FEATURED POSTS

Julie smoking a cigarette.

What I learned from my visit to the Island.

People always warn me about moving to a remote place. “The healthcare isn’t good there.” I would argue that healthcare as a whole includes access to fresh and local foods, a slower pace of life, and access to clean air. The first thing I remarked to my partner when I stepped foot on the ground in Charlottetown was that I could smell the salt in the air. It smelled good…

Artists don't stop.

Artists don't stop.

They wait, or they repress. But once born an artist, you’re always an artist. This is a personal story. Music has always been a trigger for me. “Trigger”, these days, has a negative connotation. But, in my case, music has always triggered a deep desire to create. Music is the ‘on switch’. Tonight, while listening to Fleche Love, the switch was tripped and I went down memory lane in my head

Why I talk to Uber drivers.

Why I talk to Uber drivers.

I took an Uber to a local store today to buy myself a new microscope. An Eritrean man, we started talking about culture and immigration. “You speak Tigrinya, right?”. A huge smile appeared on his face. “You know that?!”, he said. Of course. I’ve known people from all over the world, including Eritrea. I remember what people tell me and I store that in my little ‘bank of stories’ inside my head…

Finding work as a podcast talk show host

Am I a talk show host, an interviewer, a journalist?

 

When you discover that you’re really good at interviewing people, and you discover that you love doing it, it’s normal to want to do more of it, especially paid work! The problem is, what do you call someone who is specialized in interviewing people for new media? With more and more media available to us today, this becomes a problem because a person who is specialized in interviews now has a whole new array of shows available to them. Podcasts and livestreams are taking over traditional media, and now companies are hiring hosts and personalities for their own shows.

So, the problem remains. If you want to do interviews, are you a voice talent? Are you a talk show host? An interviewer, or a journalist? What do you type in Google? The word “podcast host” would make sense. However, a “podcast host” is actually also the name for the company that hosts podcast shows. In other words, a podcast host is a server-based service (much like a web hosting company). So imagine my frustration when I type the words “podcast host” into a Google search and find nothing relevant to what I’m looking for. If this were the old days, I’d just look for “talk radio host”. At least that was succinct and everyone knew what that meant. Now, there’s no agreed-upon term, and most of us use “podcast host” anyway – you know, the other “host”. It’s confusing, I know.

(And while a lot of people prefer to self-produce their own shows and grow them, I love the idea of just interviewing people and not having to do the rest. I already have my own show, but I’m wondering what else is out there. I have spare time. That’s why I’m looking.)

 

Referrals work, for now.

 

It seems like referrals are a good way to get work if you’re a modern-day podcast host or livestream personality. If you already host your own show, and if people really enjoy your interviews (including your guests), then it’s very possible that you’ll get referred to someone who’s looking for talent like yours. 

The thing is, as hard as it is for a modern talk show host to find work, it’s even harder for an organization that’s looking for talent. A traditional voice actor might not have the right skills to conduct unscripted interviews. Best bet might be to look for a journalist. But, a news journalist might also not be the right fit to do long-form interviews. So, it’s tricky for us, and it’s tricky for people who are seeking to hire someone. 

Upwork and Fiverr are pretty useless right now as their ‘voice talent’ categories seem to be geared towards voice actors, narrators, and announcers, but not towards journalism or talk show hosting. I have found many postings for podcast work, including hosting, on Indeed. Other than that, a company that’s looking to hire a talk show host could start by listening to podcasts, or asking people for referrals on social media. Chances are, someone knows someone who’s hosting their own podcast these days!

 

Interviewing is a beautiful specialty

 

There’s nothing more beautiful than interviewing someone. I know, I sound like the artist that I am, but I mean it. It takes careful consideration to peel away the layers of a person’s personality or to extract their knowledge. You have to keep your nerves intact if they’re a celebrity. You have to listen carefully. You have to know when to interrupt – some guests ramble on forever. If you’re interviewing an expert, like a scientist, then you have to find a way to get them to explain their expertise in plain English if your audience isn’t full of academics and nerds. Interviewing can be really hard!

Thing is, it’s just the art of asking questions. And like all forms of art, the best of interviews are driven by curiosity. You can tell when an interview is scripted and prepped. The questions might work when they’re laid out ahead of time, but discussions can diverge, guests can bring up something unexpected, they might even shy away from a topic that’s not ready to be discussed yet. And, if you stick to a script, you’re losing the whole vibe of the interview.

I knew that I was good at interviewing when people, especially strangers, gave me their entire life stories. I practiced, intentionally, on cab drivers and Uber drivers. I practiced with partners – some who later felt like they were being interrogated. Sorry – curiosity also needs to be contained, sometimes. That’s how you learn. You find balance by practicing. 

Even now, I don’t feel like I’m an expert; I don’t know if I’ll ever be. But, I feel like I’ve attained a sufficient amount of skill in communicating to not feel like an imposter. I feel worthy of being paid for my work.

 

To unionize or not unionize

 

As it turns out, interview work falls into the same category as voice acting, voice-overs, and audio journalism. That news anchor on TV? They’re unionized. The radio host you’re listening to is unionized, too. The documentary narrator? Unionized. In Canada, there’s a union that handles all voice talent called ACTRA. The equivalent in the U.S. is SAG-AFTRA

Should you unionize for podcast work? Beats me! I honestly don’t know if it’s worth it. Remember that with a union, you have to pay union dues. You also have to follow a strict set of rules that limit the kind of work you’re allowed to do as a ‘voice talent’. You also end up with amazing perks and benefits. I was recently contacted for podcast work, so I contacted the most trusted person I know in the industry. She suggested that I join the union, but this wasn’t a union project. The truth is, I’ve yet to hear of a union project for podcast work in Canada.

So, are there enough podcasting jobs available in Canada to warrant union representation? I don’t think so, not yet. I don’t think there’s enough podcasting work anywhere, other than in the United States. American companies are really catching up, and many big corps are creating their own podcasts. American non-profits, especially in Science and Tech, are also starting their own shows. “Science Communication” is HOT right now, and there’s a whole slew of people who call themselves “science communicators” – I happen to be one of them (though I don’t ONLY do science-based communication). There are many podcast jobs available in the U.S., but not so many here in Canada.

If I were to see an opening for a podcast host position with a major broadcaster, you bet I’d unionize. If a Canadian science org wanted me to host their livestreams, I’d unionize. Barring that, you go where the work is to get your start. Larry King was a UPS driver who really wanted to do radio. So, he moved to Miami because someone told him that there were non-unionized jobs there, and he could get his first start faster. So, it really depends on the opportunities available. If we were to compare this to acting, because unionized film and tv productions are really big here, I’d unionize as an actor. It’s the first thing I’d do. As a non-scripted voice talent though, my union options are too limited.

 

Start the process, share the process

 

If there’s anything I’ve learned from every other project I’ve done, if you want to do something, you have to start talking about it. Seriously. How often have I seen someone post an update saying they were looking for work, but they didn’t even specify what kind of work they were looking for? If you want to interview people for a living, then a) start interviewing people and b) start telling people that that’s what you want to do more than anything else in your life. If you have a passion for something, SHARE IT. Because that’s how referrals happen.

I think the worst thing someone can do is to say they want to do something, but they just wait. Or they’ve done it a couple of times, and they just keep waiting for the next potential client to call. I have the type of personality that doesn’t do well with just waiting. I’m extremely patient. But, I’d rather get things done and keep growing while I wait. That means self-produced projects, trying new things, adding a second, third, or fourth project. It means learning things by doing, and doing them over and over and over again. I want to master stuff – not just do it for gig work.

I have all the time in the world right now. A lot of creative people have a lot of time right now due to the pandemic, too. This is a GREAT time to learn new skills, and to practice, practice, practice. It’s like boxing. You can do all these fancy combos, but you gotta keep practicing the jab. The most basic punch is the one you’ll use the most, anyway. So, keep jabbing. Film it, post it, share it with the world. Eventually, something will come up.

 

 

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Want to hire me for your show? Let’s talk: fill out this form, or contact me directly at julielaurin AT gmail DOT com.

Promoting a podcast

Podcast promotion is HARD

 

The question “how to promote a podcast” comes up ALL the time on Reddit, in FB groups, on Twitter, etc. Generally-speaking, podcasts are created by one person, and that person handles every facet of the show, from production to hosting to marketing. As someone who hosts and produces her own show, I can tell you this: it’s far too much work for one person to do, especially in their spare time. But still, we do it. And many of us do it because we absolutely love the process, and we think there’s a place in the world for our idea. There are all kinds of shows out there, all because one person came up with an idea that other people enjoy as well. When you create a podcast, you take a chance. 

The reason why podcast promotion is hard is because marketing, in general, is hard. Whether you call it promotion, marketing, advertising, sharing, whatever – it’s all hard. And that’s because a lot of us start shows without having huge online communities of our own in place. It’s not that hard for celebrities or existing online personalities to get traction. It IS hard for ‘nobodies’ to find their audience.

