I am where I am in life because of a phone call I made to a radio station in 1996.
Let me explain.
In the summer of 1996, I was living in my hometown of Erie, PA. I hadn’t gone to college yet — hadn’t even gotten a GED yet, after dropping out of high school a few years prior — and all I had was time. I spent a lot of that time listening to the radio, and Gannon University’s WERG in particular. It was a college station with eclectic taste and non-professional DJs, which was a nice alternative to the mainstream and classic rock stations on the rest of the dial.
One day I heard a song on WERG’s morning show that I really liked. I called in to request it the next day. And again the next. It became my running habit. I called in often enough that the DJs recognized me, and we’d have short conversations. I became a regular.
A few weeks later, I called in again and this time the DJs asked me a question:
Would I like to take over their Thursday morning shift?
It seems they had other priorities, and they needed to dump one of their shifts. Because I called in so often, they knew that I was familiar with the music, I had a decent voice and a quick wit, and they figured I could at least operate the machinery without breaking anything.
I told them I had no experience. They said that was fine.
I said my best friend Tom had some experience working the board at a different school, so could he be my cohost? They said sure.
And that’s how Tom and I wound up becoming DJs for a year at a college radio station that neither of us attended.
Tom actually stayed on for a few years and became the station’s Hip Hop Manager, but I moved to Pittsburgh to go to college.
That’s because I started dating a student who was friends with a fellow DJ, and she convinced me to get my life together. One day her little sister, who was still in high school and preparing to apply for colleges herself, was absently reading aloud the names of Pennsylvania schools in her college guidebook, and —
“Wait — repeat that last one?”
“The Art Institute of Pittsburgh.”
I looked it up. Today, its reputation is highly questionable, but in 1997 it was still respected as one of the oldest art schools in the country. I called and asked for information about their Graphic Design program, because I loved to draw.
“If you like to draw,” said the Admissions rep, “let me ask you a question: how would you like to see your drawings move? Have you seen Toy Story?”
(Remember, this was 1997.)
I said that seemed interesting. They sent me a brochure on their brand new major, Computer Animation & Multimedia. I said okay. They signed me up.
A year later, I realized I didn’t really care for the computer half of computer animation, and I considered switching to Graphic Design instead, because I liked drawing more than I liked computing. But what I had discovered I liked even more than drawing was editing video and audio. Those were incidental classes we had to take in order to compile our demo reels, but I fell in love with the art of telling stories with video. We weren’t allowed to take any additional video electives within our coursework, but I petitioned our Department Head to give me permission. He agreed, and I wound up taking courses on Lighting, Directing, and Advanced Video Editing — becoming the only student in our program to do so.
After graduation, I had trouble finding a job. My computer animation skills were negligible, no one was hiring for the traditional hand-drawn animation I was actually good at, and our employment office had enough trouble placing all the Video Communications graduates without adding me to their list of aspiring editors. I thought I’d backed myself into a corner.
One afternoon I got a call from a local multimedia company whose production director was also an AIP alumnus. They had an opening, and they needed someone who knew video and animation. I was, literally, the only candidate the school had, so they sent me over and I got the job.
That job was creating safety videos for the steel industry. It wasn’t a bad job, but it had a standardized routine, and I needed a creative outlet to balance me out. So I used the company’s equipment to film a web series on evenings and weekends. That web series was Something to Be Desired — a dramedy about a struggling radio station — which ran for 6 years and introduced me to my next girlfriend, whom I would eventually move to Baltimore with.
Along the way, I quit my day job and started freelancing while simultaneously producing Something to Be Desired. I made a lot of financial mistakes and learned a lot of tough lessons, but I also became known as a web video pioneer in the days when YouTube was just starting to become a thing. Soon, I went from being hired to make videos to being hired to make online videos to being hired to promote online videos. It was a whole new world.
In 2006, I flew to Boston to meet other people who were making online media. That event was called PodCamp, but it would come to be known as PodCamp Boston because its founders encouraged those of us from other cities to take the PodCamp model back to our towns and create local networks of digital media creators.
I overheard some PodCamp attendees from Philadelphia talking about how they wanted to launch a PodCamp of their own, so when I got back to Pittsburgh I rounded up some friends and insisted that Pittsburgh needed to beat Philadelphia to the punch or else we’d forever be playing catch-up with the bigger cities. With that sense of urgency, we launched PodCamp Pittsburgh only six weeks later — and today they’re gearing up for their tenth annual event next month.
Along the way, I picked up a variety of skills I never knew I’d need, and I figured out new digital tools as they were released.
