Ma'ayan Plaut

Manager, Social Strategy & Projects at Oberlin College.
Photog, foodie, teacher, Oberlin alum.
(My own) thoughts & things live here.

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I helped boost my brother into the next step of his life this past weekend — new place, new things, new world — and while I’m still a bit torn up inside every time I think about the fact that he’s now farther away from me than he’s been in four years, that feeling is quickly squashed when I remember he’s in a kind place with kind people.

I had a moment of clarity regarding my ever-networked world and its effect on those around me this past week. When the nets work for me, it’s a meeting place, a connection between humans with the help of our webs, both sticky and digital. In leaping, we’re caught.

Always be networking doesn’t mean to work every room with the intent of getting someone or going somewhere, but the most basic connections begin with the basic kindness of conversation and curiosity with a twist of gracious gratitude. What it does mean, though, is that the small interactions you begin to have with someone can become something bigger… but you have to take that first step.

The hard hurdle to get over with this mindset is that you have to keep on taking it (you get better at it the more you do it, but you still have to keep on stepping up). I’ve been doing the connection thing for longer than I can remember (before I knew it was called networking) and I’m still meeting people every day, but I’ve transitioned from simply meeting new folks to facilitating introductions between people who haven’t yet met but should. It personally feels different from the definition of networking I’ve been told for a while, but it is, in fact, that definition in action. Where people + people = networking, I’ve gone from the plus as synonymous to a conversation between me and someone else to the plus becoming me. A weird shift, to be sure, but it’s a property that brings individuals together to be something greater than each of us alone.

When you have friends that move on from your world into the bigger one out there, a fond farewell gift is a little piece of your network. Between the random runins during first local shopping trips or a planned brunch with friends, I sent my brother off in style, with a side of local food and the promise of future adventures. And I know he’s in good hands because I am.

Being at World Domination Summit reminded me a lot of my college experience at Oberlin: 3000 super fascinating, curious, hopeful, world-changing human beings ascending upon a fabulous location that has friendly bursting out the seams. I went in with open eyes and open mind (and let’s be real, an open mouth, because much like college, Portland is delicious) and an almost laughable disconnect from my internet world, and came out with some newly solidified friendships and some solid reminders that a creative life is one that’s lived all the time.

Unlike all my other conference experiences clocked in the past three years, I attended WDS for me and only me, and not specifically because it was connected to my work. Here’s the rub, though: I throughly and selfishly believe that if I spend time on my own creative life outside of work, my creative life at work is the better for it. I love my work and I do it hard, because hard work leads to hard results. I love my creative time and go at it hard, too, but in more of a hard roll rather than hardtack sort of way.

I initially went into WDS thinking I would pull my creative outlet into a second and simultaneous spotlight alongside my professional spotlight, but #realtalk: that’s not what I want. I like doing my fun little food thing because it is exactly that — a fun thing! — and not because I want it to consume (ha!) my life. I feel pretty excellent about the freedom and creativity I have at my job, but if I pour everything creative that I have into that role all the time, I’m going to burn out. And that’s not a fun thing.

Starting at WDS and since then, I’ve reignited a passion project, The Adjective Sandwich. And that’s how the project will remain. For now. If you want to play with me, I’d love to share my fun thing with you.

My first day in Portland I wrote a little bit about a project I decided to focus on as my personal goal for meeting with and talking to people at World Domination Summit. I thought I was at a point that I was ready to start on the project that was in my head — exploring what it means to write a book that included a lot of thinking about food — but after a full day of talks and conversations in and around the activities and sessions of the past 48 hours, I think it’s fair to say that a revision of my goal is necessary.

Jadah Sellner spoke this morning about her path to now: how businesses are relationships and how to deal with the dreamer-doer spectrum that haunts us all. She gave us a series of practical thoughts, but these in particular: say your dreams out loud, take consistent action with focus, and to stay curious and driven by love.

Which is when I realized my goal for this weekend was all wrong. I don’t love the idea of writing a book. It’s scary in a way that I can’t really fathom right now, because I’m fearing how to think about the process rather than the reason I want to do it, which is that I love thinking about and being creative with food. That is fun. That is my curiosity, I love the process and the product, and I love that it involves interacting with people and how they relate to their food. And more importantly, it allows me to play with my (and your) food for mutual enjoyment.

