The Last Half Century · The Work World

The Non-Linear Career Path

I’ve always liked cars. I remember when I was a kid I used to like looking at the Hot Rod magazines my brothers had stacked in their room. In my teenage years I subscribed to Motor Trend. Every month I read each issue cover to cover. It fueled my interest in being a car designer when I graduated from high school. That is until I sat down with our high school guidance counselor.

“You’re terrible in math!” The counselor told me. Car designers get college degrees in engineering and that requires a lot of math. He was right. The most high school math I had was a half-year of geometry. I dropped out of that class after the teacher told me he hated to flunk me if I stayed in it. After that I thought about going into radio. Somehow I obtained a copy of Dan Rather’s The Camera Never Blinks which came out in 1977. I read the book cover to cover and was hooked on broadcast journalism.

I focused on going into radio and looked briefly at a broadcast school out of state before enrolling in a community college with a broadcasting degree. It was fun learning about skills that are now obsolete, like editing news stories by splicing together recording tape and how to cue up records so they’re ready to play on the air. Then I talked to someone who worked at the local radio station. “You don’t want to do this for a living! It pays dirt. The bank almost repo’d my car until my parents made the payment for me.” When I transferred to a University, I changed my major to Journalism.

It was the early 1980s and these were the heady days of Journalism still intoxicated by Woodward and Bernstein and their book All the President’s Men. Many of the students in my classes were out to break the next big news story — to be the next Woodward or Bernstein. I never read the book and I barely remember seeing the movie. I was just hoping I would get a job when I graduated with my journalism degree. Unfortunately, I graduated in December 1983 during a recession. Fortunately, I was offered a graduate assistant position in the Journalism school helping to run the photo typesetting lab (another obsolete job). So I enrolled in grad school with no job prospects.

As the months passed in my first few months of grad school, I continued to look for a job as a writer for various publications. As it turned out, I was given an interview with John Deere because of my farm background. I must have done something right in that interview because they offered me a job. So with my journalism degree, I went into advertising and put my writing skills to work promoting farm equipment. I was writing about machinery, but it wasn’t cars. While my career path didn’t go as planned, I still read Motor Trend cover to cover every month.

I still remember an article I read at that time where the editor responded to a letter a young reader submitted asking what he needed to do to become an automotive writer. It was a brilliant response. It went something like this:

First, fail your writing classes in high school, then take writing classes at a community college. Then get drafted into the Army before you get your associates degree and fight in Vietnam. When you return, resume your studies but switch to auto mechanics. When you graduate, work in an auto repair shop while you earn a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. Then get a job in sales. After a few years in that field, your friend the journalist calls you with questions about a car repair. You get to talking and he tells you the local newspaper is looking for someone to write about cars…

His point was that life isn’t always linear and it doesn’t always go as planned. I could relate to that article as I reflected back on my non-linear career path. So many times life threw me a curve ball like a job loss that sent me on a different, unexpected career path. As I reflect back on those difficult times, it seems the key was to remain resilient and flexible.

© 2022 CGThelen

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