One of those tools was Twitter, which I joined in 2006. When I moved to Baltimore in 2009, I landed my first three jobs thanks to people who already knew me on Twitter. And when I quit my last day job in 2014, the clients who helped me transition back to the freelance life were all clients I’d either met on Twitter or through connections from PodCamp Pittsburgh.
Today, I’m a full-time freelancer. People have been asking me for freelance advice, so I opened a coaching business called Freelance Rush. I never would have been able to do that if I hadn’t taken all the steps — and all the risks — and learned from all the mistakes that got me here.
And it all started because I made a request on a college radio station 19 years ago.
That’s Great, But What Does This Mean for You?
Everything that’s happened in my life can be traced back to a central truth:
The more touchpoints you have in your life, the more opportunities you’ll have for happiness. (Or success, or contentment, or literally anything else you could want.)
What’s a touchpoint? It’s a person. It’s an experience. It’s a memory. It’s any detail in your life that helps define it.
People with larger social networks, who collect more experiences, have been scientifically proven to be luckier. How? It’s not magic; it’s percentages. The more people you know, the more skills you develop, and the more experiences you have, the more touchpoints you create and the more useful you are to others.
Having more touchpoints in your life will make you more social, more confident, more interesting, and more adaptable — all of which will help you enjoy life more, because you’ll be far less afraid of the unknown.
How do you develop more touchpoints? I didn’t set out to do this consciously, but in reviewing my own life, three tactics have become clear to me:
If I hadn’t called a radio station to request a song, I never would have made a connection with the DJ who would eventually ask me to replace him.
If I hadn’t asked my Department Head to allow me to take classes I wasn’t supposed to be able to take, I never would have learned the skills that would lead me down my career path.
If I hadn’t asked my friends for help, Something to Be Desired and PodCamp Pittsburgh would never have gotten off the ground.
There’s vulnerability in asking, because someone could say no. And you might be inclined to take that “no” personally. But if you don’t ask, you’ll always wonder what might have been — and that lifetime of doubt is exponentially worse than any temporary sting of “no.”
I could have stayed in Erie… but I didn’t. I found a bigger pond and I jumped in.
I could have stuck with computer animation and tried to hack out a career in a field that I didn’t feel was the right fit for me… but I didn’t. I found a better fit and I jumped in.
I could have waited until conditions were perfect for me to launch a web series… but I didn’t. I borrowed whatever I could get my hands on and I jumped in.
I could have let Philadelphia win the PodCamp spinoff race… but I didn’t. I gathered whatever team of co-founders I could, and we jumped in.
Waiting for the perfect time (or, worse, just accepting your current situation and hoping someone else will give you what you want without striving for it) is a surefire way to end up miserable. When you think you’re in the wrong spot, move. You can always move back, but you won’t always have a chance to move forward — so when it presents itself, take it. If you do it prematurely, you can always get better at it along the way.
3. Say Yes.
This may seem counter-intuitive, because right now “no” is the much cooler word.
There are books and courses that teach you how to say “no” so you’ll be happier. As their thinking goes, you only have real power in your life when you’re not desperately saying “yes” to every opportunity that comes along. And to some extent, they have a point. Your time on this planet has a limit, so you’d rather be spending it doing things you enjoy rather than things you have to do. I get that.
But here’s the thing:
When you say “yes,” you create new opportunities for yourself.
“Yes” is what introduces you to new experiences, new people, new interests, and new skills that you may not have even known you had.
If you think of yourself as a hub, every “yes” is a new spoke that extends in a new direction — and you never know what other opportunities will extend from the hub your “yes” just connected to you to. You don’t know what you’ll learn, who you’ll meet, what they need, or how you can help, much less how they can help you.
“No” is the illusion of power. If you say “no” long enough, you’re alone.
“Yes” is giving yourself the freedom to experience something new, and committing yourself to the energy required to get it done.
“Yes” is what keeps you going.
And “yes” is what I said 19 years ago, when a stranger on the phone asked me if I wanted to host a radio show despite me having zero experience. I have no idea where I’d be right now if I’d said “no,” but it sure wouldn’t be here.
And I like it here.
Because I like being someone who gives himself the power to say “yes.”
Images by Susanne Nilsson and Groman123 on Flickr.
If You Liked This Post
… then you may also enjoy this post about how to overcome imposter syndrome, or this post about how to get better at taking risks.
Are You Making This Critical Mistake When It Comes to Taking Risks?
Holly Hegeman · July 20, 2015 at 9:28 am
Excellent! Great read for a Monday morning!
Justin Kownacki · July 20, 2015 at 9:51 am
Thanks! I figure if I’m going to interrupt someone’s Monday morning, I should make it worthwhile. :)
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