How I Changed My Stars
The story of how I got a job as a designer at the American Museum of Natural History.
“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.” — William Shakespeare
In New York City, I’m well aware that I’m a bit of an anomaly to be a 30-something professional who worked in one place for thirteen years — the entire first chapter of my career. I’m surrounded by neighbors and friends who ascend to their dreams from one startup to the next agency every year or two; a respectable and expected evolution in today’s business world, for sure, just an unfamiliar and impressive rhythm to me. So while I get surprised reactions and raised eyebrows when I mention that I worked at the American Museum of Natural History for more than a decade, it’s rather the norm in a lumbering 145-year-old institution that behaves more like a university with slow staff turnover. I regularly interacted with museum colleagues who have spent upwards of 10–20 and even 30 years working within its hallowed stone walls. It was amazing to be part of this unique family! Maybe that’s part of the mystique of the place that kept me staying year after year; sometimes you can start to feel like you’re becoming one of the exhibits behind the glass.
Every month or so, I would receive an email from a college student asking me the same inquisitive, polite question: “How did you get a job at the museum?” And then for two years as the Museum’s first director of design, I was also asked: “How did you create your new job?” So I took those questions to heart and wove them together the story of how I got to there. I hope you will find it insightful and perhaps a bit entertaining.
A Place of Possibilities
In 2002, I graduated from the College of William and Mary in Virginia, holding a degree in geology and a minor in art and art history (liberal arts education in action!) and an optimistic and perhaps somewhat naive perspective on all that lay ahead. The university had a sharp marketing slogan at the time: “A Place of Possibilities,” coined by President George H.W. Bush during his commencement address when he visited the College in 1995: “For each of you, William & Mary has been a place of possibilities — a place where you have developed your potential and prepared for the future.” I always accepted this statement to be true, but didn’t know just how pointedly that was about to play itself out in my own life.
During my undergraduate education, I took advantage of unique opportunities at William and Mary that proved to be helpful building blocks in my career. I decided to learn something completely new and study geology and art history. In my thinking at the time as a 18-year-old, college was far too valuable to invest in a topic I could quietly and patiently read and absorb later in my life (such as literature, history, or theology). Why not instead dive into an entirely novel and challenging hands-on learning experience? From day one of my freshman Geology 101 course (taught by my future thesis advisor, the brilliant and energetic Greg Hancock), I was hooked. I definitely made the right choice jumping feet-first into Earth science.
It turns out, the common thread between these two seemingly disparate topics — geology and art history — is storytelling. In geology, you wonder: what is literally happening underneath our feet? What colossal Earth processes made things look like they do today? What is the story of this beautiful creation we call home? And in art history, you ask: what was the artist thinking when they created this work? What was happening culturally around them? What symbolic meaning can be gleaned from a particular artistic motif? In both cases, you and I weren’t there when it happened (even though it would have been amazing to watch Leonardo daVinci or Paul Cezanne at work). Or it happens on time scales that we simply can’t fathom in our humdrum daily lives… can you even imagine what a million years of mountain building would feel like? Me neither.
So I learned how to craft stories about geology and art history that are relevant and meaningful. Both topics are visually rich and require a significant amount of interpretation and abstract thinking; skills that would prove invaluable in my professional life. Sometimes I would joke with my classmates that it was all just “arm waving,” an informal way to describe a geologic process when you kind of make it up as you go along; there’s a reason we would call a Bachelor of Science “BS”…
William and Mary heartily encourages students to be active participants in extracurricular organizations and projects, and truthfully, sometimes these activities rivaled the lessons I was learning in the classroom. Just like the drive to stretch myself and tackle degrees that were out of my comfort zone, I wanted to try my hand at new skills beyond the lecture hall.
I helped run “Geology on Wheels,” an engaging series of workshops at local elementary schools to get kids excited about rocks and minerals; a great example of making science cool. I helped to produce a website called “The Geology of Virginia” with one of my professors, Chuck Bailey, that became a novel educational destination and received some serious international accolades. I interned with the College Provost, collaborating with senior leaders across the campus on a regular basis; a pointed lesson in conducting myself in these demanding, professional settings.
By far the most influential extracurricular activity for me was a startup project called the Student Information Network (with an unfortunate but catchy acronym, SIN), a student-built community website launched in 1999 with a handful of programmers, designers, business majors, and an army of enthusiastic volunteers. The site was a precursor to The Facebook at Harvard and contemporary to The Daily Jolt at Amherst (started by my good friend Amit Gupta). Instead of being profile-driven, like the social model that is still popular today, SIN was entirely focused on providing online student services (ride board, housing classifieds, job postings, book exchange), campus news (which evolved into a magazine and campus tv station), and a smattering of digital experiments, including the first online student election system on a college campus, and a “virtual visit” interactive portal and chat system for prospective students.
