Mylove for DJing started 30 years ago in high school. Back then in Chicago, before Hip-Hop took over, House Music was the thing with my teenage friends. It wasn’t mainstream so I felt like I was part of something special. Like I was in on some secret that only the underground knew. Chicago DJs would mix the music using Technics turntables and 12″ vinyl, blending the tracks seamlessly so as not to interrupt the packed dance floor. Since my friends and I were too young to get into bars or dance clubs, we would go to dance parties hosted at local VFWs or in somebody’s basement.
That was the scene back then. And the DJ was always the life of the party.
To see a melting pot of people, all grooving to the same beat, was inspiring. I could feel their joy. I could hear their heart beat in sync with the music.
I was just coming out of my super-shy, nerdy phase of adolescence. When I saw the girls swoon over the DJ, something told me that I needed to be that guy. My friend Charlie Manlapaz, a.k.a. DJ Charlie, kindly took me under his wing and showed me the way. After teaching me the basics of beat-matching, he showed me how to scratch and even a few record ‘juggling’ tricks. That’s how my DJ life started.
By the time I was in college, I had enough experience to DJ live at parties. Up until then, I was just practicing hours and hours in the privacy of home. After rotating as a guest DJ at several university dances, I noticed that most of the DJs played the same type of music…the same songs just in a different order. To set myself apart, I chose to play more “new wave.” This is what got me invited to mix at more parties. It wasn’t because I had better skills. That definitely was not the case. I just played good music that people didn’t hear from the other DJs.
DJ Insight #1: Find the gap that everyone overlooks and find a way to bridge it. When introducing something new, it helps to sandwich it between the familiar. Make sure it blends nicely and make the transitions as seamless as possible.
There was a bar at U of I called Skylight Club. They had a DJ every night and there was usually a long line outside to get in. During the weekends, the line would snake around the corner. When the head DJ, a senior about to graduate, auditioned people to replace him, I stepped up. Using DJ Insight #1, I got the job.
After college, I spent six years working in Japan. When I wasn’t working, I spent my free time with Japanese friends as well as other gaijin. Most of them were still in their twenties and loved to party. I began offering my DJ services for special events and even organized a few myself. Mixing music abroad drove home something I guess I already knew…
DJ Insight #2: Music is magic. It’s a universal language that speaks to people from all cultures. It can connect and inspire.
I returned to the States in 1997 and decided to start a mobile DJ business on the side, focusing mostly on weddings along with a few school and corporate parties. This was the first stretch where I had to constantly deal with requests from the crowd. I hated it. As much as I like to please the crowd, especially the client, to get bombarded with individual ad hoc requests — while you’re in the middle of spinning a live set — is very distracting.
While it paid well, the DJ-for-hire life taught me that DJing is much more fun when the only one you’re trying to make happy is yourself.
DJ Insight #3: Selling your services often feels like selling out. Unless you’re in a financial position to be selective and say no, it often takes all the fun out of why you went into business in the first place.
A few years of providing mobile entertainment almost every weekend was enough. When my wife told me we were expecting our first child, I put my equipment in storage and started working my way up the corporate ladder. It paid off, except that in exchange for six figures, I sacrificed my family life and personal interests. Somehow that doesn’t make much sense in the long run.
So now, in this chapter of my life, I’ve slowed things down, gave some things up, but got some great things in return. Family time feels special again. I’ve dusted off the DJ equipment and am exploring other interests (like cooking and writing!) I’m mixing things up again, instead of playing the same tune day in and day out. The magic is coming back.
DJ Insight #4: It’s good to mix things up. You discover new things as you explore and experiment. There’s value in dabbling and incorporating something fresh. And if you do it long enough, you find it gets easier to create the perfect blend for you.
I’ve been a DJ on and off for 30 years. Vinyl is now back. I use the original Technics turntable from back in college. And the songs I used to spin many years ago can still rock a party. So many great experiences along the way and a few very valuable insights. Today, I spin music only when I want to, not because I have to. I still take requests, but I don’t get many since the people I choose to spend my time with are those who like me for who I am, the way I do things, and the music I choose to play.
Let the music play.
-Donn (a.k.a. DJ ReCreator)
Recorded practice set when I volunteered to DJ for my son’s end-of-year middle school party.
As a semi-retired DJ, I’ve always known the high that comes from the right music at the right time. Music really is like a powerful drug. It can take you back in time where a particular song anchors memories from the past. It has the power to transform ordinary moments into special events. And this affective influence can touch the heart, the mind as well as the body.
Some of my favorite songs not only make you feel good, they’re good for you. More than words, there is harmony between [lyrics with substance] and [melody that moves].
Here are some samples. No prescription needed.
Antidepressant or Stress Relief
“I, recommend getting your heart trampled on to anyone, yeah
I, recommend walking around naked in your living room, yeah
Swallow it down (what a jagged little pill)
It feels so good (swimming in your stomach)
Wait until the dust settles
You live you learn, you love you learn
You cry you learn, you lose you learn
You bleed you learn, you scream you learn
I, recommend biting off more than you can chew to anyone
I certainly do
I, recommend sticking your foot in your mouth at any time
“So basically all I need
Is to be everything but me
And some implants
Somehow that don’t make much sense
I must be out of my head
If I think, that I am governed by material things.
