As young as high school, most of us were faced with a similar daunting question, what do you want to do when you grow up? Asking this question of a teenager who often hasn’t spent a day working in the real world aside from a counselor at a summer camp or a cashier at the local convenience store can be anxiety-inducing before even considering the follow up question, what would you like to study? While a select few may have been born knowing what it was that they were cut out for in this world, that definitely was not the case for the majority of us. Being tasked with choosing your intended career path at the ripe age of 18 and then spending the following 4+ years studying for the job you hope to obtain and going into tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt in the meantime seems to be society’s standard answer. How many people do you know who are actually now using the degree they originally pursued? Better question, how many of those folks who are still in the same career had the opportunity to work in that career prior to graduation to find out if they actually enjoyed the work?
Thinking that you may like to do something and actually doing it 40 hours per week could not possibly be more different. I have friends who spent years studying to be financial analysts and landed jobs with the biggest firms in the country right out of college just to find out they absolutely loathed the day-to-day work and ended up pursuing a career in teaching. Then I have friends who grew up in theatre, dreaming of being on Broadway, just to land their first job as a stage manager and realized they couldn’t handle the stress of jumping from contract to contract and never having a night, weekend, or holiday off. These folks could have easily discovered that they didn’t enjoy these jobs years earlier and saved themselves years of heading down a career path they ultimately would not enjoy.
I grew up wanting to try everything whether or not I thought I would actually like it. While I have always had very supportive parents, educators, and mentors, for the most part, this try-everything attitude has almost always been frowned upon. I had professors in college who blamed me for not sticking with anything long enough, citing an inability to stay dedicated or focused on a goal or idea, and I’ve had bosses who told me that I needed to be more patient and follow the lead of those around me. The best one I got though was from a former theatre director who told me not to waste my time or talents accepting an internship with the NFL my freshman year of college. 10 years later, now having had an incredibly fulfilling career with Disney, Google, and the NFL, I can assure you, this was all terrible advice and I am glad I didn’t listen to it.
My freshman year of college, I was studying Entertainment and Arts Management with a minor in Business Administration. I had spent years working in live entertainment and theatre and it was my goal to land a job with the Walt Disney Company after college. Being fairly well connected in the Philadelphia region, I spent most of my free time outside of class working in theatres around the city in various technical areas. While I loved working in technical theatre, I was well-aware that I did not want to silo my career by only having theatrical experience on my resume. After having worked on some 22 productions my freshman year, I was starting to feel burned out and I began seeking internship opportunities in different industries where I could leverage my technical skills. While at a Phillies game with my brother, I took notice of the in-game entertainment and thought it may be fun to spend a summer working on the stadium broadcast crew. I spent the following weeks scouring LinkedIn for connections to the Philadelphia sports teams and leveraging my status as a local college student when reaching out to professionals asking for internship opportunities. Not long after the search began, I was offered an internship with the Philadelphia Eagles.
At the time, I knew absolutely nothing about sports and I had attended a total of maybe five professional games but I figured why not give it a try. I had multiple professors and my theatre’s technical director at the time telling me that an unpaid internship with a sports team would be a total waste of time. No one could understand why I wanted to pivot my career in a seemingly random way while there were so many opportunities for me in my chosen career path.
Doubters aside, I accepted the internship and ended up absolutely loving the day-to-day work. So much so that I was offered a paid position after my internship was over and I switched my concentration in school to match my new found love for sports broadcasting. That internship has since led to 10 years of contracts in various NFL positions across the country and the experience has provided me countless opportunities across industries stretching from entertainment to big tech.
Moral of the story: try everything. The best time to try everything is when you are young and you can leverage your status as a student to land internships and shadow professionals on the job. So you think you want to work as a producer in Hollywood? Have you ever spent a day making dozens of phone calls asking investors for money, answering impatient studio executives, and managing a crisis after your lead role sent out an unexpected tweet? Give it a try.
Brett N. Axler is Technical Integration Lead at Google, Host and Producer of the Corporate Theater Geek Podcast and the author of “A Theatre Geek’s Guide to Disney, Google, and the NFL: What it Takes to Land a Job with the World’s Most Sought-After Companies“.