Where are they now? A Pixar animator, museum designer, medical entrepreneur, Obama architect, and Twitter whizkid…www.instagram.com
In 2000, the SIN project came close to stepping into million-dollar venture capital funding, which ended up falling through, and thankfully allowed our scrappy crew to focus more on improving the quality of the services we offered, honing my leadership skills with a team of 30+ students, and more importantly, completing my college major. Sure, it would have been amazing to have a story similar to the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world, but in the coming years I would continue to see the glass half-full for the opportunities that were inspired by this startup experience.
With each of my extracurriculars, I had to find a balance with my time management and classwork, which was hard at first, but with some amazing help from the Dean of Students Office, I completely re-learned how to take notes, prioritize my day, and get the most out of this public ivy education. Learning how to take effective notes by hand as a way to organize your thoughts is a game-changer and should be taught as a required credit in every high school.
A Tribe for the Ages
The most important gift I got from my four years at William and Mary was a solid foundation of friendship and community that is at the very heart of the Tribe family. It’s a closely-guarded secret that these relationships forge so much more than really great tailgate parties at class reunions. The people of W&M — students, alumni, faculty, staff, and administration — build nations, cities, humanitarian causes, companies, books, operas, cures, and great public works with entrepreneurial spirit, tenacious grit, solemn purpose, and abundant mirth. Davis Paschall, a former president of the College, perhaps said it best when he posed this challenge to his students: “the hallmark of your degree is a holy grail quest for a worthy immortality through service to mankind.”
It was through these time-tested relationships at William and Mary that landed me in New York City working for a world-class museum. That story begins with my academic advisor in the Geology Department, the incomparable Heather MacDonald, who is an expert in professional development for Earth science educators. She has received numerous teaching accolades and national awards for her contributions to geoscience education. Heather continues to be a mentor, connector, and friend with each passing year.
When I started my major, we struck up an ongoing conversation about the place that geology could have in my life. I was, admittedly, a bit hard-nosed with my ideals about a future career in a non-traditional geology-related field, when most of my classmates were off to prestigious jobs as mapmakers, oil drillers, structural engineers, and future professors. I knew I didn’t want to follow in my parents’ footsteps as a public school teacher, nor did I want to conduct research and other highly technical efforts; it was something else entirely and I couldn’t put my finger on it. But Heather was far more shrewd and knew exactly what doors might open if I was put into the right room.
Of Rocks, Tattoos, and Business Cards
Heather invited me to join her for a conference called DLESE (Digital Library for Earth Systems Educators), part of the National Science Digital Library (NSDL) project, then in its infancy. Over a hundred professors, museum educators, NASA scientists, designers, and programmers descended on Flagstaff, Arizona in 2000 to lay the groundwork for a brand new database of rich online resources from across the country for teachers to use freely in their classrooms. (Since then, DLESE and NSDL have transformed into an incredible STEM-education resource and ongoing initiative, which is used in schools around the world.) And there I was, the only 20-year-old undergrad invited to attend, standing in front of the entire assembly, giving my thoughts on how this marvel of innovation and collaboration might benefit students like myself.
On a day trip to the Grand Canyon during the conference, I struck up a friendship with a couple of New Yorkers who were keen to dream up new features for the DLESE website with me and the rest of the “design and usability” team, even in the back of a van in the middle of the desert. Matt Tarr, an entertaining storyteller with arms covered in tattoos, and Steve Gano, a soft-spoken thinker with a kind face, were both representatives from the American Museum of Natural History. I remember thinking to myself at the time how I was enjoying this geeky and eclectic brigade of science enthusiasts. We were accomplishing something innovative, practical, and far-reaching, at the same time that we were having fun! If this was a job, then sign me up.
I returned to the DLESE conference again the next year, this time in Bozeman, Montana, to tackle the next phase of this monumental digital effort. And again I had that sensational feeling of having wind fill my sails as I collaborated with these remarkable and enthusiastic individuals, many of them who would probably also call themselves “non-traditional” educators. At the end of the conference and an inspiring visit to nearby Yellowstone National Park, Matt Tarr handed me his business card and said, “you should look me up when you graduate; you’d be a great fit at the Museum.”
I turned the card over, studying the stately blue logo and wondering to myself: “A museum? Could I really see myself working in the dusty corridors and forgotten cabinets that tourists visit on holiday armed with a camera and dragging screaming kids?” It was a passing thought. I thanked him, filed away the card, and started dreaming of other jobs. Perhaps a prestigious publication would invite me to fly to the ends of the earth, shadowing scientists on expeditions of thrilling discoveries and sending in blog posts and video reports via satellite phone that would be followed by children and enthusiasts everywhere. Surely such a job would be out there, ripe for the taking.