So I decided I’m
The definition of fly
And if you want to know why
I know what money can’t buy
Don’t go believing the hype
There’s no runway in the sky
And no way you could be fly
Not if it costs you a dime.”
“You can be amazing
You can turn a phrase into a weapon or a drug
You can be the outcast
Or be the backlash of somebody’s lack of love
Or you can start speaking up
Nothing’s gonna hurt you the way that words do
And they settle ‘neath your skin
Kept on the inside and no sunlight
Sometimes a shadow wins
But I wonder what would happen if you
Say what you wanna say
And let the words fall out
Honestly I wanna see you be brave
With what you want to say
And let the words fall out
Honestly I wanna see you be brave”
“Staring at the blank page before you
Open up the dirty window
Let the sun illuminate the words that you could not find
Reaching for something in the distance
So close you can almost taste it
Release your inhibitions
Feel the rain on your skin
No one else can feel it for you
Only you can let it in
No one else, no one else
Can speak the words on your lips
Drench yourself in words unspoken
Live your life with arms wide open
Today is where your book begins
The rest is still unwritten”
“Now better men, than me have failed
Drinking from that unholy grail
(Now check it out)
I’ve got her, and she got me
And you’ve got that butt, but I kindly gotta be like
Oh baby, no baby, you got me all wrong baby
My baby’s already got all of my love
So nah nah Honey, I’m good
I could have another but I probably should not
I’ve got somebody at home, and if I stay I might not leave alone
No, honey, I’m good
I could have another but I probably should not
I’ve got to bid you adieu
To another I will stay true
(oo oo I will stay true)
(who who I will stay true)
Oh, I’m sure ya, sure ya will make somebody’s night
But oh, I assure ya assure ya, it sure as hell’s not mine”
“Young mom on her own
She needs a little help got nowhere to go
She’s lookin’ for a job, lookin’ for a way out
’Cause a half-way house will never be a home
At night she whispers to her baby girl
Someday we’ll find a place here in this world
This is our temporary home
It’s not where we belong
Windows in rooms that we’re passin’ through
This is just a stop, on the way to where we’re going
I’m not afraid because I know this is our
“I know sometimes you’re feeling lost
It’s hard to find your place in it all
But you don’t have to fear
Even when you mess up
You always got my love
I’m always right here
Come what may
Don’t look back forget yesterday
It’s not where you come from
It’s where you belong
Nothin’ I would trade
I wouldn’t have it any other way
By love and you’re wanted
So never feel alone
You are home with me
Right where you belong
Don’t matter where you’ve been
You’re here for a reason”
— Kari Kimmel, Where You Belong
“I think music in itself is healing. It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we’re from, everyone loves music.” — Billy Joel
Mixing and Sharing Medication
Even if you’re already feeling pretty good, music can amplify that. When I DJ, the desired effect is to mix music that lifts your spirits and makes you move. When I’m in the zone, I can alter your frame of mind, enhance your mood and get you dancing instinctively. The right songs act as a catalyst. As everything comes together just right, we share the high. The act of sharing the experience — grooving and dancing together — can bridge differences between time and space, language and culture.
JT sums up the feeling quite nicely…
“I got this feeling, inside my bones
It goes electric, wavey when I turn it on
All through my city, all through my home
We’re flying up, no ceiling, when we in our zone
I got that sunshine in my pocket
Got that good soul in my feet
I feel that hot blood in my body when it drops, ooh
I can’t take my eyes up off it, moving so phenomenally
Room on lock the way we rock it, so don’t stop…
I can’t stop the feeling
So just dance, dance, dance
I can’t stop the feeling
So just dance, dance, dance, come on
Ooh, it’s something magical
It’s in the air, it’s in my blood, it’s rushing on
Don’t need no reason, don’t need control
I fly so high, no ceiling, when I’m in my zone”
Now that you’ve had some samples, here’s your prescription:
Assess your mood, pick a theme and create a soundtrack. You may even share your playlist on Spotify. (There are links to my playlists at the end.) For whatever ails you…cue up your playlist. Plug in. Take a lyrical hit (or two). And call me in the morning.
You have undoubtedly been inspired by a piece of music either because of the lyrics or the melodic composition. I’m always looking to take another hit and add it to my playlist. Please share in the comments section.
Practicing my other profession, this is the third installment of a series where I post some of my music mixes to kick start the weekend. Most tracks will be reminiscent of years past. And if you were born around 1969 or earlier, you may actually have memories from when these songs were first released 😉 I intentionally keep the mixes short and byte-size. Nowadays our attention spans are too short and our tastes are very selective!
Time to slow it down a bit. This mix is more of an eclectic blend including mild samplings from Africa, United Kingdom and Japan.
