The S.B. Questionnaire: Luke Swetland

From Cool to Intense with the CEO of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History President and CEO Luke Swetland (June 18, 2015)

In November 2012, Luke Swetland became CEO of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History during a period of expansion and growth for the Mission Canyon institution, which celebrates its centennial in 2016. For the past two-and-a-half years, Luke has been crafting a way forward for the museum that’s proportional, transformational, and attainable in a way that most everyone in the community can support. That’s not an easy task, but he’s done it before, leading the Japanese-American National Museum in Los Angeles through its own evolution.

This coming Saturday, July 25, the museum will host a “Colossal Fossil Festival,” a fun-for-all ages affair that celebrates creatures of the Miocene epoch and offers the chance to go back 23 million years in time to meet such enormous, exotic, and extinct creatures as the megalodon, Columbian mammoth, and giant toothed bird.

Here Luke answers the Proust Questionnaire.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

Lately, it is the word “cool” as in, “Check this out, isn’t this sea slug cool?” My wife, Stacey, has advised me to find a new word or two so I am going to invest in a thesaurus to address this — and because I think that is a cool idea.

What is your current state of mind?

After two-and-a-half years at the museum, I feel I have settled in and done some good work but there is much more to be done. I would describe my current state of mind as focused.

Who do you most admire?

I would desire to be more like Abraham Lincoln. He had a keen insight into human nature and he could make the perfect point by telling a well-turned story or joke. That was a mastery that enabled him to lead without coming off as heavy-handed.

What do you like most about your job?

I get very animated when I start talking about the museum and Sea Center and what we are doing. We live our lives increasingly estranged from the natural world from whence we came and of which we are still a part; as individuals and as a species, we stay estranged at our own peril. So when I can talk about how we help people re-engage and how we fire people’s curiosity because of the experiences they have here, that is exciting and meaningful work and I am proud to be a spokesperson for that.

What is your most marked characteristic?

Over the years, a number of people have told me that I am kind of intense. I prefer to think of it as being passionate, but then first person opinions are usually skewed.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

Back to that intensity thing — I need to learn how to lighten up once in a while. Oh, and being more patient — or at least doing a better job at hiding my impatience.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being at peace with myself.

What is your greatest fear?

Doing something that is simply dumb because I wasn’t thinking. That actually frightens me more than making a big, but well intentioned, misstep. Why? Because the dumb mistakes are the ones where I should have known better. So that is what I fret about from time to time. Unfortunately, that’s usually at about 3 in the morning.

What is your greatest extravagance?

Well, I enjoy dressing well so I will splurge on clothes every now and then

What is the quality you most like in people?

Thoughtfulness and quiet discipline are truly remarkable qualities that I admire. It is comfortable and inspiring to be around individuals that possess those qualities.

What is the quality you most dislike in people?

People who act so certain that they have got it all figured out that they have quit listening.

What do you most value in friends?

They create a safe space where I don’t have to be “on” or always at my best — and even when I am not at my best, they still invite me back again.

Which talent would you most like to have?

Ah, to be artistic — to spin beauty out of thin air from the filaments of inner vision. I am in awe of people with artistic talent.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

That I have got to where I am at right now — that took hard work, some luck, and a lot of good mentors who pushed me along at every step.

Where would you most like to live?

Well, Santa Barbara is a really sweet place to be, but there are lots of other places I would like to explore. Since the trick is being “at” where you are at, I am very happy here for now.

What is your most treasured possession?

Not possessions, but blessings, would be my wife and two sons.

Who makes you laugh the most?

Stacey and I have a group of friends here and when we spend time with them, I laugh a lot. They all are perennially and genuinely funny.

What is your motto?

Get the facts but trust your instincts.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

Any one of those millions of ordinary people who get called upon by the circumstances of their lives, and somewhat in spite of themselves, to be involved in something larger than themselves and to be of service.

On what occasion do you lie?

Gee whiz, I didn’t think I was going to have to confess! Thankfully I have not had too many occasions in my life where I have had to outright lie, but I am not above engaging in meaningful exaggeration if it builds someone up and makes them feel good about themselves.


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