Grow Professional

When Things Don’t Turn Out As Expected, Part 2

Hard decisions are hard, usually because they are based on incomplete information. Even when the choice seems to be the right now, we aren't in control of all the variables that can impact that choice.

A better title for this post might be: When Integrity Trumps Common Sense.


I want to preface all of this by saying that I take full responsibility for my choices. I'm not blaming recessions, incomplete information, or other people's input, on the choices I've made. My purpose in writing these posts in such detail is to explain, as best I can, how I came to make my choices.

Ultimately, I'll also explain what I've learned from these experiences and how I've used them to grow, personally and professionally.

In the last post, I explained how I moved from Stillwater, Oklahoma and left what seemed to be the makings of a bright career in academia at Oklahoma State to return to law practice. The Great Recession disrupted my plans to build a new practice in advising tech start-up entrepreneurs. It didn't help matters that most of Alabama is, as usual, trapped in an old-economy mindset.

Perhaps I wasn't sufficiently patient in my second stint as a lawyer but, in any event, I made the proactive decision to move on and accepted an offer for a faculty position at Samford University in Birmingham.

When I said yes to that offer, I thought I was doing the right thing, given all the facts available to me at the time and my own attempt to “read the tea leaves” (metaphorically speaking) about the direction of the economy and where opportunities existed. In hindsight, I realized that in 2008-09, I was also stuck in something of an old-economy mindset, at least in terms of opportunities in internet business. More on that in a future post.

This post focuses on the events that transpired during June and July of 2009, when I ignored my gut instincts and plethora of messages from the universe.

Bad Signs

Within a few days of accepting the offer from Dean Chapman for a position as assistant professor in the Journalism & Mass Communication Department at Samford, I got a call from the department chair Bernie Ankney welcoming me to the department.

I don't recall whether it was the first or second conversation with Dr. Ankney that we began to discuss which courses I'd teach in my first semester. As I remember it, the first conversation wasn't too unsettling, even though I was surprised to learn that I wouldn't need to learn Photoshop and InDesign yet. I was told not to worry about teaching any layout/design courses in the Fall. Early on, I identified several courses that I was interested in teaching: Media Law, Feature Writing, Applied Communication Research and PR Communication.

Over the next  week or so, however, the conversations shifted heavily into the direction that I would be teaching mass media writing and, possibly, labs associated with the basic reporting/writing course. That did not make me happy–at all. I knew I'd be bored to tears and I'd never taught the courses. I couldn't understand why I wasn't getting to teach media law.

I almost didn't sign the contract when it arrived in mid-May and waited until the last possible minute to sign it and send it back in.

Then I discovered that one of the new faculty benefits that had influenced my decision in accepting the offer was not even available to me because I'd earned my Ph.D. before the cut-off date. When I asked the Dean about this discrepancy, I got a reply to this effect: “That's why I said to talk with the benefits office to confirm what I told you.” Not exactly a response to inspire confidence.

By early June, I was experiencing serious “buyer's regret.” But I had signed the contract, given my word.

Ask And You Shall Receive

Then one night I received a phone call. It came in the early evening on a day filled with a series of developments that included a literal cry to the universe to “Get me out of this state” (Despite the positives, living in Alabama can be quite frustrating at times, mainly due to inept governance).

It was as if God had heard my plea and delivered.

Plymouth State had an unexpected opening to teach business law and, in light of my interview for the business communication faculty slot, they were interested in talking with me about the business law position. Was I interested?

I explained that I had accepted Samford's offer, but I was definitely interested and wanted to learn more.

That initial conversation led to several more and, within a few days, I had an offer from the Provost of Plymouth State for an assistant professor position to teach business law. I had more credit for prior service, better benefits, higher salary.

Everything about the situation screamed “this is made for you, Sheree.”

And yet I couldn't accept it.

I wanted to accept the Plymouth State offer. I spend days talking with a real estate agent and trying to find a place to live. The then-chair of the Business program, Dr. Trent Boggess, went above-and-beyond to help me locate a home to rent.

