Figure Out What's Next

In Need of Some New Skills After Starting a Business

entrepreneurship sylvia bereskin Jun 23, 2009
speaker at conference

by Sylvia Bereskin

photo by Nicola Vetter

Now that I have an idea of what I want to do I realize I don’t necessarily know how to do it

Denis Waitley says that all of the top achievers he knows are “life-long learners looking for new skills, insights and ideas. If they’re not learning, they’re not growing . . . not moving toward excellence.” Well, one of the things that I’ve definitely learned in retirement so far is that I need some skills that I don’t seem to have.

Actually, I’m guessing that’s not quite accurate. Maybe I need to refine some of my existing skills so that they’re applicable in this new context? Perhaps, in the end, there will still be a few totally “new” skills too. Could there even be some things I’ve learned that I really need to un-learn or re-learn? Let me try to think this through.

Record-keeping skills: There’s money coming in from keynotes and workshops. That’s a good thing. Not a lot of money yet, but some. There’s also money going out to buy supplies, upgrade technologies, support a bookstore or two. Even as I sit here writing about this I can already feel my heart starting to beat faster and a wash of anxiety is rippling its way through my body. I guess that’s why this is the skill that popped to mind first. I need to keep track of things. I need a budget and a way of tracking what’s happening.

I once managed projects with budgets than ran to several million dollars, and I coordinated highly complex events. I’m good at having a vision of what something could be. I’m good at articulating that vision in some detail. I’m good at planning a process (process is very important to me) that reflects the values of collaboration, cross-cultural thinking, trust, integrity and commitment. I can keep the names, organizational affiliations, family members’ names, and some of the comments they’ve made straight while running 13 simultaneous meetings concurrent with another 11 meetings of the same type being conducted in French. No problem! What I am no good at, no good at all, is keeping track of the budget. Seems strange given my work experience at the Ministry of Education (that's similar to the state Departments of Education in the United States) but I was fortunate enough to work with amazing colleagues who took care of this critical part of every large, complex project I’ve undertaken. Ilze Purmalis and I developed and delivered some pretty amazing things together and through all of that I knew that the record-keeping was in good hands. She organized things; I could go and ask her about any aspect of our project and she’d have the information at her fingertips. Two offices over, I sat at a desk that would sometimes have scrunched up paper filling the whole space underneath where my legs were supposed to go (back in the days when we revised draft after draft on small forests of paper instead of online).

Don't think I haven’t tried. I’ve tried keeping track in a Word table; it didn’t work. I tried setting up an Excel spreadsheet and gave up: I couldn’t figure out what goes across the columns and what goes down the rows. How do I track separate clients? Not long ago I had to rework the amount that my mother remits to the government so that her caregiver gets employment benefits; there’s a simple form you complete online at Revenue Canada’s website and that does the calculation for you. It should have taken 10 minutes. It took all afternoon as I thought and rethought my responses. I wasn’t really sure what some of the terminology meant so I’d have to do some research and then, with that new understanding in hand, I’d have to start all over again. All afternoon!

Okay it’s clear: This is a skill I need . . . from scratch

Marketing skills: There’s a reason I never went into any kind of business. In high school (and I’m a little embarrassed to admit to this) in Junior Achievement, a club run by businesspeople who, as their website still tells us, help students “discover free enterprise, understand business and economics, and develop entrepreneurial and leadership skills”, we decided to be good little entrepreneurs and sell hand-rolled beeswax candles. Week after week I showed up every Tuesday after school to roll candles. I helped design the packaging and the label. I helped prepare the flyer that we’d mail out to potential customers. Ahhh . . . and here’s when I started to not really want to go anymore. We had to sell those candles. They really were quite beautiful looking and smelling. A little expensive in price as I recall. What I hated was going home and selling my mother some candles, my aunt some candles, one of my mother’s friends some candles . . . and that was it. I felt like I’d somehow “hit them up”—that I was no different than the stereotype of a vacuum cleaner salesperson. And yes, I did once buy a $1,000 vacuum cleaner from someone who knocked on my door. There, Nili: I’ve admitted it at last!

I hate selling things. Never ask me to be a salesperson on your front lawn when it’s community yard sale day. When I’m asked to sell tickets—even if it’s to support something I truly believe in—I just buy a book of tickets myself and then either forget I have them or give them away. When I clean out my basement (another purging is way overdue) I fill the front of my lawn with items every night that magically disappear by morning: bookcases, picture frames, books, toys outgrown by grandchildren. I’d rather just give them away than sell them.

So now I’m caught.

I really want to do a lot more keynotes and workshops on education-related topics because I think I might just make a difference when I do that. By July 4th—one year since the day I started writing this blog—I’ll have a website. How do I get my name out there? How does that network work? Do I just ask everyone I know who knows anyone who chooses keynote speakers or workshop leaders or commencement addressers (is that a word?) to pass along my card How do I . . . huge slow breath . . . market myself?

I really want to use the writing I’ve done for this blog as a part/whole of a book on “Feminist Women Entering Retirement.” Women who are close to, entering or enjoying retirement in 2009 are women who’ve grown up in a world with increasing gender equality. In North America, and I’m guessing many other places, the basic feminist credo of equal pay for equal work and a range of other equity initiatives have made our career lives different than those of women who came before us and worked in a far more gender-tiered way. We’re a generation of women who are comfortable with our abilities, our gifts and our skills, and energetic about the way in which we pursue things we care about. I think that my musings about entering retirement would be interesting, and perhaps even useful, as a book. This would be even better if some other women who’ve been thinking/living this through would contribute as well. Thing is . . . I need an agent and I don’t have a clue how to go about finding one. Most of the time when I ask around—something like “Do you have a good handyperson who can fix a sink that’s leaking”—everyone has someone to suggest. Same for hairdressers and travel agents and myriad other things. But not for literary agents. I’ve asked and haven’t yet had someone say: “Oh yes, I have a friend . . . I’ll give her a call and tell her to expect your manuscript.” Ah, wouldn’t that be nice?

So I’m left with the same question: How do I market myself?

I guess this one’s clear, too: another skill to develop.

Time-management skills: I already have good skills in this area but I’m still learning how to apply them to an absolutely blank page. This is one I’ve just got to upgrade to fit my new life.

Juggling skills: I’ve been working on this one all my life. True, there are new things that I have to juggle, along with lots of the old ones. I’m not too worried about this though; it’s just another retrofit exercise.

Patience: Okay, this is one that needs some work. All of my life I’ve wanted things to happen . . . fast. Hard for me to just “hold the tension” and wait while things unfold. Years and years ago I read Robert Heinlein’s book “Stranger In A Strange Land” (and loved it). He introduced me to the notion of “waiting until waiting is done” and I’ve always thought that (a) that was a good thing, and that (b) it’s not something I do easily. I will continue to work on this skill for sure.

Well, that’s enough challenge for one day, I think.

If you’ve got any advice, please share it. If you know folks who organize conferences, please pass my name along. If you know a publisher or a literary agent, please pass my name along. There, done for today!

Of course my anxiety level is so high from sharing this (after all, those are real weaknesses I’m talking about), so I think I’d better go out and do some weeding for an hour or two. Garden-therapy: the best kind.


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