I recently listened to an interview with Kieran Setiya, a philosophy professor at MIT, who has written a book about career transitions and the special challenges of mid-life. I was especially struck by his thoughts on opportunity cost. I know my recent career transition was absolutely the right thing. But it’s also been a time of memories, thoughts, reflections, and a certain amount of disorientation as I move forward into a new endeavor.
Some people shy away from these emotions. No one likes feeling “out of sorts.” But I think it’s just a normal part of processing the ups and downs of the past few years and giving them an honored place in my personal history.
Perhaps tellingly, I’ve been laughing more too, so that’s a step in the right direction. All the things I have to share with you today are funny!
I love to read about history and even current events, but at the same time I wish there were more places for my thoughts about it to go.
The takeaway: be yourself! You don’t have a choice anyway, so you might as well enjoy it!
You might expect Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the documentary about Fred Rogers, to be a nostalgia exercise for Gen-Xers like me, or even a movie for kids. As it turns out, it is nothing of the kind. Mr. Rogers was a profoundly counter-cultural figure in the true sense of the word. He spent his life lighting a candle against the calculated stupidity of mass culture and the indoctrination of kids as mindless consumers. He deeply respected the intelligence and sensibilities of children and lived a life of honesty and moral courage.
It took me about 10 minutes watching this documentary to understand why it was shut out of the Academy Awards (some critics had naively suggested it would contend for Best Documentary). Mr. Rogers was everything that Hollywood is not. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is beautiful, inspirational, and emotionally resonant. Highly recommended.
I recently re-read the classic political novel Advise and Consent by Allen Drury. Drury was extremely prescient about Washington and its relationship to the American people. I was struck by his critique of the press corps (Drury was a Capitol Hill correspondent for decades). He was wise to the techniques the press uses to take advantage of the people’s credulity. When I ran across this handy chart of logical fallacies, I thought I’d share it. You can find at least one of these in almost every “breaking” news story or opinion piece. Once you get on to it, it’s fascinating to realize how it works. Educate yourself.
I’ve had my differences with Toby Keith but I can’t get enough of his beautiful new song about aging. May you be forever young at heart!
I’m pleased to announce that I have joined Applied Research Laboratories at the University of Texas as a senior technical writer.
I loved my time as a freelance writer working on independent projects, including my book. But it was time for a change and the next challenge. In the last five years, I have experienced tremendous growth as a professional writer and as a person, and I couldn’t be prouder of this time.
Now I’m ready for the future. At Applied Research Labs, I’ll be using my skills to support scientists and researchers working in the fields of acoustics and sonar, electromagnetics, and information sciences. The labs were established at the end of World War II, and the work is Defense Department affiliated. I’m genuinely excited to have been accepted by a group of such bright and talented people doing important work that benefits our country.
On a lifestyle related note, ARL has a nice old-style campus and is located just 10 minutes from my house! And I know I’ll enjoy being part of an academic atmosphere.
I’m also looking forward to opening up my blog to a wider range of topics that hopefully will make you smile or give you something to think about. And wherever this new role takes me, I’m excited about continuing to learn, grow, and serve.
I am so pleased and excited to announce that my new book, The Austin Dam Disaster of 1900, is now available! Pre-orders are underway and the book’s release day is January 29–next Monday!
Part of the Images of America series from Arcadia Publishing, this book tells one of the great forgotten stories of Austin history–how a little town of 15,000 people built the largest dam ever constructed in the 19th century, anywhere in the world. It’s a story about dreams, and hubris, and Central Texas weather. Most of the research was conducted at the Austin History Center, and the book contains dozens of historic photos from the Austin History Center, the Lower Colorado River Authority, the Texas State Archives, and the Briscoe Center for American History, among others.
As a lifelong Austinite, I grew up in a city still celebrating the taming of the Colorado by the Highland Lakes dams. Aquafest attracted thousands each summer to celebrate the existence of Town Lake. A few years back, I learned that Red Bud Isle, now a beloved dog park, was formed from the wreckage of the old Austin dam. As I delved into the subject matter, I discovered that the Austin dam disaster of 1900 not only illuminated the journey of Austin from dusty frontier capital to modern-day tech magnet–it embodied the ambition and hubris that even then characterized the city.
I’ve always been fascinated by our unique weather, and the drama of the dam’s failure is the centerpiece of this story. I’ve learned over the years that people really do love to discover their own history. This was something I had never heard of, and it has so many fascinating aspects–politics, engineering, geology, disaster, and the sheer grit it took for our city to come back from a catastrophe that was as much self-inflicted as it was an act of God.
