I’m a pretty lucky gal, career-wise. Before I finished undergrad, I spent good money on nice resume paper (back when you were still supposed to send out paper resumes) and cold-mailed dozens of education directors at zoos from coast to coast. I don’t think I was entirely sure what it was I was applying (or asking) for, but I knew I had some marketable skills; surely, someone would want me for their open position, or else they would realize my brilliance and just create a position for me.
Though it took me several months, I never despaired or thought I wouldn’t find a job. I just assumed it would happen. And after a declined offer for a position I neither wanted nor was really actually qualified for (though in hindsight, it would have been pretty cool to start out as a bear and mountain lion keeper), several phone calls made awkward by my professional inexperience, and a trip for an in-person interview during which the airline lost my one and only interview suit, I was hired.
It took me a while to get the hang of things, to realize what it meant to live and work in the real world, and more specifically, in the zoo world. Once I got the hang of things, though, and once I understood what my role was, I blossomed. I found confidence and my voice. I started getting invited to meetings! When you’re young and fresh and new, meetings make you feel important. They give you a sense of responsibility, and you find boldness you didn’t know before.
Of course, then you grow up and meetings become a pain in the ass. But still, when you’re 22 and you want to earn the respect of your colleagues (notice I said “colleagues” and not “co-workers”…sounds more polished, doesn’t it?!), meetings are where it happens.
Anyway, I grew up. I earned a statewide award. I was asked to speak on panels at conferences. I started to have fun, to create new programs, to change things my predecessor had put in place years before. I made the program more my own, but always acknowledged that it was a team effort, that we worked together to make it happen. I never took credit all for myself. And I meant that.
My next job found me in an entirely different world: an art museum. Though I didn’t know much about art (and, truth be told, I still don’t know as much about art as I think I should) I did know about teaching and educating in a museum setting. I really, really liked doing that.
I had an exceptional mentor who became a true friend, and we made an awesome team. Whether or not those above us recognized or saw the great things we were doing, we still felt as though we were fighting the good fight and that the work we did was meaningful and important. She had awesome ideas about what we could do, and we were going to make those things happen.
When she left (rather, when she was suddenly and unjustly let go) all her work, her projects , and her ideas dropped into my lap. For someone who had started out in a happily part-time position, this new load was pretty daunting, and I struggled without her guidance.
But I made it work, and after a while, it actually worked pretty well. Again, I never could have made things happen without the support of my colleagues and the encouragement and gratitude of docents, teachers, and students. I might not have been able to teach about art per se, but I could teach about teaching about art, and I think I did that pretty well.
In between times, I had other side projects. I did contract work for other museums and liked being on the fringe of those communities. I was asked to teach a course for the Museum Studies program from which I had graduated, and the student became the teacher. Wow, was that ever a humbling experience. I’m sure I learned more than my students did and there were some aspects of that semester that most adjunct instructors do not have to go through, but I’m glad I did it, and I hope to do it again…and be better prepared and more confident the second time around.
So this whole long story brings us to yesterday. I had interviewed last week with a museum for a contract position. I have never worked with this museum before, though I am somewhat familiar with their collection and mission, and did a decent amount of research to prepare myself for the interview.
I would like to think they found me every bit as charming and easy-going and clever as I thought I was being. I was hoping they would see my preparation and hear my thoughts and ideas about the project and cancel any other subsequent interviews they had scheduled. I thought our meeting went well, and I left feeling like it was going to happen. Their comments led me to believe I was a shoe-in.
And then I got a phone call yesterday telling me that although they were impressed with my preparation and they really liked my ideas, they had decided to go with someone who had “a little more experience”. I was not prepared for rejection, and as I spoke with her, I could feel the huge phony smile I had frozen on my face. I’m wondering now for whose benefit that fake smile was.
I will preface my rant with this: I harbor no ill will towards these folks, and it is absolutely within their right to choose whatever candidate they felt was best for this opportunity. They seemed like people with whom I would have enjoyed working, and I genuinely meant it when I told her that she could feel free to call me if any future opportunities came up.
But here’s the thing. I would have done a kick-ass job. I know it. This position was for something I feel I am good at, something that could have put some of my strengths to good use. It would have been really, really fun (for me), and I know my excitement for the project would have been great publicity for the museum because I would have wanted to tell everyone about it. Frankly, I still think it’s a cool project and I’ll still tell people about the exhibit. I’m just disappointed that the only role I’ll play is that of visitor.
I think what else bothers me is my own inflated sense of self-confidence. I was too confident. I left the interview feeling (and acting) as if it were in the bag, that the position was mine, and that I was pretty hot stuff. In general, success in my career has come relatively easily for me (and for that I have always been thankful, believe me). Why wouldn’t these people want me, too?
But this? This was humbling and surprising and a little embarrassing, to be honest. I was reminded that there are people out there who do fabulous work…even better work than I could do. It’s one thing to admit it to myself, but its even harder to hear that from someone else. Do you know how frustrating it is to check “mid-career professional” next to the box that best describes my tenure in the museum field, and then be told that I got beat out by someone with more experience?
So, what have I learned here? I’ve learned not to go in and think that I’m such a hot ticket, that I don’t need to sell myself during an interview. My words do sometimes need to speak louder than the actions I have succinctly summarized on paper.
I have learned that success and opportunity are not always going to fall in my lap. I need to continue to work for it, and to never assume that my awesomeness will speak for itself. I need to be humble and gracious when people do compliment me or express faith in my abilities, but always give credit to those who helped me get to where I am.
And who knows? Maybe another chance to work with this particular museum actually will come along someday. In the meantime, while I was still coming to terms with the “thanks, but no thanks” phone call, I received an email asking about a new work opportunity. That was just the vote of confidence I needed.