need, maybe even an overnight bag. I’ve always felt that roads are inviting, calling me to “come and find!” whatever’s beyond the horizon. It sounds cliché, but that’s really my experience as a driver.

My first car was old but it had a 3.1L V6 and was extremely fuel efficient. I used to drive from Wisconsin to Toledo and Detroit on a regular basis (sometimes just on a few hours’ notice) when I was just barely out of high school.  The last time I went to Detroit I made the great circle – I went south on 94 to Detroit and came home through the UP and highway 2 through Eastern Wisconsin. It took forever, but the beauty of the Northwoods and the craziness of the people who live there was absolutely worth it.

Mackinaw Bridge, connecting the two Michigan peninsulas

I used to make the 20-hour drive between Wisconsin/Minnesota and Western Virginia in 14-16 hours. Central Illinois is pretty flat and boring, aside from the one windmill farm you pass on your way to Bloomington/Normal.  Just like the main peninsula of Michigan, everyone’s going 85-100 mph and the roads are mostly straight.

You have the stretch from Kentucky to the Appalachian Mountains where you can’t get away with speeding (unless you want to whip yourself off the side of a mountain) but the curves are thrilling to maneuver. You can look out the window on a bridge and not be able to see how far below the ground is. A minute later you can look out the window to see rock walls and have trouble craning your neck to see the tops.

McAfee's Knob, overlooking the Blue Ridge Parkway

My latest road trips were from the Midwest to Las Vegas and I didn’t have the good fortune of driving a car built for the thrill of the road. My first trip to the desert was through Nebraska/Colorado/Utah in a pile of crap that was barely capable of going 70 mph. The speed limit for much of this route is 70+ mph, so I was not popular on the rare occasion there were other drivers on the highway.  The mountains of Colorado are delightful if you’re driving anything other than what amounts to a shopping cart with the brakes stuck on.

I-70 heading into Utah

I drove a friend from Vegas to Florida because she didn’t want to ship her car. Oklahoma tried to kill us with rain, but the characters we met in Florida were worth it.

Pro tip: Clearwater is a great place to visit, if you ignore that’s where Scientology is headquartered.  The Tampa area is pretty awesome, but I like the beaches in Clearwater the best.

Last year I made the trip through South Dakota/Wyoming/Utah in a car that was slightly better suited to the trip. It was tiny and I was able to go 85 mph without the car falling apart.

Western Wyoming, near Rock Springs

My new car is DEFINITELY suited for the adventures of the open road.  The only problem with my new car is that I don’t want to crank  up the miles just yet. I plan on keeping the car until it’s old and dead but the idea still nags at me. I want to cut loose and explore the mountains and desert of Northern/Central Nevada, Arizona, and maybe even California.  The 215 and the 95 have some fun stretches, but they don’t quite satisfy the way the open road does.

For now, I’ll settle for feeling like a spy/race car driver when I’m putzing around town. Zoom zoom!

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