Then Shall the Door be Unstopped
After I graduated, I knocked on the door of the likes of National Geographic, Washington Post, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, asking for exploratory meetings to pursue this non-traditional science and education hybrid job. I learned quickly that I should have come more prepared to have more than this one idea to follow expeditions in the field. If I had done my homework on each organization, I would have been more aware of what existing job opportunities were available and all the ways I might best fit into them based on my proven skill set on paper. Sure, I had plenty of great ideas, but enthusiasm alone wasn’t going to guarantee a job for a wide-eyed, naive college grad.
I remembered that Matt from the Museum had given me his card, so I decided to take him up on the offer to get in touch. He emailed back almost immediately and instructed me to send in my resume and cover letter so he could put in a good word with HR, which was more than any of the other places I applied had offered. Knowing someone inside the organization definitely has its advantages when you’re standing in a sea of applicants, especially when you’ve shared a common experience together. Not only did Matt put in a good word, but it turned out one of his colleagues was stepping down from the Museum to become a teacher and there was an opening in his office as a production assistant, the ideal introductory job for someone like me.
I pulled together my best suit (albeit the wrong size and way too formal) and boarded the train for the interview in New York City, like the protagonist in a Sondheim musical with a song on my sleeve and a spring in my step. While I had visited Manhattan as a high school tourist, this was my first visit to the American Museum of Natural History. It was tremendously exciting and overwhelming, not just to walk through the marble and granite halls of this cavernous building and its many spectacles, but also to meet with a team of educators, scientists, digital wiz-kids, and makers who I would come to know as family over the next decade. After a second interview and a few weeks of hiring paperwork and all the rather dry details, I moved to the city and started my new job as production assistant in the Museum’s fledgling digital education R&D team, the cumbersomely named National Center for Science Literacy, Education, and Technology.
My first few projects had me researching oil drilling stats for a high-definition documentary about a wildlife refuge in Alaska and creating new marketing materials for a dynamic series of online science courses for teachers. From there, I literally grew up in the company of a nurturing and creatively-driven group, with exciting projects and encouraging managers. I learned how to be a professional, how to be a New Yorker, and how to excel as a designer and storyteller. Everyday was a new challenge to figure out and a new topic to discover; plus I was walking through these inspiring halls and collections unlike anything I had ever experienced.
My college alumni magazine published a profile about me and went as far to proclaim that I had reached “the dream job” right after college, which continues to be a phrase I’m skeptical about. There were certainly moments at the Museum that are truly “dreamy” and magical. After all, I didn’t walk down the hall past an endless sea of cubicles, water coolers, and copiers: I crossed great expanses of the ocean, rainforest, and the cosmos just to get to my next meeting. But most days were just like any job, filled with the humble, quiet tasks at a desk from 9 to 5. The more that I was at the Museum, the more I appreciated the “dream” and the special place it truly is: the stuff of children’s books and hit movies, an idol to childhood for many New Yorkers, and a treasure trove of incredible, one-of-a-kind, behind-the-scenes stories. And yes, the animals, dinosaurs, and miniatures come to life every single night… at least it sure seems like they do when their glass eyes follow you in the darkness.
From Point A to Point B
As with most careers, your perspective, leadership, and trajectory change and shift over time, usually in a messy, hazy way that only makes sense in hindsight. There were times at the Museum when I considered all sorts of possible outcomes (moving abroad, switching to a corporate job, joining a startup, becoming a full-time artist) or even times when it felt as if the floor would collapse right under me (leaders leaving, funding falling apart, stress taking over). And yet somehow I endured each season, learning the hard and important lessons along the way, with the guiding hand of great managers and dear friends, as iron sharpens iron. In thirteen years, no two days were ever the same. I learned something new with each project: how to explain Einstein’s theory of relativity to third graders, what it takes to make every detail of a diorama scientifically accurate (and still beautiful a century later), where to find lizards that might lead to a cure for malaria (the Caribbean it turns out), and why some dinosaurs didn’t go extinct 65 million years ago and still fly around today as modern-day birds.
My path was exactly what I needed to grow and evolve; an dynamic landscape of relationships, adventures, sorrows, and hopes. My role changed multiple times over the years at the Museum — from education and production to marketing and development — eventually landing me as the Director of Design, an entirely new position that I had the opportunity to author myself. Here’s how I got from Point A to Point B.
Starting out as a production assistant, I supported all sorts of digital and print projects in the Education Department. It gave me exposure to the amazing array of science content that is on display at the Museum; and offered me a chance to meet researchers, writers, videographers, and education specialists across the institution. It really was the best introduction a 22-year-old kid could ask for, learning what it means to work in the “real world” in an environment that encourages learning and professional growth. At the same time, I started doing freelance work for artists and other nonprofits, to both make a little extra money on the side and fill my evenings as a young single guy in the big city (which makes it sound like I was a hermit, but most of those projects came out of conversations in my social life).
