For all my ambivalence, outlined in glorious detail in my last column, I have been embracing Kōtuku and the idea of leadership training lately. I decided if I was going to do this I wanted to be all in, learn as much as I can, do the best I can. It can seem quite easy to read the articles, discuss them in a group setting either in our web meetings or online in the forums, think you understand the ideas perfectly well, and carry on with life without anything really changing.Read More
Kōtuku 2017: In which your columnist finds herself in a leadership program while being ambivalent about “leadership.”
Personally and politically I would describe myself as someone who wants a world without leaders, a world where people are empowered and have the tools to control their own destines, make informed decisions, and treat each other with equality. So I have always had an almost allergic reaction to the idea of leadership and leaders. To put it in American terms I have no interest in being either a Donald Trump or a Hillary Clinton.
And yet… I found myself last November writing an application for LIANZA’s 2017 Kōtuku emerging leaders program – a ten-month leadership program, with weekly readings, web conference meetings, a mentorship programme, and more. By December I had discovered I had been accepted, and in February the program began with a weekend intensive in the Wellington suburb of Lyall Bay. How did I find myself here?
I’ve been working in libraries in one way or another since 1996 when I got my first student library assistant job while in university. A friend, who knew I was looking for work, told me the library was hiring, and the rest I guess you could say was history. It took me a few more years to officially decide libraries were it for me, but by 2003 I had completed by MLIS and started my first professional role as an archivist. Since then I’ve worked in archives and libraries in non-profits, universities, and local and state government libraries and archives in California before moving, in 2012, to New Zealand to work for the National Library of New Zealand.
But I’d never really thought of myself as a leader. In fact I think I was always suspicious of leaders, or at least ones I didn’t think were authentic or legitimate. Maybe it just took me more time than most to feel comfortable with my own sense of what I wanted or who I was. But a few years ago I began to realise that when it came to my own work, and the larger world of libraries and archives, I cared deeply. I found I had very strongly held core principles about what archives and libraries where for and why I chose to work in them. I enjoyed and was deeply engaged in reading the literature in my specialised subject areas, but I also enjoyed engaging in some of the broader issues and questions of the profession. And most of all I realised that if I didn’t find ways to apply my core principles, and engage with my profession in more meaningful ways, I was going to become frustrated with my work. So I had to get a bit braver. I had to learn to speak out more. I had to learn how to speak effectively in public, how to write professionally, how to become involved in the work of my professional organisations, how to (to use a cliché) be the change I wanted to see. If there were things I wanted to see changed, I would have to get involved in making them happen. So I started figuring out how to do those things. I also asked for advice and help from some of the people I worked with whose work and way of being at work I looked up to and respected.
Which is how I found myself enrolled in the Kōtuku program – and now writing this column. Turns out, if you care about something, and you put in the time and work, if you ask for help, (even if you feel a little ambivalent or unsure or scared about it) we work in the kind of profession where people will go out of their way to help and support you. So that is a long-winded way of saying I have made a little peace with the idea of leadership with the help of the Kōtuku program.
Also helpfully the Kōtoku program had a whole section on leadership styles including consensus or participative leadership, and servant leadership which seem a bit more my style. So I guess this program is already helping me find the language and tools for a kind of “leadership” that feels a bit more authentic to me. This semi-irregular column will give you a little insight into LIANZA's 2017 Kōtuku emerging leaders program, what we’ve been up to, how this program is expanding my understanding of leadership, and how I can bring it to bear on the larger GLAM sector.
2017 was supposed to be better. We were going to wave goodbye, or flip a middle finger, to last year and be rid of it. I don’t know if it is because I have become much more socially and politically aware over the past few years but the world just seems to be in more chaos than I ever remember it. Everywhere I look there is unrest, there is upset, and there are divides. Brexit and the US election have served to highlight deep fractures. Looking closer to home and articles about homelessness or Waitangi Day bring out the choruses of “PC gone mad” and “socialist propaganda.” We are inundated with alternative facts and fake news, with a hyped-up media and countless Facebook articles. It has become an almost impossible task trying to make sense of the stories being told while navigating our own position.
