Archive for August, 2007

Finding a Mentor — Tricky Business for Pioneers

Posted in People on August 22, 2007 by barbararuth

My grandmother died a few years ago. She was 93. At her wake, a 70+ year old friend of hers stood up and told the story of how she was always going to my grandmother for encouragement.

“I’d say, ‘I’m scared,’ and Sophie would say, ‘You just have to do it. Even if you’re scared, what choice do you have? Just stand up there and do it.'”

It made me think — the need for such encouragement never ends! As a child, one gets way too much advice and biased attempts at guidance. As an adult, one has to work at identifying mentors and crafting relationships with them. I hope my experience is unusual, but I have found it very difficult to find mentors who are willing or able to provide suggestions along alternative or unconventional paths.

The traditional role of the career mentor, as I’ve observed it, is to point out the hidden or unspoken realities of the normal path. What’s appropriate or not appropriate. Who to approach or not to approach. How to power-dress. I have gotten mostly unhelpful responses to questions like: “I don’t have a graduate degree or the money to get one. I know it’s not legally required; how would you suggest I get a foot in without going back to school?” or “I know the usual path is to start as an ‘assistant’, but I’m 40 years old with 20 years of work experience. Is there something else I could offer as I apprentice, other than entry-level, office work?”

The one exception I’ve encountered is telling. I have rarely met a self-employed PhD (in something other than academia or a licensed profession) who didn’t tell me that I don’t need one, that they don’t “use” theirs, and that they wish they’d use the time they spent getting it doing something else (often, that something else is “learning how to market myself.”)

I believe that what’s behind this is a form of insecurity — perhaps imposter syndrome. Even very successful people have bought into the notion that their specific education and training is what makes them qualified to do what they do. I don’t think it works that way.

It seems to me that we’re born with gifts, talents, and sensibilities that our educational experiences (and not just the formal ones) nurture. We all need to learn specific skills and gain particular knowledge to apply those gifts responsibly in the world; however, the notion that there is only one path to this learning is dangerous.

What gets lost to the world when we prevent talented people from sharing those talents because their dress and manner doesn’t please the people in position to hand out the credentials? Or, when the only credentials that count cost tens of thousands of dollars?

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The King

Posted in People on August 14, 2007 by barbararuth

I still remember the moment I heard that Elvis had died. In August of 1977, a tell-all book by Elvis’ disloyal entourage had been released. I was 10 years old and had been completely hooked by the sensationalistic excerpts published in People — especially the story of Elvis’ spearing a woman’s breast with a pool cue and “paralyzing” it. My mother interrupted my TV watching on the afternoon of the 16th to ask, “Have you heard about Elvis?”

“Yes, and I want it!” I said, speaking of the book.

She gave me a puzzled look and said, “He died.”

Like most kids, I spent the occasional sleepless night trying to come to some peace with the idea of mortality. For some reason, this news about Elvis sent those ruminations in a different direction. I became obsessed with listening over and over to Elvis’ records, trying to apprehend how the man could be dead while his voice was still alive on a piece of spinning vinyl.

By the end of the year, I had come to a new relationship with mortality — and with history. I had lived, I realized, in the time of Elvis. The rest of my life would be spent in time not shared with Elvis. To this day, when I learn the ages of people who are younger than I am, I calculate whether or not they lived in the time of Elvis.

One clue — when I share my memory with post-1977 babies, many of them do not immediately get the reference to spinning vinyl!

The Drawing Board

Posted in Random Thoughts on August 13, 2007 by barbararuth

I’m back in the corporate world for a stint. Happily, I will be working under some of my ideal conditions: from home, over email; interfacing primarily with a single person, who himself is a member of a small team; writing material for an educated business audience — marketing stuff, but at a level I can dive into intellectually.

I dream of a “breakthrough,” a point at which I have a solid, marketable occupational identity. What that would mean is not that at any given time I could predict the next project but that I was free from ever having to consider taking on a generic office job for a low-but-regular salary.

I Miss Jerry

Posted in Essays, Random Thoughts on August 1, 2007 by barbararuth

A few months ago on a melancholic evening, I typed “I miss Jerry” into Google and came upon this post on a blog called Viki Babbles. It captured much of the sentiment I was feeling at the moment when I did the search. In the current episode of the lifework crisis that never ends, I’m finding I miss Jerry more and more. The Grateful Dead amplified the centripetal forces of my life; not having found a replacement, my sense of struggle to stay centered is more acute than it was pre-1995.

My values have not changed since I can remember having any, perhaps age seven or eight. The way I have expected to manifest those values shifts over time — I suspect it continue to do so as long as I’m alive. It was in that great Rorschach test I took with the Dead that I came to solid understanding of what they are.

Herewith, the values of my life and work — so plentiful in the community that Jerry’s self-expression spawned:

Adventure — I feel most alive in the midst of journeys whose ultimate outcome is a mystery. 

Learning — As long as I live I hope to continually encounter new people, experiences, and ideas that change my understanding of life.

Fellowship — I crave contact with other human beings where intimacy is possible and defined roles are secondary or absent.

Beauty. Beauty ain’t always pretty. The word can take adjectives like “terrible” and “fierce,” too.  Grateful Dead tour was often that. I think Robert Hunter said it best when he remarked that during the best shows, “blood drips from the ceiling.”

Movement — I want to keep travelling from place to place and enjoy freedom of my body to relax and flow.

Happy Birthday, Jerry — wherever you are!