 

First, treat your guests like gold

 

First off, forget about promotion. Forget about marketing. If you do an interview show, treat your guests like gold. Why? Because they’re more likely to help you promote the show. They’re more likely to recommend other guests. And, you’re more likely to be seen as a professional and not just some hobbyist who’s in it for the money. Take my word, you don’t create a podcast to make money. The phrase “monetize a podcast” should just die, because it can take years to make a bit of money online and too many people think they can make that happen in just a few weeks, after just a few episodes.

No, forget all that. Your guests come first. Show up on time for the recording, manage their expectations as to how long the recording will take, say your goodbyes and then get to work. Recording is the easy part. Creating content to show off your interview and your guests is the most tedious part of all. Even editing takes less time. But, trust me, all of the content you create, whether they’re audiograms, quote cards, YouTube clips, all of that goes towards a build-up of quality content that will help you – AND YOUR GUESTS – down the road. Remember: it isn’t about you. It’s about them.

Below, you’ll see that I create a wide variety of social media content for each guest, for each episode. I send that to them the day before the podcast episode airs. I use it for the podcast’s own promotion, but this is a fantastic way for a guest to promote themselves on their websites and social media accounts too!

An example of content I create for each guest

 

There are rules, and then, there are YOUR rules

 

I’ve found a lot of podcast marketing literature to be completely useless because it pretends to follow a formula that, even when you follow it, doesn’t always provide you with the best of results. Instead, I think it’s best to do some things your own way. For example, one of the most common recommendations in the podcast marketing world is to promote your show in Facebook groups. I roll my eyes at this. Not because it doesn’t work – it sometimes does. But, it’s not applicable to everyone. Also, many FB groups that permit promotion end up being deluged by commercial posts. The other thing is, who’s your audience?? Do they even use Facebook? 

For my own show, I’ve found that I get better traction on Twitter. I have a FB page and an Instagram account, but to be honest with you all – I’m thinking of blowing them out of the water. They’re both a pain to manage and the only real way to get traction on these two networks these days is through ads. If you have an ad budget, or if you have an existing group or large following on FB, then of course – use it! If not, it’s not a wise game to play. Unless you feel like it. 

So, just make up your own rules based on what’s a good fit for your podcast. I use the term “rules” lightly, by the way. What I really mean is this: test things out. See what works. Cast a wide net, and see where there’s traction. Get rid of the places where people aren’t interested. Try a new network. Try TikTok or Pinterest. “But, that takes so much time!” Yeah, it does. It’s hard, remember? 

 

Create good content

 

No, but seriously, how many times does it have to be said? Create solid content that isn’t always about promotion. There’s nothing wrong with having a Twitter account for your show where you tweet clips from episodes or post quote cards. In fact, I do this regularly on Twitter. But, there’s gotta be more. If you’re a writer, then write a blog about the topic, niche or genre of your show. A murder mystery podcaster could start a blog about famous real-life murder stories. A boxing podcaster could interview boxers and then post about their individual careers in a separate blog article. If you’re better at videos, then do weekly shows on YouTube, on top of the podcast episodes. Create a piece of content every single day. Use Canva. Use Headliner. Use whatever tools at your disposal. 

Over and over again, I see podcasters create a show, post a handful of episodes, promote their episodes on a social network or two and then a month later, they say “nothing’s working”. I hate to break it to ya, but again, if you don’t have an ad budget, you’ve gotta rely on what we call “organic growth”. That means, working your butt off on creating a ton of content to grow your show, your website, and your social media accounts.

The best way to do this is to set a schedule, much like you’d set a schedule to record. Except, this time, you’re setting up a schedule to create images, videos and/or blog posts. Even if it’s just 30min a day, that adds up! It takes me about 12 hours to create all of the content to promote ONE episode. That includes YouTube clips, audiograms, quote cards, tags, and sometimes, a transcript. On top of that, I’ve begun setting up a new schedule to write a new blog article every Tuesday. Your schedule will be different based on your available time, and what kind of content you want to produce for your show. Just stick to it. You’ll see that you’ll get into a groove after a while!

 

Even a great show takes time to show results

 

If you’re in a rush, if you think you’ll make a living at podcasting in the next 12-24 months, get out of the game. There’s a reason why studios have engineers, hosts, admin staff, booking agents, marketers, strategists, content creators, and producers. If you’re doing it all on your own, you have to play every role. And, I guarantee you, the marketing/content creation role will take more time than all of the others combined. Even if your show is absolutely fantastic, if you’re a fairly new face in the online world, it’ll take a long while to start seeing your audience growing. 

If you really, truly enjoy doing it, then have some faith that over a year or two, you’ll start seeing some loyal audience members give you good ratings, sharing your show, telling their friends about it. I started seeing this after just a few months. It feels really nice to see someone publicly recommend your podcast to other people. And some shows, even the most deserving ones, just never manage to break through all the noise. There are so many new podcasts these days that it’s just getting harder and harder to get noticed. Just give it time. Keep improving the quality. Keep blogging or creating additional content. If you know basic SEO, make your website more searchable. And, if you don’t have a website: get one!

 

In the end, you’re learning new skills

 

Whether your podcast becomes more popular or not, you’re learning new skills just by being a podcaster. I setup an alert on Indeed the other day for podcasting gigs, and there are so many jobs available to skilled podcasters now! Worse comes to worse, you could work as an engineer, as a producer, or as a host. I’ve decided to specialize in interview shows. It’s what I love the most about podcasting: interviewing people. Podcasting has made it possible to get radio experience without having to find a job in the radio industry. That’s a HUGE step forward for us.

Other than that, as you start to market your show, you’re learning more about content creation, content marketing, search engine optimization. See? It’s never a waste of time. Plus, your guests are getting promotion through your show. The more effort you put into it, the more you gain from it, especially from a professional standpoint. Make sure to put your podcast on your resume because it is a job, it is work, and it absolutely involves a whole slew of transferable skills that you can show off to your future employer, or to your future clients should you decide to do consulting.

Make the most out it. I do wish I could be more help, but the hard truth is that without throwing money at it, the best way to promote your show is to keep doing it, diversify the content, post every day, expand the website, find the social networks that work for you, and treat your guests like they’re kings and queens. Think about it: it’s YOUR show. You’ve created a show that’s online for anyone and everyone to hear. You’ve put your own little mark on the world. That alone is a pretty cool thing. Give it time, and who knows, maybe that’ll be your legacy.

 

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Want to hire me for your show? Let’s talk: fill out this form, or contact me directly at julielaurin AT gmail DOT com.

 

Why you should hire a podcast host

Podcasting as a new profession

I felt I needed to write this because there’s not a lot of information out there on podcast hosting as a profession. A lot of podcasters just host their own show. That works sometimes. But, I sincerely believe that many podcasts fail because the host isn’t good. Sometimes, the guests can be a problem too (and that’s a topic for a different post). But, a lot of show producers who become their own hosts are learning a harsh lesson: it might be better to hire someone for the job instead.

How I became a podcast host

Recently, I was asked to host a new podcast for a private company. I spent many weeks prior to that doing research to find out if “podcast host” was even a potential career path. This offer was unexpected; it’s as though Lady Luck had read my mind. So yes, I’m interested. And I hope I get many more offers like this down the line. When I was younger, I hired a career coach. After getting to know me for a long while, she bluntly said to me: “you need to be doing documentaries”. She told me to put everything aside and to concentrate on that. Thing is, this was the 90’s. Documentaries were expensive. I didn’t want to be a filmmaker – I wanted to be the one interviewing people. In a small town in northern Ontario, there was no way in hell I could make a living at it. So, I never pursued it.

But, I spent years and years practicing on taxi drivers and Uber drivers. I kid you not. Every single time I hopped in a car, I had one goal: learn everything I can about that driver. I have incredible stories about them in my head. Stories of fear, stories of loss, stories of war, and stories of immigrating to Canada. I practiced because I knew… one day, I’d do this for a living.

When I started my podcast, I knew this was my chance to finally interview people that I found interesting. Interviewing people for a podcast is just like interviewing people for the radio, for a talk show, or for a documentary. It’s a little bit different, especially these days, as the host and guest can be in two completely different hemispheres. The other thing is, as a remote host, if you have your own studio, you’re also an engineer and a producer. So, hiring a voice talent to host your podcast when they have their own home studio is a huge advantage for anyone who’s starting out a new podcast.