Integrity or Fear?

But each time I started to say “yes,” I had this voice in my head saying:

“You've signed a contract. You've given your word to Samford.”

Everything about the Samford position was turning out bad for me. My gut instinct was saying I'd made a mistake in taking the position and that I'd just accepted it by default, that something was wrong.

But this other voice in my head was screaming about integrity, being true to my word. And the lawyer in me was concerned about legal options if I backed out at such a late point, after signing the contract. I knew specific performance of a professional services contract was not an issue in Alabama but damages might be.

I spoke with a couple of mentors from the College of Communication & Information Science at UA, where I'd earned my Ph.D. They said it wasn't unheard of for someone to back out of a contract in my situation.

But I couldn't bring myself to call Samford to discuss it. I wish I'd felt comfortable enough to speak with Samford's Provost at that time because I think I'd have received good advice from him. But I didn't feel comfortable raising the issue with the Dean or the department chair at Samford.

No Decision Is A Decision

I kept postponing my decision, continued to research housing options, weigh the pros and cons. I wavered.

My family had a 4th of July weekend vacation planned for Gulf Shores and so I decided to use that time to make my final decision, free of pressures from the workday.

My heart said I should go to New Hampshire.

One evening, while sitting in The Oyster House in Gulf Shores having dinner with my family, I received an email from Bernie Ankney listing my teaching assignments for Fall 2009. I would be teaching mass media writing and two sections of the lab associated with that course. Applied Communication Research rounded out my schedule. Four courses. The only course I cared to teach was Applied Communication Research and that was the only one I'd had any experience teaching before. I'd taught a variation of research methods for undergraduates one semester as an adjunct at UA in Spring 2000.

My heart was broken.

I sat at the dinner table and cried in front of my family.

My head and my heart said I had to go to New Hampshire, take the job at Plymouth State where I could teach courses I cared about. My dream had been to live in New England and I could now make that dream a reality.

The next day I mentioned to my mom during a walk on the beach that I was probably going to New Hampshire. I heard a litany of reasons why I should not move there and why Samford was the better choice.

That conversation from my mom led me to waver again in my resolve to get out of the Samford contract, even though I left that vacation and returned home with the intention of accepting the Plymouth offer the following Monday.

I must conclude this post now. I'll pick up the story after Thanksgiving.

Grow Professional Professional Portfolio

When Things Don’t Turn Out Like You Expected, Part 1

In the early Fall of 2007 I returned to the practice of law. At the time, I hoped to build a new practice focused on internet issues, intellectual property and start-up ventures growing out of research at The University of Alabama.

I rejoined Rosen Harwood, P.A., in Tuscaloosa, where I'd been a shareholder before leaving for my 10-year stint as a writer/academic. Back then it was known as Rosen, Cook, Sledge, Davis, Carroll &  Jones, P.A.

I hadn't anticipated ever returning to active law practice, but the opportunity arose when I contacted Sydney Cook in May 2007 about a recommendation letter for a law school position I'd applied for. When I'd explained to Sydney that I wanted to leave Oklahoma, the question was put forth: Why don't you come back and join us? Within 2 or 3 weeks, I'd said yes to this new opportunity.

My Future In Tech

I was thrilled, envisioning all of the ways I could combine my knowledge of internet technology, IP law, and business transactional law to assist what I anticipated would be a growing community of start-up entrepreneurs in Tuscaloosa.

One of my first actions was to attend a tech start-up event at Innovation Depot in Birmingham. Another attorney with the firm, Andy Jones, drove with me up to Birmingham and he seemed very excited about the possibilities to expand our firm's practice areas and grow our client base through tech start-ups.

I knew there would be a bit of a transition period, as I developed my reputation in this new practice area. But as we approached the end of 2007, I was less-than-thrilled to find myself spending more and more time working on the same types of transactions and preparing the same legal documents as in 1992-97. My excitement over the return to law started to dim a bit, because I was not interested in estate planning or simply restructuring businesses to save taxes. But I soldiered own, not giving up hope.

