We return again with Path to Fellow, a recurring feature here on STC’s Notebook to highlight the rich contributions of our honored members. If you’re a Fellow or Associate Fellow and haven’t been contacted to participate in this feature, please email Kevin Cuddihy.
As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” I didn’t start out my career saying, “I’m going to be a technical writer.” In fact, I didn’t really start my career at all. It was definitely more of a “backing into it” kinda thing. I was originally a programmer, a job I did for about five years (counting some interesting operations stuff). But along about year three, I found I was interested in documenting and training and documented this grungy accounting system I was maintaining. When I was looking for another job, I was shopping for writing or training jobs, not programming . . . and I got a writing job. [cue orchestra for swelling music here]
I might talk about what I’ve done, but that’s been all kinds of strange and silly things. How I got here is not likely to happen to you or anyone else, either. (As Bob Wazeka, a writer I knew in Seattle, once said, “Many people have a checkered career. I have a mottled career.”) Probably the best way to describe what’s happened in my career is this: in June 1986, when I was interviewing for a job, Susan the interviewer asked me the classic, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” question. Well, I hadn’t thought about this for some time, so I thought . . . and I thought . . . and I thought some more. After 20 seconds, I was still thinking about this very hard and Susan, very nervous, said hurriedly, “That’s okay; you don’t have to answer that!”
I burst out laughing and said “Actually, I just realized I have no idea where I’m going to be in five years and I’d like to tell you about it. Five years ago, I was a programmer and I really loved programming and I wanted to know more about programming and do more with it. If you had told me then that in five years that I would have given up programming forever to become a tech writer, I would’ve thought you were high. And if you told me that I’d give it all up in three years, never to look back, I’d have been sure of it. But that’s exactly what happened. So when you ask me where I’m going to be in five years, I can honestly say that I don’t know, but it’s going to be something bigger and grander and more glorious than I can possibly imagine.”
Ummmm, so, I didn’t get that job. Quelle surprise, ne c’est pas? But five years later, in June 1991, I thought a lot about that interview. In the intervening time, I had:
- become a freelance writer and worked for Microsoft and many other clients
- written and published three books and 20-30 magazine articles
- started working on books #4 and #5
- managed a writing department for two years
- won seven writing awards
- done training and consulting
- helped found and run a very popular group for freelance writers.
Most of this was great fun and it had certainly been profitable. I’d grown enormously as a writer, but there’s no way I could have predicted this from where I sat in June 1986. And, as it turned out, I wasn’t able to predict the next five years, either. Or the five after that, or any of the five-year periods since then until now. At this point, I figure if I can accurately predict next week, I’m doing okay.
I was incredibly honored to become an Associate Fellow and then—even cooler!—a Fellow a couple years later. This was major validation, as big a career moment as any I ever expect to have. But as I look at this, my AF and Fellow hadn’t been a long-thought-out goal, but just something that happened on the way. What wisdom I can impart about career planning is this:
- Be open to change. If you try to solidify your plans too much, you’re going to squeeze out every opportunity for serendipity to happen and you need serendipity in your life or there’s Just No Point.
- Be ready to grab a new opportunity and take a few risks. If you haven’t fallen flat on your face in a muddy heap at least once, you’ve probably never risked anything meaningful. (Writing that line makes me feel better about some of the flat-out failures I’ve had.)
- Things will happen you didn’t plan on.
- While it’s true that the unexamined life is not worth living, it’s also true that the unlived life is not worth examining.
STC has been very good to me. I have gotten where I was because I’ve been helped at every step by people, classes, and resources. Many of my dearest friends I met at STC events and I’ve made lots of money from the additional professional connections. I volunteered to help other people and get things done that made us all more fun and bucks. I hope I’ve been able to return the favor.
My favorite saying is, “Don’t ask me; I’m making this up as I go along” for a darned good reason: I am making this up. I haven’t a clue where this is going to end, but I’m determined to have fun and make money along the way. From my side of the screen, I don’t have a clear perspective: all this has just been one job, one contract, one book, and one day at a time. It’s been difficult at times and I sure didn’t know I was going to end up here when I got on the train, but on the whole, it’s not been bad.
John Hedtke is the award-winning author of 26 books and close to 200 magazine articles. Adding in the manuals and other documentation, it’s close to 8 million published words—that’s a stack 12 feet tall. John owns JVH Communications, a company that offers writing and business consulting services for a variety of private, public, and governmental clients. He recently founded his second publishing company, Double Tall Press (www.doubletallpress.com). John also does numerous radio and magazine interviews and frequently travels to do lectures and guest appearances at conferences and seminars. John was the last Region 7 Director on the STC’s Board of Directors and is a Fellow of the Society.
When not otherwise occupied, John writes slogans for a button company, plays banjo and guitar, and sleeps late as much as possible. John has donated 85 pints of blood and lives in Eugene, OR, with his wife Marilyn and a collection of cats.