Sewing Zippers in a Factory Ignited My Career Passion

Sewing Zipper_shutterstock_142752241Sewing machines buzzed around me, as I quickly loaded another zipper and started to sew. My co-worker at the next station was sewing like a whirling dervish; her hands flying forward and backward, up and down, as she installed zippers on sleeping bags at a rate of 90-100/hour. She screamed at the handlers, who were to keep her supplies stocked and remove her finished pieces – they grimaced and winced as she screeched. Other employees whispered that she was the “queen” of the floor because no one could come close to achieving her productivity. I was in my fourth week at this factory job and had just hit my quota of 50 zippers/hour and the job was already getting old. I looked over at the Queen and knew I didn’t want to be her. I looked at my other co-workers, who were resigned to just “get by” – I didn’t want that life either.

Taking this job had been a necessity. I’d quit college at the end of my freshman year because I was uncertain of what career I wanted to pursue and was tired of living with my parents. When a group of friends asked if I wanted to travel around the southwestern states for a few months, I cashed in my savings and jumped onto the (station) wagon. We explored the Rocky Mountains, crossed the Rio Grande, camped in New Mexico and Arizona deserts, hiked the Redwood Forests, and swam in the Pacific Ocean. My boyfriend and I decided to stay in Eureka and try to make a new life on the west coast. We were so naïve … in 1976 unemployment was 18% in this northern California town. With no college degrees or trade credentials, we stood in long unemployment lines, day after day, with no success. Three months went by … our savings was gone … and still no jobs. My adventure ended back home in Wisconsin, starting the employment search again.

The La Crosse Garment Factory (now The Company Store) had a military contract to produce sleeping bags, and it was hiring. I’d sewn for a hobby since I was a little girl, so I knew how to operate a sewing machine and the basics of constructing garments. After months of rejection, I was relieved to have a full-time job with a steady paycheck. But I wasn’t prepared for the productivity pressure … sewing had been a creative outlet and there was nothing creative about this job. The mechanics of producing 200 perfectly finished zippers every day was a challenge.

I hit my limit after sewing my 12,000th zipper at the end of six weeks. I put on my best outfit and took a bus to the university to enroll in the fall semester. I visited the Financial Aid Office, found a different job, and began to plot my future. I was seeking credentials that would lead to a job that would be exciting to think about when “I drove to work in the morning” and gratifying when “I drove home at the end of the day.” It took a few more years before I found my first career passion in nutrition/fitness, but this experience was a pivot point that helped me find my compass.

Many years later, I came across this quote: “A job is something you do with your days, a career is something you do with your life.” I often think about the days I spent in the garment factory versus the life I’ve spent in my career, which has had it’s ups and downs, but has never been boring.

Whether you’re launching your career, making a mid-career change, rebounding from a corporate down-sizing, or settling into retirement, seek the “moments of truth” that come from experiencing life outside of your comfort zone.

  • Doing What You Hate Can Lead to Your Passion – Whenever emerging professionals seek my advice, I always start with the question, “What are you passionate about?” Many are uncomfortable, preferring that I recommend a class, degree, or certification that will make them happy and prosperous. As a mentor, I divert discussion of these tactics until they have clarified what will “light their fire.” Some really struggle with this question, feeling flat and unmotivated about their options. So I suggest that they explore what they hate. My zipper-sewing experience ignited my inner passions to find a new path for myself. This experience and learning became a compass point that has guided every significant transition in my career.
  • Match Your Passion and Skills to a Growing Trend – When your talents and passions are in demand, you are in a golden spot. You will be energized by the opportunities that come your way and will be in the enviable spot of picking and choosing your jobs, assignments, and projects. Explore the range of your talents (and don’t underestimate them), think about what makes you happy and aligns with your values. Immerse in the world around you – your industry, communities, and causes – and identify places where you can make a difference. This is where you’ll find the compass points for your next destination.
  • Complacency Is Contagious – My co-workers on the factory floor had accepted their reality as second-class citizens to the Queen with nowhere to go. But it was comfortable … steady paycheck … benefits … 8-5 schedule. Later, at the end of my career at General Mills, I once again faced complacency versus self-actualization. I’d had a successful and rewarding run, but had landed in a position not aligned with my passions and talents. I was seeking the courage to keep myself from descending into complacency and contemplating change when destiny intervened … I was laid off. Rebounding was buoyed by my commitment to living in my passion – once again, formed by my turning point in the garment factory.

Zippers led me to carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Nutrition education led me to fitness and exercise. Wellness led me to business, leadership, and communications, which led me to the food industry and creative problem solving. And my story continues …

After the zippers, every professional tangent I’ve chosen has been flamed with passion. And that has made all the difference.



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