In late May of 1978, my wife and I – newly minted graduates of Grinnell College – moved to Washington, DC, as I prepared to begin graduate school in September. Because my program was pre-professional training for a career in the museum field, and mostly because of DC’s insanely high cost of living, I immediately began pounding the pavement looking for a job that would begin my career path and provide some much-needed income.
My timing couldn’t have been worse. Several weeks before I arrived in DC, President Jimmy Carter had imposed a freeze on all hiring of government employees. This should have put the Smithsonian, the National Archives, the Library of Congress and the National Park Service off limits. Even though a career counselor at the George Washington University told me not to waste my time, I typed up my resume, put on the suit I had been married in the year before, and took a bus downtown to apply for a job in the Education Department at Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.
At the Portrait Gallery, the receptionist said that they had no job openings, followed by an associate director of education who politely reaffirmed that they weren’t hiring. It was then that I heard a voice bellow from the inner office: “Did I hear someone say they were from Grinnell, Iowa?” As luck would have it, the director of education had grown up in Marshalltown, Iowa, 32 miles north of Grinnell, and was impressed with the school’s reputation. After a lively one-hour chat – about Iowa, my Grinnell experience, career objectives and personal interests – he told me to report the next day for my new job as an education aide at the Portrait Gallery.
So, here are a few important life lessons I learned from my first paid job out of college:
Lesson #1: Don’t ever let the current reality discourage you from trying.
Lesson #2: Someone can almost always find a way to hire you, even if they aren’t supposed to.
Lesson #3: Serendipity is your friend.
After nearly 40 years as founder and CEO of The History Factory – the only other “job” I’ve had – there isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not reminded of these lessons.