Wednesday, July 13, 2005

How to be immortal

A prefatory comment here: This is a speech I gave not that long ago to a group of writers and technical communicators in the Society for Technical Communication. While some of the examples in this speech are pitched to writing, it doesn't really matter. You can be immortal anywhere. And while I don't normally worry too much about saying this, I want to make it darned clear that this piece is copyright 2000 by me, John Hedtke. I'm proud of this one and I don't want it passing into the public domain. So there.

I'm going to tell you how to be immortal.

There are several ways.

The first is to live forever. (So far, so good for the lot of us, eh?) The next, which is pretty similar, is to avoid dying. (I think we're all aces on that one, too.) Inasmuch as both of these methods take time -- forever is going to take a while, after all -- I have a method that may be a little faster. It'll still take a while, but when you're immortal, you can afford to take the long view.

(By the way, one of the nice things about immortality is that the opportunity to be immortal is open to everyone. Everyone can be immortal if they want to. This is not a zero-sum game. Everyone can win.)

I'd like to add that, as I present my method to you, there will be several references to concepts developed in Roman times. This proves two things: one, the Romans had a great deal of the way life works figured out several thousand years ago, and two, the time I spent in college wasn't for nothing... it cost thousands of dollars.

The basis for the third method of being immortal is doing your part of the Great Work. If you haven't heard that term before, the Great Work is a mystic thing—you're never absolutely sure that this is The Thing you should be doing, but it'll usually fall into the categories of "I think so" and "It'll do until something better comes along." The difference between our jobs and the Great Work is the difference between vocation and avocation: what we do to keep the cats in canned cat food and what we do to make the world a better place.

There's more to it than this as well: If each person makes their contribution to the Great Work, it brings us to the Roman concept of communitas, the health and well-being of the community. Communitas is not a zero-sum game, either; the greater the communitas, the better the members of the community will be. In fact, communitas is the antithesis of a zero-sum game: if one person wins, then everyone wins! Not only does the Great Work make everyone's life that much better, but it's something outside yourself, a vital element of immortality.

My contribution to the Great Work seems to be helping people get jobs. (As a way to participate in the Great Work, it's not bad; I encourage you to give it a try yourself.) Someone comes to you in need, sometimes rather desperate need, and they need to find a job. The people who most frequently ask me about finding jobs are new folks. We've all heard (and all asked at some point in our careers, so we should remember what this feels like) "How do I get started?" and "Where can I get experience?" We've got some stock answers for this: training, certificate programs, and so on, but we're not usually very good about this: we, after all, are looking for folks with 2+ years experience, some Word and/or FrameMaker experience, a technical background, but surely someone down the road might be able to, uh....? The people who have that 2+ years of experience don't usually need our help a tenth as much as the new kids. The new kids are the ones who need us the most.

I've always felt that helping someone get a job was the best thing you could do for them. Lots of things go into this: coaching them on interview skills, helping them structure their resumes to sell themselves more effectively, getting them up to speed on a new software package that's The Hot Thing, providing internship opportunities, even teaching them basic "Dress-for-Success" skills. You can also give them the hand up that they need by putting them in contact with the person who needs someone with precisely their skill set. They take your advice, they get the job they're after, and voila! They're no longer in need. They feel good and so do you. All of this takes a lot of time and energy, but that's okay; this is my personal contribution to the Great Work and I like doing it.

Keep in mind that nobody ever got where they were in life without someone, somewhere giving ‘em a break they didn't rightly deserve. We need to ask ourselves "How do we pass on what we know and what we believe and what we think should be done?" We're award-winning writers and editors and artists; now that we're so cool, we need to pass it on and complete the cycle.

There are a lot of different ways to extend your energy in the STC to help people get a leg up, including:

  • Being the local job coordinator

  • Volunteering to be hospitality officer or a hospitality deputy

  • Hosting a picnic for the new people in your chapter at your house

  • Posting job information to the chapter job line and the newsletter

  • Sponsoring an internship at your company

  • Teaching a mini-seminar on a special skill

  • Teaching people to write good resumes

  • Helping someone assemble a portfolio

  • Hiring someone for a very small contract assignment for which their experience is a large part of the pay

  • (As a matter of fact, you might even consider judging in next year's competition—you'll have a chance to share your experience with your peers and it'll give you one more opportunity to interact with people.)

