The Don Grant Teaching Award

It’s taken me a little while to get around to writing about this, but here it goes.

On May 1, I attended an awards ceremony at Iowa State University. The ISU Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering was introducing a new teaching award named in honor of my late grandfather, Don Grant (1919-2001), who taught industrial engineering at Iowa State from 1968-1988. (Twenty years after he retired, he is still fondly remembered at Iowa State.)

Don Grant

It was a big family gathering. My grandma was there, and a bunch of my aunts and uncles, plus a few of the other grandkids and cousins. It was a really nice occasion and I was glad to have been able to attend.

While the presenter talked about my grandpa and what he had done during his career, and how much he had meant to everyone, I couldn’t help it. I cried. I cried the whole time. I just sat there in my seat at the head table and quietly sobbed. (It hurts to cry like that, you know?)

I suppose there are a lot of reasons why it was such an emotional day for me.

For one thing, I really loved my grandpa a lot, and I wasn’t able to be there for his funeral. He died a few weeks after 9/11, while I was living in Japan, and I couldn’t bring myself to make the trip. At the time, we all thought that the world as we knew it was coming to an end. (Funny isn’t it, how many of those “the world is coming to an end” moments we’ve had in the past eight years?) So I suppose in a way I cried because I wasn’t able to be there when we buried him.

My grandpa was one of my closest friends in a way, at a time in my life (elementary school, junior high, high school – basically my entire childhood) when I often felt awkward and isolated. Some of my favorite times in high school were spent with him and my grandma; I didn’t go to my high school prom – instead, I spent my senior prom night visiting my grandparents. I used to play golf with¬† my grandpa during the summers – I would drive up to their house the night before and wake up at 6 a.m. (My grandpa liked to get in nine holes before it got too hot – we’d play nine holes and then go to breakfast at the Country House, a great family restaurant in Colo, Iowa.) I’ve never been an early riser but I always found a way to summon the energy to wake up in time for golf with my grandpa. I can’t remember the last time I played golf with him – I’m sure there must have been a “last time.” I suppose it’s good that I didn’t have that awareness as it was happening – that knowledge that this would truly be the “last time.” It would have been too painful.

I still miss my grandpa and I think about him a lot, especially now that I’m a father myself. I think of how much he would have enjoyed meeting my own baby son. I think of funny things that my grandpa would say around the dinner table, if he were still alive. (If he were still alive, he’d be 90 years old right now, and I’m sure he’d still be funny.) He was a witty, irreverent guy and had impeccable comic timing. It’s hard to recreate his sense of humor in writing – I suppose like so many things, you had to be there. (Whenever we went out for Chinese food, at the end of the meal he would crack open his fortune cookie and solemnly read aloud: “You are one heck of a guy.”)

I thought a lot about how my grandpa exemplified so many of the best aspects of his generation. He served in the Army Air Corps during World War II. He grew up on an Iowa farm as one of two brothers, worked his way through college, stayed married to the same wife for over fifty years, raised six kids. He and my grandmother (who were white) used to attract gossip in 1950s Dallas because they would invite their black housekeeper and her husband to join them for drinks on Friday nights. (It was a very different time in America, but my grandparents did not remotely share the casually racist attitudes of so many of their contemporaries.) There is an engineering scholarship in my grandfather’s name at Iowa State that is designated to be given with first preference to an African American student.

I also cried, I suppose, because I’ve been feeling lately that I’m at a life crossroads. I’m almost 30 years old and I’m re-evaluating some things in my life, and I could still benefit from my grandpa’s wisdom and good humor. There’s been a fair amount of negativity in my life lately, and it was an emotional experience that day to so powerfully feel the memory of someone who did so many positive things for so many people. Speaker after speaker kept coming forward with stories about how my grandpa kept a violin in his desk to mockingly play when a student would start complaining about her classes, or how he drank Cutty Sark whiskey, or how he showed up on campus in 1968 wearing his distinctive Army-style flat-top (this at a time when most young men on campus had long hair), and people called him “the Drill Sergeant.” (My grandpa firmly believed that men should have short hair – and he wore that military flat-top for the rest of his life.)

I also thought about what my grandpa’s career represented to me, personally, and how different my own career has been. After he got out of the Army, he worked at Collins Radio (the company now known as Rockwell Collins) for 20 years, then went back to Iowa State to teach, and he stayed there for another 20 years. I’m sure those years had a lot of ups and downs, but in general he enjoyed his work and showed a lot of loyalty to his employers.

In contrast, my own career so far looks like a series of fits and starts. I graduated from college in 2001. I taught English in Japan from 2001-2002, then worked for the Governor of Iowa from 2002-2004, then at an ad agency from 2004-2006, and now I’ve been at my current job for the past three years. In only eight years, I’ve had four different jobs. What does that say about me, and what does that say about how we live now?

