I first began the habit of calling my friends/close family members who live out-of-state in 2007, during my 50+ mile round-trip commute to Nashville. When I stopped that daily grind in 2016, I transferred the practice to my 5-mile walks with my dogs.
This past week, I talked with my best friend from college about a work-related challenge he was facing. Troy is general manager at a restaurant and he had mapped out a way for his store to earn a significant amount more money than it was currently if the company made an upfront investment of around $15,000.
It was really a no-brainer from my perspective. A $15,000 investment had already nearly paid for itself with one $11,000 sale he’d already made. Troy then shared with me the myriad ways the investment could garner an additional $27,000–$48,000 over sixteen weeks.
He and I bandied about the risk/reward for the purchase. As we discussed his predicament I said, “Sounds to me like this is one case where you should go all-in.”
It was a no-brainer to me. (Turns out his case was rock-solid as well, and he got the “yes” answer he was seeking.)
Our conversation got me to thinking about a movement in the museum field that I’ve become a part of: #TakingRisks. My involvement started with a conversation with Charity Counts, Executive Director of the Association of Midwest Museums about a session she was planning for the AMM/Illinois Association of Museums 2018 conference. (I documented that discussion here.)
My conversation with Charity led me to the most powerful session I attended at AAM this past spring: From Leadership to Impact: Taking Risks, Redefining Success, and Finding Your Voice. (Frankly, it was one of the best sessions I’ve *ever* attended.)
The session descriptor belied the true *deep* impact of its content, “This panel will ask what it means to lead with our true selves and consider the places that this can take us in the workplace and beyond.” That it did.
Presenters and moderator Hillary Spencer, Simon Adlam, Charity Counts, Melissa Mohr, and Ahmad Ward shared their experiences navigating the museum world as mid-career professionals. Each was incredibly candid about the decisions they made and, more importantly, why they came to the decision to take the risk. It resonated with the audience and by the end, Hillary was collecting names and email addresses to stay in touch with folks (which you can do here).
The session resonated deeply with me as well. I thought about my latest risk-taking adventure: leaving a secure position at AASLH two years earlier to forge/follow my own path and founding the Lyndhurst Group (see this for the origin of the name).
My goal then, as it is now: to make a difference for the field in deeper ways, through work directly with my colleagues and their institutions.
This past July, I presented on #TakingRisks at the Association of Midwest Museums/Illinois Association of Museums conference with Hillary, Charity, Karen Wise, and Billy Ocasio.
I’ll be honest that it’s not easy to bare one’s soul so publicly (and it reminded me just how brave the presenters at the AAM session in Phoenix were to do so).
Charity moderated this time and did a great job not only onsite (and with her very poignant introduction about her own risk), but also with her organization of the session. It inspired me to reflect on my own decision and thought process, and I thought I’d share that here.
My risk was mainly a professional one. I left a very good job, one where I had good insight into the field I love, the opportunity to shape and/or highlight some large-scale changes, and, of course, a steady paycheck. The latter, of course, had a personal impact as well. I was taking a chance that I would lose a significant amount of income and if not, all of the certainty of a paycheck that arrives every other week.
As I reflect on the decision/risk, here are 5 things I considered regarding my goals/vision, the risk(s) I took, and the things that happened that led me to this point of change:
- Know thyself. I had to give concerted thought to what were my strengths and, particularly, my limitations.
- I want to make a difference. This is at the very core of why I do what I do.
- Freedom. After striving for nearly 20 years toward one goal (to lead a history organization or museum), I felt a strong pull to try something with less constraints.
- Where can I make the most impact? On the surface, it seems redundant to my second consideration, but this is where the rubber met the road for me. I realized that the system I had been working in was no longer where I felt my talents were best employed.
- Failure. A failure in achieving my biggest professional goal of 20+ years spurred the decision.
So what needed to change or had to change?
In my case, it was just time to move on, circumstances dictated that. I had had a huge, very public failure in my pursuit of a job and that led me to reassess a few things about my career path. In turn, that led me to decide to take the risk.
