learning from mistakes

“Social work” sounded like a good course of study to pursue after graduating from Brown University with an Honors degree in 1975 even though I didn’t know anyone who was a social worker or what they really did.  I was a fortunate recipient of Brown’s “New Curriculum” championed by Ira Magaziner, a young advocate of the idea that academic coursework was a personal thing, and so there were no required courses for a BA degree. My independent concentration was heavily steeped in psychology, anthropology research and studio art.

It was 1975 and after graduation I lived in Providence on the East Side with Laurie, a RISD graduate.  I remember lighting up a joint in the front living room of our one bedroom apartment overlooking Thayer Street, so as to compose my personal essay explaining my reasons for application to graduate school at Simmons College School of Social Work in Boston.

I was accepted and shortly thereafter packed up and moved to Somerville, into the third floor of a triple decker situated near Inman Square. (The landlord Ralph Somethingorother didn’t mention until after we signed the lease and handed over a the first month’s rent and security deposit that the Cambridge City Hospital morgue was directly across the street from our new home.  I didn’t smell anything but that as little consolation.  Live and learn was lesson #1.

I lived with three other social work students about the same age, and a Boston University student from Japan: Todd Shimatakahara, a few years younger. There was Paul from New Jersey who was attending Boston College School of Social Work studying community organization and social policy.  He unfortunately died a few years ago while surfing in Fiji while celebrating his 25th wedding anniversary with his wife Susan.  He graduated but left the field and became a publicist for an educational lobbying group.  There was Alan from Co-op City (Bronx) New York who became a nationally recognized psychotherapist and psychoanalyst who went on to attain a PhD from Columbia, write a few books and speak at conferences nationwide, and there was Nate from Nebraska by way of Tennessee who continues to practice psychotherapy to this day.  He’s my steady tennis partner and friend.  Whatever happened to Todd is anybody’s guess. He was always late for our group dinners and no one stayed in touch with him.

We all (except Todd) shared in shopping and cooking and occasional cleaning, watched “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” with Martin Mull, and had lots of fun exploring the city and attending school.  There was just one problem.

I soon discovered that my abilities as a social work student was not going well. I wasn’t really honest with myself going into the program of study.  (Smoking a joint to write my essay probably wasn’t a good idea. Lesson #2.)  The truth was that I wasn’t emotionally, spiritually or psychologically ready for this kind of work.  I really didn’t belong there, and this was abundantly clear before the Dean called me into her office early on in the first semester of the first year to discuss my academic and in-field performance. Though bright enough, I wasn’t doing well.  She knew it. I knew it. I could stay for the entire year she said, but realized leaving after one semester was a better decision.

So I left Simmons,  but stayed living in Somerville. I remember returning home and discussing the situation with my father who probably had no idea what I was talking about, though he did a good job helping me during a sensitive time.  He never understood my decision to attend social work grad school in the first place.  On reflection, that made two of us.

After some consternation I acknowledged my mistake, and began to learn from it.

That’s how it works in this life. You make a decision, and you go for it.  Pretty simple, sort of.

I learned an important lesson from the Simmons experience: honesty about one’s feelings and motives, attitudes and actions, no matter how unpleasant they may seem to be, helps one grow as a person.  My fantasy of being a social worker (therapist) did not line up with my person.   Getting to know oneself, one’s character defects, motivations and feelings (good and bad) is one long life lesson for me, and it started at Simmons.

Rather than being stuck with my mistake, I learned that I could take steps to shape my future.  Over some period of time, I reached within myself to see what else I could do with my life.  I started developing a plan on how to move forward.  Though my self-esteem had taken a hit from the Simmons ordeal, I realized that “faith in oneself (allows one) to prevail over temporary obstacles”.  Jane Brody writing in her column in a September 2013 New York Times considers this one of “Life’s Hard Lessons”.

So I turned to the business world.  Business to me was not economics, logistics, operations, accounting or law. Business to me was marketing, communications, programs.  I realized that  “direct marketing” was a force that would increase in value over time. I saw it as the ability to influence the thoughts and behaviors of others, not through Freudian psychotherapy, but through copywriting, design and creative expression.

Fortunately the past need not be a predictor of the future. The past is not irreversible. I believe man has considerable latitude in shaping the present (and the future). My departure from social work was complete when I proceeded to land the first of many exciting and well-paying jobs in high tech marketing at Data General. I gained an increased sense of self and mastery by pursuing marketing.  It came natural to me and it was self-evident having been brought up by an entrepreneurial businessman.

Choosing direct marketing, the forerunner to internet marketing, proved to be much more to my liking and it showed.  I made a good living, made friends, had fun too. I gravitated to start ups and early stage entrepreneurial companies where I could throw myself into the work and make the company successful. I worked at four start ups, three of which were successful, which is a pretty good track record considering the risks and state of competition in the business world.



Published by Richard Halpern

Retired (but busy) after a lengthy career in business marketing, communications and research. Worked at four start-ups and one turnaround. Now volunteer doing prospect research for a climate activity and social advocacy non profit, amongst other things.

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