Of course, there are a lot of good reasons why people don’t stick with the same job or the same company for long anymore, and it’s good to be flexible, and there are a lot of good things about having a more mobile and dynamic job market. But haven’t we lost something as well? Haven’t we lost a sense of rootedness, a sense of trust, a sense of expecting the best from our institutions and ourselves? We’re all free agents now. We’re all becoming increasingly atomized. People have lost a lot of faith in our institutions – higher education, government, business, the media – they’ve all been compromised in various ways. I admire what my grandfather was able to do with his life, but I don’t think the same kind of life is possible for me, and there’s something very poignant about that. I think about the choices my grandpa was able to make when compared to the choices I’ve made; how do my choices measure up? What will I have done that will make people tell stories about me years after I’m gone?

I don’t have any good digital photos of my grandpa, but there’s one of him on the Iowa State Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering department Web site, teaching a class. You can tell it’s him by the flat-top.

Don Grant, 1919-2001. You were one heck of a guy.

The Agony and Ecstasy of Elance

Bidding on Elance jobs is an emotional roller coaster.

Depression

Some days, the jobs on Elance are just plain depressing. Like the ones that say, “We need someone to write 1,000 articles for our Web site – and in exchange for these articles, we will pay you TWELVE American dollars!” There are always people posting projects who pay pitiful wages, people with dubious-sounding businesses (“I need someone to help me write an e-Book on how to get rich in real estate speculation!”) and other assorted hucksters, fraudsters, and con artists. (Most people who post jobs on Elance aren’t like that, but on the bad days, it seems that way.)

Fear

What if I don’t get any of these jobs that I’m bidding on? What if I do get the job, but the client turns out to be crazy, unethical, or otherwise unreasonable in some way?¬† What if I never get another freelance job again, and we lose our house and our health insurance and have to move in with my parents?

Resentment

I bid on a job, I feel like I’m a good fit, and then the award goes to someone else who bid lower, or who seems less qualified. (“I’m an Elance Premier Provider, for cryin’ out loud – that job was rightfully mine!”) Oh well. There are always other fish in the sea.

Abandonment

I bid on a job, the client writes back, seems interested, sounds enthusiastic…and then I never hear from the client again. The abandoned job bids pile up in a ghostly queue. What happens to these jobs? The project never gets assigned, maybe the client loses interest, decides they don’t really need the work done or don’t want to hire someone after all? Who knows. I send follow-up e-mails for weeks, and never get a response.

And then, finally…

Success!

I win a project. I get one of those great e-mails saying “Congratulations, your proposal was chosen..” All the discouragement and dead ends are quickly forgotten, and I’m “in” again. Those are the times when I love this business.

Why I Freelance

I freelance because I have a passion for writing. Ever since I was three years old, when I dictated a story about talking, dancing vegetables to my grandmother (she wrote down the words, I drew the pictures), writing has been a constant part of my life. I love to put words together on the page. I love to search for clarity, meaning and insight through the power of the written word.

I freelance because I have a hunger for freedom in my career. I believe that we are on the cusp of major changes in the workplace, where anyone with the right skills can work from anywhere. Instead of driving to a specific building to sit at a specific desk all day, those who have the right skills and a certain kind of ambition will have the ability to control more of their own destinies for how to spend time, how to balance work and life, and how to pursue profit and fulfillment.

I freelance because I have come to realize that my only real job security comes from my skills and connections. No company is going to take care of me; it’s ultimately up to me to decide what to make of my life.

I freelance because I love to win business. I love to build relationships with clients. I love to have clients come back to me for repeat business because they love the results I can deliver for them.

I freelance because I love my clients. My clients make it possible for me to make money using my best skills, being my best self, working for maximum fun, efficiency and freedom.

This is why I do what I do.

Just What the World Needs – Another Blog!

I had a blog back in the year 2000. My college roommate was an enthusiastic early adopter of everything related to the Web. He got me hooked up with my own blog, and all of our friends got blogs, and we all blogged back and forth, commenting on each other’s blogs, sometimes without even needing to carry on actual conversations. It was great.

Then I graduated, started working full time, and fell away from the blogging life. Now it’s 9 years later, millions of people have blogs, some people make a good living from their blogs, and I feel like I’m late to the party.

So what am I trying to accomplish, by starting this blog now?

Here are some goals:

  • Write more. I need to write every day. Blogging is a good way to discipline myself to do that. Even when I feel stuck or blocked, even when I don’t have any paid client work, I need to write to keep my writer senses sharp.
  • Create writing samples. I want prospective clients to see how I write, see how my mind works, see my thought process.
  • Do it for myself. Writing can be therapeutic, and it’s fun to look back at things I’ve written and see what I was thinking about “back then.”
  • Show what a talented, thoughtful, funny person I am. (Seriously.) I want the people who read this, especially those who might hire me, to get a sense of who I am as a person.
  • Keep in touch with family and friends. E-mail is just too hard sometimes – hard to find time to sit down and type it out, hard to pull together the mailing list, plus there’s always that sneaking suspicion that the e-mail will just wind up in everyone’s spam folder. Plus no one ever replies. E-mail is largely on its way to obsolescence – the spammers appear to be winning the war. So my family and friends can catch up with me here.
  • Make new connections. Blogging is a great way to meet new people, make new friends, and find your “tribe” online. I’ve greatly enjoyed getting to know some of my favorite bloggers by reading their writing. It’s an intimate medium, and I hope to meet some great new people as a result of this effort.

That’s it for now. It feels good to be back as a blogger, and I’m going to do my best to keep it up.