You often hear about adults going “back to school.” What you don’t often hear is what happens afterwards. The other day, I raised this exact question with my friend, Josh Hauta. I started by asking: “How did you feel when you graduated from your program?”
“I had high hopes,” Hauta replies, and I know what he means. We both returned to RDC as mature students. We’d worked as electricians during our twenties, and by coincidence, we both decided to make a change at almost the same time. Hauta completed Red Deer College’s Media Studies and Professional Communications program in 2019; I graduated with a diploma in Theatre Performance and Creation in 2017.
Even with new career goals in mind, the path is rarely a straight line. Hauta puts it this way: “The job you end up with is not the job you think you will.” Diplomas and degrees are not golden tickets to an imaginary future. So why go back to school at all? What about learning from home? What about teaching yourself what you want to know?
Each career has its own language, its own codes of conduct, its own pulse. You must learn where your blind spots are and build skills you didn’t know you needed. “I really benefited from being placed in situations that emphasized public speaking,” explains Hauta. “I used to hate that.” As the weeks and months go by, you discover new talents you didn’t know you had. It’s an awesome feeling. You meet unforgettable people along the way who are doing the same thing you are. Formal training builds bridges over vast gaps that you cannot leap on your own.
Nothing truly prepares you for the plunge back into reality once the schooling is complete. If you’re very fortunate, you swiftly land a job in your new field; more likely, it’s going to be a battle to build your new career. This battle begins on graduation day. Making ends meet can be a struggle. You might find yourself selling craft beer, teaching axe throwing, or building stages for Lady Gaga: diving into the gigs that you went to college to avoid, because it’s all about making it to the next step.
Josh and I each experienced this fight for a new life, month after month...and yet, as he observes, “It’s really such a short slice of your life, when you look back on it.” The benefit of hanging in there and pushing through the hard times? Hauta affirms: “I feel like I’m turning in the right direction.”
You make a change for real reasons, and those reasons don’t go away. High hopes do matter because they help you through hard times. They keep you sane, or insane in just the right ways.
If it were easy, everybody would do it.
I heard that phrase so many times before I returned to school, during school, and after graduation. Even so, I truly underestimated how life would test me. Back when I worked in oilfield construction, the challenges were very different: how to dress warm enough to work outdoors in winter from dawn to dusk; how to fight off the boredom of repetitive work; how to manage long shifts away from home. However, in an apprenticeship, you know you’re moving from point A to point B, and point B is guaranteed to be better than point A.
After graduating from theatre school, moving to a big city and starting an apprentice-style approach of building from the bottom up, new realities became painfully clear. Even when I worked six or seven days a week to cover rent, food and necessities, making enough to pay off my student debt was practically impossible. When something went wrong, like my truck breaking down, it erased whatever little progress I’d made. “Getting ahead” seemed impossible, unless I abandoned my new career. I refused to succumb to this blackmail because I believed my new career was worth the fight.
When Hauta was pondering what course to take at RDC, he saw options that related to work he’d already done during his time in trades and the oilfield, such as procurement. “I wasn’t overly excited by the idea,” he concedes. “I remember contemplating a business program also but once I saw the Media Studies, I was very intrigued.”
RDC promotes their Media Studies and Professional Communication Diploma as an education that will “open doors to employment in corporate, government, and not-for-profit organizations” that depend on individuals with “strategic communication skills.” MSPC was a brand new diploma course “still figuring itself out,” Hauta says. “There were flaws, but the instructors were committed, heart and soul.”
The next two years proved to be challenging and rewarding. In the coursework and the relationships he formed, Hauta found the value and purpose he’d been searching for. The path wasn’t easy and “the savings account took a savage beating,” Hauta recalls.
During the summer between his first and second years, the necessity of earning enough cash to survive compelled Hauta to take some gigs he’d never had before. He began working at a craft beer store to pay the bills, and when that wasn’t enough, he began making deliveries for Skip the Dishes. It was all about keeping his head above water.
I never assumed I would go straight to a steady theatre gig as soon as I graduated from RDC. It’s too small of a field in western Canada and very competitive even for seasoned veterans. I did have great faith in taking a blue-collar approach to get to the next level, the same approach that got me through the hard times when I was a young apprentice electrician.
The logical first step for my career was to move to where the theatre business was, or so I thought. A month after graduating from RDC, I moved to Edmonton.
I could write a book about the eighteen months that followed, but I will spare you the torture of reading that. Here’s a shorter version.
I started working shifts at the big arenas and stadiums, loading in and out for artists like Metallica, Lady Gaga and Coldplay. I helped build their stages, hook up their speakers, assemble their light rigs. The work was irregular and took place in the middle of the night. I continued to search for additional work to cover the cost of living. I handed out countless resumes. I emailed dozens more.
In one job interview conducted via Facebook, some guy told me I wasn’t creative enough to teach people to do jumping jacks.
I worked for a DJ company, hauling speakers and lights into massive wedding venues all over the city. No, I didn’t spin. No, it wasn’t a good way to meet girls.
