Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Just before I left for Ellis Island yesterday, the volunteer coordinator e-mailed to tell me that the person I was supposed to train had cancelled for the day. I'd be on my own at the desk, and my tour. Okay, no biggie. Originally I'd agreed to fill the day so this person could come in, but no worries. In fact, I reasoned that it would be better -- I'd have more time to focus on reviewing for my tour.

When I got to the information desk on the island, I noticed that there already appeared to be visitors walking around. I hadn't checked the schedule, but apparently they were running earlier boats in the expectation that there would be more visitors between Christmas and New Years. I'd been wondering what attendance would look like: it was a chilly day, but there are a ton of people in the city on vacation this week, and when you visit New York, the Statue of Liberty is one of the places to go. Tourists aren't going to skip it just because it's cold.

If the day was going to be hectic, at least it was starting out favorably. The first ranger at the desk was very chatty and friendly. She encouraged me to apply for a ranger job and gave me all kinds of helpful hints on making sure the application would get attention during the next hiring cycle. And when the park superintendent came by, she was sure to introduce me. Very nice overall.

I was also surprised by the appearance of another volunteer. While she wasn't on the schedule, some of her friends planned to visit the island and she wanted to show them around. We agreed that I'd handle the morning tour, and she'd grab the afternoon. I was also anticipating that Tracy and Roberta would be coming by, so I bravely offered to take both tours out if they hadn't made it to the island by the time the first one goes out at 11:30.

As more and more people came to the island, our sign up list for the morning tour grew longer and longer. Usually we cut it off at 25 people, but by the time we gathered everyone at the 3D map to start the discussion, 30 people had assembled. Wow. Huge. In a way, I was kind of relieved to do my first tour in front of a large group. There will always be someone who isn't paying attention, but if it's a group of three and two of them are bored, it's a bigger tragedy than if there are two distracted people in a group of 20. Thus I wouldn't take it personally if someone drifted. I quickly found a couple of friendly, engaged faces in the crowd and drew some energy from them when I needed it.

I'd told myself that as long as I remembered the basic flow of the talk, I'd be fine. While the Ferry Building exhibit offers great visual cues, the opening talk isn't quite as intuitive, so I made a couple of notes to refer to to make sure I covered some basic points. For the most part it worked out well, and surprisingly I got a few laughs in as well. And I was able to keep the full tour down to 45 minutes, including the transit time to the exhibit. Not bad, overall.

So I made it through fine, no butterflies, no disasters. Getting back to an earlier post, I think it comes down to doing something that's truer to who I am. I've always hated doing presentations, and following big ones at work I used to report back, "No one died, nothing burned down," but then those talks were usually about something I wasn't so interested in. This time, when I had the chance to tell an compelling story, I wasn't inclined to be so cynical about the outcome.

In the afternoon, Tracy and Roberta arrived about a half hour before the scheduled tour, so the other volunteer offered to take the 2:30 group while I gave my buddies a private tour, both through the restricted area to the Ferry Building, and then through the Registry Building. Once we were back in the museum I felt a little silly hanging with friends in my park volunteer getup, but fortunately nobody tagged along, expecting a tour. Now that would have been interesting.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Medical stuff and the moment of truth

First things first: last Wednesday I saw the breast surgeon for the long-awaited appointment. The whole thing turned out to be very brief -- a check up first from the physician's assistant, and then from the surgeon herself. Of course, neither felt anything, but based on my mammo films, the surgeon is sending me to the breast center at one of the local hospitals to get a stereotactic biopsy. Basically, they use 3-D imaging to find the area in question, and then they guide a wire there to grab the offending item for biopsy. They also leave a marker behind (Kilroy was here, I guess.). How nice. For the first time in my life (outside of dental fillings), I'll have a foreign object planted in me. I guess these things start piling up as you get older. Whatever.

The breast center called today to let me know they got my records/films from the surgeon. They'll review them within the week and call to schedule an appointment. Likely I won't be going in until at least the third week of January. Oh, joy. That gives me plenty of time to call my new insurance carrier to assure I'm covered and all the appropriate paperwork is filed. Ugh.

On a really good health note, Dad is out of rehab and back home. He's healing well and ambling about nicely.

Next: the moment of truth. Earlier today I got an e-mail from the volunteer coordinator from Ellis Island, asking if I can cover another date next week when nobody will be there. Oh, wow. I have the process stuff down pat for the most part, but it would be my first time doing tours without a veteran volunteer there. Well, I've got to get my feet wet sometime, right? I'm sure I'll be fine; as I often told my speechwriting clients, when you're the 'authority,' nobody knows when you've omitted something. And worst case, I can give a brief spiel at the start and then unleash folks on the exhibits set up in the ferry building. They're pretty self-explanatory, though it's admittedly more fun and insightful to get the live narrative.

I just ran through my talk without having to consult notes that much, and it ran just under an hour, so I think I'll be fine with a few more rehearsals. Perhaps I'll even do a dry run or two on the island later this week. I'm not especially concerned about being perfect from the start, as I'll refine the patter over time. I just don't want to sound unprepared, or run over my time. It'll all be fine.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

My head is full of history

It's been a busy ten days or so, between two days at Ellis Island, the night tour of the Fort Hancock garrison, and my dad being in the hospital for a knee replacement. Dad's doing fine, now in rehab, and apparently doing much better than the docs and therapists expected. The other day he was marveling at the negative attitudes of the 'old people' there, most of whom are probably younger than he. Thankfully, he's never been a complainer. He'll speak up when something's wrong, but he won't make a mountain out of a molehill.

So... Ellis Island. There's nothing quite like reporting to work at a national monument, especially after driving over the bridge from Liberty State Park. I park in a lot behind the Ferry Building and walk a covered passageway to the Registry Building, and past the National Park Service offices to a smaller office for Save Ellis Island. There's plenty to do before the first visitor ferry arrives: sign in, photocopy handouts, get a walkie-talkie from the NPS interpretation office, and then walk out to the empty first floor of the museum to put out signage and arrange the information desk just so. And then when the visitors arrive, there's generally a stream of people with questions that may or may not be related to the Ferry Building:
  • When's the next ferry to New York? (We have a handy sign to show them.)
  • Where do I find my grandfather's name on the wall? (Outside, behind this building, take those doors over there.)
  • Where's the restroom? (Doors right behind us, to the right.)
  • Where can I look at immigration records? (What years? Between 1892 and 1924, go to the history center through the doors behind us. Before 1892, check CastleGarden.org. After 1924, there's microfilm at the National Archives.)
  • Is there someplace to eat? (Cafe is on the opposite side of the building, but no, you can't bring beverages back into the museum.)
  • The Ellis Island movie in Theater 1 -- what's that about? (Uh, Picasso?)
So far I've met two of the more experienced volunteers, and by the time our day ends at around 4 p.m., we've become fast friends. The mornings tend to be slower than the afternoons, so we've had a good chance to get acquainted before the 11:30 tour. So far I've met two retired grade school principals and a marketing professional who's pretty much in the same boat as I am, career wise. Tremendously helpful and bright, all seem to share a bit of a sarcastic sense of humor; I'll get along fine.

We also work with the rangers to a lesser degree -- there's always at least one behind the larger information desk next to us, available to answer any questions we can't address. Some of them are a real hoot; one the other day was regaling us with stories of her days at Gateway National Recreation Area and strange things that wash ashore at the park's beaches. Another one of the rangers was actually a Save Ellis Island volunteer before getting his job; a veteran of a New York law firm, he said he loves his ranger job (but for the salary) and would never go back.