In this environment, it becomes easy to dismiss people who have wildly different views to our own or are so far opposite on the political spectrum. They are laughable, ignorant, idiotic. They become caricatures: gun-toting rednecks or uptight, man-hating feminists; old white men in suits or self-absorbed, ignorant millennials. We often seek out information that supports our own ideas, ready to use as ammunition in the fight against the opposition. Everyone feels they are right and justified, and everyone feels like they have the evidence to support it. This culture of belittling, judging and dismissing, which thrives in the internet-age, only serves to divide our communities further. What can we do?
Museums have worked hard to evolve from the old model where visitors were viewed as passive recipients of information, as told by the authority of the museum. But there is always a tension between teaching facts or presenting stories with curatorial analysis and allowing space for personal interpretation and meaning-making. As visitors (and museum professionals) we arrive with prior knowledge, life experiences and bias. This is complicated further as sometimes this prior knowledge can include mistaken assumptions and incorrect information. Mark K. Felton and Deanna Kuhn argue that ideally, a museum experience will challenge a visitor’s existing knowledge, “requiring them to examine their understanding and potentially revise or deepen it.”
This is the shift from evaluating what they already know to also consider how they know it.
Exposure to a diversity of ideas that challenge people with different perspectives allows us to view the human condition in different ways. We then have the chance to reconsider our knowledge and reassess misconceptions, reforming and redeveloping our worldviews.
There are different levels of knowledge. In their article, Felton and Kuhn list four Epistemological Levels: Realist, Absolutist, Multiplist, and Evaluativist. The Multiplist level is based on the idea that since all knowledge is constructed by humans, it must therefore be subjective. No point of view is any more valid than another and all events can be interpreted in different ways. Unfortunately, this is the realm where “alternative facts” can run amuck. There is no black and white, only different versions and interpretation. This level is an important stepping stone and shows an understanding of the construction of knowledge. It encourages us to question. But it is important we move on to the next level of understanding which goes further than “blanket relativism.” It recognises that although knowledge is constructed, we can still evaluate based on evidence and arguments that support or do not support what is being presented.
Critical thinking skills are essential in an age where history isn’t written by the victors, it is written by anyone with an opinion and a keyboard. There will always be arguments, disagreements and conflicting versions of events, but, we all need the skills to evaluate the value of the information we are given. We need informed interpretation and opinion and we need to be able to develop and apply criteria to evaluate claims and our sources of information. How do we know this? Where is the information coming from? What do other sources say about this?
If critical thinking is top on the list of tools needed and which museums can provide, the second is surely empathy. Empathy, according to Google’s concise definition is: “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Museums have the potential to be active spaces for connection and dialogue, for listening and sharing as a way to foster empathy. But empathy works both ways: an article in Vox looking at studies aimed at reducing prejudicial thinking found that simply calling someone racist will not do anything towards reducing racial bias. The growing culture of calling out racism and sexism in a confrontational way can sometimes do more harm. I am not suggesting we should stop this altogether – for many people, they often aren’t even aware that something they said was implicitly racist and bringing attention to it is enough to make them stop and think. And while it might seem counter-intuitive or even unworthy to try and understand the perspectives of those who expel bigoted comments it might be the right place to start.