 Interviewing Sandrine Lafond for Planet B612

Not everyone is good at interviewing guests

I listen to a lot of podcasts, especially on YouTube (did you know that most Canadians listen to podcasts on YouTube?!). I absolutely love interview shows, especially with experts, whether it be health-related, history, science or politics. Thing is, so many of the podcast hosts out there are just awful. They don’t let their guest speak, they interrupt with nervous giggles or the dreadful “mmhmm” every five seconds. You don’t need to acknowledge every word that comes out of your guest’s mouth. Shut up and listen so that your audience can hear what they have to say. Thing is, a lot of these new shows are hosted by famous people or academics, but these people lack talent in interviewing guests.

I learned from the best

My favourite interviewer is Larry King. The reason I enjoy him so much is because he’s quick to the point, he’s direct, he lets his guest answer the question, but he doesn’t hesitate to interrupt when something needs clarification. A lot of guests have already rehearsed their responses, especially if they anticipate you’ll ask a question they’re already familiar with. It takes a keen sense of curiosity to get them to pause for a moment and answer something truthfully. Even in interviews with scientists about a particular topic, you still require some authenticity to make the interview enjoyable. Larry has said that he never prepares his interviews ahead of time. He lets his curiosity drive it. I think that’s the best way to do things. I tried both: prepared, and unprepared. And I found that preparing too much makes the interview sound dull. There is such a thing as too much planning.

Louis Theroux is another interview that I really enjoy. In his case, he has a very raw approach to interviewing guests. He just goes with whatever question comes up in his head. He doesn’t comment on anything. That’s an important one because some hosts like to comment and their comments drag on and on and on (I’m looking at you Joe Rogan). Howard Stern was a bit like that too – very blunt, curious questions, “why”, “why not”, “what do you think”. Louis and Howard have one more quality that works really well for interviewers: they remain themselves the entire time. After a few episodes, you can tell who they are. Louis has that beautiful sense of innocence about him, and Howard has an undying curiosity that digs into the darker side of things.

Podcast entertainers

A lot of podcast hosts also try to be entertaining. Thing is, that works if you’re already an entertainer. But, it doesn’t work for a lot of people. And it doesn’t work for a lot of shows. Again, the show has to be geared towards entertaining people. Personally, I knew early on that I’m not an entertainer. I want answers to stuff and I get bored easily by guests who rehearse their answers, so I don’t let them. I like keeping a serious tone because that’s who I am. If someone asked me to host a show that was geared to entertain people, I wouldn’t do it. There’s one thing I haven’t had a chance to do yet: interviewing regular people. I’d love a chance to do that because, much like Louis, I find everyone fascinating.

Look for the best

If you’re hiring, you have to find the best person for the job. Podcast hosts and voice talent come in different flavours. A lot of voice actors aren’t good interviewers. And a lot of interviewers aren’t good at voice acting! Look for the best for what you’re trying to accomplish. If you want to start a new interview show, a documentary program or a news show, look for an interviewer. If you want scripted commercials, scripted shows or entertainment, look for voice actors and voice talent. And look for the best. Nothing spells disaster more quickly for a podcast than a really bad host.

A lot of voice actor are represented by agents, so keep that in mind. Podcast interviewers are largely unrepresented, mostly because it’s such a new field. Just because someone is represented by a union or an agency doesn’t mean they’re the best person for the job. But, they might be. Don’t let that be a deciding factor. First, listen to their demo, learn about their style, figure out if they’re a good fit. It CAN be easier to just go to an agency to get candidates. Plus, you know ahead of time that there’s a higher level of professionalism involved. As a former film producer, I only worked on unionized projects. But, I’ve also worked with non-union talent that blew my mind away. So, as a producer myself, I’d advise other producers to take time to look for the right person.

What does it cost to hire a podcast host?

Whether you’re looking for a podcast interviewer or a voice actor, the costs associated with that can really vary depending on what you need. Things to consider include the length of the show, how many episodes, the licensing agreements, the amount of time spent on research and recording, etc. Put it this way, don’t expect to get the right talent for $100. You’re looking at a few thousand dollars per episode for non-union talent and even more for union talent. Why? Because that person is giving you their voice (and if on video, their person) for YOUR project, and depending on the agreement, that can be for a lifetime. A lot of projects also have non-compete clauses, and other unfavourable terms that hosts and actors have to sign off on. A fully produced show with paid talent can cost you upwards of $50,000.

The future is remote

I really believe that the future of radio, the future of podcasting and to a certain extent, video shows is remote. A remote podcast host with their own studio will cut down your costs because you don’t have to pay for studio rental. In some cases, you won’t need an engineer either. Personally, I’ve made it a goal to get the best gear so that I can offer that to future producers. I don’t do editing – that’s a whole other beast. But even editing has gone remote, and you can hire editors anywhere around the world these days. As a remote podcaster, I do include a studio fee and/or wear and tear fee to my contract provisions because while you won’t have to pay for rental, it still puts wear and tear on my gear! I believe in fair arrangements, and in the end, if you can find a well equipped and highly talented host for your show, it’s a win-win.

Want to hire me for your show? Let’s talk: fill out this form, or contact me directly at julielaurin AT gmail DOT com.

Writing for fun

I was reading a post the other day written by a marketer who felt that marketing professionals with blogs that are rarely updated shouldn’t be hired as marketers. Of course, he failed to differentiate between personal and business blogs, and he felt that if a marketer isn’t adhering to the right blogging format, then they have no place coaching clients on how to do marketing. Naturally, I disagreed with him. In my eyes, there’s a massive difference between a marketer’s personal life and their professional life. A marketer can do whatever they want with their personal spaces online. And, in a way, they should, because nothing’s more boring than a marketing professional who only lives and breathes marketing. What inspires their ideas if they’ve got nothing else going on in their life?

Back in the 90’s, the Internet was a much wilder place. We created websites as experiments. We said whatever we wanted in forums. We tried new things all the time. Many of us had websites that served no business purpose at all, other than to put our thoughts down, share our art and see who could create the flashiest banners and the coolest music to greet new visitors. We grew up with big hair, Saturday morning cartoons, Atari, breakdancing and Conan the Barbarian. We viewed the web as a new playground. And in the hands of curious and playful individuals, anything was possible. We nerded out with HTML until 3 in the morning. Sleepovers weren’t to watch movies. They were to create new things together, online.

Fast forward to 2020 and everything has changed. Your boss is spying on your online activity, your insurance company is making sure you don’t have a side gig, and blogs are used for monetization. Heck, the word “blog” didn’t even exist back in the 90’s. We just called it “writing shit down”. And “content”? Didn’t exist either. Content was still called art, photographs, code, pictures, music and backgrounds. We didn’t use industry terms because we were rebels, and we were ahead of the curve. Big industry didn’t start meddling in the web until much later. For a while, it was ours.

I don’t think we’ll ever be able to go back to the way things were. That time has passed. Everything is corporate-owned, surveillance is in place, censorship runs rampant, your data isn’t yours, etc. It’s not ours anymore, as a whole. (I suppose it never was, but it felt like it.) Thing is, there’s one thing you can still do: create your own website and make it your very own space online. We have to get rid of this idea that everything has to be practical these days. Not every blog needs to be optimized and not every website has to be a business idea.

You CAN write just for fun. Heck, you can create a website and put ANYTHING on it. You can make it autoplay banjo tunes or post rhinoceros pictures every day. You can write three-word sentences on every page and create a million pages. (Actually, that might not work, but heck, try it!). A website can still be a place online for you to share and explore, just for the sake of sharing and exploring. You can use it as your own playground to try out new ideas. There are billions of websites out there and maybe nobody will see it, but who cares? It’s YOURS.

There’s so much pressure these days to create something and monetize it that we’ve lost the art of being playful in the digital landscape just for the sake of being playful. I write this blog just ’cause I feel like it. It serves no other purpose. It’s not optimized. I’m not a marketer here. I’m Julie. A person who writes and shares ideas whenever she feels like it without really caring if anyone reads it. I have other projects and a business website for sharing other ideas. But this place right here? This is my little treehouse that I built with my own hands and I can paint it whatever colour I want.

It doesn’t matter what the industry thinks you should do what your time. In the end, you’re always free to do your own thing. And in a way, it feels good to write without the pressure of having to make a buck off of it. Write for fun and write to be honest. Create a space that’s yours… because you can.

How to find your voice

If there’s one thing that runs true through all of the interviews, and all of the conversations I’ve had with artists throughout the years, it’s this: you’re not gonna get anywhere by becoming a carbon copy of somebody else. You have to find that “thing” that makes you interesting. You have to give yourself a chance to find your own voice, and put it out there. It’s a tough fact to deal with because finding your own voice involves dealing with a lot of vulnerability. It means having to take the time to learn more about yourself. Thing is, there’s nothing wrong with copying other people. In fact, it’s almost necessary to do so, especially if you want to be successful in any way.