Already, I can sense that I'm picking up factoids pretty quickly, though I'll need to do some studying. I also need to take a closer look at the Registry Building exhibits; I think I'll be with a ranger for orientation the next time I'm out there, so that should help. One of my cohorts tells me that January will be very quiet (who wants to take a boat through New York Harbor in the dead of winter?), so it will be the perfect time to start doing actual tours. I'll just need to figure a good way to morph the outside part of the discussion to the interior.

So far so good -- I can see I'm really going to like this. At least till the novelty wears off.

And then there was the Garrison tour at Fort Hancock last Friday. As expected, we were part of a small group -- four adults and two kids, plus the Park Historian and a young ranger. Starting at the base theater, we walked along Officers' Row and then back along the enlisted mens' barracks and mess halls, finally looping back to History House for hot cider and cookies. Since it was a small group, it was more of a discussion, including ample editorializing about the state of decay rampant around the fort. Notably, the young ranger was animated about the condition of the officers' houses and the work he and another ranger do to 'keep the floors from turning to pudding from leaks during rain storms.' In its infinite wisdom, the Army had torn off the slate rooves and replaced them with tarpaper shingles two years before handing over the property to the Park Service; those rooves are now beyond their useful lives, with predictable results. Ugh.

I learned a heck of a lot more about the fort, including the location of some long-gone buildings and lighthouses, as well as the background of a huge battery that was in the midst of being built in the 1850s-60s before being deemed obsolete and torn down. While there aren't a lot of prominent "firsts" or "bests" that would distinguish Fort Hancock in the mind of the common person, it's a great representation of coastal defense and served as a fine deterrent to an attack on New York Harbor.

As the rangers noted the lack of recognition and funding for the Fort's restoration, it occurred to me that it might make for a great documentary. New Jersey Network recently ran a fantastic piece on Morristown National Historic Park; I'd heard about it from one of the rangers up there, who was also bemoaning the lack of visitors to that site. Coincidentally, I did some work with the documentary's producer about 10 years ago, and I know he not only feels strongly about New Jersey history, he's fantastic about drawing the best out of a story.

Of course, as government employees, rangers can't go lobbying for funds or contributions for restoration work, so they probably can't be too pushy about public relations projects either. However, that doesn't mean that an interested citizen can't put two and two together and, perhaps, suggest that a documentary filmmaker capture the history inherent in the place, stressing the Jersey angle. If he happens to see the decay, well, let him come to his own conclusions. In any case, if people see the piece, more people get curious and visit and, hopefully, call for change.

So, after a long chat with the historian and the other rangers (including another one who recognized me from our visit last weekend...), the historian gave me his card in case I could get in touch with the producer. I'm working on a pitch right now, and hoping he'll remember working with me so he'll take the idea seriously. (One would hope he'd recall a woman who convinced a senior executive of a Fortune 500 company to stand in the middle of a swamp, but that's another story.).

The big thing for me here is the excitement I felt about the possibilities -- and seeing where my skills and experience can do some good. All of that corporate promotional stuff I suffered through has to have some sort of meaning and positive outcome. In my corporate career, I often wondered if I could ever be an effective advocate for a client without feeling like a total flack -- whether I'd ever be able to be less than cynical about what I was representing. Could I be passionate about advocating for the construction of a new office building, or what a great employer a given company is? It all seemed really fake, and it's hard for me to be sincere about stuff that won't make a positive and lasting impact. This kind of stuff -- preserving history, telling the stories of seemingly small but meaningful people and places -- can have impact.

There's a germ of a full-time job in all of it. Again, though: the challenge comes in finding a way to make a living while doing it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Approaching the first tour

Tomorrow is my first volunteer day at Ellis Island. I'll be there with an experienced guide, plus another new volunteer. It's funny how much this is feeling like the first day of school -- I'm all about the details of where I report, how I present myself, whether I'll like the people I have to be with, and whether I know enough yet. I know the expectations are low on the part of the EI people, and that I don't need to be an expert on day one, but there's still a twinge of uncertainty. I guess I'd have to be worried if there weren't one.

The other day I had a little bit of a dry run tour with a friend who'd never been to Sandy Hook. He'd seen my photos from an insider's tour I'd taken a few weeks ago and was interested in learning more about Fort Hancock, particularly the gun batteries. I drove us around to the Nike base, Officers' Row, and then over to Nine Gun Battery and Battery Peck at the tip of the hook, realizing that there was a lot more I wanted to convey that I didn't know. Not that I see myself giving tours of Fort Hancock, but I discovered that there's a big difference between knowing the information and sharing it with others: what you absorb from guides is often just a fraction of what they've told you.

It was really proven out to me when we dropped by Battery Gunnison for what I thought would be a quick stop to see the restored and reinstalled 6-inch guns. A member of the Army Ground Forces Association, the World War II reenactors who are restoring Gunnison, happened to be there to pick something up. As he unlocked the gates to the battery's interior, he welcomed us in for a quick tour. "Quick" became about an hour as he showed us the magazine, explained the reasoning for the type of artillery stationed there, and how it worked. Seeing our interest, he also brought us into the restored plotting room where Army personnel tracked incoming ships and calculated the appropriate aim for the guns based on information from spotters stationed around the fort and in the Highlands. (My learning: today's Army personnel should thank their lucky stars for radar and computers.) This guy clearly knows his stuff and loves sharing his knowledge, but don't ask me to repeat half of what he told us.

So... the lesson is that you've got to do your homework, because what you retain from hearing others is likely just a percentage of what they've told you. A script outline is really, really important. And the guide needs to stay vigilant in gauging the audience's reactions, and be willing to adjust to meet their expectations and interests. It's not as much about what you want to tell them, as what they want to know and learn (SPIN sales training, anyone?).

Besides my volunteer shift tomorrow, we'll be returning to Fort Hancock on Friday evening for a nighttime garrison tour with the park historian. From previous experience, I'm already aware that he can be a bit longwinded, especially when it comes to artillery. Besides learning about the fort, I'll be paying close attention to how he gauges the crowd and how he adjusts to accommodate their input.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Ellis Island and the Ranger jones.

Saturday I attended volunteer training at Ellis Island, through Save Ellis Island, and I have to say, I'm pretty pumped about being involved. SEI is charged with preserving and restoring the southern side of the island, which contains the hospitals that held and cured immigrants too ill to be admitted to the country immediately. The vast majority of the buildings are unrestored and sitting idle; the only one to be opened to the public so far is the ferry building that was the final stop for immigrants on their way to New York after having successfully gone through processing in the main building. Primarily, the tour uses that building as a place to show materials from the hospital and provide a brief history.

The volunteer coordinators were downright thrilled to have us there, and they emphasized that we weren't expected to know everything immediately. In fact, to supplement the big packet of information they provided, they anticipate that each volunteer will work side-by-side with an experienced guide a few times before going out on our own. And given that we are considered to be National Park Service volunteers, we've also got to go through NPS training, too.

You'll recall that a few months ago, I went to the Island and took the tour, which I found to be pretty boring by comparison to what I expected. While Saturday's public tour covered the same locations, the guide himself provided a much more interesting and informative narrative. He emphasized more of the people aspect, noting the great work and caring of the doctors, nurses and others who provided top-notch care in the island's hospital. I'll have the opportunity to add my own perspectives to the tours I give. The Save Ellis Island people provide a basic tour outline and some information, but they anticipate that each of us will craft our own tour, based on our own interests or backgrounds. My luck, to my knowledge, none of my ancestors went through Ellis Island; my grandparents found out that only Steerage passengers went to the island, so they paid for second class passage so they'd go through the registration process onboard the ship they took to get here. Still, though, maybe there's something to be drawn from that, and who knows what else I might be able to dig up on my own or with others.

