When I was growing up back on the Island of Montreal, I was often asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. My career goals were always a bit unconventional.
I think at some point, every little boy wants to be a fireman. But that wasn’t high on my list of careers. No, what I wanted to be more than anything else, was a garbageman.
I loved sitting on my front porch, or watching out my bedroom window as the garbage truck came down the street. The garbageman jumped off the back of the truck as it slowed to the curb, grab the garbage can and swing it effortlessly into the waiting maw of the truck. Then he’d drop the empty can back on the curb at the end of the driveway, perfectly placed as to not block my Dad’s car from backing out. Then carry on to the next house. Poetry in motion! What a life!
But as I got a little older, my career aspirations became a bit more pragmatic. Now I wanted to be a plumber! Somewhere, somehow, I had heard that plumbers made a lot of money. That was for me! Fix pipes all the way to the bank!
Actually, I was only half serious about becoming a plumber. I knew next to nothing about plumbing, or pipes, or anything remotely related to plumbing. And, being a small boy, I probably didn’t even flush the toilet!
But What Do You Want To Be?
In high school we were under so much pressure to figure out what we wanted to be when we graduated. What university are you applying for? What is your major? Because I loved the outdoors, I eventually figured I wanted a career in the outdoors. I thought it would be pretty cool to be a Forest Ranger. So I looked into Forest Ranger subjects in university. They didn’t exist. Crap! I dug a bit deeper, and looked at Natural Resources. That could work.
And so I applied to colleges and technology institutes, and I received acceptances from three of them. Two colleges were out west, so I chose the closest one, in Lindsay, Ontario. Sir Sandford Fleming College. Now called Fleming College, it was the highest rated post secondary institution for Natural Resources Technology. I figured it was the best option for getting a job. And it was the closest to my friends.
But the thing is, I didn’t really want to go. I know I’ve talked about this in a previous post. Somewhere along the path to the end of high school, I lost interest in the idea. Granted, I still loved (and continue to love) the outdoors, I just didn’t think a career in natural resources was what I wanted for the rest of my life.
But, because it was expected, I headed off to college, and had a crappy, stressful 4 months of college life. I lived with weird people, had no money, and ate Kraft Dinner and ketchup soup every day.
I came home at Christmas weighing just over a hundred pounds. And I didn’t go back. That was enough for me!
Funny thing is, my dad was approaching the end of his career as an electrical engineer. He came home from World War Two and went off to university, and graduated with his degree. Then he went to work for the Canadian Pacific Railway. And there he stayed for 33 years, moving up the ranks and making a name for himself in the Railroad World.
And when he retired, he worked as a consultant for a railroad supply company. He always worked the same career, all his working life. That is not today’s reality. In fact, in a survey of 1,000 Canadians, 73% expect to change careers at some point. And there are some studies that show lots of people change careers multiple times throughout their working lives. That was certainly my case. I have moved through several careers throughout my working life.
I started my working life as a 17 year old summer student, working on the railroad. Yes, my Dad got me the job. Yes, nepotism was a thing in the 70’s.
I worked two summers for CPR before heading off to my first college attempt. And when that ended a mere 4 months later, I got a permanent job with the railroad. Two summers on the job had given me more experience than some of the guys I started working with, so my boss was happy to have me.
My next couple of years were spent working all over Quebec, New Brunswick and Maine. I lived in motels during the week, and home on weekends. The work was hard and the pay was great. Not a bad way for a single guy with no commitments to make a living.
And then I got bored. I tired of being away from my friends through the week, and I experienced some unfortunate incidents as a result of being an Anglophone in Quebec during turbulent times. So I began to resent my home province.
I decided to leave the railway, and ended up working for a crazy little man who owned a picture framing shop. My friend Noel got me the job, and I worked there for about a year. I laminated wooden plaques and assembled custom frames for not very much money.
It was a strange place to work, but I liked the people and being home in my own bed every night. And every weekend, I was out with my friends and having fun.
The Paint Guy Is Born
I also started painting. Painting is a great right-brain activity. Not painting pictures. No, I painted houses.
It started with my Dad’s boss. He needed a house painter one summer, but no one was available. So I offered. I think he paid me $500. For a 16 year old, that was a lot of money. And I discovered I was good at it. I could focus on the task, and I worked quickly.
No doubt my Dad was a little nervous at the prospect of his 16 year old son making a mess of his boss’s house. Things could have gone badly, but they didn’t.
When I’m painting, I solve many of the world’s problems. Unfortunately when I stop painting, I don’t remember the solutions…
I didn’t realize my painting career would come in handy many years later.
A New Direction
But again I became bored. It felt like I was missing out on something. My life felt incomplete, like I was spinning my wheels but getting nowhere. And again I found myself unemployed, directionless and without a plan.
Then one day my Dad approached me with an idea. I think he knew I was aimless and unhappy. I had been living back at home, paying room and board. He could sense my lethargy, so he offered me a new start.
