Living in interesting times…
I’ve said it before, but the old Chinese proverb “May you live in interesting times” may not have been intended as a blessing, but a curse. I’m currently living in interesting times – although I don’t really think of it as a curse. The thing I’ve always said to people about time and the times is that “I don’t know if you’ll ever run out of money, but I will guarantee you that you will someday run out of time.”
Throughout my career and my adult life, I’ve pursued a course of stability and predictability. At 18, I joined the Air Force and I ended up editing weekly newspapers and doing public affairs work for a nuclear bombardment wing. I left in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree and six years of experience. It was a recession, but I ended up with the opportunity to come back to my hometown of Wausau, continuing my career doing public relations for a natural gas utility.
The more things have changed in the energy industry over the past three decades, the more they have stayed the same. When I began, energy prices, supply, infrastructure, conservation and energy security were the big issues. That remains true today, with the added twists of renewable sources and global climate change theory thrown in for good measure. (Whether you believe in man-made global climate change or not, there is absolutely nothing to recommend energy waste from the standpoint of the environment, economics and energy security. There is every reason to pursue a course of increased efficiency and a larger share of renewable, domestic sources in our energy mix.)
But I digress. People are naturally resistant to change and it’s always easier to just keep on doing what you’ve been doing, to the extent that it works for you. When Wisconsin Fuel & Light was being sold to Wisconsin Public Service in a process that consumed most of the year 2000, I began to look for another avenue for my career and I ended up with several interesting offers. Based on what has happened since that time, I’m happy that I did what I did, which was to continue on with Wisconsin Public Service when the sale concluded in 2001.
I’ll be the first to tell you that it didn’t always make the best fit for my experience and interests. For example, I did very little writing in my new capacity. When I was director of public relations at Wisconsin Fuel & Light, it was a much smaller company where everyone had to wear many hats. Communications was largely a one-person show, so I did a lot of writing. I interacted regularly with customers. I handled the advertising. There were presentations, correspondence, bill inserts, media interviews, testimony for the Public Service Commission, customer service programs to write and implement – you name it. By necessity, there was a ton of collaboration into every aspect of the business.
It wasn’t that way at Wisconsin Public Service because the company was much larger and spread out. There were people in the headquarters and a fairly large public affairs staff, so things were far more specialized. I wasn’t talking with the CEO and top officers on a daily basis. Everyone had their respective areas that they worked with, many of which were all slivers of my former capacity. But WPSC had some big things on the horizon, including more than a billion dollars worth of high-impact projects like the Arrowhead-Weston transmission line and later, the construction of Weston 4. It made sense to have public affairs boots on the ground and someone like me, with an intimate knowledge of this community and its people.
It was good work. I enjoyed my co-workers and it was also synergistic with an avocation that I had developed of serving in local government, as well as many other community service capacities – something that the company not only supported, but also encouraged. There was still freelance writing and photography to keep my skills honed in those areas. I got into economic development and earned a professional certificate. I returned to my aviation roots on the boards of the Wausau Downtown Airport and the Central Wisconsin Airport, while working with other types of energy and transportation infrastructure. I jumped on board with social media. I learned French. It was difficult to tell where the company’s brand ended and my own began (something that often didn’t necessarily matter.)
With the flexibility and resources to support it, I was able to privately pursue a passion to see some different parts of the world in what – looking back on it – seems like a dizzying schedule of personal travel. I decided to get my first passport and spend my 40th birthday in Paris. A dozen years later, I’ve been there many times, along with a lot of other places on four continents. Based on the costs and scheduling flexibility required to do it, I would not be able to embark on such an adventure now, but I was able to seize the moment — (really, more than a decade) — while it was there. Some of this stuff gets up toward to pointy end of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous pyramid.
So now, the sojourn with Wisconsin Public Service has come to end and it is again time to begin a new chapter. Of course, a lot of things that may have seemed like extra-curricular activities remain a part of “me, inc.,” — at least for the time being. I’m armed with more experience, connections and affiliations than I’ve ever had before. I don’t have a gun to my head to start next week. I don’t really even need to figure out my retirement anymore when that time eventually comes, provided I can simply protect and manage the assets already built up for that purpose.
Something else Maslow said: “You will either step forward into growth or you will step back into safety.” In my own case, having the possibility of the backward step effectively eliminated only leaves room for growth.
So right now, there is time. Interesting time.