Halfway through the PRSA ICON 2018 conference, I realized that I was choosing my tracks more for what the grassroots side of me needed than for my job as director of media relations at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. I knew instantly that the grassroots advocacy side was really where my heart lay.
That was early in the process of writing my book, “Champions of the Lost Causes,” which explores why people champion causes, what sustains them and what helps them succeed. My curiosity for the subject matter stemmed from my continued work saving Memphis dormant Mid-South Coliseum from the wrecking ball and helping it reopen. It would be another year before I started a “Champions of the Lost Causes” podcast to interview people who champion other causes. Why did they have the fire in the gut?
Cause-based work is often where the world changes – where pipelines are stopped from going through sacred land, where buildings are repurposed not bulldozed, where policies are changed, where a campaign of ideas wins hearts and minds and turns back unchecked greed.
I experienced the exhilaration of being part of a group of people championing a cause together, and what it demanded of me as a communicator was a level of challenge and complexity that I found fascinating and fun.
What a shame that these small units of people are not often given the resources to win their war of words and ideas. That bothered me. Certainly, there’s a way I can change that, I thought. That has stayed with me ever since.
Flash forward three years to the spring of 2021. I’d written 150,000+ words, brought in a developmental editor and a book marketing coach, launched a website and started growing a subscriber list. By then I’d also published a free e-book, and gotten into a rhythm with the podcast. Suddenly, I was laid off from my job.
There was no sense in getting upset with the coronavirus. “Other people have lost their lives,” I thought. “You’ve only lost your job.” Still, it was a gut punch. Twisting in the wind was painful, but on the other side of it now, I realize it was good for me.
Sometimes life kicks you out of the nest when you don’t have the courage to jump.
The key change I had to make was internal. I was wired as a “company man.” My dad had worked at FedEx for 25 years, and my father-in-law had worked as a college professor for 35 years. It took time to rewire my DNA, and to learn to run on entrepreneurial fuel.
At first, I saw the clients I took on merely to pay bills while I worked on landing my next “big regular job.” Problem was, I kept being told I was overqualified. Having St. Jude on my resume helped me insofar as working for a respected global brand told potential employers about my abilities. But it hurt me because they said, “We couldn’t ever match your St. Jude salary, and we know you won’t stay, once the next big job comes calling.” Maybe they were right.
“You’re going to have to do a national search,” colleagues told me, but with my family having roots in Memphis, I didn’t want to move for a job, and the few top jobs in town that would have made sense were sewn up tight by long-serving incumbents.
Over time, though, I realized that I enjoyed the variety of work serving multiple clients. That, combined with not being able to find a “big regular job,” made the choice to go into business for myself obvious in a way, but it is only in hindsight that I see this with clarity.
A personal brand identity that goes beyond words
Finding the right fit takes time and building out a custom fit was taking me even longer.
I still had to do the branding work that would ensure that how I showed up in the world made sense to people. I’ve always been a mission-driven person. What would that look like with me running my own publicity practice?
My branding brain realized I should try to build equity in the master brand of my platform, Champions of the Lost Causes, but Champions of the Lost Causes PR wasn’t testing well with fellow branding pros.
“Clients won’t want to think of their organizations as a lost cause,” they said. They were right. I considered, simply, the cause, but a friend said, “Oh man, don’t lose the word champion! That’s a powerful word!”
A few people tried to talk me out of using the word “cause” entirely. “Some businesses won’t think of themselves as a cause, so you might not win the FedEx account,” they said. I thought about it, but then realized I don’t want the FedEx account unless they need my help publicizing their corporate social responsibility work. After all, CSR work is how the corporate world leverages its funding might to champion causes. I’m all about helping land media coverage to shine a light on that.
When I first got curious about why people champion causes, the primary lens was my personal experience. Early on in doing the podcast, I realized that what I learned from the people I interviewed was the secondary lens that deepened my knowledge. With the new brand name freshly minted, it hit me that working for clients would be my tertiary lens into the subject matter that so fascinates me.
Now I’d developed a brand identity that made sense not only as words, but as a reality I could live into and get up every day excited to execute on.
The slow, steady work of reinvention
One of the biggest boogeymen fears I had in going the solo route was the business back-end duties – getting a business license, learning to invoice, etc., but once I jumped into the small business waters, I realized that there are easy-to-use tools for everything you need.
Sure, a full-time job can take care of all those paperwork hassles for you, but that concierge-level service can keep you from growing the muscles of independence that can help you see how possible being your own boss can be. Yes, being responsible for where the revenue comes from is a different anxiety, but living inside organizational paralysis at the mercy of poor decisions north of you is far worse. When you’re in business for yourself, the steering wheel of your career is firmly in your hands, and where the road trip heads next is entirely up to you. I love that freedom!
The pandemic and resulting life chaos forced a hard refresh for many of us. How you choose to use that opportunity will be different from me, but the core questions you’ll have to confront are the same.
Who am I? What is the thing that I and only I can do in a way that the world needs to be done? What does that look like, and how can I show up in a world that makes sense to others and connects me to the people I need to learn from and collaborate with to keep making progress? What was I born to do, and what stands in the way of me doing that work?
Honestly answering these questions involves the slow, steady work of reinvention. Tune out the voice of inner doubt as much as possible. Eliminate everything that strengthens that voice. Get lean and clear, so that you hear the quieter voice of your higher, aspirational Self. That’s the real you. Give that version of yourself the steering wheel and get ready for one hell of a road trip down the highway of life’s best energies.
A change in your career can take years to develop, and even longer to work itself out in reality, but it starts by observing how you feel and not dismissing the little nudges life gives you. They add up to insights you can act on to do work that makes you happy.
Marvin Stockwell is the founder of Champion the Cause. For information, visit championthecause.org