My husband is a huge NPR fan. On occasion he’ll stumble across a story or program that he thinks I’ll find interesting and play it for me in the car, though it’s become a bit of a rarity these days. We rarely leave the house together anymore as a result of COVID-19, so we don’t spend as much time in the car together as we used to when he would often drive me to my interpreting assignments. These days much of my work occurs from home and he has unfortunately lost his job, as many people have, as a result of increasing economic uncertainty in the wake of the pandemic.
How COVID-19 Impacted my Business
I’m an independent contractor; a freelance Spanish medical interpreter. In the “before times,” as many of us are calling it now, my bread and butter was in freelance in-person interpretation. Naturally, my business has taken a huge hit since most facilities have made the switch to remote interpretation. To put it bleakly, my earnings from in-person interpretation dipped by over 95% in June of 2020. I began over-the-phone and video remote interpretation, an unfortunately lower-paying service, which I had to prematurely cut short due to forces outside of my control.
It was around the time that I became removed from the remote interpreting world that I began feeling incredibly discouraged. In the span of a little over two years, I had built up my business from nothing. All I could do was linger on how happy I was in March before everything fell out right from underneath me. I loved my job, I loved the people I worked with, and I loved helping the patients I interpreted for. My work gave me a sense of purpose I had never really had before, and all of a sudden it felt like everything was slipping through my fingers.
A Podcast About A Burger Chain?
It was also around this same time that my husband approached me like he always does when he finds a new NPR podcast he thinks I’d be interested in. He’s always so excited, and the level of energy is similar to that of a puppy who drops a ball at your feet, waiting with bated breath for you to pick it up and throw it. In many ways, my husband and I are polar opposites, and if he exuded enthusiasm, in that moment I was apathetic, as I often am when he pitches something he swears up and down that I’ll enjoy.
Well, I’ll be the first to admit I was wrong. I didn’t think a podcast about an international burger chain that started as a hot dog cart in New York City would hit all the right notes for me, a freelance Spanish medical interpreter in Virginia. I don’t think my husband realized what a huge impact it would have on me either.
“The last conversation I had…”
The podcast is with Danny Meyer, the founder of shake shack. Ironically enough, it starts with Danny commenting that his initial conversation with the host, Guy Raz, that makes up the majority of the podcast, was his last in-person conversation with someone outside of his household before everything changed as a result of the pandemic, on March 13, 2020. The tone he took was so familiar. It’s the same tone I take when talking about where I was on 9-11, and relate the story of a close family friend’s father staying home from his job at the Pentagon that day. It gave me that same nostalgic, yet eerie feeling. It set the stage for me to contextualize the entire story in terms of COVID-19.
“‘Problems’ is the Definition of Business”
Once Danny began speaking again, he shared the most powerful lesson I learned from this interview. It had me hooked before it even started:
This was one of the greatest pieces of advice I got from […] my late grandfather, Irving Harris. He said, “You know, stop complaining about problems,” he said, “‘Problems’ is the definition of business.”Danny Meyer
He goes on to say that the best people in the business world aren’t the ones who have never had to face problems. People who have the most success in business are the ones who “solve their problems better and have more fun doing it with better people.” The food industry is a tough industry, and a lot of restaurants won’t make it through this pandemic, as the host Guy Raz points out. Danny Meyer is considered to be one of the most (if not the most) influential restauranteurs in the U.S., and even some of his restaurants will likely fall victim to the pandemic.
From the outset, I related to Danny Meyer and his concise but powerful crumbs of advice moved me deeply. Initially when the restaurant my husband worked at closed down for lockdown, soon after the majority of my interpreting assignments for the foreseeable future were cancelled, I immediately went back to the drawing board and tried to come up with a variety of innovative solutions to bring in additional income.
I once again resurrected my Spanish tutoring page on Facebook. I started my Patreon, I started my YouTube channel, monetized my website through advertisements, I began applying to a slew of interpreting agencies for remote interpretation, beginning with the agencies I already had a relationship with. I knew people would be scrambling for cameras and headsets, so I ordered mine online. In the meantime, I asked my friends on social media if they had any they’d be willing to sell me, and began making trips to local electronics stores to find some. I soon cancelled my online order because an amazing friend of mine gave me their HD webcam, and we found the exact headset I wanted on clearance at a local Best Buy.
By the time I heard the podcast, I was spending most of my time interpreting remotely, earning significantly less than I used to earn interpreting in person. I only had one regular student I was tutoring in Spanish. I also had a few Patreon subscribers, but the amount I would get every month didn’t really reflect the amount of work I put into it. My YouTube channel was steadily gaining followers, but I couldn’t monetize my channel until I had enough views and subscribers. I had made a total of $5.16 off of advertisements on my website. By all accounts, I was working my ass off, but I didn’t have a lot to show for it.
On top of it all, my husband was upset that I wasn’t spending enough time with the family. His employment situation was clouded by uncertainty. My stepson was struggling with the impromptu virtual curriculum the school system had implemented, and on top of it all, my stepson’s biological mother stepped back, meaning we were suddenly in charge of taking care of him full-time. My life at home was a mess too, and I felt like a failure in every aspect of my life.
Permission to Fail
Immediately upon listening to the first part of the podcast, I felt a huge wave of relief. Here I was, listening to an incredibly successful businessman in one of the most cutthroat industries, telling me it was okay to fail. Not only is it okay to fail, facing problems is a normal, everyday part of doing business. I may not have been having a successful run with the different strategies I employed, but much like Danny Meyer, I set to work at solving my problems in innovative ways that I ultimately enjoyed pursuing. I felt incredibly validated as a businesswoman, even though by all accounts I was floundering.
Other Key Points
I’d be doing the podcast and Danny Meyer a disservice by sharing every detail here. However, I highly recommend listening to the podcast if you find yourself struggling to navigate the business world in the midst of this global pandemic. Furthermore, the podcast touches on so many relevant themes including:
- Working in a highly competitive field
I was surprised I never made the connection before between the restaurant industry and the field of interpretation. They’re both highly competitive fields, yet people underestimate how difficult they are.
- “Why would you do something you don’t want to do?”
Passion is key, and Danny Meyer and I both share a love for our field that drives us.
- “How did you make the recipient of your service feel?”
Danny discusses the difference between service and hospitality. I believe as interpreters we aren’t simply rendering a service, but we also aren’t stepping into the realm of hospitality. We have to conduct ourselves professionally and compassionately.
- Six Emotional Skills for Highly Effective People
Danny identified six unteachable skills that his highest performers exemplify. I would argue that ALL of the skills he mentions are absolutely essential for interpreters, especially in medical settings.
Since the Podcast
I can’t say with an absolute degree of certainty what Danny has been up to since the podcast. A cursory scan of his Twitter account shows he’s been advocating for an additional stimulus package for unemployed workers, including restaurant workers. He reopened three of his big-name restaurants in NYC for indoor dining at the beginning of October at 25% capacity, following local regulations.
So what have I been up to? My driving philosophy has been pulled in part from this podcast (problems are a natural part of business, even successful people experience failure) and geared towards diversification. I realize now that I put too many eggs in one basket, so to speak. In addition to the strategies I’ve already employed, I’ve begun to co-facilitate webinars on medical interpretation, am in the process of developing a medical interpreter training series on mental health interpretation, and have recently joined the team of InterpreMed, a website to help folks practice medical interpreting. I’m also beginning to engage in in-person medical interpretation with more regularity again. Slowly but surely I am building my business back up from the damage it has sustained as a result of COVID-19.