I am a failure. At least that’s how a lot of people probably interpret the outcome of my life. I once had big dreams driven by intense passions, walked a path toward some ethereal sense of greatness, and fell flat on my face. I bungled career opportunities that could have led me to work in Hollywood. I mismanaged educational decisions that could have put me an an entirely different track. I even had a six-figure income at one of the largest tech firms rife with opportunity. Today, I’m just an anonymous overeducated, unemployed stay-at-home dad. So yeah, I can see how people would label me a failure.
I don’t look it at that way. I tend look at people’s version of what they view as “success” and laugh quietly to myself. I’m not a particularly materialistic type, so I’ll gladly forgo the 3,500 square foot house, the $40,000 car, and the extravagant vacations. I’ll gladly give up the opportunity to waste a third of my life doing a meaningless job that I don’t care about for people who couldn’t care less about my welfare. In the meantime, I get to spend most of my time with people that genuinely love me, nobody has agency over my decisions in the world, and I have a rare first-hand opportunity to guide my daughter’s growth.
Yeah, so I’m part of a large group of people whose story you don’t hear very much: the guy who took his shot at following his passion and missed. And I did it twice. But keep in mind that it’s easy to judge when you don’t know the person behind the story.
The First Passion: Movies
I grew up in Paradise Valley, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix that was the childhood home of Steven Spielberg. I believed, on a certain level, I was destined to follow in the footsteps of the most successful filmmaker in the history of the world. As a teenager, I was as passionate about movies as anyone you’ve ever met. I had an encyclopedic knowledge of Oscar history. I made top ten lists of movies I had seen each year. I knew I wanted to be involved in movies somehow, and I took it to heart when my mom said that if you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.
And so I went to film school at USC, alma mater of George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis, and Ron Howard. I found my social crowd among the film geeks in Los Angeles1. I wrote about movies online in an age of booming dotcoms and dancing hamsters. At age 19, my ego was at an all-time high. The Arizona Republic published a profile that identified me as a potential Hollywood star; The Los Angeles Times name-checked me as one of the emerging voices of online film criticism; and The Arizona Republic offered me the position as their full time film critic. I turned them down2 partially because I didn’t think I could balance school and a full-time job, but also because I thought to myself, “Gee, if I’m being offered a film writing job at a major publication at age 19, what else is in my future?”
I graduated film school and drifted around LA for a few years. I did manage to land a gig– unpaid though it was– as an assistant editor on a zero-budget independent movie that never saw the light of day called Tortured Intellectuals. I impressed the editor on that project, and he introduced me to a few of his industry connections who were honest-to-goodness film professionals: film editor Dody Dorn3 and documentarian Kirby Dick. They liked me. I was young and enthusiastic, and I was actually a damned good film editor for a kid fresh out of film school.
Problem was, I hated editing. Hated, hated, hated. The job consists of sitting in a tiny room in front of a computer for 12-14 hours a day watching the same movie over and over for months on end. It’s tedious, isolating work; a job for introverts.
I had an opportunity to work as an associate editor on Kirby Dick’s documentary Derrida, the launching pad I needed to establish myself as a real, live film professional. But I turned them down. Turns out when you blow off industry connections, the person who introduced you may not be so enthusiastic about vouching for you in the future. Simply put: I got my one shot and I blew it.
I spent the next two years as a run-of-the-mill Los Angeles 20-something hipster film wannabe. I got a job at a video store, but it didn’t pay enough to support a Los Angeles lifestyle. I was living on the largesse of my parents, bored, and frustrated that Destiny wasn’t knocking on my door to offer my my next Big Break.
The Second Passion: Sports
In the summer of 2004, I made the decision to chase after a broadcast journalism degree. If movies were my number one love, then sports were a very close second. If I couldn’t be in film, I rationalized, then I could certainly be a sports media professional.
I applied to the top journalism schools, and even got offered a scholarship to Syracuse, arguably the best broadcasting school in the country. In another one of my poorly thought out professional decisions that rivals spurning Kirby Dick, I turned Syracuse down and chose to move back to Phoenix to attend Arizona State University4. I got a call from admissions at Syracuse asking me what they could do to get me to change my mind. I told them Arizona was where I wanted to be, and it was where “my network was,” whatever the hell that meant at the time.
