Here’s Where the Story Ends

While the music industry was taking its last gasps, I found myself at 38 years old grasping at the straws of the tale end of my career. I felt stuck and too old to make a career change, especially when I had no idea what I wanted as a new career. The job I had desired so badly in my 20’s had morphed into a job I hated; suddenly I was a road warrior-travelling salesman peddling greatest hits Christmas compilations to Wal-Mart and Tractor Supply. I had a meeting with Dollar Tree to sell them on a “green living” DVD line – the irony of pushing cheap plastic goods from China as a way to promote a green lifestyle was not lost on me. I had come a long way from my days hanging out backstage with the likes of Henry Rollins, Garbage, the Roots, and the Cranberries.

I had been dreaming of my escape, but had no idea how to make my move or where it would take me.  On New Year’s Day 2009, I discovered I was pregnant with my second child. The long days on the road had me long to one day become a stay at home with my next child, at least for a short time. I knew from my experience with my first child that babies are not really babies for very long. I yearned to have that experience with my second (and last) child.  I also figured that staying at home for a year or two would be an ideal way to give me time to figure out what I wanted to do for my second career. I was so wrapped up in my job and what I didn’t like about it; I was having a hard time discovering what I actually wanted to do. I just wanted time to stop and think.

I knew my intense travel schedule would not really mesh with my pregnancy, but I resolved to hang on as long as possible. Things were tough in the economy and the company was going through changes so I figured it was best to stick it out. Then the rug was pulled out from under me. At 5 months pregnant, my position was eliminated and I was laid off from the company I had worked for 10 years. It was a bizarre mix of emotions: relief, anger, and betrayal all at once. I definitely needed a push, but it suddenly felt like more of a shove.

Once I got over the initial shock, I felt liberated. I had worked from home and it was joyful how I was suddenly able to get rid of boxes of CDs, catalog and assorted paperwork that had been cluttering my home for years. And I gleefully deleted every work email that clogged my inbox.  Losing my job actually turned out to be a blessing.  Although I had been planning on quitting, the lay-off at least afforded me a severance and some unemployment money that I wouldn’t have gotten had I quit on my own terms. And it saved me the awkwardness of quitting a long-term job (as I mentioned before, I absolutely hate break-ups.) The process was painful, and probably compounded by my emotional pregnant state, but I had made my break.  

I suddenly felt lighter, although still unsure of the future. Until this point, everything in my career had been mapped out before me. Now I was suddenly facing a blank slate of my own choosing.  I was like Sarah Connor as the end of Terminator 2: “The future, always so clear to me, has become like a black highway at night. We were in uncharted territory now… making up history as we went along.” I was riding in the car seat facing backwards: I had no idea where I was going, and I could only see where I had been.

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A Change is Gonna Come

I had initially thought this second post would be about how I figured out what I wanted and what led me to finally pursue a master’s degree. But as I was writing my story, I realized I needed to tell another important step. Being unhappy in a job and watching an industry decline around you is a whisper in the ear, but in order to make a drastic change in your life, you need to hit a breaking point where you finally decide it’s time to move on.

I have always been horrible at break-ups. In my past love-life I have probably held on to relationships longer than I should have. Leaving a job or a career is no different than leaving a lover who makes you unhappy. You want to leave, but a part of you feels like Richard Gere in An Officer & a Gentleman – “I got no where else to go!” 

While the music industry started to crash and burn around me, I fled to the hinterlands. Working as an account manager for a leading independent music distribution company was steady work for many years. It turned out to be a good place for me in my 30s. I no longer had to work crazy hours covering shows in smoky clubs as I did when I worked for major labels. Instead of working with individual record store managers, I was now dealing with national music buyers at  accounts such as Borders, Best Buy, and Musicland.  I worked from home for a remote company, which became a plus when I had my first child. I was good at my job and I was comfortable, if not exactly fulfilled or challenged intellectually.

After working for the company for 8 years, I was offered a promotion managing sales for the special markets division. I was hesitant and did not really want the new position. Instead of selling music to dedicated music buyers at accounts that normally sold music, I would now need to sell compilations of music and special DVD packages to non-music retailers.  Instead of having my mostly local accounts, I would need to fly around the country in order to open new business. Despite my hesitancy, I was pressured to take the job, because when the company asks you to step up, that’s what you have to do. Plus the money was a huge raise over my previous salary. So I sucked it up and took the job.  But the smartest thing I did? I banked the salary increase. I kept our living expenses exactly the same and funneled all the extra money I started making into savings. I called it my escape fund. I knew once I eventually decided on a career change, I would need money to pay the bills.  I wasn’t ready to leave yet, but I could see it coming down the road.