In college, I took my role as an employee at the campus cafe very seriously. The custom salad and sandwich bar where I worked at least one shift a semester became my food playground. When friends (or soon-to-be friends) came into the cafe unsure of what they wanted to eat that day, I would ask them their adjective and a short list of questions (dislikes/can’t eats, tolerance for spiciness, and omnivorous/veggie/vegan preferences) before I would begin free associating their word, the ingredients on hand, and what I knew about that person to make their one-of-a-kind sandwich. No two people received the same sandwich, nor would the same word on a different day inspire a similar combo.

This went on until I graduated, and nearly a year after that I found myself missing the regular food creativity, so I moved the whole endeavor online with The Adjective Sandwich. I could solicit adjectives (and answers to the required questions) via email or the Tumblr ask box, then I could share the completed sandwich with the eater and the world.

And then things stagnated for a while (a few years >.>) as I tried to figure out internet life for a person whose full-time work is the internet (how do you deal with the world and the web when it’s all happening all the time?) but I’ve done a handful of custom sandwiches for friends in the past few years still. I just renewed the domain name last week, and after today, it’s time to get back to that in a serious way. I said it out loud. Now it’s real.

So, here we are. Hi, new friends from the world. I like to make people eat their words. Tell me your adjective and I’ll tell you what you eat. I truly believe that creative association makes the food experience highly personal and enjoyable, and I want to live in that world where I (and my eating friends) can have that experience regularly.

And we’ll see where we go from here.

My dad and I sometimes (let’s be real: regularly) get into sprawling conversations about, well, everything. The most recent one was the evening before my first trip to Portland, to absorb some cityscapes and places I think I will love and to attend my first personal (rather than professional) development conference, World Domination Summit. I’ve never been before, but I’m imagining it’ll be a good time for me to figure out how to balance creative Ma’ayan at work and at play, to find a bit of solace for some young professional restless energy, and to try and tackle more than just brief thinking about a project that’s been on my mind for a bit: writing a … book?

I love books and I’m not going to get into allll that here, but following a few things:

- several inspirational thoughts from Lorain County native Toni Morrison on writing the books she wanted to read during her recent visits to Oberlin
- a serious conversation with a foodie friend and cohort who said that I write in a readable style that would complement a cookbook well
- a more serious conversation with my dad about how my brain tends to free associate with food more often than anything else

I decided to actually put some brainpower toward figuring out *how* to do just this.

Planning

Scott Kubie had a great presentation at #psuweb about the digital writing toolbox. Before we got to a point of talking about how we use writing tools, though, we had to break down the writing process (something ungrounded, with the mystic of ~writing~ as a thing that just happens magically) into tangible writing workflows. As Scott went on to explain, writing is a series of steps: thinking, composing, editing, and finishing.

Right now, I’m in the thinking stage. I don’t actually know how to move to the next step because I’ve never tackled something this big before. I think I’m actually in stage 1.7 of thinking: I’ve thought a lot about what it is I want to do, but I haven’t actually thought about how I will do that next thing, which is starting to actually write.

And so I’ve decided: this is something I’m actively seeking out at WDS. If you have written (or started writing) a book, I want to talk to you.

Finding my niche

Food is my jam, literally and figuratively. I love talking about it, I love thinking about it, I love playing with it, and above all else, I love sharing it. I thoroughly enjoy reading food literature, those storytelling pieces that talk about thinking and sensations with a nod to the process, too. Those are the books I want to read, and those are the books that excite me to the point of wanting to try new things and talking about it and sharing it with other people.

So I’ve decided this too: if you read food writing or think about food when your mind starts to wander, I want to talk to you too.

Okay. Let us do this thing, this 3000 person meeting of the minds. I’m ready.

Sometimes it’s very hard to talk to people on the internet. Like, you know they’re out there and that they are possibly listening, but how do you say “Hi!” to someone you’ve never met before? (I suppose you can just say hi, but if you don’t have anything to talk about after that, it just feels awkward. Hi. Hi. *shuffles feet*)

I don’t really know, but I’m trying to do this better. Today I said a hello and a thank you to Melody Kramer, who is in a similar strategy role to me but at NPR (!!) and has been a source of a great deal of good ideas and inspiration this week. 

