All I really need to know, I learned after college

I graduated from Auburn University in 2001 with a BS in Marketing. My graduation ceremony was so big that the graduates were actually presented with empty diploma cases by the President. After the ceremony, we were led beneath the building like tasseled carpenter ants and were sorted into alphabetical lines to receive our paper diplomas. It wasn’t long after graduation that I realized my degree was as worthless as the hollow symbol of recognition I had been awarded with a smile.

Actually, worthless is probably a little strong–the degree did help me get through the doors of firms that were only interested in hiring recent college grads. But in a practical sense, my marketing degree did almost nothing to prepare me for the business world. If anything, it gave me a false confidence.

This wasn’t necessarily Auburn’s fault. At least, not completely. The Deans bore some of the blame in that they hired safe professors that, even though most of them couldn’t teach worth a damn, did in fact have experience in the fields they represented. The problem was that their experience was dated. Their ideas were stale. They taught antiquated techniques that, in retrospect, were being abandoned even as we were studying them. If they prepared me to be able to step directly from a classroom to a company, it was to a company stuck in 1985. By 2001, much of their advice was parochial at best, and shamelessly naive at worst.

In the case of my professors, safe was a bad thing. In a static world, safe is, well, safe. But in a dynamic one, safe is sorry. They thought safe was traditional. They thought safe was proven. But the proven, traditional methods were being supplanted by new, more innovative ways of marketing products and services to a more technologically savvy audience. The four Ps were losing their luster, and my professors didn’t even know it. Thanks to them, neither did I. My degree was a map designed to help me navigate the old world just as was I graduating into the new one.

In 2001, the business world was being overtaken by the internet, email, instant messaging, e-commerce, and the seedlings of social media. The way we communicate with people, businesses, and brands was fundamentally changing. I was utterly unprepared to work in a business world that was in such a state of flux. I retrospect, we can see that sales and marketing enjoyed a mostly stable arc from around 1960-2000. What worked in 1975 also worked in 1995. Only those with market prescience predicted that the same tactics would start to fail by 2005.

The economy was terrible in the summer of 2001 and you took any job you could get. It didn’t help that I was living and working in a city where murderers were flying planes into buildings, mailing anthrax to politicians, and hunting people in the streets. Even when the rest of the nation limped out the recession, we had to endure Congressional reforms that crippled hiring. For several years, I droned through my work life like a disaffected worker bee. I did what I was told. I didn’t think to question why things were done the way they were, if they could be done better, or if those tasks were even necessary anymore.

It was late, but thankfully not too late, when I realized that change also brings opportunity.

I saw a chance to be the change agent that was so badly needed. I learned processes and systems that I had never used before. I read every marketing book I could get my hands on. I adopted blogging as a way to teach myself HTML and web design. I had gained valuable experience in advocacy, event planning, copy editing, and public relations, but I had never questioned whether the investment of time, energy, and money was worth the payoff. I started to weigh every action as dispassionately as possible in order to distinguish between what was actually working and what was mere habit. As I got better at mining my experiences for gems, I began to spot the difference between people who embraced the new way of doing things, and people who only suffered the new way of doing things.

Often, I worked for (and with) people who resisted the new way. They saw everything new as a passing fad–a wave of silliness they were certain would soon crest and recede, revealing the firm ground upon which they were standing. It never happened. The cheese had been moved, and they were waiting angrily for it to be returned.

Harry Truman used to say that experts never like to learn anything new because that would mean they weren’t experts in the first place. In the years since my graduation, I’ve realized that some people will never move beyond what they already know. They want to be safe and rely on what’s proven. That’s fine by me. I’ve also come to realize that it’s not worth my time and energy to try to convince people about the new reality. They either get it or they don’t. They’re the slowest members of the herd, and you know what happens to the dawdlers.

There’s an old joke that says a consultant is someone you pay to tell you what you already know, only with pretty graphs and a spiral binding. I refuse be that guy. That’s why I only take on clients and companies who are small enough to shift their strategies and are willing to embrace change from the top-down. My best clients are the ones who are just starting out. They’re excited about the new reality, even if they’re not excited about the time and patience it takes to do things right.

Do you see how the world has changed over the past decade? Have you positioned yourself for the future?

All I really need to know, I learned after college
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