Sunday, June 18, 2017

Charting His Own Path

It has been five years since my father passed away and I thought I said everything I had to say.  Then something happened that got me thinking about my father and a blog began to take shape. I picture him throwing prompts in my path to get my attention.

Recently I got an email from a development professional with Bradley University, She and the dean of the college of engineering were going to be in my community and wanted to meet.  Now I have a unique tie to Bradley and especially the engineering college. My father started the electrical engineering department and I grew up on the Bradley campus.  

As we sat outside at a cafĂ©, enjoying our pleasant weather, the current dean commented on the rather eclectic career my father had. It was eclectic because he spanned different disciplines, letting his interests carry him from one to another all within the same university.  He began in engineering, started a public television and radio station and became the dean of communications and fine arts, returning as dean of engineering later in his career.
Throughout his life he crossed the boundaries that we often build around career paths. He was considered a visionary in his day and among his many talents was communicating his vision which of course translated to fundraising, a skill that is quite appreciated on a college campus. He also had a definite philosophy of education that argued for not channeling students into specializations too early in their careers. The current dean was very interested in his philosophy and had heard tales about him.

“Were his parents academics?” the dean asked, trying to figure out this sometimes puzzling man. 

"No, they were immigrants," I replied. "His father ran a surplus store and didn’t really understand his desire for education. When my father was away at the University of Denver, going to school on the GI Bill, he got a letter from his dad. 'Why don’t you get a little shop off Main Street. I’ll send you some inventory. See what you can do,' It was signed, Ole Man Weinberg." As I think about it now, it occurs to me that he was indeed influenced by his father's profession.  Whether it was gathering equipment to start the department or setting up the TV station, my father was known for outfitting his creations economically with surplus equipment.

I related the story of the career counseling he received as an undergrad that suggested electrical engineering might not be the right fit and suggested he explore a career in social service as he had very high scores in that area. Those career counselors might have been right if they were looking at the profile of the typical electrical engineer, but my Dad most certainly wasn't typical. Needless to say, he continued into electrical engineering, but married it up to community service in his creation of the public television station. His pattern was to link different pursuits as he charted his own path. Of course, he opposed specialization in education, it was diametrically opposed to how he created his own career, moving between a wide range of interests that often informed each other. He modeled that for me as well.

As I talked about my Dad, I thought about his irreverence. That meant I couldn't share some of my best "Dadisms" which were seldom appropriate. He did things his way and with attitude. He was his own person and didn't see the world through the same lens as everyone else.

The dean told me about a new center on the Bradley campus called the Convergence Center.  I could hear my father chortling in my ear.  “Well it was about time they figured it out.” The Convergence Center brings together both business and engineering, moving away from specialization and into collaboration.  I could feel my father itching to jump into the conversation. We were talking about something that he cared about. "Yeah Dad," I thought, “Sometimes you’re just ahead of your time."

Friday, June 16, 2017

It's all about the Puzzles

Suppose someone asked, "What aren't you?" How would you respond? Now I don't mean the obvious.   I mean the things a person might reasonably assume that you are if they observed your life, but that don't really fit the internal you. They are the stereotypes that you can get easily placed within. They aren't necessarily negative, they just aren't you.

I ask the question, because it occurs to me that I have spent a lot of my life saying what I'm not. When I was in finance, I used to protest that I'm not really a financial person, never mind that I had years of experience and lots of credentials. You could be forgiven for assuming that I was a financial person.  But that was the point. Just because I appeared to be something, didn’t mean I was.  What I was saying with my disavowal was that I was passing through, I don't really live in a financial world. On some level, it didn't really matter to me in the way I assumed it did to those who seemed so immersed in it. Perhaps they might have felt the same as I did, but were just better at concealing that part of themselves. Now that is not to say that I didn't work hard or want to do the best job possible. I lived as if it were important, but at the end of the day it didn't take up a significant space in what really mattered to me. I was there for the puzzles.  I liked solving things and finance gave me a world in which to use that skill.

Today I often find myself saying "I'm not a religious person."  In terms of religious practice, I'm not, but I am engaged in exploring my heritage and understanding the impact of religion on it. That can create a misperception of who I am.  It is no surprise that I got drawn into this trying to solve a puzzle, that of family history as I delved into genealogy research around my family. That led to artwork, study of Yiddish, travel to ancestral towns, creating websites on those towns, exploration of the Holocaust, interviewing, a book and lots of writing and public speaking. This blog is called Layers of the Onion because I am constantly peeling back layers in my search for understanding.

So, if that's what I'm not, what am I? I have no difficulty saying I am an artist, a writer and a genealogist.  There was a time when I was still wriggling into those skins, but now they fit me quite comfortably. I like the multiplicity of roles, I am many things and I bristle at being placed in a narrow category. In my pile of detritus from my career life, I have a document that my former employees once filled out anonymously. It was a survey from a mentoring group I participated in, one of those tools designed to give us insight into how others see us. I have always been intrigued with the ways we try to better understand who we are, whether it is the Myers-Briggs or astrology. In fact, after I finished my MBA I took an astrology class as if to cleanse my palate between courses. It too was a denial of sorts. I may have an MBA, but I'm not an MBA.

What I found interesting in this survey is that each person identified the same trait in me, curiosity. They had all witnessed my enthusiasm for solving puzzles. Now, I am hoping that when they said I was curious, they meant inquisitive rather than the other definition, strange. The multiple definitions of curious aroused my curiosity so I looked at the derivation of the word. The Latin curiosus is akin to cura or care. Curiosity does imply that one cares about understanding. Old French lumps together both inquisitive and strange, perhaps finding it a bit strange that one would care.  

It is that curiosity that takes me in many directions. I have always resisted being categorized and thus stereotyped into someone else's version of who they think I am, but curiosity I'll accept as a descriptor. I have indeed always been curious. Curiosity seeks a subject with mysteries to solve. The world at large provides that with its complex web of interrelationships. Change one thing and it affects something else. Systems are a universal puzzle. If we can understand them in all their complexity, we can make sense of politics, economics, organizations, families or people, maybe even ourselves. Curiosity is the key to my personal puzzle, what makes me tick.  As always, it is all about the puzzles.