In 2016 I learned that Arcadia Publishing was looking to add some more Texas titles and I approached them with the idea of this book. The City of Austin and the Austin History Center gave permission to use their material, which makes up the majority of the images, and we are grateful for their generosity.
I hope you will enjoy this book as much as I did putting it together. The Austin Dam Disaster of 1900 is available on Amazon, directly from Arcadia Publishing, and will be available at your favorite Austin bookstores including BookPeople, Book Woman, and Barnes & Noble.
Please check out the events calendar! I would love to see all my friends at the book launch party on February 18 at BookPeople or any other of my upcoming “book tour” events! There are several more in the works, and I am actively seeking more local speaking engagements–feel free to reach out.
How many of you remember the great movie A League of Their Own, starring Tom Hanks and Geena Davis? The movie concerned a group of women who became baseball players during World War II, a time when the male players were serving in the military. Tom Hanks plays Jimmy Dugan, the washed-up manager who finds his love of the game again through these unlikely champions.
I was thinking the other day about what I’ve learned since I started working with my freelance clients and how I could expand my offerings. Right now, my best clients already have pretty great baseball teams with experienced players. In my case, this means they have writing projects with specific goals, and resources lined up with the information they want to communicate. In that case, I’m the Geena Davis character—the pro who knows how to execute.
But what about clients at the level of the rest of the Rockford Peaches? These farm girls are pretty great players, too. But they’ve never done anything like this before, and they’re not quite ready to put it all together. There’s some behind-the-scenes spadework that needs to be done. This summer, I’ll be putting on my coach hat and working on some more effective ways to do that (i.e., packages) that make sense for me and for potential clients looking to take it to the next level.
What I love about A League of Their Own is that Jimmy Dugan doesn’t start out as a great coach. He isn’t really much of a leader at all. As the story unfolds, he grows into the role. He accepts his situation and begins to believe in the abilities of his players. He begins to offer them the positive feedback and constructive criticism they actually need, instead of just screaming at them. He tunes into their values instead of his own. Working together, he and the players find a way to work together and make their dreams come true.
In the end, it all comes down to the improved results on the baseball diamond. But the scoreboard is only a crude measure of success. The real story is the humility, compassion, and communication that develops between the coach and the players.
Have you ever worked with someone who made you pay a toll just to answer a question or give their input into a project? I think most of us have our war stories about that insufferable or arrogant colleague. I’ll never forget the guy who wouldn’t taking his turn washing dishes in the break room, explaining to the rest of us, “But I have a PhD!”
The truth is that people who are passive-aggressive, bad-tempered, or just full of themselves can take a surprisingly large toll on a project. Back when I used to interview candidates for my company’s technical writing team, I was known for my questions that tried to elicit the candidate’s temperament along with experience and skills. These days, as a freelance professional, I’m usually on the other side of the fence—and I’m more convinced than ever that being pleasant and sincere is a valuable skill all freelancers should work to cultivate.
Here are three assets that I think define that special something.
What do you think makes for a nice addition to a work team—someone you actually want to work with on a repeat basis?
When you’re busy, it’s easy to get so caught up in the details of what you’re doing that you forget the whole reason you’re doing it. Recently I was looking back on the customers I’ve served the last year or so, and it was fun to thinking about making a difference.
I’m a pretty practical person with a lot of experience in traditional businesses. Most of my work comes from companies that offer IT solutions that solve practical, real-world problems from detecting fraud to checking out library books to managing local elections. As you can see, the end users of these solutions are experts in their fields, not computer geeks. My actual customers are usually marketing managers and directors in charge of content, marcom, or demand generation. They need to offer these end users real, substantive information, and the projects are usually pieces like white papers, case studies, or trade articles.
However, IT companies are not the only organizations that need writers. Because of my unique background in the cultural heritage arena, this past year I did two major projects for government. My largest single project of the year was writing a very extensive e-commerce catalog for a public museum. I also did a large research project for the 100th anniversary of the Texas Department of Transportation. My government customers have varied titles, but are concerned with outreach that is accurate, inviting for the public to read, and controversy-free.
Finally, I work on book projects, which I’m hoping to expand in 2017 and beyond. I worked closely with an old Austin family to create a corporate history of a legacy Austin business—a great project for a company anniversary or to celebrate the retirement of a founding executive. I also contributed research and editorial services for several book projects. Want to propose or submit a chapter to a business anthology? I can help with that, too.
As a one-person shop, I can generally handle only about 3-5 clients at any given time. I’m currently scheduling into the summer and looking for 1-2 new clients. I’d love to talk to you about your writing needs.
In a conversation last week with other freelancers, one fellow writer said, “I’m looking for a client who sees a writer as a revenue generator to be maximized, rather than a cost center to be minimized.” I wondered—what would happen if we reframed the way we look at all of our business relationships. What if we stopped thinking of people as risks and liabilities, and thought of them as allies and assets instead?