Why did I get up the nerve to say hi today? Well, I spent several on and off hours reading the NPR Social Media Desk yesterday and today, because once you start, you can’t stop. (For those of you who don’t know about the #socialsandbox of NPR, it’s great: it started as an email list serv to start sharing and educating the fine people who work at NPR about the world of social media and now it lives openly on Tumblr and it’s filled with wonderful things.) After reading some of Melody’s presentation notes and slides and seeing many of the statements and things I’ve said in my own presentations and slides pop up in hers, I just couldn’t keep my feelings inside anymore.

I let Melody know that I’d been reading the blog, thanked her for being so transparent about learning about social media, and let her know that it’s good to not feel alone in this brave new world. That was the best hi I could muster, and I spent the next twenty-ish minutes freaking out about how this cool famous person would react to me tweeting things. (Turns out that the action is faving and retweeting and that my reaction was to get flustered and excited that someone I appreciate saw my words of thanks today.)

While much of the stuff hanging out in the #socialsandbox is useful and fun to explore, the reason the blog exists in the first place is a huge deal to me, and that’s the top reason why I like it. That kind of transparency and sharing your learning parts of social media is rather obvious to me, because the only way to learn new things that haven’t been discovered yet is to share the things you’ve learned about doing something new that you just discovered from doing it. The only way I know how to get better is to share things and reflect upon things constantly, and I try and model that behavior myself as we do new things at Oberlin. The Social Media Desk is doing just that, first internally and then externally, and I freaking love it.

This “crack your one-off emails and things open and use it as a public piece of writing” mindset is one I love very much. It’s popped its head up a few times in the last week or so: a Facebook post on finishing up my student loans turned into a longer Oberlin blog post, all of my emails to students who participated in a recent virtual panel included individual recaps of the viewership for each panel that turned into my full documentation of the panels on the webteam blog, and after asking a whole lot of prying questions of a friend-I’ve-yet-to-meet-face-to-face via email, he decided to post excerpts of it as his second post in The Month of Blogging Rantily. (It’s a good post and I recommend it, and not just because I asked a bunch of questions that prompted the writing in the first place.)

So let’s just say I’m feeling bold this week. If I find something useful out there online and I can identify the human behind it, I’m trying to thank them for their awesome. If you made my day better, I’d like to make yours better too.

**
You would think the story ends here. In true social form, it has legs beyond earlier today.

My social media counterpart over in the admissions office is Tanya, and she and I are hosting a BlogNFeed this evening (read: make and eat tasty food, then blog lots in a comfy living room while eating dessert and drinking tea — this is partially for us but more for our fabulous Oberlin student bloggers), and like I do after a long day, I’m a little bit distracted thinking about all the things I could write about tonight. So I turned to Tanya and asked if she followed Melody on Twitter, thinking one social media person knowing about another cool social media person that’s brimming with ideas and resources is worth sharing.

Tanya: “Yes, I know her.”

Me: “Wait, really? Awesome!

*beat*

"… Wait, you know her? Like know her know her?"

Tanya: “Yes, and she kicks butt at trivia, too.”

Me: *falls over and flails on the couch* “ALL I WANT IN MY LIFE IS TO BE FRIENDS WITH COOL PEOPLE. COOL PEOPLE BY ASSOCIATION. FRIENDS.” *flails*  

I get a little bit starstruck when I know of cool people who do work I admire and I would like very much to meet one day. Celebrity is a strange thing sometimes, and at this point in my life, it appears that celebrity is “role model/cool person that does cool things.” When there aren’t a lot of directions to look in when venturing in a place where there are no roads, finding a kindred spirit or two who think similarly to you will do the trick. Or at least it did today.

I’m a visual communicator. Cameras are my eyes.  I majored in cinema studies in college because seeing made more sense than reading, constructing made more sense that writing. More often than not, I’ll confirm the final thought of an email thread or Twitter conversation with an appropriate animated gif. It’s just how I roll. 

**

Two weeks ago, I returned from a trip from Boston and ended up in a conversation with an Oberlin trustee. He asked me what I was doing in Boston — presenting, of course, on admissions, social media, and working with student content creators — and then asked me what the newest big thing in social media will be this year. (I’m pretty sure the exact phrasing was, “So, what’s the next Facebook?” but you all know how I feel about Facebook. I feel Not Great about Facebook.)

