Be Open to Possibilities (or, How Did I End Up Here Anyway?)

A few weeks ago I was talking with my colleague Charity Counts about a conference session idea she had for the Association of Midwest Museums, for which she serves as Executive Director. Her idea for the session centered around those of us who’ve reached the middle stage in our careers, how we got here, and what lessons we’ve learned around the way.

Our discussion centered around our career paths and some unlikely twists and turns. Charity then shared with me a terrific blog post she’d written about her own journey, which led me to ponder my own.

Here are her four main takeaways, but I encourage you to stop and read the entire thing,

  • It’s important to be genuine in school, in the hiring process and every day on the job.
  • You aren’t the only one taking a risk.
  • Any career change or step toward a goal is risky.
  • Change reveals or strengthens your true motivations.

Print that and post it somewhere if you’re somewhat in the career wilderness…

As for my own path: I am an accidental history/museum professional. In 1997, I began pursuit of a graduate degree in “regular old” (not “public”) history at the University of Central Florida. UCF is where I went to undergrad — earning a B.A. in Liberal Studies (or “college”). The seminar room on the fifth floor of the building below was my home for a somewhat arduous and frustrating five-years while I pursued my M.A.

UCF’s Colbourn Hall, which housed the History Department on the fifth floor. It was one of the oldest buildings on campus and the elevators were infamous — once trapping someone in them who you could hear screaming for help for quite a ways. I never got on the elevator without a book, just in case that happened to me.

Two years into my course of study, I began my career at the Orange County Regional History Center. The fact that I was working towards my degree was definitely a plus, as was the fact that I had experience in the public sector at Valencia Community College.

Valencia provided me my first opportunity to work in public service. I engaged in wonderful, fulfilling work that was lacking in my brief foray into the world of for-profits. I truly loved the work and the working environment, but something was missing for me. Something I couldn’t put my finger on until I left the college and began work at the History Center.

The Orange County Regional History Center.

It was a risk and I honestly didn’t know exactly what I was getting into. The pay increase was minimal and I was losing a year’s worth of tuition reimbursements (which started after a year of my new employment) and nearly five weeks of vacation a year.

But I have never, not once, regretted the decision. It was at Valencia I learned of my passion for public service. It was at the History Center where I truly found my professional home in the world of history organizations.

When I joined the staff, the museum was in the process of transforming from what I always call a “Typical dusty, old historical museum” into an institution that eventually achieved AAM accreditation. It did so opening in a new building, with new exhibitions, and an influx of funding for a variety of programs and activities. I was in charge of its education department.

The History Center provided me a tremendous school-of-hard-knocks training in the museum and public history field. I read voraciously all kinds of books, initially leaning most heavily on the small AAM publication Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums.

I eventually chose to write my thesis on the History Center itself, focusing on the concept of community service in American museum. (The thesis is here.) I am most proud of my first chapter on the history of the ideal of community engagement: finding its roots all the way back in Charles Willson Peale’s writings in the late nineteenth century. This inspires me to this day.

I couldn’t even begin to count how many things I learned at the History Center: public programming, audience engagement, grant writing, working with teachers and students, assesssments, evaluation, publications, exhibit planning, the list is truly endless.

One thing stands out that propelled me to the next step in my career: our site visit through the AAM Museum Assessment Program. As the reviewers met with us to debrief their visit they said, “You guys really need to be sharing what you’re doing nationally.” It was a lightbulb moment. Deep down I secretly hoped (and believed) we were doing some truly great things, particularly in how we engaged the community. The statement provided validation for me.

Three years later, and eight years after I began my history career, I left Orlando (and Florida, where I’d lived in my entire life) to take a job at the American Association for State and Local History in Nashville. Eight years after that, I founded The Lyndhurst Group (more on that story at another time).

As I reflected on my career, I came back repeatedly to Charity’s four main points. It was good to reflect on my own experience with the things she learned:

  1. To be genuine
  2. You aren’t the only one taking a risk
  3. Career changes are risky
  4. Change reveals true motivations

Charity didn’t say that any of these was more important than the other, and I won’t presume to do so. But I will admit that the first has been my North Star through much of my career. The other three are closely interrelated: change is risky. One can’t forget that.

As I continue with this blog, I will begin a series called Beatty’s Maxims. Most will focus on the lessons I’ve learned in my working life. Occassionally I’ll share some I’ve learned from the career development perspective.

So here’s Beatty’s Maxim 1: Be Open to Possibilities.

Finally, There seems to be a lot of discussion among my peers in the mid-career state of their working life. I’m very curious to hear what lessons have you learned? Please share with me any thoughts or questions you have.