You Call This Living?

by John Pellegrini

What’s your perspective of your life? How do you define yourself? When someone asks you to sum up your life, do you simply tell him or her what you do for a living? Or, is there more?

My father-in-law is a former teacher and librarian. For many years he would define himself as that. If people would ask, “Who are you?” he would respond, “I am a Teacher.” But he told me, after some years of this, he began to wonder why his outlook on his life was so shallow. Why did he define his entire life by his job, and nothing else?

There are those who would say that we must have short, simple answers to everything, categories for every possible person on the planet. You are this, that, and the other thing. That’s all you need to know. Nothing else is ever to be mentioned.

It is my belief that categorizing everything into short simple answers and statements is the reason why people are so unhappy with their lives, forcing ourselves to believe that we can only be one or two things, when we all know that we can, and we want to, be so much more.

For my father-in-law, using his job as his idea of the role he played in life caused some major problems for him when he was laid off. Having defined his life for so long by his career, he thought he had lost his life when his job came to a close. From what I’ve seen, this seems to be a problem for the vast majority of people in the world. Fortunately, my father-in-law was able to overcome this emotional nightmare, and when he talks about it these days, he shakes his head and can’t believe that he ever thought of himself that way, in such shallow terms.

Call me weird, but I’ve never had that problem. I’ve never identified myself by what I do for a living. Maybe it’s due to the amazing lack of job security there is in radio. Well, maybe not, because I’ve never been satisfied with any of the jobs I’ve had. Let me clarify that: I’m not saying I wasn’t happy with my career. I’m not saying that I wasn’t happy with the places I’ve worked. It’s just that, I’ve never felt that I had a job that I could do for the rest of my life. I’ve never said, “This is it! This is THE Company, THE job, and THE place that I’m going to stay with forever.” To me, that amounts to not being interested in furthering your ability. That amounts to no longer wanting to learn new things.

The job that I have today is vastly different from the one that I had five years ago, ten years ago, fifteen years ago, and twenty years ago. That’s exactly how I want it. Look me up in ten years, and I just might be doing something completely different from what I’m doing today. I’ve had nearly 20 years or so in this business, and I feel like I’m just now getting started on what I should have been doing all along. This may shock and startle many of you. “What the heck is he saying?!?! He’s working in market number 3 for one of the world’s most famous radio stations! How can he think he’s just starting out?” Very simple. This is what I’ve wanted to do all along; I wanted to start my career here, at WLS. And to a major degree, I have decided that I am starting my career now. Everything leading up to this point was the equivalent of going to school, training for this gig, as it were. Now that I’m here, my career can begin, and I certainly have no intention of ending my career here.

Ask yourself, what would happen to your attitude if you decided that, for all intents and purposes, your career was just now beginning. Would that change, or perhaps improve your enthusiasm for your career? By the way, you don’t have to start your career only when you move to a major market. You can start your career any time you wish, no matter where you are. Just say it, and believe it. The fact is, I had decided that my career was just beginning before I got the gig here at WLS. I was getting ready to revise my situation at the station I had been working for, but WLS called, and I wound up with a much further start-over than I had planned. But, hey, that’s what makes new beginnings great!

Other strange career choices: I don’t have an agent. Here in Chicago, everyone tells me that to get the big paying gigs, you must have an agent. I don’t like agents. I tried to have agents represent my work when I lived in Chicago the first time, back in the mid 1980s. When I interviewed these prospective repre-sentatives of my work, they asked me what I did. I told them. I wrote copy. I produced commercials. I voiced the commercials. I chose and coached the other voices in the commercials. I engineered the recording sessions for the commercials. I helped the sales staff sell the commercials to the client, and I put them on the air.

“Wait a minute!” they would scream. “You can’t do all that! You can only do one thing. You can only voice the commercials. Don’t try to tell the casting directors about all this; they won’t hire you! The industry doesn’t want people like you! You’ll never make any money if you pretend to know it all! You’re either a voice talent, or you’re a producer, or you’re an engineer. You can’t be everything!” Up to that point, for a little less than 10 years, I had been “everything,” but what the hell do I know, right?

So, I gave up. I didn’t even try to get any further auditions. Why? Sure there’s money to be made doing voice work. But that’s only a fraction of what I want and can do. The fact is, many industry people are doing exactly what I do (“every-thing”), and are very successful at it. The agents just simply didn’t want to put forth the effort in learning how to market all the assets that I could bring to a job. If they’re not interested in finding out how much more money they could be making in representing someone like me, who can do so many different things in the aspects of advertising, then why should I be interested in using them? Agents need to remember that they are there for our convenience, not the other way around.

Truth be told, most of the agents I’ve met over the years, had absolutely no business being agents. They didn’t understand or care how the business worked; they just wanted their commissions from the work they lined up, whether it helped me or not. I can’t describe how many times I was sent out on an audition that not only had nothing to do with what I wanted to do, namely voice work, but the parts and roles weren’t even ones I could pull off as an actor! I was once sent out to read for an on-camera part of a teenager, and at that time I was 30 years old and definitely looked like I was at least that old, if not older! I didn’t even wait for my chance to audition before I left. (I was seldom told what the part was going to be until I got to the audition).

