The simplest measure of all is survival. Lots of people who try consulting aren’t able to make a go of it in the long run. The survival rate after three years for sole proprietors in the American economy is a meager 50 to 60 percent. Independent public history consultants might fare a bit better than the national average (too small a sample for quantitative investigation?), but if you can stay in business for more than a few years, congratulations. You have succeeded where many others did not.
A more complex and interesting measure of success has to do with the quality of the work that consulting offers you. Because public history is in many ways a labor of love, it ought to bring you a healthy dose of “psychic” reward. Independent consulting can present the opportunity to tell great stories. It can allow you to engage with issues you care about in the public sphere. It may invite you to dig into the past for the benefit of your community, or of some constituency within that community. Do you enjoy the work that you are doing? Are you engaged by the issues that it compels you to wrestle with? Do you feel like you are making a positive contribution to someone’s understanding of the past? I call that success.
You might also measure success as an independent public history consultant in an even more personal way. It’s likely that personal intellectual interests and passions got you into this field to begin with. Can you make time to pursue them? Do you still have the opportunity to grow, either by expanding your knowledge of your field of specialty, or by developing a new one? If you still have the occasional moment of discovery, or if you are continuing to use your intellectual capacities in new ways through your consulting work, then you are successful.
As a practical matter, it’s also handy to have a measure for success that involves your income (see my previous post for more on this subject). Are you being compensated fairly and equitably for your work? Benchmarking against a similar profession or the uses of a similar credential is a sensible approach. For years I have benchmarked against average compensation for college/university faculty. I’m still waiting for my endowed chair, but in terms of compensation, I’m holding my own with my age cohort. I’m prepared to call that success.
Finally, there are other measures of success as an independent consultant that come with running your own show. Sure, clients can make unreasonable demands, and some jobs go more (or less) smoothly than others. But there’s an element of sheer luxury that accompanies independent consulting that’s not be overlooked. On the academic side, it means no longer having to worry about whether your department chair will give you a fair shake, or whether your dean is a schemer. For those who once had the pleasure of working in a bureaucratic organization, it means never having to sit through another dreaded staff meeting led by a refugee from the politburo, and rarely having to participate in strategy sessions where good ideas are stillborn because they didn’t originate with the right people. Have you left one or more of these execrable situations behind? Good for you.
Congratulations, fellow independents! A bit of celebration is in order. May success by many definitions accompany all of your consulting endeavors.
– Christopher S. Clarke, Ph.D.
Exhibition Developer and Consulting Historian