I recently wrote this essay as the backbone for a speech I gave, and since this blog is somewhat my online journal, I’ve decided to share it here.
I dropped out of college 6 weeks before graduation – and it was probably one of the best decisions I ever made.
While it sounds disastrous, I like to say that I was simply taking the scenic route.
During my childhood, my father was famous for taking meandering back roads to avoid tolls and highway traffic. We called it slow, but he called it “taking the scenic route.” It may not have gotten us to our destination as quickly, but it was certainly more enjoyable.
I dropped out of college and began my scenic route because I’d stopped going to classes. I think I’d chosen the wrong degree program for my personality. To be a successful music major, you are expected to spend a good 4-5 hours a day alone, practicing your instrument. It’s a solitary sport; one that requires extreme levels of dedication and concentration. Every minute in those practice rooms felt like torture to me because I wanted to be out and about.
The day after I dropped out, I woke up so relieved that, for the first time since I was 3 years old, I wouldn’t have to practice my violin that day. But I couldn’t revel in that thought for too long – I had to get a job.
I started work at a bakery, thinking that I might want to go to school to become a pastry chef.
It only took a few weeks for my dreams of culinary school to disappear. I still cringe, remembering how my workdays started with icing 100 eclairs. I had to lug the 5 gallon tub of icing out of the cooler, then reach my hand in and grab a glob of cold icing, then smooth it over the top of the éclair shell with my hand.
It was thick, and sweet, and rich with cocoa, and at 4:45 in the morning it was disgusting.
On the up side, I learned to decorate cakes almost like Martha Stewart. But did you know that most bakery employees smoke while they work? (Yes, even though it’s illegal.) I hated breathing in the smoky air, and I was so tired of getting to work before 5 am.
Still, I was too chicken to quit my job.. . . until the day my paycheck bounced and I couldn’t pay my rent on time.
It was one month before Christmas, the most stressful season in a bakery, and I was done. What’s the point of having a full-time job if you can’t even count on the paycheck?
I quit the job, took a trip to explore West Virginia, and then spent several months only working part-time as a violin teacher. I taught private lessons as well as classes at a local private school. I didn’t have any money to spare, but I had freedom! I trained for a 2-week backpacking expedition, did DIY projects, and watched a lot of HGTV.
The Veterinary Hospitals:
After two months of part-time work, I was bored and ready to have a busier schedule.
Next stop on my scenic route? I jumped at the chance to become a veterinary assistant at a local hospital. At the time it seemed like such a glamorous job!
After 8 months of this, I was ready to go back to school and finish my degree just to get it over with. Enter the 6-month juggling act of private violin students, my school music job, the vet hospital, and – to my parents’ relief – my final college classes.
I approached my final semester of college with a very different mindset this time, refreshed by my scenic route. I woke up early every morning to practice, knowing that I had classes and two jobs to go to.
As soon as I graduated, I was promoted to the full-time position of veterinary office manager. I was only 23, yet I was suddenly responsible for managing a team and a budget, and learning about sales forecasts.
On top of that, I had to juggle the downsides of management – working 30 days in a row to keep payroll numbers low, firing employees, and sometimes telling a client their injured pet had died on the operating table.
I thought that was bad, but I was in for an even worse surprise when I was promoted once again to manage a different hospital that the company had just acquired.
Suddenly I was the bad guy, sent down by corporate to make everyone conform to the new rules. I managed to make a difference at that hospital, gaining the trust of the customers and my staff, and implementing better medical protocol, but I was tired of working for a veterinary corporation whose leadership team consisted of stockbrokers and investors, not veterinarians. If one more director told me I should have a “promotional sale” on prescription medications, I was going to scream.
I got two new jobs, both at locally-owned businesses. By day I worked for a small clinic, and by night I worked at an emergency center. I continued to teach violin in my “spare” time. I missed being able to make a difference as a manager, not to mention the salary, but both jobs were an improvement from the corporate veterinary hospitals.
Then, one spring I moved to Washington DC for a guy I met on www.datemypet.com – not joking. (He didn’t last, but the move to DC did.)
During my first year in the city, I worked for one of the best veterinary surgeons out there. I assisted in interesting and complex surgeries, including some on military dogs and diplomatic dogs that were flown in from as far away as Russia, and I got to see how a really successful hospital was run. The owner was a good business woman, but she was also extremely caring and knowledgeable.
But even at the most successful hospital, the veterinary industry is a physically and emotionally taxing one.
It is more than playing with cute puppies and kittens.
It is cleaning kennels, working weekends, getting bitten, never eating lunch, and reporting abusive owners when they bring a dog in with injuries from a fighting ring.
It is euthanizing an injured pet because his owner can’t afford surgery, and getting yelled at because your business can’t do it for free.
I grew tired of the industry, and wanted an office job where I would have paid vacation and not get covered in bodily fluids daily.
The Corporate World:
Joining a small defense company to do HR and Contracts work, I finally left the crazy world of veterinary medicine for good.
I’m not going to lie. During my first week on the job, the highlights had nothing to do with the work, and everything to do with the clothes, the shoes, the fact that I only worked 9-5, and my ability to actually eat lunch during the work day.
I could tell you about the details of that first defense job, but frankly it’s not nearly as interesting as my previous life. And then, 8 years ago, I was recruited to work at my current company – one of the largest defense companies in the world. I didn’t believe a company of this size would hire a girl with a music degree. But they did.
The vice president who hired me here (and later became a friend, mentor, and our wedding officiant) later told me he did so because of my diverse work background, particularly my vet hospital career. Also? In his words, I had “a healthy disregard for authority.” I love that description.
In the last 8.5 years I’ve enjoyed the benefits of a large company, working in different areas like business strategy, mergers and acquisitions, communications, and now I spend my days coaching small businesses to help them acquire work with the large businesses like mine. I’m not a huge fan of the defense industry, but I’m passionate about what I do to help small businesses succeed.
Just like my father’s scenic routes, mine was not easy or a short route. But it was an AWESOME route. My lesson learned from all this? There are so many adventures to be had if you just get off the highway and hit the back roads.
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