There were less than 60 kids in my graduating class in high school. At Columbus Community High School in Columbus Junction, Iowa - involvement in everything - was the norm. Athletes acted in plays. Musicians took photos for the yearbook. Everyone did everything. We didn't specialize. During my senior year of high school, I participated in marching band, concert band, jazz band, pep band, business club, science & math club, yearbook staff, newspaper staff, theater, and small/large group competitive speech. The only reason why I didn't play sports was due to a knee injury from my first year of high school. In my small town school, we were generalists. Professionally, I have rarely been a specialist (maybe in title, but not in action) and that generalist mentality has served me well in my current endeavors as a consultant, writer, and speaker.
Whenever someone says to me that they "want to do" what I do for a living, I always pause and try to reflect on the basis of their statement. What I do for a living, the work that pays my bills and keeps my heart and mind fulfilled, is a mixture of ambiguity, strategy, moxie, and the random path of my existence. My "job" is tailored specifically for me. It's a custom fit. When asked about how I "got to do" what I do, I usually share the story of my career path. How I went from having a degree in communications (PR) that led to my first professional position in student affairs, to my graduate school experiences, and then to my three-year stint as an academic advisor. However, while my credentials were earned via terrific academic experiences, my "training" in high school is what makes me able to do what I do today. Recently, I gave a keynote titled "Our Shared Future: Digital Identity, Leadership, and Your Career" at Transylvania University to an energized crowd of 700 students, staff, and faculty. It wasn't in graduate school where I learned how to handle the nervous energy that comes from speaking on stage. It was during high school competitive speech where I figured out that you can't fight the nerves (you have to become a professional handtalker). So when I tell someone who wants to do what I do, I tell them that honing their public speaking abilities is hugely important. However, I've had so much time to work on being onstage. I started speaking to large groups of people when I was 15. That's 20 years of public speaking experience that I use on a daily basis. It can't be rushed. That type of experience takes time to simmer, to grow, to mess up, to tweak, and to polish.
Slide deck design is not that difficult. There, I said it…you would think that bullet points are mandatory and that these things cannot be improved. I just don't get it. My slides are flush with images, embedded videos (short clips), and musical accompaniment. In fact, my slides are fairly useless without my narrative. When did I figure out how to make engaging slide decks? Well, I think it happened when I was a junior at the University of Northern Iowa. I had started tinkering with Adobe PhotoShop for an internship. I was fascinated with the creative uses of Adobe's flagship application. I used to play around on PhotoShop for hours on end. I would make my kind of art. In many ways, that's what I do now. I get to make my kind of art. Slide decks that are more artistic in nature, that flow in a way that makes sense to me…sometimes without a traditional linear progression. They are like a wandering story. Doing what I do isn't something that I know how to replicate. It's part of who I am.
Ambiguity tolerance. It's part of my personality that I've actively cultivated. I think I first started to figure out how to tolerate the never-ending unknowns of the universe when I was in high school. I was oftentimes the victim of severe bullying. I never knew when it was going to happen and how bad it was going to be. While I was involved in myriad activities in school, I often dreaded going to it. Figuring out that bullies could temporarily hurt me, but that they could only hurt me (psychologically) if I let them, enabled me to survive that four-year experience. I learned how to tolerate some of the worst "unknowns." Heck, being able to keep an even-keel nowadays, as I wait for my next consulting gig to come in, is fairly easy.
So you say that you want to do what I do. I admire your enthusiasm and I know that my "job" is appealing. Oftentimes, I get the freedom to say what people at a campus can't say because of my role as an outsider…as a "consultant." However, here's my advice: Don't try to do what I do…work on being the best at whatever you can do. My path has been created via a random array of experiences that I have turned into my professional lifestyle. Take your experiences and figure out a way to craft them into something that is custom-fitted for you.
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