Eventually there was enough outside work that I was burning the candle at both ends, not sleeping enough, and juggling too many projects. I finally got up the gumption to ask my manager, the incredibly kind and thoughtful Karen Taber, what I thought would be an immensely unpopular question: could I move to a part-time role at the Museum? I was nervous that the topic of freelance work outside of my day job was taboo. To my surprise, we had an open and honest about my work-life balance. It was clear how supportive Karen was of my career, no matter what shape it took. But the immediate answer to my query was a promotion, so I gladly stayed full time. A year later, the internet and housing bubble burst and nonprofits around the world suffered the loss of some precious private donors and vital grant funding, so the Museum asked me if I still wanted to consider moving part-time. I took the leap and spent the next four years investing that extra time into my studio clients, an experience that would prove invaluable in the years to come.
Meanwhile back at the Museum, I had somehow garnered a name for myself as a presentation guru, designing and coaching senior leadership to up their game and elevate the speech, pitch, or demo experience. It started out small (as most things do) to solve simple problems or create a last-minute PowerPoint deck. But eventually I was sitting in strategy sessions and helping to frame conversations through thoughtful digital design and keynote presentation techniques. Some of those meetings were all about the lofty goals of this beloved institution and what it would look like over the next decade. Really amazing stuff. An integrated approach to research expeditions in far-flung corners of the ecological “front line” that deserve our best thinking to preserve the natural world. A novel approach to create educational experiences for learners across a spectrum — from curious toddlers to enthusiastic octogenarians — that invites them to be part of the Museum their entire lives. And the recently-announced Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation, a massive multi-million-dollar expansion of the campus, at once introducing a spectacular new front door to Museum visitors and integrating with the entire institution both through physical and mission-driven connections.
The more I learned about these projects, all of which have launched to inspiring effect, I started to notice that no one was talking about the importance of design in each initiative. Yes, the core concepts of design were woven into the ideas, but I felt there was a clear need for leadership in the Museum’s approach to design, brand identity, and visual storytelling. When I was working at home on my freelance jobs, I had the freedom to dream what this future might look like. So I met with some of my colleagues in the senior staff and painted a vision of a new role that championed all aspects of design across the Museum. They loved the idea, and together we developed and fleshed out the details of a new director of design; and a year later, I took the helm as a part of the communications team.
For two years, I poured my energy into realigning visual materials — print, digital, signage, and media — to strengthen the Museum’s brand identity across a wide range of departments and programs. Along the way, I had the opportunity to create exhibition posters that were on display all over New York City, rollout new airport-inspired directional signage around the sprawling institution, build a robust set of templates for every type of print collateral imaginable, and launch a thrilling new mobile app experience that redefines what it means to interact with content in a Museum setting.
Getting this unique window into a nonprofit’s marketing, editorial, and press relations engine was an invaluable and amazing series of lessons. I probably grew more as a creative professional during these two years than the rest of my career put together. It all started with a simple idea — to make design thinking (not just visual design) an important approach to any solution — and it’s now more pervasive and front-of-mind for more of my Museum colleagues than I ever could have imagined. Good design is at the heart of any memorable, effective, or informative experience. It can delight, focus your attention, connect you to others, and inspire action to propel humanity ever forward.
That wide-eyed college freshman who decided to take a risk and leap into the unknown to learn about subjects like geology and art history would have never guessed what skydiving I would be up to these days. What opened doors, professional lessons, incredible mentors, and rich storytelling I would encounter, and how they would impact and shape my person. How did I get my job at the Museum? It was an ever-changing tapestry of events that unfolded and wove together into some incredible opportunities; each one “a place of possibilities.” Ultimately I’m glad that I had to figure it out as I went along (that’s what helps us grow, right?), but it would have been fun to give my 18-year-old self a sneak peek into all the wonder, courage, patience, and joy that it took to get to now.
Today whenever I visit the Museum and walk through the main entrance, the soaring Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda, I’m reminded of the much larger story that I’m a part of; a wave of human imagination that’s been in motion for generations. It’s written in the colorful murals, towering dinosaur fossils, and massive granite columns that adorn this silent room where I oft loved to pause at the start and end of my day, before and after crowds of visitors pressed through the doors. Its walls are thick enough to seal out the noise of a great city just outside, yet its skylights allow generous beams of golden light to give the entire space an ethereal glow. It is there that I know the words of Mr. Roosevelt that are mounted on these walls ring true: “Be practical as well as generous in your ideals. Keep your eyes on the stars and keep your feet on the ground.”