Six years ago I swiped my Fiat Chrysler Automobiles badge for the last time, walked through the turnstile and extricated my Jeep Wrangler from the lowest level of the employee parking deck, drove home, poured myself a Jack Daniels on the rocks and told my wife I was now her slave for my remaining days.
I don’t think she was all that amused since I owned no particular skills that would benefit her aside from pushing a vacuum or unjustifiably killing spiders. But then again, I thought I could figure out whatever it is she wanted me to do in the future since I made a very nice living jumping into positions outside my comfort zone. I highly recommend it!
Here’s my long-ish story of a life totally enhanced simply by being willing to step outside my safe place—my comfort zone.
We can start with my very first shot at broadcasting. My brother and I used to make up fake radio shows using a music stand as a faux microphone and reading, singing (badly) popular songs using lyric sheets you could buy at the neighborhood candy store or newsstand. It was fun but I never thought of making it a career. Yet.
That changed when I entered college as a speech and theater major because I thought I could be an actor. Before I could audition for even one production, a month after arriving as a freshman, an upper classman decided I was funny and dragged me down to the campus radio station. He told the guy on the air at the time, “put my friend on the radio.”
He did. Gave me my own show. I was awful. I got better though and made the life-changing decision to pursue a broadcast career. That was pivot number one.
I worked in local radio in Central New York for a few years but that was a dead end. Pivot number two coming up. My wife and I decided we wanted to earn our Masters degrees, she in library science, me, in journalism because I loved news and to write and was better at it than making bad jokes as the goofy morning guy on the radio.
We planned well, quit our jobs, sold a lot of our stuff, put the rest on a moving van and hauled out to Tucson, Arizona to attend the University of Arizona and start new lives.
Single best move ever. She went to school full time, I went part-time and landed a radio job after a couple of days. It wasn’t because of my “talent.” The program director was intrigued that I typed my resume’ in blue instead of black.
“Who types in blue?” he asked. “I figured you had to be fun and different.” Whatever you say. I did morning drive until the program director quit and his replacement wanted my slot. I stayed for two more weeks.
Pivot number three. While I was working at the radio station I saw a notice on the wall in the UA journalism building the local ABC affiliate was looking for a weekend weather guy. Ha. Never did the weather, knew nothing about the weather, wanted the job.
I called the number, the news director granted me an audition and I took a couple of weather books from the library, cramming like it was finals to get just enough weather stuff in my head so I could fake it.
Worked out. Got the job. Now I was a weather guy…but I really wanted to be a reporter, so the assignment editor tossed some stories my way. One night the news director called me up and told me to meet him at a neighborhood bar in an hour. Over a couple of Olympias he told me one reporter quit and another got fired, so if I wanted a reporter job it was mine. I accepted without taking another sip.
It just gets better. About 18 months later our newscast producer with 20 years experience suddenly jumped to a station in Phoenix. News director calls me in. I’ll give you a six grand raise to ditch reporting and start producing.
I don’t know why he chose me but when you’re in the 82nd market six grand is a treasure so I took it. First night producing, President Reagan gets shot. The show didn’t crash. I didn’t get fired.
Six months later I get a tip CNN was starting a new network, what eventually became Headline News. Called the number I was given, flown out to Atlanta and got the job. They didn’t know I had only been producing newscasts for a few months but the boss liked my resume’ reel so I guess I fooled ’em.
Suddenly this green kid just in from Tucson is tossed into a 24-hour network newsroom tasked with producing big time broadcasts under massive time pressures and constantly changing conditions. Out of my comfort zone into an inferno. Didn’t get burned. Was promoted to the main network.
I still aspired to be a full-time reporter. Again, a sympathetic assignment editor came through, giving me stories during weekends. Bosses were happy. Gave me a full-time correspondent job out of the Southeast bureau based in Atlanta.
Ready for more? One day I see the anchor schedule on the bulletin board. I always looked there because I still produced occasionally and wanted to know who was anchoring my shows. Ha! I see my own name up there for the late night, west coast show. Well..I’d never anchored a full newscast in my life and now I was going to solo anchor a network show that included a live interview and audience call-ins.
So…okay! This comfort zone thing just seemed to have no boundaries. I guess I did well enough that they kept scheduling me to anchor. Until things changed again.
