Somewhere, in a forgotten drawer of my desk, are two nearly full boxes of business cards. They're from the first company that I worked for right after completing my undergraduate degree in History and English Lit from the University of British Columbia.
If you looked at both sets of cards, you’d think they were identical. And they are—almost. The only difference is that the text beneath my name shows Business Administrator on one set, and Accounts Payable on another.
That’s right. I was one of those graduates who, fresh out of university, had little idea what my liberal arts degree qualified me for in the “real world” of 9-5 work. I had my ideals, a sense of the kind of work I would enjoy, but I didn’t quite know how to reach them—or if a B.A. was even enough. After all, I’d heard all too often over the years, from a number of rational, practical, frowning voices, about the downright impracticality of an Arts degree in today's economy. And, I confess, I’d believed them. As a new graduate, I was full of the kind of paralyzing uncertainty that prevents one from moving in the direction of their dreams...or anywhere close.
Doubtful of finding a position that would utilize my particular interests and skills in historical research, writing, and analysis, I took the first job I was offered, as a business administrator for a local company. I thought that I would work for a year, save up some money, and then possibly apply for grad school—though for exactly which program, I had yet to decide. The pull of pragmatism and passion seemed equally strong.
After three months in the administrative position, my supervisor realized I had a knack for details and documentation. (That’s what years of writing with footnotes and endnotes will instill in you.) So, when the Senior Accounts Payable clerk left, I was offered her position. My background in accounting? Nil. My interest for accounting? Negative. But it was a new challenge, and I had never been able to resist challenges very well.
This one propelled me into a daunting world ruled by spreadsheets and formulas, debits and credits, taxes and custom duties, remittance dates and cheque runs—and multimillion dollar accounts to keep in good standing. I felt, to put it mildly, very far removed from the comfort zone of my liberal arts background. And I kept my humanities degree to myself, from my unsuspecting colleagues, like a dark little secret not fit for the practical world of commerce.
I found that I had an aptitude for managing spreadsheets, reconciling accounts, analyzing discrepancies. I might not have enjoyed the work all that much, but it was something I could do. So when a better position in Accounts Payable opened up at my alma mater a year later, I applied on a whim…and got it. Two more years passed in the busyness of accounting work, this time coupled with teaching clerical and managerial staff across campus about the university’s accounting procedures and policies, and training them on how to use the financial management system. It felt a little surreal at times, standing in front of the white board, mapping out debit and credit entries, and talking about PST and GST self-assessment…
Meanwhile, I still had quiet hopes about grad school and finding more fulfilling work…and I still had those two boxes of business cards, from my first job, which I had no idea what to do with. I could have recycled them of course, but I entertained a ridiculous fantasy—that one day, when I would finally be doing what I was meant to do, I would wave the cards in front of a roomful of new liberal arts graduates, as uncertain and doubtful of their future as I was, and utter the words that would set them free to chase their dreams: "Listen," I'd say, "I used to be in accounting. If I can do it, so can you. So can YOU!" I laughed the fantasy off of course, as highly improbable (and slightly megalomanic), but...I still kept those cards.
* * * * *
If, by chance, you’ve read my first post here, you’d know that eventually, I did take the plunge into graduate school, deciding to travel 4,000 km from home to pursue a Master’s in Public History at the University of Western Ontario. And that it had opened the door to an incredibly rewarding internship experience at the City of Vancouver Archives, which led to a six-month position as their temporary outreach archivist earlier this year.
The continuation of the story is that after my contract ended with the Archives, I was lucky enough to be able to start a full-time position at the very firm that inspired me to pursue Public History in the first place: AldrichPears Associates.
AldrichPears specializes in interpretive planning and exhibit design. It was their website that I stumbled across one day, when I was still immersed in accounting, which made me seriously consider grad school in the humanities (despite the frowning voices of pragmatism)—and excited about the possibilities thereafter.
