My day job ended last Friday.
I received a phone call informing me that the company had gone out of business for financial reasons. There was no advance notice, and I suppose I should’ve been upset, but the angry emotions never came.
I felt like a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders.
Since the latter part of 2015, I’ve worked hard new and better opportunities outside of the day job. And although my plan was to leave when I was better-established, it’s not like I’ve been left in a bad situation.
I’ve been paid to speak, write, and share my thoughts on a range of issues. Through my “30 Days of Gas Station Food” experiment and my exposure to more than 1,000 convenience stores in 24 states, I’ve been able to bring an outsider’s perspective to various organizations within the c-store industry—not just to promote the sale of healthful choices, but to share more broadly what works, doesn’t work, and what can be improved.
But there’s a reason why I did this.
A number of years ago, I was forced to realize a cold, bitter truth: despite having done many amazing things, I didn’t really “fit” anywhere in the marketplace. As I’ve written previously, my decision to turn down law school meant—in the eyes of employers—that I was just another random social sciences major. Nor did my two years with Teach For America count for anything.
After hundreds of applications and few responses—and after working mundane jobs that either weren’t right or had no future—my fight or flight response kicked in. Either I create my own opportunities, I realized, or I’m never going to have the kind of life that I want.
So that’s what I did.
I’ve spent more than fifteen years writing and learning the craft, so I wrote. I enjoy self-experimentation, so I designed an experiment that had never been attempted. I’m passionate about helping people transition into healthy, active lives, so I put my message out there.
And now that my former employer has gone out of business, I’m glad that I did it. Although I’m not quite where I want to be, I’ve got momentum and a chance to do a lot of great things.
That’s why I want to share what I’ve learned. If you’re where I was a few years ago and considering something similar, then perhaps I can help.
THE DAY JOB
Until recently, I was hesitant to talk about my day job.
I didn’t want people to assume that I had intentions of staying there, but I didn’t want to broadcast that openly on social media or my website. That could cause issues if it got back to the employer, and I wanted to be mindful of the message it sent my coworkers. I respected them a lot, and I didn’t want it taken personally.
But for those of you who’ve wondered: I worked with cell phone towers.
It’s not what I had in mind when I applied to law schools, but it wasn’t a bad job. I went to the airport on Monday, returned home either Thursday evening or sometime Friday, and generally enjoyed three-day weekends. I was able to see more of the United States than many people ever will, and the pay wasn’t terrible.
Most people don’t notice cellular towers, but they’re everywhere. Look around when you’re driving at night. See those flashing stacks of red lights?
I didn’t construct them, mount equipment, or install modifications, but I did climb them. Many were between 150 and 300 feet, but I’ve been as high as 1,100 feet—and that was in the dark after midnight.
My job was to inspect the towers and the sites at which they’re located. I verified that construction crews did their work properly, inspected towers and facilities that had been recently purchased, and provided the engineering team with the data they needed to determine if towers needed modifications or could handle extra equipment.
My coworker produced this video of a 999′ tower we inspected in Joplin, MO. The music is loud, so turn it down if you’re at work.
But I had no intention of staying, and I realized this about a month into the job.
That’s why I took advantage of the situation for my benefit. The extensive travel made my “30 Days” experiment more interesting than it would’ve been if I’d just stayed around Des Moines, and I quickly realized that I was able to gain exposure to stores all around the United States. I examined them from every angle, took photographs, and looked for innovative products and solutions. Having visiting more than 1,000 stores in 24 states, I’d like to think I did alright.
And things began to go my way.
WHAT I’VE LEARNED SO FAR
As I mentioned, I’m still not where I want to be.
The game-plan is to continue to develop the “personal brand” and take advantage of other avenues that exist, but I may also jump on-board with the right company if there’s a chance to do it. It just depends on the situation.
But perhaps these lessons will be useful to you if you’re just getting started. Just remember that they’re reflective of my experience and may not apply directly to yours.
Lesson 1: Take action. Don’t over-plan.
As I’ve written before, people sometimes spend so much time planning and searching for answers that they avoid taking action. This is a critical mistake. While it’s a poor idea to rush into something recklessly, remaining in stasis doesn’t solve anything.
I’m reminded of something that Stephen King once said. I wish I could find the video, but he did a Q&A at a college campus and was approached by a student. She explained her situation, her desire to be a writer, and asked Mr. King if he thought she should do it.
“No. You shouldn’t,” he said, in his characteristic, blunt style—more or less in these words. “Because if you truly wanted to write, then you wouldn’t give a fuck what I have to say about it.”
Harsh? Perhaps. But he’s right.
Writers write, singers sing, actors act, and entrepreneurs create businesses and innovations. They take action and move forward.
Lesson 2: Some of the best opportunities are unplanned
Action is important for another reason. Some of the best opportunities are unknown and unplanned, and we only encounter them after we move forward.
I initially viewed the “30 Days” experiment as a fun way to prove a point. Maybe I’d get lucky drive heavy traffic to my website.
But I didn’t anticipate what actually happened. How could I? At the time, I wasn’t even aware of many of the organizations that eventually paid me to speak and write.
Put yourself out there and see what happens. You may be surprised.
Lesson 3: Don’t be needy
When you’re in a room full of people who have the ability to change your life with just one phone call, it’s difficult not to unpack the reality of how badly you need their help. Maybe you are needy. Maybe you need a break more than anyone realizes.
But please: don’t be the that person. Nobody responds well to it.