The Park Service volunteer benefits appear pretty generous -- discounts for the gift shop and food vendor on the island, plus some pull at other National Parks. (Now that I'm thinking about it, maybe that can be my key through some locked doors at Sandy Hook, and maybe some fun stuff at the Edison site.) Dork that I am, I'm also tickled to get an official volunteer patch for my shirt, and after I've put some time in, I'll get an ID badge and official shirt, too. The one downer is that we don't get the Smokey Bear hat; that's for the exclusive use of rangers. (How sad am I, I ask you.)

From a vocational perspective, I'll get a share of real-life experience on dealing with the touring public, given that I'll also be staffing the SEI information desk next to the Park Service desk before and after my tours. A ranger will nearly always be nearby, so I'll also be able to get their perspectives, too.

As of now, I start on December 3 and have a couple of other days booked, too.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The wheels turn verrrrry slowly

Believe it or not, I finally heard from the Ellis Island people about volunteering at the ferry depot/unrestored side of the island. They invited me to an orientation session on November 21, which will also include an optional tour of the unrestored buildings. At this point, I decided to go to the session and then make a determination on whether I want to actually volunteer there, boring as it looks. It will be a learning opportunity, and yeah, I want to check out the creepy old buildings, too (note to self: charge battery, insert 1GB SD card and bring camera!). And I'll also get to drive over the restricted utility bridge to the island -- the one they built to get materials and equipment over there while they were doing the restoration of the main building. Sure beats having to pay $12 for the ferry every time I go out there.

So there's that. Now we'll see when the folks at the Edison site finally get around to contacting me.

I've been doing a lot of wandering around to different historic sites -- Paterson, Morristown, some closed areas of Fort Hancock, Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia -- ostensibly on research. For the Jersey sites, the overwhelming impression is that there's lots of great stuff out there, and the people at the sites are really passionate about preserving and publicizing them, but there's no umbrella marketing support (or $$$$) from the state or anyone else. So I've got myself stuck on this chicken and egg thing, i.e. am I maybe the one to get that going as an aspect of a tour company, or is there no marketing support because the whole thing is just too fractioned? The marketing challenge seems ripe for the taking, but the tourguide piece in many respects is already taken by the experts at the sites themselves. Would that be fulfilling for me? Am I biting off more than I can chew? And how much time do I really have to allow for it to work? Even more important, how do I make money at it ... enough to support myself?

Part of me says that if the state isn't willing to spend on this, then go to private industry. There's some potential for getting corporations involved - companies that have a vested interest in promoting what the state has to offer, and who really need to make nice with the communities they serve. Yeah, I'm thinking utilities, some of the usual "good citizen" suspects, and so on. I'm not really sure how much funding they've still got for this kind of stuff, but it might be worth a shot.

I'm also concerned about my ability to get out and really push the concept with people who can make it happen. Despite myself, I've been cocooning, and feeling more than a little shy and too modest about what I can really achieve. And oh, yeah, worried about failure.

A new friend recently reminded me of something I'd forgotten: far better to try and fail, then never try at all. I've got to get out of the navel-gazing stage and actually MOVE on this stuff. The dark days of winter are fast approaching, which is never a good thing for me, and it's honestly a bit embarrassing that I haven't made more progress. Shame has a nasty, whiny voice and needs to put a sock in its mouth.

One last thing: I still haven't been able to book time to chat with the Princeton tour entrepreneur. Grrr. Don't know if she's just been busy, or if she had second thoughts. To the grindstone: far better to try and fail, then to never try at all.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Still nothing...

... from the Edison National Historical Park folks on volunteering.

And nothing yet from the specialist on my breast issue. Called to discover that my primary's office hadn't faxed the report over, so I had to get that corrected. And I picked up my films and the doctor's report yesterday.

While I've been pitifully inert this week (besides a blog entry on another site... and web searches on Fort Hancock... and five loads of laundry after switching my drawers over to fall/winter), I realized that I may be back to normal. That sounds weird. Let me explain:

I don't think I ever felt like my regular self at my last job. Whether the need was real or perceived, I always sensed that I had to be someone other than who I really am. Maybe it was because I worked with people who mostly acted like they were curing cancer (they weren't) and assumed I agreed with them (I didn't; I was just trying to get by.). And a lot of the time, I felt judged, and deemed inadequate. As I got more and more exhausted by the job, I think the weight and impact of the pretense bled into my personal life. I withdrew. I didn't initiate a lot of contact, and I certainly wasn't as friendly as I once had been. I got so out of practice on being the unvarnished me, that I was having a hard time relating to the dwindling number of people I really wanted to get to know. Label it cautiousness, or shyness, or anything else; the result was a very solitary existence.

I was really starting to wonder if I'd have the skill or desire to connect with anyone again.

Not to worry, as it turns out. Free of the spectre of judgment, I think I've probably chatted up more people in the past two months than I took a chance on in the past two years. It hasn't been incredibly conscious, either, just finding some presumed common ground and striking up a conversation. And, in some cases, going on a flyer and asking for a second helping when the chat seemed promising. It's coming a lot easier, maybe even easier than it ever has.

There's still a lot of ground yet to cover (and a lot of pushing on my recent inertia -- better to do than to mull over and write about), but it seems that I'm moving in the right direction on that part of my reboot. When you feel more like yourself, you can claim more of your own power and everything else that makes you wonderful. And that's a good thing.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


I admit I am a bit cheap, but I really didn't want things to turn out this way.

Upon leaving my job, I started getting my health benefits through COBRA. It's notoriously expensive, and while I know that insurance is more a wager with the insurer that you won't get sick, I was still kind of annoyed that chances were very good that I would not get my 'money's worth.'

Well, that may not be the case.

I had my mammogram about two weeks ago and was called back in because the radiologist had seen something on one of the films and wanted to get magnified images of the area in question. I wasn't all that concerned, frankly, because this was my first digital mammo, and I'd read that the increased detail the digitals show was causing more women to get called back for retakes. I went back in on Tuesday. After more shots, and more discomfort, the radiologist came back with a verdict. Magnifying the magnification as she showed me, she explained that she was concerned about a very tiny spot that she'd nearly missed. She wants me to see a specialist, potentially for a biopsy.


Now, I trust the radiologist implicitly -- she's got a fantastic reputation with physicians and patients alike, and she's straightforward without being cold. I'd had an issue a couple of years ago and she sent me for an MRI that showed everything was okay. No doubt this will be something similar. The radiologist said she didn't think it was anything, but I definitely need to get it checked out. Yesterday I set up the appointment with the specialist and arranged to have the radiologist's report sent to that specialist for evaluation. The appointment is in February... unless the report raises concern, in which case the date gets moved up.

Among the many issues this might bring up, it does put a time clock on making career decisions. Even if everything works out okay health-wise, I'm still obliged to go back for a recheck in six months... and probably on six-month intervals for the near future. COBRA coverage maxes out at 18 months, and then I have to make other health insurance arrangements, either through a new employer or buying them myself. Geesh.

Fate does have interesting motivational techniques.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Small Business Development people, neither small nor... well, never mind

Y'ever notice how I tend to wait to write about the hard stuff until I have something more positive to report?

Last Wednesday morning I had my appointment with the folks at the Small Business Development Center. Having not put on business clothes in six weeks, I felt a little weird getting ready. Kind of reminded me of the first crisp day after starting school in September: you get to wear your favorite sweater. When I'm not playing "Business Sue" on a daily basis, it's definitely more fun picking out which professional clothes to wear.