Copying other people’s work isn’t a new strategy. Everyone does it. You can’t present someone else’s work as your own, but you can most certainly create in the same style that they do. You can paint like Dali or sing like Elton John. For the most part, it’s good practice. It teaches you how an expert did it. And later, there’s a good chance you’ll take what you’ve learned from other people and you’ll find a way to shape it into something that’s new. You might roll your “r” the way Edith Piaf did, but you’ll combine that with a performative stomp, or a long silence after the bridge. We all steal from others. Julian White compares making art to cooking: a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Eventually, you create a meal that’s your own, a meal that’s interesting to you, and to others.

So, how do you find that one thing that’s really you? You practice. You practice a lot. When I took up podcasting, I didn’t know what I was doing. I still don’t know what I’m doing. I do know how to interview people. I’ve been casually interviewing cab drivers and UBER drivers for over twenty years now. I’d go on dates with women and some would tell me they felt like they were being interviewed. I can’t help it, I’m curious. That’s been innate in me my whole life. What I don’t know yet is what kind of interviewer I want to be. I’ve recorded six episodes so far, and each one has been a bit different. I’ve been changing my approach after each recording, like throwing darts at a board and seeing which one hits the bull’s eye. Which approach feels best?

The interviewers I most admire are Larry King, Howard Stern, and to a certain extent, Joe Rogan. Yeah, Joe Rogan. You know why? Because I admire his ability to just ask whatever question comes up in his head, no matter who the guest is. But, I’m not a huge fan of his rants, so that’s something I try to stay away from. I also don’t like it when an interviewer interrupts the guest’s flow by inserting “mmhmm” and “yeah” throughout their response. I hate that. So, I don’t do it. What Larry and Howard have in common is the same thing I love about Joe: they ask unusual questions, simply out of curiosity. These three people serve as a reminder of what I want to get closer to. What makes me different, other than the fact that I’m a woman? I don’t know yet. I don’t have my finger on it. Because I haven’t practiced enough. And I might not learn what the secret sauce is until many years pass by. Or, who knows, it might unveil itself next Monday.

The point is, you can only learn any of this stuff by doing. And then you adjust. You go into it knowing you don’t know anything. You do it, you forgive yourself for being imperfect, and you keep going. Most people stop too early, they give up and aren’t patient enough with themselves. Some people don’t grow at all. They don’t even take the time to adjust or change things up. Again, a lot of that has to do with vulnerability. You have to be ready to open up, and show the world that you’re still a beginner at something. You have to be open to trying new things, new formats, new approaches. You have to accept the fact that these things take time. And you have to do it with a special kind of awareness: is this really me, or is this someone else’s voice?

There’s so much bullshit in blogs and forums out there about “finding your voice” and “being unique”. I’ll tell it to you bluntly: the only way to find your voice, is by doing. Be patient, be vulnerable, be aware, and just fucking do it.

Artists don’t stop.

They wait, or they repress. But once born an artist, you’re always an artist. This is a personal story.

Music has always been a trigger for me. “Trigger”, these days, has a negative connotation. But, in my case, music has always triggered a deep desire to create. Music is the ‘on switch’. Tonight, while listening to Fleche Love, the switch was tripped and I went down memory lane in my head. I traveled back to Montreal, to my heydays of creation. What happened? Why did I stop? I have a lot of explanations for “why”, including the fact that the process of creation – while it’s beautiful and intense – also provokes a sense of recklessness in me.

See, there’s something that people who aren’t artists don’t understand. The act of creation, the impetus to create, generates a sort of high that can’t even be described with words. I used to think that science was close to art. Sure, the process of exploration is similar, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that the creation of art is more closely related to the adrenaline rush of hitting a punching bag or going for a long run. Runners recognize this as the “runner’s high”. Competitive athletes can probably recall moments during competition when they couldn’t hear their coach’s yell, when it felt like time traveled in slow-motion. The creative process feels a lot like that. It’s like a substance within us that takes over, a substance not that different from a stimulant (and I suppose it’s no wonder several artists have turned to alcohol or heroin to tame their demon).

So, what does it feel like when you’re an artist that has stopped? Well, it doesn’t feel like a stoppage at all. It feels more like waiting. Patiently waiting. There’s a Portuguese word, “saudade”, that describes an immense longing and a sense of mourning. I suppose that’s what it feels like when you can’t call on the muse or even access her anymore. That is, it feels that way until the music plays. To be honest, you know what it feels like right now? It feels like being a carpenter without any tools. A carpenter doesn’t cease being a carpenter when he doesn’t have tools. He just longs for the feeling of timber between his hands.

I’m not sure what it is that I’m longing for. Collaboration, perhaps. Peace, more space, more time. It just isn’t right yet. Not yet. And that’s the real bitch about creation: you can’t force it. You can’t take it out of you and produce something mediocre and hope it goes away. You can’t wish the right conditions. Sure, if you’ve made it a vocation, there are ways to manipulate your circumstances in a way that favour creativity. But when it’s not an immediate priority in your life, you have to wait. And it doesn’t matter what kind of artist you are, if you’ve had even some modicum of success, the thought that’s always on your mind is, “will they forget me?”. They might. Some won’t. But the truth of the matter is this: you can’t forget yourself. If you’re an artist, you will always be an artist, even if you’re not producing at this very moment. Even if you try something new. Even if you work as hard as you can to repress who you really are. The thing is, that’s with you for life. Like it or not.

Ten things I’ve learned from livestreaming

I’d been interested in livestreaming for a VERY long time. I was always scared of doing it though. What would I say? What would be a fun topic to explore? Who would listen? It wasn’t until I became obsessed with the microscopic world that things made sense. This is what I want to livestream. Funnily enough, I setup a Twitch account the day before one of my posts went viral. It was total happenstance. I’ve been streaming on Twitch since March 2020, and my stream has been doing quite well. So, here’s what I’ve learned:

1) Going viral seems like a fun idea, until it actually happens!

Going viral, from my experience, is something that happens by pure luck. There isn’t an exact formula for it, and I never saw it coming. A friend of mine recommended that I should start posting content to Imgur. Curious, I decided to upload a clip of a Tardigrade. It wasn’t even a high quality clip. It was just the first clip that I found when I was browsing content on my phone. And, it exploded. It hit over 180K views, and the top voted comment was that I should stream to Twitch. It became clear to me that it’s something people would want to see – COOL! Except now, I had to manage a bazillion comments and messages… because the online media picked up on it. BoingBoing published an article, Futurist published something, it eventually ended up on Google News. Going viral is a great boost, but the management of it can be a bit of a nightmare if it wasn’t something you’d anticipated. My Twitch channel went from 0 followers to over 1000, almost overnight. (And yeah, I’ve checked, no bots!). I suddenly felt a bit of pressure. Ok, a lot of pressure. But, to be blunt, the pressure was all in my head. As it turns out, the audience I’d gained was about to make my life a lot easier.

2) Your first few streams will be terrible, and that’s ok!

The pressure of going viral was imagined, because, as it turns out, people who regularly watch livestreams totally expect you to suck at first. They don’t actually care too much about mic or image quality, despite what all of the livestreaming articles say online. If people love an idea, they’ll be patient with you as you finetune your stream. In fact, some of them will even help you out. And even more remarkable, they’ll do it for free, out of kindness, because they want to see you succeed. So, expect to suck at first. If you go into it thinking you’ll be a pro, you’ll fail hard because you’ll be trying too hard. Take it easy, relax, get your bearings. Figure out how it works, you’ll get the hang of it. Most important thing is to simply get started.

3) Keep improving, and let your community help you.

While Twitch and Youtube and other livestreaming options get a bad rap for trolling and bullying, I haven’t experienced any of that. Instead, I’ve been surrounded by a very warm and kind community that has helped me out to the best of their ability, whenever they can. They genuinely want me to succeed, which is amazing! Thing is, you’ve got to do your part too. Give them something that’s worth their while. That means, keep learning and improving. Keep improving your audio, your visuals, your overlays and widgets. Keep trying new things, get feedback, spend time at night reading about chatbots and loyalty perks. The livestreaming experience is a constant give and take, and it goes both ways. If you want to do well, show these people that you’re making an effort, too.

4) Livestream apps aren’t user-friendly at all.

All I can say about this is that it’s abundantly clear that livestream apps were designed for and by nerds. Since Twitch and livestreaming in general has been dominated by gamers, and many of them are also coders, it’s so obvious that they’ve designed the apps to be easy to customize if you know how to code and how to modify code. Livestreaming won’t become more popular, especially with people who aren’t as technically-inclined, until we make it easier for them to use it. Even apps like Streamlabs OBS still have a LONG way to go until they can reach a wider client base. Some streamers have been fortunate enough to have experienced streamers lend a hand in setting things up. So, you might luck out. But, if not, your best bet is to watch YouTube videos, or read a ton of articles online to learn how to customize everything and make things work. And be prepared to muck things up real good. The apps, and especially the widgets, are sometimes very buggy. Again, they weren’t designed to be easy to use.