I don’t want to say I made the decision sans some fears. Going back to #1 above, I had to ask myself if I was truly focused enough to forge this path (turns out I am). I wondered if people would really want me to do work for them (turns out they do). Like many of us, I fought (and fight) Imposter Syndrome. I worried if I could still provide for my family (we’ve made it work). And, needed to make sure I could still finish my PhD (which I just did).
And while I didn’t really have any concern about separating myself from association with AASLH, I figured others might. I was concerned my colleagues wouldn’t/couldn’t see me from a different vantage point.
Ever since I’ve worked in the national arena, I’ve heard people say, “We don’t talk enough about failure.” I’ve never quite understood why this has been so. As much as it hurts, as much as it sucks, failure is opportunity. It gives a chance to reassess all kinds of things: fundamental assumptions, career path, or why you do what you do and how you do it. I may have failed in pursuit of a long-term goal of mine, but I feel I have succeeded in the risk I took afterwards.
I’m not advocating taking the path I have taken — to start a business. I’ve done so from a position of relative privilege. I had already earned one graduate degree, and had forged a decent career to that point. Both my parents had just died and I inherited some money from them which let me pay cash for my Ph.D. program. And if things started off slow, I had a little bit of a cushion.
But there is a HUGE risk if I don’t secure clients. When you’re “employed,” you think ahead, but for the most part, you *know* you have a job, you’ll get paid. In my case, I have to do work today, and think about tomorrow constantly. While I like it, it can be unnerving.
For those of you looking to take risks, here are some final thoughts from me about how I made it work.
1. I have a very supportive (and patient) partner in my wife. We have similar goals and visions.
2. I have a great network of peers. Before I made the move, I reached out to them and asked for some thoughts on what I could/should do. That was helpful in seeing how others perceived me and my skills and abilities.
3. I have a personal prayer posse, folks who I keep in the loop regularly about progress. These aren’t necessarily professional colleagues, just friends/family with whom I’m close who can advise me on more personal issues.
4. I stay in regular touch with others. There are about a half-dozen peers I try to talk to on a semi-regular basis. They help me suss out what’s going on in the field, try out new ideas, keep me on track. This is critical to me in keeping my saw sharp, and the ideas flowing.
Taking a risk does not mean you have to start your own business (not sure I’d even advise it). It could be changing jobs. It could be making the case for an additional investment like Troy did. It could be going back to graduate school. It could be a career change.
Whatever it is, I offer you some points from this Forbes article, “5 Components of Succeeding at Anything.” (Which I found well after I’d taken my risk, but it really resonates with me.)
1. Vision. Vision sets the foundation for the life you want. Consider what you want, why you want it, what that looks like, and what impact it will have when you get it, and keep the vision front and center.
2. Commitment. What does commitment look like? Taking risks. Persisting. Putting your heart into it. Not letting circumstances get in the way.
3. Authenticity. Being our authentic selves is an acquired skill, and a fine art. Those who dare to discover who they are and what they stand for, are the ones who unapologetically and profoundly impact their world.
4. Integrity. Any time we say we will do something and then don’t, we’re out of integrity. When we are out of integrity — even on seemingly little things, like not showing up to a committed event on time — it chips away at trust: trust with ourselves, trust with loved ones, trust with clients. The painful truth is that those who do not live with integrity are not trustworthy. Those without integrity will not reach their ultimate vision of success.
5. Competition. The underlying tone is an outward-focus of bringing out the greatness in each other. In this form of competition, there is a profound sense of oneness. A sense that we all want the same thing. We are on the same team, and we can all “win” in the bigger picture.
As I thought about my own journey, those thoughts resonated with me.
What risk are you thinking about? Are you feeling stuck, unsure of what to do next career-wise? Are you interested in talking through it with an outside observer?
If so, feel free to reach out to me. I have begun offering some career counseling and coaching in a manner that is both affordable and, I believe, helpful, to those navigating the middle phase of their career journey.
A twenty-year veteran of the nonprofit world, Bob Beatty is founder of The Lyndhurst Group, a history, museum, and nonprofit consulting firm providing community-focused engagement strategies for institutional planning, organizational assessments, and interpretive direction and career counseling and coaching.