I had two appointments: first one with the startup expert and the second one with the marketing guru. First, I have to say I wasn't extremely impressed with the startup person. We chatted about my business concept for about ten minutes, and he spent the remainder of the hour showing me that I could do all the necessary state registration work online. There might have been a little bit of a generation gap there, as he seemed pretty impressed with the whole process and I just wanted to move onto more interesting things. I got some of my questions answered, but for the most part, I didn't feel that I'd gotten a lot more information than I could have read on a website.

The marketing guru was a real trip. She was really pleased that I'd sketched out a basic marketing plan with target audiences and prospective communications media (web, publications, word of mouth, etc.). I think her exact exclamation was, "Finally! Someone comes in with a plan!" She proceeded to pull it apart, telling me to revamp it into a calendar by month and expenditures, which makes sense. Launching into a 45-minute-long monologue, she drove the networking angle, though she didn't use the word "network" once. She was really pushing for me to join a women business owners' organization she's an officer of, noting the opportunity to cross promote other members' ventures on my tours by, for example, giving out cookies from another woman's business.

Maybe it's just me, but you start mentioning cookies and I start thinking about people who treat business like it's a PTA fundraiser. Now, I know that the treachery and politics in some PTAs would make New Jersey politics look like nursery school, but in general, meh. I don't want to limit myself to the girls' side of the gym. That's not me, and I really don't want to be in an organization where people think small and are each others' main source of income in the hopes of drumming up a little extra business (i.e. "I'll get people for your Mary Kay business if you tell them about my Tupperware."). I've been on first-name basis with Fortune 500 CEOs. I've written shareholders' meeting speeches. I've worked with and for entrepreneurs who've built sizeable businesses. Maybe I'm a snob, but using the cookie example sent me to a bad, bad place in my mind that was a bit of a struggle to leave.

That said, I've resolved to take in all inputs, regardless of where they come from and how much I'd have thrown up on them in the past. Cross promotion makes sense. It's inexpensive and it builds relationships. Maybe I was just annoyed that she had barreled into a monologue on everything I should do without taking two minutes to ask about me and my background. Maybe she's accustomed to dealing with people who've never worked in a corporate environment and doesn't want to waste limited consulting time hearing about their day jobs at the Gap. Regardless, it's kind of ironic that she's supposed to be a marketing whiz and she didn't even bother to assess her audience.

I have to be honest, too: the thought of joining business organizations kind of scares me. Not kind of. Does. I absolutely hate going to meetings where you stand around and try to engage people in conversation when they'd rather catch up with people they already know. It reminds me of sorority rush -- the ones when I was already in the sorority. And I am wondering about my elevator pitch -- the two minute description of my business concept. Based on some of the feedback I've gotten from people I've pitched it to, and how it differs from what's in my mind, I'm wondering whether I need to change the pitch... or change the concept. (The feedback concept is probably more profitable, but it's also more pedestrian than what I want to do.) I'm really not into busing boring and cranky senior citizens to the Ellis Island ferry and telling a story or two on the way, but that sounds like what some folks (including the marketing lady) are hearing or perceiving is my goal. Eh, who knows if they're even really listening to what I'm saying, or whether they hear "tour" and their minds go straight to the seniors tours and don't make a U-turn back to me. They're not even in the demographic I'd like to reach -- they haven't even heard of Weird NJ.

Getting experience

So... I called the volunteer coordinator at the Edison National Historic Park, and after a bit of hunting she found my application. They're definitely in the market for folks to help guide guests, and all looks good; she's passing it on to the head of interpretation, who will then give me a call to talk further. We'll see how long it takes for that to happen.

Weather here has been awful -- rainy, unseasonably cold last Friday and all weekend -- and not conducive for a happy frame of mind. Not exactly being satisfied by the prospect of longer nights and shorter days, I really felt like hibernating last week, especially when I got the long list of to-dos from the small business development people (another thing I need to blog on...). After another kick in the pants, I started planning a dry run tour for this coming weekend -- either a local Revolutionary War jaunt (the last major battle in the northern colonies conveniently happened two towns away, but not many people seem to know that) or a ride out to the site of Edison's iron ore mining facility.

This weekend was also the annual Four Centuries event here in Union County, NJ, which celebrates the rich history of the area. Some sites even date back as far as the mid 1600's. All of the house museums in the county are open for the event, free of charge, along with several other notable sites. I took the opportunity to head back to Liberty Hall, an amazing mansion which was owned by the Keans, a prominent New Jersey family, for over 200 years and has hosted eight US presidents and Alexander Hamilton, among others. There's a great story about Redcoats seeing ghosts there, and I wanted to make sure I had it right.

In addition to learning things and checking out locations, I've been using site visits to pick up the behaviors that make a tour guide exceptional (or not). The volunteers at Liberty Hall have some amazing stories about what's been found in the house (the family saved EVERYTHING, down to heating oil bills from the 1800's) and it's a lot of fun to get them chatting. This time I ran into the one who didn't know when to shut up. On anything. Including things that had nothing to do with the site, history or anything else. Note to self: curb logorrhea and give the guests a chance to talk. Sometimes people have questions, or maybe even stories of their own from things they've heard or witnessed. You never know.

Then, the other day I found something interesting online. There's a walking tour company in Princeton, aptly named Princeton Tour Company. Boss website with real personality and enthusiasm about the town. Extensive selection of themed, Princeton-related tours. And the owner proudly notes that all of her tour facts have been verified by local official sources, and that she maintains strong relationships with local businesses, the university and relevant local government entities. And the company has been featured in major newspapers outside of the immediate New Jersey area. This lady's got her act together -- she's doing everything right. Wow. How could I have not found this before?

Despite the weather, I headed down to Princeton yesterday to check out their Einstein tour. The company owner, Mimi, was our guide, and the only people on the tour besides me were a friend of hers and a nice older couple who are friends of the friend. It was a little weird, because the friend was treating it like a private tour for her friends, and sidetracking the dialogue from time to time with stories about the scientist she works for, but Mimi did do a good job of keeping things rolling. In fact, beyond a couple of Rutgers-related inaccuracies (and the clammy weather), the tour was a great experience. (And yes, despite myself, Ms. Smarty Pants did challenge her on the Rutgers stuff. I couldn't help it. Cut me and I bleed scarlet.) Mimi clearly knows her stuff, from the fun Princeton trivia to some nice little marketing touches like putting her logo and URL on the STOP sign the police department requires her to use when she guides people through intersections.

You can guess where I'm going with this. At the start of the tour, Mimi had asked what brought me out for the tour, and I honestly admitted that I'm researching doing my own tour company in the northern part of the state. When we got to the end of the tour, she very graciously offered to share what she's learned, as long as I agree not to run tours in Princeton. Well, that's easily promised; I don't see how I'd be able to put together a comparable product. She's made a lot of connections around town and built a substantial barrier to competition, and from our brief conversation it was crystal clear that she has done her homework on marketing and promotion. As far as I'm concerned, I'd be happy enough to cross-promote once I'm up and running.

Without any prompting, she even suggested she could hire me to do some tours, though she couldn't guarantee groups or a guaranteed take (guides get half of the admission fees collected, and tours run even if there's a single customer). Plus I'd have to sign a non-compete, non-disclosure. Telling me she already has the scripts together, and which tours would have the best draw, she was even musing that I might be able to add a Rutgers perspective to her Paul Robeson tour (alumnus, Rutgers class of 1919).