5) You don’t have to do what everyone else does.

The best advice I kept getting over and over again from my community members was this: remember that this is YOUR livestream. You can do whatever you want with it. At first, I found that I spent too much time reading about Twitch etiquette and Twitch culture, only to realize that some parts of what’s “normal” on Twitch just aren’t my thing. Like, raids. Raids are when you move yourself and your viewers to a new stream. It’s a way to show support for other streamers by bringing up their viewer count, and introducing your viewers to another stream they might like. Some viewers find it exciting, and a lot of streamers enjoy it, too. I don’t care if I get raided or not, but I don’t like the idea of forcing my viewers to move to a stream that they might or might not enjoy. I prefer giving them the choice. Of course, they could always just leave (and many do during raids). Instead of raiding, I created a stream promo channel on my Discord server to allow for my viewers to promo links they enjoy, or to promo their own links. This way, people choose what they want to watch.

6) Let your personality unfurl naturally.

When I first started streaming, I did so because I wanted to offer a voice in the world that wasn’t panicked or political. I was so tired of the content online that was aggressive and angry. Everybody seems to be mad at everything. So, naturally, my relaxed state took over. Next thing I knew, I was being compared to Bob Ross! It was lovely to get messages from people saying that they listen to me while doing homework, or that they watch my stream so they can get away from it all. It warmed my heart to hear that. Lately, however, as my subjects get more excited, I too have become more excitable. I’ve felt myself become more vibrant and more whimsical on stream. Welcome to the totality of who I am (I keep my vulgar side to myself, however, as I’ve sworn to make my stream kid-friendly!). And, that’s the thing: you CAN be yourself online. You don’t need to adopt a persona or be “professional”. Some streamers have successfully created an online character – that can be fun to explore, too. But it all relates to my previous point – do what feels right to you. If you’re guarded, or if you’re fake, people will sense that. Just let yourself be.

7) Take all advice with a grain of salt, including mine!

Like anything else you’re exploring that’s new to you, people will always have advice to give you. Take it all with a grain of salt. You might discover things that feel just right for you, but that don’t work for others. Here’s an example – I’ve tried a variety of streaming categories. You know which one has landed me the highest quality of viewers? The Science and Tech category. While this would make sense, the Sci-Tech category is generally despised by actual Science streamers because it’s over-saturated with programmers and coders who stream programming languages all day. It’s not a category that’s often pushed or promo’d by Twitch. Still, while discovery might be low in the Science category, I’ve found that the people who show up end up staying, and many of them end up contributing financially to the stream too! So, I stick to what works for me. My viewer numbers aren’t that high, but my community is solid gold, and the quality of the people who watch matter more to me than the overall numbers.

8) It’s ok to make money from streaming.

I’ve written about this before in the context of the arts, but it’s the same with livestreaming: money don’t come easy, and even worse, there’s this weird idea that you should be in it just for fun. Do it out of passion, do it out of love, but how dare you do it for money. Here’s the deal: why are we ok with people slaving over jobs they hate for money, but when they’re doing something they love, they don’t deserve to be paid? This is a pretty toxic way of looking at things. Here’s what I think about it: do both. Do something you love, and eventually, the money will follow. And, it’s totally ok to be paid for doing something you really enjoy doing. Should you ask people to donate or sub? If you want to. My experience has been that people will support you if they want to. You don’t need to ask, and you most certainly shouldn’t spam people about it. Let people give to you because they have a genuine appreciation for what you do – not because they feel guilty. As a viewer, I never hesitate to give to someone I like because I never know their situation. Even if they already have a job, you never know if their job is soul crushing, or if they have medical payments to make, or if they’re supporting a disabled child. You never know. So, if you want to give, give. If you want to stream to make money on the side, or to do it for a living, try. But, don’t do it with the expectation that it’ll happen anytime soon. Do it with expectations grounded in reality. Because the reality is this: fewer than 1% of streamers make minimum wage.

9) Pay attention to chat.

The single most important thing, in my opinion, is that a livestreamer pay attention to chat. Who’s just joined? Say hello. Try to pronounce their name. Has someone recently subbed? Say thank you – and mean it. Someone just traded hours of their life in the form of money to support you. SAY THANK YOU. Is someone asking you the same question someone else already asked you ten minutes ago? Answer it again. Is someone asking you something you don’t want to answer? Just politely decline. Be kind, be nice, be relaxed. And pay attention to potential trolls. I’ve yet had to ban or timeout anyone, which is pretty impressive. Maybe I’ve just been lucky. But, you can also manage situations verbally first. Saying things like “dude, that’s not cool”, or “that’s not nice” will go a long way, sometimes. Or simply ignoring people who make bad jokes can do the trick (careful though: you are responsible for your viewers’ behaviour so make sure to take care of anything that might violate the terms of the livestreaming platform you use). All in all, pretend you’re hosting a dinner party and welcome everyone as they join in. An important thing to remember: don’t call out lurkers. People lurk because they’re choosing not to participate in chat. So, let them do that. Don’t call them out. People will chat if they feel like it.

10) Set a schedule. Plan. Be a pro.

Bluntly, be a goddamn professional. That means, give people something to look forward to by setting a schedule and planning your streams ahead of time. There are streamers that I’d love to watch on a regular basis, but they don’t have a schedule, so I simply forget about them. If you don’t want to be forgotten, plan dates and times and stick to them like religion. You can always take time off, plan vacations, take stream breaks (and I highly recommend doing so). Nothing sucks more than a streamer who’s streaming even when they don’t feel like it. So, if you know you need a break, take one. For your schedule, don’t feel the need to stream every day. I stream officially only two nights a week. However, I frequently do surprise streams and people also seem to enjoy that. Having two scheduled days gives me only two commitments per week, but it allows me the flexibility to stream on days when I just happen to have some free time. So, create a schedule that works for you.

Some thoughts on Variety Streaming…

“Variety streaming” is when you stream a variety of things: walking your dog, singing, cooking, programming a game, etc. I am giving this a try because I am learning that I want to share more with the world than just my microscope stuff. I keep my scheduled nights (Tues & Thurs) for microscope streams, but on occasion, I’ll stream out in the field while collecting samples. I’ve also started streaming when I’m playing with Legos. Honestly? It comes down to your personality. I’m finding joy in streaming a variety of stuff – maybe you’ll find joy in it too. It does seem like variety streamers tend to do better than streamers who just stream one thing. I suspect that has something to do with what I call “subject fatigue”. People do get tired of watching the same thing over and over again. Livestreaming has a certain entertainment component to it. Plus, people genuinely want to get to know you. So, do your thing!

Some thoughts on Face Cams…

A lot of livestreaming guides and articles will tell you that you absolutely need a face cam. YOU DO NOT NEED A FACE CAM. It’s fun to show your face once in a while, but plenty of successful and entertaining streamers don’t use a face cam. Again, do your own thing.

Some thoughts on Equipment…

Due to the pandemic, podcasting and livestreaming equipment is very hard to come by. Shipping takes forever, equipment is out of stock, all the high quality stuff isn’t available. I’ll be blunt, again: work with what you’ve got. I started streaming with just my phone (Streamlabs has a great mobile app for streaming). Then, I progressed to using my phone with DroidCam (to convert the phone into a recognizable webcam), and I use my PC with Streamlabs OBS and just the built-in laptop mic. It’s far from perfect. But, I have ordered all of the cool audio gear…it’s just taking months to arrive. Work with what you’ve got, explain to your community that you’re working on making things better, do audio checks when you start to make sure your mic is working, and… do your thing.

Life during a pandemic: the value of time

Time is a notion that we still don’t quite understand. We can measure it, we can think about it, we can draw conclusions from our past and make predictions about the future. We can easily tell others how to best use their time; many make a living by doing this. We waste it, we earn it, we long for it. It flies, it weighs down on us, and there’s never enough of it.

And, it’s that last point that interests me the most: there is never enough time. There never will be, which is why that Mr Rogers meme touched me so much. And, it’s been odd thinking about this during a worldwide pandemic. So many people have been blessed with the luxury of having more time, but the accompanying anxieties, illnesses and demands haven’t really given people a chance to take advantage of this time. Leisure is limited to what you can do within your own living space and some municipalities (including mine) have opened up snitch lines and have used their powers to issue fines – some more warranted than others. Still, this bizarre new way of life, whether it’s short-term or not, is making it feel like time is standing still.

Not a whole lot has changed in my own life. I still work from home, as I have for the past ten years. I chose this years ago after having to endure some awful working conditions, like a long commute, and a working space that involved everyone sharing one long table, rubbing elbows with each other and snooping over one’s shoulders to make sure no one was slacking off. I chose a more grown-up life, free of the kinds of work-life mentalities that stifle creativity, and completely free of the boss-worker physical hierarchies that still exist to this day. My home office is more beautiful and conducive to working than any corner desk space that’s painted grey and lit with halogen lights. I still pursue my hobbies and interests, and I mostly keep to myself. This isn’t a far stretch from my day-to-day life prior to these new regulations. But lack of a social life has been trying. The inability to travel, to enjoy a good restaurant meal, to hug a friend has all been difficult to endure. And so, I find myself thinking about what it all means. I find myself wondering how this event will change the way we spend our time.

