Livin’ the Dream, Phil, Livin’ the Dream

Posted on March 4, 2015

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Phil Smith-Hanes, County Administrative Officer for Humboldt County, CA, joins our team of columnists. He’ll write on topics ranging from career advice to the differences in working for a county as opposed to a city.

 Livin’ the Dream, Phil, Livin’ the Dream

By: Phil Smith-Hanes, LinkedIn and Twitter
One of the pleasantries often exchanged in an office is to inquire how another person is doing. (Although, if you’re using the same tone of voice Matt LeBlanc did in Friends, there’s likely to be a FRIENDS2harassment seminar in your future.) The stock answer is “fine” or “good” (or “well,” if you’re a stickler for grammatically correct English). Occasionally you’ll get an “okay” or a “great.” But one of my co-workers has a fabulous response to this query. Whenever I ask how she’s doing, she responds: “Livin’ the dream, Phil. Livin’ the dream.” Sometimes her delivery gives lie to the words (after all, some days aren’t really “fine” or “good”), but I still love the response. I love it because I really am living my dream.
I am passionate about working in local government. It’s been an area of interest for me since I was a young kid. And I love working in the chief administrative office, with its seemingly endless variety of subject matters and the opportunity for making a real difference in the quality of life for people in our community. I got a degree (a/k/a went into debt) to do this. I worked hard at prior jobs to get where I am now. Even when I’m having a day that’s less than “okay,” I still can’t think of something I’d rather be doing for a living.


Back in undergrad I took a career planning course. It was a 1-credit hour, pass/fail sort of thing. But I remember way more about that class than about, say, “Appreciation of Poetry.” In particular, I remember a visualization exercise that we did where we were asked to imagine our ideal future. In it, I pulled out of my driveway (in a Lamborghini – remember, we’re talking about dreams here) and drove downtown to City Hall. Even though I’m taking #countycourthouseselfies instead of #cityhallselfies these days (and I certainly don’t drive a sports car), my actual life is pretty doggone close for a dream I dreamed 25 years ago.
In many ways though I’m still preparing for my dream. Local government is as much an adventure as a career choice. According to the Census of Governments, even excluding the states and the feds there are more than 90,000 units of government in the U.S. I wrote a prior post about counties, and got lots of suggestions for a follow-up. Some suggested I should write about transit. Others that I should explore township government. Well, twenty years into this career I still know nothing about either of those subjects that I couldn’t have read in a textbook. Conversely, I’ve had lots of experiences that weren’t covered in any of my classes: hosting a live, multi-site interactive community budget meeting and having members of the Occupy movement march around a conference room and chant during a meeting come to mind. I anticipate continue to learn until the day I file my retirement paperwork.

However, because local government is an adventure, my path from visualization exercise to living this segment of my dream has been anything but a straight line. There have been diversions both in my educational path and in my career path. Another comment I got on my prior post said, “Many of us are conditioned to look for specific career titles – so how do we expand…?” At the risk of incurring the wrath of Nike, my response is: “Just Do It!” Nowhere in my dream was being a planner for aging services or managing an investment portfolio. I spent way “too long” as a management analyst and “not nearly enough time” as an Assistant CAO. In the end, each of my experiences – positive or negative – contributes to my capability and informs my limitations.

connectI’m one of those people who plasters my office wall with quotes and inspirational messages instead of degrees and awards. One of the quotes is from Steve Jobs. It says, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward.” It reminds me of a story that ICMA Executive Director Bob O’Neill told a class at the Senior Executive Institute in Virginia. When asked about how he knew some of the programs he implemented as a City Manager would be successful, Bob said, “We didn’t. We just tried things. We kept the stuff that worked and tossed out the stuff that didn’t.” A similar sentiment is found in Robert Frost’s most famous poem (okay, maybe I do remember one or two things from that poetry appreciation class).

Maybe you didn’t have a visualization exercise in college. But somehow, you found yourself in this awesome career field. So, enjoy the adventure. And whenever anyone asks, tell them you’re livin’ the dream!

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