Music inspires. It’s the sound of creativity and the lyrical expression of self. It elicits movement and can influence across boundaries. Certain artists know how to push those boundaries, leaving a legacy and setting an example of what can be done by the creative spirit. As these posts are examples of my self expression, this is dedicated in memory of #prince (1958 – 2016)
Practicing my other profession, this is the second installment of a series where I post some of my music mixes to kick start the weekend. Most tracks will be reminiscent of years past. And if you were born around 1969 or earlier, you may actually have memories from when these songs were first released 😉 I intentionally keep the mixes short and byte-size. Nowadays our attention spans are too short and our tastes are very selective!
Going out a little early this week, so we might want to call this Thursday Throwback.
This weekend’s blend is a spicy mix of female vocals with some unusual twists. At 140 bpm, it has a bit of a kick.
It’s early Monday morning as I write this. For those with a traditional Monday-to-Friday work week, how you feel about getting back to work can tell you a lot. Just depends on whether or not you care to listen. Ideally, everyone would be raring to go, excited to return to a current project they’re working on, or simply looking forward to the unknown challenges of a new week. On the other hand, if you’re one of the many who have the Monday Blues, don’t complain about it. There’s a cure.
You could quit. I know that sounds extreme, maybe even unthinkable, but it’s true. You always have that choice. It’s rarely practical, but the option is always there. I don’t necessarily recommend it. We all have bills to pay and if you’re highly dependent on the income, that wouldn’t be a move to make hastily.
That said, it’s something to consider if you’re not excited to go back to work at the beginning of every week. That’s a sign that you should heed. Life is too short not to. So how would you do it?
You could do it in stages, or go all in and take a leap of faith. Hopefully, you’ve been good about managing your finances and making contingency plans. With the right things in place, it becomes more about timing. Timing is an art in itself so don’t hesitate too much. When ready, have confidence and move forward, knowing you’ve done everything you can to be smart about it.
Applying The Hedgehog Concept Outside of Work
What to do is a different, but important, question. Personally, I’ve applied the Hedgehog Concept to help me decide. Find a career or choose a business where the three circles below intersect. If you haven’t read Good to Great by Jim Collins, click through the illustration below for further background on The Hedgehog Concept as it applies to career choices.
To maintain multiple streams of income, I take this approach in parallel ― not as a substitution or replacement for what I’m already doing. This means focusing most of my time on the primary economic drivers while still committing to my extracurricular activities “off the clock.” Only when there are multiple initiatives in play do I consider quitting whatever contributes least to my overall happiness.
Start with Your Interests and Make Time For Them
This is one thing that works for me and what I’m suggesting to you. Set aside regular time each week to work on a hobby you love. For some, it’s trying new recipes in the kitchen. For others, it’s blogging. For me, it happens to be spinning music as a DJ.
Whatever your hobby is, it’s important to make time for it despite the many demands on your already busy schedule. Avoid being lazy or making excuses.
I started DJing over 30 years ago while still in high school. Even though I usually get paid for it, I’ve continued to do it on and off simply because it’s fun. I love music and blending songs in creative ways. To see a packed dance floor of people letting loose, because of the music set I’m playing, is an incredible high. (At the end of this post, you can listen to a mini-mix I uploaded to SoundCloud.)
Last week, I volunteered to DJ a party for the school where my kids attend. Since I agreed to DJ a few weeks earlier, I had reason to dust off the equipment again and practice. It was like time-traveling to the past when I was a resident DJ at a club in college. I used to practice new sets all the time, imagining how the dance floor would react and looking for ways to put my personal signature on the mix. Over the past 3 weeks, I got lost in hours planning possible sets that incorporated the song requests I received in advance. Then I recorded the sets to listen to how the ideas actually came together. I enjoyed every minute of it.
After the gig was over, I remembered how important it is to make time just for the love of it. No need to wait for a reason. Whatever fulfillment I may not be getting from my other undertakings, I’ve found it’s made up in this area. So making the time commitment to my hobby helps provides balance. It has also set me up to succeed when I find opportunities to monetize.
“Study and work in whatever seemingly unrelated areas you are interested in, even if it’s just a hobby. That way, when your dream job/business comes up, you’ll be perfectly and uniquely qualified for it.”
― Sarah Jansen, writer and editor
Where It All Comes Together
Now back to work…Work could be and should be fun. Normally it’s not. That’s why we call it work. So, for now, if you have to work at a job that’s not your calling, but pays the bills, make time outside of work hours to do what you’re deeply passionate about. That might be cooking, writing, DJing…or in my case, all of the above. Perhaps you like to code. Some of you enjoy organizing events or managing side-projects. Doesn’t matter. As you get better and better at your chosen craft, you’ll improve your chances of finding the missing piece and putting it all together ― combining passion and skill with something that can drive your economic engine. Or in other words, creating a part-time gig, or even better, a viable career out of something you love and are also very good at.
I know fitness instructors, magicians, wedding planners, business consultants/owners and of course other DJs who’ve done just that. I’d love to hear if you’ve also managed to make the transition. What were you doing before and what are you doing today? Please leave a comment below.
Let me wrap up this set with a sample music mix created by my alternate persona, DJ ReCreator:
It was the summer of 1991. Although I hadn’t officially finished school, I boarded a plane for Tokyo after being accepted into the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Programme. I had taken a semester of Japanese language during my freshman year but proficiency in Nihon-go wasn’t even a prerequisite.