I think that a lot of traditions are about to be questioned, challenged, and perhaps even changed permanently. Traditions like long commutes to work, shared work spaces, rotating desks, cubicle-free environments. The introduction of open-space environments has never been about improving communications between teams. The modern working world, especially in cities that haven’t properly accounted for urban sprawl, is toxic, soul-crushing and exhausting. Most of your eight hours a day are spent warming up a chair to please your employers, while most of the work truly gets done in about three hours. But, we do it because it’s how things are done. “Metro, boulot, dodo”, a lyric that translates to “commute, work, sleep”. Three simple words that describe how an average adult spends their weekday. The bulk of our time is already taken. But, why? Because, tradition? Is an eight hour workday still necessary? Are unpaid sick days a good idea? Ten days off, for the entire year? Shouldn’t we be encouraging more time off? I checked my bereavement leave the other day. It’s just three days. Three. If you lose a spouse, a parent, a sibling, you just get three days. To mourn, to make arrangements, to absorb the shock of loss. Does any of this really make sense?

I ask questions about societal structures because personally, I’ve been very focused on making the best choices for myself on how I use my own time. That’s been my biggest project. It’s not art, it’s not work, it’s not science. The thing I pay the most attention to is how I use my time. And, it takes time to manage your time. To manage things like who I spend time with, who I interact with, how I interact with them. I take weekends off from social media. I don’t engage in political talk online. I don’t waste other people’s time. I don’t seek people’s approval, and I choose whose opinions I value. I spend a lot of time doing nothing, and I enjoy it very much. I choose not to become a parent because I don’t want to re-allocate this time to care for the upbringing of another human being. It’s just not for me.

And, as I grow older, I’ve learned that my biggest fear in life is to have my time controlled by someone who doesn’t have my best interests at heart. It’s not death, it’s not disease, it’s not spiders nor snakes. The thing I fear the most is squandering the most precious thing in life because I failed to choose properly. Oh, and I have made some bad choices in life. Many. But, we can always use the time we have right now to make different choices. And it’s the long-term thinking I’m talking about: what can you do today to make sure that the time you have tomorrow is well spent? What does “well spent” mean to you? Maybe you don’t know what you want, but I bet you do know what you don’t want.

For all of the traditions and habits that we have deeply ingrained in our societies, the thing that escapes us the most is that we can still engineer the kind of life that we want. Even if it means enduring short-terms pains to forge something new. And sometimes, it’s just small, incremental changes that make for a better way to spend one’s time. Maybe it means making more time for sleep. Maybe it means taking the time to look at the clouds. Maybe it means a slow and complete overhaul of the kind of work that you do for a living. I think this pandemic will change the way we work in the future and some workplaces won’t adapt to it. I know a lot of office workers that don’t want to go back to their office after this is all said and done. And I say, good for you. (It’s not that I’m anti-offices, it’s that I recognize that so many people are miserable because of their jobs, and I’d wager that finding a healthier work environment is the single most important change a person can make in their lifetime.)

The state of emergency that we currently live in has given us a huge opportunity to make things right, even if that just means making things right for yourself. Society will always change slower than you can. Regardless of your circumstances, there is always a little something, a little choice or a little adjustment that you can make to make your time more valuable to you, your family, and your community. It’s not beyond your control. And your time here isn’t infinite. It’s so beautiful and valuable, that if you haven’t had a chance to think about that until now, then maybe right now is the best time to think about it.

Life during a pandemic: a list of whimsy films

I’m a big film nut. I love movies. Especially during challenging times. And since we’re all shut-in for the next little while, I thought I’d share a list of fun and whimsical films that you can watch from the comfort of your home.

So, where can you stream these films? First, check the usuals, like Netflix, Prime, iTunes, and Disney Plus. But, if you can’t find them there, there are other providers to use (legally) to rent or buy films online. If you own a Playstation, check out the PS store. I’ve rented films there for as little as $2.99. Also, Youtube now rents films and tv shows, too. You can rent at the Cineplex store, and Universal is about to make their new films available online as well. Other than that, there are many other providers, so you definitely won’t be deprived of entertainment during these trying times. Here’s my list of top films to watch to lift your spirits:

LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL

I’m a big fan of Italian films, so I have to recommend this one, as well as Benigni’s other film, “Le Tigre et la Neige (The Tiger and the Snow)”.

THE TIGER AND THE SNOW

Because, Roberto Benigni can make any tragic feel less tragic.

CINEMA PARADISO

Another Italian classic film, by my favourite director of all time, Giuseppe Tornatore.

AMELIE

Who hasn’t heard of Amelie by now? But, there are other films by Jean-Pierre Jeunet that are just as amazing. A few recommendations include, “Delicatessen” and “The City of Lost Children”.

SUNSHINE CLEANING

I barely remember this film, and it’s on my to-watch list this month. I just remember absolutely loving it.

THE NEVERENDING STORY

If you’re in your 40’s, and you have kids, now’s a good time to introduce them to the best kids’ film from the 80’s. (Or, you know, watch it on your own ’cause it brings back great memories?)

BENNY AND JOON

Up for something a bit more whimsy AND romantic? Benny and Joon is one of my favourite film from the 90’s, for sure!

MOONRISE KINGDOM

So good. So, so, so good.

SPIDERMAN INTO THE SPIDERVERSE

Not quite a young kid’s film, but definitely a GREAT film even if you’re a grown-up, and even if you’re not much of a comic book fan.

PRINCESS MONONOKE

Probably one of the best animated films of all time, and really easy for non-anime fans to get into it, too.

HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE

Yes, another Miyazaki film that I highly recommend!

UP

Ok, it’s sad, it’s really really sad, but it also unravels into one of the most beautiful and most whimsical films you’ll ever see!

I could add a bunch more, but I’ll leave it at that for now! Feel free to recommend more in the comments section! And most of all, in these trying time, be kind to one another… at a distance, of course. 😉

Life during a pandemic: why slowing down is good for everyone.

I have been mulling over what to write these past few days. I’ve been watching (and preparing for) the pandemic spread since I first learned about it in December. It’s been hard. Let me clarify, it’s not been hard living in isolation. It’s been hard watching people not take it seriously until the very last minute. And there’s not much that I can say that hasn’t been already said. We didn’t prepare properly for this. Anyone who did prepare early was ridiculed, anyway. We haven’t invested enough in healthcare, and Canada has only about 10-12 ICU beds per 100,000 people.* It’s a disgrace.

That being said, I think there’s a flip side. The world is slowing down. Our rat race has slowed to a crawl, and that’s a very good thing. If there’s one thing that people with chronic health issues know, it’s that when you have downtime, when you’re forced to slow down, you have no choice but to examine your life. And that means confronting realities you haven’t wanted to face before, as well as embracing the things that really matter. Like family. Like health. Like community support. It means taking the time to contemplate your future, and re-prioritizing what matters in the present moment.

Amidst all of this though, there are still employers, and employees that can’t seem to think beyond ‘business as usual’. It’s not business as usual. Even for people who have always worked remotely. It’s not life as usual. People are stressed, they’re scared, they’re worried. And pretending this massive world event doesn’t exist is disrespectful and downright dangerous. In the case of people having to go into work for non-essential jobs, I’m so sorry it’s like this. I hope that you can join in on the scores of people who are already planning on job-hunting after this pandemic is over. There is a lot of talk about this on online forums right now, and that’s a very good thing. People are finally realizing that they deserve better. 

The rat race has a tendency to turn us into monsters and machines. We prioritize things that don’t even matter. Most reports, most meetings, and most projects don’t matter. We automate things without even asking “should this really be automated?”. We plan for today, tomorrow and maybe a month later. But, we don’t plan for years down the road. In fact, there is hardly any risk analysis these days, and we don’t value preparedness for anything in the workplace anymore. Good luck getting even a roadmap done for a project. Everything has gone “agile”. Everything has to be done now, and it doesn’t have to be done well. It just has to be done now. Because, speed. We compete against each other for made-up job titles that aren’t secure, and that pay a pittance compared to what the owners earn in profits. We rush home, we rush to cook (if we cook at all), we rush to put the kids to bed, we rush to clean the house, we rush sex, we rush to go to sleep, we toss and turn, and then we rush out to work the next morning. We rush because everyone else rushes. 

And now, the rush has stopped for most people, and I think it has the potential to change how we live, for the better. But, it won’t happen in groups. We won’t get massive walk-outs, we won’t change how we vote en masse, we won’t suddenly invest in healthcare. And no, we won’t get universal basic income because governments have seen the light. Groups ruin it for everyone. 