Heck, if it's an opportunity to learn the business, I'll do it and consider it an internship. It'll cost me gas and time, and I don't want to lose money on the venture, but the experience would be fantastic. Who knows when or if the Park Service thing is going to work out?

I told her I'd get her some confirmation on some of the disputed Rutgers-related points, along with some thoughts on target RU markets for the Robeson tour. Earlier today I sent her a note with that data and a follow up on her offer to impart wisdom. And I'll follow up with a call in a day or two.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

And by the way

I haven't heard from the volunteer coordinator at the Edison Historic Site, either. I went to the grand opening of the restored labs on Saturday, and that only fed my desire to be up there showing people around, or something. They had signs and newsletter articles about volunteering, but yeah, I still haven't heard anything. I called the volunteer coordinator today; as expected, I got voicemail instead. I don't want to make a nuisance of myself, but what the flap? Do they want help, or no?

Okay, I'll calm down...

Friday, October 9, 2009

I've been a bad girl...


When I started this blog, it was with the intention of chronicling the story of my reboot. The good and the not so good. The productive days and the, well, not so productive days.

Since my last entry, I've been spinning my wheels again, bollixed up in detail (like the proper spelling of "bollixed")... feeling stalled and unhappy. This wasn't helped much by an acquaintance who has taken it upon herself to prod me and constantly remind me that too much time has already gone by and that I don't want it to be December with no concrete progress (or money) made. In her eyes I've taken too much time making lists and not enough time actually DOING what I want my business to be about. I know she's right, and she's got my best interest at heart, but all that did was make me nervous. The big question: what's the deadline date for assessing my progress and deciding that I need to start looking for a desk job?

The fact that there's no money coming in the door doesn't help my mindset much, either. Don't get me wrong: I have a decent nest egg set aside, so there's no chance I'll be foreclosed on and hitting up the food bank any time soon. But I'm already finding myself tempted to put one less slice of turkey on the sandwich so I can stretch the package a little further. (And how proud am I to have pilfered all of that hotel soap and shampoo when I had the chance?)

And speaking of money, as I've been researching costs for this little tour company venture I'm envisioning, I realized that renting a van to get folks from place to place was likely to eat up quite a bit of my profit, or make the tour too expensive for the value provided.

In the midst of all of this, I went to a seminar at NYU last Friday; it was all about starting a business whilst making the transition from salaried to self-employed. Not surprisingly, the lecturer was a life coach who also used the session to promote her new book and prospect for new clients. That said, she did offer some useful nuggets for staying positive, as well as some resources to check out. She observed that things WILL go wrong, despite one's best intentions, and it's not a reflection of your worth. And for someone like me who tends to question her own rationality, it was really helpful to hear that many other, apparently normal people in the group had concerns about staying motivated, feeling isolated and all of those soul crushing barriers to success and happiness. One less thing to knock myself on.

I wasn't shy during the session -- after all, I wanted to get my money's worth (seminar was free, but I had paid train fare) -- and I also wanted to use it as an opportunity to make connections with people, however brief. At the end of the seminar, a woman sitting nearby asked me about my business concept. Turns out she was a travel agent in a previous life but turned to real estate when the internet pretty much ruined travel agencies. We ended up chatting for about 20 minutes as we walked to Herald Square from 42nd. She really liked my concept, and when I expressed my doubts about pricing, she observed that many small group tours, done well, can price out at $200 a pop. Bespoke tours can go even higher.

Thinking of my Hawaii trips, I know she's right on the money, too. I think the least I've paid for an excursion is $80, and that was a simple hike with a little organic pineapple and bottled water. Throw in a long-eared mule and bag lunch, or dinner and a 4-wheel-drive trek, and you're talking $150 or more. At that rate, touring just one guest covers van rental for the weekend. Granted, there aren't any sea cliffs or erupting volcanoes within driving distance here, but, as one of the other seminar attendees noted, many visitors would be willing to pay someone for a guided hike to an interesting place.

Getting that affirmation was really helpful, as was the chat in and of itself. Honestly, though, it's kind of scary to think that someone would pay me that much to show them around. I can't claim any credentialed expertise. Like the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, my PhD in thinkology (or in this case, New Jerseyology) comes from life experience rather than book larnin'. Then again, there are people who've made money on tours of Sopranos shooting locations around North Jersey. With a well-crafted bio, I could market myself as a Jersey maven.

The whole pricing thing kind of reminds me of when I got a shopkeeper in Asbury Park to display some of my photography on consignment. My biggest out-of-pocket cost was the frames; I'd made the prints on my home printer. And being that I'm not a professional photographer, I didn't really even consider the value of my talent. When I quoted a price based on my costs plus 10 percent, the shopkeeper was aghast and suggested a much higher price, then adding 30 percent for her consignment fee. Well, okay, who am I to argue that?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Getting past conceptual stage... getting fire in the belly

The wheels turn slowly... but they are turning.

This morning I spoke with someone at the NJ Small Business Development Center. You'll recall I reached out to them on Friday to set up an appointment to talk about the tour business. My appointment is October 14.

The coordinator had called me yesterday afternoon as I was driving to Sandy Hook, so I tried (unsuccessfully) to return her call from there. Truth be told, I was kind of relieved she didn't answer the phone; I'd left all of my paperwork at home, with the points I need help with, and I honestly was a little worried about sounding like a scatterbrain who hadn't done her homework. I made a few quick notes (relieved I'd left a pen in the car at some point and hadn't cleaned the paper from the front seat) before I dialed, but as I said, I ended up not needing them, anyway.

Notes in hand, I felt a bit more secure when I called this morning. The coordinator greeted me warmly, pulled up my application and asked me a bit more about the venture, including how far along I am.

"Conceptual stage," I admitted.

"Great! We love working with people from the very start." Phew.

Feeling a little less like the kid who neglected to do her term paper, I told her I'm looking for help in setting up the structure of the business, dealing with the legalities and determining the competitive landscape. They've got start-up specialists who advise on a lot of those issues, with the fiscal structure apparently being a lot more complex than getting the legal entity settled. Cool by me, as long as the liability rests with the business, and not on me personally. They've also got a marketing specialist who can work with me to determine who else is out there doing tours, what they're doing, how they price their services, and so forth.

The best part of the services is that they're all free, courtesy of the Small Business Administration. After paying federal taxes for the past 20-odd years, I better get my money's worth. Between now and October 14, I'll be coming up with a LOT of questions.

Meanwhile, I've been getting some interesting messages from my gut on where I should be headed. On Sunday I checked out the Edison Menlo Park museum at the site of TAE's first R&D lab. It's a tiny, two-room building crammed with all kinds of artifacts, and I got there just in time for a tour led by a volunteer with an encyclopedic knowledge of Edison's life and work. Very, very cool! On one hand, I was really energized that there are people out there that find this stuff interesting. On the other, I started wondering if, uh, oh, maybe there's more competition than I expected... and from a no-cost source. Why would people come to me if they could get this for free, beyond getting a van ride from site to site? That upped the ante a bit. Maybe I just need to be that much more creative. How about that?

On another, less happy note, I was dismayed by what I saw on my trip to Sandy Hook. I hadn't been there all summer, and the decay of the Fort Hancock buildings has accelerated, particularly the houses on Officers' Row. To punctuate the point, there are now "Danger: Falling Material" and "Danger: Hardhat Area" signs posted between the homes. In fact, the yellow brick facings on one side wall of House 16 have come down, from the roof line to the foundation. These are all good, solid structures that were built to last. The really appalling thing is that it's all a result of 35 years of simple neglect. Nobody's vandalizing them. They've just been left to rot in the ocean winds. Allegedly, the Sandy Hook Foundation has a master plan to refurbish them and many of the other buildings at the fort, but there doesn't seem to be a lot going on. Where the flip is Bob Vila or Norm Abrams?