The article points out how many white Americans, especially those in rural areas, hear terms like “racist,” “white privilege,” and “implicit bias,” which are used to point out systemic bias, instead see them as coded slurs. The article uses this example:
“Imagine a white man who lost a factory job due to globalisation and saw his sister die from a drug overdose due to the opioid painkiller and heroin epidemic — situations that aren’t uncommon today. He tries to complain about his circumstances. But his concerns are downplayed by a politician or racial justice activist, who instead points out that at least he’s doing better than black and brown folks if you look at broad socioeconomic measures… So when they hear accusations of racism, they feel like what they see as the “real” issues — those that afflict them — are getting neglected. This, obviously, makes it difficult to raise issues of race at all with big segments of the population, because they’re often suspicious of the motives.” It is hard to imagine you have any form of privilege when you are facing your own struggles and hardships. When people are told they have “privilege” they reply with things like: but I was raised in a poor, single-parent family, I was never given anything I didn’t work hard for. The article suggests, that oftentimes people just want to feel heard: “people don’t want to be immediately dismissed because they might have a view that you consider wrong or even vile; they want to feel heard. And once that happens, it’s a lot easier for them to make mental space to understand other people’s problems.”
Accusations of racism can make people defensive and hostile, sometimes acting even more bigoted as a response. Robin DiAngelo described this as “white fragility” in her 2011 article. Instead, we can use non-confrontational conversations and techniques to engage. This does not mean giving an open platform for those who hold fundamentally racist or sexist views. There is a difference between those who are intent on hate and oppression and those who are simply coming from a place of misinformation and fear. For our own sanity and resources, we can draw a line between trying to engage with those that think differently and trying to change the minds of those who think with prejudice. But it can be done: even a member of the Westboro Baptist Church can be encouraged to question their beliefs.
So, while it may sometimes feel like the world around us has gone crazy, I hold hope for the work we, as individuals and as cultural institutions, can do. We can view recent events as a catalyst for change: these issues are out in the open and if we know them, we have a better chance of fixing them. Secondly, that the world is responding and protesting means we are not ignorant or apathetic to the issues. Change will be determined by our openness and willingness to ideas. It is not a comfortable place to have your views challenged and takes a lot to admit to being wrong. It is not easy. But it is necessary.
Nina Simon, “Let’s be Bridge-Builders.”
Mike Murawski, “The Urgency of Empathy and Social Impact in Museums.”
With university, work, placements and life in general, deadlines are something I am all too familiar with. Assignment due dates, project timelines, application deadlines, blog post schedules, remembering to put recycling out on the right day. There are all manner of things that need to be done within a certain time frame. But deadlines can do funny things. Sometimes, that looming due date is just the right amount of pressure to make you sit down and power through your work. Other times, it can be paralysing and despite setting aside a whole day to work on a project you realise it’s 6pm and you can’t actually count the number of tea breaks you’ve had or Youtube videos you’ve watched.
Whether we like it or not, deadlines are an essential part of work and life. Without them we might never get anything done. Parkinson’s Law states that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." Or, in other words, a task will take up as much time as you allow for it. This is why we can sometimes pull together a huge amount of work in a small time but also why we are sometimes left desperately trying to finish something at the very last minute, despite having days or weeks to do it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean those days and weeks were carefree: it is surprising how busy you can feel just thinking about what needs to be done. You can end up using valuable mental energy juggling all the things you need to do in your head rather than actually doing them.
Existing in the space between Parkinson’s Law and deadlines is procrastination. Sometimes procrastination can be productive. In avoiding one task you might throw yourself into another: like writing a Tusk post when you really should be revising your research methods for your thesis. Other times it can see you performing feats of physical endurance. Most procrastinators will be familiar with the all-nighter - something I rarely do anymore, mostly because I can’t actually seem to stay awake. But, I’ve also learnt that while starting your first-year 1000 word assignment at 5pm the day before it is due is really, really stupid, attempting to write your masters-level 6000 word essay is a level of insanity and ambition there just aren’t words for. There is also a big difference between just you and your lecturer knowing that you definitely wrote that in a few hours and putting something up online where potentially more than one person might read it. The fear of professional humiliation can be a strong motivator. But, also a catalyst for remembering how much you liked Shark Week when you were younger and wondering if there are any clips on Youtube. And now it’s the due date. You’re beating yourself up. You’ve potentially wasted an opportunity. You’re stressing and panicking to get it finished by the end of the day. By this stage you don’t care if it’s perfect. In fact, you just want it to be over. You know deep down you could have aced it, if only you had more time, or actually tried. Next time, eh?