CP Rail was going through a period of growth, and the business was booming. Rail transportation was increasing out west, and they needed to upgrade much of their infrastructure. My Dad suggested he could talk to the western head of Signals and Communications. Because I had experience, and with his good word, he thought I could get a job out there. A week later I got a call from the head honcho in Vancouver. They were offering me a job!
Now I know my skills had little to do with that job offer. The guy who was offering me that job used to work for my father. And my Dad made lots of friends in the railroad industry. Nepotism rears it’s influential head once more!
And so, at the tender age of 23, I boarded a train to Vancouver and never looked back. I left behind my best friends, a girlfriend of two years, and a life of tedium and predictability. Ahead lay uncertainty and change. I could not have been more excited. In fact, I was probably more excited for an adventure than I had ever been.
My Future Home
Back with CP Rail, living in a new city on my own, and 3000 miles from home, I began to grow. I joined a crew on Vancouver Island and immediately felt like I fit in. And I had no idea that the first place I went to work was in the town I would eventually settle down and raise a family in…
Three years more of traveling the province and making money opened my eyes to other possibilities. I developed an interest in photography, so I took my camera everywhere. One of my work buddies was also an avid photographer, and we began to spend weekends together, hiking and camping.
But then things started to change with the railroad. We went on strike, and spent too long between paycheques. I began to wonder if maybe it was time to think about moving on. Our crew was laid off for three weeks in the winter. Then again a month later. And after a third layoff in just over a year, I decided enough was enough. Time for a change.
I gave my notice in the middle of my last layoff, and never went back. My old friend and roommate was moving back to Montreal, so we gave up our apartment. I sold or gave away most of my stuff, and packed the rest in a U-Haul and headed east.
What Do You Want To Be? A Filmie!
After a few months of collecting Unemployment Insurance and living at my parent’s place back in Quebec, I applied for and got accepted into the Film program at SAIT, in Calgary. Filmmaking was my new passion, and I was excited to be a part of it. I wanted to produce documentaries. “Films that mattered”. Canadian filmmakers like Norman Jewison and Philip Borsos inspired me.
And so, for the next two years, I lived at my sister Debbie’s. I worked my tail off, learning the craft and the business of filmmaking in Canada. On the day I graduated, my fellow “filmie” and friend Steven jumped in his Honda and high-tailed it back to Vancouver.
I spent the next 6 months looking for work. We lived in a small basement apartment in Burnaby, decorated like we were veteran film industry insiders, rather than broke ex-film students. We had no money, few prospects, and tons of confidence. Yes, we were on our way!
Gradually the work came, in fits and starts, and I started to make a bit of money. But it was slow and frustrating.
While I was trying to establish myself in the film business, a friend approached me about an opportunity to teach video production with a private post secondary school. I thought, “Well, since I can’t find steady work as a filmmaker, maybe I’ll teach it!” Considering how much on the job experience I had, I figured they would laugh me out of the interview.
Those Who Can’t…
They didn’t laugh me out of the interview. I was offered the job! They hired me to build a brand new curriculum, and teach it to adult students. I was a teacher!
And this odd change in direction lasted about two years. Then I was fired. Turns out, this “school” wanted me to teach real world filmmaking, without ever leaving the building. I was expected to teach students Electronic News Gathering and Documentary Filmmaking. But they couldn’t take the equipment off-site.
Students would research news stories under a variety of subjects, from hard news, to features, to sports. They would work in teams of 3 or 4 and write, edit, shoot and produce stories, and then put together a 20 minute news show.
They learned about offline and online video editing, how to use professional camera equipment, writing and production, working in teams, on camera performance, and so much more. But we couldn’t take the equipment out of the school. It’s really hard to shoot a news story from the confines of a classroom or edit suite. So the administrators would tell me to “just pretend.”
My answer to that was to ignore their requirements and let my students go out and shoot their stories, their music videos, and their documentaries in the field. My argument was, “These adults are paying $8,000 each to learn a new profession, but we’re not letting them do it properly.”
And so I was fired.
Freelance Is The Life For Me
I was 30 years old, and I didn’t know what I was going to do for work. The odd commercial shoot could not sustain me. I did a few gigs on non-union schlock films, some music videos, and a couple of corporate videos. The corporate videos were through a friend I met while teaching. We hired him for News Gathering classes because he came from a television news background. He and I hit it off, but he was fired about 6 months before I was, for pretty much the same reasons.
But Scott was a working filmmaker, and he had a production company that had a bit of a track record. So I was happy working on projects with him.
A few months after they fired me, I became his Production Manager. I worked freelance, working when he needed me. Most of the work was corporate videos, and I loved it. I discovered I enjoyed the variety of shooting something different every day. And I learned tons about working in a corporate media environment.
But it was still far from steady work. Sometimes weeks would pass without a paycheque. But that was okay, because I was doing something I loved.
One day a little non profit group hired me to shoot a promotional video. It was just a small project, but I had my own small crew, and a bit of a budget. It’s funny, I don’t even remember what the video was about. But the organization loved it, and they asked me to do more work with them.
