I love when people ask questions. But I’ve missed a huge part of the process. Like many others, I have always taken an exciting interest in answering questions and the discussion that follows, but I haven’t necessarily focused on the question-asking. It wasn’t until I spoke with Michelle that I learned there can be so much more to the questions that are asked in addition to the answers one may receive.
Michelle was trained in the criminal justice system at an early age and learned the importance of asking questions through clinical training (she’s a licensed social worker). As a probation officer, she relied heavily on facilitating conversations with clients in order to develop productive working relationships. And, you guessed it, asking questions was a big part of that.
Have you considered how business, social media, and finding connections is primarily fostered by the right questions? Can you imagine creating a job of your dreams based on assessment, questioning, and curiosity? Michelle is not only living proof, but lively proof that you can get the right answers if you ask the right questions. She excitedly participated in my Unlocking Potential interview, adding a fresh, unique addition to my series. (You can view the others here)
Interview: Michelle Welsch
GB: I would love to know what you think your passion, or your life purpose is. You have this fire, this passion that is evident. What fuels it?
My passion has always been people. I love to learn about what makes people tick and hear their stories, learning about their world and how they see things. I’m fortunate that the work that I do helps people share their stories with others. Connecting people only amplifies that. I like watching people make strides professionally and personally, and I like to think I help people do this through observation, helping people own and recognize their own brand story and introducing others who might enhance their work. My focus has mostly been, “How can I help others?” — I had never seen myself in the driver’s seat, always walking alongside people and businesses and companies I might help reach their goals. But with Project Exponential, I’ve realized I’m now steering my own ship.
GB: I see that many of your writings and blog posts are inspirational and talk about courage and challenge. Do you write everyday? Do you see writing as a practice?
You can write everyday, but that doesn’t mean you have to publish every day. It’s valuable to get into the habit of writing. That moment of brilliance will never come if you’re waiting. You could be waiting a very long time for that perfect moment. The perfect circumstance will probably never happen, and then you’ll never finish anything. Just get in the habit of writing ideas, notes, quotes, observations about things you see that inspire you. You have to practice seeing the world in a way that corresponds to words. You learn to verbalize and communicate in a different way and how to transfer your thoughts onto paper. While practice can make the process more fluid, with anything there are ebbs and flows. I try to aim for moderation. Often times those moments when you think you have nothing to say are the important moments when you have to force yourself to write anyway.
GB: I have to ask, is there a book in store?
I’ve flirted with this idea, but we’ll see. It might be a fun goal. Recently I came across Austin Kleon’s advice: “Write the book you’d want to read.” I’m not entirely sure what I’d write about just yet. I’d need to have more of a concrete idea before I really consider.
GB: I just finished reading Keri Smith’s book: Living Out Loud. She mentions all great female writers have an intrinsically unique connection to nature. I’ve seen some recent photos of a trip to Peru on your twitter feed. Are the outdoors important to you?
I grew up in Colorado where the outdoors are an integral part of life. When I first moved to New York, I thought I was going to have to give that up. But I found Discover Outdoors and the Upper West Side, surrounded by Riverside Park, Morningside Park, and Central Park. Being outside has always been super important to me. I get the best ideas when I’m outside and running around. The ideas always happen when I’m someplace in Central Park, and then I have to repeat it over and over in my head until I can come home and write it down. I think that’s when the best moments happen, when you’re in a different environment.
GB: Now I’m going to shift the subject a bit. What’s it like working with Seth Godin? Do people equate you with him?
Working with Seth has been some of the most rewarding work I’ve done. He’s incredible to work with. With Seth, his work is his. It’s about picking yourself and creating your own name.
GB: You’ve certainly done that. How have your past experiences impacted your work?
My resume is a little nontraditional. I’ve managed to draw valuable lessons from a variety of environments — the court room, the South Bronx, higher ed settings, and clinical therapeutic settings. My transition from social work into the corporate, business world started really slowly. When I freelanced for Interbrand, I was a consultant in this very buttoned up corporate world, but I would often teach people the same skills I would teach, let’s say in probation or to disadvantaged youth, how to be genuine, human and approachable when communicating. My experience there acted as a type of “mini-MBA” and showed me what skills I could bring from my former career path into this new world of business and tech.
GB: It seems your consulting work helped lay the foundation for the creation of Project Exponential: the transition, the growth, the learning, the insight, and most importantly, the transferring of skills. I’m so curious about what you do. After looking through Project Exponential’s website, I immediately related to your passion, mind-set and way of thinking. I imagine you’re someone who likes to dabble in a little bit of everything (most of us who strive for success do). Is that why you make events where really different people come together?