I responded that while I don’t know what the next big app-thing will be, I have a pretty good feeling that it’ll focus on visual communication: photos, gifs, videos, animations, selfies, emoji, memes, etc. Why? Because in a world where more and more communication happens online, in text form, we lose a lot of the open-to-interpretation parts of non-verbal communication. Visual communication gets a little bit closer to understanding and conveying our feelings without face-to-facing with our receiver, much less finding the words for it, words that limit us to our vocabulary, our language, our platforms. If a picture is worth a thousand words, an emoji is worth a half dozen smizes, an animated gif is worth 100 losses of eye contact, a meme is worth an uncomfortable weight shift or two, and a selfie is at least a gross of giggles.

**

This marks a shift in our understanding, but are we prepared? Two considerations:

  • Do we possess the education to effectively translate visual communication to meaningful understanding?
  • Are our digital spaces ready to make visual content accessible to everyone?

I am currently doubtful on both fronts, but these are things that we as technological developers and educators need be aware of as we make and teach our newest generations of communicators.

#casesmc was my first ever conference in 2011. It was where I started using Twitter as a professional, where I was first introduced to the idea that social media was a thing we could do with fun, purpose, and direction, and found some of my longest running human resources in the social media in higher ed space.

This year, however, was a golden opportunity. It’s the fifth year of the conference, my third attendance of the conference, and my first time presenting there: I did two sessions (one on crafting the content your community wants and one on knowing your narrative), joined a parliamentary panel to pontificate about social media stuffs to an entertained audience, and did a half satirical/half serious Between Two Ferns segment with my boss, Ben Jones.

At the end of our comedic bit, Ben and I asked the whole audience to participate in Instaception: Instagrams of people Instagramming, and like Inception, the more layers the better… but there was an added challenge to get more people Instaceptioning in the background of the initial photo: a Instagram Inception selfie. 

Why do Instaception selfies with the #casesmc crowd? Well…

  • Ben secretly wanted to do a Oscar selfie and have it be the most retweeted photo of the conference. Only thing: you can only get so many faces into a single group selfie, because arms. I’ve got short ones. We’ve got a lot of lovely people at #casesmc. And to up retweet value, the more people in it, the better the chances of social lift. So we last minute shifted our idea to selfies and Instagram (it had been used a lot during the conference, so it’s not like it was an unfamiliar concept).
  • We social media folks are so much more than our accounts. One of the underlying repeated phrases during #casesmc was that we need to remember that there are people behind social media accounts, both on the brand side of things (be human!) and our audience side of things (those likes and shares aren’t numbers, they’re people).
  • We don’t look like our avatars. As one of the last actions of the conference, it was good to capture the moment in time when we are who we are, in our element with our fellow nerdlings. (Also, secret: I didn’t get to meet as many of the folks I tweeted with F2F as I’d hoped, and if I did, I didn’t necessarily connect Twitter handles with faces in the moment. This activity made it easier to connect accounts to the folks I met fleetingly over a few days.)
  • Of all the groups that would understand the concept of Instaception (and play along with it), #casesmc would be it. 

The results were beautiful (here’s a bit of proof), and I did a quick run through following the presentation but couldn’t fully appreciate it all until the next day. A lovely lovely thing. 

After photographing so many people for so many years, with all those digital trails following my images and the subjects around (forever now, because internet), I’ve started to take a very different approach to my own social media content creation.

You see, my life is filled with people. It’s a really wonderful thing, to have good people surrounding you, but it’s a heavy burden to be the mouthpiece of someone else’s experience. (It’s hard. It’s problematic. I don’t rightly recommend it.)

When it comes to content creation — okay, I’ll drop the jargon and tell it like it is — when you do something, that’s yours; it’s not for me to share with others. It’s yours. You may have been gracious enough to share it with me, and for that, I am forever grateful. But what I do next is up to me. The one little piece of your digital identity that I can control for you comes from me deciding to not put it out there on your behalf. Remember: that’s your decision, not mine. Digital identity is part you and part everyone else, and I’m keeping my “everyone else” part to a minimum when it comes to you, and I’m maximizing my digital identity when it comes to me.