The Great Recession

My future in tech was not to be, at least not then……

In 2008, the economy imploded. Everything in the legal world shifted to a focus on business restructuring and wealth preservation.

What I'd found when I arrived in 2007 is that Tuscaloosa wasn't yet producing the types of research-driven tech start-ups that I'd anticipated. Alabama's tech start-up community (such that it was) seemed to be based in Birmingham around UAB or in Huntsville around UAH. And the big Birmingham firms had already locked-up that most of that work.

And so, with no end to the recession in site, I began to lose any hope that I would ever get to do the type of legal work I'd envisioned when I said “yes” to the offer I received in June 2007. All of the optimism I had in September 2007 was, by October 2008, shifting into something of a sense of resignation that my law practice would just be more of the same. I couldn't see a light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps I was just being short-sighted. Who knows.

At that point, I'd been out of academia for just over a year. I had taught media law as an adjunct at The University of Alabama in the Spring of 2008 and was scheduled to teach it again in Spring 2009. I really enjoyed teaching the class and the students were great. No attitude problems and most were engaged with the course material.

I started have doubts and think that I'd made a mistake in leaving Oklahoma State, where I had a successful academic career underway. The only reason I left was to pursue a new opportunity in a place where I had more friends. I loved my colleagues and classes at Oklahoma State and solid-to-great evaluations from students.

I thought perhaps that my return to law practice was a transition because of an unexpected family crisis that had been unveiled upon my return to Alabama in August 2007. I thought perhaps I'd been brought back to Alabama to deal with that problem and, once I'd solved that problem, it was time to move on again—sort of a real-world Dr. Who.

I took a look at the academic job postings in the Chronicle of Higher Education and sent off a couple of applications.

A New Door Opens?

One day, out of the blue, I got an email or phone call (I don't remember which) from Jon Clemmensen, a faculty member at Samford. He'd seen my picture in an Alabama Sierra Club newsletter and wondered what was up. Jon and I had become friends during the year I taught CA classes at Samford in 2002-2003. My office and most of my classrooms were in his building.

I explained to Jon that I was contemplating a return to academia and he mentioned an opening at Samford. After finding the job listing on the Samford website, I sent off my materials.

At that point, I'd only applied for a couple of positions. I was being quite picky about the locations and the subject matter. I wasn't desperate and not looking to simply leave law practice. I wanted to move into the “place” where I would be able to pursue one of my interests and make a major, substantial contribution.

The Samford position was described as “visual and multimedia communication.” It sounded like a great fit, since I'd taught visual communication theory at Oklahoma State and was a big user of multimedia technology. I had thoroughly enjoyed teaching CA at Samford in 2002-03. I had no experience with Adobe software, but knew how to code websites without Dreamweaver and edit video using other software, so I figured I'd explain that and see what happened.

In light of Jon's phone call, completely out of the blue and unrelated to academia, it just seemed like one of those situations where “a door opens” just when it is meant to open. I figured that it would all unfold as it was supposed to unfold.

My Preference

I was really interested in another position, at Plymouth State in New Hampshire. I wasn't familiar with the school, but I liked the location and liked what I'd learned about it through my research. I was especially attracted to it because it was a communication position with a business department.

I've always known that my strengths are more focused on business and strategic communication, rather than journalism. [I'll explain another time how I ended up in a Ph.D. program in the College of Communication at UA, rather than a business program.]

In February 2009, I had a couple of phone interviews for positions that didn't seem to be a good fit for me and I ended up withdrawing from both searches, just as I was getting an invitation for a campus visit.

In late March I was scheduled to visit Plymouth State for an interview when I got a Saturday night call from my airline that my Sunday flight had been canceled. There was no way I could get another flight there and still make the meeting schedule on Monday. They kindly reworked my campus visit for the following week.

