Because at our best, we are always learning.
Remember the glory of being an emerging professional in your early to mid twenties? The horizon is bright, the opportunities are endless, you seem to mysteriously thrive on ramen and dreams, and you make stupid, situational mistakes that still make you groan in embarrassment in your thirties.
….That’s not just me, right?
I don’t write about myself very often on KYOB, as I am honored that this site serves as a professional resource for leaders. I query data and provide analysis to uncover industry truths. I must always be asking questions and learning… and I am. Here are three, embarrassing stories from the start of my cultural career, and the lessons that I learned from them that remain with me today.
While, fortunately, none of these proved to be life-altering flubs, they certainly kept me up at night in my twenties, pleading with myself, “Colleen, please try to be less of a bonehead!”
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Pay attention from start to finish
Or, check for “death screaming”
My first full-time job after college was coordinating large-scale, public special events at Pacific Science Center in Seattle. I was in charge of coordinating weekend-long, science-themed events like BubbleFest and Tricks, Treats, and Science Feats. I was a workhorse near the bottom of the totem pole, but I got to be creative, resourceful, fill my cell phone with “professional contacts” such as alpaca farmers and model railroad collectors, and spend full days “testing” kids crafts for how likely they were to result in glitter getting into the butterfly house.
The science center has an open, outdoor entrance area (“the pads”). One part of this job involved burning science-themed CDs (remember those?) to play outside during these events. My most difficult playlist was for an event called Polar Science Weekend. It was a challenge to find fun, popular, ice-themed songs beyond Ice, Ice Baby. I managed to find some instrumental music that seemed to suggest “winter wonderland” while still seeming to say, “Come in the doors of the Science Center and have a great time!”
I found a long song on iTunes called something like “Winter Mood” and it was nine minutes long. Perfect! I listened to the first five minutes and it sounded great! Thanks, iTunes! I burned it onto the CD and went back to my craft testing.
On the first morning of event weekend, things were going great…until I went outside and noticed the music was off. Almost immediately upon realizing this, my boss came on over the walkie talkie. “Colleen, come to the office immediately, please!”
Back in the office, I learned that a higher-up had given my boss a stern talking to about the “death screaming” coming from the Science Center that he heard while walking outside. I was confused…until I did what I should have done in the first place and listened to the entire “Winter Mood” song. He was right. The last three minutes switched from upbeat chimes to what I believe he quite accurately described as “death screaming.”
I was mortified. I scuttled shamefully outside and put in one of my fully-tested science-themed playlists instead.
While visitors for the rest of the weekend heard Oingo Boingo’s, “Weird Science,” all I could hear in my brain was the overly dramatic, swan song of my young career in cultural organization’s ending.
That day, I learned the importance of paying attention from start to finish. Due diligence takes extra time on the front end, but it can make up for a lot of time or negative consequences on the back end. Thankfully, the only real damage in this story was to my ego.
Nearly ten years later, there are still times now when I will be doing or editing something and think, “Okay! This looks good. Let’s move on.” Then I will pause, and I will remember the screaming death music. With a wince of haunting embarrassment, I’ll get back to editing…
Know your audience
Or, “use grown up words”
I was asked to moderate a panel on social media in 2011 (I believe) for the American Association of State and Local History’s annual conference. At the time, social media was still a tentative topic, and the panel was the only session on it. (It’s rather hard to imagine that now!) Having spoken about social media at several other conferences, my task was straightforward: Introduce a bit of data regarding the importance of Facebook and Twitter, and introduce the panelists. No problem!
I noticed immediately that I was likely the youngest in the room, but that wasn’t new for me. I opened the panel by introducing myself, and started discussing the baseline importance of social media. I kept it simple, I thought, and I didn’t speak for long. I shared a bit of data and then handed over the microphone, smiling.
At the end of the session, I reunited with an IMPACTS colleague who had been in the back. “Colleen!” He exclaimed, “I think this group was lost on the entire topic of social media!” Thankfully (or so I thought in that moment), social media initiatives were still rare enough among history organizations that the social media panelists focused primarily on their websites and only touched upon using social platforms to highlight those website initiatives. My colleague explained that the woman next to him only took one note during the whole session:
“Facebook is a social media.”
