The Outskirts

For the past month or so, I’ve been fortunate to have a few contract jobs (or “gigs”, as I like to call them, because see how cool that makes me seem?!) come my way. They’ve been short-term, low-pay, but pretty fun. It’s a good way to keep my foot in the door, to stay in the loop, to hear things through the grapevine, insert other cliché here.

I left my previous full-time position for a variety of reasons, the biggest one being that I wanted to spend the last remaining months before my son started school at home, desperately trying to make up for five years of lost time. Those were six pretty fun months, and I do not regret that decision one single bit.

The second reason I left my previous full-time position is because dang. There were some politics there that I was just tired of dealing with. Every institution has its own idiosyncrasies and closet skeletons and dirty little secrets, but I was just tired of being a part of it. My family is most important to me, and when it becomes glaringly obvious that the health and well-being of our whole family is suffering because of me, things need to change.

Something tells me there’s another blog post brewing in there. I bet you just can’t wait.

So, in the meantime, school started and within about two days, I got bored. Granted, my mom and I booked a mani/pedi appointment about twelve minutes after the bus pulled away on that first morning, but it didn’t take long for me to feel like I needed to re-enter the world of productive society. Not that being a mom and volunteering at school and managing my household (a term at which my husband would probably snicker, seeing as how our household is not the sparkling, gleaming home I had promised it would be once I was home full-time) wasn’t important, but I liked working. Well, I take that back. I liked my work.

Thank goodness for the fabulous people I’d come to know through my coursework, and thank goodness for the folks with whom I’d developed strong working relationships. For ever and ever, God bless my mentor for passing out my name left and right. I owe her a lot.

So, between the occasional workshops I teach at a nearby nature center and the handful of contract spots I’ve landed, my schedule seems as full now as it ever did when I was working 40 hours. There are, I have found, lovely advantages to being a contractor. First of all, I don’t have to work 40 hours. My schedule is flexible, so most days I can pull bus stop duty at home with no conflicts. Folks seem to recognize and respect the need for me to put family first, and that has been such a relief.

Another advantage to working short-term jobs is that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. Whether I’m on the job for 15 hours or 15 weeks, I always know that this, too, shall pass. Usually it’s bittersweet because I have come to enjoy the people and the visitors I’ve been spending time with, but if the job is not particularly exciting for me, then it’s something of a relief to fill out that last time sheet. But most often I’m a little sad when my time runs out.

Most of the work I have done has been, let’s face it, grunt work. Busy work. Work that is important, but not so critical that full-time staff is able to dedicate the hours to doing it. I’ve told people that I don’t mind doing that kind of work for them, or being the Creepy Clipboard Lady. Since most of what I have done has been related to exhibit evaluation, it’s a good thing that I like watching visitors and talking to them about their experiences. That kind of stuff takes up a lot of time, though, and I know (from being on the other side) that it’s the kind of time you normally just don’t have as a full-time employee.

Another benefit to working as a contractor is that I get to stay out of the politics of the place. My stints are short enough that I don’t get caught up in the on-going drama that seems to be unique to each museum. My role is innocuous enough (at least as far as I’m aware) that I don’t make waves. I conduct myself with the utmost professionalism and formality, lest I be considered that rogue contractor and they never invite me back again…first impressions, you know.

The people I work with most directly have, in every instance, been the loveliest of people and have never been anything but smiley and friendly and appreciative and helpful. They’ve always said hello and have welcomed me into their spaces.

This is also one of the biggest drawbacks to working as a contractor. I’ve been on the inside at other museums, so I know how things go: a place is never really all smiles and friends and appreciation. I only get to see the shiny outside of these institutions, and often I feel like I don’t really get to know individuals very well. Even though I may have a parking sticker on my rear windshield and I can breeze through locked doors with the mere flash of a badge, I’m still an outsider. Often it feels like being a guest in my own place of employment.

People can be the worst thing about working someplace. They can make bad decisions, talk way too loudly in the cubicle next door, not show up for meetings on time, miss deadlines, steal your Thanksgiving leftovers out of the staff fridge, not appreciate the work you do, and (if they’re important enough) pretend like you don’t exist. Sometimes they even lie straight to your face.

Fortunately, people are often the very best thing about working at a place. They (can) become your true friends, they know what’s going on in your personal life, they can help you get you caught up when you’ve fallen behind. You have inside jokes, secret languages, and everyone knows who keeps the jar of fun size candy bars in their unlocked overhead cabinet. You know who in the office is afraid of octopi and you take full advantage of that phobia. Every person brings their own unique talents and knowledge, and if you work with the right kind of people, you learn from each other.

When you’re a contractor and your tour of duty is short, you can (thankfully or regrettably) miss out on both kinds of people. People are what makes a museum what it is, whether those people are workers or visitors. And because I have been called an “emotional person”, sometimes a little bit of workplace drama is OK. So, while I’m so very thankful for the opportunities I have to experience bits and pieces of different museums, sometimes I wish I could really be on the inside looking in.

Thanks, But No Thanks

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.