matter how many books I've read or experts I've interviewed,
I find I've grown most from lessons I learned from my wife,
Dr. Barbara Nemko.
She was no doctor when I met her. She was the
remedial reading teacher in a middle school in Corona, Queens,
N.Y. I was the drug counselor. During breaks, we'd both sit
in the teacher's room. The difference was that I spent those
10 minutes exacerbating my burnout, ever lamenting the future
of "the youths." In contrast, Barbara was chatting,
laughing with her more upbeat friends. That might make you
think she was an uncaring teacher. I found out later that
her principal rated her among the school's best.
Lesson learned: The difference between her and me was
that she knew that whining only makes matters worse.
We came to Berkeley so I could go to graduate
school. Barb had to find a job. She knew no one, so networking
was out. Rather than the passive approach of responding to
want ads, she got in her car and went from school district
to school district, walked in and strutted her stuff. Within
five days, she had three job offers.
Lesson learned: Showing your wares,
even if not solicited, pays off. I've subsequently found,
as a career counselor, that Barbara's experience is not unusual.
We were at a party thrown by one of my professors,
Myra Windmiller. Being new to California, we didn't realize
the convention: you bring a bottle of wine. Instead, Barbara
brought a pie plate. Myra was quite taken with it, which opened
the door to a nice conversation between them, at the end of
which, Myra said, "Why don't you apply to graduate school
at Berkeley?" Barb applied, and despite a good but not
world-class academic record, got in. She now holds a Ph.D.
Lesson learned: Even
in something seemingly as objective as getting into Berkeley,
relationships are key.
But while Barbara was plenty
smart, emotionally intelligent and hard-working, she lacked
the ambition gene. She held a number of positions, the last
of which was as administrator in the Napa County Office of
Education. When the position of Napa County Interim Superintendent
of Schools came open, even though she was highly regarded,
she never really thought about applying. I made her think
about it. In fact, I pushed the heck out of her to apply.
She did and became the board's unanimous choice. She has since
gone on to become the twice-elected superintendent and was
nominated as the region's Superintendent of the Year.
Lesson learned: Everyone
needs a champion.
Barbara was at a holiday
party, where an attendee said, "Barb, Napa's Dreamweavers
Theater is doing a production of Neil Simon's play, 'Brighton
Beach Memoirs.' You should try out for it."
Barb said, "I'm flattered,
but I haven't acted since I played a tree in the fourth grade.
Besides, where am I going to find the time?" But Barb
came home and her pushy husband said, "I believe in one-time
opportunities. Why not try out? Dreamweavers gets actors with
mile-long acting resumes. Even if you get cast, it will be
in a tiny role, but trying out will be fun." Lo and behold,
not only did she get cast, she got cast in a lead role!
It's one thing to impress
in a brief audition; another to perform a big role, 16 performances
no less. Barbara thought: "What's the smartest way to
get skilled fast? To get coached by the person who played
that role on Broadway."
So, she Googled and found
the person, Elizabeth Franz, who was nominated for a Tony
Award for her performance in that role. Amazingly, Elizabeth's
phone number was listed, and not only did Elizabeth answer,
but she agreed to work with Barbara, for free. Elizabeth turned
out not only to be a great coach, but a truly lovely person.
Lesson learned: Solicit
the best. Even many of the eminent appreciate being asked.
The play has since had its run and consisted
mainly of sold-out performances with standing ovations.