The Opposite of Comfortable: The Unlikely Choices of an Immigrant Career Woman

The Opposite of Comfortable: The Unlikely Choices of an Immigrant Career Woman

by Sharon Nir


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780997143003
Publisher: Viki Press
Publication date: 05/17/2016
Pages: 198
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.42(d)

About the Author

Sharon Nir was born in Tel Aviv, Israel. She holds a Bachelor of Art degree in Language and Literature from Tel Aviv University, and an MBA in Marketing and International Management from Northeastern University, MA. As a system analyst and marketing manager in the high tech industry, Sharon developed the first Knowledge Management system in Israel and enjoyed a successful high-tech career when at the age of 29, she decided to follow her husband as his career took him to New York City.
In 2009, the family immigrated to the United States. Sharon, her husband and two children reside in Albuquerque, NM.

Sharon's book The Opposite of Comfortable follows her journey to find fulfillment, balance, and happiness while exposing the baffling and grueling process of professional immigration in the United States.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1:

Running Late

It was a little before 6 am, and my thirteen-month-old baby boy was crying. My husband's side of the bed was empty. His call schedule as a fifth-year general surgery resident was especially demanding. I knew I should get up, but I felt exhausted.
The night before, I had stayed awake until midnight. I was busy drawing sketches for a new promotions screen for the Knowledge Management system I had implemented almost a year ago. A recent survey had indicated the call center customer service representatives were experiencing difficulties using the software to provide instant answers to customers' questions. The telecommunication company I worked for had invested thousands of dollars in the system. I had no intention of letting them down.
Reluctantly, I got out of bed. It was cold. The rooster was crowing from a distance, and our neighbors' dog started barking. Ever since the canine had found his way to the chicken coop, they didn't like each other. After a short, yet epic, match, both sides were left mentally scarred. I thought it was a fantastic validation of the philosophic dilemma of what came first, the chicken or the egg: was it the rooster's early wakeup calls that had provoked the canine's attack, or was it the canine's howls next to the coop that made the rooster fight for his honor? Either way, every morning the symphony of the dog and the rooster played around the same time.
I lifted my son from his crib, kissed him softly, and cradled him in my arms for a few minutes. He calmed down, and I carried him to the kitchen, and while I was half asleep, I warmed up his bottle in the microwave. It was before sunrise and the house was dark. I took my son to my bed, organized the pillows behind me, sat back down, and sniffed his brownish curly hair that smelled warm and sweet, while he was slowly sucking on his bottle. When he had finished eating, I left him in his crib and went to the kitchen. I turned on the coffee machine and listened to my son chattering to himself. His vocabulary consisted of only a couple of words, but he babbled short syllables and mimicked the intonation and rhythm of the language he heard us use. I thought he had started to comprehend a few words like names and everyday objects.
After having a cup of coffee, I changed his diaper, placed him in his rocking chair in front of the TV, and played a Baby Van Gogh videotape. It was by far his favorite tape of the series, but back then, we didn't know the reason. He loved watching the video that presented basic colors: red, orange, yellow, blue, green, and purple through the context of images and emotions. The real-life images were visually attractive, and every time one of Van Gogh's paintings appeared on the screen, he clapped his tiny hands and cheered loudly. I knew I had half an hour to get ready for the busy day ahead.
I was about to leave the house when my phone rang. It was never good news when my phone rang that early in the morning. My employee was on the other end. She sounded anxious. "The marketing department is doing it again. They hold information until the last minute. This time, they haven't informed us about rate changes. We don't have time to correct the numbers in the system. We had to make a hard copy and print it out for the use of the call center representatives. They will have the new rates but will have to calculate the sales tax manually when customers ask for the bottom line. As a result, the calls are expected to take longer than usual, and the overall customer wait time would probably increase to three minutes. Be prepared for a call from the center's director," she alerted me.
Although the Knowledge Management system had been implemented almost nine months ago after a massive organizational change, it was still very hard for the people of different departments to share information. I understood the reason behind this difficulty. Information is the ONLY thing that cannot be taken unwillingly from an individual. In every organization, and the one I worked for was no different, people feel their intellectual property is their competitive advantage that will protect them or provide them with leverage in a time of trouble. Yet organizations must acquire this knowledge, maintain it, and make it available for the entire organization to use. The collective knowledge and its implementation is the source of companies' competitive advantage and leverage among competitors.
As the project manager who was responsible for the design and implementation of a Knowledge Management system, it was my responsibility to reassure employees that sharing their knowledge would not only allow them to perform their job more efficiently but would enable organizational growth from which they would benefit.
I took a deep breath. I wasn't supposed to be at the office until later that day. I had meetings planned at the headquarters of the software development company I had hired to build the system. We needed to decide on a new screen for service promotions.
"Thank you for finding a temporary solution. Please ask the team to withhold other projects, and instead insert the new rates into the system as soon as possible," I said briskly, choosing practicality over criticism.