The kinds of changes that I’m talking about require individual action. It requires the guts to say “I’ve had enough”, it requires the courage to go against the herd. When you lead by example, you’d be surprised how many people slowly follow suit. And standing there begging people to change the system isn’t going to work. Changes need action, and they often start with one person, followed by another, and followed by another. So, I ask: “we rush because everyone else rushes” – but, after this, do you really want to go back to that? It’s a worthwhile question to ask, even if the answer is ‘yes’, for now; because let’s face it: most people are financially dependent on the rush. But, they’ve never taken the time to consider other options. So, asking the question now, while you have time to think about it, is a good thing. There hasn’t been a better time to think about it. Because right now, there are far more options than ever before. Remote work has been growing steadily in the U.S. Could we see more growth in Canada, finally?

The hardest hit, the poor, the unemployed, the university students, and those who need treatment and care will likely be experiencing this slowdown in a completely different way. It’s hard to remain optimistic when you’re worried about the next day. But, I think that’s why we need to change our work culture. ‘Profits before people’ has been status-quo for too long. And truthfully, I think that it’s simply because everyone has been engaging in this crazy pace for so long, that no one has had any time to reflect on what that pace has been doing to them, and their family!

We absolutely need to slow down. Collectively, I’m not sure it’ll happen. But individually, you can do it for yourself, and for your family. If you’re a parent, seeing you slow down now will set a good example for your kids, especially if they’re about to enter the world of work. And if you don’t know what to do with your kids while they’re at home due to school closures, teach them how to cook, how to clean, how to fix things, how to garden, how to play catch. Teach them about money management, how the weather works, how to fold clothes. Pickup a new hobby with them. Play video games with them, take a stroll through their world. Go outside for a hike in the forest. And if you don’t have kids, now’s a great time to take things slowly, too. To go into nature. To paint. To write that novel you’ve always wanted to write. Make love with your partner. Be romantic, be present, rub their back. This slow time is unprecedented, and it would be an act of beauty to take advantage of it to better yourself, to care for your loved ones, and to slow down for good when the pandemic ends.

To our healthcare workers, scientists and researchers: Thank you.

*Source: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-hospital-bed-shortages-amid-covid-19-expose-the-deadly-cost-of-a-lack/

When to say goodbye to a pet

I grew up not really knowing what it’s like to have anything other than a bird or a fish in the house. My parents, who both grew up on farms, didn’t want us to have cats or dogs. I asked my mom once why she was never keen on it and she told me that losing them is just too hard. Also, she’s a bit of a clean freak, so I don’t think claws and fur are really her thing. I never intended to get cats when I was older, until I lived in an apartment and there were mice. The measures the landlord had taken to control them weren’t working, so I figured, I’ll get a cat.

In 2003, I adopted two rescue kittens. The one I named Jazz used to hiss at everything that moved, including his brother (who I named Whisper). Jazz and Whisper took care of the mouse problem and I fell in love with their company. Whisper used to sleep on my head and eventually, ended up running the household. He was the clown cat, the one that got into everything and kept my guests amused with his crazy antics. Jazz, on the other hand, was the quiet one. He was reserved and if Whisper wasn’t around, he’d come into my arms for cuddles. I named him Jazz because he purred like Wynton Marsalis’ trumpet. They were part-Siamese – true hunters and talkers.

Whisper and Jazz

They say that kittens who stay with the same owner into adulthood tend to adopt some of the personality traits of their human. I would say that Whisper was my creative side and Jazz was my quiet side. They moved around with me, from Sudbury to Ottawa, Ottawa to Montreal, Montreal to Ottawa. In 2017, Whisper’s nostrils were constantly flaring and he let out a few big cries when using the litter box. Something was wrong. He’d been losing weight for a while, I figured that was normal at his age. He was 14 at the time. I called in a vet, we did xrays and the little bugger had so much fluid in his lungs that the vet couldn’t even see his heart. I chose to euthanize Whisper on my 40th birthday. The vet had told me that I could bring him home, and he could live with medication for a few months. I couldn’t – I didn’t want him to suffer and I knew it was time.

Fast forward to 2020. Jazz and I have been living alone now for three years. I went through some serious medical issues in 2018 and he was there with me. He’s always been there. He was the perfect artist cat, the one who’d let me work quietly and come to him for cuddles later on. But that changed in the past year or so. He started crying all the time, getting confused, wondering where I was (even if I was right next to him). His back legs aren’t so solid anymore and he too has lost a lot of weight. He throws up every second day, he whines all night, he barely eats. It’s not just old age – it’s what I call “pre-end-of-life”. In other words, it’s time.

The mistake I’d made with Whisper was that I didn’t pay enough attention to the symptoms. Ironically, Whisper became very vocal in his adulthood (he was a very quiet kitten). So, I figured he was just being himself. But when Jazz started yowling out of the blue, I realized that no, this is something else. I never took my cats to the vet, not since they were kittens. And I’ve talked to vets and they’ve all told me that it’s really not necessary (though I’m sure they wouldn’t publicly say so). If they appear to be healthy, it’s fine to forgo yearly visits.

Of course now, I struggle with a bit of guilt. Maybe Jazz’s thyroid is off. Maybe he’s got diabetes. Maybe it’s his kidneys. I’ll never know. Because I’ve chosen to euthanize him without knowing. He is 17 years old. In the end, I don’t feel it’s worth diagnosing and medicating a cat who so obviously looks at me with eyes that say “mom, I’m tired”.

I had initially planned to do this at the end of February. But, ironically, on the day of my 43rd birthday, I looked at him and started crying. I knew I had to do it sooner. He was shivering for some reason. He hadn’t really eaten all day. Ugh, I just knew. And the worst part of it all, is that he probably could continue to live without too much suffering for a few months, maybe another year. But, it’s hard with cats – you don’t really know they’re in pain until they’re VERY much in pain.

I read a post from a vet recently where she said that in all her years of practice, she’d never had anyone euthanize their pet too early. But, she had seen a lot of cases where it had been too late. When should you say goodbye to a pet? When it becomes clear that their quality of life isn’t great. I could have prolonged his life – but I would have done it for me. Because I hate the thought of losing him. But if I were in his body, I’d want to go now, too.

Pets, I believe, are sometimes more meaningful to us than other humans. They don’t judge us, they don’t care about anything other than being fed, being loved, being made to feel safe. And they give us tremendous love in return. It’s no wonder it’s so hard to let go. It’s a soulful connection that we may never experience again. I think that if you feel that it’s time, even if you wish it wasn’t so, then it’s ok to let go. The vet won’t judge you, your peers don’t need to know the details, and your friends and family don’t have a say in it. It’s your pet, and it’s your call. And letting them go a little early is a very compassionate thing to do. It’s much better than letting go too late.

Jazz is scheduled to be euthanized tomorrow, Thursday Feb 6th, 2020. I’m gonna go spend the night watching tv with him, in my arms, like we’ve done almost every night for the past seventeen years. Thanks Jazz, you’ve been the best quiet companion I’ve ever had.

Salary negotiations 101

Here’s a little primer on how to deal with salaries for professional jobs. I’ve written this with academics and private industry professionals in mind, but it can apply to almost everyone who is applying to jobs where the salary scales aren’t published.

I know you want info from someone with legit knowledge and experience. So, here’s a bit of info about me, first:

I’m a university drop-out. I know, it’s not sexy. I dropped out seven times, because I was always pressured to go back. “You won’t get anywhere without a degree”, they said. I just couldn’t find that ONE thing I wanted to major in. And I questioned how practical it was to get a degree in something that wouldn’t necessarily prepare me properly for the kind of work I was interested in. So, I made the call and dropped out for good. Knowing I’d probably find want to find work in the tech industry, I set out to do two things: 1) earn some industry-related IT certs, and 2) study the “game”. I knew that I’d be facing barriers right away. Most jobs require a degree (today, a Master’s degree). I knew I’d have to convince them I was better than the other guy, even if he had all these formal credentials to his name. The best way to do that? Know thy self, and study. Study negotiation, contracts, motivation, management, HR literature, study how it all works, and the reasons why it works that way. Complaining about it wouldn’t do me any good. I needed a job and I knew I’d have to suck it up and be practical about it.

Fast forward to today, I work as a Software Manager in a remote capacity for an academic software company in the U.S. I have been working remotely for ten years, I’ve built IT depts from the ground up, I’ve hired and fired people, I’ve managed several businesses on the side, and I’ve had a successful artistic career as well. Other than that, I’ve also worked as a teacher to adults, teaching them high school credits to get them back in the working world, and I’ve given lectures and talks to grad students, as well as the general public.

Ok, let’s get started.

1) “The salary isn’t published anywhere!”