As with many questions, I haven’t come up with any answers—only more questions.
In the end, I’m not sure that money, status, or titles work as goals, even in the short run. I have a lot of admiration for people who do good work and treat their fellow human beings with respect, care, and appreciation, no matter what the circumstances.
Last year, I was privileged to work on several organizational and corporate history projects. I’m looking for more of this kind of work. It’s hard to put into words how satisfying it is to research and bring to life the history of a business that has truly stood the test of time, especially when the client holds the finished, illustrated book in their hands for the first time.
I’ve been involved professionally in the history field since 2000. A few years back, I was developing supplemental materials for a client who ran amazing tours for history buffs (alas, a casualty of the 2008 crash). I got to work directly with the historians to develop reading lists for the tours. But there was one historian who refused to work with me because I’m a woman. He said that a woman couldn’t be a historian. Fortunately, few people share his attitude these days, though there are still too many with unexamined prejudices about what women like to write about.
In that spirit, I wanted to take the occasion of International Women’s Day to salute five amazing women authors who inspire me. I chose these women because I recently purchased their books or have them near the top of my to-be read list!
Candice Millard has authored two of my favorite books of all time: The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey and Destiny of the Republic: Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President. She is one of history’s most gifted storytellers—I would read anything she writes! She is a former writer and editor for National Geographic. A mom of three, she writes during school hours. Her new book on my list is Hero of the Empire, the story of Winston Churchill’s daring adventures in South Africa when he was only 24 years old.
Lynne Olson began her career as a journalist, working as a political reporter for AP and the Baltimore Sun and as a foreign correspondent in Moscow. She’s authored seven books of history, most of which focus on World War II politics and diplomacy. There is so much to learn about today’s world by understanding our past. Her book on my list is Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939–1941. Her next book, Last Hope Island, is about the tide of refugees who poured into Britain fleeing Hitler’s blitzkrieg. It comes out next month.
Mary O. Parker is a freelance writer from right here in Central Texas who writes about travel and nature. Her new book Explore Texas: A Nature Travel Guide, is original, substantive, and delightfully written. Her husband Jeff contributed beautiful photography. Living in a big city, it is sometimes difficult to know how to connect with nature. This book does the heavy lifting for you no matter where in Texas your travels take you.
Zoey Goto is a London-based journalist and author who writes about fashion and design. She is also a mother and a banjo player! As an Elvis fan, I often think there is nothing new to learn about The King, but the new book Elvis Style: From Zoot Suits to Jumpsuits proved me wrong yet again. Full of great photos I had never seen before, this book is all about Elvis’s cultural influence and has many new stories about the wildly original, playful, and creative person he was.
Finally—have you been a witness to history yourself? You don’t have to be a professional journalist, writer, or researcher to share it. Some of my favorite books are behind-the-scenes looks at history written by ordinary people. Peggy Grande was personal assistant to Ronald Reagan for 10 years after he left the White House, until he became too ill from Alzheimer’s to be able to work. Before she went to work for Reagan, Grande was a salesperson at Nordstrom! Grande’s book The President Will See You Now is high on my to-be-read list.In addition to learning more about Reagan, I’m interested in this book because of my own experiences trying to help preserve the independence and dignity of my aging parents.
History is never “over.” It’s full of stories that need to be told—and sometimes it takes a woman to tell them!
Yesterday I was involved in a great discussion about networking for introverts. It was interesting to find out how many people who are introverts also wrestle with perfectionism and procrastination. I don’t think anyone is immune from deferring a sticky problem in hopes it will somehow just go away!
Introverts like me love to immerse ourselves deeply in our work. The reward is the opportunity to create outstanding work. However, the challenge is letting go so the work can fly out of the nest! Whether I’m doing work for myself or a client, I do like to fuss over the details, and make sure everything is accurate, correct, reads well, and is “just so.”
Luckily, I’m grounded and action-oriented by nature. One tip I can share is to set deadlines and commit to them. This lifts the burden of over polishing from your shoulders and lets you move on and apply the lessons learned to the next project, rather than remaining immersed in the same one.
And as for procrastination, I’ve been dying to share about a great little app called Forest. If you’re like me and find yourself frittering away time on your smartphone, Forest is a fun way to cut back. Through a game-like interface, you can grow trees and create your own forest by tying up your phone for anywhere between 10 minutes to two hours. If you use your phone during that time, your trees die. If you stick with it, you can earn points to unlock new species of trees, and end up with quite a forest each week before the game starts over. You can even save up your points and contribute them towards the planting of real trees. Give it a try!
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