preparation for a new career
Many professionals begin and end along the same path with slight deviations along the way, returning quickly to their own industry or interests. There are others whose careers evolve from one into another seamlessly. Mine made some unusual jumps, not once or twice, but three times over, in the last 25 years. I was first a botanist, then became a landscape architect, then by default, a graphic designer, and now am a cookbook author and entrepreneur. I have worn many hats but in the process also feel like I the newbie, almost every time.
After more than 10 years of working on building and strengthening the Curry Cravings™ brand, with two self-published books on my lapel (and several smaller dervitatives), two cities to call work-places, a website, a blog, and a respectable public profile with a decent following along a handful of social media outlets, I felt it was time to participate in the culinary industry’s largest annual conference. This organization and therefore potential attendee list was more than 3000 strong. This information was a privilege to have access to, but also a scary prospect. It included recognizable robust names, to, let’s face it – me. “Great”, I thought, sarcastically of course. The instant I saw the magnitude of it all - I felt my heart drop to the pit of my stomach, I felt miniscule.
I had attended scores of conferences before, as a student-presenter / a researcher, a professional attendee, presenter, or moderator, a volunteer, an award winner, and even as staff in my past careers – but this was different. When I worked for a local non-profit, I was part of the back end of our two different annual events, knew speakers bio’s, created marketing collaterals, provided tech support… all the way to being asked to literally watch a colleagues’ coffee while they did something else (I am not kidding, thankfully that association was short-lived). So, I knew, what to expect. Kinda.
With no branded credentials or lofty pedigree, no entourage or PR team that spoke for me, in my mid-40’s, I had just paid a small fortune to be possibly reminded, by someone else, that in their eyes, I could easily be a nobody. How in the world was I going to make it work, for me?
To keep from getting lost in a sea of names, profiles & brands, here is what I did:
The internet is a great tool for engaging with others, especially for people like me who get a little anxious in an unfamiliar crowd. Social media took away that fear. So, I first signed into the social media outlets for this organization, and requested to be added into groups which held my interest. I began following conversations there; commenting on posts that aligned with my interests and asked general questions. This not only calmed my nerves a little, but it allowed me to see peoples’ personalities as they emerged. These were all established professionals and approachable individuals – the ones that talked / shared / commented – were the ones who I was most likely to have a conversation with.
Lesson #1: I feared a different kind of beast – the one that lived within me was bigger than the ones outside. I need to get past that troll so that I can cross the bridge.
After 5 years of working happily from my home-office sans make up or formal attire, I was a little worried. I talked with a stylist friend for tips on how to look decent through the grueling days. Her recommendations were to include comfy shoes, wear light but fool-proof make-up and wrinkle-free business attire, with the ability to lug around conference materials. “Aha!” I thought, “A sturdy tote, possibly on wheels!” When my husband heard of this, he reminded me that the combination of rolling-cases and public bathrooms with wheels that returned to the back of my car would flare up the ick-factor in my brain. I dropped the idea like it never existed. It took me a few days to determine what I was going to need and wear based on the weather. After a week of online browsing, shoe shopping and such, I discovered that I already owned 90% of what I needed! I found wardrobe pieces that matched my personality and brand, reliable and comfortable shoes from two seasons ago (gasp!) that paired beautifully with my outfit. I also found a large purse that was light on my shoulders, but spacious enough to hold my tiny organizer.
Lesson #2: Be a representative of my professional persona (IF, I was required to wear my own company’s colors of vermillion red and turmeric yellow, together, I’d change my company rules).
Networking 101 meant identifying specific people I wanted to meet. The social media presence helped, but the next task was not particularly fun. I wish we had an attendee spreadsheet to work from. Copying and pasting 45+ pages of attendees, scanning for specific titles or companies and looking up their representatives online, one by one was a tediously and time consuming activity. Many people had not completed their member profiles or had shared little information with the organization. But as more people registered for the conference, I had more and more duplicates! Sadly, I also found out what Sally X’s house costs in New Hampshire, how much Joe Smith donated to a foundation Y, and that Fran Q’s divorce made the local news because of the legal mess that followed, rather than what Sally, Joe or Fran did for work!
Lesson #3: In the absence of industry relevant Google records, public records will rise to the top, due diligence on my part is essential.
Networking 102 meant connecting with a few people I really wanted to meet. No offence to the rest, but I did not want miss these particular people, knowing they were going to be busy. Conference veterans had started months ago, but since I was new (again), I started later than the rest. I sent them links to my own work (hopefully they weren’t offended) and told them I was hoping to meet them. I can remember Latin names of obscure plants with ease, but for the life of me, can’t remember peoples’ names without getting to know them first. So, the repetition of reference whether it was via email, familiarity with their blog / workplace info, LinkedIn profiles was absolutely critical for me. Not everyone responded – and if I ran into them later, they clearly were not interested in meeting. I’m not high enough on the totem pole yet. I also wish people had recognizable photographs – because it was hard to tell from what was online. A few people I met at the conference also told me that MY facebook profile pic. was tiny.. fixed it when I returned (they were obviously looking at the picture on their phones). I went as far as to order some postcards to give away, but forgot to make new business cards. I have to fix that.
