11 November 2006

Following Fates' Lead

People ask me how I came to be a professional organizer. I actually gave a talk on this once for a women's business group. Here's the talk I gave.

My favorite quote, from Joseph Campbell, goes: "He who will, Fates lead. He who won’t, they drag." I believe our experiences build upon each other, step by step, to create the winding path of our life’s direction; getting us to where we are today, and leading us into our future. We can choose to follow our path gracefully, or we can go kicking and screaming, being dragged along by the Fates.

Looking back from the great vantage point of my 48 years, I can see how each career has provided a stepping stone to where I am today. I also see how many, if not all, of my career choices have been guided – serendipitously? divinely? – through my friendships.

This is who I am today:

I consider myself to be a successful business woman. I brought professional organizing to Humboldt County in 1998, and for many years I was the only professional organizer within about a 200-mile radius. As Humboldt County’s premier professional organizer, I’ve been featured in a dozen newspaper articles, appeared on local television and radio, presented 60-some classes and lectures, written a monthly advise column, produced a quarterly newsletter, published a tips booklet, and written, published, and marketed The Spiritual Art of Being Organized. I have served on the Ask the Experts panel at the national NAPO conference, written book reviews for the national NAPO newsletter, taught workshops at both national and regional NAPO conferences, spoken to standing-room-only crowds at bookstores, and appeared on radio stations across the U.S. I am completing my 10th year as a professional organizer, and my business continues to grow.

However, this is not what I thought I would be when I grew up. I had no idea what I’d be! In fact, I’ve been through three major careers.

My first career was in publishing. My senior year in college, my housemate, Steve Harbor, was serving as editor of the college newspaper. We’d been in a couple of English classes together the semester before, and he knew I was a better student than he was. So he begged me to be on the newspaper staff. I agreed, on the condition that he make me his right-hand man. It was a deal, and I found my first love – publishing – graduating with the degree in English that I’d tried so hard to avoid (because that’s what my mother had). After college – I was at Sonoma State -- I moved to the Bay Area and worked in publishing: editing, proofreading, helping self-publishers through the publishing process, and completing most of the Publishing Certificate Program at UC Berkeley.

Mind you, it was Annie, a friend of my second-cousin Matthew, who got me my first job as an editor at a publishing house in Berkeley.

Eventually I left editing. That much reading was giving me splitting headaches. Needing work, I did what I’d always done – worked as a bookkeeper/office manager, my "I’m between careers" career.

One day, my friend Evelyn said she was gonna go get her teaching credential. We’d talked for years about teaching. We’d both attended alternative schools in our teens, had read extensively about alternative education, and were excited about it. Unhappy at my bookkeeping job, I decided to join her in pursuing a credential. Unfortunately for her, Evy flunked the entrance exam. However, I passed it, and earned my teaching credential from San Francisco State with a straight 4.0.

Four years later, I admitted that teaching kids in Oakland was not what I wanted to be doing, so I picked up an office job – again. By now, I’d cleaned up the offices after I don’t know how many gals – organizing the files, the supply closet, the operating systems. I could run an office with my eyes closed. I was bored silly and feeling like a prisoner behind barred windows, stuck inside all day while the sun shone outside, away from the phone and desk I felt tied to.

Here it was, 1993. Ten years had passed since I moved to the Bay Area to work in publishing. This time, it was my partner Harold who brought a new direction. I had moved to San Rafael to live with him, taking a part-time job with some mutual friends. He was self-employed as a handyman. (That guy could fix or build anything!) So I got to watch the patterns of self-employment – especially the financial roller coaster and the deep faith that one needs to ride out the low points. Meanwhile, I was going through my (early) midlife crisis. I’d been through two careers, and I still didn’t know what I wanted to do when I grew up. I was trying to stay open, trying to have faith, to know that I was on the path and more would be revealed, etc., etc., etc. But I am not a patient woman, and I hated waiting.

More time passed. Harold and I were visiting some old friends of his down in Santa Cruz. We were talking about my search for direction when Michelle said hey, I have a friend who’s a professional organizer and I think you’d be really good at it, here’s her name and number, give her a call. So I called, and it turned out there’s an organization called NAPO that had monthly meetings down by San Francisco Airport. I started going to meetings and talking to organizers, reading everything I could get my hands on. In February 1997, I landed my first paying client as a professional organizer.

Fast-forward to June of 1998. Harold and I had split up. I knew what I wanted to be doing – working as a professional organizer – but I had no idea where. So I hit the road looking for what I called capital-H Home. (The story of this trip is the subject of an e-book I'm planning to publish soon.) Three and a half months later, I settled into a little in-law unit in Arcata, having been encouraged – this time by Mike and Jenni – to move to Humboldt County. The moment I arrived, my life started clicking into place – click, click, click. (I think Humboldt County actually either embraces you or spits you out pretty quickly, and I count my lucky stars that it embraced me. Humboldt is definitely capital-H Home.)

So here I was, living in my little in-law in someone’s back yard in Arcata, getting ready to go to sleep, when the command sounded in my head: Teach a class on organizing. Okay. After 3-1/2 months on the road, I’d gotten pretty good at listening to my intuition and doing as I’m told – yes ma’am! Searching around for a cutesy name, I came up with Zen and the Art of Being Organized. I brought in Buddhist and inspirational quotes, things like "Your work is to discover you work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it." I talked about the importance of joy in our life as a guiding force. I talked about the importance of awareness, consciousness, and how that’s crucial to being organized. My premise was that it’s not enough to set up organizational systems – we need to modify our beliefs and behaviors, how we move through the world, in order to use those systems effectively and become truly organized.

Eventually, these classes gelled into the 12 Basic Principles of Being Organized©. Meanwhile, people were starting to nag me to write a book. I did not want to write a book. I knew how much work it is, and I didn’t consider myself a writer. I can write—people have told me for years what a good writer I am – but I didn’t want to write.

And then I ran into Dan Levinson, whom I knew from the Writer’s Center. (How I got involved with the Writer’s Center is another one of those serendipitous, divine, friendship-guided connections. The ex-husband of my friend Krisli, whom I've known since I was 14, tracked me down in the Co-op parking lot one day, telling me the Writer's Center needed me and suggesting I call them.) I asked Dan if he wanted to ghost-write a book for me, and he said he’d think about it. By the time he came over for our first meeting, though, I’d realized that the book needed to be in my voice, and that I could structure it around the 12 principles I’d been teaching for several years. But I needed a coach to help me with the project. So Dan signed on as my coach, keeping me accountable, helping me when I was stuck, editing my rough drafts, and encouraging me. A year later, the manuscript was done – on Chinese New Years, which I thought was auspicious – and I was dancing a merry little jig around my office.

Which brings us to the present. Here I am, having gone from teaching kids in Oakland, to teaching adults in Humboldt County. From feeling shackled to a desk as an office worker, to the freedom of working for myself, part-time, as a decently-paid expert consultant. From right-hand man on the college newspaper in 1981, to writing, publishing, and marketing a book in 2004. With more books on the way.

Oh, more connections. My book’s designer is the man I worked with – back in 1983 – at that first publishing house in Berkeley. Brian was the graphic designer and I was the editor, and I was totally, unremittedly in love with him for two years. Now he’s married with kids in Tennessee, still designing books, so I hired him to design mine. Another old flame, from when I was about 30, is a recording engineer. Alex recorded me reading the book, with the intent of turning it into a book on CD.

How did I become an organizer and publish a book on spiritual organizing? This is how. By following the stepping stones in my life, one after another, following the divine guidance provided by friendships. After all, a successful business depends upon successful relationships. We never know where one step will lead us, but lead us it certainly will.

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