So, after several attempts of opening up a nice new word document, writing up a title and then staring blankly at the screen while mentally screaming “Write something! Anything! Oh god… Whhhhyyyyy????!!!!” I began to wonder what exactly it is about deadlines that can be so incredibly paralysing. Obviously, they aren’t inherently evil all on their own. I see them as being made up of two kinds of pressure: external and internal. External pressures are pretty straightforward. They are the transparent, mostly non-judgmental reasons why we need to do things: you are being paid to do it, you need the credits to pass your course, someone is depending on you. The pressure is about delivering a high-quality product, on time. Then there are internal pressures. These are demanding. They are petty, cynical, jealous and mean-spirited. They tell you things like “you suck,” “your writing is not very good is it?” “you can’t submit THAT!” “you should probably just search for Empanada recipes and not bother anymore.”
A number of psychologists view procrastination as a coping mechanism, a kind of avoidance behaviour. Sometimes it’s because what you have to do is so menial and boring you can’t face doing it. But worse is when you feel fear or dread or anxiety. You can temporarily distract yourself by looking at cupcakes on Pinterest but when you go back to the task you feel twice as bad and have even less time. It can turn into a vicious cycle of avoidance, guilt, shame, and eventually, sheer panic. I think an element of these pressures are just part of the territory of being an emerging professional. The sector can seem intimidating and its natural to feel self-doubt. There is a certain level of anxiety which comes with constantly trying to come across as articulate and intelligent but also effortlessly cool. It takes time to find your voice and gain confidence, to think that you might have something valuable to say. I like to think that one day I won’t care or I will at least have built up a solid bank of confidence through experience to dip into when I need it.
Until then, I unfortunately never know which approach to a deadline I will take: will it be the procrastinator; maybe self-sabotage; or, the suck it up and just do it technique. But I have got some strategies. Black and white thinking isn’t helpful. Unrealistic expectations and thinking worst case scenario are sure to induce sidestepping and avoidance. The more stressed I feel the more susceptible I am to the procrastination loop and less equipped to deal with any of the self-doubt and negative self-talk. That’s why it is ok to take a break sometimes. It’s ok to watch three hours of British comedy quiz shows, especially since they are entertaining and educational. Put that phone on airplane mode! Change your thinking: instead of saying “I have to” with all the resentment you can muster, say decisively “I will.” Finally, to-do lists and bite-sized pieces. You need to know what it actually is you need to be doing. What are the little bits and pieces that make up a whole. Realistically, you probably won’t be successful if task number one on your list is “write thesis.” Instead, a 20,000 word thesis becomes a literature review, a methods section, a bibliography. A blog post starts with a title, a first line, an extended search for gifs and pictures. Accomplishing each small action will in turn make you feel better about the task you have to do which helps your self-esteem and all going well will make you less likely to procrastinate!
If all else fails, make a cup tea. There is always tomorrow, right?
For the past few weeks, I have been busy, busy, busy undertaking a full-time placement as a collections assistant. I have been de-installing exhibitions and then installing exhibitions, nesting objects, moving objects, packing objects, measuring objects, photographing objects, condition reporting galore (!) and basically anything the collection team needs. On top of the very practical, useful, real-world things I am doing, I have also come across some things that you really can’t learn in a classroom. Those little things that you only find out through actually working in a museum or gallery. So, I thought I would put together a list. These are “The Top Eight Things You Totally Didn’t Know About Working in a Museum and Probably Should.”
One: Have breakfast.
Early mornings commuting to work means breakfast sometimes gets skipped. But this can be perilous. Come morning tea time you are either just shy of passing out; can’t resist gobbling down the cake someone has brought in for someone’s birthday; or, your colleagues have had to listen to the call of your rumbling, gurgling stomach for the past half hour as you have tried to hide it through coughing, shifting noisily in your chair, or starting a conversation. Trust me, breakfast is always a good idea.
