At the end of May, I left my first full-time nonprofit job to spend the Summer with loved ones before starting graduate school in the Fall.
I worked at Pacific Science Center in Seattle for almost two years as the Special Events Coordinator. I developed, planned, and executed over 45 special events to enhance community engagement for visitors. The job was thrilling and unique; I served as the ringleader for hundreds of talented and often unusual exhibitors, vendors, and visiting scientists with incredible abilities to ignite initial sparks of science interest in children and adults.
I would like to share the three most important lessons that I learned at Pacific Science Center. They are not the biggest lessons (those are regarding professional environments, the way nonprofits are run, and how a museum behaves during an economic recession), but rather the lessons I learned at Pacific Science Center that fundamentally changed the way that I think about projects and day-to-day life in a museum/nonprofit environment.
1. Embrace the messy middle
I’ll credit Hammerstein for the decent and catchy advice he bestowed upon youngsters, urging them to “start at the very beginning; a very good place to start.” While it may be true that the beginning is a good place to start, I’ve learned that the middle is the best place to start– at least when tackling a complex problem in a museum/nonprofit environment.
When presented with a task (or in my case, an upcoming event), I was given the basic who/what/where/when information needed to do my job… along with a comprehensive collection of big and small ideas; specific details and vast generalizations passed along through the pipeline. It was my job to take these often-ambiguous ideas and specific details and make everything work.
I discovered quickly that my best events were produced when I wasn’t afraid to immediately lay all of the information out on the table and embrace the mess. That is starting in the middle; taking a moment to wade through the great creative vomit of good and bad ideas, resources, connections, partnership details, long-shots, and no-brainers for the project, and look at them all together. Yes, this can be an overwhelming way to approach a project in the beginning, but I was constantly surprised by the new ideas and community partnerships that resulted from a good hour of continuous, multi-page brain-mapping. Accepting this moment to embrace the mess at all stages of project coordinating kept me constantly in perspective, and enabled me to maximize creativity in each event. More than anything, it reminded me that projects are often composed of moving parts, and it’s important not to get too wrapped up in specific details or too-big-ideas in the beginning. As hard as it may seem, the meat is in the middle and starting from there can keep you both open-minded and detail oriented— and it provided a terrific framework for my own good ideas to surface
2. Know the cards you hold
Only two months after I started working at Pacific Science Center, I began planning our annual week-long holiday event for the public. Remaining true to the traditional planning process of past coordinators and managers, I began calling science-related entertainers across the state to see just how much it would cost for them to give up their holiday break in the name of science education… Then the single most embarrassing Strike Of Obvious hit me: Why am I calling these people? Pacific Science Center offers some of the very best science education programs in the entire state! My manager and I proposed a re-creation and rebranding of the event in the form of a ten-day science celebration called Science Extravaganza that highlighted Pacific Science Center’s own incredible talent and resources. We saved thousands of dollars, showed off our own programs, bumped up the morale of our own departments, and attracted a record-setting 25,338 visitors during the event– just by being ourselves.
That’s the moment I discovered the extreme importance of knowing the cards that you hold; you probably have more than you think. I made an effort to learn the talents of coworkers and volunteers– and it paid off. I was thrilled to learn of coworkers who were part-time magicians, kite designers, or astronomy experts— and we utilized these folks in events. These examples may sound unique to my workplace, and perhaps they are, but it’s not much different than knowing who in the office is the best copy-editor or fax-machine-fixer.
Despite my silly story, if it wasn’t the way that Pacific Science Center always was, then it certainly became a place of incredible resourcefulness and versatility in my eyes throughout the last two years. There seemed to be absolutely nothing that couldn’t be achieved when combining the unique talents of our staff members… I just had to piece it together. It’s no secret that connections can provide you with incredible opportunities, but I’m grateful that I learned that lesson before even leaving the institution.
3. Remember to (always) learn something
If you reach a point in your job when you believe that you’ve been a victim of some 80-20 rule (In this case, 80% of everything you need to know to do your job, you learned in the first 20% of your time there), then I charge you to prove yourself wrong: Every day, write down one thing that you’ve learned.
It’s easy to be conscious of learning in the beginning, especially if it’s your first full-time museum job! Each day is filled to the brim with lessons, from the name of the woman working in Accounts Payable to discovering the way that information is dispersed and tasks are delegated. Once you know these things, though, it sometimes gets hard to see the less obvious (but just as important) lessons. I kept a journal of the things that I learned every day and it was never hard to find something. I began actively looking for that daily lesson, and when I was aware of lessons, there was never just one. And keeping my eyes open for lessons increased my positivity! Here’s a memo from the bright side: the worst days often have the best lessons.
When you think of each lesson as a gift for later or a thing you can improve upon now, then it makes lesson-searching exciting– not to mention extremely beneficial in the long run.