The truth was I wanted to be back home. I wanted to be by my family and friends and live in a place I knew. The decision to go to ASU had nothing to do with my career-mindedness, my passion, or my “network.” It had to do a misguided nostalgia. I was convinced moving back home would make me happy. Turns out, moving back to Arizona was not the panacea I had anticipated.
I did manage to get a job in sports media. While at ASU, I snagged an internship in the sports department at a TV station in Phoenix. Though I had zero experience in live television, I impressed the head of the sports department with my editing skills and my enthusiasm for learning a new industry. I quickly ingratiated myself to everyone in the newsroom, and was hired soon after as a sports producer and news video editor, though I had to put my broadcasting degree on hold in order to take the job.
There were two major problems working in local sports:
- Local sports was a rapidly-shrinking niche within the news industry at large. That meant very little– if any– opportunity for advancement.
- Sports broadcasts are designed for when most people are at home. Evenings, weekends, and especially holidays (Football on Thanksgiving. Basketball on Christmas, etc.). You’re always working when others aren’t, and you rarely get to watch an actual game in its entirety5.
With these two things in mind, I decided to move from the sports side over to the news side of the team. Local news, cesspool that it is, at least offered career opportunities. I spoke with the powers that be and landed a job as the Noon News Producer. Sounds great!
However, moving to the news department put me in the management chain of The Tyrant, the most tyrannical, abusive maniac I’ve ever had the displeasure of meeting. The way he treated other people was so despicable that it defied basic human decency. Luckily, I was on his good side6, and I was fast-tracked toward newsroom leadership.
Immediately, my world was turned upside down. As the junior-ranking producer in the building, I was compelled to take on a schedule of shift work that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. While my normal shift7 was actually pretty great, I would have to produce the 5:00am show one week 8, and then fill in for the 5:00pm producer the next 9. I was being flipped from overnight to day shift on a weekly basis, and my body and mind started to break down. The holidays were the worst. Days off were doled out based on seniority, which meant not only was I slotted to work every single holiday, but I would also be guaranteed the worst shifts on those days.
Christmas 2007 nearly drove me over a cliff. I had done two punishing overnight shifts on the 22nd and 23rd. On Christmas Eve, I was filling in for the 5:00pm show, so I had no time to adjust to the changed schedule for the day. I officially had Christmas off from the station’s perspective, but as a practical measure, I was to fill in for the 5:00am show on December 26th, meaning I had to go into work at 10:00pm on Christmas night. I flipped my schedule three times in the course of a week. On Christmas day, I was a wreck. I sobbed unconsolably on my uncle’s couch surrounded by a graveyard of torn wrapping paper and half-eaten pastries while my family sat agog and helpless. I was in a personal and professional hellscape and there seemed to be no end in sight.
The Tyrant threw me a bit of a lifeline shortly thereafter when he told me he wanted to promote to the weekend show. Given the fact that I had just been handed the Noon show less the four months earlier, this was an uncommonly fast promotion. But something was nagging at me: I still hadn’t finished my masters degree at ASU. I told the Tyrant I wanted to take a semester-long sabbatical to finish my degree, and was immediately put on his Shit List. The offer of promotion was pulled and I went back to the inhumane shift swings with nary an end in sight.
After five months, it became clear that my boss was getting off on my misery, like some sort of aphrodisiac of hatred. I reached my limit and asked the company to let me out of my contract so I could finish my degree at ASU in the fall10. But I knew I didn’t want to go back into TV. So after I finished up my broadcasting degree in the fall, I went straight back to school to get an MBA.
Out of Passions
The MBA helped me switch careers, and was partially responsible for my move to Oregon. I took a job with a large tech company with a major presence in Hillsboro– a suburb 20 miles west of Portland– and gave five and half years of my life to a company that operates like a real life Dilbert cartoon. It sounds funny until you experience it for yourself. Then it’s just depressing11.
