In my life, I’ve found that creative problem solving skills have allowed me to excel in a number of environments. Some say it’s better to pick a career field and stick with it; (and that might be true if you don’t have the knack for just figuring out a way to make it work when you’re thrown to the wolves) but my tendency to find new challenges to master has given me a unique blend of skills that simply cannot be duplicated.
(Follow my path at your own risk… skipping around career fields and “starting over” again and again isn’t easy… or desirable in perplexed social and family circles who want you to “just settle down.”)
Let me take a moment to give you an idea of the level of diversity in my professional life…
If you count lemonade stands, I’ve been an entrepreneur since I was old enough to make lemonade. The first real money making venture I started was a lawn mowing business in junior high.
I blanketed neighborhoods with flyers until I had enough jobs to fill my time. I bought some mowing equipment and convinced my brother and a few friends to help get the work done.
The work was physically tough, especially in the heat of the summer. There was a lot of heavy lifting (we didn’t mulch back then), and a lot of mileage to walk.
As tough as it was, it gave me a chance to clear my mind. My body was almost on autopilot, guiding the mower back and forth, lining it up evenly with the last mowed strip of grass.
Looking back, I can’t think of a more satisfying feeling than completing a long day of physical labor like that. Mike Rowe, in his TED talk, expressed what a shame it is that society has diminished the perceived value of manual labor and he’s right. I’ve been guilty myself. After mowing, I could’t get a desk job fast enough and sometimes I miss doing actual work.
TAKEAWAY: the value of hard work and learning to manage other people.
In college I got into the custom T-shirt business. I just ‘figured out’ how to design shirts by learning to use computer design software and working with screen printing shops to turn an idea into an actual piece of clothing. I didn’t take any software classes or do apprentice work. I just knew what I wanted to accomplish and didn’t let anything get in my way.
That’s why I truly believe struggle is more important than intelligence in problem solving. My poor mother can tell you stories of summer vacations where I went multiple days without sleep trying to figure out computer software in order to meet a deadline.
I learned to market my services with posters that I hung around campus. I forced myself to walk into organizations and sell myself. I learned to work on deadline and on budget.
TAKEAWAY: several new skills in my toolbox including marketing, design, and computer software.
The Gallup Poll
I took a part time job during all of the T-shirt madness working the phones for The Gallup Poll. You might know that they do election polls, but you may not know that their main business is market research. They paid me to call people and ask about all kinds of topics such as beer preferences, public transportation, shopping habits and more.
Most people who worked there really hated the rejection they faced on the phones every day. You tend to get more hang ups & cuss outs than actual surveys completed. Gallup paid by the survey, so I preferred to get hung up on if they weren’t interested because it saved valuable time that I could be using to find my next survey.
My favorite survey was for the Long Island Rail Road. We called people in the New York area to ask what trains they took to get around. Since we were based in the Midwest, it was quite a culture shock talking to fast-moving, direct-talking New Yorkers.
It was the most hated survey in the building and therefore, it paid more than all the other surveys. I loved it.
While my peers were busy getting offended that they had been hung up on for the 10th time in an hour, I loved the fact that New Yorkers didn’t waste my survey time. Instead of giving me their life story for 10 minutes before politely saying that they didn’t have time for a 5 minute survey, they’d just hang up. That meant I could quickly get on to the next call and the next chance to make some money.
TAKEAWAY: selling is a numbers game and not to let my emotions get in the way of my success.
My next job after Gallup was… get this… an Inflight French Interpreter for Continental Airlines.
I’m sure you’re starting to see why it was hard to explain my career choices to friends and family. While it had nothing to do with my previous or current career path, it did have some attractive benefits: free travel, flexibility, and lots of down time to mess with entrepreneurial ventures.
I flew to Paris, Geneva, and Brussels (among other places) on a weekly basis and got to know the local culture. It was as if I lived in Europe and the US at the same time.
The best part is that I didn’t even know French before I started. Again, I just found a way. At the time, Continental had program where they would pay employees to learn another language because they needed interpreters. I took the opportunity and lived in Nice, France for 6 months on the company dime.
TAKEAWAY: the value of different perspectives and ways of thinking.
While I was flying, I took a part-time job as a waiter at a local restaurant. It was a popular destination and they required two years experience (which I didn’t have), but I talked my way into it.
Waiting tables is an unbelievable juggling act and I was awful at first. In fact, I still have dreams that I’m the only server in a packed restaurant, “in the weeds,” and drowning in orders. The dream usually ends when I finally get everyone’s order and walk into the kitchen, only to find that everyone has gone home.
