The other day in my graduate class, I was quite surprised to detect a sentiment that I had not heard before. It seems that students may be growing tired of hearing people talking about “loving what you do” or being “passionate about your work.” They expressed that they felt it was becoming cliche. I’m surprised, because to me it’s been the most important, world-changing thing that has ever happened to me. And, because I wasn’t actively seeking it out, it took me a while to get here. But, it has made all the difference.
First let me start with a little on my background, then I’ll talk about some of the elements of the work-life situation that you should be seeking, no less, demanding, in my opinion. For the past 10 years, I have been blissfully happy with the career decision I made to return to academia, get a Ph.D. and become a professor. Huge sacrifice, major payoff. Prior, I was toiling away in corporate America. I worked for many years at NCR Corporation, mostly in Dayton, OH. I was in a variety of fields including sales, marketing, finance, management, project management… you name it, I tried it. I was seeking satisfaction and challenge, and while those elements were present from time to time in certain positions, my roles lacked autonomy and the ability to learn and innovate. I moved to Compaq Computer in Houston in 1995, hoping that a change of venue would provide the boost I needed. It didn’t. It was just more of the same, and I was beginning to feel that I was just one of those people who’d never like their work. I was unfocused and directionless.
My educational background at that point: business. Undergrad at North Carolina and an MBA from Univ. of Richmond. It’s what we did in the ’80s. 😉
So, in 1999, I chucked it all, security (?), salary (I had just reached the 6 figure range), sold my house and moved to Austin to go to UT for a Ph.D. in Journalism and Mass Communication. Some called it a mid-life crisis, others less tactful just called me crazy. But, it was the result of a year or more of soul searching, trying to figure out exactly what my next step needed to be. I knew I had to do something drastic, different, and I had no idea how it’d all turn out. I was inspired by a few things. First, while still at NCR, a colleague showed me a few lines of HTML code and that led to the creation of my own Web site. It eventually morphed into the concert-review site I still maintain, onthatnote.com. Second, I attended my sister’s graduation at the University of North Carolina. She was a journalism major. I noticed the people walking across the stage in special doctoral regalia, the hoods and tassels. “A Ph.D. in journalism,” I thought. “Wonder if this Internet stuff is going to have any effect?”
So, I ended up at UT, a wonderful learning opportunity that allowed me to craft a program from the world-class departments and schools across the university with my hub in Mass Communication. I learned from legends in the field, the most notable being my mentor and friend, Dr. James Tankard, who sadly passed in 2005. Dr. Tankard taught me more about myself, gave me confidence in my ideas and showed me the power of persistence. I think about him every day and I hope that I can carry on his legacy in some small way with my own students.
During my experiences at UT, I was given the opportunity to teach a course, very similar to one I teach now in Web Design. It expanded my skills and fueled an intellectual and creative curiosity that I didn’t know I had. I remember heading out to school one day and thinking, I really love what I’m doing. It was an odd feeling, one that I’d never known before. And, honestly, I’ve felt that way consistently ever since.
Finally, the move to Austin, while coupled with the selection of UT as my grad program of choice, was quite possibly the most important thing of all. I didn’t come to Austin for the rock ‘n’ roll dream, like lots of people, but it ended up finding me. I’m not a musician, wish I was, but I have the most avid fascination with people who create music. It’s like going to a magic show. I don’t understand at all how they do what they do, and am blown away when spontaneous collaborations happen, which are commonplace in our fair city. As luck would have it, I saw an email during my 1st semester at UT, requesting interns for a new music magazine. I responded, and started my tenure at Texas Music, and got to meet many of the local musicians who I now consider my friends. It was another important, yet random, occurrence. And, in the past few years, I have grown my onthatnote.com site to include an online talk show. It’s the perfect meshing of my love of music and technology, keeps my skills current and allows me to serve more as a role model for students by doing in conjunction with teaching.
So, when I look back at all the things that secured my delirious happiness, I can identify some critical elements that have made all the difference for me.