Lesson #4: It is really important that people know how to reach me. The generic wood-cut profile picture, an obscure photo in place of my own, or an old business card with not enough info – is not flattering.
When we looked into my stay, I discovered that the conference rate for me to stay at the same hotel was actually higher than what Expedia showed!! Not knowing anyone beforehand made room-sharing with conference attendees awkward. Our family took an executive decision: to drive up with me. It would cost us the same in gas and lodging for three v/s airfare and car rental for one. It was a good and bad idea all at once. Good idea, because I got to see their ‘I-don’t-care-if-you-are-in-pj’s’ faces each night. Bad idea, because I missed them enough to rush off post sessions when I could have spent more time networking.
Lesson #5: Know what my safe space is, use it sparingly and judiciously.
Once at the conference, I got my nametag, with the pink ribbon that announced ‘First Time’. Cute, and for most part it was a good thing. However, on a few occasions it made me feel a little bit of a ‘bakra’ or ‘sacrificial lamb’ – a gullible attendee, especially in conversations with some folks who felt they were too busy to care. What worked for me more: my social media presence / activity and my visible public profile! People stopped to say, ‘I know you… you are such-and-such’ or, ‘what a lovely Instagram shot’, or even told me how beautiful the cherry tree in my front yard was without ever knowing where I lived – again from social media postings. It sure cheered me up.
Lesson #6: What I post online is valuable visual real-estate, use it wisely. My name tag is only so people know what to call me (versus, “Hey lady in pink”). It can be a great conversation starter, especially for the right people.
During the conference, I realized that most of the sessions I attended were entertaining and educational. I wish I had skipped some – there wasn’t enough description for the session and I wish I had taken the time to research the presenters too instead of simply looking at its title or the vague blurb that followed. Regardless of the content of the session, I made eye contact with people who sat next to me. Sadly there might always be some, for whom I was not important enough. Perhaps they are too busy to care; perhaps I was not their type, perhaps they had just about heard as much of ‘Hello, I am ____’ for their entire weekend and can’t keep up. I decided to give them the benefit of doubt, and left.them.alone. I am following up now, to see if they give off the same vibe. When I returned, I got back into connecting with the friendly people I met too, to continue the momentum I gained from the event.
Lesson #7: Have a plan, most people coming to a convention / conference do. However, if a professional association begins with a disinterest in your abilities, don’t pursue it - it will most likely lead to despair.
All in all, it was a great conference experience and I learned many things, met many wonderful people and learned to steer away from those I didn’t feel connected to. I have a small stack of business cards - but from people with whom I had long and meaningful conversations. These are useful. Someone had said to me, ‘Everyone is a newbie once’. True, yet I feel that with each passing year, the rules of the engagement and protocol at many of these professional events are constantly changing and one needs to keep with it, not hover around in the same tired-old ways of staying within ones’ comfort zone.
For me, in the ever evolving world of expectations, the biggest factor that determines my success is conquering personal fears and creating a personal rule-book that guides me. No matter how many career paths I’ve had, these rules will now serve as my manifesto, my pep-talk to nervous unsure self in the mirror:
No one is me, can be me, or can tell me who I need to be. My career path is unique to me. Thankfully I live in a world where it is OK to choose any path I want to take and reach any destination I deem suitable for ME.
Time & Money: Time IS money. If I commit my valuable time to an event, do I want to learn, network, get my feet wet, have an excuse to explore a new city, run away from the mundane for a while, or all of the above?
Value, short term & long term: Can I make myself financially accountable for my investment of my own valuable time? No one is paying the bills for me to go to an event so what do I get in return and is it worth it? I won’t know if a seemingly daunting professional event is going to open doors towards something else, which may be greater than my expectations, different and new - until I get there. What information do I want to take away from the event? What information do I want to leave behind?
Ongoing goal: I must continue to embrace the new, the different and unknown; and welcome the opportunity to grow beyond my name tag. If I decide what I need (from an event) before I depart, if I have a game-plan before I go, I will have the tools I need to succeed there.
Complete the circle: Enjoy the unique journey, appreciate the opportunities, and replenish the knowledge pond I sip from, so others may benefit from my experiences.
Do you give yourself a pep-talk? Share your most valuable newbie experiences from a professional event at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will add those in as a footnote for future readers.
Important footnote: I will emphasize: I am extremely grateful to the scores of talented people I met, who were incredibly generous with their time and wisdom during the conference. These are the folks that I choose to seek out, stay in touch with, and emulate their ethics in my own life. They epitomize the idea of coming full-circle in a professional organization. This essay was a reflection of my personal goals and expectations, nothing more.