My time as an Assistant Language Teacher was only contracted for a year. Six years later, I was still working in Japan. I had extended for a couple more years with the Ministry of Education. Then as I was packing my bags to head back to the States, a Japanese student/friend referred me to the CEO of a local language school which led to another 3 years in the private sector.
The entire cross-cultural experience influenced my perspective on everything from communication to customer service to relationships in general.
In terms of communication, I quickly learned the value of paying close attention and listening more than talking. It took incredible concentration just to carry on everyday conversation in a language I could barely speak, much less read and write. Surprisingly, even if I couldn’t find the right words, I was still able to carry on meaningful exchanges. Sometimes it was enough to just listen respectfully and then combine broken Japanese, simple English and a whole lot of gestures to respond. When totally over my head, I would bow and excuse myself as gracefully as possible. Sumimasen! To the Japanese, there were unspoken expectations and varying levels of formality depending on who you were speaking with.
Being a gaijin (translation: foreigner or outsider) I was often excused for making inappropriate or ignorant comments. I knew I could only play that card for a limited time. After the first year, I had no excuse not to understand the local lingo. More importantly, I needed to better understand the cultural expectations and social context surrounding both verbal and nonverbal exchanges. The more I familiarized myself with what made the Japanese culture unique, the more I appreciated the differences. It became easier and easier to understand what my Japanese friends really meant despite what they actually said.
My Takeaway: Words Are Important but The Nonverbal Means So Much More
More than 20 years later, this perspective still influences every interaction regardless of whether I’m with a client, a co-worker or family and friends. Understanding the subtleties of body language, or knowing when it’s better to keep my mouth shut, has had a huge impact on the quality of my relationships and the differences I’ve made in the various roles I’ve played. It has shaped who I am today and the opportunities that have come my way.
For example, when I DJ a party, the music is the language of choice. How I segue from one song to the next is based on how I read the audience and the mood of the moment. I pay careful attention to how smooth the transitions flow and how the party reacts. When I’ve done my homework and made the effort to understand the audience before the event, our “meeting” leaves everybody pumped up. I put the needle on the record and communicate through the song selections and the crowd replies by packing the dance floor. A track record of packed dance floors makes securing the next gig easy.
Whenever I’m responsible for a team, I flex my management style depending on the person or the group. As I’ve mentioned in my post about simply effective leadership, I always take the individual and the situation into consideration. This tends to produce much better results than the one-size-fits-all style I used to have. In turn, being an effective leader has afforded me greater responsibilities with greater rewards.
At the heart of it all, it comes down to understanding the details within the context of the bigger picture. The meaning of any words spoken or actions taken can change drastically depending on how you frame them. The frame can shift the focus. The context can change the meaning.
So this is what I learned so many years ago thousands of miles away:
It doesn’t matter what language you speak (Japanese or English, Music or Business). what you do and how you respond can mean so much more than the words you actually say. There’s a universal language out there that we all understand, and words have little to do with it. Da yo ne!
For a while I believed I was exempt. I had already survived several mergers and acquisitions over the years but then it happened. Where and why doesn’t matter here. This is about the process that followed. Some career breaks are planned. This one was not.
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
First, there’s the shock. For some it’s expected, but as I mentioned, I thought I was immune. Like falling off a ladder, it hurt. My ego was bruised.
“The fall from low to lower hardly hurts; the fall from middle to low is devastating.”
– Adam Grant, Originals (p.83)
Insecurity set in. Questions about the future felt overwhelming. Looking back, how I decided to respond made the difference. I put my psychology studies into use and self-administered some therapy…
Get Over It
Easier said than done, I know. My first reaction was to immediately get back in the game and lock in the next gig quickly. I decided to be methodical in my approach. To measure my efforts, I kept a log of everything related to the job search and the results of every interaction. Every call with recruiters, every interview, every resume submission…all of it. Months of calculated effort were only leading to wrong turns and dead ends.
Depression eventually caught up with me. Anxiety prevented any restful sleep, no matter how exhausted I felt. I was spiraling downward and couldn’t break the funk. Then I made a concerted effort to slow down and pause.
What you choose to pay attention to can dramatically alter your experience (the whole “perception is reality” thing), so I chose to focus on right now instead of dwelling in the past or worrying about the future. Some days were easier than others, but I kept exercising a skill that had atrophied in recent years – my ability to choose rather than fly on autopilot. It wasn’t long before I crawled out of my hole.
Time heals all wounds. I just didn’t want it to take too long. Sitting around feeling sorry for myself wasn’t doing anybody any good. It was time to move on, ready or not.
Look in the Mirror and Then Out the Window
Looking in the rearview mirror, I took a good chunk of time to reassess how far I’ve come and the road that got me here. Then looking at myself, I was no longer sure that I was happy with what I saw in the mirror. Who had I become? What would I have done differently? How could I correct course? Where am I headed now? Is it time to go in a different direction?
At least, I felt I was asking the right questions.