Two: Work attire.
I can’t begin to think of the number of times I have heard the saying “dress for success.” Yes, it’s tired. Yes, it’s very cliche. But, if you don’t carefully plan your outfit you are going to have a bad time. Reading a book can’t really prepare you for the reality of working in a collection store. Nobody tells you about the struggle to find appropriate everyday work wear to cover a day wandering in and out of a temperature and humidity controlled room. My placement coincided with the start of winter. Naturally, I brought out my collection of merinos, scarves, woollen jumpers and leggings, perfect for those chilly, early morning starts. But, within minutes of vigorously carving out foam, or moving a crate, or walking up and down to the mezzanine level, those three layers of wool are feeling like a really bad idea. Layers and rolled sleeves are key.
Three: Be strong.
Not in like a personal affirmation “Keep Calm” kind of way but in a literal, you better be strong because you will be carrying heavy crates with precious artworks and you really, really don’t want to drop them kind of way.
Four: Office etiquette.
My experience so far is that GLAMs people operate on coffee and morning tea is a big, big deal. It’s when everyone comes together: technicians covered in saw dust and paint splatters; curators with a stack of books; collection managers blinking in the harsh light of day. If you can brew a pot of coffee and contribute to answering the daily newspaper quiz you will go far in this sector.
Five: Six degrees of separation.
We hear all the time about how small New Zealand is. But that has nothing on the GLAMs sector. Six degrees of separation is far closer to two. Maybe three for a newbie like me. This makes for fun connect the dots conversations and a little bit of networking. Getting to know someone in a professional way as you work with them is one-hundred-million times better than cold approaching them in a crowded exhibition opening.
Six: Learn names.
This is something I suck at big time. I am definitely a faces, not a names person. Often I will meet someone and all I hear is: “hello my name is [ocean waves/train horn/crickets]…” Just a huge blank where the name should be. And it’s not like university where you still play name games at the start of each year and then the entire class has to reintroduce themselves to each guest speaker. Every. Single. Lecture. (Thanks, Conal). Nope, usually it’s a quick walk around the office, usually on your first day when you already have information overload but are trying to act cool. So be prepared, every day, to learn some names.
Expert tip: it’s really, really, helpful when a place puts their staff on their website and even more so when it has a photo!
Seven: Jack of all trades.
It seems that when you work in a museum people are handy at a whole lot of things and don’t mind pitching in, especially during busy exhibition change-over. If you can cover boards in calico and wield a staple gun, or re-cover mannequin necks in black adhesive felt (I have perfected a technique and am happy to share if anyone finds themselves faced with this), or any number of probably quite random but immensely useful tasks, you are an asset.
Eight: Things do not always run to plan.
Be flexible. Something that can’t be taught in a classroom is dealing with unexpected changes in a project. At university, you are given a list of things you need to do for the semester. All your lectures and assignments are laid out at the start of the year and you know exactly what you need to do and when you need to do it, to do a good job. It is pretty straight-forward. Occasionally, you might have to deal with a change of due date, like when your lecturer unexpectedly gives the whole class an extension for the essay Yay! But this seems to happen far less frequently in the real world and most likely you are going to be told you have less time, not more. There always seems to be something that pops up that you need to deal with. Maybe you planned to spend the day condition reporting the exhibition that needs to start installing, like yesterday. Nope! You must spend the day on the phone and answering emails. Five more objects to go in the show that opens tomorrow. No problem. That loan you were really hoping for is denied. Shit. What’s in the collection? Adapt, be flexible, stay calm.
When you work at a museum.
When you work at a museum it is sometimes tough, sometimes frustrating, busy, draining, thankless, stressful, etc., etc.