This doesn’t mean I’m not prolifically sharing content on social media. But I have a few rules I follow myself:

  • When I post photographs involving faces, I explicitly ask permission right then and there if I can post their photo online. The only exception to this rule is groups of people shot in public and photographs of people performing. You’ll notice that many of the photographs I post at this point in time do include people, but they’re shown more in pieces or in representation of there being people around rather than specific people. 
  • I keep story-sharing starring others to a minimum. If I do, it falls into one of a few categories: my perspective on something I just experienced, a highly generalized (names stripped) version of what happened, or if the story itself unedited is important, I ask before I publish. (Same rules as the photo thing goes here too: things uttered in public forums are fair game, but usually only if they provide value or strike me as something I’d like to think/talk about more later.)

My personal mantra surrounding documentation — cameras are my eyes— applies to what I experience, and I’ve translated it to “always observing, always absorbing.” But it’s not who I see or hear, it’s what I see and what it means to me. 

My social media presence is me first, others maybe. It’s my story first, and others intersect with it, but before I put it out there, I want them to know that they’re a part of it. I believe that this makes my social media more personal, more thoughtful, and more a model of the behavior I wish to see others embody in their own social spaces, too.

The last two weeks have been ripe with content strategy. Last week at this time, I was coming off the end of #confabEDU, the first content strategy conference for higher ed, and it changed me. Not that conferences before didn’t change me before, but Confab felt different. It felt a little bit like… love (or something like it).

I’ve spent the last week, most every minute since returning from #confabEDU on Wednesday evening, trying to explain (with a slowly recovering voice, because mine escaped me sometime following my presentation last Monday) what exactly Confab was like, what I learned, and what’s next. In classic internet-friendly fashion, the best way I’ve figured out that describes my experience is in meme form.

Let’s visit the “???? Profit!!!" model of goal setting. Not familiar? Here’s a crash course:

1. Think a thing.
2. Decide to do a thing.
3. ????
4. PROFIT!!!

Content strategy is the ???? part of the above paradigm. ???? stands for researching a thing (read: talking to people), making things (read: managing the people who make the things), finishing an iteration of a thing (read: giving it to people to start doing things with it), and revisiting the thing (read: responding to the changes to what we do, based on the changes in our people).

Sensing a trend?

Content is people, in that people make content and content is for people. We can easily lose sight of that when we’re just generating content because we always have, and content strategy is beginning to bring people more visibly back into the equation to be smarter about our decisions to make things for the right folks (and to make it best it can be for those folks).

People are simultaneously the most frustrating and the most awesome part of everything I do. They are sticky and complicated and interesting and the most important thing about people is that the only thing we can say about all of them is that they have feelings and ideas and that we should probably listen to them. (Valid, ALL THE TIME, not just when we talk about content or strategy or the web. Listen to people. For realsies.)

I love web and social media conferences, I really really do, but most presentations at web/social media conferences talk about the great thing we made that we want to show off to you all today, please and thanks for listening. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get a single actionable takeaway from a presentation, in part because I’m not on that school’s team with their budget and their overall goals. That’s a tough thing to come home with, because repeating someone’s cool web thing isn’t necessarily going to solve our problems. (A good web presentation, of which I have seen lots this year, will pull out some of those big picture things for us as a part of the talk, but it’s not the bulk of it.)

I expressed a similar caveat near the beginning of my presentation on making content more social when answering the question, “So, what does making content more social actually look like?” I don’t know what it looks like for you all; the best and worst thing about a strategy is that mine won’t work for you and yours won’t work for me because your goals aren’t my goals. Yes, that may suck because it’s not a solution to your issues BUT it is an opportunity to talk about what kinds of things went into solving our problem so that maybe you can solve your next one better. Especially when it comes to making content more social, everything we do is a giant experiment and the best thing that can come out of it is our reflections on what worked and what didn’t so that the next thing we do is better.

Content strategy is realistic. It’s grounding. It’s the solution to deeper, harder, more challenging problems that we haven’t necessarily learned about yet, but it’s not a final solution, but rather, a solution that defers to change and progress as a constant and not just focused on the final product.

So, that feels a lot like love. Or, let’s get more committed (deep breath): more specifically, it feels like a relationship I’m going to have to seriously work at more moving into the future. I’ve never felt more stumbly, awkward, and emotionally drained following a conference than I have this past week. I’ve never felt less sure of my words or my thoughts related to what I’ve talked about surrounding Confab. It’s not a solid thing, the stuff I’m thinking about, and that’s scary exciting but also hard to admit to people that I don’t know what’s going on in my head. But right now, it sounds a little something like this:

Content? Do you like me? Because I think I’ve liked you for a very long time, but I didn’t realize it until recently, since we’d spent all this time in the same place without me really knowing what it meant that we had this kind of connection, but now I know. Let’s stay together.