I had become a workaholic. Developing the discipline to work long and hard hours was a badge of honor for me. Getting up every morning at 4:30am, working 12-14 hour days, and not sleeping until after midnight eventually led to burnout. Promotions and financial rewards fueled that fire for many years but towards the end, I burned up any remaining mojo and was only running on fumes. All the while, I failed to realize―or maybe I was denying that―I was trading off important things for all those work hours…time with my family and time for myself.
Now was my chance to slow down before I ran myself off a cliff. To find balance instead of working all the time. To remember what was really important to me. As I looked ahead, the fog began to clear and I hit a fork in the road.
To the right, was the continuation of the road I had already been traveling. I could get back into life as a corporate executive and continue my climb up the proverbial ladder. It was a toll road, and at what cost, I could only imagine. To the left, looked like it might take me back home but I could see the route might be a bit bumpy.
…Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
If you’ve already read the post about my colorful career path, you know I chose the road less traveled. Once I made that conscious decision, I simply started by making a few promises to myself:
Remain true to who you are
Live in the present and use good judgment
Leave it better than you found it
“To thine own self be true.“
Over the past few years, I got a little lost and lost myself in the process. I became increasingly insecure about who I was and found myself trying too hard to be what others wanted me to be. For example, although I’m an introvert, I pretended to be an extrovert. I thought that was the only way you could be successful as an executive. I do believe it’s possible to “fake it until you become it.” That said, I just didn’t like it. It wasn’t me. I wanted to be myself. Being myself also meant doing things at my own pace. As an executive, I often felt rushed and pressured to deliver results quickly. In most cases I was able to adjust as needed, but lately I saw more and more that quality was being sacrificed for the sake of speed.
After reading Quiet by Susan Cain, I began looking at introversion in a new light. I became comfortable in my own skin again. Another book, In Praise of Slowness by Carl Honoré, helped me slow down and appreciate ‘tempo giusto’ – what musicians use to refer to the “right speed.” (Used in reference to living life with balance…fast when needed and slow when called for.) Moreover, this respect for time translated to better appreciation for the present. The gift of now.
“If you presence doesn’t make an impact, your absence won’t make a difference.”
Ever since childhood, I’ve found it difficult to live in the moment. The exceptions were times when I was absorbed in activities such as blending vinyl music with 2 turntables, choreographing a hip-hop dance routine, or pushing out one more rep in the gym. My usual MO was to dream about the future or worry about the past. I found it hard to enjoy the present because my mind was always elsewhere. If there were only one important change I could make to my approach from here on out, it would be to live in the here and now.
(This usually requires an inside-out approach which begins with yourself. To some, this is misconstrued as selfish behavior. Important to get past that stage. I’ve learned that living in the present is much easier when what you focus on is self-less rather than self-centered.)
Here’s how I see it: The past is past so no sense lingering there. No one knows what the future holds and life is rarely linear. The best way to set yourself up for a good future is to do the best you can with what you’ve got today. You don’t have to be perfect. You just need to use good judgment and make every effort to leave everything better than before you found it. That includes every action and every word spoken (or unspoken). At the end of the day, you’d be surprised how big of a difference you made to the people and world around you. All those thoughtful actions, no matter how small, add up.
Oh, I promised myself one more thing. Never take for granted the blessings you already have.
There’s really not much more to say about this. I just realized that more is not necessarily better. By appreciating all the good things already in my life, I’m learning to be happy with less. I drive a Prius and I’m cool with that. I live in a modest home, have great neighbors and live comfortably. It’s almost 20 years later and I think my wife still loves me ;). Honey, I’m good. Three beautiful children to kiss goodnight. I am blessed.
I believe that everything happens for a reason. In the moment, it may not make sense, but it often does in retrospect. What felt like an imposition turned out to be a blessing. I was forced to reassess my life to date and what was truly important to me. This was what I needed. I was so obsessed with achievement and accomplishment that I was taking for granted my family and losing myself in the process. The break in my career gave me time to realize that, before it was too late.
“Slow down and enjoy life. It’s not only the scenery you miss by going too fast―you also miss the sense of where you are going and why” – Eddie Cantor
In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed by Carl Honoré
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
“At the end of the day, it’s not happiness that makes us thankful, but thankfulness that makes us happy…”
In her book, “The How of Happiness”, Sonja Lyubomirsky writes,
“Gratitude is an antidote to negative emotions, a neutralizer of envy, hostility, worry, and irritation. It is savoring; it is not taking things for granted; it is present oriented.”
“A simple THANK YOU has magic…it warms the heart and creates a moment of connection and peace between two people.”
“Someone is happy with less than what you have.”
“Live simply. Dream big. Be grateful. Give love. Laugh lots.”
― Paulo Coelho
“Learn to appreciate what you have, before time makes you appreciate what you had.”
“Gratitude turns what we have into enough.”
“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.”
“In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.”
― Albert Schweitzer
“Be joyful always. Pray continually. Give thanks in all circumstances.”
