Work It: Thoughts on Changing Goals and a Twisty Career Path

By November 13, 2013Mountain Life, The Balance
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Editor’s note: In thinking of the rather circuitous road a lot of us outdoor industry types travel to arrive at a particular career crossroads, we asked regular Mountain Diva contributor, Rachel Walker, to tell us her story of goals intersecting with career realities and vice versa. She addresses the both the confidence and the fear we all experience at some points in our professional lives. Have you ever stood a career crossroads and made the leap? Let us know in the comments.

By Rachel Walker

I got my first real job by being a pain in the ass.

It started in February 1998 when I graduated from Middlebury College. After a six-week travel jag, I landed at home with my parents and promptly launched my job search, which consisted of sending letters to a handful of Midd alums working in publishing in Manhattan. When the effort failed to land me the hot staff writing post I felt I deserved, my mom threatened to charge me rent.

So I cracked the help wanted pages in the Denver Post and found the Jackson Hole News advertisement. “Wanted: experienced general reporter for small, award-winning mountain town newspaper. One year’s experience required.”

I had no experience and no writing clips, so I wrote three newspaper “stories” and sent them to the paper’s editor, Angus MacLean Thuermer, Jr. “I realize the stories I’ve submitted are made up,” I wrote. “But note how good my writing is. Imagine how great it will be after you train me.” After I sent my material, I called Angus every day. And Angus, every day, failed to return my messages. But on the fifth day, he answered the phone.

“Who did you say you were again?” he grumbled.

Eventually, I wore him down. That first job as an environmental reporter was a whirlwind of learning about federal environmental laws, touring the backcountry of Yellowstone with biologists in search of wolves and grizzly bears, and throwing myself into the contentious world of environmental activists, ranchers, hunters, and pretty much anyone else who had an opinion. It was also pure freedom. I thrived under deadlines and took advantage of the freedom of the newsroom to get out and explore my world.

For better or worse, ambition got the better of me after several years. I landed in Bend, Oregon, again covering the environment, and again exploring contentious issues revolving around natural resources. I had a Puritan work ethic and firmly believed I was in charge of my destiny. All I needed was to work hard.

When I applied for and got a fellowship in environmental journalism at CU-Boulder, the most influential part of the experience had everything to do with luck and nothing to do with hard work. My roommate, whom I found on Craigslist, happened to be an editor at Skiing Magazine. He made some introductions, and by the year’s end, I had a job offer as an associate editor.

I had a few moral qualms over going from writing about environmental destruction to going heli-skiing. Still, I took the job, even though I fretted about what felt like a drastic career switch. Would I ever achieve my goals? I was 30 and was well aware that the benchmarks I laid out in my 20s—namely: write a book, get famous, do cool things —were not coming to fruition.

I’d love to say it was a straight path from that young angst to where I am now, which is 38 with a somewhat solid freelancing career and a book-in-progress, but the truth is there was (and remains) a lot of doubt, frustration, and fear in my professional life. I’m less in control of the topics I write about (freelancers, as a general rule, don’t say no to assignments—at least that’s my mantra). I work strange hours. I’m making the money I need to live on, but I’m still striving to reach my goals. I’m still a pain in the ass, but this time I’m a pain in my ass.

The difference—and this is important—between my goals today and those of almost 10 years ago is that I’ve got more patience and less ego. I hope for a book deal and, of course, dream that people buy and read my book. I long for interesting assignments. But I no longer define myself exclusively by my professional title. So what changed? Nothing cataclysmic. Rather, I learned to let go and to take more risks. Some work out, some don’t. I’ve had jobs that lasted long past their expiration date and others that weren’t good fits. All have taught me the importance of remaining curious and open to possibilities. Careers, jobs, professions—these are something most of us have to have to earn a living. As long as you have to do it, it might as well be fun.