When I first began to make the career switch, I started wondering what kinds of work people would do if they borrowed from a different industry — whether it would be better, more interesting, more creative. I started sending email introductions to people I had encountered who had similar interests or parallel work. Sometimes best intentions fall flat, and the intended coffee dates wouldn’t always happen. So I began selecting individuals and extending invitations to unique locations I had reserved throughout New York City. I wanted to run my fingers horizontally through industry verticals.
GB: So what happens during a Project Exponential event?
It’s always different, depending on who is there and what kind of space I choose to complement the group. The venues change; it could be a private room in a trendy restaurant where attendees have to walk through the kitchen, past the chef and the dishwashers to find it. I’ve held some at wine shops that separate part of the store for us while we are there. I’ve also hosted attendees in a basement dining room, and they’re treated to a four course meal. It’s an experience.
Before events, I spend time with each attendee, learning more about their work and creative process. It’s kind of like an assessment. I create specific, tailored exercises for each event so that people can learn more about each others work. One of my favorite parts of my work is to find the balance of structure, easing anxieties of being in a foreign place with strangers and creating the backdrop for serendipity to take place.
GB: Your understanding how to create problems and questions specifically to each group you curated is extraordinary. You’ve stepped away from traditional networking conventions. Why is it important to you to protect the names and titles of those attending?
I want to create a space where everyone’s on the same playing field. This anonymity allows people the freedom to step away from their work and whatever preconceived notions or judgements someone might have about what they do for one evening and connect with others in a meaningful way. There are plenty of events that list of the names of attendees. You go, hoping to meet specific people there and may walk way with a few business cards that, if you’re lucky, turn into something remarkable. You may also miss meeting a handful of incredible people who didn’t have the job or the title you wanted to see.
I have seen magic take place at Exponential events; people are following up with coffee dates, planning bike rides, helping each other with business ideas and expanding their networks. I’ve watched design directors brainstorm with entrepreneurs, athletes mix with CEOs, and writers engage in hearty conversation with bankers. My aim is to use this momentum to inspire others to do the same, step out of their industries and put themselves in new environments where boundaries can be crossed. I want people to ask, “How can I disrupt things?” and make something happen.
GB: What has been a highlight of your work with Project Exponential?
I take a lot of time putting each group together. With each event, I consider who needs to meet and at what point during the evening this connection might take place. Connections and common interests aren’t always clear, but it’s up to me to connect the dots. If I’m honest, there’s a quite a bit of anxiety for me in delivering something magical for each attendee, but it’s incredibly rewarding to watch two people interact in the way I had envisioned. I try to focus on providing the backdrop for magic to occur and let the people take care of the rest.
GB: What inspired you to make this career change? What got you going and what’s propelled you forward?
The move from the social good world to what I’m doing now was intentional but not necessarily direct. I knew that I needed to take specific action to get into the next realm and took small, manageable steps. With Exponential, it took more coaxing and courage, and I had to make the decision to commit to it. Seth’s work helped quite a bit.
We grow up learning that we have to find the job, do the work, and get paid. Suddenly it clicked: “What a minute, I can create this dream job I’ve been searching for.” And then it’s a matter of jumping. At first, it’s a bit of a bungee jump feeling — exciting and scary but you can’t wait to see what happens.
GB: How do you try to live your life? Are there any quotes that have inspired you?
“Leap, and the net will appear.” -John Burroughs
You have to take risks. No decision in life is irreversible. It’s much better to go and do and figure out how to fix it, and you’ll feel that much more satisfied with having tried it. You just have to do it. Jump. Go. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the wrong direction, you may end up with a more scenic, memorable ride. Just go. That’s how I ended up in New York.
Look and see how you can shake things up, be fearless. Whether it’s walking home from work a different way, trying a new restaurant, placing yourself in a new environment to meet new people, inviting random people to your house — just open that space for different things to come your way. It doesn’t have to be huge.
You can find Michelle and her work online, most recently here. I have also shared a few of my favorites below.
- The Slacker’s Guide to Creativity
- Inspiring Co-Workers
- ReWorking Career Ladders, Changing Employment Trends
- Embracing Challenge
- Urban Girl Squad
To learn more about her project, visit www.projectexponential.com.
Stay Positive & #impresario
Garth E. Beyer