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How to be “famous” (wink wink, nudge nudge)

I was an unrepentant smoker for many years. I considered it my business and nobody else’s until the day in 1988 when I walked outside a building at Hahn Airbase to light up, and an airman who had wandered outside for the same reason said, “Oh, cool. An officer who smokes!” Then lit up a cig himself.

In 17 years of smoking I had never seriously tried to quit, but sudden self-awareness, followed by guilt, were great motivators. Two months, untold quantities of Nicorette gum, and one cracked tooth later, I was a successful, if cranky, ex-smoker.

Which leads me to today’s post, which is a bit of beginning-of-year, pre-ALA-conference thought-gathering. Without ever intending to, I have become well-known in my profession, and at some cycles in my librarian career have been quite visible. (Outside of librarianship, I’m anonymous, and that’s fine. I use quotation marks in my title because industry-specific fame is highly relative; I am sure there are star-quality ichthyologists, not that I can name one.)

Along the way to “fame” (wink wink, nudge nudge) and (mis)fortune, I’ve learned a few things, sometimes the hard way; some of them are strategic tips; some are observations; and some have to do with responsibility.

Like it or not, you are a role model. I list this first because if you don’t hear anything else, hear me when I say that old coots like me may take you with a grain of salt, but if you are an It Girl or Boy, everything you say or do has a good chance of being absorbed by newer librarians. Women in particular often have difficulty with the idea that they have power and influence. Get over yourselves: what you say matters.

Pace yourself. I’ve watched more than one flavor-of-the-month librarian take it all on and then flame out in a year or two. It’s easy to agree to do it all; actually executing all those tasks is another issue. Your family and friends may not appreciate how when you return from your big speaking gigs you need to hole up to finish some shiny project before you leave for the next gig.

One reason I backpedaled on filtering gigs was after giving dozens of talks in one year (on top of a day job) I was travel-fried, to the point where the slightest hitch or problem (a delayed flight, something I forgot) could cause me to burst in tears in the middle of an airport — as I did when I expensively cabbed to the wrong SoCal airport too late to get to the right one. (I have a friend who travels a lot who once was so burned-out she arrived at a conference with an empty suitcase; she had forgotten to pack her clothes.)

Slow down, cowboys and cowgirls. You don’t have to take on every single speaking gig, every book or article, or every extra-cool project. Pick strategically and pick well.

Pull your weight in your non-famous life. Probably the highest compliment I ever receive is to hear that at work I’m “just Karen.” I work hard to be “just Karen,” and that includes being careful to do my part of the effort. I don’t rationalize that the special opportunities I get, such as speaking engagements, are a fair exchange for whatever work they actually hired me to do. Likewise, I always said I was elected to ALA Council three times simply based on name recognition (as were some people who clearly don’t belong on any governing body), but I worked hard to pull my weight on Council as a peer.

All About EveDon’t let ambition turn you into Eve Harrington. Remember All About Eve, where an ingenue claimed to be Margo Channing’s biggest, bestest fan, then walked all over her? Let your friendships be sincere, and don’t use people or filch their ideas and then “forget” to acknowledge them.

On the flip side, some people will latch on to you for no other reason than you’re well-known and you’re useful to them. Don’t worry, they’ll disappear when your star fades.

Help up-and-comers, especially people who may have a hard time getting selected for particular roles. I’ve served in at least one professional capacity where it was obvious that female predecessors had slammed the door behind them. Keep that door open and pull people through it. For example, Code4Lib is offering minority and female scholarships this spring to their 2008 conference. Can you recommend someone? Can you give someone the inspiration to go? This is a great conference, and could even be a career-maker for the right person.

Also, share your favorite dark horses with the people recruiting speakers and writers. They will appreciate hearing about fresh voices, and the new people will appreciate the leg up.

Tap the peer network for advice and insights. Do you suspect an honorarium is too small? Are you being asked to ride in a truck with chickens and goats in order to get to a speaking gig? (Actually, that sounds rather fun, but maybe not more than once.) Does that great publishing opportunity benefit everyone involved — except you? Does something not smell right, feel right about an “opportunity”? You’re probably right. Email other people who have boldly gone before you. It could be you just need to negotiate a little harder or be warned about a handler’s goofiness, but forewarned is forearmed.

What goes up must come down. In the Internet filtering wars of the late 1990s I was a flavor of the month. I gave over 40 talks about filtering, published an influential book, wrote articles, and had a website on the topic. At some point LibraryLand’s focus shifted to other issues; additionally, other people became well-known on this topic, too. Yielding the stage is an act of graciousness.

Don’t be shocked, shocked when people approach you for your influence. You clearly don’t mind being visible, so why would it bother you when you’re approached to comment on a book or report, or provide a recommendation for someone? Where you don’t want to take action, a simple “No thanks” will suffice. That doesn’t mean you have to spend every minute responding to requests; if the request is truly absurd, you may ignore it without comment.

Some stuff needs to stay unsaid. When you’re highly visible, a little self-awareness and discretion go a long way. So-and-so at Your Place Of Work may be a creep or a jerk, or your boss may have done you seriously wrong, but ask yourself if you’d want to read tell-all blog posts where these people listed their takes on your shortcomings. (This reminds me of a time when my sister and I fumed to an older friend how our mother was making us nutty, and she replied with a grin, “You’re probably doing the same to her.” Oh.)

Similarly, you may be in the throes of a personal or professional meltdown and feel the need to share the details with several million of your closest colleagues, but consider carefully how much of your life you want to share in perpetuity — as in, like, forever.

Be gracious about proffered advice. Even if you don’t agree with the advice, unless it’s entirely outlandish (drink Drambuie for breakfast! go braless to job interviews!), thank the person who took a risk sharing it with you, tuck it away, and revisit it later. I remember some years back when my friend Nann advised me of mannerisms that flawed my speaking style, and I’m still glad — not just that she gave me that advice but that I had the good sense to think about her comments with an open mind.

Be gracious about solicited advice. In a similar vein, a lot of people may come to you for advice, some of which you may be able to provide. Even when I can’t help someone, I try to give them a reasonable referral.

Some people will resent you no matter what. I’ve had to get comfortable with the fact that some people really do not wish others well. Some will badmouth you publicly, and even worse, some will badmouth you sotto voce. I hesitated about even writing this post, which I’ve been thinking about for close to a year, because in my head I hear a voice making snide remarks about so-and-so thinking she’s hot stuff (hence also the cautiously qualified title). But hence the next piece of advice:

Own up to your own feelings. I spent years whining that “so-and-so doesn’t like me” before I got honest with myself and acknowledged that the feeling was mutual. Likewise, boycotting an activity because another famous so-and-so was invited is also not cricket (yup, seen it happen, thought about doing it myself). Be an adult, please. You may not think highly of this person, but someone does, so put on your best public face and do what needs to be done.

Keep a sense of proportion. Don’t assume that because you’re well-known, your poop don’t smell. We’re all a bit broken, just like we’re all a bit wonderful. There are many amazing librarians who don’t happen to be well-known, and will do many amazing things and yet never be “famous” (wink wink, nudge nudge). Being well-known (even on the miniscule professional level) is kind of a fluke, like being able to sing or having a photographic memory, and the skill sets that led to your wink-nudge-famousness don’t have a heck of a lot to do with how well you do in the rest of your life — the full span of which will turn out to be much, much larger than all of your “famous” moments set end to end.

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