…. but mostly:
When I first started thinking about working in the GLAMs sector I set up a coffee date with a friend’s aunty who was a curator. The piece of advice that stood out the most from our conversation: you need to volunteer. When I asked for feedback on a failed application for an internship I really wanted I was told the most practical thing I could do to boost my portfolio was to volunteer in a museum. Talking to a friend about choosing to do the Masters program she said the best part about it were the placements. Volunteer, volunteer, volunteer!
I am going to be honest with you: I struggled with writing this piece. I had the broad topic of “placements” in mind as I have been organising the two I will do this year as part of the Masters course. I intended to write about how to get the most out of placements, about attitude and making a good impression, speaking up when it’s not going well and taking any opportunity that might present itself. And then, I got sucked down a rabbit hole, an endless vortex of articles, blog posts and comments sections. Questions about ethics, economy, and value; about the definitions of “volunteer” versus “intern” and the messy, complicated legal implications that can have. Although New Zealand doesn’t quite have the culture of internship exploitation as seen overseas in the UK, Europe, and North America it is easy to see how damaging and unsustainable a culture that reinforces unpaid labour in exchange for experience and exposure can be.
Unfortunately, I have come to an unsatisfying and unresolved conclusion, I am still on the fence. While I have felt the frustration, stress and sometimes resentment of putting in hours of unpaid labour I have also gained practical, tangible skills, worked alongside some amazing people and enjoyed a number of other non-pecuniary benefits. Just as it is reasonable to want to be compensated for the work you do, I also understand it’s fair to expect that by the time it's worth paying for, you will have spent time gaining the necessary skills - for free. On the one hand, I know that a degree and a few internships does not equate “experience” in a real world sense, on the other, when entry-level means zero-salary it has got to have wider reaching implications for the rest of the sector. Do I just lack the confidence to expect, or demand, that I am paid? Should I just stop whining, suck it up and get on with it because “that’s just the way things are?” Should interns be compensated for the work they do in museums and galleries? Would that even work?
In the GLAM sector structured on-the-job training seems rare, with entry-level positions (and even some volunteer ones) asking for experience. It quickly becomes apparent when reaching for that first rung of the career ladder that there is a catch-22, a predicament that is not limited to the GLAMs sector but true for many arts- and humanities-majoring job seekers: no paid work without experience, no experience without unpaid work. I see a clear distinction between the traditional “leisure” volunteer and interning with the goal of eventual paid work in the sector. Interning is seen as a way to show your enthusiasm, get experience and gain practical skills. It is now a necessary part of building a career, a stepping stone towards all the glamour and riches of that elusive, secure, full-time, paid position (right?).
The use of volunteers in place of entry-level workers brings up a much bigger discussion about salaries and value in museums generally. If the starting salary of a sector is $0 then wages across the board will always be low. And while the motivation to pursue a career in the field is generally because we feel strongly about the cultural sector and not for monetary gains, this is still a bitter pill to swallow. Add to that the fact that looking at the job opportunities in the culture and heritage sector on CareersNZ is a masochistic task, but not for lack of work to be done. I know several collection stores that could use an assistant (or two), but there is simply not room enough in the budget. With funding short, museums become more and more reliant on volunteers and this fosters a culture of an unpaid labour force rather than productive internship opportunities.
What, then, is the answer? If a general lack of funding means museums cannot afford to offer minimum wage then surely unpaid internships are better than no internships? I know that most institutions hosting placements are not ignorant or indifferent to the problematic nature of asking people to work for free. There are a number of institutions that do offer paid internships and scholarship programs and in most of my placements I have seen people work hard to stretch project budgets to offer some kind of compensation: stipends, per diems, petrol vouchers, accommodation, training courses, coffee.
But, the most important issue I see arising from a culture of unpaid work as a rite of passage is also a key problem in the GLAMs sector generally and Tusk’s current theme: diversity. If internships and volunteering are mandatory for a career path in the sector we are effectively shutting out a number of people. You have to be able to work for little or no money in order to take on an internship. Time for volunteering is a luxury not everyone can afford and this has a knock-on effect: lack of diversity in volunteers leads to lack of diversity in staff which tends to mean a lack of diversity in visitors. As a white, middle-class, educated female I am the demographic for museum volunteering and still struggle with making internships sustainable. I can’t begin to imagine what it is like for someone with more barriers.
