“Could it be that this all of this op-ed commentary about pop culture serves more to fill our empty places—those places deep within us that desire to make and say and express but are completely disengaged within the context of the kind of lives most of us live as consumers, not makers. Have we all become so obsessed with commentary and critique because actually making and creating is just too damn hard?”
“I’m going to explain the Donald Trump phenomenon in three movies. And then some text.” Source: How Half Of America Lost Its F**king Mind
Salty language in that article, but David Wong hits on a number of important themes that will need to be addressed after Nov. 7, regardless of who wins the election.
Actually, if Hillary wins, I think these become even more important.
You might assume that the Cracked article is just another rant at rednecks and “mouth-breathers” on the alt-right who wave around white supremacy code at Trump rallies….. but it isn’t. Wong grew up in rural America, and he knows that folks in the rural areas are caught in a devastating wave of poverty and unemployment.
Unless our local, state, and national leaders work to address the grinding poverty of rural America, the tsunami of hate and ugliness that drove so much of Trump’s voting block will crash on us all over again. The rural struggle is real, and we nee to be listening.
See, rural jobs used to be based around one big local business — a factory, a coal mine, etc. When it dies, the town dies. Where I grew up, it was an oil refinery closing that did us in. I was raised in the hollowed-out shell of what the town had once been. The roof of our high school leaked when it rained. Cities can make up for the loss of manufacturing jobs with service jobs — small towns cannot. That model doesn’t work below a certain population density.
If you don’t live in one of these small towns, you can’t understand the hopelessness. The vast majority of possible careers involve moving to the city, and around every city is now a hundred-foot wall called “Cost of Living.” …
In a city, you can plausibly aspire to start a band, or become an actor, or get a medical degree. You can actually have dreams. In a small town, there may be no venues for performing arts aside from country music bars and churches. There may only be two doctors in town — aspiring to that job means waiting for one of them to retire or die. You open the classifieds and all of the job listings will be for fast food or convenience stores. The “downtown” is just the corpses of mom and pop stores left shattered in Walmart’s blast crater, the “suburbs” are trailer parks. There are parts of these towns that look post-apocalyptic.
I’m telling you, the hopelessness eats you alive.
And if you dare complain, some liberal elite will pull out their iPad and type up a rant about your racist white privilege. Already, someone has replied to this with a comment saying, “You should try living in a ghetto as a minority!” Exactly. To them, it seems like the plight of poor minorities is only used as a club to bat away white cries for help. Meanwhile, the rate of rural white suicides and overdoses skyrockets. Shit, at least politicians act like they care about the inner cities.
I live in South Carolina, in the suburbs of a small city. Within 10 minutes, I can be driving a country road passing trailer parks, abandoned textile mills, and patch towns where no core business exists. People talk about trying to pull in industry to SC to provide jobs, and several governors have had success at this — BMW, Fuji, Boeing, Michelin, Bosch and many others drive a manufacturing economy that employs thousands and scrapes to find enough technically skilled workers to man their factory floors. You can build the shiny factories, but that doesn’t put those jobs in reach of someone living in a town of 1,000 people 70 minutes away.
America is doing a poor job of funding worker education, adult education and retraining, and relocation programs to help people get established in a new town where jobs exist.
This breach between rural and urban will continue to drive American politics until we can develop ways to address the deep, underlying problems. Unless we resign ourselves to going once more, into the breach of ugly political division.
I’ve lost my stories, and it’s really bothering me.
I didn’t realize until I started changing jobs that I’d come to rely on the steady diet of stories I was getting out of my teaching experiences. And now I’m starving.
Back up, I don’t want this to sound too weird. Let me explain.
I’m no gifted storyteller. Pretty much every one of my friends is a better joke teller than I am. I like the momentary attention of telling a funny story to a circle of close friends, but when I’m honest with myself (usually that happens at night as I’m falling asleep, or in the morning as I move from hazy dreamland to uncaffienated semi-consciousness) I know that I’m a middlin’ storyteller at best. Hearing people like my North Georgia father-in-law spin a yarn about guys named Walkin Tom and Shine go on adventures in Appalachia just reminds me of how much I stand to learn about wit, hyperbole, irony, pacing, and understatement.
So I’m not talking about those stories.
When I began teaching, in 2002, I discovered a wealth of stories. Like Boris Karloff’s Grinch, my heart great three sizes that first year, expanding again and again to wrap its arms around the children in my classroom. It was achingly hard, teaching was, but it was deep and rich and satisfying in its difficulty. Some moments were very hard, they were formative, they left deep impressions that changed who I was at my very core.