I loved New Hampshire. I really liked the campus and, more importantly, I really liked everyone I met who might be a potential colleague. The campus visit and interview seemed to go well. I seemed to connect very well with the department chair, Dr. Trent Boggess, as we shared a common fondness for Ford vehicles.

I returned home, hopeful and optimistic.

The Other Search

I hadn't heard anything from Samford as of mid-to-late-March, so I assumed that I was out of consideration for that position.

Around the time as my rescheduled trip to Plymouth State, I'd been invited for an interview at Samford and was given essentially two choices for dates, never of which offered much advance notice. The teaching demonstration was scheduled to be on Photoshop. I had purchased the software, but had no time to learn it.

In light of my optimism about Plymouth State, I attempted to withdraw from the search at Samford. I sent an email the day before my visit and said I was withdrawing.

withdrawal email

I received a reply from the department chair Bernie Ankney asking me to come anyway and do my a teaching demonstration on beat reporting. I didn't want to leave them hanging with my last-minute withdrawal, so I said OK. I put together a lecture and demonstration activity and went for my interview.

Nothing felt right about my Samford visit except for the teaching demonstration and conversation with the Provost. Everyone was cordial but I sensed something was off. I kept thinking it was just me and my distractions. I asked about the teaching load and was told it was a 3/3. I was assured that it was fine that I didn't yet feel competent to teach Photoshop. I didn't get any sense that the courses I'd be teaching were print journalism and reporting labs, rather than mainly visual/multimedia communication and media law. I interpreted the beat reporting teaching demonstration to be a simple “gimme” to make me feel comfortable. I didn't really expect to get an offer, quite honestly.

I left with understanding that they had one more interview to complete and then I'd hear something.

At that point, I continued to think that Plymouth State was still a possibility, although I didn't think I was a sure bet. I had gleaned from the campus visit that there might be an inside prospect, such as a regular adjunct who'd taught the course before.

The Offer

About a week or 10 days passed. I received a notice from Plymouth State that someone else had received and accepted an offer for the business communication position. I was bummed, but accepting of the outcome. The same week, I received a call from offering me the position at Samford.

My gut was unsettled, but I accepted the offer from Dean David Chapman to join Samford in the JMC department as a tenure-track assistant professor. I was given 2-years credit for my 4-years at Oklahoma State.

I simply assumed everything was working out as it was meant to work out.

In my first phone conversation with the department chair after verbally accepting the position my unsettled gut became much more unsettled. Something seemed wrong. I keep telling myself it was just a bit of anxiety over a big decision about my career.

Little did I know how much that decision would change my life.

Grow Professional

What’s Your Moral Personality?

We all have a smorgasbord of personality traits, a preferred style or preference for decision-making, and a values system that governs (or at least shapes) our choices.

As I continue my series that looks at the common thread between the results of various interests, style and personality tests (validated and otherwise) that I've taken over the years, I thought it might be helpful to revisit the results from the MoralDNA™ test.


I discovered the MoralDNA™ test at the beginning of 2014. I had been assigned to teach a course in mass media ethics, which I'd never taught before. I've had many students in our major mention from time to time that they like taking personality-type tests so I went looking for an online version of the Ball-Rokeach values assessment and ended up going with the MoralDNA™ assessment instead. (I didn't want to know the students' results. I just wanted them to take the test to provide a foundation for what might be potential blindspots as we discussed ethical decision-making frameworks and ethical challenges in the workplace).

How the MoralDNA™ Test Works

Professor Roger Steare, known as The Corporate Philosopher, and Pavlos Stanboulides, Director of Psycholate, developed the MoralDNA™ test as a way to assess the relationship between decision-making styles and moral values.

The assessment covers three areas: Decision-making preferences, personal vs. work life distinctions, and moral values. Scores in these areas are used to place you into one of six archetypes or “characters” within the MoralDNA™ spectrum: Philosopher, Judge, Angel, Teacher, Enforcer or Guardian.

My MoralDNA™ Results

I look the test in January 2014 in advance of teaching the ethics course.