I eventually figured it out and started making pretty good money, learning a ton in the process. In fact, if there’s one job that I would recommend every 18 year old does for 2 years before they start their career, it’s waiting tables.
The service industry is basically controlled chaos. A good server is given 5-10 tables (depending on the restaurant) and has to manage the experience for everyone under their care as if they were the only table in the restaurant. What happens when all 10 tables are ready to order at once? That’s where you make your money.
One tip I learned was never to show my hand to the customers. It was pretty common for me to forget to put orders in, but I handled the situation very differently as I got better. At the beginning, I would immediately apologize to the table. What I soon realized is that most of the time, they had no idea that anything was wrong. By opening my mouth, they were given a reason to be dissatisfied.
I could go on and on about lessons learned in the service industry, but I’ll just mention one more before we move on. I learned that smiling and making a connection with people is sometimes more important than performance.
You can probably tell that I grew up a very driven person, sometimes at the expense of interpersonal skills. I saw myself as a serious entrepreneur who didn’t have time for BSing with people. The service industry taught me that BSing with people can go a long way in building a connection, and people tend to spend their money with people they feel a connection to.
TAKEAWAY: how to avoid panic and perform in high pressure situations, interpersonal skills
The Movie Business
True to form, my next move was out of nowhere: I took a job on a movie set. I worked on a million dollar budget indie film in Austin starring Gary Busey called Halletsville. I started working for free and quickly moved up the ranks, ending up in charge of the fleet of trucks and equipment.
The movie set meant long days, usually sun up to sun down, but it was a very exciting environment. Lessons learned in avoiding panic served me well, since nothing ever seems to go as planned on set.
The experience opened doors for me to eventually work on the set of Nickelodeon, E! Entertainment, TruTV, and more. I learned how to produce, direct and edit.
TAKEAWAY – how to produce video
I really like the movie business because each project is an entrepreneurial startup. Since it only takes 6-12 months to complete a movie, there is always a new entrepreneurial adventure on the horizon.
After taking a variety of jobs, I settled into editing as my main form of employment.
When I was working at E!, building packages for the yearly awards shows, I found that most of the producers in the building were intimidated by the complex appearance of editing software. The editing machines had multi-color keyboards, multiple screens, and tape drives everywhere. It appeared as if you needed to be a rocket scientist to operate one.
While producers were usually on salary and worked ridiculous hours (with no extra pay for going overtime), editors were paid high hourly wages and got overtime. They also seemed a lot less stressed than the producers. I talked my way into a job loading tapes for editors so that I could get my hands on the machines to start learning how it worked.
Within a few months, I figured out enough to get a promotion to assistant editor, which paid $25 per hour. Editors were making anywhere from $60 to $120 per hour, which sounded much better to me than a hair over minimum wage as an associate producer.
I was shocked that an editor could make that much. Why didn’t they teach me that in college? I thought that working my way up the corporate ladder was the only way to make a decent living, and that didn’t really sound that fun to me!
At the time, I was so driven to work, I ended up taking two full-time assistant editor jobs at the same time. I worked at E! from 9-5, and then rode my bicycle 3 miles to the Paramount lot where I worked on the show “Speeders” from 7pm – 2am.
I knew I couldn’t keep up two full time jobs forever, but I surprised myself at how long I did. It was the first time I had ever made over $10,000 a month (and it felt really good.)
I learned something that I wish I had known earlier: being highly skilled at something that most people don’t know how to do can be very profitable. Our society seems to push motivated people in the direction of management, but what they don’t realize is that it’s often more stress and less money.
Highly skilled hourly labor such as editing or knowing how to fly a 737 is a great way to make money on your own terms and have enough energy left at the end of the day to pursue something that you really care about.
TAKEAWAY – Editing skills that were in high demand
I’ve had a number of other professional adventures, many of which are chronicled on my blog. For awhile I owned a bulk candy vending business that I bought on eBay for pennies on the dollar. I spent time doing some public speaking for a membership organization. I’ve participated in several startup businesses. I started a successful blog.
Each one of these experiences taught me a different skill that makes up my tool belt. As unconventional as it might be, the result is that any employer or client who hires me can never duplicate my skill set without assembling an army of specialists. It allows me to charge more for my work.
The non-linear path worked well for me, but it’s not for everyone. There’s definitely risk involved. I was able to take chances with my career because I didn’t have a lot of people depending on me for income. If I had started a family early in life, I wouldn’t have made the same choices.