The Curious Mind


Following from my last blog about education and non-profit institutions, I want to share more about why I am an evangelist.

Nope, not a religious evangelist. A non-profit evangelist.

You’ve hopefully had a job that makes you feel like I do. There’s a magical feeling when you find the place you want to work. Either the place is already that way, or you’ve been hired to make it that way. Whatever the case, when you find a purpose and deep meaning in what you do, you feel like you belong. It can be a rare thing in the jobs world, when your career becomes linked to your self-expression. I’ve been fortunate to work in a number of them, and I find it hard to imagine doing anything else now.

(Like many evangelists, I’m probably preaching to the choir here. I am not the first person to say any of these things. But these ideas, absorbed from many conversations, conferences, and simply living them, are more powerful for being shared. So many people I‘ve enjoyed working with feel them too, to the point where they don’t need to be continually expressed. We all just – know.)

That’s not to say that the days in the office doing paperwork are all joy and unicorns. Nor those moments working on yet another weekend, or late at night clearing up after a big event. Or changing planes at some airport so often that you know where every restroom, coffee shop and food outlet is. You don’t have to love the specifics. But when you perceive it as meaningful work, it all feels worth it.

The subject area doesn’t matter. From aerospace, to contemporary arts, to life sciences, to paleontology, to history, I have enjoyed every subject I’ve needed to delve into. In fact, moving to America and having to learn about local plants and wildlife from scratch made me a much more effective teacher and communicator. I could interact with experts, distill the information and share the joy of what I had learned, while helping others find their own interpretations and way into appreciating them.

I once worked at a museum that housed the remains of a Roman fort, through which the world’s oldest industrial canal ran, over which ran the world’s first passenger rail line, next to which were halls full of engineering triumphs, from steam engines to prototype space craft. There was no end to my personal learning – and no end to what personal connections and interpretations visitors could make of these interconnected moments of human engineering over two thousand years.

At another place I worked, ice age fossils were coming in the door every day, having been carefully removed from the earth and packed in plaster. I could talk with skilled paleontologists as they gently scraped away the plaster, revealing these bones to human eyes for the very first time.

Working in places such as these, with accessible collections and ongoing research, I was often privy to groundbreaking new science discoveries before the papers announcing them were published. It was priceless. As Arthur Koestler once said, “Creative activity is a type of learning process where the teacher and pupil are located in the same individual.” It was something we always strove to create for our visitors. I found that it also applied to us, the employees.

Dr. Rollo May, in his book “The Courage to Create,” made a connection that really resonated with me. He described how science and engineering spring from creativity, as much as traditional arts subjects do. He explained that creative people “do not run away from non-being, but by encountering and wrestling with it, force it to produce being. They knock on silence for an answering music; they pursue meaninglessness until they can force it to mean.” I believe this applies perfectly to people in the non-profit world too. Instead of fearing the unknown, we generally run toward it.

There’s another life lesson in there, too. As cognitive behavior specialist Professor Windy Dryden once said so well, there’s nothing so defeating and inflexible as a cycle of regret. He advised that if things don’t work as we hoped, we shouldn’t get into the mindset of “I shouldn’t have done that.” It’s a dead end. Instead, we can learn, and think “I wonder why I didn’t do something else?” This kind of creative flexibility not only works well in a creative workplace, it’s also a wonderful learning tool for other inevitable setbacks in life.

This all, I believe, really puts a lot of traditional educational frameworks in perspective. When little kids are sifted into higher and lower-expectation classes, and schools are perceived to have an “achievement gap” – it can so often be just that: a perception. Even more than that, it’s a prediction. While there are some schools with chronic issues that need intervention to fix, in other cases the students haven’t actually had a chance to show what they can do yet. They’re being judged on a prediction. Thankfully, so many school teachers fight this and make greater opportunities for their students. But for those that can’t, thank goodness for museums and other non-profits.

So as you can see, I have found non-profit work to be immensely rewarding, in that it gives a professional sense of true purpose, for a cause bigger than any individual. Identifying constituencies who did not even know opportunities were available can be life-changing. Watching and mentoring people as they then go on to apply what they learned is incredibly gratifying.  Being passionate about a subject you are sharing conveys itself to the audience too: I can feel the energy in the room.

The last part of the equation is to feel important, valued, and respected by others in the work place. This is not always a given: while respect should be the beginning of the process, not the end, increased value and respect come from a continual feedback loop inherent in good teamwork. If the culture is irreparably broken in an institution, sometimes there’s nothing more you can do. Move on. Analyze what happened, and find somewhere else where you are truly valued. It’s healthy.

I love to be surrounded by people who are striving to make the world a better place. For me, it’s all about connecting. Being positively influential requires engaging, quality offerings and excellent staff. When that is in place, anything is possible.