“As soon as your passions are turned into careers, you risk turning love into work”
I watched her pace the room, tweaking and re-positioning the photos we helped her hang inside the art gallery. She stood back, studied the images from a couple vantage points and made a few more adjustments. The gallery was the culmination of a year’s work and the following week the show would be open to the public. This was her baby, and she was preparing for her moment. Kerri had become a close friend over the last few years ever since I first interviewed her for a magazine article about her inclusive, growing state-wide project ‘Jersey Collective.’ Each week, a different person in New Jersey takes over her Instagram account and shares their slice of the state. Kerri had no idea how big her brainchild would grow, or the mass amount of participation, wide-ranging diversity, and ways in which it would bring together countless people from all different backgrounds and walks of life under the unified banner of the state they live in and love.
“It’s becoming something I never anticipated,” she said with a thrill in her voice and a slight hint of anxiety. The amount of work going into the project was no joke, either. Every day Kerri curated the account, tailoring it professionally, tightening up loose ends, deleting spam, managing her guest Instagrammers, each week scheduling out others a year or more in advance. On top of her full time job as a librarian, Jersey Collective was born out of a love of photography and her home state. And now we were setting up for the art show which displayed 52 photos, one from each week of 2015, from a different guest photographer, from various parts of the state. This year, I was glad to be included as well. As we set up, I basked in Kerri’s excitement because nothing compares to the thrill that goes through the human heart like that felt by the inventor as he or she sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success. It’s something that always seems impossible until it’s done. The reason I so enjoyed sharing that moment with Kerri was because it brought me back to my own thrill of starting my own publication last year in my home city of Philadelphia.
My brainchild was conceived back in early 2014 while I was working full-time as Managing Editor of a paper in Ocean City, NJ. At night, after I was done working, I would boot up my computer, spread out a bunch of documents, colors, fonts, photos, and old newspaper clippings and reveled in my passion project. I started plotting and planning, gearing up for a 2015 launch. Through trial and error, I learned what worked and what didn’t, figuring out the most efficient and cost-effective routes through hands on experience. In a sense, it was like the beginning of a whole new schooling in which life and business was my instructor. With the help, guidance and advice from mentors and colleagues, I spent everyday refining and honing my project. I discovered that the first daily newspaper in America was printed on Front and Market Streets in Philly and it was called ‘The Pennsylvania Evening Post.’ It’s biggest scoop: The Declaration of Independence printed in its entirely on the front cover. Long since dead and gone, I decided that I would channel all of this passion, energy and excitement of a new publication into an old one, but give it a new name, ‘The Philadelphia Evening Post‘ and build the concept around the idea of a revival and rebirth.
The stability of my job allowed me the time and energy to invest in the passion project, tweaking and readjusting and re-positioning it day in and day out for the very best quality and creativity I could muster. Things started falling into place. I found by far THE greatest graphic designer to ever breathe on the planet, and she was all in, no questions asked. Imagine my luck? As the months went by, the anticipation built, the work drums beat faster, and it was all culminating toward a tangible creation. The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote a story about it, we launched a Kickstarter to raise funds to print the first issue, made arrangements with future advertisers, created and grew the social media, built the website, brainstormed media kits, stationary, and mailings, shopped around and priced out bids from various printers until we got exactly what we wanted for the right price, all the while putting in our time at our day jobs which allowed us the support and finances to indulge our passion project. That was, until my job fell apart.
Long, painful story short, I was set to inherit the paper in Ocean City and become owner of it. I envisioned my Philadelphia paper coming under the umbrella of my business. Just as the company was about to exchange hands, drama erupted, a co-worker stole, customers were lost, and the paper had to dissolve. I’ll never forget that moment, when it all came crashing down. I was sitting in my Ocean City apartment, my head in my hands, crying out of fear, anxiety, nervousness, and uncertainty. The week before I had finally started dating again after seven years of singleness, and this was how I had to start off my newfound relationship with a girl I truly loved. It was exhausting, humiliating, and draining. I gazed across the kitchen table at my laptop, newspaper clippings, books, business forms, and documents. There was my passion project, all set and ready to go, finally honed to the most perfect version of itself I would have time for. I took a deep breath and tried to relax. Then and there I mustered up all the courage I could gather and embraced the confidence I had in my passion project. It was ready for launch, and now it would be all I had. The stability, income, and support would all have to come from this.
For anyone who isn’t familiar with the field of journalism or writing, it’s not easy to just go find another job. I was blessed to have my job, and it came through years of interning, strategic networking, endless freelancing, and building relationships. I decided I would apply for jobs anyway while I went full-speed ahead into issue 1 of what would now be my full-time job and my very own business.
I wish I could say I was beyond thrilled. A part of me was totally stoked, but the other part was fearful. It was a lot easier to manage the passion project when it wasn’t my full-time job. Now I was left with no choice. I poured everything I had into it, but at the same time I was falling more and more and more and more in love with a girl who I was growing a desire to spend my life with. Such a feeling called for stability, and I was lacking it big time.