It turns out all my fears about the job were absolutely correct. I hated the travel, which took me away from my husband and my then four-year-old son. I hated the cold calling aspect of drumming up new business. You could do a great job on your preparation and your presentation, but at the end of the day if the buyer doesn’t want or need your product, you would get a big fat “NO” and have absolutely nothing to show for your efforts. I still had no idea what kind of a career I would eventually want to do, but I did know I did not want a job that required travel and like Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything, I did not want to sell anything. 

My personal breaking point probably happened one night in October 2008 at the Houston International Airport. Yes, the one named after George Bush. I was coming home from a business meeting in Amarillo, Texas (probably my least favorite city in the entire country) meeting with Wal-Mart’s suppliers. It was another de-moralizing meeting where they did not want to buy anything we had to sell them. I just wanted to get home and cuddle with my son. My flight leaving Amarillo was delayed and I landed in Houston, I discovered I already missed my connecting flight back to Detroit. Not only that, it was the last flight home. And due to Hurricane Ike, there were literally no hotel rooms in Houston. I would need to spend the night in the airport. I wanted to cry. I may have cried, I actually don’t remember. I just remember feeling so broken. Here I was stranded in an airport in a place I did not want to be, doing a job I did not want to do, and just wanted to be home. I did not know what I wanted to do for a career, but I knew it wasn’t this. And that giant statue of George Bush senior just stood there, mocking me.

I don’t think I made any life altering decisions that night. Instead I did what I usually do in moments of crisis. I pulled myself together and muddled through. Everything was closing up in the United terminal, so I headed over to the international terminal to get a huge Starbucks to get me through the night. I did not want to sleep in the airport, so I hunkered down, bought Wi-Fi access, and watched the Obama and McCain roast each other at the Al Smith comedy dinner.  It was the height of the 2008 election and the idea of hope and change was in the air.

Within a month, Obama won the election. A month after that, I became pregnant with my second child. I knew I would not be able to keep up my work travel schedule much longer. Change was coming, sooner than I thought.

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Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

In less than three weeks, I will be entering a college classroom for the first time in 19 years. I am extremely excited, but also pretty anxious.  It’s been a long road getting to this point and I am very excited to finally pursue an advanced degree. This blog will be my way to document this journey and hopefully inspire others who dream of going back to school after a long gap.

In the two decades since I received my undergraduate degree, I worked in the music industry, promoting and selling shiny discs that my future classmates probably no longer use. As a young college graduate I followed my passion but unfortunately chose a career path that was not long for this earth. I probably should have seen the signs back in the 1990’s after several rounds of lay-offs, mergers, and downsizings sent me fleeing to the relative job security of independent music distribution. Selling jazz, new age, and classical CDs to accounts like Borders wasn’t quite as exciting as hanging out with Weezer, but the effects of music downloading was slower to hit the independent music world. The writing was on the wall though, and I spent many years knowing I needed to make a career change but feeling paralyzed about what to do next and where to start.

I had always dreamed of pursuing an advanced degree, although I chose a career that did not require it. I decided on music as a career when I was 16 years and started working in record stores. The major label reps would come in to the store to put up displays and give us free records to play and I immediately decided that would be me someday. And when I put my mind to doing something, I do it. And I did. Before I even graduated from college, I landed a part-time job with Polygram Records and became one of those people with the free CDs and concert tickets.

Landing the career of your dreams at the age of 21 sounds like a great thing, and at the time I thought it was. As a member of Generation X, I was supposed to be like Winona Ryder in “Reality Bites”; finding myself after college, working a McJob, and singing “My Sharona” in a convenience store like most of my friends. I thought I was really lucky to have figured it all out so young. But by the time I was in my 30’s and slowly realized I had made a vocational error at the age of 16, I started noticing something. All my friends that floundered around in their early 20’s had eventually figured it out. They were now established in careers and happy. And I spent many years wondering if it was too late for me to make a change and start all over again.

But before I could make a change, I had to first figure out where I was going. And that would be the hardest part.

To be continued in my next post…


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