I checked my watch. It was getting late. Baby Van Gogh's tape had ended, and my son started uncomfortably moving in his chair. I picked him up, keyed the speed dial number for the call center director, and briefed him about the latest development. He wasn't happy to hear that calls were expected to take longer, because the volume of calls had increased in the last few days due to a special holiday sale.
"I promise to add this item to the list of issues we need to discuss in our weekly executive meeting. I know the marketing department should do better; we'll find a way to help them." I attempted to appease him.
Finally, I called my manager and explained the situation. At the same time, my son pushed up against my right hip bone and tried to grab the phone. I placed him on the cold floor, and he started crying. Then I went into another room, quickly reminded my manager that I would be out of the office most of the day, and promised to update her once the new rates were in the system.
Every minute in life was accounted for, but it seemed as if minutes weighed even more in the mornings. I had wanted to avoid the rush hour, but I had to drop off my son at daycare, and I knew I would get stuck in the notorious traffic jam on the freeway on my way to Tel Aviv. I stopped by the daycare center gate. Thankfully, the teacher was outside with a few kids.
"Good morning," she greeted us with a heartfelt smile. "We were about to go inside, come join us." She opened her arms, and my son leaned in. I walked back to the car; my son waved at me, and I blew him a kiss in return.
When I finally entered the office, the meeting had already started, and I joined it just in time for my screen design presentation. Two hours later, we finished the meeting and went to the company's auditorium to listen to a lecture about The Magic of Repositioning.
I knew the speaker from my early days in the industry. Dr. S was an entrepreneur and managing director of an innovative book publishing startup dealing with publishing books through the Internet. She was also a consultant to many leading companies in Israel, focusing on the implementation of Knowledge Management systems. Both digital books and Knowledge Management were relatively new-to-the-market business ventures, but Dr. S never let doubt control her agenda. I admired her determination and dedication to the cause and immediately after I had been recruited by the telecommunication company, I hired her as my consultant. She had given me direction and advised me to focus on the human aspect and its significant contribution to the success or failure of the project. I hadn't spoken to her for the last year, and reposition was a topic I was interested in for a good reason.
Dr. S gave a great lecture about the options that companies have when they experience declining performance due to major shifts in consumers' preferences or needs. She explained firms have two choices: exit the market, or use tactics to extend their brand or product lifecycle, also known as repositioning.
The bottom line of repositioning is to reinvent oneself, and companies should swallow their pride and look inside and out, in order to figure out a way to realign their offerings to customers' needs and wants, and by doing that, reclaim a competitive advantage and regain growth. I thought about the company I worked for. If my organization experienced a decline in sales would it have the courage, and both tangible and intangible resources, to go through a repositioning process? I figured that only companies with great personality would succeed because "personality goes a long way" as Jules Winnfield, the hitman who found god in the excellent movie Pulp Fiction, insightfully said.
Repositioning is not about obliterating the past and discounting the old glory. It is about reviving, rejuvenating, and regenerating what you already have in a way that will be aligned with the new environmental conditions. It is about going back to where it all started and beginning anew. What about me as a manager, an employee, an individual would I be able to reposition myself if I needed to? Would I have the courage and the ability to reinvent myself?
I stared at the brainy quotes calendar that hung on the wall across the room. It was February 27, 2001, and the month's quote was by Albert Einstein who said, "Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile." At that point in time, I had no clue how profound, insightful, and truthful that sentence was.
At the end of the lecture, I shared lunch with Dr. S, and she said other companies had started to express an interest in Knowledge Management systems. The system I had designed and implemented for the call center was the second of its kind in Israel. She asked if I was ready to move to my next project.
I wasn't. I told her that the system had been active for nine months and still had a long way to go. There were new screens for me to design, processes to learn, and knowledge-sharing culture to establish. What I didn't tell her was that I had been procrastinating on a decision that could influence my entire life.
After lunch, I called the office. My team informed me they had just finished updating the new rates. They also said there was an interface glitch in another place in the system. I promised to take care of it. I emailed my manager the crisis was over and joined the development team for what was supposed to be a two-hour session of design and development.
I hadn't noticed it was getting late. I had to leave the development team by 4:30 pm and make it back to my office. I had planned to meet with my team. I knew they had had some problems with sorting information, and I wanted to learn more about their challenges. It was already 4:45 pm. I dug my phone out of my briefcase and opened it. There were ten unanswered calls. I skimmed through them and realized my husband had called a few times. I clicked my voice mail and listened to his first message.
He said that he remembered it was his responsibility to pick up our son from daycare, but there had been another suicide bombing attack on a northbound 6 bus at the French Hill junction in Jerusalem. Many people had been injured, and paramedics had transported the wounded to all three major hospitals in town. He needed to cover the trauma unit and wasn't sure he would be able to make it back on time.
In the second message, he said that the hospital had received the majority of the injured, and he would not come home that night. He was sorry. He wanted me to kiss our son for him. I got into my car and rushed to the daycare, but I was late again.