I find myself being really frustrated and upset by that (and ending up in tears watching Ken Burns' National Parks series, but that's another story), but not knowing what to do. The volunteers down there are limited to the nature stuff and giving tours of the gun batteries. Nobody's rehabbing the houses. General Electric put money in the kitty to refurbish the Edison Labs. How about some defense contractor putting out some dough to preserve the history of one of New York Harbor's critical defenders?

Okay, I'll get off my soap box. I have to figure out a new career before I go off to save the world.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Motivation all around

Nothing like total strangers to help you feel good about insane major life decisions.

After being somewhat sedentary yesterday, I resolved that today would be a day of action, starting with getting out of the house. Rather than defaulting to the public library, I drove to one of the local Panera restaurants to grab coffee and a muffin, plug in and log on.

The last time I went there I got a subtle confirmation for my decision to reboot: a bunch of pharmaceutical salespeople were there, having a buzzword-laden team meeting and sweating over not making quota for the month. I could only shake my head and smile to myself.

Today, after I settled in with my laptop and paperwork, the very friendly manager came by and asked if I was working hard. I told him that my work was a little out of the ordinary: I am researching a start-up. I explained the concept to him, and he responded with a great deal of enthusiasm. That led to a chat about his career -- he's an actor by training and temperament, which was totally apparent after talking with him for two minutes. A few moments later, one of the other employees came over and joined the conversation. In fact, she returned a few more times to tell me more, and to confide some of the challenges she's been having in getting funding for vocational training she wants to take. She got teary eyed as she told me about someone who was working to help her get a grant, and she reminded me that prayer definitely works.

Later on, the guy who was sitting at the next table started asking me what I was up to and told me about his new career of adjunct teaching at a local college while trying to start a consultancy. Meanwhile, I'm toking up on high-test coffee... so I'm really zooming.

Needless to say, all of this interaction with total strangers was a real boost, which also got me over the hump to sign up online to get some guidance at one of the NJ Small Business Development Centers through Rutgers. I have to write a business plan. And do market research. And figure out how the hell I will make a living wage. Or find a millionaire to marry. Of course, I'm sure I'll have to harass the SBDC people to book an appointment, but I've made the first step.

Monday, September 21, 2009


I'm starting to get nervous, and I'm thinking that's a good thing.

A few things are driving my discomfort. First is the cocooning. I'm a kibbitzer. Anyone who's worked with me knows that I can only go for about an hour without dropping by someone's desk for a chat. The advent of instant messaging made it even easier to start random conversation in the office and with distant coworkers.

Now I'm on my own. Me and the cat. She's lovely company, but beyond some purring and occasional meowing, she's not much of a conversationalist. And I've never been great at striking up friendships with people just by chatting with them on the elevator or in the lobby of my building. It wouldn't be hard to become a hermit.

Fortunately my town library has wireless access, so I've started going there to be among the living (and to get my lap back from the cat, but that's another story). It's also forcing me to do some work instead of philosophizing on what my reinvention should look like.

For instance, I finally got around to resubmitting my volunteer application to the National Park Service. After a visit to Ellis Island, I decided not to try to get a position there, since the tour I would have been volunteering to lead was a lot more basic than I'd anticipated. Yesterday I visited the Edison site in West Orange, and even though I've been there a million times, I got really charged up about the place (yeah, I'm an Edison geek). They're opening up the renovated portion of the park in a few weeks, and I'm dying to check it out. THAT would be really cool. On my way home from the site, my mind was racing with ideas. Eventually, I could run a tour company that would bring people to the various Edison-related sites around the state (and there are several, believe it or not). Hmm ... but I don't know yet if I'd be any good at it. Gotta check it out!

After putting in the form, I took another look at a Time Out New York article about an attorney who'd started her own tour company in Brooklyn. Though the article was brief, it contained enough information to get the queasies going: having to get liability insurance, incorporating, getting appropriate licenses from the Department of Consumer Affairs. I knew it couldn't be much different in New Jersey, which has a notoriously unfriendly environment in which to start a business.

Maybe I don't want to do that, after all.

Wait. This was supposed to be easy? Who am I listening to, anyway: the complacent me who'd rather be bored and dissatisfied than not succeed? Or the braver, more daring Sue who realizes (as the Buddhists say) that it's better to live your own life imperfectly and authentically than to live someone else's perfectly? How would I really know what's involved with getting a business off the ground unless I actually looked into it?

So for the past couple of hours I've been at the library, surfing the web for information on incorporating, registering with the state, and a bunch of other stuff. The main thing I learned is that I should probably not be going about it without input from a lawyer and/or accountant, but it's a start. I've also made some headway on a list of to-dos that make it all a little less scary. Big things, parsed into small bites, are ultimately much easier to digest.

Before I fall in love with this idea to the point of no return, I've got to reach out to a few folks who run tour companies or guide tours of historic sites. And I'll be doing a little market research on my own. Needless to say, if you know anyone I can talk with, let me know. And keep an eye out for an online survey from me!

Write it up...

Moving along at a glacial pace, I signed up for a class at NYU. It starts October 5 and covers freelance writing for the novice. It will cover how to translate your interests into story concepts, finding the right market and pitching to a publication. By the end of the five sessions, students are to have a plan and a polished piece.

While I'm not wedded to the idea of being a writer for the rest of my life, I do know that I'll always be a storyteller. It wouldn't hurt to know how to sell an article or a short story; I've dabbled with sending stuff out from time to time, with no success beyond short writeups in Weird NJ. Having deadlines and critiques from the instructor will be really helpful, and I'll also get some input on whether the topic matter I'm interested in is actually marketable.

Who knows? I might turn out to be pretty good at it!

The night after I signed up for the class, I had a dream I was offered two freelance writing jobs. One sounded marginally better than the other in terms of subject matter, but neither was all that thrilling. After I'd weighed them both quickly in my mind, I heard that the worse one paid $60,000, while the better one paid $14,000. Still trying to figure out the significance there.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The brand called Sue

Yesterday I had my first "official" networking get-together, grabbing coffee with a photographer who's shot executive portraits for me several times over the past decade. Among many valuable insights, the contact brought to mind the concept of personal brand.

He made a decision long ago to be the 'expensive' photographer, capitalizing on the fact that people tend to equate price with value in the more artistic fields. That can be an advantage in flush times, but not so great when clients' budgets are slashed and they feel they can settle for an 'okay' photographer. He came to realize that in a lot of cases, what he was selling wasn't necessarily his skill as it was the other intangibles he brings to the table.

From my own experiences, I can see what he means. When I've hired consultants or freelancers, I did so with the assumption that they're good at their craft. The differentiation comes in how they work. For example, when I bring them into a meeting with executives I support, I need the consultant to treat the exec's limited time and attention as a rare and valuable commodity. Usually, it's not easy to get on execs' calendars, so you have to make it worth their time, or you lose credibility. Unfortunately, a lot of consultants see it the other way around -- that somehow, the client is there to serve them. It all boils down to respect. It's simple things like being on time, if not early; making sure you're ready to start as soon as the exec comes into the room; testing any equipment to make sure it's working smoothly; and taking the exec's cues on when to stop the small talk and get down to business. Consultants who have the maturity to take those needs seriously are worth their weight in gold. Paying a few hundred dollars less is no bargain if you have to babysit the consultant and sweat every time they open their mouths.