I Don’t Have a Degree I get e-mails every day. “I’d like to work at Google but I don’t have a degree,” Or, “I’d like to be a success but I don’t have an MBA.” And it’s not just degrees. I get e-mails from people who think they need yoga teacher certification. Or a medical degree (you can be a healer without writing prescriptions). Or any flimsy piece of paper that ultimately is no indicator of value. Google’s head of HR has even announced that graduates’ GPAs are a waste to look at. And that more and more of their hires have no college degrees at all! It’s just another way the world is changing, and you have to grasp it now. It used to be that a stranger knew he could cooperate with you if you had that stupid piece of paper. Come up with ten ideas on how you can escape the trap of the degree and demonstrate you still have value. Ideas for the company you want to work for, or the person you want to work with. Or just go get a camera and start making movies without a film degree.
When actor Andy Samberg was starting at Saturday Night Live he didn’t just huddle in the writers’ room with everyone else and try to come up with jokes. There was too much competition! Instead, he took a camera and with his buddies Jorm and Akiva went out and shot “Lazy Sunday,” which was the first YouTube video to get over 100 million views and became his first SNL digital short. He didn’t wait to rise through the ranks and hopefully get a joke or a sketch produced. He went out and produced it himself.
Before Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” got a billion views on YouTube, the rapper turned down every record label. He realized he didn’t need the validation they have provided to generations of artists. The distribution is there to reach the world no matter what your field is. You validate yourself now through your work.
Apologies to Mr. Altucher for taking that much verbatim from his book. I just read those pages this morning and it hit home.
The Trip Full Circle
I fall in the category of those who dropped out of college. While I had many an opportunity to finish, life went on and I eventually decided not to. When I’m having an insecure moment, I like to remind myself that I only had two classes to finish (and they were both freshman level electives!) so really, I earned pretty much everything I needed for that Liberal Arts degree in Psychology. I guess I just didn’t cross the finish line which could be perceived as inability to follow through. I understand and respect other perspectives. I just don’t personally see it that way. It doesn’t have to be a negative. I have worked very hard since then to show that it doesn’t have to matter if you don’t let it.
The Road Not Taken
…Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
– Robert Frost
It was 1991 and I was scheduled to graduate at the end of Spring semester. This was all the JET Programme (Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program) needed to know at the time I applied and interviewed. They didn’t actually ask to see my degree before it was time for me to board the plane that summer. By the time the University of Illinois notified me that I failed two classes (English 101 Introduction to Poetry and Classic Civilization 115 Mythology of Greece and Rome), I was already all set to leave for Japan. Although becoming an Assistant English Teacher (AET) had nothing to do with my major, it was a 1 year adventure abroad with all expenses paid as well as a monthly salary. I wasn’t about to pass on the opportunity unless absolutely necessary. That degree would have to wait.
I had lady luck on my side. After the year was over, I had the option to extend for another year and I definitely wanted to. The only catch – I had to renew my work visa and I was told they required a copy of my college degree in the process. I figured I had better start packing my bags but then again…why not just go through the motions and see what happens? Even if they sent me home, I already had my adventure. For some unknown reason, the Japanese government renewed my visa without any questions. One year turned into two and next thing you know 3 years later I was still in Japan. That was the maximum length that anyone could stay with the Jet Programme. As the third year winded down, a Japanese friend referred me to the CEO of a private language school under the Terakoya Group. They offered me a job and I had to go through the process of renewing my work visa for another year. Again, nobody asked to see my college degree. Surprising enough, the person in front of me in line was asked for his. To this day I can’t figure out how I got away with it year after year, but my luck lasted long enough for me to meet my future wife. Caro was on a 9 month work-study program and just happened to be assigned to Matsuyama City where I also lived. After 6 years in Japan, instead of calling it luck, I’d like to think it was serendipity.
Unlike I did in college, note that I wasn’t just sliding by while I worked in Matsuyama. Knowing that I didn’t finish school, I felt like I had to prove something and make my mark anyway. My second year, I was elected as the Ehime Prefectural Representative for AJET (The Association of Japanese Exchange and Teaching) and after 1 year at Terakoya, I was promoted to Head Teacher at the private language school.
Ok. The story goes on, but I need to pause here for now. The kids are awake and I’ve been writing since 5am.
[2/16/2016 4:38am] Picking up where I left off…
When I returned to the States in the summer of 1997, it was like “Oh sh*t, what do I do for work now? I don’t have a degree.” I was going on 28 years old and still didn’t have any solid plans for my career. I was back with my parents and when my Dad asked me what I was planning to do next, I told him I was thinking about starting a DJ business. I could sense his disappointment. When your parents go against all odds to earn their college degrees in the Philippines and then move the entire family to the Unites States so we can have a better life in the Land of Opportunity, I can understand why being a DJ might not be what they had in mind for their son. When I was still at the University majoring in Electrical Engineering, I think I was living up to expectations. We all imagined my future becoming an engineer like Dad and having a secure and well-paid profession for life…I guess I’d be disappointed with my DJ ambition too.
Got to get ready for work. I’ll continue later.
[2/16/2016 7:45pm continuation]
While I worked to put things in place for the DJ startup, I took a commissioned sales associate position in retail. Retail store positions don’t often require a college degree. I chose Bachrach, a men’s clothing retailer founded in Decatur, IL with locations all around the Chicago area. I’d always been into fashion so this would be aligned with my interests. Sales was not my strength, but it paid the bills and helped fund the DJ equipment and music I would need. For years, I tried to work both paths in parallel without any breakthrough success. I knew very little about operating a profitable business and everything I learned was from trial and error.
