By Denise Wydra
One item in my employment history stands out from the rest. After working for over 20 years at education companies, I took a brief spin as a tour guide. And not just any kind of tour—a tour by Segway.
That’s right, I was one of the people leading those helmet-headed tourists you see wending their way through the city on vehicles that seem more at home in a mall. This isn’t the place to debate the goofiness of Segways, but let me tell you, they’re a great way to see a city.
At the time, I had just resigned from a executive-level position and was taking a bit of time off before jumping back into the fray. I wanted to do something “fun” before working full time again.
Local ad: “Do you want to give tours of Boston by Segway?”
Me: “Yes! Yes, I do.”
At the time, I thought of it as a palate cleanser. It seemed the perfect antidote to sitting in meeting rooms for 8 hours a day, scrutinizing spreadsheets. After a bit of fresh air, I told myself, I’d be ready for conference calls again. I also wanted to have the experience of doing something completely new and different.
The people I worked with were all fantastic. The other guides included skateboarders and musicians who needed some extra cash, and the management was smart and energetic. I was the oldest member of the team, as far as I could tell, and the only woman working at the time. My persona quickly evolved into “mother duck with her ducklings.” I had a blast.
It cleaned my jaded palate right off. And it also turned out to be excellent preparation for the next phase of my career. I’m now working as an independent consultant, helping edtech start-ups and other small education businesses grow their organizations. I don’t know if I would have made this move if it weren’t for my stint as a Segway tour guide. How did it help?
First, I got a chance to apply old skills in new ways. I was responsible for creating my own script, which in my case meant building up a mini-history of Boston punctuated with fun facts. The script was never completely canned—it helps to be able to improvise when you’re stuck at 3 red lights in a row—but there was a fair amount of new material to learn. In other words, I was applying my research, writing, and presentation skills. It was useful to remind myself that I could learn and create a compelling narrative about a brand new topic.
Second, for the first time in about 20 years, I was at the bottom of the hierarchy and not managing anyone but myself. Sure, in organizational terms this was a big step down, but it was great preparation for working as an independent consultant. And it was so freeing! I was still a team player, but I wasn’t responsible for anyone but myself; I could focus on my own performance. This mattered, because I had to prove myself all over again. No one I worked with cared anything about my putatively exalted work history, because it didn’t make much of a difference to my current responsibilities. From their point of view, I was simply the least experienced person on the team. Excellent preparation for starting a career in a new domain.
Third, I had to tune up my extrovert skills. Of course this included being able to chat with people and give a presentation, but because of the nature of the tour, it involved much more. Before we hit the streets, I had to give each person an individual lesson on maneuvering a Segway. If you’ve never been on one of these machines, it’s a bit disorienting—easy to learn and extremely safe, but odd at the beginning. So I had to be able to capture and hold people’s attention and guide them through a somewhat-nervous-making physical training; I had to instill confidence in complete strangers, primarily by broadcasting my own confidence. I also had to maintain control of the group, as people kidded one another and egged each other on. There’s nothing like ordering a hotshot adolescent to “slow down” when he or she is trying to impress the rest of the gang. Now responsible for my own business development, I use those skills every day—even though very few of my contacts are teenagers rolling toward me too fast on a heavy machine.
I’ll end with this one: I stepped up my physical fearlessness. Leading a line of Segways through Boston traffic, especially during rush hour, is not for the timid. If you’re not assertive, if you don’t demand that others yield to you, you won’t get anywhere. I told my groups that if they were lucky, they’d hear a “Boston serenade,” which sounded just like a honking horn and was definitely a sign of respect. I’ll admit, being a consultant doesn’t exactly require physical fearlessness. But the experience helped me feel a little bit more like a superhero, able to do anything.
Spending time as a Segway tour guide was certainly fun, but it was also more than that. I took on something new and proved to myself I could do it, strengthening my skill set in the process. I’ve become a believer in “palate cleansers” between career phases whenever possible—they can help clear out the cobwebs and exercise atrophied muscles.
Also, I have a fallback career in case this knowledge worker gig doesn’t work out.