Careers in Interpretation: What’s Next for You?

“Family Programming Specialist Wanted.”

Dear Don: 

I’m a museum geek who’s trying to figure out what’s next, and I’m hoping you may have some sage words to impart. What floats my boat is bringing stories to life, sharing ideas, and generally getting folks stoked to be there, be it through exhibitions, education programmes, tours etc.

Now I’m trying to figure out how to make that happen, and I thought I’d ask someone who’s actively in the know. Thanks for your time, and hope this finds you well.

Take care. S

Dear S:

Thanks for your note—I think it’s a good one to address in a public forum, as so many of us are asking the same question: where to go next in our interpretive careers?

If there was a single piece of advice I could give interpreters looking to make a career of it, it would be this:

You’re going to have to move to advance.

I wish this weren’t the case; I wish there were a solid, dependable way for you to stay in a single town and ride out a fabulous career. But that won’t be easy: ours is a small field, with relatively few opportunities, spread out in centres large and small across the nation.

I worked in Calgary for years, and did reasonably well there. But there came a point where I looked around at that small interpretive community, and I realized I knew exactly who was in each position, and I knew how long they’d been there and how long they were likely to stay there until they advanced or retired or died.

And I started applying for jobs elsewhere, out of pure necessity. In ten years, I went from Calgary to Ottawa to Victoria to Calgary to Victoria to Vancouver, and had an amazing, gratifying, rewarding time at each place I worked. I would never have advanced—in my jobs or in my expertise—as far or as fast as I did, if I’d stayed in one place.

Market yourself.

A wise person once said that luck is simply the confluence of opportunity and preparedness. In this day and age, you have to work hard to create that confluence. Sending out endless resumes, while vital, can really get you down. I have found that most of my professional opportunities come from two other kinds of promotion: relationship marketing and content marketing.

Think of potential employers as clients, and treat them that way. Do favours. Attend openings and other schmoozes. Stay in touch with them. Be the energetic, positive, fun colleague that they want to have in their professional life.

And if you have a particular point of view or a particular talent or expertise, consider writing or presenting on your topic. Blog. Contribute to your professional association’s publication. Present at conferences. And when you do, don’t rehash points of view that everyone already shares: stake your claim in our field and make a name for yourself for YOUR convictions, YOUR opinions, YOUR discoveries and experiences. Be the up-to-date, cutting-edge, original-thinking, ambitious professional that everyone wishes they were. Our profession is a creative and dynamic one, and we really need free-thinkers and iconoclasts right now.

Expand your definition of interpretation.

Interpretation is just one of many communications disciplines. We like to think that what we do is absolutely unique, but I’m here to tell you that it ain’t necessarily so. Teaching is interpretation; writing is interpretation; marketing and advertising are interpretation. (I had that sobering realization when I was watching a Westjet commercial and realized it was doing a better job of creating emotional and intellectual links between my interests and the meanings inherent in a plane ticket than any program I had ever written. Sigh.)

Don’s Rule of Jobs: A good job is one that sucks 25% of the time or less.

There are no perfect jobs out there. Our field can be a trying one: there are crowded galleries, pissy children, imperious managers, tight budgets, long days, hot sun and cold basements. I became a happier interpreter when I realized that, in general, 75% of the time, the galleries were fun, the children were generally nice people, the managers were fine, the budgets were enough to get by on, and the long days were not nearly as long or as hot or as cold as they would be if I were digging ditches for a living.

In other words, choose to be happy, wherever you end up. And if the general suck of a job gets past the 25% point, proceed to…

Don’s Second Rule of Jobs: You can be happy and stay. You can be miserable and leave. But you can’t be miserable and stay.

So when it’s time to go, go. Don’t let fear or procrastination ruin your career. Life is too short to waste your days in a shitty job. Just go.

Know your driving needs.

Are you familiar with flow theory? Flow is a state of being—also known as being ‘in the zone’, where you get lost in the moment. You and your work become one. You lose track of time, you have an energizing sense of being in control of your processes and products, and in general it’s a freaking great place to be.

What kind of work puts you there? For me, I require creativity, interaction, recognition, and novelty. Those are my driving needs. Work that includes those things puts me in the zone and gives my days meaning. Work that is missing those things makes me sad and restless and cranky.

If you don’t know what job is for you, step back. Don’t concentrate on job descriptions; look back on periods in your career or your personal life when you hit that beautiful energizing feeling of flow.

Consider freelancing.

Full-time jobs with benefits are hard to come by in our field. That’s not always a bad thing; I spent years working in term positions and seasonal jobs where I did a whole lot of traveling in the off-season. It was great, at the time.

But if you’re dying for some control over your career, consider hanging out your own shingle. There are freelance front-line interpreters, interpretive writers, designers, performers, planners, and management consultants.

Freelancing isn’t for everyone. It can be a feast-or-famine lifestyle; it can be frustrating as hell. In general, when you freelance, the professional highs are higher and the lows are lower across the board.

But you can work in your pyjamas. IN. YOUR. PYJAMAS. Need I say more? So think about it.

Summing it up:

  1. Do some work on discovering exactly what work makes you happy.
  2. Consider changing cities or towns. More than once.
  3. Expand your definition of interpretation. At least for a few years.
  4. Stake your claim in our field. Make a name for yourself; it isn’t as hard as it sounds.
  5. Choose to be happy.
  6. Know when the party’s over.

And good luck.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.