Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Mentoring Questions

I mentioned Linda Norris's offer of mentoring in my blog roundup a few weeks ago, and I wanted to delve a bit into the questions she asks prospective mentees. I won't be applying for her generous offer - it's not right for me now - but I still loved her questions. They're good, probing, thoughtful ideas to consider. I'm going to take a crack at them.

One thing you're particularly curious about 

I want to dig further into financial models for museums. I'm endlessly fascinated by the way they work the world over. In some countries, they're state supported; does that really create a more secure environment, and does it really benefit the society at large? In the US, they're typically privately funded nonprofits, and they compete with the hundreds of thousands of other nonprofits out there doing good work. I am always fascinated to follow the money.

One thing you're passionate about 

Let me split this into two parts. 

The first, professionally, is history. I love finding those moments of gestalt: those small, hidden, human stories that you share with a visitor (or reader, or friend, or really anyone) that you can practically feel sizzle as they leave you. The moment when you're explaining something to a group and you can start to feel them click in to what you're saying. It's like a drug.

The second, personally, is horses; my own, in particular, and the sport of three day eventing in general. It's an enormous ongoing challenge at which I have absolutely zero natural ability. I work my fingers to the bone to keep my horse and to keep training and I still hunger for more. (I blog about our journey here.)

Questions you'd like to discuss with me during the year 

Related to that first answer, I am growing increasingly troubled by the way in which museums are competing for funding with other nonprofit organizations. How do you look a funder in the eye and say, "Instead of feeding kids a warm breakfast before school, we'd rather you put that $5,000 toward conserving our lace collection"? I really think there's no way you can do that. There are so many huge social problems. I mean, I know the academic answer - the humanities are the crucial inspiration that take you beyond those basic needs, that fulfill our craving for a bigger world of ideas. I feel that deeply. But when the rubber meets the road, and kids are starving and dying...how does that square up?

Corollary to that: many museums are responding to that by venturing into the social services world, offering their own after school programs and teaching troubled kids and so on and so forth and is that something we really should be doing? I know I am not qualified professionally or personally to take on social work and I am sure the same is true for many others! But that's where the money is, and some museums have been successful in chasing that. (Is it chasing? Or is it where they need to go?)

Corollary to the corollary: #@$#@ STEM subjects. Also known as, whyfor is Conner Prairie doing a Spacelab program?

A description of your first creative act

I'll admit, I was really stumped on this one. I can call up a dozen memories of imaginative play as a child - once, when a cousin of mine and I were grounded and stuck up in my bedroom for an afternoon, we snuck into my father's closet, dressed up in his suits, tied together bedsheets, shimmied out the second-story window, and circled back around to the front door, where we rang the doorbell and pretended to be government agents investigating cruelty toward the children living in the house. (I believe my mother laughed in our faces and sent us back up to my room.)

As I've been thinking, I've realized that my creativity is best expressed as variations on a theme. I'm not wildly creative; I have never been artistic by any stretch of the imagination, was bored in art class, was a middling-to-poor (though committed) cellist, and am hard-pressed to even add touches of color to my wardrobe.

But I thrive when I'm given a problem and told to fix it and in doing so make it better. To make changes in order to get better flow, or make it more interesting. To take someone else's wild idea and ground it and make it interesting and unique. Right now in my life this is most clearly expressed in my cooking and baking; I love finding recipes but I almost never follow them. I am working on developing my instincts for what makes the basic dish into something better.
A time your reach exceeded your grasp 

Oh gosh. So many times. I tend to operate at about 125% of capacity and as a result am always faced with times when my grand plans for a particular project fall short of what I would like them.

Let me take a story from my horse life. Through the winter of 2011-2012, I was finishing grad school - writing a thesis, studying for comps - while working full time and taking on several new professional opportunities as I started to serve on museum committees. I knew I was going to get my master's in the spring, and that I would start a job search in the fall, so the upcoming summer was probably the last time I would have to spend with my eventing trainer, and my last chance for some time to really make a run at competing my horse.

I've had my horse for eight years now. He is a mustang, and I started him myself, which is another story entirely filled with sleepless nights, pulled muscles, many tears, and a lot of work. We worked our joint assess off through that winter, on top of everything else. We worked even harder that spring, and come summer I was focused and intent, and we were doing it. He was going as well as he ever has, we were finishing in the ribbons at shows.

The season was building toward our first recognized show together in the first week of September 2012. Three weeks before that show, he went lame, and we were done. That was it. We went from working as hard as I ever have in my life to doing absolutely nothing. For some time he couldn't even leave his stall. I had made detailed plans, spent massive amounts of money, gone without sleep, and it all vanished in minutes. I was heartbroken, but strangely calm. That's one of the things horses teach you: that sometimes no matter how hard you work, things outside your control can yank everything away from you in one moment.

(We would find out some months later that he had broken a bone in his foot, and he had surgery and just now, in winter 2013, is beginning to get back to where we had been that summer.)

When you work, do you love the process or the result? Why?

Oh, the process. Definitely. I love making all the pieces line up together, and getting the right feel to the whole thing, and teasing out the best way to accomplish something, and putting it together as well as I possibly can. I somehow never quite feel as if the result is what I had hoped for so often after I've launched something I'm usually planning something else and I'm always surprised and maybe even borderline offended when people praise me for something I've done, because I can see its flaws so clearly.

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