Perhaps some people would think that my view of agents is nothing more than a snotty attitude. Certainly the agents saw it that way. But, I decided a long time ago that I would never place limits on myself for someone else’s benefit. (Having said all that, I will admit that I’ll probably have to get some sort of agent eventually for some stuff, I’m not that unrealistic.) There are those who might argue that this kind of outlook has caused me to lose loads of opportunities, but they weren’t the kind of opportunities that I could have benefited from. If I have to limit my own abilities and talents to gain a job, then it’s of no benefit to me, despite the money. I won’t learn anything new. I won’t be able to grow. I won’t be able to get closer to what it is that I have in mind for goals.

“Did he say Goals, with an “s”—signifying more than one goal?”

Yes.

“Aren’t you supposed to only have one goal?”

Why?

“One goal is easier to achieve than numerous goals.”

So? Who said anything about easier being the smart way to go? I have multiple goals. Only a couple of them have anything to do with radio or production. Many have nothing to do with this business at all. So what? I believe that the more goals you have, the less chance you’ll have of complacency. Now, I’m also smart enough to realize that you can’t work on all your goals at the same time. But who said you have to? I concentrate on the ones that I can achieve now, at a particular time. Then, as opportunities present themselves, I work on other ones. I’ve also left myself the option of not having to complete all the goals I’ve set for myself, because I have to be realistic enough to know that I may not. Which is perfectly fine. The point is, I want to constantly see what new things I can do and learn. And it’s not just because I spent a lot of my school years asleep; I just want to see and do all that I find interesting while I have this time here.

This has given me a tremendous advantage in times of stress about whatever my present situation was. Because no matter what I’m doing as a job, and that includes the Production Director/Creative Director gig, I know that ultimately it’s not what I want to do for the rest of my life. So leaving it (the job), or changing it, is not all that difficult. In fact, it’s usually a great sense of reward and optimism for the next situation.

Sometimes I’ve had to forget some goals that I set in the past because they weren’t workable or possible at the time I tried to accomplish them. So you just set them aside, to work on later, or if necessary, forget them. Maybe they weren’t realistic in how they would relate to furthering my career, such as my one time goal to become a freight train engineer, or they weren’t achievable, such as my one time goal of marrying the Pope’s daughter. (It’s a joke!)

Seriously, have lots of goals for yourself. Keep yourself interested in more than just your job. Your job is the place where you trade your current level of experience and training for some money. It is not your LIFE. If it is, you’re going to be in for some serious mental problems down the road (if you haven’t already had them). Your life does not end when you walk out the door at the end of the day. Your life does not, and should not, revolve around your job. If anything, that’s when your life should start. In fact, for many people, the last thing they should want is to have their life become their job or vice versa.

Plus, with all the uncertainty of mergers, acquisitions, and buyouts going on in radio, you’d be an idiot if you didn’t think that there is a possibility that your job could be eliminated, and there is also a real possibility that you may never get to work in radio again. Have you thought about this? Or, are you afraid to? You should think about this possibility, you know. Not because you should be up late at night worrying sick whether you’ll still have a job or not, but because you should think about what you would do if this situation were to occur. What would you do?

Think carefully. As valuable as we production people think we are, our position isn’t so necessary to the survival of radio as many people think. Remember, the position of Production Director really didn’t exist 20 years ago. Only the really big stations had one, and even then, many did not. When the fight for profits becomes desperate, hell, the overnight guy can dub all the spots, and the sales staff can write their own commercials, and suddenly, it’s pink slip time for the prod pro.

The truth is, as long as you work for someone else, you have no job security no matter what your contract says. What will you do if it happens? If all you’ve ever defined yourself by is “radio creative type” (or whatever your title is), what will you do when it’s taken away? Where will you go? What if the entire industry decides to eliminate our position across the board? Don’t be dumb enough to think it can’t happen, it already is happening. What will you do? This is why I don’t want to trap myself into thinking that radio is my life. Radio is just what I’m currently doing to pay the bills, but it in no way is where I want to spend the rest of my life. I only spend 8 to 10 hours a day, five days a week here. That, most certainly, is not my life. And it shouldn’t be yours, either.

It is only with experience that I can share this stuff with you. I’ve found myself in this trap before, and I know many others who’ve been here, too. Sometimes, people get trapped in this thinking and never try to get out of it. These are the ones who have the hardest time when they are laid off, or retire. It’s a pathetic way to live, and it’s totally unnecessary. Your job may be important from an economic standpoint, but it must never become your life.

There are those of us who think that in order to be the best we can for our careers, we must make our jobs our lives. This is nonsense, especially for those of us in creative jobs. By having a life outside your job, you have more experiences and ideas to draw upon. If all you have is your job, then everything you do and create merely relates to your job, which won’t communicate well with the 99.999999 percent of rest of the planet who could care less about your job. But, what the hey, it’s your life. As the old saying goes, you only get one life (unless you’re Buddhist), so spend it wisely. There’s a lot more to your life than your paycheck.

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