Consider it from the perspective of others. Would you want to work with someone who’s desperate and needy? Do you think anyone came to a conference hoping to meet that person?
There’s a time and a place to be blunt, and you may have to press an issue here and there. But try to make decisions from a position of strength—even if you’re only strong in appearance.
Lesson 4: You may not earn money immediately, and that’s okay
Steve Kamb from Nerd Fitness had only 90 subscribers after nine months, despite publishing five articles per week. That’s a lot of time and effort, and I’m sure it was difficult.
After all, we want to be rewarded for our hard work.
But sometimes you have to do the work with little or no compensation in return. Maybe you write articles on your own website with limited traffic, participate in podcasts, submit articles to larger websites that don’t pay, or undertake a time-intensive diet experiment on top of 14-hour workdays and stay up late to produce and maintain the documentation. Maybe your first big break at a conference doesn’t pay, or maybe it pays less that you think it’s worth.
Whatever the situation, it’s important to remember that we all start somewhere. Build a solid foundation and prioritize the long-game over short-term income.
Lesson 5: Well-meaning people will let you down. Let it go, and move on.
People will over-promise, forget to reply to your emails, and lead you to believe the situation is better than it really is. It’s irritating, but it’s just what people do.
It’s okay though. They’re human. Just let it go, and don’t take it personally.
But don’t do what they do. Be professional and reliable.
Lesson 6: Don’t rush
Work hard, but remember that your enthusiasm may not be shared by those around you. You’re starting something on your own, and you’re probably operating with more intensity than someone who is coming to work at a job they’ve been at for a number of years. This isn’t right or wrong. It’s just normal.
Likewise, sometimes things take longer than you’d expect. It may take a few weeks to determine if you get a certain speaking fee, and an email that generates no response in three days may come back in another day or two.
Lesson 7: Keep your expenses minimal
If I had enormous expenses right now, then I would be in a bad situation. But I don’t.
I live in an inexpensive (but nicely decorated) apartment, drive a 2005 Honda Civic that I own, use my phone as a hotspot rather than paying outrageous fees for internet, and I’m very nearly debt-free.
If I had a mortgage and a large car payment or two, then I might have to prioritize getting another “good job” instead of pursing what I actually want. The way it stands right now, I can easily pick up four nights a week at a restaurant and still save money while having a flexible schedule and the time I need to do this.
Lesson 8: Project positivity—not negativity.
Last year, I shared a picture from a Sheetz in North Carolina. I drew attention to the area around the registers: there were apples, bananas, and other healthful items located within an arm’s reach. I thought this was fantastic. They partnered with the Partnership for a Healthier America and made it a company policy to have a minimum number of healthful items located near the registers in new stores. Pretty cool, right?
Not according to a message I received.
This person pointed out that candy and other junk food was still available. She argued that it’s an example of stores loading up the checkout area with junk and, and she said that I was going too easy on Sheetz—that I should be more critical.
But wait a moment. Yes, stores have loaded up the checkout areas with junk for years; and yes, that’s a problem. But here’s a store that’s selling bananas, apples, dried broccoli, and other healthful items near the registers! So what if there’s also candy and scotcharoos?
I just don’t see the point in complaining about it.
And besides, which strategy is more effective? Imagine if the Partnership for a Healthier America had created a scorecard, graded all of the convenience stores harshly, and adopted a tactic of publicly shaming the lowest performers. Would that lead to improvement? Perhaps. I don’t know.
But I do know that three additional, industry-leading organizations voluntarily partnered with them in October: Core-Mark, Ricker’s and Aloha Petroleum.
And I’m certain that we accomplished more when we work together.
It’s also worth reading this article from Vox about Michelle Obama’s efforts to improve the nation’s health. As the author writes:
I learned that some of the very things that made Michelle Obama sometimes appear soft — the industry collaborations, the emphasis on exercise — were part of the shrewd strategy that made her effective. Through her leadership, the Obama administration seized on a moment when America started paying attention to food, and made fighting obesity a top priority — both symbolically and legislatively.
Lesson 9: It comes with a cost. Be willing to pay it.
As Epictitus says in the Encheiridion, you must be willing to pay the cost if you want something.
Grinding out a side-gig and trying to make it into something more can affect your social life, romantic life, finances, recreation, and at times—it seems—even your sanity. You need to decide if that’s a price you’re willing to pay. If not, make peace with your situation and forget about it.
Additionally, many people won’t understand what you’re doing. Although we constantly hear about the importance of doing what you love and following your dreams, we don’t really encourage people to do that. We promote practicality. Safe careers, good jobs. Work hard and retire. The result is that people make peace with mundane situations, and some learn to endure jobs that they actively dislike. They should just be grateful that they have one, right?
Expect some push-back if you want better. Many people will take it personally because they see it as a rejection of their values. Others will think it’s silly and childish—kind of like that friend who perpetually talks about his great business ideas but never actually tries to make them happen.
Lesson 10: It’s worth it
Even a little bit of initial success feels incredible. It’s liberating. At the end of the day, you don’t have to wonder what would’ve happened if only you had tried.
EDIT: As of March, I accepted a position with GasBuddy as an Analyst/Evangelist for Convenience Store and Retail Trends. Using the experience and knowledge I gained from my travels and speaking engagements—and the hard work I’ve invested on the side—I was able to drastically change my life and land a position doing what I love.
As always, feel free to leave a comment and tell me what you think. Good, bad, full of nonsense? I want to know. Social media shares are always welcome as well.