‘Welcome to middle age’, my friend told me today. I’d been here a bit, but this morning I was feeling it.
I’ve spent twenty years in the professional world. I’d had two decades of relationships at work and in social media. Extrovert of extroverts, that translates as scores of people. So many people have come into my life, flowing in and then flowing out.
I have laughed with so many people.
In hallways, in elevators, in terrible creaky chairs, in dank basement offices, in quiet whispered jokes in the parking garage, in costume, on stilts, in line to board planes, in union meetings, in our crazy sprinter van. The variety of spaces where I have connected with colleagues and museum professional only reminds me how much my work community is part of my life. Everywhere, anywhere, all the wheres.
Of all the people, I have a special love for the scores of people who worked on my teams. I started managing people at 24 just out of graduate school and idealistic. In retrospect, I was self-satisfied, snotty, and stupid. Managing people fixed me right quick.
Humans matter more than anything — anything. The wellness of the people who work with you should be paramount to a leader. Even if HR doesn’t call you a leader, you can be one. Being honest, truthful, kind, and hopeful should be everyone’s job. Our offices are webs, linked people, working toward something. Every person matters in a web. Any faulty link decreases our ability to get to our goal.
At 24, I remember sitting in my space, an office better than I will ever enjoy. I sat looking out onto a Breuer designed courtyard (don’t @ me about brutalism), watching thick, cottony snowflakes fall on concrete planters. I’d messed up something. I’d told one of my gallery teachers, a seventy-ish woman who’d survived three husbands, to go to the Intranet to print the exhibition listing. My boss had read the email, and walked into my office laughing, before suggesting I hide rather than brook the backlash.
This was at the dawn of professionalism in museums. My organization had recently gone kicking and screaming into colored computer monitors when I showed up. I was the change they didn’t want.
What did I do? I ran into the office next door, and crouched under our REAL Inness painting, and waited. The woman shared her anger at being required to “download” something in our communal space. Me, the coward, listened, while I craned my neck to gaze into the fuzzy America of Inness. The nice woman, whose desk was beside the Inness, chuckled. I eventually slinked back to my desk, steeled by some candy from my colleagues.
A decade later, I was sharing a bottle of wine with the woman who’d been bowled over with the expectation of using an Intranet. We laughed about the incident. It’s ridiculous made a great story. What else can you ask for life’s moments, we’d said.
This story is inconsequential. I’ve survived much more noteworthy problems at work. I’ve messed up worse. I’ve succeeded more. I’ve gotten good press. (I’ve not flown so close to the sun to get too much bad press.) But, I’m thinking of this moment this morning, because moments like these, human moments, are what make work matter. They are those moments of chatting and laughing. They are the types of failures that don’t amount to anything. They are the stories that only matter to the people involved.
Our careers are things you do and things you can put on resumes, sure. But our lives at work are these moments. They are the people beside you and the ways you all connect. They are the moments that don’t matter but matter the most.
I’ve always tried to lead, and work on teams, in a way that centers collective goodness. But as I’ve said to everyone who I’ve managed, I’m not a prison warden. My job is to make you want to stay, but also support your growth, even if it means leaving me. So many people have left me. I’ve so often sat in a room or on a call when a brilliant person tells me they’ve taken another job, something that lets them grow. I’ve tamped down the selfishness of my own losses and celebrated their successes. I’ve watched them become curators, directors of education, Getty scholars, and happy, successful beings. I see their names come up in my feeds. I see their weddings and their children. I see their happiness shine through. I know I had almost nothing to do with all their futures. But I can’t help but feel so happy that for a moment in time, we were together sharing goodness.
This week one of my beloved old colleagues won an award. Another got a groundbreaking job. And a third had an unthinkable loss, a loss that shook so many of my friends to the core. All these women are extraordinary souls, people you’d ache to be friends with. I look at them with immense pride. I can’t help but feel my heart expand when they feel joy. I can’t help but ache with them for their challenges.
The humanity of leadership, feeling for your staff, as I just expressed above, can be exhausting. (Regan Forrest did a great tweet conversation about this). But, it’s also why I do what I do.
I am so intensely thankful for all the human’s I’ve known through museums, but most of all for all the people who’ve come through my office. You are some of the best we have in this field. We don’t see each other much. We might have lost touch completely. But your existence, those firefly moments together, often laughing, remain in me, a halo of joy, and I can’t express in words how much those moments mean.