Building a Career – An Odyssey

“Is that what they call a vocation, what you do with joy as if you had fire in your heart, the devil in your body?” ― Josephine Baker

Although I have done many things in my life, I feel that I have never lived up to my full potential. In my early 20s, I thought maybe restaurant work would be something I would enjoy, and rose to a management position with a successful franchise, but ultimately I became dissatisfied. Then, I pursued a career in the music business while going to school. I worked as a sound engineer both freelance and with professional companies, but in that, too, I grew disillusioned, and my studies faltered. I found some personal reward working as an administrator at an academic think tank, but my ego would not let me settle for a supporting role in an organization. Then, in a bold move, I moved from the middle of San Francisco to the middle of nowhere—a two-room cabin on an empty ranch 25 miles from the closest small town. For a while, running away to join the circus seemed like it was a good fit. My entrepreneurial bent worked well in developing a segment of a unique event production company. My position lasted almost 5 years, but operational changes and cultural differences brought about our separation. I found myself in a remote area with few job prospects, and still managed to find opportunity. I started an outfitting company and joined AmeriCorps, a program which groomed me to become the first executive director of a nonprofit public lands partner. For a while, I flourished. I enjoyed playing a role in rural community and economic development. Eventually, cultural and political influences again led to my separation from an organization I had helped to build almost from scratch.

It quickly became evident that to advance in any professional capacity would require a college degree. My wealth of experience does not adequately communicate aptitude to a hiring manager, and although my natural talents have carried me far, the formal training manifest in a college degree is a minimum requirement for many positions. This is not to disparage the merits inherent in the education itself, and I have found the whole experience much more fulfilling and enjoyable than my previous scholastic pursuits. My goal has been to attain a degree with a high GPA that would signal my qualifications to work at a senior level in nonprofit management or government. My mother earned a master’s degree in public health later in life, and my sister went back to school to earn a master’s degree in public administration. Both serve as role models for me when considering what I might achieve. When people ask me what my future plans are, I often tell them I intend to be Governor of Nevada by 2030. Although this is a somewhat flippant response, it does reflect my sense of being capable of greatness and my desire to be involved in public service. I am definitely not deficient in the expectancy aspect, but perhaps more challenged in deciding on concrete goals for myself. I may have to settle for an interim position as a county manager, executive director, or something similar. Now that I have almost completed the 4-year degree, I am inclined to go on to graduate school, and this has been a consideration from the start. I am keenly aware that I will have to decide what course I intend to follow in my career very soon if I am to succeed in a graduate program, and the exercise of completing this very assignment is helpful to that end.

I think I chose well in deciding to interview David Bobzien, who is an at-large member of the Reno City Council and former Nevada Assembly member. I was already acquainted with David through our public lands work, since he is an avid public lands advocate, and we also both belong to a venerable regional historical society. Our club holds an event at the Nevada Assembly once a year, and David has been our host there several times. As it happens, he went to high school not far from where I did in the Washington, D.C. area, and I see many parallels between his career and my more recent aspirations. I learned that David did not originally intend to enter public service, but ended up there via circuitous routes. We certainly have something in common there. He followed his passions and developed his skills, and opportunities presented themselves to him along the way. That makes me feel better about my prospects. While much of what he had to say about politics I could have anticipated, there were some interesting discoveries I did not expect when I asked him what I might find surprising. David talked about the shift from a legislative role to an executive role when he moved from the assembly to the city council. I suppose it makes sense in retrospect, but I hadn’t really thought about the overarching characteristics of the different positions. Most interesting was his observation about the effect of term limits on the assembly. When David arrived, there were many experienced people who he referred to as “titans” in the assembly. When term limits were enacted, the whole body lost the benefit of those more experienced members. The team dynamic was changed because members no longer had enough time to build trust in their relationships, and this has also led to more political polarization. I had not considered the degree to which team dynamics could have a profound effect on the character of a political body. We tend to think of those things as being influenced by foundational issues, not procedural ones. This speaks to the importance of job design even in public service. David told me that people do enter service with a sense of goodwill and a desire to help people’s lives, but often have wildly varying conceptions of how to achieve that end.

