Success means doing the best we can with what we have. Success is the doing, not the getting; in the trying, not the triumph. Success is a personal standard, reaching for the highest that is in us, becoming all that we can be.” — Zig Ziglar
I’ll never forget the beginning of Jack Nicholson’s award-winning film, “About Schmidt.” It opened with a hideous shot of Warren Schmidt cramming his belongings into a box on his final day of work. After a lifetime as a life insurance actuary, Schmidt was finally packing it in.
My mouth dropped to the floor. An entire life spent as an insurance actuary?
What a depressing thought.
The recent college diploma scandal involving Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin, and 50 others reminded me of the ludicrous ways society goes about defining success. At the close of World War II, thousands of men and women re-entered society, bent on creating meaningful lives. In those days, the formula was bullet-proof and direct: go to college, get a job, start a family and live happily ever after.
Ah, if it was only that simple today.
The Work Begins
I first attempted entering the workforce when I was a clueless 15-year-old after being offered a chance to drive a three-wheeled ice cream cart around the neighborhood, enduring the non-stop tinkle of Brahms’ Lullaby. It didn’t pay much–$1.25 an hour, to be exact–but what the heck. I got all the ice cream I could eat and flirted with girls who ran up to me, their allowance clutched in their fists. For the first time in my life, I was the center of attention. Besides, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? Get up in the morning and go to work? But, it only lasted until the end of summer. Not much of a career.
After graduation from Van Nuys High School (the infamous film location of Fast Times at Ridgemont High), I went straight into the Navy. Even with the looming draft threat during the height of the Vietnam war, I was honest enough with myself to admit I wasn’t ready for college. I just wasn’t destined for the path to the American dream. At least, not yet. It turned out to be the smartest decision I ever made.
One weekend while I was stationed in Hawaii, I went to see Dustin Hoffman in his Academy Award-winning film, The Graduate. For some inexplicable reason, it took the scenes of Katherine Ross romping around the UC Berkeley campus to ignite my interest in going back to school. By the time I was discharged in the fall of 1969, I was ready to begin my college journey. Or, at least I thought I was. But, after languishing in a two-year associates degree program, I was smart enough to know that I still wasn’t ready to pursue the typical path to success. So, after conferring with my career counselor, family, parish priest, all of my closest friends and two dogs (not necessarily in that order), I took the only route that seemed to make sense to me in pursuit of my American dream.
I went skiing.
The Greatest Job I’ve Ever Had
During my junior year of high school, I was introduced to skiing when our ski club sponsored a week of dry land lessons after school behind the girls gym, followed by 2 weekend trips to Table Mountain in the San Gabriel mountains; all for $9. It took less than a day. I was hooked. So, after completing my associate’s degree, I headed for the local mountains for the great outdoors. Somehow, I convinced Dick Kuhn, the owner of Snow Summit in Big Bear Lake, to hire me as a ski patrolman. “Got any experience?” said Kuhn. “No, but I have a CPR card and I just passed first aid last week,” I said.
“Fine. you’re hired. Get a uniform. You start Monday.”
Even at the tender age of 21, I was honest enough with myself to recognize I’d hit pay dirt. To this day, working outdoors as a ski patrolman has been the greatest job I’ve ever had; even if you don’t count how little money I made. In 1971, I was paid a staggering $25 a day; the most the resort had ever paid a ski patrolman. In between bandaging gaping edge cuts and splinting that legs that zigged when they should have zagged, I spent days working on my tan and pursuing my passion for skiing.
To be sure, it was hard work hauling mangled skiers out of the trees and down the mountain to waiting ambulances. But, I was providing a valuable service by rendering life-saving medical assistance to thousands of people who maimed themselves in unspeakable ways only skiers can understand.
Some days, I went home at the end of the day knowing that I literally saved people’s lives. But, even then, I recognized that skiing wasn’t likely to lead to a bursting 401(k) and early retirement. So after two years, I began searching for alternatives.
The answer showed up in a shampoo sink.
During my patrolling days, I met a guy my age who was a men’s hair stylist who jetted up on the weekends from Beverly Hills. I drooled over the new Porsche drove. He owned a cabin nicer than the one I rented with 6 other guys. So, at the end of ski season, I enrolled in barber college. I was off and running in my next career.