The DJ business wasn’t growing fast enough and we were getting deeper and deeper into debt. Thousands of dollars spent on music, lighting and other gear without enough gigs to pay for it all. When I found out that Caro was pregnant with León, I knew I needed to change my approach if I had any chance of providing for my growing family. I decided to focus on Bachrach and work my way up the ladder. We could stabilize our finances and buy me time to figure out what to do as an entrepreneur. Looking back, that was a pivotal point. After my motivation shifted from selfish ambitions to providing for the family, my career started to take off.
Within a few years, I went from Sales Associate to Store Manager to Director of E-commerce. (I’ll save my success strategy for a different post.) I worked in several locations and eventually had my own office at the downtown Chicago corporate headquarters. There were several rungs in between and along the way, but I won’t get into those details now. What happened with the DJ business? One thing led to another and it eventually led to the launch of ChicagoWeddingServices.com. Although small potatoes compared to other dot coms, it was a business model that made money while I slept and the site could often run on autopilot. It supplemented my income at Bachrach quite nicely. (For more details, see my post on Website Experiments Throughout the Years)
After 10 years at Bachrach, I had to move on. Too many acquisitions had taken place and it was no longer a fit. I began looking elsewhere. When I was offered a position at Dreams Retail in 2008, I jumped. Fortunately, during the interview process, my college education wasn’t a deciding factor.
I would have to say that my years at Dreams, Inc. have been the highlight of my career to date. Kevin Bates and the team he built created a work environment that brought out my best. I started off in an Account Management role but followed the same strategy I used to work my way up at Bachrach. I went from non-management to executive management with a team of more than 50 people to lead. I eventually got promoted to Director of Marketing and in less than two years after that, became VP of Marketing.
This too eventually came to an end. Dreams Inc. was acquired by Fanatics Inc. and I relocated from the Chicago area to the Jacksonville, Florida area. (The kids didn’t like the move, but we had a new house built in a nice neighborhood. It also helps that we live only a couple hours from Disney.) I was able to keep my position as VP of Digital Marketing but with so many changes during and after the integration period, it was the beginning of the end for that chapter. My time at Fanatics officially ended in January of 2015. Without having anything lined up yet, I spent 6 months in what I call “mid-career retirement” – a career break if you will. We didn’t have to worry about finances, at least for a while, so I had the luxury of time to decompress, reconnect with my family, and think about the next chapter. As scary as it can be to lose a 6 figure salary, I’m grateful for what I’ve gotten in return.
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
– T.S. Eliot
Today, I feel like I’ve come full circle in a way. I’m back in fashion retail and am making about the same income as I did when I first started my career. I see everything through a different lense though. While money is still important, it’s no longer the carrot. It’s no longer about the prestigious title, but more about the unique contribution and value. Being hourly no longer has a negative connotation to me. It now means I have more work-life balance. Instead of thinking so much about what I want in the future, I spend more time appreciating what I already have and whom I’m with today. Things will have to change again I’m sure. Even though we’ve always lived below our means, our current lifestyle is not sustainable in the long run with my current income. Surprisingly, I’m not very worried though. We’ll figure it out. I know because we’ve done it before.
Regarding my college degree, or lack thereof, it has definitely made a difference in my career choices and the life I’ve lived. I’ve spent most of my career proving that you can succeed without a degree. When the competition was smarter, I just worked longer and harder to compensate. Most of my lessons learned were from the school of hard knocks. I learned the simple yet important lesson on how to make a positive difference…always strive to leave it better than you found it.
I’m content with what I’ve accomplished as a college dropout. I have no regrets.
Caro and I were married in 1998, not too long after I started at Bachrach. Although she has seen and experienced all the ups and downs of my career, she has never stopped being supportive. Even when she didn’t agree with all my choices, she has stood by my side and was always there to give me strength when I needed it most. I can’t imagine how things would have turned out without her. All these years later, I don’t worry too much anymore about climbing the corporate ladder or making lots of money. With her and our three beautiful children, I already feel successful. Together we’ll make life good no matter what comes our way.
To my band of brothers who joined me on my crazy adventure as an entrepreneur: That was an awesome ride, let’s do it again!
Grateful to the many coworkers who I had the privilege to work with, and my bosses/mentors who also shaped who I am and how I work today – they were some of my best teachers. To the organizations and hiring managers who took a leap of faith and gave me a shot, thank you.
I also want to give a shout-out to all my family and friends, near and far. You’ve never judged me and accept me for who I am, warts and all.
And special thanks to Mom and Dad, for always loving me even when I disappoint. From you I learned what is possible when you work hard. [2/17/2016 4:38am] Today is Dad’s 70th Birthday. I dedicate this post to him.
I was still living in Japan at the time (circa 1997) the web really started to take off. Caro and I were only dating then, but she saw my interest and bought us our first laptop. It was an early Mac Book and the screen was only black and white but we got it at a decent price ($1000 USD factoring in the dollar/yen exchange rate). That’s how it began. I got sucked into everything Internet.
