The desk in the hotel room was bathed in the glow of a Cracker Barrel sign.
This nearly ubiquitous restaurant chain had its sky-scraping signs located throughout most of the major highways of the United States and its promise of a wholesome country-style meal undoubtedly comforted many a weary traveler on lonely night drives throughout the American interstate system. I imagined that the parking lots of RVs and minivans, the back-lit gift shop windows and the rows of rocking chairs of Cracker Barrel stores would be modern day subjects for the artist Edward Hopper were he still alive, as places to paint if not to also dine.
As distracting as the thoughts of chicken and dumplings and cornbread, collard greens and post-war artists may have been, the more pressing issue on my mind was the engineering exam I had in front of me.
I was in the South Carolina Low Country on a business trip to help conduct process control training at one of our plant locations. A last minute need had arisen and our schedules had to be moved around, but I was eager to still participate and grow my experience as facilitator, instructor, communicator.
On this particular trip, I was going to be a teacher by day and student by night, taking courses in chemical engineering as part of my skill development. I was in the middle of a series of distance-learning engineering refresher courses, and I was one test away from completing the current session. The subject at hand tonight was mass transfer and chemical thermodynamics, or as I explained to a colleague, the reason why sugar makes your coffee sweeter faster if you stir voraciously with a spoon rather than let the sugar crystals dissolve untouched on their own.
Kirk poked his head into the office side of the suite where I was working, “You almost done, man?” Time was almost up.
Kirk, then the training and development manager at the site I was based at, was a mentor, career consultant and life coach to me. He and I were making this trip together to conduct the training. When I found that the last minute schedule change conflicted with my exam, Kirk said he’d be happy to continue his proctor duties and overnight the completed exam in the morning, the difference being that I’d be hunched over a hotel desk in the middle of a massive hotel suite rather than under the burn of fluorescent lights in a corporate conference room.
Kirk’s professional background was built from an expansive network of government, corporate, and academic roles throughout the southeastern U.S. It was always Kirk who was first to press a new book on leadership or management profiles into my hands or e-mail me links to career development articles he’d come across in his own work. It was also Kirk who got me started with a practice I still exercise to this day: the packed bag.
The purpose and concept of a packed bag is straightforward: If your job ever needs you to be agile and responsive at a moment’s notice, you should always have a packed bag ready and waiting in the trunk of your car. No need to run home and throw a suitcase together, no need to subject yourself to the risk of forgetting basic travel necessities when being pulled into an important impromptu opportunity. The packed bag should contain: a couple changes of clothes ranging from business casual to something slightly more formal, some travel toiletries and basic supplies, and a book to help you bide time in line, in airports, in taxis or in road-side sign lit hotel rooms.
For me, the packed bag also symbolized personal and professional readiness. As one obtained and collected skills and knowledge through professional experience or through academic endeavors, just having knowledge alone was not as useful as being able to be activate that knowledge when a business situation called for it. Kirk taught me to be prepared not just physically, but epistemologically because it was current skills and knowledge at the ready that would help me propagate the acquisition and development of even newer areas of knowledge and expertise. His coaching became instrumental in me not only knowing how to facilitate classes as an instructor on a given topic, but to polish the very skills of facilitating and public speaking.
The packed bag was a reminder to me of the adventure of travel that any profession could offer, that one should be primed at a moment’s notice to take advantage of opportunities that may arise, regardless if they were business opportunities, career development experiences, or a chance at tackling the open road in the search for new ideas.
In the face of sudden change of original travel plans, tonight my packed bag had enabled me to focus more on preparing for my exam than actually packing for the trip. I signed off my test and handed it over to Kirk. He smiled as he autographed the cover page, glancing at some of my scratch-work and formula derivations with a raised eyebrow. He sealed the test into a FedEx envelope, pointing a corner of the package at me: “Better you than me, man,” he smiled. “Time to grab some food.”
Our other colleagues were waiting for us in the lobby. Kirk, with his seemingly endless well of energy, had already snatched up his laptop and power cord and had zipped around the corner into the elevator bank.
The sound of the hotel door clicking into place behind me as I stepped out into the carpeted hallway snapped me back into reality. Kirk stuck his head out from the elevator, which he had been holding for me and smirked, “Test wasn’t that bad, was it? Let’s go, man! People waiting!”
The test was over and it was time to focus on the class I was going to be teaching in the morning. As I stepped into the elevator, I could see one of Edward Hopper’s painted characters quietly look up from a cup of coffee in a dusty highway-side diner; he nodded in approval.
I was ready.
Published October 10, 2012 by Austin Lin
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of and should not be attributable to the National Society of Professional Engineers.