Chapter 2:

Life Takes an Unexpected Turn

From childhood, I was taught to remain calm and composed in potentially hostile situations. My mom hoped that by the time I reached adulthood, her teaching would sink in and I would demonstrate an ability to recover quickly from most of the unfortunate situations that life threw at me. She always said that when someone was calm, they could think and respond rationally to a challenging situation. But I assume she never considered a situation in which my whole life was about to change. In that case, would she think it is possible to stay calm? And what would she consider a rational response?
A month earlier, my husband had been selected for a two-year, multi-organ transplantation fellowship at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. In medicine, specialties are a significant part of diagnosis and treatment, and surgeons tend to choose a specialty according to their interest, financial objectives, or market demand. The transplant fellowship was aligned with my husband's interest as a few years before we met, he spent one year of his residency at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York as part of the traditional student exchange program employed by the hospital where he worked. During that year, he was exposed to transplantation surgery and was captivated by the challenging, technical, and astonishing nature of this field.
On a Saturday morning, we were sitting on the couch, having coffee; he sat with his laptop open on his lap, while I read the newspaper, and our son was playing on the carpet next to us.
Suddenly, my husband pushed his computer to the side and bounced to his feet, spilling coffee onto the carpet. Covering his mouth with his hand, he called out, "Wow," while my son and I stared at him in bewilderment.
"Wow what?" I asked when I came back from the kitchen with a paper towel in hand. During the minute I was gone, his facial expression had shifted from ecstatic to gloomy.
"I was accepted to the fellowship program in New York," he said without looking at me.
That statement was my cue to congratulate him on his great achievement, but I couldn't.
When he had applied for a transplantation fellowship at one of the most active transplantation centers in the world, I knew that if he were selected, it would be a lifetime opportunity, one that was not open to every surgeon and one that would yield both professional growth and competitive advantage. I realized that it would have been foolish to forego this opportunity.
What's more, as his wife and someone who cared for him deeply, I didn't want him to reject an option that would affect his entire future. I could identif with the situation, because we had a lot in common. We were both ambitious, target-oriented, motivated individuals that were unwilling to settle for less than what we believed was possible for us to achieve. People with those characteristics cannot peacefully walk away from a chance to reach their dreams. Yet, I believed that although we were married, we were two individuals with different needs, aspirations, and hopes for the future.
To be honest, I thought the likelihood that he would be accepted to the fellowship was slim due to the program's competitive nature, so I had promised myself not to bring up my point of view until we knew the answer. When he was accepted, it was my time to speak up.
To work in the United States, my husband had to receive a visa. It was widely known that not all visas are created equal, and they certainly did not promise liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Some of them could lead to years of genuine misery. My husband was expected to receive a J-1 visa, which was an exchange visitor, non-immigrant visa. It allowed an individual to participate in a work-and-study-based exchange visitor program. Unlike other visas, such as the H or the O visa, the individual had to leave the United States immediately after the program ended and return to the country of last residence for two years before applying for any other visa or for a non-immigrant status.
The implications of the fellowship were well-defined. I would have to leave my career, my home, my family and friends, and my country, with the hope I could get everything back upon my return. If I wished to keep our family together, I would have to freeze my life for two years and thaw it out two years later. "I'm so proud of you! This is terrific!" I finally said after a few moments of silence.
