How a Summer of Feeling like a Failure Was Exactly What I Needed
September 7th | 2016
by Ben Olson

Failure is no fun; there’s no doubt about that.

As my salacious title suggests, I spent much of the summer feeling like a personal and professional failure as a member of the Assembly – an unconventional spin on the summer internship by a company that could never be described as conventional.

It began by trying to understand what they hell they do at Zeus Jones, while simultaneously getting put on a very real project for one of the world’s largest companies.

I was thrust into product development, something I’d never worked on before, and on top of that, this thing had to nail the aesthetics, which, to put it nicely, are not my forte.

In May I was thinking, “I bet this marketing thing isn’t that hard,” but after a few weeks of working with the Assembly, my self-talk quickly changed to, “I am painfully bad at this. I really hope they don’t fire me. Should I quit?”

See, I have a pretty successful career going as a lobbyist at a boutique government relations firm here in Minneapolis, where we represent trade associations, businesses, and non-profits at the City of Minneapolis and Minnesota Legislature. The session runs through May and our summers are usually pretty relaxed. My boss has always challenged me to do something innovative in the summer when we aren’t busy, so when a friend forwarded me the application for the Assembly, I thought, hey; this could be the “cool thing” I do this summer.

I am not sure cool is the right word to describe the experience – though ZJ is working on some very cool projects and the people who work here could definitely be described as cool— but eclectic, super freaking smart, and innovative are probably better descriptors.

But anyway, back to the failure. The biggest hurdle was this “Keynote” thing people keep talking about. After very strong encouragement by my fellow Assemblyman Matt that “I wasn’t going to be successful unless I actually downloaded it,” I did, and thus started what was a long and painful journey creating concept slides and iterations of launch activations, voice and tone guides, and brand stories.

And the slightly frustrating thing, which somewhere along the line became the reassuring thing, was that I agreed with them. It’s not like the presentation wasn’t “good” or the ideas “valid,” it just wasn’t something that the client needed to see. I think, however, that it helped evolve our thinking and move our internal discussion of the project forward. It also answered a bunch of our questions and prepared us to answer the clients’ questions about the launch.

So why exactly did I feel like a failure all summer? I think there are two reasons:

  1. Walking into a new social dynamic for someone who “explains social dynamics for a living” is completely terrifying. I guess it brought back feelings I hadn’t felt since I started at the State Capitol 9 years ago.
  2. Not feeling like I “know everything” is incredibly uncomfortable. I got a serious lesson in humility. Not knowing what I was doing was super helpful in reminding me that I need to continue growing at work and in my personal life, something we don’t always think about as 31-year-olds a decade into our careers.

But, in the end, my summer of feeling like a failure turned out to be exactly what I needed. I got to humble myself enough to learn something super valuable – no matter what’s next for me.

I want to thank Rob White, Sarah Lansky, Elsa Perushek, and Lindsay St. Clair for putting up with me all summer and for teaching me so much – and for letting us work on such an incredible project. I’d also like to thank Sarah Herberg for being our ZJ mentor, and for directing her incredible taste and wit towards our process. Finally, to my fellow Assemblymen and Assemblywomen. Matt, Natalie, Sammy and Nate: thanks for holding me up this summer – I have learned so much from each of you. I’m not quite sure how I’ll survive without you.