A military officer. A minister. A politician. A track coach. While these may sound like four different people, Jim Watkins has worn all these hats in his 65 years. Each path has been vastly different, but the common thread through them all his Jim’s ability to lead and organize, notably as District Director for Congressman Ben Jones, “Cooter” from the Dukes of Hazzard TV show.
In the second half of a two-part interview, Jim discusses how he discovered which type of job he belonged in, and shares his advice to those searching for the right career path. (Photo courtesy of brookenovak)
“I have never done things because it was expected of me. I found that it has been a helpful approach to life.”
Sometimes the best part of an experience is what you don’t like: Jim learned as an undergraduate that he would not want to pursue a business career. Read his story about his military service: you don’t have to worry about having every job being a perfect fit for your skills.
Find your comfort zone: Jim has realized that he is more of a start-up person that one who maintains. Read about how this influenced the way he approached his job on the faculty of a major Seminary.
Realize that you won’t be in this job forever: Jim provides a powerful example of leadership in how he approaches any new role: he goes in knowing that he won’t stay there forever. Read how this changed his view when asked to start a 12-month-only job.
Read the full interview:
Avocationist: You said early in your life, when you were changing schools and trying things out, you knew what you liked and what you didn’t like. How did you know what you liked and what you didn’t like?
“Here I was a Georgia Tech studying industrial management. I knew that profit maximization in the long run did not excite me.”
Jim: I was at Georgia Tech on an athletic scholarship. I took a battery of interest tests every year when I was trying to think about what I was going to do after school. What it does is compare your interests with the interests of other people in various fields. My lowest score was always the President of Manufacturing Concern. Here I was a Georgia Tech studying industrial management. I knew that profit maximization in the long run did not excite me. I did not want to make a lot of money. One of the things that I had to be careful about, because you have to look at the downside as well as the upside of things, is that you have to make enough money, but I didn’t want to see my job in life making as much money as I could. That pointed me in the direction of some fields where that was not the prime motivator. That is why I became a military officer and it was attractive. That’s why law, and I probably would have gone into public interest law, was attractive. That is why public administration was attractive. I didn’t see myself as being in the private profit sector.
“So for whatever reason, in terms of my interests being developed, I would be happier in those fields that majored in social relationships whose end product was not maximizing profit.”
Those tests also said I had interests with people in the social fields. I did rank high compared to attorneys, social workers, teachers; that sort of thing. So for whatever reason, in terms of my interests being developed, I would be happier in those fields that majored in social relationships whose end product was not maximizing profit. So I kind of knew that from the get-go.
“I have never done things because it was expected of me. I found that it has been a helpful approach to life.”
I discovered that what I liked to do most was where I had freedom of decision. Where I could be myself and I didn’t have to fit any kind of mold and I could even be outrageous if I wanted to. So as I look back, I was seeking those fields. In those places where there were stereotypes of those kinds of people, perhaps like being a pastor, I found out that one of the gifts that I brought to that situation in those circumstances was that I was not going to be put in that mold. I was not going to be a pastor that always dressed a certain way and I was very fortunate to have a life partner that thinks that way, too. I have never done things because it was expected of me. I found that it has been a helpful approach to life. What I found in the public sector is that the trust is the currency. You can disagree with folks and you can even not like folks, but the bottom line is being able to trust what somebody says. I think by and large in life, I have been somebody who has had some integrity about who I am. What you see is what you get.
Avocationist: Of all the jobs you have done, which were your favorites?
“I came in contact with clergy, particularly young clergy, who I helped to be a bit more courageous.”
Jim: I think my favorite job was being on faculty at Columbia Seminary. The reason is because I was helping to form approaches to ministry for students, and in the long run, perhaps making some systemic changes in the church. Institutionally, my loyalty is still to the church and there are so many clergy who are not involved in public matters. I had suggested that we develop an academy through Faith in the City. Unfortunately, my experience in the church has often been that there is a lack of courage on the part of clergy. I would like to think that in those four years that I was at Columbia Seminary that I came in contact with clergy, particularly young clergy, and that I helped to be a bit more courageous. That probably was my favorite one. I also had a great deal of freedom.
“Even within the context of churches, I enjoy being a start-up person. So you could say that in some ways, I am a ‘social entrepreneur.’”
One of the things about freedom, as I look back and realize what I really had done and done well, is that I have always been a start-up person. I started the program for the denomination; the Peacemaking Program. I started the program at Columbia Seminary. The program here with the York County Democratic Party; it was in bad shape and they never had monthly meetings. So in essence, I started a party. Even within the context of churches, I enjoy being a start-up person. So you could say that in some ways, I am a “social entrepreneur.”
Avocationist: That is a good title. Now were there any transitions that you went through that were particularly difficult?
