I no longer work at The Evergreen State College.
For three years I worked as the associate advisor to Evergreen’s student newspaper, Cooper Point Journal. I advised students on web development, social media, journalism, computer and software use, design, programming, leadership, and human behavior.
Yeah, that’s right. The biggest part of the job was talking with students at the CPJ about their relationships with sources, contributors, and each other.
This was my favorite part of the job. Solving technological problems and teaching others to do the same can be rewarding. It can be exciting to launch new features, to solve noisome bugs, and to provide a product that people find useful.
Working with people to solve interpersonal problems, to get to know one another, to hold people accountable, and to wade amongst the murky and confusing signals of perception and intention – that is what truly interests me.
People get in disagreements, whether they are students, faculty, business owners, park rangers, salespeople, dancers, web developers – whatever. And those moments as an advisor where students needed help working out problems with other students or with college staff or faculty – that’s when I felt most useful and most engaged.
The Cooper Point Journal presents a somewhat unique challenge: The website I advised wasn’t mine. It belongs to the students. Their failures and successes are theirs, I only pointed them in the most useful direction I could, and gave resources to help them along the way.
So when a story was really good, I wasn’t about to take credit. When a design flaw messed up the site I would suggest changes, and would help make changes under student direction, but I couldn’t just change things. The website belongs to students, and the decision to make changes is theirs.
This job was perfect for the me of 2030. Maybe?
There has been nothing so difficult as graduating from Evergreen with a B.A. in 2009 and going straight into an advisory role. I wanted production. I wanted to build things, disrupt things, discover things.
I found hobbies, and was able to work with students in a productive way, but to defer decision-making to others that were still learning how to make decisions was difficult.
So over the past three years I’ve learned a kind of humility that I didn’t expect.
I learned that failing is the most wonderful thing someone can do – so long as failure doesn’t mean doing nothing, so long as it means trying new things and evaluating what’s effective. Failure must include experimentation, and a hypothesis must be continually reassessed.
I learned how to put a team first, how to help individuals work together, and I experimented with how best to do that as an advisor.
And I totally failed at it.
Helping a team of people work together is incredibly difficult. I failed over and over, in different ways. I waited too long to talk to people, or was direct in a way that was difficult for others to deal with, or I was too indirect and vague, or I expected other people to handle the situation, or I had emotional reactions to things ina way that undermined my intent, or I was hard on people having emotional reactions to situations. And for each of those failures I’ve done the opposite, too.
I learned from each failure and I’m able to recognize better approaches to situations.
But during the three years I worked as an advisor, I found myself wishing that I was working in that position 10 or 20 years later. I wanted more experience leading a production environment so I could better advise people how to lead their own production environment. I wanted to have 20 years of experience in the field that I was advising so I could feel like I was done, like I had accomplished my goals, so that I didn’t have to evaluate student work and wish that I were working on similar things instead of advising the students doing the work.
I didn’t know what I was talking about.
Today I realized that I was full of shit. I’m now sure that even after 20 years of experience in writing, information gathering, and software development I would still have a hard time watching students fail. And to know that I couldn’t just solve all of a student’s problems for them, that I could only give advice, make strong suggestions, and provide room for them to learn from their mistakes – that will never stop being difficult.
I’ve always thought I should have been a student newspaper advisor at 40, not at 26, that it was weird that I was doing that kind of work so soon. Now I know that being an advisor for three years straight out of college is the best thing I could have done.
I largely put aside my own goals and focused on the well-being of others. I learned how to delegate and defer decision-making, and how to balance the needs and ideas of individuals in a group with leading the team to a common goal. I learned how to not get emotional about failure and difficult situations. I learned patience.
And now that my position as advisor has ended, I’m going to use these skills to start an organization responsibly. What I’ve learned over the past three years about people I may never have learned this well if I hadn’t held the position.
Starting now I work for myself. I will do freelance work and create new publications. I will write open-source software and build a company around that software.
Today I realized that I am wildly hungry for problem-solving. I want to publish my work and the work of others. I want to build wicked cool products. I want to interview people and learn the truth of situations. I want to learn new kinds of production: games, physical computing, and transmedia. I’ve built up a desire to start a company and I’m approaching it with all the unreasonable strength and purpose of a teenager flipping a police car.
Working as an advisor has prepared me for leading an organization in a way I didn’t expect: I learned to give up on the perfection of products and learned to focus effort into the well-being of people.
Learning how to advise a team in a hands-off way is, I think, incredibly useful preparation for building a company comprised of self-directed individuals with a flat decision-making structure.
And if I work as an advisor again in the future, I’ll be able to do so in a way that is not only informed by my experience in the field, but that also iterates on my first job after college: as an advisor.