I’m not talking about those stories either, though I treasure the lives that intersected ours so hard they left skid marks.
I am talking about the daily tales that emerge from a teacher’s experience. They’re scattered throughout my digital existence now; probably not even able to find them all to put them in one place. But they each started with a line like “Today in class, So-n-So said…..” or “You won’t believe what happened in 3rd period!”…. or “I thought I was going to die of laughter but I managed to hold myself together when…..”
For 7 hours a day, we lived life together, our little learning community. We ate lunch at the same tables, swapped stories, talked about shows on TV or games we were playing or books or current events. There were arguments in class and out of class about politics or anime or sports teams. I was exposed to a million YouTube videos and memes and songs and pop culture references that I would have otherwise missed. (Trogdor!)
It was a wealth of stories, and I drank in every one, relishing the opportunity at the end of a day or week to fall into a chair near a co-teacher to rant for a minute, or sit at a table in McGees with a pint on a late Thursday afternoon and hear Jack launch into a story with “These kids are driving me to drink!” (He was kidding. Mostly.)
When I left teaching in 2012, I felt like Abraham heading out to a foreign land not knowing where he was going, just that he was supposed to go. It was time to leave. I knew that. And I finally got a job with people who fit what I was looking for in a new coworker tribe: interesting, caring, witty, creative.
But I did notice, rather quickly, the spigot of stories had slowed its output to a trickle. I came home with enough material to retell some witty banter from the day and discuss a bit of interoffice, not-very-important-so-of-course-we’ve-got-to-discuss-it drama.
But that was it.
That first year at Erskine was hard, partly because I had to wean myself off the stories. I didn’t have the rich interaction with students like I’d been used to for a decade. So I had to recalibrate my sensors to detect interest in the work we were doing as an office, in the projects we discussed, in learning to think better and listen more effectively and ask better questions. But deep down, I still knew that nothing was replacing the stories.
Four years later – aka, now – I launched out again, this time charting a course toward academic/student support within higher education. It feels good to be back in education proper again; not that I disliked marketing and creative direction – I learned a ton and liked it a lot – but I like being able to think and write about education and not feel guilty that I wasn’t hired to think and write about it on company time.
But the past month has been hard. Very hard. My new job came wth 5 weeks of training, mostly in isolation. I appreciate the investment of time and care; I feel very prepared for what they’re asking me to do. (Thumbs up.) But there are very few stories to be had in this job. I met some great people during the initial week of training, and some of their stories have become threads in my view of the world. But my daily work is quite tactical, not narrative, not strategic. And not rich with interpersonal interaction.
Self-reflection and self-awareness take time and effort and mostly just experience. Sometimes we discover what we need during its absence, not its abundance.
I have learned that I crave the kind of work that sends me home at night tired and occasionally annoyed but always with a handful of tales worth telling. I’m not trying to carve out a career as Garrison Keillor or a stand-up comedian. But I’ve learned that if my work doesn’t bring me close enough to people to learn something about them and begin to overlap their worlds, I begin to starve.
Good to know.
I hate goodbyes. It’s better to say “see you next time,” because that leaves all kinds of hope shimmering in the sunlight.
It’s hard to leave something, somewhere – wherever you’ve found yourself for the last while, working and building and arguing and creating. But to everything there is a season, says the Preacher. And this is one of those times.
So I packed up my things today, looked around one more time, gave some hugs. Walked out of my (former) office, bit back some tears, already missing the tall ceiling, not missing the steamy 80 degrees on the thermostat in the summer because our AC can’t keep up, missing the witty conversation I won’t be a part of tomorrow morning, not missing the mundane tasks of office life.
It’s hard to leave people. Really, that’s what always gets me. Places can be beautiful or fun or memorable or breathtaking or functional or inspiring and all that … but People. People are what make this world tick, yannow? And the four of us had some amazing moments.
Seriously. We were a comedy machine. Just turn the spigot a quarter turn — give us a funny word, an odd last name, an obscure movie reference, a quote from Monty Python, a raised eyebrow, a ridiculous request from some office across campus — and we were off to the Comedy Races.
There’s that time the guys quoted like whole sections of The Holy Grail, so much that we could theme our Student Appreciation Day around the crazy Brits. (See photo, above.)
There were the snatches of ideas for improv sketches that we knew we’d never actually do, but it was fun to imagine doing them…..
– “What if email spam filters became sentient, and actually explained why you were getting that email about penis enhancement but the expense reports from downstairs were always MIA?”
– “What is the waiting room like outside Hell? Are there snacks? A coffee machine? Decent chairs?”