After a few years, I became that most tired of American cliches: the burnt-out white collar worker who wants to break free from his grey-walled cubicle prison. Though I was quite skilled at maneuvering through the a corporate political environment, I became tired of dealing with the machinations, and found myself in a situation where my boss said to me, with a straight face, that I was being removed from his team because he didn’t think I was a good fit for his sports media-related project12.
So, I took my shots and missed. And then I tried to do the “normal” job thing and that didn’t work out, either. So here I am, nearly 36 years old and jingling a toy over my daughter’s face so she can maw on it to gain relief for her aching, teething gums.
Why am I doing this instead of earning an income? Because there’s no amount of money that’s worth dedicating my life to something that I have no belief in13.
Why am I doing this instead of chasing some ethereal dream? Because I went after my passions already. It turns out that some lines of work are not nearly as fun as you imagine them to be. That the mental anguish involved and Machiavellian double-dealing required don’t necessarily lead to happiness. And if you try to do something you love, sometimes it not only becomes work, but it sucks the joy that it brought to you in the first place.
One of the first questions people ask me when learning I’m a full-time dad is, “Are you going to go back to work when your kid’s in school?” To which I ask, “What, exactly, would you suggest I do?” Because if anybody can suggest with any certainty a career that I would get satisfaction out of, please let me know.
One thing I have on most people is the fact that I actually chased my dreams and passions. I will never go to bed thinking, “What if I had taken my shot? What if I had just done that one thing I always wanted to do?” And now I get to do something that most 21st Century American parents will never get to do: I get to be there for my family. I get to share in my daughter’s experiences, watch her grow, support her, and give her guidance for her life. My days are monotonous, but I see the bigger purpose to what I’m doing. And that’s as big of a success as I can ask for in my own life.
- High school was a constant social struggle for me.
- Mildly interesting twist of fate: the current film critic for the Republic is Bill Goodykoontz, a guy who taught a sportswriting class I took at in grad school at Arizona State five years later. Nice guy, really, but he was an internal hire moved over from the sports desk, not a film junkie.
- She’s still working as a film editor. Her credits include Memento, End of Watch, and the Ben-Hur remake.
- They also have a highly-regarded journalism school, but that’s not why I went.
- One sports anchor told me that he hadn’t been to a live sporting event for fun in over 20 years.
- For a while, anyway.
- Luckily this was a large corporation with a very rigid set of structures and procedures, so the decision to let me out of my contract was totally out of the Tyrant’s hands. But he tried to intimidate me into staying past our agreed upon date. When I refused, his face turned beet red and he started choking on his own rage, sputtering out nonsensical threats that I knew he couldn’t follow through on. I thought he would lunge out of his chair and throttle me. He no longer held any power over me and it made him so fucking mad. Getting over on this guy and making him feel powerless was one of the most satisfying moments of my life. If I could bottle his frustration over his institutional impotence, I would have sprinkled it in my morning coffee and savored every drop.
- True story: our company had a contest for the best patent idea. One of my colleagues– a superstar of intellectual property generation– asked me if I had any ideas, and I said to her,”If I had an idea that was good enough to win this contest, I’d quit my job and start my own company, instead.” A look of shock and horror overcame her and she quipped, “Well, I guess we see where your loyalties lie.” Which, I mean, yeah. I’m not about to get snowed by a $50 billion company for a valuable idea. You’re a fool if you do. I didn’t say that to her, but that’s where I stand on that particular issue.
- I had put myself into the situation on purpose, I was looking to quit to be a stay-at-home dad, but found an angle that could get me severance. Still I couldn’t resist calling him out on this bullshit of a statement. I said, “You realize I’m a former sports media professional, right? I bet there aren’t 10 people at this company that know more about the sports media landscape than I do.” He didn’t really have a good answer for that, which is all well and good because I had one foot out the door, anyway.
- And I have reached a kind of cynical zenith in my life. I believe in very little, and the opinions I do have are mere emotional vestiges from a time when I couldn’t see through the bullshit.