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Success Is Not a Destination, It's a Trip
Cycle 3: Destination Lean and Mean 1990 - 1993 (5 0f 6)

With the start of 1990, I started out all over. A new decade, new name. I re-invested myself and re-invented myself. I found a sympathetic banker, a great relationship, that expanded as the bank became a client as well. That was a good source of referrals, and gradually I began to recover, I began to eat away at the horrible debt I'd piled up.
It was a strange time, I was exhausted, and scared, as you can imagine. But I was also exhilarated... when you're selling that hard, and I was pushing hard, believe me–you have to project a positive attitude. I was pep-talking myself into believing we were a successful, but strategically small, design firm.

To support that self image, I applied for every recognition of my success I could find. I entered contests and drawings. I won some design awards, I won a speech award, and in the spring of 1991, I won a trip to Italy from the Rotary Club.

I'm sure you can understand why I applied for that one.

I'm sure you've had the fantasy of getting away from your business for a little while. If you could just spend a few weeks away from all this, if you could travel, get some perspective...

I saw a headline in the paper that said "Outstanding Young Professionals Sought for Group Study Exchange in Italy", I applied.

The program involved sending a group of five people to visit a Rotary District somewhere in the world, and this particular year the District around Madison was exchanging with a district in central Italy.

Do you know what a Fam-Tour is? It's a Familiarization Tour, when a Chamber of Commerce or a Visitors & Convention Bureau brings a group into town, travel writers maybe, or convention planners–and they show them everything that's wonderful in town, and put them up at the best hotels and feed them some good meals, and hope that they go out and spread the word about what a nice place this was.
Well, that's really what this Rotary program was about.

It did not turn out to be the restful opportunity for reflection I thought it would be. Instead it was the strangest experience I have ever known.

The way the program works, we would visit Rotary clubs, and stay with host families, for five weeks. The only restrictions on us–we were told to stay together, obey our leader, and be good ambassadors. Rotary paid all our expenses.

The leader the Rotarians had chosen for the us was a man named Bruce. He was a well-meaning but ineffective person, a child prodigy who hadn't done much since. He had applied seven times to lead a program and they'd run out of reasons to turn him down. So they accepted him, then hand-picked us to be a team who could work with him.
That was a bigger problem than they thought. To compensate they picked very independent, self-motivated people. Some of us were not, it turned out, great team players.

Who were my team-mates? Three other women; a journalist, a postal worker, a real estate agent. A man, Ron, who was a self-employed carpenter and handyman, who restored Victorian houses in Janesville. I later learned he had forged his age on his passport, had five drug convictions, and was not exactly the outstanding young professional the Rotary thought they'd selected.

But this was basically a popularity contest, designed to pick five people who could make a good first impression, and regardless of our strengths and faults we were all that.
The Rotary Club sent us to a crash course at Berlitz, and there we developed little introductions of ourselves, memorizing in Italian, and worked a little on a slide show about Wisconsin and our lives here.

What was I expecting would happen to me on this trip?

I don't know... I fought for the right to go, my husband was very against the idea, and somehow I developed the fantasy that I would be meeting famous graphic designers, and having important vocational experiences, and that I absolutely needed to do this thing for my professional development.

To appeal to our self-interest, the Rotary did describe the program as having a professional development light, that we would have the opportunity to meet with people in our own fields, and so on.

The Italian Rotary had a different idea of the program. Rotary in Italy, and in Europe in general, is a much more formal, class-conscious organization. The members are what's left of the old pre-democracy aristocracy. They're the wealthiest, old-money families running the factories and hospitals and schools in every town.

And that's what we saw. We visited whatever the Rotarians owned in every community.
But also, they saw the program as a competition between the different clubs in their district. They competed to see who could show us the best time, feed us the best banquets, give us the most lavish gifts. Soon we were spending six to eight hours a day eating elaborate meals, and lugging pounds of exquisite books, silver, and other gifts in our bags.

Pause and ponder "success" here. Here's our team receiving this reward billed as being for our success as young professionals ... and being used as messengers in a big game of one-up-man's-ship.

At first it went alright. Ron and I hit it off, Jenny and I hit it off, Mary and Rita hit it off...dorm stuff. We started out like eager recruits at Ambassador Boot Camp, ready to try giving our slide show, playing our roles.

But soon it turned into a different dynamic: Ron and the Ronettes, a star and the back-up singers.

Have you ever been sold down the river by a handsome, no-good guy? That's what happened to us.

There were several reasons this happened.

One was simply looks, style. Ron was very handsome in a Kevin Costner / Bruce Willis kind of way, had a long blonde pony-tail. He looked like (in fact he had been) a male model, and he wore a really sharp charcoal pin-stripe suit, while the rest of us wore the dorky polyester blue blazers the Rotarians had given us.

We women had brought sensible travel wardrobes – no-wrinkle knits, sensible shoes–I wish someone had told us how much more formal the society we visited would be. You know how Italians are about style. Ron was the only one who looked right for the part we were playing. That made people treat him differently.

Another reason for the separation of Ron from the Ronettes was the slide show. The first part of the show was a little travelog on Wisconsin, pictures of the Capitol building, Indians, people ice-fishing, that kind of thing. Then we had short segments about each of us, and Ron's pictures of his restored Victorian "Painted Ladies" in Janesville were a hit like you wouldn't believe. He'd say "My houses" and they'd say "questi palazzi! Molta bella" and I believe, some of them really thought those houses belonged to Ron.
Here's where I have to explain about Italians and wood. It's the most opulent sign of luxury possible to them. It's just not an ordinary building material they use. A fancy house will have fancy marble where we might use wood moldings, parquet floors. So to see such houses looked like unbelievable wealth to them.