AldrichPears is a Vancouver-based design firm that plans and creates visitor experiences for a range of cultural institutions in Canada and around the world. Museums, science centres, interpretive centres, zoos, parks, and botanical gardens are all reflected in their portfolio. One of their particular strengths—what appealed to me immediately upon discovering their field of work—is storytelling: finding the compelling stories that captivate their clients’ target audiences, and developing a conceptual scheme, or design approach, that best communicates these stories. To do this, AldrichPears hires and trains content developers who conduct research to uncover these important stories, develop overarching themes and storylines, write engaging interpretive text, and work closely with graphic and exhibit designers to not just textually but also visually communicate these stories—using images, typography, materials, architectural treatments, audio/visuals, interactive technologies, and other media.
I remember how surprised and delighted I was to learn that there was such a firm in my home city that did this kind of work. The diversity of AldrichPears' projects and the opportunity for continuous learning appealed to me greatly. Having pursued the biological and social sciences earnestly during my undergraduate years before deciding to major in English and History, it seemed like my varied interests (and scholarly indecision) would finally pay off. Here was a career setting where the researchable content changed from project to project, often times greatly—and where diverse interests, rather than highly specialized knowledge, were an asset.
Moreover, what I found most appealing in this line of work was the firm’s focus on sharing important stories in a way that not only educates but also seeks to inspire change. This focus spoke to all my passions: storytelling, accessibility, public engagement, and social change.
Currently, I’m working in the capacity of communications coordinator and content developer at AldrichPears. This means that I have a chance to research new projects and put together competitive proposals as well as carry out interpretive research and writing for two international projects.
The rather humourous irony is that it also means, on the business side of things, that I need to whip out complex spreadsheets every so often—in order to propose multi-stage work plans that reflect accurate hours and consultant fees for new projects. I might prefer to keep my accounting stint from my unsuspecting colleagues, like a dark little secret not fit for the creative world of exhibit design—but I cannot deny that that experience has been invaluable to fulfilling the administrative duties of my role. And too, I’ve learned to see how a well-designed spreadsheet can also be a beautiful thing. :)
Does this newfound appreciation mean I’m planning on returning to the world of accounting anytime soon? Not a chance!
Am I grateful, however, for the experience that induction into this field has provided? Yes, most definitely (even if slightly grudgingly)!
All of this brings to mind what Dr. Bill Turkel, my Digital History Prof at Western used to tell us, about how, as humanities graduate students, we should seek to diversify our skills as much as possible. Whether it was learning how to design a website or how to do basic programming or even how to balance debits and credits, he was convinced that the more we expanded our skill set and combined it with our expertise in historical research, writing, and analysis, the better positioned we would be as Public History graduates in search of rewarding employment when we left the program.
* * * * *
Several weeks ago, I found on my desk a box of beautifully designed business cards—my own, from AldrichPears. Visually, they could not be more different than my first set of cards, symbolic of how much has changed between my very first full-time position and my current one.
But then, it struck me that the two key letters in the firm’s name—AP—are identical to the industry abbreviation for Accounts Payable: A/P (minus the slash, of course). The unexpected similarity made me smile, reminding me of what a friend once said, that all experiences—absolutely all of them—are useful in shaping who you are and what you can offer to the world.
If you love history, if you love the arts, and you’re not (yet) doing what you love—because it’s hard to get into the field, because you’ve listened to well-intentioned practical advice, because you’re full of uncertainty, because your current job is comfortable, if somewhat uninspiring, etc.—that’s okay. It really is. Because you can still learn valuable skills in whatever you’re currently doing that you can draw upon later, that can bring a new perspective to the practice of history in the 21st century. Think of it as a chance to cross-pollinate—to bring the ideas or practices of one discipline to enrich another.
And too, I think that the benefit of doing something you don’t really like (or that you really don’t like) is that sooner or later (and there’s a direct correlation here between level of job dissatisfaction and length of time before new career exploration), you’ll be compelled to search out what truly gives you satisfaction. And when you find it, it’ll be that much sweeter—and worth the wait. :)