“I think it was more difficult for other people who were wondering if I had lost my mind.”
Jim: I think it was more difficult for other people who were wondering if I had lost my mind. No, I didn’t feel it.
Avocationist: When you think back over your career, were there any people who were particularly helpful to you at different points?
“If you have been able to look at yourself and say that ‘I did it. I conquered whatever was the fear in me’ or ‘I maximized what I wanted to maximize,’ that is what it is about.”
Jim: One of my coaches at Tech, Dean Griffin, and also Dean of Students, taught me a lesson that I still teach my runners: “You have won if you have beaten yourself.” Competition in life is not about other people, but it is about yourself. If you have been able to look at yourself and say that “I did it. I conquered whatever was the fear in me” or “I maximized what I wanted to maximize,” that is what it is about.
“It is better to have folks you don’t trust close to you than at a distance.”
Going back even further, a scoutmaster when I was 12 years old gave me a copy of the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling, which is all about change. I still give that poem out to folks along the way when they are having a rough time. I think those were key people early on for me. I think Ben Jones was key in that he was a recovering alcoholic. Ben had really good BS detectors, which helped him to remain sober. With Ben I developed a pretty good BS detector. Through that I learned with Ben that you don’t go away from with whom you detect there is some BS going on, but you keep them close to you. It is better to have folks you don’t trust close to you than at a distance. What clergy for example tend to do, is that when they have a run-in with somebody in the church, they get away from them and that is not what you are supposed to do. You are supposed to keep them close to you. As Lyndon Johnson said, and this was his language, not mine, “It is better to have people inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.” So keeping folks close that you really don’t trust.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t have a lot of role models growing up or in the church.”
I guess those are the people who have been key. If you notice, there is not a pastor in that list. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a lot of role models growing up or in the church. I respected those folks and could see some of the same things that I respected in leadership in them, but personally, there was not a role model within the church as clergy that I could identify with.
Avocationist: Based on what you have learned and experienced, what advice would you give to people who are figuring out what they are trying to do?
“I would say to develop a support system that is quite apart from what you are engaged in as a career.”
Jim: First of all, ask yourself what interests you. Secondly, I would say, “What are your skills?” Then I would say if you are looking toward change, look toward an area that interests you and an area where you can take skills that you have now and put over into that area. Thirdly, I would say to develop a support system that is quite apart from what you are engaged in as a career.
Avocationist: What do you mean by a "support system"?
Jim: Throughout my career, I continued my running and had been a part of a track club. In life, you have to have perspective and you have to have distance from what you are doing for life’s work or a portion of your life’s work. Those folks who are not able to see the possibility of change are those folks who are so enmeshed in what they are doing right now that they see no other options. So whatever you can do to surround yourself from people and places and things that are apart from what you do 9-5, then that will help you gain perspective when it is time to change what you do from 9-5, It also provides a consistency. No matter what I was doing in my life, I always went out and ran and I competed and that gave me something that was consistent.
Avocationist: I think I know the answer to this question; do you have any regrets?
Avocationist: I am not surprised. How would you like to be remembered?
“I would like to be remembered as a person who people, except for my wife, see as unpredictable.”
Jim: I would like to be remembered as a person who people, except for my wife, see as unpredictable. She knows me pretty well and she sees the way I really am. I have been known to show up places and say things that cause people to take a second look at me.
Avocationist: What do you think you will do next?
“The first thing you should think about when you enter into a situation is what this place is going to be like after I leave. I find that if you have that feeling that ‘I am not going to be here forever,’ when you step into it, that helps everybody in the long run.”
Jim: I see myself as continuing to help develop young runners. I will probably do the political party thing one more two-year term and then let somebody else step in. By the way, one of the things that you learn and that I have taught my students is that the first thing you should think about when you enter into a situation is what this place is going to be like after I leave. I find that if you have that feeling that “I am not going to be here forever,” when you step into it, that helps everybody in the long run. The party will be stronger because I will be gone. The distance runners will be stronger if they can inculcate within themselves some lessons. I may run for office if there is a place for me. I wouldn’t mind being on the City Council in Rock Hill. I am going to be a grandfather for the first time in the fall. My greatest priority probably will be that; it will be family. I am looking forward to those things.
Avocationist: Thank you for speaking with me. I think your advice will be very helpful to those reading it.
“I think part of what keeps people from doing changes that need to happen is just plain old fear, and sometimes you need somebody who can help jumpstart you and get you out the door.”
Jim: Yes, it maybe will help people. You know, when I was jumping out of airplanes, I asked the Jump Master if you ever get over the fear of leaving the door of the airplane and he said, “No, and if you do, don’t jump.” I think part of what keeps people from doing changes that need to happen is just plain old fear, and sometimes you need somebody who can help jumpstart you and get you out the door. You can see that people survive.