– And does Heaven have an Orientation session where God or some angel answers all the questions they’ve collected for the past 10,000 years, so they don’t have to answer them individually? “For a presentation on the Noaic Flood, head to Room A at 3pm. For evil and war, a panel discussion will take place in Room B at 5pm. To locate the socks missing from your dryer, see the Steward on Aisle 10.”
– “What if we created a newsletter for campus but called it “Ill-Health Times?” (This was after the sudden rush of “good health” updates from HR on “Wellness Wednesdays.”)
– “Why isn’t there Yelp for drug dealers?” “Maybe there is but we don’t know anything about it.”
– “What about the Rituals Help Desk, where upset pagans call to complain that they’ve sacrificed the chicken and smeared the blood in a precise 8 foot circle, but no demon ever showed up?”
We kicked around endless ideas for mind games, cackling with glee when we were able to end a sentence perfectly as soon as the boss crossed the threshold and paused, wondering if we’d stopped talking on his account. (Honestly, Cliff, almost never. I promise.) And I had other great partners in crime: Tobe & I ran experiments to see how many “dapper” comments we could toss toward Cliff before he’d react visibly. She and her team had whole books of codewords they’d use in text or snapchat to refer to particular coworkers.
And sometimes I’d laugh so hard the whole hallway would hear me, because I do that occasionally, and it’s stupidly loud and probably annoying to half the planet. …But to the other half of the planet, since they all heard me too, I hope you smiled. Laughter is good for your spirit. You should have laugh-cries at least once a
month week. Does wonders for your outlook.
It’s hard to leave a job you’ve worked at for, say, 4 years. I finally know what I’m doing. Heaven knows it took a solid year for me to even begin to feel like I had a handle on things. Impostor Syndrome – it’s a thing. Leaving the classroom for a new field made me very insecure. I didn’t know business culture, didn’t know the marketing lingo, didn’t know the work I was supposed to be doing. I watched, observed, studied every word and gesture so I could claw my way out of the feeling that I didn’t belong there. ….Those were unsettling times.
That, and fighting off waves of fear that I’d made a mistake by leaving teaching, the one job I felt called to do, even if it seemed like I had good reasons. And regret – because it’s a visceral gut-punch not to be with your students who have come to campus for a tour. I know that leaving my classroom in 2012 was the right move because I was bored. But I had to come to know that in my bones, in my head, in my gut, in my hands, in my heart.
This was good. Change was good. I needed to grow. I needed to realize that I should have been actually planning for a career this whole time, but who knew? Nearly every married woman in my address book has dropped out of work or left their original ambitions to be a mother. Few have gone back after their kids grew up. How was I to know in my 20s that I would not also trade work for parenting? (And in the world where I grew up, there is no higher sacrifice than that a woman lay down her life’s work for her children.) (Leaves the rest of us in a pickle, doesn’t it?)
So I’ve learned some things.
One, I’m a good designer and creative director, but I still talk too much in every meeting. (Working on it!) I leap too quickly to solutions and skip some of the discovery steps to good design thinking and problem solving… but I’m working on that too. It was great to have such creative thinkers working alongside me. Creativity cannot exist in a vacuum. It thrives within collaboration.
It’s at Erskine that I learned how much I love creative directing, even more than designing. It’s like getting to hold the wheel of a powerful machine, one that can produce amazing wonders like museum exhibits:
Two, teamwork is hard to achieve but still vitally important. Working in a silo is bad. Also, team “culture” is everything. As the dude said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” He’s right.
Three, if I can ever spend my days as the literary bartender/barista in the 21st century version of a Parisian intellectual salon, I will know that I’ve hit the career lottery. I want to talk to people about what they want to do, and then help them make their ideas better. That’s it, really.
Fourth, you need to go do the work that will bring you joy and deep satisfaction. But sometimes employment doesn’t fill that deep hole. Yet you can still find joy in the moment, in the people around you, in a sense of accomplishment. And when you cannot do that any longer, when you’ve explored to the very edges of the day’s work and there are no worlds left to conquer, it’s probably time to find a new challenge.
Fifth, seize every opportunity to get to know people, to find those kindred souls tucked in other parts of the organization, the people who understand that laughter is medicine and kindness is golden and friends are really hard to find once you’re an adult, and hold on to those people. Because they’re priceless. Go “do life” with them.
I’m going to miss many things about my work at this little college in Due West. It’s a special place that’s impossible to understand until you’ve walked a mile in its shoes. Wouldn’t trade the last four years for anything….