(The title of this post was prompted by this tweet from earlier this evening.)

This evening, I attended a talk hosted by the career center on serendipity, mentorship, and women in the workplace. Ben Wittes ’90 and Becca Rosen ’06 struck up a conversation in 2005 that since resulted in jobs, opportunities, and a long-lasting personal and professional friendship for each of them. It was a candid storytime on their meeting, its results, and advice on how to do the whole mentorship/work thing as an Obie/recent grad human, and more specifically, how it pertains to the women entering the workforce.

It was a great talk. I’ve followed Becca on Twitter for a while (I met her cousin Zach during social media office hours last year and immediately started following her after he gushed about her coolness and relevance to my interests) and that was enough to get me to Craig Lecture Hall this evening… but add in a Ben (hey! I know and love so many Bens!) and the possibility of discussing mentorship and I am sold. I attempted to tweet a few good thoughts, but that rare thing happened where I became so engrossed in what was talked about that I completely forgot about writing things down and just kinda sat with a silly grin on my face and nodding like a bobblehead at practically everything Ben and Becca said.

Sometimes you go to a thing that’s so good that it’s hard to get down some thoughts immediately following. But I’m seriously going to try.

At this point, the thought percolating in my head is this:

Ben mentioned that most of the people contacting him for advice are young women. Becca mentioned that it’s incredibly rare for her to receive messages from young women, rather, she receives many from young men seeking advice or assistance. I’m noticing myself that most of the advice transactional stuff I get is young men aiming to start off and hope to do great things in the higher ed and/or social media space (I mean, even as I started writing this tonight, I got a direct message from a recent grad who’s cutting his teeth as a new social media manager wondering about something related to managing Twitter accounts). I, much like Becca mentioned this evening, will talk to pretty much anyone who contacts me. I’m in communications. This is what I do. But hello, the ladies? Where are you? I know you’re out there because I’m out here.

One possible scenario is perhaps I see my fellow women in a different mentor/mentee sort of situational thing. In most situations, it comes from an outward general offer of something (either me or them, mainly in the form of an in person conversation, a Twitter thing, or a blog thing), we converse, we move on and do cool things and keep on checking in with each other when we need it. That’s the beginning of a beautiful friend-mentorship thing. But why is that so different feeling than the relationship I have with my mentors?

I initially went into this evening’s exchange with trepidation, echoed in a recent conversation with a friend considering attending this evening’s talk. Ben Wittes? A mentor to young women? Why this guy? Who does he think he is, this dude offering advice to women as if he knew it all? Why not some kickass lady mentoring soon to be even more kickass ladies? I worry about this myself a bit, that I have many excellent role model mentor types who are men and I have so few that are women. Am I getting what I need (noting that I also have no idea what I need)? Does it matter?

Obviously, it does, because it’s on my mind, but I’m not sure exactly why. I want to be able to point at my mentors and know that they’re there not just cause they’re awesome and provided me with something that helped me make more sense of what I’m doing or my role in the world, but because they also have had experiences that I can identify with and draw from, too. And when they’re all men, that’s an experience I haven’t had and probably never will. I don’t want to prescribe everything to that, but it’s an element that (sadly) can’t be overlooked when it comes to the modern workforce.

(Sidenote: I read this really good blog post on balancing inequality in the workplace by Amy Jorgensen today. You should too.)

It’s a worry that’s there, but as Ben and Becca pointed out tonight: seriously, though, at some point it’s really not about gender. We’re ALL here to help each other out, we shouldn’t relegate advice giving/receiving to one person or another because of gender, and we really REALLY shouldn’t be shaping our ideals of “having it all” to men or women or anyone, really.

So, a thing: my mentor dudes? You all are cool. Keep on telling me I can do whatever I set myself to (keeping in mind that I’m not aiming for “it all” but rather, just some great stuff cause it seems like a good thing that I like to do) and keep an eye out for some positive female mentor-folks for me, kay? I want to be that person for others, and it helps to have someone to talk to along the way, too.