- Professional and personal life become one. I don’t have any real boundaries between personal and professional. I am thinking about professional things like online media and gaining new skills all the time because I love to do that. If it weren’t my job, I’d be thinking about and doing these things anyway. What are the productive things you think about? Can you integrate them with your career? Can you practice them on the side and improve them?
- Surround yourself with supportive, interesting and different people and exorcise the toxic ones from your life. One of my problems back in my corporate days was that I was surrounded by people who were all the same. They worked their 55-hour/ week jobs, paid their mortgages and car payments and complained about their bosses, coworkers, responsibilities… In another post, I’ll detail how I busted that wall, and found inspiration by finding new friends, in more creative circles. It was just a launching pad for my own personal changes. If you find you are surrounded by people who are negative or constraining, get rid of them. Don’t let them squelch the voice in your head that is encouraging you to be fierce. 😉
- Put yourself in uncomfortable situations. This is probably the hardest to achieve. No one really wants to be uncomfortable. We work hard to develop a level of comfort and structure in our lives. But I have found that the most interesting things happen when you’re out of your comfort zone. Seek out networking opportunities with interesting people, and don’t be afraid to say something stupid (you will) or feel out of place (you will). But, so what? Just do it. You’ll learn, you’ll find your place and if it’s right, you’ll ultimately fit in. If it is a situation you desire, you’ll eventually learn the lingo, the key players and someday, before you know it, you might find yourself in that key-player role; the one that people turn to for advice or consider to be a veteran or (eek!) an expert.
- Share. You learned it in kindergarten. But, honestly, you do get back what you put out there. In spades. Share your ideas, share your time, share your skills. If we’ve learned one thing from social media, it’s that sharing is better than being proprietary any day. Secrets are boring. More interesting things come out of efforts in which people are collaborating than not.
- Do it. There’s no reason not to. You like food, blog about it. You like music, go to shows and talk about it, interview musicians, read music blogs. You like wine, become the next Gary Vaynerchuk. You like sports… toys… cars… travel… There is nothing stopping you from exploring your favorite things and communicating that to the world. You are thinking interesting things all day long, and you have something to contribute. Who cares if only 2 people are listening and both of them are related to you. You never know where that kind of thing can take you, and it may take you places you could never imagine.
- Filter out the negativity. Those people are lame. I know I mentioned this above, but it bears repeating. There’s as much opportunity for them to be snarky as for you to be positive. Just stay true to yourself and surround yourself with happy, positive people. People gravitate to positive energy. Think about the people you most admire. Are they really the negative, mean-sprited, do-nothing types? I doubt it.
- Learn. Put yourself in a position in which learning is natural and expected, keeping up with trends, gaining new skills. Decide that you want to learn something and go do it. Use Google, take a class, watch a video about it on YouTube. Figure it out. The ability to adapt and troubleshoot is a most valuable skill.
- Change. Prepare yourself for it. I always say to students that the Web didn’t exist when I was their age. I couldn’t have predicted I’d be doing what I’m doing. Bet that even more dramatic changes are in store for us in the next few generations.
I am extremely lucky that the right career found me. It took a long time, and I don’t think I ever imagined being this happy. The 1999 Cindy would probably hate the positive, happy 2009 Cindy, because she would think she was full of it. But the 2009 Cindy wouldn’t have time for the 1999 Cindy, and it’d be 1999’s loss. For me, being a college professor of online media is the perfect career. I’m in a learning environment, surrounded by intelligent colleagues and enthusiastic students. I get a lot of support of my ideas, and I am extremely proud of the accomplishments of graduates of my classes. Keeping in touch with former students may be the most gratifying thing of all, the fact that any of them care to contact their old teacher, get together for coffee or stop and chat when they see me around town. I am blessed and touched.
So, this is getting long, and I’ll have more to say on this topic. But, I guess what I am trying to convey is that I hope that when you read this, you don’t think “how cliche.” I hope it inspires someone… anyone… to seek out their perfect scenario. Don’t give up, keep challenging yourself and keep surrounding yourself with interesting, positive people. Seek out beauty and creativity and inspiration. It does makes all the difference.