I did not tell him then that I was also proud of my accomplishments, and that I felt my work on my project wasn't done yet. I might be able to find a job in my field in New York, but there was a good chance companies would not hire a project manager with an expiration date.
"You only have two years in New York, and it'll take time for me to find a job," I said solemnly.
My husband looked back at me and met the displeased expression that was flashing across my face. He inhaled deeply and rationally explained, "There are two options available; both are far from perfect for you. The first option is that you'll join me in New York and try to find a job for the two years or maybe decide to take some time off. The second is that you'll stay here, follow your career path, and become a single mother for two years. It's your decision to make. I cannot imagine what it would be like if you both stayed behind. There's time to think about it."
He had a way of stripping away any illusions I might have, and serving me the truth on a clear platter so I could see it from each and every angle. Sometimes this approach helped me make the right decision. Other times I really hated it, especially when I wanted to daydream or fantasize about a future in which things fell into place and life was comfortable and secure. I knew then if I said what I wanted to say, we would end up trapped in a huge fight, because I was angry, frustrated, and terribly annoyed. I wasn't upset with him as much as I was upset about the situation.
It's a professional takeover. In business, a takeover is usually a hostile situation when a person or a company ousts a firm's management and takes control of the company. In my case, my career was about to be ousted by my husband's career, not to mention our family. I remembered in hostile situations I had been advised to remain calm and composed, but at that moment, my primitive instincts came to the fore, and my lessons of restraint were unequal to the challenge, and I started freaking-out.
My son had gotten bored playing with his bricks and took a few wobbly steps towards me, pointing outside with his finger. It was great timing: I needed to leave the house and walk. Every time I had to process information or think about a solution, I would take a walk.
We lived in Kfar Sirkin, a scenic village located in the center of Israel east of Tel Aviv. It was surrounded by lush Eucalyptus trees, old quaking Aspens, and orchards with the sweetest oranges you can find. We had moved there a few months before our son was born, because it was between Jerusalem, where my husband worked, and Tel Aviv/ Petach-Tikva, where I worked. I loved how quiet and peaceful the small village was. After a frantic day of work, I enjoyed coming back to this little piece of heaven.
I dressed my son in warm clothes, took his water bottle, placed him in his stroller, and started walking. Years ago, an offer to live for two years in New York City would have been a dream come true. I remembered the first time I had traveled to the United States in 1994. My boyfriend and I had spent a month traveling up and down the east coast. The city was the port between every trip, whether we went north or south, and each time I couldn't wait to get back to Manhattan. It was love at first sight, and after returning home to Israel from that trip, I felt a constant longing, and I knew one day I would return. I didn't know how, or what might happen that would allow me to live there, but I knew I would return.
Six years after that visit, the boyfriend and travels had been replaced by a husband, a baby, and a demanding career. I didn't think as often about living in New York. But now my husband had accepted a fellowship, and my desire to live in the city became possible. However, my early twenties' romantic plan to live abroad seemed daunting, when I realized what I would have to leave behind.
I was the project manager and analyst of a new Knowledge Management system at the largest telecommunication firm in Israel. I was responsible for every single aspect of the product, from the analysis stage to the design, quality assurance, final production, and implementation throughout the organization.
Knowledge Management was a relatively new concept, and the organization had to go through a transformation, which included knowledge sharing between departments in a way that had never been done before. Not only was I needed to manage the technical aspects of the system, I also had to find my inner psychologist to handle the human factor embedded in the project. Dealing with people was much more challenging than dealing with the actual project at hand, and my job was to make the system essential to the employees, as much as it was to the organization. I understood collaboration among the organizational departments was vital, and I had worked hard to make colleagues understand the concept and engage in the process.