These observations really hit home for me. It has been almost 6 years since I left the executive director position, and it has been difficult for me to shirk the feeling that I failed in some way when the board of directors invited me to resign. I imagine being defeated in an election must feel similarly uncomfortable. The work of managing a volunteer board was challenging but I was committed to the mission of the organization and thought that would be enough to carry me through. I thought that there was more mutual trust in the group than actually existed, and I now understand that the goals and motives of several of the participants were different from what was stated. My emotional intelligence has grown by leaps and bounds having endured the experience. I am now not only more aware of the emotions at work within me, I am also more aware of the emotions at work in other people. It takes real work to cultivate the perspective necessary to understand the dynamics at work in human interactions. Perspective means rising above the things to which we are very close and looking at them as if from a great height, as if they were happening to other people. It also means going small and imagining how things feel to someone else. It is a constant, conscious, deliberate process to assess one’s own biases and flip between consideration of the phenomenal and the noumenal nature of people and things. I always treasured logic and reason without always considering that being too erudite is perceived as arrogant. Even so, I wonder if some of the reason I made people feel uncomfortable was because I was among people who were not like me in ambition and personal resources. Maybe I sought out a small pond in which to perceive myself a big fish, and the moderately sized indigenous fish resented the invasion. That could be conceited, but rings true.

I am constantly going through a process of self-reflection and assessment. For Aristotle, the value of advanced friendships—those beyond mere pleasure and utility—is that they act as a sort of mirror to one’s soul. It is from my friends that I learn the most about myself, but analytic tools like the self-assessment we completed can occasionally be helpful, also. I do not think I learned much from the self-assessment in this case. When I first went through the assessment, I was probably feeling a little low or had some other things at work in the back of my mind, and so rated a medium for readiness for and initiating leadership. Then I went back and was more generous with myself, and rated high in both. I guess once you have a reasonably good knowledge of these sorts of metrics, self-awareness undermines objectivity. For the supervisor questions, I imagined my long-time working partner from both the event production company and the nonprofit. He essentially served as a direct superior, although I always approached our positions with a more egalitarian view. As a manager of others, I have been a Theory Y sort of person and always considered the team to be willing participants who worked together to a desired outcome. As a manager, I have been ultimately accountable to superiors for results, I made final decisions to keep things moving, provided substantive feedback to team members, and provided structure to the process. I think my superior learned to act this way more and more over time, but he also occasionally exepected to be considered superior for its own sake, and that eroded the trust and respect between us. There were some other ethical deficiencies in his behavior that contributed to diminished trust also. Thus, loyalty and mutual affection scores were low. In general, the metrics were not very surprising.

As I stated earlier, I am keenly aware that I must narrow my ambitions and form a vision of the future to which I shall aspire. Based on what I know now, I could imagine myself in an elected position sometime in the future, but it isn’t a straight line to that goal. It seems the task before me is to connect with my deep inner self to determine what I value, and to be pragmatic about what I can realistically achieve. Part of me rebels against the idea of settling for less, and with a world full of options, I will always miss out on some of them. The best advice I had from a philosophy professor was to concentrate on doing well at the task in front of me, and so far I have not let myself down in that regard. I have stayed focused on my undergraduate studies and the steps I must take to move, literally and figuratively, into a new career. All my dearest friends live in urban areas, most in the Bay Area, and continuing to live miles away out in the desert no longer serves any useful purpose. The pragmatist in me says that I should simply get a master’s degree in public administration and go find a good job. The dreamer in me balks at that proposition and aspires to a doctorate in philosophy. As of this writing, the pragmatist has yet to smother the dreamer. That may well occur when I fail to be accepted to a doctoral program. Yikes, but what if I get accepted?!? Another interest I have is in the intersection of emotion and reason, especially as it pertains to political communication. I would like to do some work related to political strategy in messaging.

These insights into myself demonstrate that I sure have come a long way from where I began. “Know thyself,” indeed. Yes, I would serve my constituents well if I were to become a public servant. I have no doubt of it. In the meantime, I will continue to apply myself to the work at hand, and get busy on those grad school applications.