I was placed in the Philosopher archetype, with a caveat that my results were also closely-aligned with the Angel archetype.

The dominant moral values reflected in my results were:

  • Wisdom
  • Self-Control
  • Excellence
  • Care
  • Fairness
  • Humility

Screenshot of Results of MoralDNA(TM) Philosopher or Angel


My dominant decision-making style was identified as logic, with love running a close second.

What is a Philosopher?

In the MoralDNA™ framework, the Philosopher is someone for whom virtue is the most important consideration when making choices. This archetype would seem to be aligned with Aristotle's ethical philosophy.

According to the MoralDNA report I received, the Philosopher begins with a consideration of what is most honorable and most courageous in a given situation and then looks at how this choice would affect other people. Only then do rules and regulations come into play.

The Philosopher archetype might sometimes be described as a “maverick,” says the report, “but good to have around when really difficult decisions have to be made.” (MoralDNA™ Report for Sheree Martin, January 2014). The report estimates about 17% of Americans fall into the Philosopher archetype.

The main distinction between the Philosopher and the Judge is that the Judge consults the rules and regulations before considering how the outcome would affect others.

The Philosopher and the Judge archetypes are described as being very good at dealing with complex situations and difficult problems.

What is an Angel?

For the Angel, the most important consideration is how a choice will affect other people. They consider values like love, hope, trust and respect. The Angel is somewhat aligned with the Philosopher in that the Angel considers rules and regulations last, before making a decision.

Valid for Me?

Overall, I would say these are valid results and fairly accurately describe my dominant approach to decision-making. I certainly place personal virtue at the highest level of importance. I focus on doing what seems to be the most “right” thing to do in a given situation and not simply what I might technically be permitted to do under some rule or regulation.

This might explain some of my disgust with the current state of politics (especially in the campaign finance arena).  High-frequency trading and hedge-fund investment practices also bother me.

Just because something is legal doesn't make it right and I believe we do have a moral duty to consider how our actions affect other people. We have a right to look out for ourselves first and certainly that is the survival instinct we all have–and rightly solve. We are not expected to be martyrs for others, but pure selfishness is equally extreme.

I'm somewhat of a libertarian in my political beliefs, and very market-oriented in my economic values but I am most definitely NOT a disciple of Ayn Rand! The whole issue of government regulation is extraordinarily complex because the market is complicated by issues of corporate limited liability, imperfect information, monopolies, oligopolies, and the reality that humans are not purely rational creatures. But I digress—those issues are a subjects for a  different series of posts.

More later.


Marketing Professional

Client Confidentiality & The Era of Personal Branding

I began my professional life as a business lawyer. I am honored and proud to be a lawyer and proud of the work I did as a lawyer during the 12 or so years that I practiced.

I love thinking through legal problems and solving legal puzzles. That said, I don’t like to sit behind a desk all day and I'm more into harmony than conflict resolution, so I’m unlikely to return to the active practice of law anytime in the near future.

One of the challenges I've run into is how to translate my extensive legal experience in the business world to land new business and career opportunities outside of the legal profession.

I typically have at least one conversation per week where another person says some variation of this:

“Wow, you have an awesome set of skills and expertise. I'll be you have career opportunities just flowing in all the time.”

I've been hearing this for well over 10 years, since I finished my dissertation and added the Ph.D. to my list of accomplishments.

Overqualified for the Corporate World

Too Interdisciplinary for Academia

The reality is that I've usually been labeled “over-qualified” in the corporate world.

Another way of putting it is that I'm deemed (by some) insufficiently narrow in my expertise to fill most jobs. For example, I don't do cost accounting, engage in supply-chain systems optimization, or initiate HR-best practices for outsourcing the workforce. I'm not sufficiently myopic in my pursuit of academic topics.

My expertise, the value I add, is all about understanding. I can quickly identify the relevant pieces to a puzzle, evaluate  how those pieces fit together, examine them in light of emerging trends, and create a viable strategy, solution or opportunity for something bigger and better.