Let’s backtrack a bit. I grew up less than 20 minutes from Center City in a working class, blue-collar neighborhood with a father who had started his own construction company. Nothing taught me more about customer service than watching my dad go out of his way, time after time, to serve his customers. He was a household name in the area, relied upon by many, and never once had to advertise. His reputation spoke for itself, and he went above and beyond perfecting each and every one of his work projects. Because of this, dad’s company was very successful. Not to say we didn’t have a handful of rough times when our family had to cut back and adjust our lifestyle significantly, but my sister and I were incredibly blessed growing up. Dad didn’t have retirement or benefits, he was a sole provider, and for him, vacation meant skipping out on work, and losing money. He rarely ever took vacations. Although he was incredibly skilled and loved his work, it took a toll on him, because there was no security blanket to fall back on. He was work and work was him. He was, entirely, his job.
Every summer for over 15 years, a private high school would hire my dad to do their major renovations. From new roofs, floors, additions, and maintenance work on the buildings, the school provided consistency and a ballpark number for his earnings. My dad became friends with everyone on the campus from the president to the janitors, and everyone knew him and anticipated his work every summer. Growing up I watched as my friends parents took vacations and had time off, their jobs much more relaxed and seemingly less stressful than my dad’s, who had the weight of a business and a family on his shoulders. Unfortunately, truly appreciating and admiring him would come much later in my life and through my own experiences.
Flash-forward, after the initial launch of the paper in Philadelphia and the swirl of excitement around it, sustaining the business proved difficult. Over the year, I depleted my savings and worked harder than I ever worked before. I wore all the hats, and business came first. Creativity, writing, editing, story ideas, photography, covering events, and all the things I loved and was passionate about in regard to the passion project turned full-time job, fell by the wayside and took a serious back seat. It had to. Soon, the nights I spent honing the project and thinking creatively over a kitchen table were spent falling asleep immediately after an exhaustive 11 hour work day as a salesman, something I was terrible at. I networked like crazy, got new printing bids, hired and fired people, was led on by a philanthropist, had someone try to sabotage the paper, and finally realized that I simply didn’t have enough start-up money or savings to keep the business afloat for much longer. In-between all of this, I applied for countless jobs and went on several in-person interviews each week while also working a handful of odd jobs.
I started to wonder, even if the business had been a financial success, is “the life I always dreamed of” really the life I wanted? I thought for sure I wanted to follow in my dad’s footsteps and become my own boss. While he constructed homes, I constructed sentences and stories. To me, I had always hoped for a work-life blend, until I got a taste of it.
Meanwhile, after 25+ years of running his own business, working tirelessly to provide for my family and work toward his dream of building a home on the Chesapeake Bay, my dad’s career took a turn for the better. The private high school who hired his company every summer for the past 15 years was in need of a Maintenance Director and they chose my dad! All of those years of learning the campus inside and out, going above and beyond to serve his customer and build relationships there had paid off. They allowed him to name his salary and for the first time in his 50+ years, my dad was salaried with benefits, retirement, and vacation time. You couldn’t miss the relief in his persona. I saw a whole new side of my dad. The once proud and tough manly man living perpetually under the weight of the world, was humbled and light-hearted. At last, he could relax and live into his new role, one that was totally meant for him.
Dad’s passion project was building, and he lived into it by starting his company. But now, he could fully embrace his passion without it having to be his work. The house my parent’s were rebuilding and renovating on the Chesapeake started to come around so much faster now, despite dad working his new full-time job at the high school. Whenever I came to visit, the place grew by leaps and bounds, first with the new flooring, then the kitchen appliances and the upstairs bedrooms furnished. I watched my dad work stress free in an excited and fervent manner in which he could focus entirely on quality and creativity; honing, adjusting, refining, and repositioning his art. It was me, back in Ocean City, planning and plotting my publication, and it was Kerri at the art gallery, two years into Jersey Collective.
When passions become careers, we risk turning our love into work. The year changed my entire perspective, and although my business was barely treading water, I had learned so so much. Best of all, I saw from my dad’s lifelong vantage point, and our relationship flourished like never before. That alone was worth it.
Just as I was running out of funds and scaling back, all but ready to pull the plug on my business, I finally received a few job offers, and one specifically that I knew in my heart was totally meant for me, too. They were impressed by my publication in Philadelphia and thought it qualified me for the job. Indeed, had I not experienced starting a paper from scratch, learning all different aspects of the business and wearing a bunch of different hats, I wouldn’t be able to take on the job I have now. With the same relief my dad experienced, I was so beyond grateful for having a consistent salary, benefits, retirement, and vacation days. So many people take these things for granted and think nothing of it. For me, I am so grateful to have seen the other side, because it makes me appreciate things from this vantage point all the more.
As we finished hanging the photos in the art gallery, I gave Kerri a hug goodbye and glanced one more time in her direction as I headed for the stairs back down into the streets of Asbury Park, my new home. With folded arms, her head tilted, and a matchless smile, she made one last adjustment before taking a seat and marveling at the collection. As I walked back to my apartment I knew it was time for me to engage my own passion once again. This time it wouldn’t be starting a publication or a business. Back at home, I leafed through the blank pages of an empty journal and booted up my laptop. I opened the files collecting dust on my desktop and gazed into the eyes of my fiction. I clicked open the first partially written manuscript from years ago and started tweaking, adjusting, and re-positioning. I could feel my heart falling in love all over again.