Saturday, August 4, 2012

To Take or Not To Take, That Is the Question

When someone gives you advice, do you take it? Do you take a mentor’s lead? Are you a mentor yourself?

I was thinking about mentoring and career advice today as I scrolled through a Facebook site made up of past and present media people in my hometown. The site has 700 members, including me, and I scrolled through the entire list to see how many I knew. It turns out I only know about ten of them but I am familiar with at least fifty more. Some are DJs I listened to or TV reporters I watched growing up in New Orleans.

A common theme of comments is ‘corporate media ownership has destroyed radio’ and most of the negative comments are posted by people who no longer work in radio. Some of those people lost their jobs because they got stuck in a style and attitude that worked for them when they were at their peak; the business changed and they didn’t. I will not say either side of that equation is right or wrong but I will say that to stay employed, you have to balance your attitude with your employer’s attitude. That is the advice I give but it was not the advice I was given.

My interest in radio goes all the way back to 1st or 2nd grade and I was always curious how it worked and what went on inside. What did a DJ do and how did he learn how to do it? I played radio contests and occasionally won stuff. Sometimes when I went to the station to pick up a prize I would ask for a tour and sometimes I would get one (we almost never do that these days, by the way).

Then around 7th or 8th grade my Dad took me to a radio station where you could sit and watch the DJ work (that also never happens now, by the way). I eventually went there so often that I got to know three of the DJs. Two of them were very helpful when they learned of my interest but the third said if he ever caught me working in a radio station he would shoot me. He discouraged me from even thinking about it because he said it was a cutthroat business with no job security and too much competition. His advice was to forget about it and try something else.

My Dad was also pessimistic about media as a career and advised me to study something secure (and boring) like economics. I did give up my dream for awhile and started to pursue a business degree. My college sweetheart/first wife got so tired of hearing me talk about radio that she advised me to try it. I did, and more than thirty years later I am still in it.

So what would I be doing now if I had followed the majority of advice I was given? Most likely I would have had a boring government job. On one hand, I might be able to retire now like some of my high school friends have (the ones who worked all those years in boring government jobs). On the other hand I would never have left New Orleans. I would not have met all the wonderful and unique people I met along the way and I would not have experienced the diverse lifestyles of the five cities I lived in since. I still have a fairly low-key personality but I have led a rich, exciting life filled with thrilling and unique adventures. I do what I love and get paid well for it. I am at my peak NOW … more accurately, at another peak. Things have not always gone so well but each time I hit bottom I learned how to recover and climb to the top again.

Back to advice … the guy who told me that radio is a cutthroat business with no job security and too much competition was absolutely correct! And that was decades ago. Today the business is much bigger yet it works with about 70 percent fewer people. So there is even less security now than there was then and even more competition. What I learned from other mentors, however, is that somebody has to have those jobs and I should take steps to make sure I am one of them. I guess that means I turned bad advice into good; so maybe I did take his advice.

I can still name those three DJs. All have since died so I cannot get in touch with them to tell them how they helped me. I have had many mentors since and in most cases they didn’t know they were mentors. I observed how they handled things and learned from my observations. I have been told by others that I am sometimes a mentor; I am usually surprised when I hear that, but I am also pleased. Everything in life is a learning opportunity.

So I have some advice for you (and you can take it or leave it): follow your dreams. If people discourage you, try to see why and learn from it or modify your dream a little if necessary; but don’t let negative advice stop you.

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