So much about the Internet was exploding with potential. Living abroad, the whole concept of email was wonderful – no long time gaps between writing letters and receiving responses. It felt so instant. The only challenge was that not everyone was using email yet. I spent so much time playing around with this new tech toy, everything from learning design software to surfing the nascent web. I stumbled upon GeoCities, a web hosting service that gave people online tools to create their own website. It was exciting to think you could create something multimedia and then immediately publish it for others to see.
My first site was based on a theme I called “Spheres and Cones.” Basically it was model I used to frame the idea of self-actualization and personal growth. My friend, Scott Scholtens, also bought a laptop and he was better at the design thing than I was, so he helped me created a logo and other graphics for the site. Fond memories of the early days when I didn’t care so much about how good (or not so good) my web design skills were.
After returning to the States, I continued web design and tried to take it to the next level. The next stage involved using websites to support my entrepreneur initiatives. While working retail, I spent my other time trying to build out concepts for a mobile DJ business which I called Sound ReCreation. I wanted to go all in so I formally incorporated the business and bought the domain name. Sound ReCreation, Inc. was an S corporation (Delaware) with the website www.SoundReCreation.com. It started with the conventional content (About Us, Contact, Services, Pricing etc.) then I tried to add song lists, music clips, PDF client forms, and a page for partners and related vendors. I’ve lost many of the original image files, but here’s any idea of the logo and site layout. I found an ad we placed for a University Fashion Show Program.
Credits for the logo and site design go to Tommy Torres, my lifelong friend whom I grew up just referring to as “cousin” though we’re not technically related.
Actually, I forgot to check the Internet Archives. WayBack Machine had some site pages archived. Here’s a capture from December 26, 2002 (Wow! Did I really write that content for our About Us page? Weird reading it after all these years)…
As Sound ReCreation evolved, I learned that the money was in DJing weddings so I focused on acquiring clients for weddings over other types of events. Eventually, my “Partner” page of the site expanded to a point where I decided to break out vendors into categories, such as Chicago Wedding Photographers, with a dedicated page for each category. Using what I learned from self-study plus trial and error, I optimized each category page for the search engines. Over time, the site analytics showed that the most visited pages of SoundReCreation.com were the wedding vendor category pages. Local wedding professionals started contacting us asking if they could pay to have their business included on our pages. They too noticed our high search rankings and decided it was better to pay us than figure out the SEO thing themselves. That’s when I had the idea to buy a new domain name so these pages could spin off into something new…ChicagoWeddingServices.com. (I went ahead and bought ChicagoWeddingDJ.com as well. I was surprised it was still available.)
I had a feeling that these SEO friendly domain names could piggyback off the success I already had with the SRC vendor pages. I was right. ChicagoWeddingServices.com and ChicagoWeddingDJ.com started showing up in the top 3, if not number one, of the organic search results for many relevant search queries. Any time someone searched for something like “wedding reception venues in Chicago,” or something local and wedding related, we would come up. Call it dumb luck or whatever, but I accidentally became good at SEO when the search engine algorithms were not yet as sophisticated as they are today. That luck lasted several years until about 2005 I think. Google had a major algorithm update and I finally fell from grace with Google. Traffic died and today is less than a hundred visitors each day. It was great while it lasted.
While I was tempted to sell the domain and give up on the site as a business, I’ve kept it and tried to update it enough so it isn’t as terribly dated as the original design that was not mobile friendly. Last year, I finally had the time to complete a redesign that was years in the making. It was DIY since it made no financial sense to pour more money into a site that no longer made any profits. I used the opportunity to play around with responsive design and CSS. This is how it looks now on Desktop and Mobile:
Lately, I haven’t spent much time on any new websites. That said, a month or so ago I agreed to help out the Boy Scouts Troop that my son León is a part of. They wanted to put up a website that they could leverage for recruiting new Scouts in the area so my wife and I bought troop23nocatee.com and I quickly put together a WordPress site hosted on my existing web server. The template is simple so it can be consistent with the printed flier they made for recruiting.
A few years back, I was overzealous and bought quite a few domains with the intention of monetizing them somehow. Most of them have just been parked yet I renew them every year, hopeful that I’ll eventually do something with them. Perhaps I’ll put them on the market and see if I can recoup some of my expenses. Most likely I’ll just let them expire so someone else may run with them.
I’ll list the domains here and if anyone has ideas and wants to partner on a project with any of these domain names, please get in touch.
The original intention was to spin off more targeted sites for specific services and/or cities. For example, cityweddingphotographers.com could have any number of subdomains for each city. NewYork.CityWeddingPhotographers.com would target photographers and their potential clients in the New York City area. Once upon a time, these niche sites would outrank the larger sites such as TheKnot.com. That’s how ChicagoWeddingServices.com took off. Advertisers on CWS would tell me that they got better traffic and more bookings from our site, and it didn’t cost as much to advertise with CWS. Nowadays, it will take a different approach to succeed. I have ideas but the time and effort needed is substantial (team of freelancers?). Collaboration seems to be the better option. If you’re interested in batting around some ideas, please mention that in a comment to this post and I’ll be in touch via email.