And, to Italians, restoration is a subject like baseball. They're always restoring art treasures, old palaces, everything they have is in restoration. It's an old culture.
As soon as Ron showed his slides, and explained he had restored these houses, he was set. Someone in the crowd would be an architect, or know someone restoring something, and they'd take Ron under a wing.

And Reason Three for Ron's big success was the language. Ron stole it. That is, he usually stole the translator. The Rotarian men, the older generation, spoke French if anything. Not English. But their daughters did, their 20-something beautiful daughters. The Rotarians would bring a daughter along to translate, and Ron would single her out with amazing speed, they'd be off in daddy's Ferarri to ride horses, or visit the ocean, or something.

By day Ron would go off with an architect or restorer, and Bruce and us girls would get on the bus to go to whatever itinerary had been planned. By night the beautiful daughters would pick Ron up, leave the rest of us to go off to the banquets and social hours.

Imagine yourself spending six to eight hours of your waking life in a room like this one, at banquets for 50 or 100 or 200 people. The remaining hours of the day you're with 12 or so people, seldom fewer til you fall asleep in someone's guest room, hoping you've correctly interpretted what hour they're coming to get you in the morning. Every day or so you're moved to a new location. You have no time to react, or plan, or adjust. Soon sleep deprivation, pure exhaustion, is taking its toll on you.

Every morning we'd be off to the waterfall, the factory, the press conference, often without benefit of translation. Always in the lap of luxury, wonderful gifts, food, opportunities, factories opened just for our benefit, and so on, but never a shred of information and never a reason to need it. Never a decision we were allowed to make.
There were some bright points – days when we felt like pampered princesses, squired around by our safe host-families, honored and toasted and written up in the local press. But it went on too long, and too much of my mental energy went into sulking about Ron.
For us it became the same cycle of three days repeated over and over–arrive in a new community, fight for information about the plan, fight for adjustments to the plan, do the plan, leave and arrive at a new club and start all over.

It was quickly feeling less like a reward, more like a hostage episode.

How did we react to our hostage experience? Certainly not as a group, not a "we". Even when we were alone with each other, we were incredibly critical of each others' behavior, really mean. It seemed at the time like everybody else was just unreasonable. Now it seems like we were all, me included, horrible brats.

From feeling like an eager recruit, I quickly devolved into an angry adolescent. If Ron was getting so much attention, where was mine? The whole thing made me screaming-crazy jealous. It made it a lot harder to let go of my expectations. I couldn't just relax into the experience the Rotarians were making for the rest of us. The banquets, museums, natural wonders, cathedrals, discos, street fairs. But mostly banquets, and the same cocktail party chatter over and over, where did I come from, how did I like Italy...We began to feel like obedient children at a grown-up party.

It's very odd as an adult to have such a visceral experience of what it's like to be a child. We were fussed over and then politely ignored. When you're a child, you are lied to casually (anything we asked for, they'd say 'later, later, we'll do that next, but first'...) you are bullied (, let's go, don't dawdle) and you are always bent to others' will. You are denied information, you lack comprehension and context to understand what's going on around you, you can't interpret what you see and hear. No wonder kids get cranky.
The effect on me? From an outstanding professional, I was rendered down by my captors to a whining 2-year-old, and sent home to take up where I left off.

It took a solid year before the nightmares stopped.

So what did this teach me about success? Be careful not to let it happen again?
The most important thing I learned is that life isn't fair. Stop expecting it's going to be. Give yourself the honor you think you've earned. If you wait for it to come from someone else, it will come with their agenda attached.

I also learned, from observing Ron and the Ronettes, the reality that people who take get more than people who wait to be asked. The innate sexism of the situation sensitized me like an allergy. Women who make demands are bitches. Women who aren't bitches don't get what they want. I'm still pondering that one. If you have any insights for me, I'd like to know.

When I got back from Italy the gap between my life and material success seemed more obvious to me than ever, after the guest rooms in the palazzi and villas and all, and I set about charting a course toward monetary success.

I went methodically around the "FAMP" a few times, adjusting everything I could think of, to either cut costs or to increase sales. I set about subletting that great office space–now a hollow, empty, echoing cavern. I broadened the services I offered, acting more like a full-service agency, getting involved in my clients' strategic decisions. I was careful not to rely too much on any one account, as in the past.

I ran that business lean and mean. And I lunched out for months, telling the story of the “Ron and the Ronettes” tour of Italy. I didn't think of it as networking, but a lot of business came in by referral from that time. So in some way the Rotarians had helped my professional development.

The other legacy the Rotarians gave me: I began writing. First it was the obligatory report for their program, then more and more writing, as I processed how I felt.
Finally, as 1993 got underway, I found new office space, and I faced my fourth opportunity to keep on the business trip, or step away.

Read more. Cycle 4: Pearly Gates»

My life stories

Road Map

Cycle 1: Exploring Partnership

Cycle 2: Destination Sole Proprietor. 1987 - 1990

Cycle 3: Destination Lean and Mean, 1990-1993

Cycle 4: Pearly Gates, 1993-1996


© 2009 Sarah White. Contact me with comments or questions. Home.