By the end of this year, I will have completed 700 hours of work on various placements as part of the Masters program. Already I have benefited greatly from the internships I have completed. In a broad sector like the GLAMs, it has been a way to figure out what I want to do, what career path to take and what type of institution I want to work in. I am gaining practical skills in object handling, report writing, data entry, Vernon, condition reporting, researching, and so much more. I am gaining confidence in my abilities and the value I bring. I am creating a strong network of people, some I will be able to call on for letters of recommendation and references.
Perhaps that is why I struggled to write this piece: I have gained so much from the experience of working unpaid internships. To be able to work in these cultural institutions really has been a privilege. But I have to be real about the kind of privilege it is.
The very first day of the Museum and Heritage Studies course is an orientation day. Students embark on an introductory tour around the university campus and some of the highlights of Wellington City. The day ends at the Adam Art Gallery for drinks, nibbles, and an informal first assignment. The task: strike up conversations with professionals from the sector, collect business cards and report back on the people you meet. And so, here is lesson number one: networking.
I remember the first time I heard the saying “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” It was a careers advice course in my last year of high school and I despised the saying from the start. I was outraged. I could not believe that 5 years of schooling counted for nothing if I didn’t know the right people. I imagined this elite, rich kids club, where parents swapped children to become managers in their businesses and partners in their law firms. There was hand-shaking and back-patting and it didn’t matter if you had ever put pen to paper, you were connected.
I learnt the term “networking” when I came to university and the entire concept sent renewed shivers down my spine. Finally a name for this evil. It seemed to be about talking to people only to get something you wanted. Elevator pitches and selling yourself. It was something you could switch on: schmooze and banter, “work the room.” It felt disingenuous, shallow, smarmy, and sleazy. But most of all it terrified me. I consider myself to be a few notches along on the introvert scale and the idea of walking up to a stranger in the middle of a crowded room to initiate a conversation is “my worst nightmare” territory. I have found myself more than once poring over google results for “top 10 networking tips for introverts,” or, “how to not make a fool of yourself at social events where you need to make good impressions and meet people.”
I have tried several different techniques in these situations. The first: don’t make eye contact, hang around the food table, wine glass in hand, trying to muster enough Dutch courage to actually talk to people, leave without talking to anyone. Another good one is approaching a group already deep in conversation, hovering awkwardly at the edge, feeling self-conscious, silly, and rude. At this point you may be able to back away slowly, pretend you were never there, make a run for it. But, if you stick it out for long enough you will be assimilated into the conversation. Hopefully. Otherwise, you can scope out a target, make a beeline for them, hand out ready for a handshake, “hello, my name is…” and suddenly realise that is as far along as you had planned the conversation.
I can’t imagine there are many people who are natural networkers where the idea fills them with some kind of sick, twisted excitement. There are always going to be awkward moments. So, I have had to do a reshuffle on my attitude towards networking. A re-wiring of what the term and that saying actually mean. Of course, the reality is not as simple as the adage makes it out to be. Who you know often relates to what you know: what you know and how well you know it will lead you to the people you need to know. The two are not mutually exclusive. What you know is important. Who you know can often help in getting your foot in the door. This is a relatively small sector, operating in a small country. Networking means you might hear about contract vacancies and opportunities before they have been advertised, or ones that may never be. Recommendations and referrals play an important part in how projects and roles are filled.
