One day, while I was still working in the Bureau of Land Management and was stationed in the U.S. Forest Service Research Laboratory in La Grande, Oregon, I was ordered to go to Washington, D.C., to brief the director's staff about the results of our research. I was being given an opportunity to speak to the BLM brass, and I wanted them to hear what I had to say. Therein lay the problem.
I was in my mid-thirties and single in those days, and I thought of myself as a "wildlife biologist," which meant that I had an image to uphold. The "image," as every biologist knew, was that of an underpaid martyr for the cause, a roll I played with gusto! Being just a "poor biologist martyr," I'd never been in the "big time" or gone to Washington, D.C. So I asked my friend, Jack, about the "big city."
Toward the end of our conversation, Jack asked, "What are you going to wear when you speak to the director's staff? Do you have a $200 suit?"
"No," I snapped, "I don't have a $200 suit, and what's more I'm not going to get one. I'm going to wear my biologist clothes. After all, I'm going there to talk to them not to put on a fashion show!" And I thought to myself: "How could I wear anything else?"
Jack then asked, "Do you really want them to hear you or just look at you?"
"To hear me, of course," I growled in righteous indignation; "how I look has nothing to do with what I say."
"True," said Jack, "but they have to get past how you look before they can hear what you say."
At some level in my being, I knew he "had me." I knew he was correct, but I didn't know why. And I couldn't just give in, so I said, "I'll think about it," and left his office.
That evening I went home, and--grudgingly, mind you--took stock of my clothes. Except for a few, drab, almost-worn-out shirts from Sears, the rest of my clothes were from the Salvation Army. I'd figured out that I could get $250 worth of clothing for $17.50 by shopping at the Salvation Army store. Anything else was a rip-off! And besides, what difference did it make if I wore a blue denim shirt with green and brown plaid pants that were three inches too short in the legs as long as I was clean and sounded intelligent? Furthermore, I had my "good," army shoes. True, they were 25 years old, but no one would notice the holes in the bottoms if I kept my feet on the floor.
As soon as Jack got to the lab the next day, he called down to my office. "Maser, come up here!"
I went upstairs to his office.
"Have you thought over what you're going to wear to D.C.?" he demanded.
"Yes," I answered.
"Well, what have you decided?" he asked indignantly. "Do you want to be heard or just stared at?"
"Heard," I said flatly.
Jack picked up his telephone and rang Marion's number. Marion, our head secretary and business manager, was a wonderful, understanding woman--who used to draw maps of La Grande for me if I went anywhere besides the grocery store, or else, because of dyslexia, I'd be lost in the town of 10,000 people.
"Marion," Jack said, "Maser's going to fun city next week, and he needs a $200 suit. Will you please take him to town and get him some D.C. clothes?"
"I'd love to!" she replied.
So I not only got a suite but also had to model it for the secretaries when Marion and I got back to the lab.
Because two people cared enough to take the time and had the patience to walk me through one of my blind spots, I was in fact heard in Washington, D.C. The director's staff might not have liked what I had to say, and I was heard.
Jack taught my a very important lesson. If I want a particular outcome, such as being heard, I must go through whatever process, or take whatever steps are necessary to achieve that outcome. In this case, it meant wearing the appropriate clothing, which didn't mean I had to agree with it or even like it. It only meant that I had to make a choice about what I wanted to have happen and to make a choice about how I had to behaved in order to bring about the desired outcome. It also meant that I had to accept the outcome of the choice I had made because it was, after all, my choice!
Jack Ward Thomas, my clothing advisor.
© chris maser 2002. All rights reserved.