From Video Game Nerd to Wine Geek
Our resident life-change (and booze) expert shares her humorous, yet immensely helpful, tips on making a job swap at any stage. Want to share your story? DM Devin on Instagram @thesocalwinegal. But first, read hers.
The moment I knew I couldn't do my job one second longer
There I was, riding in a taxi on the way to a high-level new business presentation in San Jose, California. My boss had bowed out at the last minute, leaving me to handle the whole thing on my own, despite having only marginally worked on the strategy. I was dreading it more than one might dread an impending drug-free tooth extraction.
Mid-way through a decent-sized panic attack, I actually looked at the back of my cab-driver’s head and thought to myself, “I could drive a taxi. That seems so nice and relaxing. Maybe I’ll look into it.” And I felt real, palpable envy at the life I assumed he lived: easy and stress-free.
As someone who has always been career-oriented to the extreme, this was my rock-bottom.
It wasn’t that I hated my job. I liked it enough, sometimes even loved it, and I was pretty good at it too. I worked for a high-profile public relations agency in Los Angeles, representing clients in the video game industry. I had loved computer games as a kid, and felt weirdly at home in the industry, getting goosebumps every time I saw a beautifully produced trailer for the hot new title, or whenever I walked onto the expo floor at the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo and felt the deafening sound of a thousand video game cut scenes being played on jumbo screens rattling my very bones. Sony, Sega, Nintendo, Konami, Ubisoft, Microsoft…that was the language I spoke.
I lived in a gorgeous place in West Hollywood, drove a Lexus, had a weekly housekeeper, could afford designer jeans and $500 shoes any time I felt like I needed a pair (read: always). I got invited to parties for my job where top-shelf booze flowed freely and the likes of Maroon 5 and Missy Elliott played private concerts. I had the respect of my peers and was on the fast track to executive leadership. To all outside observers, it seemed like I was living the proverbial life. I was 26 years old.
And yet I had this nagging feeling that this was not the path I was meant to be on. I was constantly asking myself what in life made me truly happy (it clearly wasn’t my job or its perks, and it sure as shit wasn’t the guy I was dating at the time, who made me utterly miserable).
What did I even like doing?
In these conversations with myself, I always seemed to land on a small handful of things: 1) I loved being with my family; 2) My strange, bossy little Shih Tzu, Owen, and his one-eyed Maltese sidekick, Lolli made me really happy; 3) I felt passionate about music; and 4) I never felt more at home than I did while cooking and entertaining. Was there *maybe* a job out there that would allow me to combine all four? I had to know.
And then, on a family vacation, I read a book called “Heat,” written by the former fiction editor of The New Yorker, Bill Buford, who left his day job to study cooking abroad. The memoir painted this incredible picture of a culinary life in Italy and cemented my sneaking suspicion that I was meant to do the same. So, after six years of video game PR, I quit my job, traded my game controller for a set of really sharp knives and moved to Florence, Italy, where I would study wine and culinary arts for two years.
That was in 2007. I could no doubt write an “Eat Pray Love”-style memoir of my own with all the stories (and men) I racked up while abroad. When I got back to the U.S., I had to start over and work my ass off to climb back up. It was humbling, to say the least.
I am now more than 10 years into a successful career in wine, the industry that won out over culinary arts while I was living in Tuscany. I have my own consulting business, advising wine companies and regions on their PR, marketing, branding and strategy, and was named one of Wine Enthusiast Magazine's Top 40 Under 40 in 2017. While I don’t get to snuggle puppies for a living, music is only peripherally involved in what I do, and my family has stayed just that – my family – I finally feel like my work is aligned with a great passion of mine. One out of four ain’t bad, right?
1. Assholes are everywhere
My mom, a lifelong educator, always stresses the importance of “teachable moments” to me, so I would be remiss if I didn’t share a few lessons I learned about life and work thanks to this big professional pivot.
Throughout my career, I have worked for agencies, in-house, in sales, as a buyer, as an intern, in management, in wine, in tea, in fashion, for myself, and in 100% of those roles and industries, I have encountered my share of terrible, negative, rude and downright abusive dicks. I have worked with absentee bosses, micromanaging bosses, free-loaders, blamers, overcomplicators…you name it, both male and female. They exist no matter where you go, and what you do, and changing careers unfortunately won’t eliminate them from your life. The sooner you come to terms with this, the sooner you will be able to focus on what you really need to know: how to respond to and work with them (fodder for another article, I’m sure).
2. It’s still work
And no matter what you do, you will still have a “boss,” be it in the form of your clients, your board members, your shareholders, your customers or your actual boss.
This one hit me in the gut, because it was admittedly blindsiding. No matter how much you love what you do, there are days where you are going to hit snooze 15 times because you just can’t do it today. People always roll their eyes when I act exhausted after attending an industry wine tasting or returning from a wine-related press trip. There are days when I have to taste 40 wines in a row and, while some of you may view that as a delightful way to spend an afternoon, it can actually get physically and mentally taxing. Sure, I love what I do, but a 16-hour day is still a 16-hour day, even when it involves delicious food and wine. Unless I’m spending that 16 hours snuggling puppies while listening to my favorite band live, AND sipping wine, then it’s not entirely a vacation.
Don’t change careers if you are only motivated by the perceived “freedom” you will gain because that freedom, while it may take other forms, is elusive. The key here is to find at least one element of joy in every day. Write it down before you go to bed or describe it to your spouse when you get home. Memorialize it in some way because it will remind you why you get up every day to do what you do when the passion starts to feel more like work than passion.
3. Never underestimate the benefits of finding – and being – a mentor
No matter what age you are, or where you are in your career, if you can’t point to at least one person whom you view as a mentor, stop what you’re doing right now (well, finish this article first) and find one. They don’t need to be in the same industry as you, but they should be someone you admire, respect and trust, while being neutral enough to be able to provide unemotional, objective support and coaching. I can count two professional mentors in my life, and they have not only gotten me through some of the most pivotal moments of my career, but I continue to look to them for advice and inspiration on a regular basis.
Then, if you don’t do so already, start thinking about someone you can mentor. They can be younger, less experienced, or even older but lacking in a particular skill-set that you happen to possess. In studying wine, I’ve learned that they best way to truly understand the material in a way that stays with me indefinitely is to teach it to others. The same applies here. Plus, there is something so soul-quenching about playing a role in the growth and development of another person, as someone once did for you.
4. Relationship management is one of the most important skills you will ever learn
From the early days of my career in video games to now, if I can point to one skill that has opened the most doors and had the greatest impact on my professional success, it is the importance of building and maintaining working relationships. I am a serial thank-you-card-writer. I do my best to respond to all emails – even sales pitches that don’t work for me. I genuinely love to pass along articles or opportunities that may not be relevant to me or my industry, but that could be up one of my colleagues’ alleys. I have seen things that I did in my days working with gamers directly impact my work in wine, be it journalist introductions, networking, or vendor relations. You can find synergies in the most surprising places, but you need to not only make sure people like to work with you, but that they don’t forget about you either.
I told you my story; you tell me yours!!
The point in all of this is to say that even with a big change, our careers are living, breathing organisms that give back to use every step of the way. Nothing is ever lost, no matter how different your second – or third or fourth! – career may seem. Got an interesting career pivot story? I would love to hear it – and what you learned from it. DM me on Instagram at @thesocalwinegal.