There are ways to find out what the salary is, even if it’s not published. Do your research online. Look at sites like GlassDoor (you can also read reviews from people who work at the company or org that you’re applying to!). Look for similar titles on Indeed – some places DO list salary scales and you should be able to find a comparable salary through online job boards. You should already know this information before even looking for work! You should have a number in mind for yourself before you even send out your first resume, so make this research your first priority.

Once you’ve done that, if you really want to know how much they pay, ask them! There is a slight risk that if you ask them directly, they’ll be turned off by the idea that the salary matters to you more than the job itself (hey, I didn’t make those rules, it’s just how it is).

  • One way to get around that is to create a fake name, with an associated email address and email them. Be kind, be upfront, be civil – simply ask them if there’s a salary scale associated to that posting and that you’d appreciate that information upfront so you can dedicate the time needed to send them your application. They don’t need to know who you are, if you’re a legit applicant or not.  I’ve used the words “I don’t want to waste your time, nor mine” before and have gotten thank you letters back from HR depts with the info I needed. It sounds dirty, but it’s not. You’re just minimizing the risk that they’ll discriminate against you for wanting to know about the numbers before applying.
  • If they still won’t give you numbers, then you have to look at the job itself and evaluate if it’s worth the risk of being paid less than you deserve to be paid and apply anyway.
  • If you don’t get a reply at all, that should be your first red flag – do you really want to work for an organization that doesn’t reply to its emails?
  • A few don’ts: don’t ask for that info through social media, don’t shame them if you don’t like the numbers you get back, don’t keep asking, don’t use another real person’s name, don’t forget to say ‘thank you’ if they do get back to you with info.  

Pro tip: You should absolutely know what you’re worth, in numbers. BUT, you should also know what value you bring to them because at some point, you’ll have to communicate that to them. So, make a list, memorize it, know your value. You’re more than just a degree and you likely have transferable skills and experience that you haven’t even thought of.

2) Some jobs are worth the risk, and the lower pay.

Keep this in mind. If you don’t even consider a position because it doesn’t publish a salary scale, you could potentially be losing out on that one job that could boost your career tremendously, especially as an academic or researcher. I’ve had one rule all along that has helped me with this decision: “does this organization offer me something that money can’t buy?”.

Ask yourself:

  • Is there a mentor that works there that I could learn from?
  • Do they use a new technology that I wouldn’t have access to anywhere else?
  • Do they have other benefits, like working from home or tuition reimbursement?
  • Does the position involve a project that excites me like crazy?
  • Is there something really unique about this opportunity that would make it all worthwhile for me now, or in the future?

Sometimes, being poor for a year is worth it. For jobs that don’t pay well, but offer something else in return, it might be worth the discomfort, especially if you’re disciplined enough to work there temporarily, for a year or two so you can get the experience or knowledge you wouldn’t be able to get elsewhere. Obviously, you can’t be poor forever, and chances are, they know that too. It’s a risk they know they’re taking but they also probably need someone right now. They don’t expect you to work there for ten years at 35K. In the short-term, yeah, it’s gonna suck. You might need to drive Uber on the side, you might need a second job, you might need a roommate. Don’t assume that they’re trying to lowball you. Some organizations just don’t have the funding. Some start-ups can’t afford you, they have limited funds. But they might be the best places to work at, and they might have a bunch of perks that will make you happy. And in those cases, you can still decide to work for them without letting it affect your perception of your own self-worth. 

3) Some jobs aren’t worth it.

Some places ARE trying to lowball you. It’s far more common in private industry, especially if there’s an HR department involved. If there aren’t any other perks, if everything is standard (vacation pay is 2 weeks, benefits after a probationary period, etc), if it’s clear they haven’t even made an effort to be attractive to you, and if you learn the salary is low, there’s a good chance they’re lowballing you. It’s called a ‘job market’ for a reason, and if they’re not making an effort, why should you? There are better places to work at. Lastly, scan the social media accounts for the organization – including its executive team. (Trust me, they’re scanning yours) See if they’re actually a good place to work at. Is the salary super low but the executives are bragging about their yachts? Yeah, we all know what that means.

4) “What are your salary expectations?”

That DREADED question, right? It’s strategic, on their part. It always has been, it’s been used in private industry for decades. The expectation is that the uninformed candidate will just blurt out a number and the interviewer or hiring manager can decide right then and there if they want to call you in for an interview, or weed you out during the interview process. They might even be able to pay you less than they’d budgeted for in the first place! I’ve known women who were paid 20K less than their male counterparts because they didn’t answer this question properly. Here’s a little industry trick: don’t be the first to give a number.

As a hiring manager, I already know exactly how much I can pay you. (And no, I don’t personally use this tactic, but I know others who do). So, let’s say you think you’re worth 80K. The question comes up on an application form. Do you write 80K? NO. You write something along the lines of “market rate” or “competitive rate” and leave it at that.

If you get called in for an interview, that question WILL come up again. And again, you can say that you’re looking for a competitive rate. Then, follow up with the question, “what are you offering for this position”?  Let them tell you the number. There’s a good chance they’ll give you a salary scale at this point, but it can also quickly turn into a cat and mouse game. If this is an existing position, you can also ask them what the person in that role was getting paid. They might not give out that info and might reply with a follow-up question for you. There might come a point where you have to be the first to say it – but you should do so using a scale. Don’t say 80K. Say 85K-95K. And back that up.

Because you didn’t go to the interview empty-handed, right? You’ve got a folder with print-outs of similar job postings with their published salaries at similar organizations, locally. You’ve also got print-outs with market research data with expected salary scales for that position. You’ve got data to prove that your expectations aren’t too wild for your qualifications and experience. And you ask for 85K because there’s a good chance they’ll talk you down to 80K. And then, you’ve got the salary you’ve asked for.

Pro tips:

  • Do take the time to learn more about negotiations.  In the above example, you might have been able to get 90K if you saw an opportunity to negotiate with them based on their needs and based on what you can offer them.
  • This isn’t about you. In negotiations, it’s about what value you can bring to them. And that should be a genuine objective of yours, not just for negotiating purposes. You really should care about the place you want to work at. If you’re just in it for the money, trust me, they’ll know.
  • Do NOT use data that isn’t relevant or that exaggerates the numbers. If you’re applying for a position in a small town, don’t show data for salaries in Toronto or New York. Show relevant info from the local economy.
  • Don’t give them a sad story about how you’re in debt and need a higher salary. Don’t be desperate. Don’t try to use guilt to negotiate – it won’t work and again, it makes me think you’re just in it to pay the bills.
  • Learn to read body language. Some people try to oversell themselves and it just makes everyone uncomfortable. Know your worth but don’t try to ram it down everyone’s throat.
  • Practice. Practice, practice, practice. And do so with people who know their shit – not with your pal who’s just as terrible at negotiations as you are. If needed, hire someone to practice. Do practice tests online, you can find a TON of interview questions online to practice with, including salary questions.

5)  The pay still sucks.

So? Negotiations aren’t done yet. Let’s say they can only offer you 65K. You’re not done. What other perks are on the table? Just ‘cause their job posting said “2 weeks vacation” doesn’t mean you can’t get 4! Common negotiable items include: vacation time, sick time, flex time, and probationary periods (for example, you can negotiate that your benefits start on day one, instead of waiting for your probationary period to be done). You might be able to negotiate some work from home time. I’ve been able to get other perks in the past, like paid bus passes, paid courses, paid health benefits (if the company didn’t have group benefits in place), paid lunches and more. In the end, flex time, vacation time, childcare services, and health benefits go a LONG way. You might not have an 80K salary, but you might get over 80K in perks. 

6) It’s not fair!

I KNOW. It isn’t fair. And to be blunt, we could end the wage gap today by forcing companies and organizations to publish salary scales. But, that doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s radar and I doubt it’s ever going to happen. You can totally turn this into an activist project, and I think more power to you if that’s the direction you choose to go in. You can also work in management, where you have real power to make changes. I have. In fact, I now list “high school diploma” as the minimum educational requirement for my department. Experience is still king, in my opinion, in technology. If you’re an academic, it matters more. But, you might manage academic support staff and you’ll probably want to revise their minimum requirements to make sure you’re not turning away applicants that don’t happen to have a Master’s in Administration for an admin job. I’m exaggerating, but I hope you get my point. Publish salary scales whenever you can. It makes everyone’s life easier. And it makes the industry more fair to everyone.

Until you can do that, arm yourself with knowledge. Refrain from complaining about it online. We do scan social media. We want people with initiative to work for us. We want you to do something about the things that piss you off. We want to know that you can address issues the right way. Inform yourself about how the industry works, even if it sucks. Get yourself into a position where you can make a difference, be a good mentor and contribute positive changes to the world of work.  Just ‘cause you have to learn how to play the game, doesn’t mean you’ll have to play it forever.