New York, where some of these stories may or may not have occurred. Photo by Andy Shaindlin.
I recently read a few columns in The New Yorker under the heading Starting Out. The authors reflected on formative experiences early in their careers. Some of the authors reflected on failures that helped them to improve, to understand, or merely to decide something important.
Starting Out: Alumni Relations
Reading about others' early career missteps brought back vivid recollections of a few incidents (good and bad) early in my alumni relations career. Each of them was a big deal at the time – especially the negative ones. Now I see them as course corrections that kept me moving toward my next goal.
Here are the worst ones:
1. The Missing Professor
I recruited a "rock star" art history expert months in advance to give one of several talks during a half-day education program at a prominent art museum. Later in the planning process, the time of her talk changed, but evidently I never finalized this with the professor. She was a "no show" at 11 a.m., and audience members were very unhappy (including the vice president for university relations). The professor arrived during lunch but half the large audience was unhappy that they ended up visiting the museum without first hearing the professor's illuminating talk.
2. The Missing Caterer
At one big city event, the caterer failed to appear (I received an apologetic voice mail late that night, and a credit card refund the next day – but no explanation). I had to coax alumni volunteers into finding a deli that could rapidly make several six-foot long sandwiches to feed "dinner" to 90 hungry alumni.
[The event actually got worse after the dinner disaster.]
3. The "Gotta Go!" Professor
That event actually got worse after the dinner disaster. Midway through the program, the professor moderating the panel discussion announced, "Andy Shaindlin will take my place now as I have another commitment." He promptly left via the stage door of the auditorium. There were 30 minutes remaining in the program. I crash landed the panel in his absence, but it was barely acceptable. When I called him the next day he told me, simply, "I had a dinner scheduled." Thanks for mentioning that, professor.
4. The Phantom Taxi
For my very first "road trip" with a faculty member, I had arranged for a taxi to pick him up at his house, and then to pick me up at my apartment nearby. The appointed time came and went, with no taxi and no professor. Finally, a cab with a passenger in the back seat approached my address and I waved it down in relief. As we pulled away from the curb I realized that the other passenger was a total stranger. This airport-bound taxi passed me by chance. The driver, probably sensing my desperation from a distance, had taken pity on me and picked me up. I stared at the stranger in disbelief, and then said aloud what was passing through my mind: "What just happened?!"
[As we pulled away from the curb
I realized that the other passenger was a total stranger.]
This was in the prehistoric age before cell phones. At the airport I picked up a pay phone to call the professor, but then noticed that he was on the adjacent phone, leaving me a voice mail. The rest of the trip went smoothly.
5. The Boring Droner
I asked one of the most interesting and dynamic professors from my own undergrad years to fly three hours to speak at a campaign event for my alma mater. However, he proved to be anything but the interesting presenter I remembered. He mumbled some rambling, disconnected and dull remarks in a hushed, tipsy monotone to an audience that was climbing the walls in discomfort. My own discomfort far exceeded theirs.
For this particular event I had booked the opulent auditorium of the public library in a major American city. The professor's presentation was not only excruciating, it was also accompanied by deafening public address announcements every 10 minutes for almost an hour, urging patrons to take their materials to the circulation desk for checkout before the library closed.
[Sometimes I felt like I didn't know anything.]
And yet...it's not all bad!
Of course, for every unforgettable disaster there were rewarding and gratifying experiences that kept me going. It's easy to forget, in the despair of an event gone wrong, that you're lucky enough to work every day with educated, interesting people in a stimulating environment that many people will never experience.
I won't claim there's any other lesson in my past failures, but after 22 years in the same profession it is humbling to remember that I not only didn't know everything, sometimes I felt like I didn't know anything.
What's the most frustrating or challenging experience you've had in your advancement career?
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