Other situations will call for other intangibles. A good reporter can quickly establish a strong connection with an interview subject and get them to open up. A savvy travel agent will be able to size up a client to know whether "roughing it" means Outward Bound or is just code for a hotel with generic soaps. And hopefully we've all benefited from teachers who understood our learning styles and worked with us accordingly.

Among the other things I learned from the chat, I realized that regardless of what I end up doing, it's worth spending time now to map out the unique qualities that make me valuable as a professional. When my target market sees my name, what do I want them to think? What do I want them to do? (Hopefully they'll be compelled to buy whatever it is I'm selling, but what else?) And all of that has to feel true to who I am, not just a wishful persona of what I think will sell. Part of the reason I embarked on the reboot was because my job didn't feel like me anymore, and it's too tiring to keep pretending. When I'm doing what feels right and authentic for me, good things can't help but follow.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Networking -- a gratifying surprise

I was absolutely floored yesterday by a networking contact.

Slowly, I've been making contact with people I've worked with in the past -- consultants and freelancers, mostly -- to see if they're willing to share some of their experiences with me. Because I'm not entirely sure yet which direction I'll be taking, I'm mostly reforging the bond on a new level and asking their perspectives on what they like and don't like about being sole practitioners or running small businesses. I've been fortunate to work with some very talented and very nice people, and this is also giving me a chance to catch up with them and find out what they've been up to.

It's easier to reach out to some people more than others, given the relationships we've built over time. Some are all business, while others are a bit more conversational and personal. Not surprisingly, it's easier to reach out to the latter ones: it's a pretty natural progression to give them a call or send a note saying I've left my job, and why, and what I'm up to. The more formal, business contacts are a bit tougher, so they haven't come as naturally, maybe because my 'story' still feels a bit unformed.

On Monday, I got a LinkedIn message from one of those more business-y contacts. He'd tried calling me at my old work number and got my outgoing message saying I've left the company. In his note, he offered to be a reference for me and help in any way that he can, and he implored me to drop him a line with my phone number so we could catch up. I did that, and he called me yesterday morning, barely taking a breath between all of the nuggets of information and food for thought he shared with me. I think at one point, he was talking for three minutes straight. A few hours later, he followed up with a couple of e-mails with more information on some of what he'd shared.

For someone who doesn't expect a lot of help from anyone, the e-mails and call were gratifying, and a little overwhelming. The contact has always been a class act to work with, and he clearly values his business relationships, so it's not surprising he would be willing to help. I guess I just wasn't prepared for the volumes he offered up, unsolicited. When I recounted the experience to someone else, that person noted that most people, when given the chance, will step forward to help, and some will even approach you before you reach out to them. I know I've done it for folks in the past, so I shouldn't be as surprised as I was. It did make it a lot easier to send out a note to one of the other 'business-y' contacts yesterday afternoon.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Put away the tube socks

Well, campers, it looks like I won't be overseeing any dodgeball games anytime soon.

I sat down with the career counselor at NYU on Wednesday to learn the results of my Strong Interest Inventory. I'm still digesting what it all means, which is why it took me this long to blog on it.

Essentially, the Strong is designed to help you assess your interests, preferences, and personal styles— and then matches them to the responses from people in a variety of professions who are satisfied (maybe even happy) in their jobs. The test also gives you general occupational 'themes' that describe your work personality, as well as personal styles (do you like to work solo or on a team, do you like to take risks, how do you like to learn, etc.) With this information in hand, you're better equipped to choose a career you can be passionate about.

My results jived pretty well with some of the other testing I've done in the past, though neither dictator nor assassin showed up on the preferred occupation list. My highest themes are 'investigative' and 'artistic,' followed by 'realistic.' Not surprisingly, the results also pointed to me being more of an independent spirit than someone who has to work within a team environment.

But here's where the real fun comes in: they provide your scores in over 100 occupations, and while the list certainly isn't exhaustive, it's representative of major work areas. The area where I showed no interest whatsoever, was around sports; I scored zero points for phys ed teacher and athletic trainer. My absolute highest score was for attorney, followed closely by librarian. Small wonder why I get along so well with lawyers. And, of course, I do like to research and share what I learn. Trivial Pursuit, anyone?

Somewhat comforting is that my scores around communications occupations were relatively high, though it's interesting to see that 'reporter' scored higher than 'public relations director.' So I haven't been totally in the wrong ball park in what I've been doing for the past 20 years -- maybe just in the wrong section. And 'English teacher,' which an annoying ex-boyfriend said I should be, scored really low.

Now, none of this means that I have to go to law school. In fact, the interpretive report suggests that the results can also point to things I'd find satisfying in my personal life. (Oddly enough, I do like sparring with lawyers in my free time.) What's most important are the descriptors -- the aspects of the occupations that appeal to me. As I go on job interviews or talk with people in interesting careers, I can ask questions to determine if those things are present in the job, and mine for areas that won't be as appealing or may even contradict my preferences.

And if I do decide to strike out on my own, I can weigh all of this into my thinking, and create the job that makes the most sense for me, and partner with or hire someone who likes to do the stuff I'm not as thrilled with.

But we can be sure I won't be wearing a whistle on a lanyard around my neck.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


I'm annoyed.

About a month ago, before I left my job, I put in an online application to volunteer at Ellis Island. I figured it would be a good way to satisfy my Junior Park Ranger jones, and I'd get to learn more about a very interesting historical location. And, of course, it would also assure that I had a reason to be out of the house in the event I hit a rough patch (read 'slough of despond') during my reboot.

When I applied, I got an automated response saying that someone would be in touch with me within ten business days. That was August 6. I still hadn't heard anything last week but figured they were busy, the volunteer coordinator was on vacation, what have you. Nonetheless, I called and left a message on her voice mail. I got no response.

I was about to drop it when I realized that volunteering at Ellis Island is something I want to do, and it's foolish just to assume that it wasn't meant to be. Today I called again and got the coordinator on the phone, and she directed me to apply online. Okay, I already did; maybe my application got lost? She asked which website I used. Uh, the National Park Service site? She told me to go to volunteer.gov and fill out the form there. Okay... whatever. In the time she took to explain the process, she could have interviewed me and made a determination.

It's the government, so naturally the website she sent me to led me to the exact place where I'd posted my application. Rather than debate it, I'll just resubmit. And call again.

Once I was past the initial frustration, I started thinking about the excuses I make for not achieving what I really want in life. It's always been an issue. I was the classic B+ student who could have gotten straight A's if I just put in a little more effort. A lot of times, when I've haven't gotten results after a token stab, I've just let it slide. I've gotten into some pretty good situations without much effort, so maybe I concluded that as far as I'm concerned, results are more about luck than hard work. Other times I could reason that I wasn't any worse off not getting something, because I didn't invest a lot of energy into it. But the old line stands true most of the time: you get out what you put into it.

As the reality of my situation sinks in, the nagging voice of compromise is already suggesting that I just look for the same kind of job I've been doing for the past umpteen years. I'm good at it, I've got a decent resume, maybe I just needed a little time off to clear my head. Jumping back into the same frying pan would be a hell of a lot easier -- and a lot less scary -- than exploring the infinite abyss of possibility. In the long run, it would just leave me even more annoyed and dissatisfied. (Decide in haste, repent at leisure.)