That's what I did every day as a lawyer and legal-problem solver. I solved problems to prevent or minimize crises. That's what I've done in my smaller personal entrepreneurial ventures and volunteer efforts. And it's how I approach my work in the academic classroom. As a teacher, I use this approach to select and refine the subject matter in courses I teach and I strive to enable students to do the same as they prepare for a career in a world that is changing much faster than academia.

It's just as well that I'm deemed over-qualified for mid-level corporate management or analyst roles. I'm not interested in those types of jobs. I'd be bored out of my mind in a cubicle, doing the same spreadsheet analysis every day, writing Dilbert-esque reports or creating an awesome presentation for someone else to deliver.

No Boxes for Me

The reality is that people don't know what box to put me in. I don't like boxes, so I haven't made it easy. But that's really my strength.

If everyone is in the box, no one knows what's on the outside.

My professional life has been all about helping businesses and leaders expand their box, improve their box, or move from one box to a new box. I help students who realize there's life beyond the narrowly-defined career categories and specialties that academia offers them.

Practical Knowledge To Move Beyond The Status Quo

My strengths are the result of my ability to understand, comprehend and synthesize disparate bits of information. I am all about vision, strategy, innovation, change management, adaptability, communication, resilience.

I have developed and sharpened  myhighly practical business knowledge through more than a decade of of guiding businesses and high-net worth individuals in my law practice and through a lifetime of problem-solving, advancing my own skills, and engaging with the real world as a business owner and committed citizen.

Not only can I quickly grasp new ideas and understand things outside the realm of first-hand knowledge,  I have the ability to interpret that information, apply it, and communicate it to a new audience.

I've been a business owner and manager, as well as an employee at every level of an organization.

But my expertise goes beyond practical, applied tactics.

Through my Ph.D.-level academic work, I also understand the theory that explains or seeks to explain systems thinking, organizational development, leadership and communication.

Writer, Speaker, Advocate

As a paid writer and consultant, I have written more than a hundred published feature-length articles for trade magazines and newspapers. I have a huge portfolio of work as a copywriter for several ad agencies.

And I have extensive experience as a public speaker on a range of topics, from continuing legal education seminars to civic organization talks to leadership training workshops for college students and social media marketing for business owners. I've been active in public speaking since 4th grade when I won 1st prize in my school's 4H Club Public Speaking Contest.

I also have more than a few scholarly research papers and presentations in my dossier.

On top of all of those accomplishments, I have 2 decades of experience creating and publishing online content for fun and business.

So the reality is, traditional skills and job descriptions are too narrow to describe what I can do.

But the challenge I've often faced is how to communicate the specifics of real-world business challenges that I've resolved or helped to resolve without breaching client confidentiality.

How do I tell these stories?

Specifics in Law Practice

During the 12 or so years that I spent actively practicing law, I routinely represented small businesses and professional clients in 7-figure+ business transactions.Many of those 7-figure deals in the early to mid-90s would be 8-figure deals in today’s dollars.

The biggest transactions I handled usually involved the healthcare industry, and occasionally involved sales to major publicly-traded companies. My clients were sometimes the sellers, sometimes the buyers.

The deals often involved real estate and real estate developments. Sometimes, I was involved in writing and/or reviewing contracts ancillary to real estate development projects–like cable television delivery agreements or homeowner association governing documents.

Another big focus of my practice was new-entity formation and restructuring for business expansion into new projects. I formed a lot of LLCs and limited partnerships for real estate projects, healthcare and, occasionally, oil and gas.

Related to my general business work and my interest in intellectual property law, I handled trademark registrations and assisted litigators with cases involving business trade secrets. Occasionally, I reviewed contracts and advised authors on publishing matters and copyright law.

Contracts between professionals (usually MDs) and healthcare service providers was another focus of my law practice.

