“I wish that I knew what I know now when I was younger...”
— Faces, “Ooh La La”
My brother-in-law just graduated from college. Smart kid, graduated with honors, headed into journalism, already has experience, clippings, etc. Juggling a couple job opportunities, trying to figure out what’s best for his first full-time gig.
And it got me thinking about my own career, with all its ups and downs. Especially the early days, when I made a pretty important decision that I don’t necessarily regret — but was probably wrong, with the benefit of hindsight.
Let’s time-travel back to 1995, shall we?
My first real job was writing technical PR. And as much as wearing a suit and tie and writing about polyurethanes was thrilling for a 21-year-old, I wanted to return to the casual dress/agency world where I had interned.
After 10 months of PR writing, I was rescued by a CD with whom I had interviewed soon after graduation. He was a super-nice guy who told me that although they didn’t have an opening at the moment, I should keep in touch. And I did — the old-fashioned way: snail mail.
Tom called me to say they wanted to bring in a copywriter, and after another interview, I was in. My suits and ties went to the back of the closet, and off I went to Agency World™.
Lots of positives.
It was everything I had hoped for. Cool, creative colleagues. A relaxed but hard-working environment. Interesting projects for mostly smart clients. A good place to grow.
And grow I did, with solid mentors (both the CD and ACD were writers by trade) and a unique blend of art directors with plenty of strengths. I learned a ton there — especially about thinking visually, and not just writing a couple dozen headlines without a thought for “What are we gonna show?”
The agency was owned/run by a really good guy too, as were pretty much most of the 20+ employees. It felt like family. Beers every Friday. Field trips where we’d shut down the whole place and go to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor or tubing down the Delaware River.
It was there that I experienced one of the best perks ever. If we met or exceeded our monthly forecast (0% to 5%), the boss would come around, thank us for our efforts, and give us a crisp new $20.
If we beat the forecast by 5% to 10%, it was a $50. And for 10% or more, we got a $100.
We got a good amount of those Ben Franklins back then; the agency was run well, the economy was good, and it was during the run-up to the tech boom.
But some clouds began to gather.
About 18 months later, some of the little things started becoming bigger issues. Maybe it was ADHD, but I started to get bored with the work. My clients were sometimes a struggle, and the insular culture and atmosphere — while comfortable and nice — felt a little restrictive.
(Please bear in mind that I was 24. These little nitpicky things don’t sound so bad to me at 43.)
And then a new project request came in from one of my hospital clients. They wanted a whole new campaign, which sounded good in theory.
But they had no new facilities. No new equipment. No new doctors. Nothing new to say. All they wanted was an entirely new way to convey the same exact message we’d been using for a year: “Caring, experienced professionals — close to home.”
I don’t recall what precipitated it, but I was invited to a sit-down with the big boss, my CD, and my ACD. They asked if I was happy.
My memory is fuzzy, but I think I responded with “Well, I like you guys.” I went on to explain that it was the work itself that was bothering me.
They were cool about it. “Take the afternoon, go home, and think about what you want to do. And let us know tomorrow.”
The next day, I gave notice.
They were obviously unhappy about it, but they were smart enough to recognize that I wasn’t going to be the sunshine-y guy they hired anymore.
They also knew that the clients weren’t going to change, and this campaign had to be done whether or not my petulant, Gen-X butt was writing it or not.
So I left. I was young and invincible. They had recognized my potential; I was sure that others would, too. I was “in demand” in a good job market and solid economy.
If only 43-year-old Me could have a quick chat with 24-year-old Me.
Was it the right decision?
Probably not. I still had a ton to learn. (Especially patience.) Like I said above — good people, good benefits/perks, good-enough clients, and projects where I could build a solid book.
But I did it. Nothing I can do about it now.
Did it ruin my career? Set me back? Do I regret it?
No, maybe, and a little.
With the benefit of hindsight, if I had to do it over again, I’d choose to stay. For all the reasons above and more. I’d probably have gotten a promotion after another couple years, with steady raises so I’d have saved some more money.
And then I could have left for a new opportunity (instead of just going home, with no real prospects on the horizon).
But I did it. There was no going back then, and there isn’t now.
When I did land my next job (it took a few months), I got to live near the ocean and work on some really fun clients. Of course, that job had its ups and downs too.
Regardless, every job is a learning experience. And while this particular career move was “probably wrong,” I still learned a lot.
And isn’t that what it’s all about?
Have you made a career-saving or career-killing move? Or one like mine, which was “probably wrong” but still a good story? Share your career move tales in the comments below!