I worked at an axe-throwing range. Now that was actually a pretty cool job. I taught bridesmaids, lawyers and secretaries how to throw hatchets, two-handed axes, spears and knives at wooden targets. I learned how to throw one-handed, two-handed and how to do trick throws.
I went to a hiring session at an insurance company where they handed out pamphlets describing what your career as an insurance sales rep would be like: every second page had an image of a gold watch, a Porsche, or a tropical beach. I think we were meant to take this seriously.
I drove for a school bus company. I didn't have fond memories of school buses, and driving them is no better. Their fleet ranged from shiny new models to old, musty, rattling pieces of crap that somehow managed to pass safety checks. The company was chronically short of drivers, so they rarely dared to fire any of their drivers, even when the drivers deserved it. I heard one woman driver argue with the dispatcher, get fired, and get re-hired over the radio, for everyone to hear.
New hires like me were assigned the oldest, crappiest buses. I ended up in an old Bluebird. It was no Cadillac, but I learned to be grateful for it. It was slow, but the heater worked.
It was a strange period of my life, on and off the job. One day, after I parked my bus in the depot, I walked back to my truck in the rutted, muddy parking lot. I discovered my truck’s radio antenna broken, bent over at ninety degrees so that it lay flat against the hood. I felt angry and alarmed at the same time. Was I on somebody’s shit-list? Why would they vandalize my truck that way? Did this happen often?
It took a long time for me to realize what actually happened. Somebody was walking past my truck, slipped in the mud, and flailed around to stop themselves falling on their ass. They grabbed my antenna in their panic and their weight broke it. Then, they decided to not leave a note on my windshield, and not to talk to me about it later. They just got on with their day. I can just see it, and I’m sure that’s exactly how it went.
Sometimes, people ask me if the kids were a nightmare. The kids were actually the best part of the job. They were adorable, funny, and weird. Sure, they acted up sometimes, but it never ruined my day. One time, the kids told me that the next day would be pajama day at their school. I obligingly wore my blue plaid pajama pants the next morning when I drove the bus. They saw my pajamas and we had a good laugh about it. A week later in a safety meeting, one of my managers scorned the people who were “coming to work in their pajamas.” I didn’t bother to explain.
By the way, I’m wearing those same blue plaid pajamas at this very moment. They’ve never let me down.
When you’re trying to change your career - and I’m sure Hauta would agree with me here - your old job exerts this huge gravitational pull on you. That sense of the familiar, the sense of security, the regular money, the seductive impulse to give up and go back: it all feels like a trap waiting to engulf you. But if you go back, will you ever get out again?
So you push forward, trying to reach escape velocity from the old, and hurling yourself into the new.
After a year of barely staying ahead of my bills and exhausting myself in the process, I desperately needed some extra money. At last, I did what I told myself I would not do, and joined up with an oilfield electrical company at the end of 2018.
During the next two months, I earned as much money than I’d made in the previous year.
Even as I was finally getting ahead in the cash department, it felt like a terrible defeat. I felt like I’d betrayed myself and wasted all the sacrifices I'd made since I went back to college in 2015. This was deeply unfair to myself, but that's how I felt.
However, on the very same day I got hired to go back to the oilfield, something strange happened.
DO NOT NEGLECT YOURSELF
When I talked about these memories with Josh, he called the post-graduation blues “the big down.” Josh also took on a variety of jobs as he moved towards his goal of earning a living in his new field. He volunteered as a grip on short films; he worked as a social media manager; he served in a variety of temporary marketing gigs. He was even fortunate enough to have a paid practicum.
Despite the challenges and obstacles we’ve faced since we graduated, neither of us has ever considered turning back.
If I had a chance to go to those bright summer days of June after I graduated and give myself some advice about what to do next, what would I say?
One thing would be this: if you find yourself at a dead-end, the answer isn’t always just gritting your teeth and doing more of the same! They call that the formula for insanity, but in the heat of the moment, it can seem like mental toughness to double down in a hard spot. This is a really nasty trap.
For one thing (and it's too bad), bosses and managers who don't know a thing about your dreams will happily take advantage of your relentless work ethic, especially if you’re a minimum-wage employee. Being the most dedicated employee working for chicken feed will not move your new career in the direction it needs to go.
More importantly, there’s no guarantee that your big break is just going to magically happen on some particular day in the future, so why would you swear off everything that brings you joy and satisfaction in life until that imaginary day comes? Neglecting your health and quality of life in the here and now is a terribly unhealthy decision. Don’t do it. Find a middle ground.
I approached my new career like I was in some kind of apprenticeship. This was wrong.
I stopped doing a lot of the things I cared about (for example, martial arts) because I told myself I didn't have the time or money for them. This was wrong.
The investor and podcaster Naval Ravikant puts it this way: cranking out hours and hours of work each day is how machines work, not how human beings are supposed to work; what you do, who you do it with, and how you do it are far all more important than working like a machine.
I wrote above that a strange thing happened on the day I signed up to go back to the oilfield. On that same October day in 2018, I got a Facebook message from a friend working in the theatre business. She knew of a good job opportunity coming up in the New Year, and would I be interested in it?
That these two events happened on the same day, after months and months of struggle and uncertainty, seemed remarkable to me, and it still does.