Find Your Tribe, Foster Your Future
Tips for Developing a Career Tribe
“I felt like a fraud when I walked in because I didn’t consider myself an artist,” says Barbara Matthews, recalling her first day as a student in the UW Professional & Continuing Education Certificate in Fiber Arts. A research scientist in the UW School of Medicine by day, Matthews enrolled in the program because she was seeking something creatively fulfilling. “I’m not the sort of person to follow a quilting pattern,” she says. “I like to come up with something of my own, but I was floundering.”
To find a sense of belonging and purpose, Matthews did what humans have done for centuries: She bonded with her fellow travelers and formed a tribe.
While tribes may bring to mind more primal pursuits, the term is taking on a modern connotation, popping up everywhere from the books, blogs and lectures of marketing guru Seth Godin to the advice given by career counselors to the rules and regulations on Survivor.
The Modern Tribe
History defines tribes as groups united by shared ideas, values and goals. Godin and others put a 21st century spin on the term to empower ordinary people to lead big changes, including the pursuit of a new career.
For Matthews, the big change was to prepare to become a full-time artist after retirement. “I plan on this being my next career,” says Matthews, who is now on the program’s advisory board. “One of the driving factors when I signed up was that I knew I’d be building a primary support group, and at least half of us have been meeting every month since we graduated in 2009.”
For Tammie Schacher, the big change was to transition out of the architecture profession and into the nonprofit sector, where her goal was to align her values and passions with a new career. To get started, Schacher enrolled in the UW Certificate in Nonprofit Management where she joined a cohort of fellow students who would go through the program together.
“At the beginning the instructor told us that these groups become very tight knit and that we’d start relying on each other,” she says. “We didn’t necessarily believe that, but by the second quarter we realized we had not only started to rely on each other but that we’d become a family.”
The Elements of a Good Tribe
A familial level of cohesion is a key component of tribes, both classic and modern. “Most of us had been in other careers and were looking for that inroad into what seemed like a closed sector,” says Schacher.
Another important aspect of a classic tribe is the embracing of a common language. “In the architecture world, the discussions always defaulted to design,” she says. “But in the program the focus was on people. This was a group where what we have in common as humans was as important as the topic, whether it was homelessness, animal rights, biking or affordable housing. Even if we didn’t agree with each other, when I told a story, people understood it.”
Adopting a common language was equally important to Matthews, who says her tribe’s monthly sharing and critiquing meetings are top priority for her. And key to the success of those meetings, she says, is what may be the most important element of a tribe: Trust. “I feel like I can share my worst piece and not be judged as a bad artist,” she says. “There is a right way to do a critique. Trusting one another is a big part of it. Being courteous and going out of your way to respect differences in people goes a long way as well.”
Moving Forward With the Tribe
Matthews says there are two main benefits to being part of a tribe. She’s becoming a better artist. Closely related, she’s becoming a better source of support for other artists.
For Schacher, the benefit is more tangible: She is now executive director of Explorations in Math, a Seattle nonprofit that partners with elementary schools to encourage students to embrace the subject by fostering a math culture. She credits her UW experience not only with forwarding the opportunity to her, but also in showing her how to convey her experience to a board of directors. “I needed the vocabulary to translate what I’d done into the nonprofit language,” she says.
Like Matthews, Schacher continues to benefit from her tribe even though she’s completed the program. “It’s nice to be able to reach out to someone and say ‘I’m up against this type of situation’ and ask for advice,” she says. “The nonprofit world is very small here, so having relationships with people I run into all the time is important. Instructors and former classmates are resources to me even now.”
Practical Advice From the Elders
Both Matthews and Schacher believe that getting the most out of being part of a tribe that starts in a continuing education classroom is fairly simple. First, say both, be open. “Have a little courage and put yourself out there,” says Matthews. “The structure of a classroom is a great place to try something out.”
Schacher suggests getting bold about asking strangers out for coffee. “Open yourself up to a new group of people,” she says. “Reach out to people who are doing the jobs you want. Ask them for advice about getting into the field. Ask them who else you should meet with.”
Both recommend striking while the situation is hot – while taking a course, for example.
“You’ll have access to a good group of people, so make the effort to get to know them,” says Schacher. “It would be easy to just leave after class and be insulated. But it’s so valuable to make individual connections.”
For Matthews, the impact of the tribe extends beyond networking. It’s essential to her ongoing development as an artist. “I need the support and feedback and a place for bouncing ideas around,” she says. “There’s an urgency to it.”
Advice for Alumni
Finally, advice for those who have already graduated. Update your social media profiles with information on your program and the year you graduated from it. If you’ve lost touch, reach out to former instructors and classmates through the UW Professional & Continuing Education Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn communities. And watch for opportunities to connect at upcoming UW Professional & Continuing Education events.