When I received the summary of audience feedback, I spotted this stinging message:
“Colleen: Use grown up words.”
I felt set-up by the Internet gods. I was a young, enthusiastic person talking about “tweets” and “likes” and “Facebook” to people who – as I now realized – knew virtually nothing about social media and may not have heard these words before. “Thanks for nothing, Biz Stone! Why name it “Twitter?” Why not a clever history reference with an unnecessarily long word that learned museum professionals would like?!” These are things that actually went through my defensive, young mind when I got this feedback.
Know your audience. In approaching this opportunity, I focused on “social media panel for visitor-serving organizations.” I didn’t focus on the uniqueness of this, particular audience. Had I asked more questions in advance, I could have introduced “tweets” and “likes” and other…kid-sounding words… in a way that may have been more helpful. While, indeed, a sample size of one is not a significant sample size, I felt that I may have missed an opportunity for greater impact. I was also just plain embarrassed.
The story of my one-line review brought my IMPACTS colleagues and clients great joy, and resulted in a great deal of good natured over-dinner teasing. In fact, in my career, “know your audience” may be one of the most important lessons I’ve learned and it’s the basis of much that I share on this site. I’m glad I learned it early, but I wish I’d avoided finding it out first-hand the hard way.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions
Or, don’t get your socks dry cleaned at fancy hotels
I spend a lot of time on the road doing work with IMPACTS. About a month after I was hired in 2011, I was asked to go on my first multi-week work trip. I lived in Los Angeles at the time, and it was a three-week trip to Baltimore, Rome, Chicago, and San Francisco.
As anyone who travels frequently for work will tell you, it’s often best to only pack a carry-on. By Chicago, I needed to do laundry. Being an on-the-road newbie, I hadn’t the slightest idea how to accomplish this tactfully. We were staying at the Peninsula, and at the time it was one of the nicest hotels I’d had the pleasure of staying.
The colleagues with whom I had been traveling had shared with me their pro tips for packing light – prominent among them being a recommendation to use the laundry service at hotels. I was confused about how to do this. “Do I get it all cleaned? Just a few garments? How does this work?” I wasn’t about to look unprofessional! I felt too embarrassed to ask, so I put my all of clothes (except what I was wearing and something to sleep in) into the designated bag, and awaited fresh laundry.
My clothes arrived the following morning impeccably clean, with even my socks perfectly folded. “This is heaven,” I thought…until I saw the bill:
A lump immediately formed in my throat. I couldn’t wrap my head around this sum for a load of laundry. (I still can’t.) And I couldn’t possibly expense it!
When I saw my colleagues, I couldn’t speak. I held up the receipt, feeling as if I could tear up if I wasn’t careful. They burst into a roar of collective laughter. “What happened?! Did you get your socks dry cleaned?!” one of them asked.
“Actually, I might have…” I stammered.
It was embarrassing. Thankfully, IMPACTS graciously covered the expense. “It’s worth it for the story,” I was told.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. There were plenty of people I could have phoned for help to avoid this expensive situation – the hotel laundry service professionals, my colleagues, or even my mother could have provided helpful hints.
I am naturally a question-asker, and this situation seemed to prove to myself that I should not bury that instinct. In fact, perhaps I should be proud of my usual questioning habit. Gathering a little bit of information can help make much better decisions – informed decisions.
Learning is at the core of the work that I do. And perhaps it’s at the core of what all of us do today. I often write that one of our industry’s biggest issues is the fact that we rarely discuss our failures. How easy it can be to say that to others when I so rarely discuss my own face-palm moments.
Regardless of how long ago it may seem to some, we were all “emerging professionals” once, learning the ropes the best we could and inevitably making a mistake or two. I think the trick is to learn from these moments. While these flubs resulted in some sleepless nights, they also taught me important lessons. If we’re lucky, perhaps, we keep making mistakes and learning from them well into our careers.
I’m in my early thirties right now with what I hope is a long road ahead of me in the visitor-serving industry. I understand that I’m likely to make many more mistakes. (Three cheers for being human!) And when I hit my biggest one, I hope that I’ll be brave enough to learn from it and share it, if it can help people who have a similar mission: To aid in effectively educating and inspiring as many people as possible through cultural organizations.
Here’s to laughing and learning. Here’s to our important work.