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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Ins and outs

Downtown Bulawayo (Zimbabwe) where I lived in 1979-80. See this Ubyssey article I wrote about the University of Rhodesia on Page 7.

Many kids (and adults) belong, naturally. They are popular with their peers, make friends easily, and enjoy a balanced and diverse social life. Others -- and I certainly was one of the others -- are 'out'; utterly 'uncool', socially awkward, not having many friends, and struggling with a chronic sense of social inadequacy.

Your success, or failure, in business relationships or marketing may reflect this "in" or "out" perspective. For "ins" everything is natural, easy, simple, and fun. "Outs" suffer failure and frustration until they find a way around their deficiencies to become "in" or (perhaps most successfully) redefine the meaning of "in" and "out".

Years ago, for example, when I walked into the University of British Columbia's student newspaper, The Ubyssey, I discovered two worlds -- one of inclusiveness, and one of exclusivity. In the inclusive model, all students who wanted to write and be part of the student newspaper group could join. But, out of the 30 or so students who had something to do with the newspaper, there were about five or six with special status -- they had preferred parking passes, and (most importantly) part time, good-paying jobs as journalists on the local daily newspapers. They were most definitely the 'ins'.

Oblivious to the distinctions between "in" and "out" I set out to learn the craft. I certainly wasn't thrown out of the room, but my editors (the "ins") made it difficult for me -- sending little pieces of writing back for rewrite, again after again. Towards the end of my first year on the newspaper, they weren't about to accept me or tell me the inside road to, for want of a better word, "indom".

I had a decent paying summer job as a labourer on the city's road crews. But I decided to check the student employment service for a part time job and noticed a posting: "City Desk Clerk" at the Vancouver Province. I applied. The administrator who interviewed me said, "You are on the student newspaper; we normally don't receive applications from Ubyssey participants; you are hired."

I returned to the student newspaper office with the news. Heads turned. How did "Bucky" (my nickname) do it? He had obtained a coveted job on the daily paper without any referencing or networking within the group. Now, by default -- except to the real 'ins' -- I was "in", though I still didn't belong.

Yes, I had the trappings of "in" status; even the preferred parking space; but I most certainly still did not belong. At one of the annual parties, my peers gave me the book "Be Glad You're Neurotic" -- my social skills were so lacking that it almost seemed impossible that I could survive in a field that required at least some social capacity; if only to research and write stories.
I still recall one of my peers saying: "We can't figure you out. Sometimes you are brilliant, but sometimes you are so dumb."

As graduation approached, most of my fellow 'In" peers were moving on to good full time jobs in journalism. But the managing editor at the Province told me, bluntly, that at the end of the summer I was "out" -- they would not hire me permanently.

"Out", -- ouch.

I asked the editor for suggestions. "Why don't you travel; go to Europe, work on Fleet Street, get some experience," he said.

I am capable of taking advice, but don't always do what I'm told. I didn't want to go to Europe. I chose to go to Africa instead. And I ended up on an overland adventure tour, on the back of a Bedford Truck, driving from London England to Nairobi Kenya through places like Algeria, the Central African Republic, and Nigeria.

"Out" again -- badly. The 20 or so peers on the truck could not figure me out; I seemed to be lost in a space world all my own; I suffered from loneliness as we traversed the Sahara, central Africa, the Congo, and the east African plains. And, by the time I reached Nairobi, the daily newspaper had indeed confirmed they would not hire me back.

Decisions, what to do. Again, I made a fateful choice. I could have come back home, but I decided to press on, by myself. I mapped out my own route southward, to South Africa, through Tanzania, Zambia, and Rhodesia. And in Rhodesia, I found something amazing, surprising, and intriguing -- a nation, itself, "out" in the world -- subject to economic sanctions and political isolation. My values were then, and still are now, inclusive and somewhat left of centre; I certainly proved to be 'out' within this 'out' nation; but I wanted to learn more.

I returned to Canada, unemployed, and saw an ad for a "Trainee reporter" at a small Alberta daily, The Medicine Hat News. I won't forget the acceptance call at 2 a.m. one day. The then managing editor said: "We have decided to give you a chance -- One of our best employees herself has been to Africa, and since you went there, we'll give you a chance."

Now Medicine Hat is certainly not the centre of the universe, and for my first few months there, I found myself "out" as well. In fact, I learned they were about to fire me. Something kicked in my mind -- this would be my last chance; I needed to get it right, so I set to work; learning how to write fast and accurately, increase productivity, and meet the standards.

I survived. Then I asked for a transfer to be a sub-editor, and co-ordinate the story flow for the paper. I got the job, and each day saw the wire stories about the Rhodesia/Zimbabwe war. I vowed to return.

Still, everyone in the newsroom was surprised when I told them I was returning to Africa, partly because virtually no one could save any money on the meagre salaries paid at this newspaper. But I was an "out" and didn't need to spend much money. And so I returned, faking my way through Rhodesian immigration procedures, and obtaining a job on the Bulawayo Chronicle, with a journalist's visa. I wrote some stories for Canadian publications, including the student newspaper association. My peers in Alberta and at the student newspaper were in some awe.

At a party, this "out" member of the group had suddenly become very "in". "I don't know how you managed this, but you really are sane," said one of my peers, my biggest nemesis and detractor. It may have taken three years, and two long trips to Africa, but I had proven that I really always belonged, even where I wasn't welcome.

I would like to say it was "life was happy ever after" since then, but nothing is that simple. I still have serious social deficiencies and although I'm successful in all the fundamental ways for someone my age -- good health, wonderful family, loving wife and son, and the enjoyment of work that is truly satisfying and rewarding -- I am still very much an "out" socially. (Fortunately my wife and son can laugh with me about my weaknesses.)

So, what does this autobiography have to do with construction marketing? Well, if you are "in" you don't need to do much about it, but if you feel "out" and are suffering the consequences, you may want to reread the story for some important lessons and principals.
  • Talent, at least in the core area, is essential. I may have been a social misfit, but I could write.
  • Perseverance counts a lot, if you have some talent. While I could write, I certainly did not know journalistic conventions. So I struggled. And lacking social skills or functionality, I really had an uphill battle. But I wanted to do this work, and would not give up.
  • If you are not in, you need to find your own way. This may be the most important lesson. The best road to success if doors are closed to you may well be the back-road. Usually this path is not obvious, but in hindsight it is often the most elegant and effective route to your ultimate destination. Notably, upon graduating from university, many of my peers followed one of the "ins" to Asia; oblivious to this, I went to Africa. I followed my own path.

In developing your business marketing strategies, take heed of these observations. Realistically, to be successful, you must become an insider; banging on the door, trying to belong, you will find frustrations and barriers put up against you all the way. But if you are an "out" you can find the inside track through a combination of talent, perseverance and independent thinking. You can achieve your goals.

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