And that’s why I cried most of my drive home. S’Ok, though. Something new is coming.
Worth your time to read today. The question of “work/life balance” ought to occupy the thinking of all of us, but it seems especially thorny for mothers in professional careers. Some good thoughts here, though I’d like to read her suggestions for her specific context:
Sure, the game of life is easier to win when we segregate its facets and write rules for each in isolation. And it’s not that women refuse to segregate their personal and professional lives — though I would argue that no one should have to — it’s that many women simply can’t.
That was a personal realization that I believe is critically lacking in the way we mentor female students, particularly those in STEM fields. Those fields — prized for their logic and analytical approach to problem solving — often attempt to “solve” struggling students in the same way: The immediate mentor, statistically likely to be male, simply isn’t wired to experience the “all” in the same way as a woman. Moreover, the mentor, regardless of gender, has been incubated in an environment that rewards days spent hyper-focused on the technical dimensions of scholarship and student formation. The “all” that values the intersection between work and emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being is rarely confronted.
Frankly, we in higher education must do more to mentor the “all” in all of our students, regardless of gender — though I argue that this is especially critical for women. It is not just a matter of saying we are committed to mentoring the whole person.
Reviewing my working life, I realize that I’ve worked for some pretty awesome people. Competent, professional, relational — I can genuinely say that each of the bosses in my life taught me (or allowed me to learn) pivotal lessons that make me a better person (not just a better employee).
It’s been a useful exercise to take the time to write these out. Here’s what I’ve learned from the folks I’ve worked for in my three careers.
Side note: Yes, all of the people on this list are men. I’ve known incredible female colleagues and departmental managers, but none of them served as my “boss” in the way I detail here. I look forward to working for an amazing woman someday — or being a good boss for people under my care — thanks to the insights I’ve gained from my own career experiences.
The Early Days: Mr. Allen, library leader
Mr. Allen was my first boss, really. I’d done odd jobs for my mom and others but I got my first “real” job during college at the library. I started in periodicals and moved into circulation and student manager as an undergrad, seamlessly transitioning into a grad assistantship position in circulation during my master’s degree, and finally becoming the reference librarian for a few years after college.
Working reference was a heady rush of anxiety and adrenalin: all the excitement of a mystery or scavenger hunt plus a dose of my introverted fear of strangers and a 20-something’s lack of confidence. (What if I don’t know how to find the answer and look like an idiot?)
In other words, a perfect first job for a young professional.
Mr Allen’s superpower was the ability to “read” people almost instantly. When he interviewed students for one of the many jobs in his building, he usually knew within a few seconds whether the student would be a good fit for the work and the culture there. He was never wrong. Never.
It was a large staff — at least 20 “adults” plus nearly 50 student workers — yet Mr. Allen managed us all with good humor, a love for playing pranks on unsuspecting graduate assistants, and an even temperament. I learned much working under him, but here’s what stuck with me:
Reason and Passion can both be powerful tools for persuasion. Learn which one will be more effective in any given situation, in getting your ideas heard.
Any time I brought a plan for improving some area of the library or reorganizing my job, Mr. Allen listened patiently, asking questions and giving me a full hearing before pointing out any weaknesses or obstacles. It was an important first lesson for me: there are good ways to present an idea to your boss, ways that earn you respect and a hearing. Usually those involve dispassionate argumentation rather than emotional pleas, tantrums, or manipulation.
It’s not that you can’t be passionate about your goals or opinions, but you’ve got to understand whether that form of appeal is going to work. I’ve seen a lot of people try and fail to get their boss to listen to them. I’ve rarely had that problem, because I learned early on how to present ideas to my boss.
Teaching: Two headmasters who created an atmosphere for success
I went from the reference desk into the classroom, launching a decade-long career in teaching English (and Latin and theater and some other things) to a lot of fantastic teenagers whom I still keep up with. But getting launched as a teacher wasn’t easy. Not at all. Probably the hardest job I’ve ever done, day by day.
But the work of a headmaster or principal is no cakewalk either, considering how many problems hinge on figuring out people — notoriously a diffiult material to work with.
I was privileged to work under two great administrators during my classroom years, Dennis and Joey.
Dennis had already been through the wringer at The School Which Shall Not Be Named, a bad experience for his first job as principal. By the time I came to work for him, he was mindful of what he’d learned the hard way, hoping to avoid building a school that was broken from the very outset.
A calm head during any confrontation will defuse the situation and allow progress. (Usually.)
