The Power of Falling Short

Graduate School taught me to “Fail” regularly. I often told myself that in the “real” world that I would have the tools to not fail. I would set goals and keep knocking them out. Great joy comes from lining through a completed item on a list. Just over a year ago, I got a “real” job back in my field. I began as the Director of Museum Experiences at Children’s Museum of Illinois. Life has taught me to take an advantage of that first day of work, while energy is high to write every thought, goal, message, personal notes to self down on my legal pad. The first task of not failing has to be documenting everything that needs accomplished!

One of the phrases that my Executive Director shared with me on my first day, was “Make people’s experiences awesome.” I held on to that quip as I felt it was very honest and a bit vaporous. Over the course of a year, I referred back to it often when I found myself in a quandary about how to proceed forward with an element of some object. Should I find myself “failing”, this phrase would help re-calibrate my course. At the end of the first week, I had created a list- a long list- a long list with half-crazy unattainable goals to use my ability as a creative to put my stank all over this museum.

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Crane Day event in conjunction with O’Shea Builders and BLDD Architects. 15 Nov 2017.

My lofty goals included repainting every wall in the 15,000 sq.ft. facility. Inventory, and reset the maintenance shop, install 3-4 new exhibits, repair every broken exhibit piece in the museum, establish Standard Operating Procedures, an OSHA approved safety program… I am serious. The list went on like a runaway letter to Santa. All of the way to the “5-year plan.” Glad I did not over-do it.

 

I started right in on the first exhibit installation. It was a rather new purchase that had been sitting idle in a classroom awaiting a permanent installation. Maintenance immediately painted the entire wall that it was to be installed on. Electrician ran wiring. I designed, cut and applied all of the graphics. worked some late nights and BOOM! -first exhibit down. That was also the last exhibit to go smooth. By our first event, an excited group of 7-year old kids found a flaw in the design. They learned that if you smack it hard enough, all of the parts will fall to the inside. The following Monday was spent with our new Maintenance worker, uninstalling the brand new exhibit so that we could make modifications. I have learned in the Children’s Museum world, that “modification” is a commonly used word. There are other popular words that are used on Monday mornings I will exclude those from this post. In short, kids are stronger than one may think.

20170303_091942_HDR.jpg     Late winter found me trudging along- still positive, still updating parts for special events, developing exhibit upgrades, working toward awesome. A detail that I have yet to mention is about the “5-year plan.” The first week of my employment, my Executive Director called me in her office and basically asked if I could alter that to a “1-year plan!” [spew hot coffee now] Yes, sure I told her. I still remember the day. It was late November and raining. I was wearing fancy clothes walking around the property measuring to find the best way to expand the facility. As I sat at my desk feeling the water weep through my fancy clothes and shoes, I sketched. I measured, drafted, colored, and drew multiple ideas until I had a workable design.

20170804_114517.jpg    Meanwhile, we received a grant to build out a new Toddler area in our museum. I thought, no problem, I will build this in house to make the most out of awesome. Then another grant came through to build a previously conceived exhibit, then a collections exhibit that had been in the works, then a giant eyeball. Somewhere during that craziness, our “5-year plan” that turned into a “1-year plan” was awarded funding by a very generous donor. [face palm, up eyebrow, head shake]

At a few points (like building a 1/2 scale train engine in my home studio) I thought I was going to lose my brain. My days were spent doing director stuff, then I would come home at night and work on exhibits in my studio. My amazing wife actually served lunch to me one Sunday in the cab of the toddler train engine. I always tell myself that this is what makes awesome. And you know that the opposite of awesome is failure.

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Early rendering of Heroes Hall Expansion. Courtesy BLDD Architects/Chastain & Associates.

Fast forward to last week. I hit my One-year mark and somewhere between meeting with our Construction Manager and ordering custom parts for the local college, I thought that I should take note of what actually did happen in the last year. Two weeks prior, I had just met with my Right-hand-Maintenance Lady discussing how many walls were still left to be painted before she took some time off.

In contrast with the many remaining items on the list, I looked back at those job folders that returned to the file cabinet because they made it off of a list. We ended up installing 6 exhibits in a year. This is a rate of about one every 10 weeks. A safety program has been implemented and our facility is up to code. We have an updated color palette that is being reflected in about 90% of the building. Outreach has been increased and we have started developing traveling exhibit pieces to enhance our rental catalog. We are in the process of adding 7000 sq.ft. of exhibit space. (first floor pours next week) Our land lease has also been extended by about 15,000 sq.ft. for future exhibit development. Most of our changes will become very obvious over the next few months.

I often read articles posted by The International Institute for Failure Studies to get my bearings on the idea of failing. Andrew Salyer highlights unique juxtapositions as to what is referred to as a failure. At times, I feel like I work for Ice Road Truckers while gremlins toss random appliances in front of me. After stepping back to reflect, I have realized that you never stop failing. You just find creative challenges to questions that you did not ask. If I could provide one ounce of productive value for this post it would be: Scratching tasks off of a list can be very rewarding. It may seem that we are falling short because we see that The to-do list is still there, so throw those completed tasks in a jar. Weigh what is completed with what remains on the list. Now, to finish painting those last couple of walls…

 

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