Get out your cardigan and slip on those comfy shoes.
At the moment, there is a renewed interest in beloved children’s TV personality, Mister Rogers, thanks to the moving documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” It has been met with critical and audience (and my own) acclaim. In a recent column, Alice Lloyd in the Weekly Standard reminds us that he was fond of saying, “Simple and deep is better than shallow and complex.” For those of us who grew up watching Mister Rogers, this concept about his world view, as seen through his weekly show, resonates deeply. His is a kindly voice from the past, speaking truth to our current era of “all the things.”
This quote resonates for me as I think about the people I’ve met who work in the business of arts and culture. Given our sector’s abundance of needs and ideas, combined with our paucity of resources, we often find ourselves on the shallow and complex side of that equation. There’s just so much to do, and never enough hands. I've seen so many people who find they have to do “all the things.”
And yet, from time to time I’m surprised by someone I meet who has intentionally chosen to focus on the “simple and deep.” This doesn’t mean they work any less. And it doesn’t mean that they don’t pull their weight. Far from it. In fact, these folks are so focused and driven that their output and effectiveness often far exceeds those attempting “all the things.”
I can think of no better illustration of the power of a person adopting “simple and deep” than Jamie Bosket. When I first met Jamie, he was Vice President of Guest Experience at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the most visited historic house in America.
In this position, Jamie had the daunting task of looking after the entire experience of more than a million visitors each year. Mount Vernon is an historic campus with an interpretive center, multiple structures and farms, and the iconic mansion. The logistics, traffic flow, and operations need to be tightly choreographed. Balancing a positive visitor experience with protecting an American treasure is a constant and delicate tightrope walk. With his staff of 200 paid employees and more than 400 volunteers, Jamie’s job was the epitome of complex.
Jamie Bosket speaking at the 2016 Tessitura Learning & Community Conference
We were fortunate enough to have Mount Vernon host the attendees of the Tessitura Learning and Community Conference (TLCC) one evening in 2016. Many months in advance of that, I joined our conference team for a site visit there to talk through the evening. Jamie was our point person. After a logistics meeting in their offices, Jamie walked us over to the grounds for an interpretive tour of the mansion and grounds. Since Mount Vernon was going to provide these tours to our guests, our conference team wanted to “sample the product.” As we were waiting to start the tour, I looked around and saw we hadn’t yet been joined by a tour guide.
I asked Jamie, “Who is giving the tour?”
“I am,” he said, simply.
An evening at Mt. Vernon during TLCC2016
And he did. And he was amazing. As a reminder, for hours leading up to the tour, he had deftly talked us through the nuances of bus logistics for 1,700 guests, rain contingencies, fireworks, and much more. Now in an instant pivot, he was expertly relating the story of the gentleman farmer who became the Father of our Country in the United States. He answered every question, no matter how obscure, with an assurance and vim that made clear his passion for the subject. We were transfixed. I asked how often he gave tours. “At least once a week.”
So is this “Simple and Deep” or “Shallow and Complex”? One could argue for the latter. Bouncing from strategies to budgets to HR to giving tours and back again sounds like the height of complexity and short attention span. And yet, I think this is classic “Simple and Deep.”
What was Jamie’s professional mission? Providing the best possible customer experience for their guests. At its simplest, what does a guest want when they come to Mount Vernon? They want to learn about George and his home, and they want the experience to be wonderful. How did Jamie spend his days? Ensuring a great customer experience, and once a week being that customer experience. Every moment of his day was a simple and deep focus on the customer.
But don't take my word for it. I asked Jamie why he took the time out to give tours. He said, “To me, it comes down to connectivity. I need to see and feel the impact we are making with our guests. I need to stay connected to them, in order to stay rooted in our purpose.”
And as I thought about it more, I realized that this Simple and Deep focus on the crux of your job, is a through-line for many successful cultural administrators I know. Adriana Law, when she was Marketing Manager at Bell Shakespeare in Sydney, would take shifts in the box office from time to time, to keep a pulse on the questions and experience of her customers. As I related in this talk on this topic, Josh TerAvest, when he worked in marketing leadership at Pacific Northwest Ballet, would periodically man the kids’ craft table in the lobby during intermission of The Nutcracker. While the kids made magic fairy wands, he would conduct informal focus groups with their parents and grandparents to learn about their customer experience.
Josh TerAvest at Pacific Northwest Ballet during an intermission of The Nutcracker
Regardless of how busy you are, is your busyness focused on All the Things or is it Simple and Deep? How do you find your Simple and Deep? I suggest starting with your own professional mission. Jamie’s mission was to connect visitors to the rich history of Mount Vernon in the most meaningful way possible. Adriana’s was to ensure that the company’s marketing message is aligned with the interests of the audience. By giving tours, selling tickets or manning the fairy wand table, they were all going deep with their simple mission.
The final Simple and Deep point that Jamie had for me was this – He said it was important to him to “Never lose touch with what started you on this path”. The first reason he gave tours at Mount Vernon was to stay connected to his guests. The second reason was because he loved doing it. He loves history, living history, and great experiences.
So you might be surprised to hear that Jamie left Mount Vernon 18 months ago. Don’t feel too sad for him - he left for an opportunity that this top-notch administrator with a love for history couldn’t pass up. He is now the Executive Director of the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. I had a chance to catch up with Jamie recently. Knowing that his last title was Vice President of Guest Experience, I remarked that he seemed like a pretty unconventional choice for the top job at this museum. Normally, history museums are led by academics, curators or master fundraisers. He confirmed that he was unconventional — and he was happy to be.
Jamie Bosket at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture
He is the first non-academic to hold the post at this 187-year-old institution. At 35, he is one of the youngest history museum leaders in America. How did the Board come to choose him over so many other more traditional candidates? When I asked, he posited that it was his demonstrated focus on guest experience, and his authentic passion for history. Simple. And Deep.
What can we all learn from Jamie? Find your professional mission and keep it simple. Focus your work on that mission and try not to let “all the things” get in its way. And importantly, allocate a small amount of time every week to ensure that you “never lose touch with why you started on this path” as Jamie says.
Since Jamie started at the head of the Virginia Museum of History and Culture: attendance is up 20% to the highest it has ever been. Audiences are diversifying. They had one of the very best years of fundraising and generated more earned income than they ever had. The Board’s unconventional decision appears to be working.
And finally, Jamie’s commitment to “never lose touch with why you started on this path” has taken on a new form as well. Partnering with their most tenured curator at the museum, he has co-authored a new book focused on 400 key objects in the museum’s collection – providing him an opportunity to deeply understand their collection and present it to the world in a very simple way. It is the perfect summation of Jamie’s professional mission. (And yes, he still gives tours).
As Mister Rogers said at the end of every show, “There's only one person in the whole world that's like you, and that’s you.” What is your professional mission?