Change is not for wimps. Whether it's self-imposed or thrust upon you, it's your choice how to deal with it. I've made some strong statements about it. Now it's time to follow through.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Exploring the mission

Another thing I've been taking a look at is some of the work I did at a Kripalu workshop eight years ago. Kripalu, if you don't know it, is a great retreat center for spirit, body and mind, located in the Berkshires. Peace and positivity emanate from the place, to the point where wild rabbits know it's safe to come within inches of people sitting out on the front patio.

The first time I went there, I took part in a workshop called, "Exploring your life's mission." I was attracted to it because they didn't promise instant results like some other workshops I'd read about. You know the ones: "After this 48 hour experience of self-discovery, you'll have all the tools you need to change your life instantly!" (There always seem to be a lot of exclamation points involved in their brochures.) All the Kripalu folks would commit to was getting you started on your journey. Maybe you'd come away with some answers, or maybe you'd find out that you had a lot more work to do to help those answers along. That seemed reasonable. If anything, it was a lot less pressure than figuring out the rest of your life in two days.

Led by two life coaches, the process was well thought-out and drew each of us back more to who we are and makes us feel most alive. To answer that question, we went back to very specific examples in our lives where we felt most 'lit up' and most authentic. My answers gravitated around having fun and novel experiences, especially those where I made a connection with people.

While there wasn't much talk about what that equates to from a money-making perspective, the coaches gave great guidance on making one's mission real, including keeping things simple and taking small, achievable steps. Nonetheless, I made little, if any progress on my own mission after that weekend. Between a challenging job and the shock of September 11 later that year, I got waylaid. With so much seemingly out of my control, I think I just needed security and familiarity, however uncomfortable it might have been.

Maybe it just wasn't the right time for me, but that mission has been lurking these many years. It's risen to the surface from time to time, mostly from a sense of dissatisfaction when I've been relegated to making someone else's vision real, and following directions instead of being the one setting the direction. Sometimes knowing what you don't want to do, or where you don't want to be, is as important as knowing what you do want.

The scary part is in actually working at it. I can spend a lot of time mulling it and intellectualizing it and writing about it, but that doesn't push the needle very far. The chat with the career counselor on Wednesday should help, I hope.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

That's Austin "Danger" Powers

Following my annual physical today (all's clear, except the lab lost my blood test, claims I was never there), I headed over to Panera for coffee and a muffin and some free web access. In and among some research on entrepreneurship and small business, I took a look at some personality and temperament info. Curious, I checked out my Jung type, which led me to this description:

risk taker, easy going, outgoing, social, open, rule breaker, thrill seeker, life of the party, comfortable in unfamiliar situations, appreciates strangeness, disorganized, adventurous, talented at presentation, aggressive, attention seeking, experience junkie, insensitive, adaptable, not easily offended, messy, carefree, dangerous, fearless, careless, emotionally stable, spontaneous, improviser, always joking, player, wild and crazy, dominant, acts without thinking, not into organized religion.

Okay ... some true, some not so much. What about possible careers? Again, quoting directly from the website:

dictator, computer consultant, international spy, TV producer, philosopher, comedian, music performer, fighter pilot, politician, diplomat, entertainer, game designer, bar owner, freelance writer, creative director, strategist, news anchor, professional skateboarder, airline pilot, comic book artist, college professor, private detective, mechanical engineer, lecturer, ambassador, astronomer, research scientist, judge, web developer, scholar, FBI agent, CIA agent, electrical engineer, assassin

Hmm... dictator AND diplomat? Oddly enough, right after I published this post, the ad that showed up on the confirmation page was for information on bipolar disorder. Coincidence? Google's advertising algorithm has a sense of humor.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Gaming the system

I have an appointment next Wednesday at NYU's Office of Career Management. On recommendation from several people (thanks Barry, Ann and Maddy), I'll be taking the Strong Interest Inventory and then sitting down with a counselor to discuss what the results mean and where they could lead me.

That said, I'm a little curious about whether I'll game the results. In other words, will I answer the questions honestly, or in the way that I think will lead me to a certain outcome?

I have some history in doing that. Take, for example, my results from the Keirsey Temperament Sorter. I rather liked the results I got the first time I took it, and when I've done that or Myers Briggs again, I've prompted myself to answer the questions to replicate the first result. Silly, I know. It's one of the reasons I'm not taking Myers-Briggs at NYU, too. I don't know if I can trust myself to take it with no preconceptions about the result. Or maybe the real reason is that I'm worried the result won't be that cool assessment that matches only about five percent of the general population. (Yeah, I like being unique. Just like everyone else.)

Come to think of it, gaming the test is pretty consistent with some long-standing behaviors of mine. I've lived a lot of my life and career by doing what I thought was expected, rather than what I really wanted. What good has it done for me? It's part of what got me where I am, and part of what I am trying to break free of.

At least this time the 'gaming' is more about what I want, or think I want. I have a couple of ideas about what I like, and what direction it could take me in, and I do wonder if that will influence my responses on the Strong Interest Inventory. Then again, I don't have a huge amount of time or energy invested in those ideas, so there's no harm done if it turns out that the assessment points in other directions. Chances are good that it might, after all.

Another thought: One might wonder why I'm going to NYU for the assessment and counseling when I could more easily go to Rutgers, or even to the county college that's within walking distance of my home. I gave both some consideration but then realized that I need to make a break with the familiar. The Rutgers Career Center is the place I ignored when I was in school, and somehow going back there would be like returning to my high school guidance counselor (who I mostly ignored, too). The county college, well, enough said. New Jersey is starting to feel like a cocoon to be emerged from, and whether a departure is in the cards or not, looking for guidance in other places just feels like the right thing right now. You know how it goes: when you do things the same way you've always done them, you'll get the result you've always gotten. Sounds a lot like gaming the system.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The jumping-off point.

When you reach the point where you've exhausted all the possibilities of your present life, you choose another one -- just like a mountain climber who goes for the top only to start looking for the next one.

-- Joschka Fischer, German Vice Chairman/Foreign Minister

For years, I've carried that quote around with me, along with a bunch of others that speak to my longing. What they all have in common are the core themes of change, strength, courage and personal satisfaction. I've lacked most of those as I've drifted through my life, taking the most from opportunity where it arose, but never really searching it out or fighting for what I really wanted. If there was a quote I could take as my own truth, it would be something along the lines of the Cowardly Lion's soliloquy on Courage. ("What makes the Hottentots so hot? What put the ape in apricot? What have they got that I haven't got?")

It takes Courage to walk away from the status quo, figure out what you want to do, who you sincerely want to be, and it just hasn't been there for me. I've found myself idly expecting an answer to arise, but knowing deep down that it wasn't going to come by sheer wanting, or by carrying around quotes from people who've done what I wished I could do. And that wish? To change my life.

I share Joschka Fischer's quote because the first phrase tells my story: I've done about as much as I can do in my current life, professionally, at least, and I've come to realize that I have two choices. One choice is to continue doing what I've always done, and be more than vaguely dissatisfied with my lot in life, and with myself. The other choice is to forge ahead into the infinite abyss of possibility.

Over the next several months, I'll be exploring that deep unknown to find my calling, or at least something that feels more like who I am and makes the most of the best parts of me. I have a few ideas about what that might be, but I'm not limiting myself to those areas. I have no illusions that it will be quick, or easy; in fact, I'm sure there will be plenty of times when I'll be ready to give in and go back to what I was doing. I am hoping that I'll have the courage to stick it out and find what makes me happy.

And I'm planning to have a bit of fun on the way, because fun is part of the equation, too. One thing I haven't had enough of in my life over the past several years is laughter and silliness, and I want that deficit reversed.

So, off I go. Wish me luck.