Go South, Young Man
This led to other projects with other non-profits. I met interesting people involved with environmental advocacy, sustainability, urban development and local governments. Several organizations hired me to produce videos, and I developed some wonderful relationships because of these projects. I met people completely dedicated to making a difference in their part of the world. They inspired me!
And yet, I still felt a drive to create film. So I moved south. To California.
My friend Gabrielle lived in Southern California, near Laguna Beach. We talked often about opportunities down there. She felt I could create something there, surrounded by like-minded people. So off I went, with my dog and my car, and a misplaced sense of optimism.
For half a year I struggled to create a business for myself, in a place that was not friendly to small business. Instead of filmmaking, I painted. That’s right, my 16 year old career revisited. Houses, commercial spaces, yoga studios. Not really what I drove to California for… But hey, I was a painter in my early days as a teenager.
And when I wasn’t painting or getting frustrated with California small business regulations, I’d head out camping. My favourite spot was Anza Borrego State Park, just two short hours over the mountain and into the desert. Just me and my dog, Edge, and the wilderness.
While I painted and struggled with a media career, I expanded my knowledge of painting. I enrolled in the Master Painter’s Institute, and learned all I could about architectural coatings. And every day, I dealt with frustrating municipal bureaucrats. They loved putting roadblocks in front of my career aspirations. They were all very good at their job!
Go Back North, Young Man
Frustrated, broke, and broken, I returned to Canada. I felt like a failure. I gave up too early, I thought. Maybe I could have tried harder! But living in Southern California is expensive, so I chose to leave before my welcome wore out. Thanks for putting up with me, Gabrielle!
Back in BC, I moved in with my friend Ean. Thanks for your support, buddy! Much appreciated!
And it didn’t take me long to get back working. With the help of my non profit friends, I found a place to live. I incorporated my production company, Balanced Image Communications, and got to work. It didn’t take long before I had projects and a few freelance gigs. I also jumped into more community projects.
And because of these wonderful people, my life’s direction changed again. I became an environmental educator. I helped create programs on organic and accessible gardening, and helping people to use the internet to research their own environmental projects. All the while, I helmed my own video production company and continued to work freelance. I was a busy guy!
And then I met Heather.
New Directions, And A Return To The Island
My life changed again, and I headed toward another career change. We married (not right away!) and began a life as Husband and Wife. I worked my production company, but my projects kept getting smaller and smaller. It’s funny, but way back in film school, with my big dreams of conquering the Canadian documentary film market, I couldn’t foresee my evolution to community video producer. My goals changed, my perspective changed, and things that used to be important no longer mattered.
Then Heather was pregnant, and we pulled up stakes and moved to Vancouver Island. And, once I finished up some previously committed projects, I was no longer a video producer. I simply didn’t have the energy or ambition to market my services in a new location. Once set up on the Island, I’d find something new.
And two weeks after moving to the Island I started working at The Home Depot. Welcome to “Customer Service”. Retail was my new career!
At the time I figured I’d give it two years. I could work retail for two years. No problem! How hard can it be? Funny thing was, they put me in the Paint Department. So, no problem, right?
The end of July marks my 18th year in retail. This is both amazing and depressing. What happened to 2 years!?
Is There A Point To All This?
So what’s my point in all this rambling diatribe? It goes back to my title, What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up? With people making so many job and career changes these days, it’s not important what you want to be. I’d much rather see my own children identify themselves not by what they do, but who they are. So this is my message to my kids, as they embark on new paths;
Careers may change, goals may shift, and circumstances may fluctuate, but who you are remains constant.
Who you are is the essence of your being—the qualities, values, and beliefs that make you unique. It encompasses your character, integrity, compassion, and your empathy. These aspects of your personality define the person you are, regardless of the roles or positions you may hold in life. Recognizing and embracing these qualities will help you build authentic and meaningful relationships.
What you do only refers to your external accomplishments, such as career, personal and professional achievements, or social status. While these aspects play a part in shaping ones life, they should not define your entire identity. Relying solely on external factors to determine your worth can lead to a fragile sense of self-worth. By understanding this distinction, you’ll develop resilience and adaptability, helping you to navigate life’s challenges with grace and strength.
What Do You Want To Be? Just Be You
Furthermore, identifying yourself by who you are allows you to focus on personal growth and self-discovery. It encourages you to explore your passions, nurture your talents, and develop your potential. By prioritizing self-awareness and personal development, you can lead a more fulfilling life, driven by your own values and aspirations, rather than being confined to someone else’s expectations or outside validations.
Always remember, your worth is not determined by your occupation, achievements, or any other external factors. Your worth lies in the depths of your character, the love and kindness you share with others, and the personal growth you strive for throughout your life. Success is measured not only by what you accomplish, but also by the positive impact you have on those around you.
So just be you, and not what others expect you to be. Change your career 10 times for all I care! The job you do and the career path you choose is secondary to the person you become. I don’t care what you want to be, so long as it’s a kind, compassionate human being.