Over 15 years ago, I worked as a writer for a magazine, primarily related to food and cooking, but with a little travel thrown in for good measure. As happens in the world of journalism, I was often given stories I had little previous experience with—an article about the soothing power of bubble baths was one, but that’s a perfume-filled story that I won’t repeat.
A more fitting story was the idea of getting outside to experience the natural world. The gist: getting exercise while enjoying the out-of-doors gave you a bigger bang for your exercise buck. You enjoyed an experience in nature and still burned those pesky calories.
Though at the time bird-watching had never held much genuine interest for me, it was a popular pastime and provided a ready opportunity to get outside in the most urban landscape or the wilds of a national park and still have a good experience. I enrolled in an “after dark” class at the local college to learn more. In so doing, I got to know the instructor and we discussed the topic of my article on multiple occasions. The article was published in 1998.
Jump forward to 2011. My career changed completely and I am now a tourism consultant working on regional and statewide nature tourism projects in Alabama. In a meeting with the Alabama Tourism Department on a separate project, the topic of birding in Alabama came up and we discovered that the consultant who had been working to develop a series of birding trails throughout the state was no longer involved and a new project lead was needed.
Serendipity for sure. But here’s the takeaway: I used the knowledge I had gained from writing that article to help secure the contract, and I had kept in touch with that bird-watching instructor through the years and invited him to be a part of our team. It worked out ideally for all of us—he had a very large project fall in his lap and I had the expert needed for a project I never imagined I’d be involved with.
Make sure and develop connections—you never know when you’ll need someone to design a great interpretive museum for you. Or when they’ll need someone to lead a walk through the state park with a visiting dignitary or want a consultation on a project that inspires you.
Use LinkedIn. Use Facebook. Be a writer for an NAI blog. Be a part of the interpretation community as more than an interpreter for your facility. Loving your job is critical to doing a good job—particularly when you’re talking about the job of interpretation. But you are more than a facility or a park; you are an interpreter.
As an interpreter, you want what you are interpreting to be front-and-center, not you. But sometimes, you need to be interpreted, too. And who better than you to do the job! Keep an updated resume—it isn’t something you should do only when looking for a new job. It is a smart way to keep track of just what you do, to think about those things you’ve learned on the job that now seem like second nature. It can prove useful during annual reviews—remembering what you do and categorizing the way you want it can help drive your career in the direction you want. Writing your resume and keeping it updated allows you to do the interpreting of who you are. Busy scanning in old photos of your facility for posterity? That’s not busy-work. That’s archiving and cataloging historic documents. If you don’t define what you do, someone else surely will.
And, of course, add those things to your resume that come with a built-in definition. Become certified. Take courses in history, or natural sciences or theater. Never stop learning—and, whenever you can, make that learning something you can document on your resume. It will help you during job evaluations; it will help you when looking for a new job—and, most importantly, it will help you be a better interpreter.
About Joe: Joe Watts is a passionate proponent of nature tourism in Alabama and is currently working with the University of Alabama Center for Economic Development on several tourism-related projects, including the Alabama Birding Trails. He recently became a Certified Interpretive Guide and still remembers being enthralled by the stories of a Park Ranger during a visit to Alcatraz Island 20 years ago.