Estate and business succession planning rounded out my law practice areas. I had a mix of clients who needed guidance for estate and tax matters, but many had a high net worth and needed advice about how best to structure estate plans involving commercial real estate, manufacturing operations and/or other b-to-b and professional services firms.

My firm represented municipalities and quasi-government corporations involved in public/private activities, so I was also involved in work related to municipal financing. Once, I wrote updated regulations for delivery of cable TV services to a small municipality.

Owner and Manager

I was a shareholder (owner) in Rosen, Cook, Sledge, Davis, Carroll & Jones, P.A. (today, Rosen Harwood, P.A.). During those years, I had a range of management-level responsibilities, including hiring and managing employees and shaping the vision and future of the firm.

I've also owned my own, small law practice (as a sole-practitioner) where I was 100% responsible for all the business decisions. I've been self-employed as a freelance writer, as well.

Confidentiality Comes First

Confidentiality is one of the marks of an ethical lawyer so I have never promoted the details about the types of transactions I worked on. I've never even identified my clients outside of my law practice, except in a few situations where publicly-filed documents made it obvious that I represented someone or some business entity in a transaction or legal proceeding. Even then, I've never revealed anything more about the attorney-client relationship: “Yes, I worked on that” is about as much as I've ever said.

Unlike litigation, the work of a transactional lawyer is rarely public. The work is seen by the client, other lawyers and the clients of other lawyers who are involved in the negotiations or present at closings.

I often received thank-you letters from clients and referrals by the clients and other lawyers. But these are not the same as “Likes” on Facebook, so they aren’t something I feel I can display as a testimonial on my website.

So the challenge is finding a way to tell the story of all I've accomplished in my professional life, while maintaining the confidentialities of my business and estate planning clients and adhering to what I consider proper professional ethics and decorum.

In short, as I've said elsewhere, “tooting my own horn” is not my natural tendency.

I'd love to hear suggestions about how to handle this, especially if you're a lawyer!

Inspire Professional

10 Things We Should Be Teaching Today’s College Students

I compiled this list for the Carnival of Journalism November cavalcade, so it is particularly designed for the “disciplines” of journalism, public relations, advertising, marketing and management.

Despite the underlying motivation for my post, the tenets I put forth are, in reality, applicable to all fields.

1. Uncertainty is the norm, at least today and for the foreseeable future.

Actually, our world has always been fraught with uncertainty, but perhaps there was greater perceived certainty when news and information wasn’t available at our fingertips 24×7.

And there was a brief period in the 20th century when jobs were mostly for life and came with benefits and retirement pensions. But that time was an historical aberration, not the norm. Many of our grandparents and some of our parents experienced this world, but it no longer exists. We may as well accept that and focus on the reality that's here and now.

2. Life (and work) doesn’t come with an assignment guide.

Jobs that do have assignment guides are being outsourced or automated.

[Tweet “Life doesn't come with an assignment guide.”]

One of the outcomes of college should be that students rapidly evolve from the type of person who needs detailed instructions for every assignment to the type of person who can chart a course to an outcome or objective without a precise roadmap.

3. Questions rarely have one right answer.

The only exceptions can be found in these contexts:


Basic facts: For example: Who, when, where

  • What is often contextual and colored by internal and structural constraints.
  • Why is always contextual and interpretive and almost always the product of internal and societal filters. (Probably “always” but see item 1 above re: uncertainty).

Basic grammar, AP Style and spelling (caveat: these do evolve, see item 1 above)

To educators: We do a grave disservice to college students if a majority of the questions we ask have one right answer. We must ask questions that require an explanation of the rationale for the answer, i.e. good responses must explain “why” the answer given seems to be the right one.

To students: Cherish the teachers who ask questions that leave you wondering. Don't worry about your grades. Unless you're going to med school, they don't matter very much.

4. Factual Knowledge Still Matters

Yes, we have the world of information at our fingertips. We don’t need to memorize a bunch of facts.

But we can’t adequately interpret and synthesize information without a contextual basis for understanding.