After getting my license to cut hair, I began styling hair in a small hair salon tucked into the corner of a new shopping mall in the San Fernando Valley. During the early 70s, anything went. Drug and alcohol use was rampant, and the threat of AIDS was still years away. But, just as quickly as I earned my barber’s license, I discovered I enjoyed cutting women’s hair more, so I went back to school and got my cosmetology license.
The next 10 years were filled with a never-ending spree of cutting hair in the daytime while drugging and drinking to excess every night. Each morning, I’d roll out of a strange woman’s bed and managed to stumble into work for my 10:00 appointment. If you’ve ever seen the popular Warren Beatty movie, Shampoo, you have a good idea of what my life was like.
Until I discovered jogging.
Even though I was a pack-a-day cigarette smoker, I somehow got hooked on jogging. During the middle 70s, America was captivated by the promise that running could whittle-away their muffin tops. Overnight, the streets were lined with chubby, tank-topped joggers in Dolphin shorts. I was one of them.
People who know me will tell you I have one attribute that has sustained me through the many twists and turns of my various careers: when I do things, I do them all the way.
Drugging, Drinking and Disco Meets Exercise
By the end of the 1970s, I was looking for a new direction. After years of drinking, partying and occasionally earning a living cutting women’s hair, I decided I needed something more. I was uncomfortable with the idea that my lasting legacy only survived as long as it took my clients’ hair to grow out — about two weeks. Then the light went on.
Why not go back to school?
On a lark, I started dabbling in classes at San Diego State University. Ever since my ski patrolling days, I’ve had a smoldering interest in all things medical. I was smart enough to know that I’d never make it into medical school, so I decided to take an anatomy class just to see where else it might take me. Once again, I was hooked.
After blowing two years pursuing my associate’s degree, I decided to knuckle down and finish my bachelor’s degree. In what, I had no idea. One day I met a graduate student who was majoring in exercise physiology.
“What the heck is exercise physiology?” I asked. He explained that there were many avenues of study, but he was pursuing his degree to learn how to help prevent and manage people with heart disease. Even back in the late 70s (as it is today), heart disease was the leading cause of death in American men and women. Teaching people about the importance of aerobic exercise might reduce their risk of having a heart attack. What a concept! A way to combine my love of distance running with a new career.
After finishing my bachelor’s degree in 1981, I applied for graduate school. As it turned out, San Diego State was one of the leading universities in exercise science. By some miracle, I passed my GMAT and entered the program, eventually graduating with a master’s degree in exercise science in 1983. Not only was I the first member of my family to earn a college degree, but I was also the first to get a master’s. I went on to run 4 marathons, scores of 10Ks, and any other distance associated with fundraisers of the day. One day at my new job just before the Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games, I got a call from the Athletic Director at the Los Angeles Athletic Club where I worked. “Want to carry the Olympic Torch?” What, was he kidding? “Sure,” I said. “I’ll be right down.” How many people get to carry an Olympic Torch?
During my studies, we were required to take a class in computer programming. Personal computers were just beginning to appear in people’s homes. The internet was still years away. But, the moment I laid my fingers on the keyboard, once again, I was hooked.
After spending 10 successful years working in hospitals and out-patient programs, once again I was right on schedule for a change. So, I researched hot job markets for the upcoming 3 years. Everything pointed to computers.
Miraculously, I bluffed my way into a job with Duty-Free Shops in Los Angeles to maintain and install all of their newly acquired PCs. The closest I had been to a computer was the one I dismantled at home (and couldn’t figure out to put back together). That was followed by a 20-year string of incredibly challenging and rewarding jobs in the information technology field where my skills were in high demand. But even that was inevitably due for a change.
During the summer of 1995, I was working for Viacom, International, the entertainment conglomerate in Universal City that owned Showtime Networks, MTV and Nickelodeon. They announced that our office was moving across town. A move I wasn’t thrilled about making. On a whim, I decided to research where my skills might take me. For the second time in my life, it led to the mountains.
Even though I voluntarily left Snow Summit during the 1970s, I knew deep down, I wasn’t quite finished with skiing. By the time Viacom dropped the bomb, the internet was becoming a useful tool in looking for work. So, I decided to combine two of my passions: skiing and computers.