But there is more to all this than just job-hunting. Sure, it’s going to help, but if that is your only motivation for doing it then you are missing out. “Networking” seems too shallow a term to describe the possibilities. It’s really about building relationships and connecting with people. It opens up the opportunity to meet like-minded, interesting and supportive colleagues. People who can share advice and, most importantly, their own horror stories of terribly embarrassing small talk and schmoozing faux pas. Why wouldn’t I want to meet these people? I look at the contributors to this site, at those “on the level” and the Tuakana and I am excited at the possibility of meeting them all. I mean really, if sitting down at a Wellington bar with the two creators of Tusk, talking about a subject you all love over a glass (or two) of wine is networking? I can deal with that.
So I’ll keep on collecting those business cards, enjoying the fun networking situations, and toughing out the awkward ones. Keep reminding myself to relax. Take a deep breath. Smile! What’s the worst that could happen?
Nothing brings about the feeling of “oh god what am I doing with my life” quite like a birthday. Except, I have found recently, the start of the university year. Luckily for me, February is the month I get to tackle both. I have just celebrated a birthday, I won’t tell you which. Another year older, another year wiser and another year at university. I am about to start my second year of the Museum and Heritage Studies Masters at Victoria University of Wellington. Orientation week this time is a little less toga wearing and a bit more keeping that pesky “tick tock” at a quiet whimper.
The decision to return to university was not an easy one. It was fraught with ums, ahs, and maybe a few too many pros and cons lists. I still wonder if I made the right choice. When I finished university the first time I thought I was done. I had slogged through several qualifications and thought I was ready to tackle the real world. The two years that followed were disheartening. The rejection letters were one thing but the deafening silence was worse. I was a cliche: I was a barista with an arts degree. Admittedly, I had a hand in this as I stubbornly refused to apply for any job not in the GLAMs sector. And while I may have had the vague idea that I wanted to work in the sector, I really had no clue what that meant. Did I like collections? Did I want to work with people? Curate? Public Programming? What did a Registrar even do?
At the very least the feedback and advice I did receive was consistent, I lacked experience. I could certainly write an essay, but I had never hung an artwork, never put on a pair of white gloves, never written a condition report, never handled taonga. I then managed to land an internship, one that even paid a per diem, and undertook several volunteer projects. I started to gain experience and began to figure out how the sector worked. Most importantly, I met people. I met artists, I met curators, directors, and board members. I met gallery managers and technicians. I met mentors. This new exposure to the workings of the sector taught me a huge lesson, up until then I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I could see the gaps in my knowledge and despite coming face to face with the “experience vs. education” dilemma, I realised I needed to work on both to move forward.
Having finished the first year of the Masters, contemplating another year at university has brought back some worries. I can hear those things I listed in the “cons” column whispering behind my back, trying to get my attention. Student life is a balancing act. I, like many of my fellow students, need to work to support myself while I study. It often means working six days a week and getting paid just above minimum wage for three. Despite working I still need a student loan to cover all the costs. Borrowing money knowing a job is not guaranteed in a sector that already seems glutted is a heavy burden. Working, studying, and undertaking placements demands a sometimes unforgiving pace, and I worry about burning out. I wonder how long I can keep it up. I worry about losing my enthusiasm, that I will become too cynical about the sector before I’ve even really started.
I don’t want to be all doom and gloom. I especially don’t want this to be just another piece by a millennial, whining about the tough job market, student debt and how hard life is. I guess what I do want is for people to talk more. I know these worries are not unique to me. In fact the more people I meet the more I am amazed by what we do: working full-time and studying; raising children and writing PhDs; paying off student loans while spending time volunteering. Through the Masters I have met another network of people, a group of emerging professionals. These are my classmates, they are graduates and guest lecturers. Some are a few steps ahead of me on the journey, some are just starting and then there is everyone in between. They are making their own way, navigating their own paths into and through the sector.
And here comes the second big realisation I have had. It’s not ground breaking, it is not new or revolutionary. Another cliche. It’s about the journey, not the destination. Don’t get me wrong, I have my compass set towards that end goal and I am figuring out how to get there. Those first naive stumbles are turning into confident strides. Just like birthdays, I am finding there is so much to look forward to and be excited about.