The more facts we know, the faster we can mentally process and synthesize information and create something new and valuable for the world. Humans are, for the most part, still better at processing information contextually than are computers. But that only works if we have a foundation of contextual knowledge stored in our brains. If we have to stop and look it up, we've already missed an opportunity.

Journalists, strategic communications and managers must have a foundation of factual knowledge that enables them to ask the right questions and define problems to be solved.

To students: Ignore factual knowledge at your peril.

5. Not all information (on the web) has equal value.

Information literacy matters.

The incorporation of social sharing data into search results adds a new layer of noise that must be filtered out or taken into consideration.

6. Internet technology skills enable content creation.

Today, we can all create our own media empires.

Tech-saavy doesn’t mean the ability to consume media content created by others or interact with friends.

Consuming media online and tweeting or instagramming @friends is nothing more than the 21st century equivalent of watching TV and spending hours chatting with friends by telephone.

Conventional wisdom says “digital natives” are tech-competent and tech-comfortable. That bit of “conventional wisdom” is, as often the case, mostly misinformation.

My experience: Today’s college students are universally capable of using smart phones and mobile devices to interact with friends and consume and, sometimes share, media content created by others. Many will readily admit to me, “I’m not a techie.” Others are afraid to reveal that technology makes them feel uncomfortable and they will flounder until I eventually discover the tech disconnect.

My experience: A minority of college students have web sites where they actively blog and publish, but they’re mostly blogging about personal things. And most of those sites are built on free platforms like Blogger or, which are great as a first step in learning internet technology but insufficient for professional-level competencies.

My experience: A small minority of college students come into my classes with the tech skills to set up a self-hosted WordPress site, install a drag-and-drop customizable theme, select and install plugins and use this site.

Few students learn coding skills. I’m not convinced that all college students in the class of 2014-2016 must learn to code. But those who do will have a huge advantage in the long-term.

Perhaps coding is a necessary skill for today’s college freshman, high school and younger students. It probably is.

In any event, today's internet technology lets us create, publish and connect with new people, build our own audiences, even without learning any coding. Understanding html helps.

7. Lifelong learning is a reality.

In the real world, it’s not enough to simply “do the assignment.”

The assignment of life is never over.

I still set out to learn new skills and new information every day. And I have a BA, JD, LL.M. and Ph.D.

The answer to the question: ‘Is this going to be on the test?' is yes. At some point, it will be on the test of life.

[Tweet “Just doing the assignment won't bring life success.”]

8. It’s OK if you don’t know what you want to do with your life.

Students who are:

  • Self-motivated
  • Possess the type of desire that leads to action
  • Capable of collecting, analyzing, synthesizing information using critical thinking skills

and who can write  and communicate well will always be able to find a way to serve others and make a living doing so, even if it's not the perfect or ideal situation.

Students Pretty much everyone will be changing “careers” multiple times anyway. This thing called “career path” no longer exists. The thing called “career” is pretty much dead, too.

9. Students We have more opportunities today than at any time in history.

Today, it’s possible to create our own media empire using free tools readily available on the internet.

For the price of less than 2 lattes each month you can buy a custom domain and a web-hosting package to create an online portfolio and/or business and, with desire, effort, and perseverance, create a life you love.

10. Don’t be afraid to fail.

It’s ok to make a mistake. Do what you can to be prepared, then choose yourself and take action.

When you take action, something will happen. Or maybe nothing happens.

Take the feedback from the action and use it take another action.

If the actions aren't yielding the expected outcomes, reconsider the strategy, the tactics or the destination.

Anyone who's studied mass communication at the graduate level is familiar with the various  models of communication. All of them, even Shannon & Weaver's linear model, incorporate feedback into the communication process.

[Tweet “Take action. The results will amaze you.”]

This is what I've been trying to teach students in my classes, in addition to course-specific skills and information. I think these 10 lessons are the  most important things I teach, even when the reception isn't always favorable.

What do you think? What's missing? Am I wrong? I'd love to hear your thoughts.