Zipping into a New Career Lane
Sewing 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 flew up and down, back and forth. She installed zippers on sleeping bags at a rate of 90-100/hour. The handlers, who kept supplies stocked and removed the finished pieces, grimaced and winced at her screeching voice.
Other employees whispered that she was the “Queen” of the floor because no one had ever come close to her level of productivity. In my fourth week at this factory job, I had just hit my quota of 50 zippers/hour, and I was already sick of it. I looked over at the Queen and knew I didn’t want to be her. I looked at my other co-workers―listlessly going through the motions―I didn’t want their lives either.
When I took the job, I was desperate for work. I had dropped out of college a year earlier because none of my classes captured my interest. A group of friends invited me to travel around the southwestern states for a few months. So, I cashed in my savings and jumped onto the (station) wagon. We explored the Rocky Mountains, crossed the Rio Grande, camped in the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona, hiked the Redwood Forests, and swam in the Pacific Ocean.
At the end of this journey, 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 … we were broke … and still no jobs. My adventure landed me back home in Wisconsin, starting my employment search again.
The La Crosse Garment Factory (now The Company Store) had a military contract to produce sleeping bags, and they were hiring. I’d been sewing as 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, it was a relief to have a full-time job with a steady paycheck. But I wasn’t prepared for the productivity pressure … sewing was a creative outlet and there was nothing creative about this job. The mechanics of producing 400 perfectly finished zippers every day wore me out.
After six weeks, I hit my limit after sewing my 12,000th zipper. The next day, I called in sick, put on my best outfit, and took a bus to the local university to enroll in the fall semester. After a visit to the Financial Aid Office, I found a different job and started to plot my future. In seeking a meaningful career, I imagined commuting to work in the morning and feeling excited about the day ahead of me, then leaving at the end of the day feeling gratified about the work I did. A few years later, my dream came true in my first professional job as a dietitian in an adult fitness/cardiac rehabilitation program.
Navigate Your Career with Passion
Zippers led me to carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Nutrition education led to fitness and exercise. Wellness led to the food industry, leadership, and communications. After the zippers, passion fueled each twist and turn in my career. And that has made all the difference. If you are launching your career, making a mid-career change, rebounding from layoff, or settling into retirement, I urge you to follow your passion. And if you can’t find passion in your work, try to find it in a hobby or a cause that matters to you.
Discover Your Passion … Do Something You Hate
When young professionals seek my advice, I start by asking, “What are you passionate about?” Many resist this question, preferring that I recommend a class, degree, or certification that will make them happy and prosperous. As a mentor, I divert our conversation away from these tactical considerations until the mentee can answer, “what will light your fire?” Some people really struggle with this question, feeling flat and unmotivated about their options. If they are really stuck, I ask them what they hate. Doing something I hated ignited my inner passion to find a new path for myself.
Match Your Skills to a Growing Trend
When your talents and passions are in demand, you are in a golden spot. Opportunities come your way. You may find yourself 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, your community, and causes that matter to you. Identify ways that you can make a difference. Through these experiences, you’ll find the compass point for your next destination.
Beware of Complacency
My co-workers on the factory floor had resigned themselves to being second-class citizens to the Queen with no chance of advancement. But the steady paycheck, benefits, and 8-5 schedule lulled them into accepting this fate. Later in my career, I found myself in a position that did not align with my passions and talents. I too found myself conflicted between the steady paycheck and benefits versus taking a risk to seek self actualization. Destiny brought me the change I needed when I was laid off. Once again, my days in the garment factory helped me chart a new path. I reinvented my career by pursuing what I love to do and shedding the work that no longer energizes me.
“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”