I went on the hunt for any ski resort in the country that was big enough to host a complex computer network; the type of place that could use my services. After nearly a year, I stumbled on an advertisement for an IT supervisor at Vail Mountain in Vail, Colorado. Vail flew me out, wined and dined me and sent me home with the bad news: “We appreciate you coming out, but we’ve already offered the job to someone else,” said my interviewer. “She’s moving up here in a few weeks.”
I was devastated.
So close, yet so far away. But, as it turned out, their first choice decided the high alpine life wasn’t for her Or, should I say it wasn’t for her husband. So, after she turned down their offer, they offered me the job. Three weeks later, I was living in Vail, Colorado, altitude 8,150 feet above sea level. My office was located at the foot of the mountain, steps away from the gondola. My typical workday consisted of rolling in at 8:00, checking my email and changing into my company uniform. The rest of the day, I skied between clients. My territory was all of Vail Mountain. From the restaurants perched atop the back bowls to ski school and ticket offices dotting the 5-mile-wide resort. After 8 hours of skiing (and occasionally repairing PCs), I changed out of my uniform and went home.
During my IT career at Vail Mountain (now part of the huge resort company, Vail Resorts), I got to know the manager of their ski school. Having already dabbled in ski instructing back in Big Bear, I asked him, “What would I have to do to get a job teaching skiing for Vail?”
“Simple,” he said. “I’ll get you signed up for next winter.”
This wasn’t the first time my passions collided with each other. While in graduate school, for some inexplicable reason, I began dabbling in writing.
Even in 1982, I felt the lure of the written word and wrote my first comedy thesis, The Effects of Acuminate Hair in Russian Women During High Altitude Pole Vaulting. Don’t bother looking it up. I never published it.
At the tender age of 55 when many people are eyeing retirement and dipping into their pension funds, I became a Level II certified ski instructor with the Rocky Mountain Division of the Professional Ski Instructors of America. I went on to teach for 11 years at Vail, where I was “rented out” to wealthy clients at nearly $1,000 a day.
In 2004, while teaching skiing professionally, I once again felt the pull toward my dreams. While sitting in our annual ski school meeting, one of the other ski instructors told a hilarious story of a 7-foot-5, professional basketball player taking a beginner’s ski lesson on 3-foot skis. The group was rolling with laughter. “Well, that’s a pretty good story,” chimed one of the other instructors, “But let me tell you what happened to me.” The rest of the hour was filled with one-upmanship as dozens of hilarious escapades were told about beginning skiers trying to remain vertical on a pair of skis.
Then, it hit me. This would make a great book! And, if I don’t write it, someone else will. My first book was born: “Ski Instructors Confidential: the stories ski instructors swap back at the lodge.” Once again, my passions collided, taking me in a new direction.
So, what’s the point of this long story?
The Meaning of Success
The point is, success often presents itself from all directions, during unique interludes. When you least expect them. As hard as I tried to follow the proven blueprint for achieving the American Dream, I was never quite content with owning a suburban house with a white picket fence, 2.5 kids and a dog pooping in the front yard.
Through no fault of my own, I learned everyone is not necessarily destined for the same path. For better or worse, I’ve never married. I’ve never had kids. But what I have acquired is a lifetime of success following my passions, while figuring out a way to make a living at them.
To be sure, many of the choices I’ve made were risky. They still are. Instead of toiling as a life insurance actuary like Warren Schmidt, I’ve chosen to yield to my inner voices and follow the gravitational pull of my dreams. Today, I work as a freelance writer and ghostwriter under the constant threat of feast or famine. Was it a choice? Not for me.
My father used to encourage me to listen to my inner self. “You’ll never know if you can be successful at something unless you try,” he said. He taught me to set the bar high. “If you fail after you’ve shot for the moon, then so be it. You’ve learned a lesson. You’ll survive. But, if you set the bar low and settle for less, you’ll always wonder if you might have been successful doing what you love.”
To this day, I’m probably one of the only people you’ll ever meet who has achieved everything they’ve ever dreamed of. So far.
At 70 years old, I’m unemployed (by the usual definition), but a complete success. At times, I’ve followed the crowd. I’ve owned big homes. I’ve been strapped with huge mortgages and responsibilities beyond belief. That was far more stressful than wondering where my next writing client will come from. Why? Because I’m following my dreams.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.