Not only did I prefer reporting but I aspired to be a bureau chief. I got wind the Detroit Bureau chief was being transferred overseas to Rome. I applied. Got it. Great job because you were both the BC and the correspondent and the team there was terrific.
All well and fine for the next 12 years until the disastrous merger between CNN and AOL. They ended up closing some small bureaus, including Detroit, laying off about 1,000 people. I was one of them.
Shit. Local stations wouldn’t hire me because I’m not really Mr. TV in terms of looks or flamboyance. Once local news director told me “not looking for journalists. We want street characters like you see in New York.”
Major comfort zone move. At the least I knew I was a good reporter and could write. Eternal thanks to Ed Lapham at Automotive News who made me a deal. He’d give me some stories to write on a freelance basis. If I passed the test, when a job opened I’d have a strong shot at it. Deal. Wrote a few, they like the stories, but there weren’t any available jobs.
Fair enough. The Associated Press chief of Detroit Bureau Charles Hill saw my resume on JournalismJobs.com. He needed a national auto write. We had a couple of lunches where he tried to figure out my real story and decide if an old TV guy could write for the wire. I didn’t enough know if I could write for the wire but boy, what an honor it would be to write for the AP knowing its reputation and exposure my stuff would get. I took a writing test and that, plus my performance at the lunches convinced him TV boy could do it.
Compared to a TV reporter package a wire story seems VERY LONG. So many words! I was allowed to use bigger ones too! But bless my editor Randy Berris who was extremely patient and instructive and turned me into a wire reporter.
Must have been OK. About 14 months after I started at the AP the auto editor at The Detroit News approached me about taking over the General Motors beat. I never worked at a newspaper but I was intrigued with the opportunity. During my interview lunch I mentioned that to the assistant managing editor. He said, “you write great stories. I’ll worry about how it actually gets into the paper.”
Suddenly I was a newspaper guy. I loved it—the opportunity to take a few days to work on and craft stories and build relationships. But three years later my comfort zone was challenged again.
I was approached about managing a new blog Jason Vines, the head of communications at then DaimlerChrysler was starting. This was 2005. Blogging was still fairly news and the term “social media” wasn’t yet in common use. Blackberrys were considered state of the art. Smartphones weren’t yet born.
Sure, why not? It was a big decision to jump from news to PR but this seemed like a chance to get in on an emerging communications mode and I had thought for a long time about working at one of the automakers I had covered for so many years.
I not only got to launch and manage Jason’s blog which was unlike any other. It wasn’t open to just anyone. He wanted to admit only “working media” so he could use the blog to comment on published stories and plant ideas for new stories. It was pretty controversial.
Of course I had zero experience blogging but again, out of the comfort zone and into the fire of cutting edge corporate communications. A year later things went so well, a new team was created around me because they never had anyone on staff before who had worked in virtually every corner of the media world. The new team was DaimlerChrysler Electronic Media. We later updated the name to Digital Media.
Our new team would handle broadcast media relations, the media website and social media. We soon added video production and pioneered the concept of “corporate journalism” creating owned media telling the company’s stories in a journalistic style.
I loved my team not only because they were good humans and talented and creative people but they were always game to try something new.
It’s with them I spent my final 11 years in the full-time workforce before retiring at the end of July, 2016.
Yes, this was a long story but one I hope convinces you to have the confidence in yourself and your skills to have the courage to jump out of your comfort zone in the event your current job suddenly ends or an unexpected opportunity presents itself that had never before been under consideration for you.
It can be scary to find yourself in a new work environment, expected to complete tasks with which you have scant, or no, experience, alongside co-workers with habits and sensitivities very different from those of your former colleagues.
But it’s also the most wonderful feeling in the world to discover your core skills and experiences are absolutely transferable opening doors to opportunities that will enrich your life and frankly, your finances.
Oh sure, I officially “retired” six years ago, but I can’t conceive of not continuing to create and learn, which is why I’ve taken on part-time freelance positions writing autos and mobility stories for Forbes.com and as an integrated media consultant for Franco.
I guess you could say working out of my comfort zone is completely within my comfort zone because the one thing I’m most comfortable with is growing. Try it. Yup..it’s a bit of a tightrope but you don’t need a net, because the only thing to fear is by not taking a risk you may miss the best opportunity you didn’t know you would love.