The resistance to the idea of the system had initiated immediately after I was employed and introduced to the different departments. The call center director had understood the importance of having a system that would replace the thick binders representatives were using, eliminating the need to print thousands of pages each time there was a price change or a sale update, significantly reducing call times, and enabling the company to provide a higher service quality to customers. Everyone else thought they were about to get fired.
After a few hopeless attempts to assure employees layoffs were not planned any time soon, I stopped telling them what I planned to do and started showing them what I had in mind. I arranged a tour bus, selected twenty-five key employees from various departments, and took them on a field trip to the company I had worked for previously, where I was the content development manager of the first Knowledge Management system in Israel.
It was a pivotal trip, after which things had started to change quickly. Soon enough, they were urging me to finish the design of the system. I initiated a weekly meeting that included executives from every department, as well as representatives from the call center. In the meeting, I presented the system's progress and shared the new screens and features, which were based on surveys and hours of interviews about the call center's needs and wants. Those meetings had led to the establishment of a new organizational culture. One that was built on trust, mutual goals, collaboration, and understanding that success was the result of a true partnership. I had managed to make the employees from different departments feel responsible for and personally care about the system's success.
Every day, I went to work feeling a sense of accomplishment. I knew I had commenced an organizational change and had opened the door to a new era of knowledge sharing and future data mining. The implementation of the system throughout the organization was only the first step. For the last nine months, my team and I had been working hard to enforce data sharing, finding better ways of data sorting, fixing bugs in the system, and making lists of present and future demands.
My life was active. I was always busy. My schedule was full, and every little movement on the field needed to be carefully monitored, because it influenced other aspects of my life. In the few minutes I had to myself, usually while commuting to work, I thought my life was going according to my plan. I was married, a mom, and a career womanthe holy trinity of women in the twenty-first century. The three expressions were truly distinct, but the unity of them created the essence. I must confess I felt in control, much more than I felt blessed. It was a unique feeling of power, like living with a small but steady stream of adrenaline in my body, and it was addictive.
Yet now, I had a decision to make. I had to choose between leaving my career and living without my husband for two years. But there was another variant in the equation, and that was my son.
I had arrived at the playground and let my baby boy out of the stroller. I gently held up his soft little hands and helped him walk towards the slides set. We were the only people at the playground. Although it was overcast, a few rays of sunlight had sneaked through the clouds and made the sand sparkle. It was quiet, and I watched my son playing in the sandbox. Suddenly, he gazed up and murmured, "Dada."
I turned around and saw my husband walking towards us. "Did you hear him? He just called you Dada," I yelled with excitement.
My husband kneeled on the glittering sand, hugged our son, and nuzzled his neck.
"Yes, Dada. I'm your dad." My husband, who is rarely emotional, nodded, with tears in his eyes.
I watched them walk hand in hand out of the playground. I saw a man and a little boy who were sharing a newfound relationship. My husband was new to fatherhood, my son was new to the world, and together, they were discovering what it meant to be connected to each other. I took a deep breath of chilled wintry air and stepped behind them. I reckoned the fellowship was scheduled to start at the beginning of July. I had five months to think things through before making up my mind, but I had a crunching gut feeling that any decision I would make would utterly change my life.

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