You’re just starting out in your career.
You’re sitting in your chair at the agency. The startup. The media company. The whatever-you’re-doing-at-this-moment in the biz.
And you may be asking yourself, “What the hell am I doing?”
You may have a knot in your stomach that indicates you either don’t much fancy what you’re doing, or that it is time to move on from your current state of affairs.
And it’s OK to think that. Every one of us has had that inkling, no matter how large or small.
That feeling may pass. It should pass.
Because your most important experience may be happening at this very moment. Even in the face of the “ughs”.
If you had told me that selling shoes in a downtown Portland shop and chasing around a crazy morning radio show would be foundations to help build my career, I would have told you that you were nuts.
But it’s true.
This is not meant to discount any other phases or moments in my career (especially now), but rather to put some perspective on the fact that it is vital to see deeper into our work to find what can help shape us in the future.
My most important moments of professional growth, in retrospect, were from 1996 to 1998 and in 1999 and 2000.
In 1996, I was in sales at Niketown Portland. A very fun job, even on the Monday mornings when nary a soul would be seen in the store until lunchtime – though those were my, “What am I doing?” moments at times.
This experience was all about training and understanding a brand from the front lines.
We were trained exceptionally well. Especially on product. At the time, vision and timing were being released. ACG was charging ahead. Soccer was gaining some serious momentum. And I was a product specialist in each of those disciplines.
Even though I was a “lowly” retail salesperson, (hardly, “lowly,” by the way – we were treated with immense respect, which was highly valued by all of us) the product and design teams gave us everything we needed to not just effectively sell the product, but to really feel part of it. That insight and deep wisdom proved highly effective when I trained Nike Factory Store managers on their trips back to Oregon.
From design philosophy to packaging and technology, we learned more than we probably needed to know, but the proof availed when a local kept returning to buy product from us (Niketown was long known as a tourist destination).
“I used to go to a sporting goods store, but you all really know your s**t,” he remarked.
1996 to 1998? All about learning about and appreciating what goes in to a product and a brand philosophy.
The next important piece of the puzzle was in 1999 and 2000, when I did the ‘ol pivot to radio.
Morning show producer.
As I started this job, I asked our consultant what a producer does, exactly.
“I’m not really sure,” he said. “But you have to make sure that you keep the show on track at all times.”
A little disquieting, but it seemed easy enough.
When I woke up at 3am for the first time to head in to the station, I became acutely aware that this was going to be a highly different experience.
The pace was relentless. It was intense. And we were not what one would call a very highly-rated morning show when we first started. In fact, we kind of sucked.
And I took that way too personally.
I fixated on things that in the grand scheme, didn’t matter. There was no rhythm or flow to the day. It felt like a form of creative triage, but I powered through just out of sheer resolve – and perhaps because my half-Italian stubbornness wouldn’t allow me to quit.
There was no roadmap with this, and I was driving a 1975 AMC Gremlin with bald tires on an icy road in a Western Pennsylvania sleet storm.
How’s that for an analogy?
In 2000, after some staff shuffling, the new show arrived. A great team. Highly talented and focused.
I was only with them for a short period of time before I became Production/Creative Director, but that ’75 Gremlin got some new tires. The sun came out and the roads cleared. And lo and behold, near the end of my time with the show, that metaphysical car turned into a highly-tuned Audi TT.
Getting up bleary-eyed at 3am became more palatable, and it was great to be part of such a group of talent who were focused on one thing:
When I walked out the door to my new role, I looked back on a body of work that I was proud of.
And it was the wildest ride I’ve ever been on.
(For the record, I was and am still funnier than PK, the morning show host who is now in Houston. And I have no problem calling that out publicly, because he knows I’m right. Fortunately – for him – I never grappled with my verbal talons for control of the mic.)
What on Earth could I have learned from this chaos?
Not just how to “manage” it, but how to harness it to create powerful work.
At first, I tried to control it. But I quickly realized that it was our biggest ally in opening things up to help create magical work. We did some CRAZY s**t born from a creative chaos.
Another thing that I learned in this stretch was to appreciate talent. Aside from the AWSC (and that’s not a shameless plug, it’s the truth), The Playhouse was the most incredible top-to-bottom assemblage of talent I have ever seen.
One more thing I learned was the idea of playing to strengths and carving out specific roles.
When I started in radio, I so desperately wanted to be a morning show host. Turns out I was probably more suited to this kind of work. I would write some bits, set up some interviews, participate here and there and otherwise do whatever it took to keep the show on track.
Focusing on those strengths served me incredibly well when I moved over to the creative/advertising side of radio. I had a hell of a run.
Finally, I learned about communicating effectively and efficiently. Our GM always told us, “Be brief, be brilliant, be gone.” Nothing much else to add there.
The point of this extended missive is this:
The most important pieces of your career foundation may be building at this very moment.
But you may not be aware of it because you’re having a bad day.
Or your boss may be a clown.
Or you have a hangover.
Or the Knicks lost last night.
Or anything else that prevents you from looking past the “what” you’re doing.
And into the “why” you started doing it in the first place.
Careers are anything but tidy. They are messy and your path may veer in a billion different directions. It will be confusing and frustrating to you at times.
When you’re feeling lost, though, it’s important to grab on to those positive pieces that are charging you ahead. You’ll know what they are. You’ll just feel them.
You might notice that you’ve become a better writer.
You’ll see that all of your work to be more organized is paying off.
Your design may reach a new, exciting level.
These little pieces of progress are anything but “little”. They are transformative.
They happen every day – whether you know it or not.
And this I can assure you:
You will wake up one morning some years from now and realize that what you did in those jobs and roles early in your career is what helped you get to where you needed – and wanted – to go.