“I kept looking around and wondering: Do I belong here? Do I want to belong here? I mean… What if I don’t want to be a nonprofit rockstar?”
The question hit me hard. I was leading an informal roundtable on work/life balance at the Americans for the Arts Convention, and a young mother was talking to me about her experience at the Emerging Leader Pre-Conference.
She was referencing the second of two mind-blowingly awesome sessions by Rosetta Thurman, a 29-year-old writer and career coach who co-authored How to Become a Nonprofit Rockstar: 50 Ways to Accelerate Your Career with Trista Harris, Executive Director of the Headwaters Foundation for Justice. In the session, Rosetta led us through the seven tenets of the book, including Developing Expertise and Practicing Authentic Leadership. You’ll have to buy it to find out the other five. I did buy it, marking the first time I’ve purchased a speaker’s book immediately after leaving a session.
There’s something weird about being in a room filled with really, really motivated young people. This was a room with the future head of the National Endowment for the Arts, the next Artistic Director of Actors Theatre of Louisville, the budding arts manager who will re-envision the museum-going experience for the 21st century.
And then there’s me.
At least, that’s always where my brain goes. Not in a good way—more of a “Why am I here and why am I in a suit?” way. As you’ll find out if you spend more than five minutes with me, I’m from a town of about 600 people in rural northern California. I think that’s part of the reason I never feel comfortable in my business gear, and why my redneck accent creeps back every time I’m in one of these go-getter, emerging leader, nonprofit rockstar rooms. It’s a not-so-subconscious act of rebellion against a lifestyle I’m afraid I’ll slip into, the kind where I’m still at my desk at 8pm while my husband microwaves a pizza and my friends go to happy hour without me.
The young woman now sitting at my table had two small children waiting for her at home. She said, “I sat there listening to the importance of networking, self-promotion, building my online reputation, and all I could think about were my sons. I don’t know that I can do those things and still make my family my priority.”
I think we had both missed something important.
When I went to Rosetta Thurman’s book signing, she surprised me with how soft-spoken and shy she seemed. Her first session at the Emerging Leader Pre-Conference focused on crafting a personal mission statement based on your values; she used a photo of her grandmother to illustrate her own top value, family. She talked about being true to yourself and seeking what feeds you.
And then I—and the young mother—went to lunch, forgot everything Rosetta said, came back to the next session and chose to feel inadequate and anxious in a room filled with smart, motivated people. When Rosetta asked someone to share what he wanted people to see as his #1 trait, he said “EXCELLENCE” with such conviction that I felt like going back to my room and finding the Hoarders marathon that is always available on hotel TVs.
Taking a break from the convention to watch a livestream of puppies.
I firmly believe everyone was miserable in middle school. This is something I wish I’d realized at the time, as it would have made it easier to empathize with the other miserable little wet rats trudging the halls at Scott Valley Junior High.
Here’s my attempt to share a similar belief that might make us all a little more honest at leadership convenings. I believe everyone in the room—even (or especially) “EXCELLENCE” guy—has that moment of self-doubt. For some of us, it leads to posturing or defensiveness. For others, it feeds into a pattern of perfectionism that points toward chronic stress and early burnout.
Take it easy, guys.
I like you all and it breaks my heart to see so many amazing arts managers leaving the field at 30 or 35 because they’re tired and they want to have a family. You don’t have to walk around with your hand outstretched, business cards at the ready, to be a stellar arts leader. You can live a mindful, meaningful life, and those around you will see and appreciate this. I have a strong feeling Rosetta would agree.
My heroes are not the executive directors who spend 70 hours a week behind a desk. They’re the funny, irreverent women leaders who turn off their computers and go home to their families or a large glass of wine. My hope is to have a fulfilling life that includes children, plenty of time with my brilliant husband, and a career I love, not to achieve a certain level of greatness or storm the Kennedy Center. Also I would like a chinchilla. And a yard with some vegetables and a hammock. These are not lofty goals but they’re far more important to me than what my title is. That’s not to say I don’t work my butt off at the office—but I also commit to my relationship, my volunteer life, and watching every episode of Fashion Star.
We all belong in the room. We are smart and passionate and we are all leaders, regardless of where we lead.
I will see all of you at the 2030 AFTA convention. So turn off your freaking computer and go home.
Camille Schenkkan is the Educational Programs Manager at Center Theatre Group. She is also the volunteer Development Director for Circle X Theatre Company, sits on the Advisory Board for Emerging Arts Leaders/LA, and is the current Co-Chair of the National Emerging Leader Council. She spends a lot of time annoying her two rabbits, Eeyore and Bumblebee, and watching bad television with her husband, Zack.