My Worst Mistake: Mistaking a Job for a Career

I came into marketing in a very non-traditional way:I went to school for it.

Most marketers I meet these days came to the field by way of varied paths that often began with Journalism, English, Psychology or other degrees in the arts and the humanities. Marketing seems to be a discipline that requires life experience as an access card – something learned or seen from afar and sampled only to find that you have what it takes to succeed in the field.

I was a bit more linear. In my marketing studies, I focused on branding, market position strategy and research with some creative sprinkled in for good measure. But what I really wanted – both in college and into my professional life – was to be a force of change and a driver of interest. I can honestly say that one of my biggest ambitions in life is to influence people.

So when a dotcom era startup called Varsity Books opened a branch in Tucson AZ, I jumped at the chance to work for them – unpaid. This was my first exposure to Guerilla marketing. We would tag sidewalks, shoot t-shirt cannon fodder on the University of Arizona mall and leave coupons in the student union. It was a great experience in “HEY LOOK AT US” promotion and I felt that I had finally found an appealing aspect in this big world called marketing.

My professors were another story. They saw what would take me many years to realize – I don’t fit well in a box. Once a 400-level professor asked me to stay behind after class. She asked me what I had in mind for my future and my emphatic response was that I hoped to join a Phoenix advertising firm. She immediately predicted that I would be “bored out of my mind.”

Did I listen? No. I spent the next 3 months FedEx’ing resumes to all of the large advertising agencies in Phoenix. I sent over 2 dozen emails to the agency owners whose email addresses I painstakingly procured while pretending to work at my summer internship. Not one of those individuals called or emailed me back. Occasionally I received a note from their internal HR rep explaining that they were looking for someone with over 5 years of experience or some such nonsense. At that age I hadn’t done anything for 5 years. So I had hit a pretty big wall and I was starting to wonder what I was going to do with this ‘marketing’ education.

Eventually I secured a job as a marketing coordinator – whatever that is – where I attempted to fit my round peg into the company’s square holes through several promotions and the larger part of a decade. I’d come up with campaign concepts, then design and execute them. I would code, I would manage, I would administer CRM and coach the sales teams. I was responsible for training sales, marketing and even service teams. I would help IT set up equipment; I would shop for prizes and coordinate tradeshows for thousands of attendees. I was literally a one-man band and I really enjoyed it.

But the one thing I never could do was be myself. Each concept I conceived was done through the filter of someone else’s bullshit. I felt like a snake oil salesman – I knew my product wasn’t doing anyone any favors, that it was overpriced and boring. This knowledge made me miserable. You see, I wasn’t raised in a world where you “took time to find you” or determined your career path on cultural fit or alignment with your “life goals”. I’m from the side of the tracks that works hard. You might be sad, lonely, miserable – but so what, get to work. So I was missing funerals, birthdays and important events, all in the name of a job that truly wasn’t doing anything for anyone. It was all crap, and that thought simply wouldn’t leave my head. Eventually that thought became immutable and I did the only thing that would silence it – I left. But I didn’t just leave the job. I left the concept of being an employee.

I was never a great employee. The role simply doesn’t fit me very well. My work product, in contrast, was something employers dream of. In hiring I’ve found only a few peers – and they have positions that reflect it. For a decade I was replacing teams of people and doing it extremely well, but when it came to hearing the word ‘no,’ I just never became accustomed to it.

So, there I was, in the depths of the worst U.S. recession in decades, starting a consultancy. I had no experience working in, much less leading, a service-based business. But nothing prepares you for being a business owner aside from jumping in and doing it, so I jumped in. I connected my ambition to influence people for the better to my professional life. And in doing so, I found my true career.

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