    What you do doesn't have to be done in the STC; it can be in almost any venue. (I know, that's nigh unto blasphemy with this group, but it's true.) Go talk to a class of wannabe writers—I've talked to English and writing classes in high schools about the joys and wonders of being a freelancer and a non-fiction author. Even Creative Writing classes will be interested. You can be the treasured memory of some high school student's junior year. Volunteer to be a job contact for your college through their alumni office: Lots of people who are in college are interested in asking questions of people who are working in a field that they're interested in.

    Helping people get jobs has an immediate payoff: both of you get a good feeling right away. Suppose you've been doing this for a while and helping people get started, move up, and move on to new jobs and experiences. Three, four, five years later, you'll be looking for a job yourself. And the people that you've helped find a job are out in the community working, possibly not at the same job, but they're launched on their own careers and moving ahead. The people you helped in the past can tell you about jobs that they now have to offer or positions they've heard about from peers. And if nothing else, they can provide references about what you've done for them and others in the past. You get to network a lot and meet a lot of great people. That'll feel good, too.

    When you're immortal, it brings a lot of other things into perspective and we're able to identify what's important and what isn't. Our jobs aren't the important stuff. Here's a case in point: At one point a few years ago, I'd added 5 books to my bibliography in about 15 months and I was talking to my agent about the difficulties I was having juggling my rather pressing book schedule and the need to spend time in my relationship. My agent clarified things for me by saying "You know, when they're lowering you into the ground, nobody's going to be saying ‘Wow, that Hedtke! He got all his chapters in by May 31!'" The stuff we pump out during the day is what we do and how we pay the bills, but it's not the really important stuff.

    As a matter of fact, the things we do in our jobs tend to be of extremely limited value. We're in a profession that makes what we do transient and even ephemeral. The things we write and draw usually have a lifespan of maybe a year or two; sometimes even less—a mere moment to someone who's immortal. For example, when I was starting out in this business many years ago, I did documentation for tax preparation software. I knew that my writing was of finite value: after tax day on the 15thof April (which is another Roman concept, by the way, for those of you taking notes), none of it would be of interest to any but a handful of late filers. (I see a few of you here tonight.) The value in this regard of the things we do in this regard is building a corpus of work and experience, but the value of individual old pieces is pretty small. At this point, I've got over 7 million words published, in the form of 24 books and about 100 magazine articles and heaven alone knows how many manuals and online help systems since 1984, and, like the chambered nautilus, all but the most recent simply serve to show how much I've grown.

    What is important is what we do when we're immortal. We have an idea that the future is something we can see, sort of. If we just squinch our eyes up enough and peer into the sunset, we'll be able to see what's going to be happening. The Romans, you see, believed that the future creeps up on you from behind. No matter how much you looked over your shoulder, you could never see it. Anything you see in front of you is just going to be a pale shimmery reflection of what's coming at you, sorta like trying to navigate when you're driving at high speed by watching road haze on a hot day. And that's why we're so frequently surprised by the future: we can't see it. So it's a good idea to start working on being immortal now because no matter how much you may want to, you cannot start being immortal if you're dead.

    20, 30, 40 years from now, I hope that you all will have careers full of satisfactions, awards, and recognition. This will be wonderful, but your true measure of fame, your success in life, your immortality, is measured in how much you have helped other people and are kept alive for it in their memories and hearts.

    And that brings me at last to the real secret of becoming immortal: decades from now, you're going to be remembered by dozens, hundreds, possibly even thousands of people who you've been able to help get a new job, break into a new career, or publish their first book, and thereby start the cycle all over again. They'll remember you fondly for the help you provided without strings, the energy you added to their lives, and the opportunities you gave them. You made a difference.

    That's immortality.

    And it doesn't get any better than that.


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