When I was young, I thought art history was stupid and pointless. I figured we can all look at something and think anything, so why does one person have to be right and the rest of us wrong.  I also didn’t see any value to the subject and taking courses on it.  However, if challenged, I wanted to be able to say I at least tried it.  So to fix that, I enrolled in an art history course while at Penn State University.

I went to class every day, listened in on the lectures, and took a few notes. When the first test day came and went, I had scored a 53 out of 100 – not good.  I immediately reconsidered the point I was trying to make by taking this course and figured it was not worth hurting my GPA.  So I set up a meeting with the professor to drop the course.  

Little did I know that my life was about to change forever.  

I met with Professor Houghton in her office and explained to her that I scored a 53 and this just wasn’t going to work out.  She went on to ask me about my interests, other classes, and what inspired me to even enroll in her class.  We actually had a great conversation where she told me a little about her career too.  After one hour, she said, I’ll approve your drop request, however, I have a better offer.

Professor Houghton went on to start pitching me on why I should give this class another chance.  She explained how she thought I could be a great art history student.  She helped me see that I brought a unique perspective and set of skills to the subject.  

In art history, she explained that one of the activities they perform is to compare and contrast.  While many students simply learn about the facts and can share the differences and similarities, she felt that with my interest and passion for math I would bring a more analytical approach to that process.  I had never considered that my math experience and interest could serve me in art history.  Professor Houghton argued that my math skills would be an invaluable asset in art history and that I’ll be better positioned to ask great questions and challenge artwork in different ways.  Learning that I had something that would add value to the subject, even if I was a beginner, inspired me to rethink dropping this course.  

She argued that there was a special opportunity for me to add value to her community and maybe in the process for me to learn something unexpected.  

This was her offer to me…

  • She was going to teach me how to take notes in a class like art history – after she reviewed my notes in that first meeting, it was clear I needed help with this.
  • We were to meet once a week to discuss the topics of the week.  This was essentially a chance to sit down with an art historian and talk about art history.
  • For each paper, I was going to turn it in one week before it was due to be reviewed by her teaching assistant.  Not a draft, but my real paper, to be returned with feedback and a score.
  • I would then have a day or two to revise it and turn it in again for the real grade.  Essentially this was a chance to write it perfectly.
  • She occasionally shared bonus readings that she felt would be of interest to me.  She sent me a few great articles on Leonardo Da Vinci that to this day impact me.
  • Lastly, if by the final deadline to drop the course I was not trending in the right direction, she would help me drop the course.

This was an offer I couldn’t refuse!  I agreed to stay in her class and work to get my grade up and finish with at least a 90 average (this was my target).  She said I still had a mathematical chance of achieving a 90 average if I score 100 on all remaining assignments, tests, and papers in the course.  So we went to work on the plan and my life would never be the same again.

Professor Houghton taught me so much more than I had ever expected.  I walked into the course looking to confirm my dislike for art history and instead I walked away with a new passion and love for art.  Plus, a few key lessons…

Reinvention doesn’t start from scratch.  

We always have a skill, perspective, or approach that we can apply to start strong in a new field.  This lesson became so incredibly important in my life when I embarked on my first reinvention in 2008.  Empowered by this idea, I looked for every skill, perspective, or experience I could bring into each reinvention, starting with the first one.  I never started from scratch again.

This powerful lesson gave me permission to enter new communities and fields of interest.  In fact, one of those communities was the art gallery scene in St. Louis.  When I was starting my first major reinvention, I was looking for new people to connect with.  One day I walked into a local art gallery to just look around and talk to the people there.  I met an incredible woman, Nancy, the manager, who happened to remind me so much of Professor Houghton.  Nancy went on to help me connect with so many incredible people and became a mentor to me.  I spent countless hours at the gallery, telling her about anything and everything going on in my life during those first couple of reinventions.

Inspiration is Often Waiting Where You Least Expect It

Thanks to Professor Houghton, I became so inspired to learn more about art history.  I went on to enroll in 3 more art history courses, all of which were not even necessary to graduate.  She connected me with her colleagues and helped me pick out those courses.  

For the remainder of my time at Penn State, I always stopped by to visit Professor Houghton and share with her my evolving relationship with art history.  Thanks to this experience, I chose to study abroad in Rome, Italy because I would be able to explore so much of my favorite artwork in person.  While in Rome, I enrolled in a course on sculpting and explored my own artistic side.

I never expected to find such inspiration by taking an art history course.  Professor Houghton changed my life forever when she introduced me to her passion.  I’m still in a relationship with art history today.  She opened a new door for me that allowed me to become part of a new world.  

The Keys to a New Door Are Being Held by People You Don’t Know

After graduation, Professor Houghton mailed me an official copy of her latest published article in an art history journal.  She asked me to read it ahead of my next visit to campus so that I could give her my feedback in person.  I was shocked that she wanted my feedback, but then again, it was Professor Houghton who told me I had a unique perspective.  We sat down at a local diner near campus and I proceeded to show her my notes on her article.  I couldn’t believe it, here I was, sharing my notes with a professional and published art historian.  After I shared my notes, she looked up and said, “of all the peer reviews I received, no one picked up most of the things you did.  See, you have your own way of looking at things.”

I learned that if I want to pursue new fields and open new doors, I need to connect with people I don’t know today.  By knocking on the door of a new world, I met Professor Houghton and Nancy.  These two women not only answered the door, they also invited me in and showed me around.  They introduced me to new ideas and people.  Both of them changed my life in profound and permanent ways.

Today, I find myself in a similar situation.  I am knocking on the door of my next reinvention and reflecting on this experience is reminding me that I need to keep an eye open for the next Professor Houghton and Nancy.  

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