Not so long ago, or maybe it was a millennium, I was a librarian. As someone with a passion for books and organization, it was a wonderful job. But sometimes fate takes you on a journey you don’t expect. Enter my life with Feisty Brown.
It might seem an odd career shift—librarian to agency principal—but it was an ideal transition for me. Pare down my former career to its fundamentals, and I’d argue you need three primary skills to succeed: a desire to work closely with all kinds of people; a love of research; and an ability to give brain space to multiple projects at once. Sound a lot like agency work?
I come from a time and place that encouraged you to choose a career path and stick with it. The idea of “job surfing” was once considered unstable, and those who engaged in it were unfocused and unreliable. But that stigma is unfair. Humans are dynamic creatures and we are meant to grow—to evolve—throughout our lifetimes. Can you imagine being the same person at 60 that you were at 16?
We are meant to carry our experiences forward to the next stage of life. The Akan tribe of Ghana actually has a word for this concept: Sankofa. It’s literal translation is something to the effect of “it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you left behind.” The symbol of Sankofa is a mythical bird who turns its head backwards to retrieve an egg while its firmly planted feet face forward. The graceful outline of the Sankofa bird is a heart. A beautiful and more positive reframing of the maxim “learn from your mistakes.”
Throughout my career I’ve held positions that at face value seem completely unrelated: publishing sales and distribution, non-profit management, teaching assistant, librarian, and studio manager. Every job has taught me new lessons, brought me new perspectives, and endowed me with new skills that I have brought forward to the next place I arrived.
Since the 1950s, when I imagine many of the antiquated measures of professional success that are seared into my brain were born, American life expectancy has increased more than 10 years. We live a long life and there is plenty of time to explore, try things out, see what fits, and to understand that what fits at one point in time might not a decade or two later. I admire people who have a singular drive and a concrete passion. But I will always feel akin to those who can admit that they’re pulled in many directions because everything is just so damn interesting!
By reframing your mindset from “mistake” or “failure” to “lesson” or “endeavor” or even “exploration” you can begin to understand that when you create change, the events that surround it are not left in isolation. A computer information science professor whom I worked with for a time and greatly admired told me that his best students were always those who had worked as wait staff in restaurants. Why? Because they understand prioritization and efficiency, two of the main concepts of computer programming, on a visceral level. Nothing, it seems, is wasted.
This mindset has served me well, and it continues to do so at Feisty Brown. Every client and project provides an opportunity to learn and grow, to fine-tune our approach, and to better understand the needs and culture of each of our clients.
The last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have created a palpable realization that we are all in this…moment, journey, mess…together. With this has come stronger partnerships, increased flexibility (on both client and agency parts), and an awareness and acceptance that we are all people with personal lives that deservedly require time and attention. We are collectively doing a better job of being human.
I was a librarian once, and today I manage a vibrant design studio with my partner in life and business. I got where I am because it’s exactly where I should be. I try to stay true to who I am, look for growth lessons, and above all, not to waste a single experience.
So my New Year wish to you is that if you don’t already do it, try reframing what you once considered a mistake or failure as something useful. What can you look back on and fetch? What is at risk of being left behind? And who are you today because of that shift? I hope you are wiser, stronger, and more compassionate for it. May everyone know such peace and happiness.