Dennis was a rock-solid partner in a crisis, and if you’re a teacher, crises occur with terrifying consistency. Inexperienced newbies (like I was) mess up blatantly and regularly, generating unhappy students and upset parents. Even the most experienced educators (and we had several colleagues with 15 or 30+ years under their belts) will find themselves in difficult disagreements over how to handle a particular child’s needs.
Dennis never seemed to fear anyone. The angriest parent would find him calm, reasonable, and settled. The most petulant student couldn’t sway him out of his steady approach to discipline and daily life at school.
It’s not that Dennis didn’t care — he cared deeply for the school, his teachers, the students, and their families. But he was able to separate his emotions and opinions from the situation at hand, searching for a solution that genuinely benefited everyone involved. I’m sure much of it made him angry or frustrated, but he didn’t let that become his approach.
After Dennis left to take a position elsewhere, Joey became our new head administrator. Younger than I was by about 5 years, he forced me to get over my own predisposition to devalue someone with less experience than I had. But I learned a lot from his leadership, and we came to count him as one of our closest friends.
Joey followed two important maxims during his first year behind the desk, a strategy which quickly won us over to his side:
Don’t change anything until you understand why things are the way they are in the first place.
Joey walked into a small school with an existing structure and some obvious weaknesses. But it’s easy for new leaders to assume they understand why problems exist and leap toward solutions that won’t work because they don’t yet grasp the full situation, limitations, key players, and opportunities.
Joey wisely set himself to follow all established policies and cultural norms without changing anything that wasn’t obviously broken. His goal during Year One was simply to learn everything he could about NCS, how it worked, and why.
Along the way, we gained a vital ally for accomplishing our mission, and he rapidly alleviated our fears that he was going to superimpose an alien agenda on the work we felt deep ownership over.
Relationships matter. Take time to be present, build bridges, and trust the people working for you.
Joey’s methods for building trust among his staff, many of whom with decades more experience than he had, involved listening, observing, and asking questions. His presence in the halls, classrooms, and events was positive and intentional; his interest in our methods and explanations was genuine. Upon this foundation he built up trust among teachers, students, and parents — “trust capital” that he soon had to spend when the unavoidable problems of a first-year administrator arose.
Many leaders assume their authority stems from some personal, unquantifiable aura they bring to the job. That’s not how it works. Do you want your employees to follow you and buy into your vision? Then take the time to listen and build relationships first. Apart from “trust capital,” leaders can only threaten or plead.
Communications: It’s the meta, stupid.
After a decade in secondary education, I stepped sideways into higher education, leaving behind teaching (at least for the moment). I took a job in the communications office of a small liberal arts college under Cliff’s leadership. A small team, we handle everything from PR to marketing to creative services for campus departments (to name a few of our responsibilities).
When I was interviewing for jobs, I received a similar interview offer from a much larger institution at the same moment I was interviewing with Cliff. In many ways, that other job is the one I should have pursued — the salary was larger, the benefits better, and the institutional resources much more available. But during my interviews with Cliff, I’d realized that his vision for office culture, work/life balance, and vocational mission was the one I wanted to be part of. So here I am.
We work with words. Every day, we take words (and often images) and craft them into messaging on behalf of the college. We seek to inform, persuade, diffuse, explain, encourage, disarm, and excite … for starters.
Sometimes, in the course of work, the communication tasks get really tough, perhaps because the answers are fuzzy, or the message is unwelcome, or the situation is too unclear to forecast much about the needs/attitudes of the audience.
Words are dangerous. They’re also powerful. Cliff is a master of nuance. He reads the “meta” like the rest of us read printed text. And if I’m the blunt Yankee in our office, Cliff is the careful diplomat, the one who weighs the effect of what is said and what is left unsaid.
Careful consdieration of the context and content for a message (or conversation) makes the difference between getting heard or being ignored. The higher the stakes, the more vital the preparation.
That sounds stupidly simple, but consider how rarely we practice mindfulness when preparing to speak or write or email. I tend to rush into a converstaion with ideas half-formed (it’s the peril of being an “external processor,” right?). Cliff may still be forming ideas, but he measures his words even then, considering effect as well as meaning.
While my motto is “reckless abandon” (not always, but sometimes) and “it’ll all sort itself out eventually,” Cliff’s is “listen first, talk later.”
I think I’ve been trying to work on that for as long as I’ve been able to talk. #lifegoals #stillworkingonit
I could list many more virtues from the people I’ve worked with over the years, but forcing myself to identify one or two big lessons has brought my these into a sharper focus. I am thankful that so many good people have been a part of my working life, shaping so much of how I see that part of my life.
So. What have you learned from your boss?
Cross-posted to my Medium channel.