What the Hell Are You Doing?!
A Serious Stare Down the Barrel of an Ordinary Life
Speech to the World Domination Summit in Portland, OR
July 7, 2013
How many of you listen to public radio? How many of you listen to Marketplace? (I have totebags for all of you backstage.) How many of you are fans of This American Life? Ok good. Well I’m going to steal liberally today from how they construct their show each week. Of course it also means I’m stealing liberally from every playwright… ever. My life: in three acts. Here we go.
Act One: I Always Knew What I Wanted To Do. Or Pretty Close To That.
So here’s the one reaction I remember most from the day Marketplace announced I was leaving. It was the middle of last August - 2012. The press release went out on a Friday and within minutes my inbox was flooded and the phone messages started piling up and my Facebook page caught fire… and this is the one little slice of communication I remember most. Six words.
WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!?!?
Here it is again in case you didn’t get that:
WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!?!?
Six little words. About 30 characters. And I know that because it was a tweet.
From an old high school friend. A wordsmith, clearly!
No really – he’s one of the smartest people I know — and a better writer than I’ll ever be. And no one was more succinct. And no one was more incisive.
What. The Hell. Are you doing.
I’m here to try to explain what the hell I was doing. Leaving a dream job. My own national radio show. A place I’d wanted to work from the moment I left college. For those of you who may not be familiar with it… Marketplace is a trio of hugely respected programs with a combined audience of more than nine million people.
It covers business and economics – so it’s been kind of a busy few years. The show’s been around since about 1990 and it’s got an incredibly loyal following – as I said… some nine million people listen to it each week.
So this was a perch from which I interviewed politicians, authors, and celebrities. A job that allowed me to actually help hundreds of thousands of people with a difficult issue… money. A microphone through which I was allowed to say almost anything – short of an FCC violation. A coveted spot in the world of national news media. A modest measure of celebrity myself – within the small niche that is public broadcasting. A very nice salary. The respect of strangers… and my peers. Seriously proud parents.
And I walked away.
What. The Hell. Are you doing.
I am what you might call an accidental journalist. I had every intention, actually, of being a concert pianist. Started when I was five… spent early high school thinking about whether I wanted to go to Oberlin or Juilliard. Then my junior year my English teacher said you know what – you should write for the school newspaper.
And that’s how I fell in love with The News.
Went to journalism school in Chicago. Did internships at newspapers, TV stations and radio stations. My first job out of college in 1990 was with Oregon Public Broadcasting – just up the road here in Portland. And the very first national story I ever sold… was to Marketplace. A story about the first-ever Niketown. And right about then I decided I wanted to work there someday. Might take me 20-30 years to get there, but I’d try.
It took 11 years. Marketplace called in mid-2001 and asked me to come host a show. Of COURSE I said yes.
The show was the Marketplace Morning Report – a series of what was then seven newscasts each hour starting at 2:50 a.m. Pacific time. Kai Ryssdal and I shared those duties for several years. He went on to host Marketplace – still does. In 2006 I became the host of Marketplace Money… a weekend personal finance program.
So now that you know I was in personal finance… let me quickly get this out of the way:
Don’t spend more than you earn.
Contribute to your 401k at LEAST to the match.
Don’t carry a balance on your credit card.
Save for retirement before you save for the kids’ college.
Don’t listen to the clowns on CNBC.
And mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys… unless they can find a good health plan.
Follow those and you’ll be rich.
So I had this amazing job, right? Every week we produced this show where we took calls from people who had questions about money. We went out and did stories about everything from the cost of personal safety – my producer sent me to a gun range – to how to figure out how to buy wine – my producer sent me to a wine store for that one, god bless his soul. I traveled the country to write about money for The New York Times. I took my microphone anywhere and everywhere that would have me. I got to visit and see places and people nobody else gets to go or meet.
You guys — I had fans. Yeah. I had fans. People who would recognize me in elevators just by my voice. Perfect strangers who thought I was awesome and had the coolest job in the world. Who doesn’t love that?!
And after 11 years of that… 11 years at Marketplace… I walked away.
What. The Hell. Are you doing.
Here’s where I’m supposed to tell you that the reason I left is because I was restless. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to pursue another dream or passion. I wanted to see what else the world had on offer. I was happy and fulfilled and ready for a new challenge, right?!
Well part of that is true. I was restless. I wanted to do something different. But I never wanted to leave Marketplace.
Now – given that this is a public forum, I won’t tell stories out of school about my departure. I’ll save that for my memoirs.
What I will say is I’d been unhappy for a while. Partly I was tired of the subject I covered week in and week out. There are about six stories in personal finance and I told them over and over and over again and got to the point where I wanted to reach through the radio, take listeners by the shoulders and say don’t you get it?! Don’t spend more than you save! That’s it! I told you this last week! And the week before that! Do I really I have to tell you again this week?! (I didn’t do that, of course, because… physics.)
But in the end it was a very personal reason for why I left. An unhappy one that culminated in an afternoon of heavy tears after which I told my husband I’m sorry but I’m done. I have to leave. I have to jump without a net. He said ok – we’ll make it work.
So one of the questions it was suggested I try to answer today is how do you know when it’s time to go? How do you know when to leap without a net?
And the answer in my case is that it’s time to leave — when you have too much self-respect to stay.
That – and when you’re so stressed out you start losing your hair. True story. Pay attention if THAT happens.
Now please understand that I do not regret one second of my time at Marketplace. And maybe it was just time to go anyway. 11 years is a good long while to be in one place. And I truly loved that place. I was meant to be there. And it helped me become the journalist – and the person – that I am today.
But what you can gather now is that when I left – it wasn’t for another dream. It wasn’t something I expected to do or planned for months or years. I left a sure thing for the vast unknown. And it was easily the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done.
But people kept saying oh Tess this is so exciting for you! You can do anything! You’re so brave! You’re doing what so many people would LOVE to do! And by the way you are famous and people will walk through fire to work with you! Hey you should give a speech about this to three thousand people in Portland!
Yes! Fantastic! I am brave and awesome! I will go on to even bigger and better things!
Either that – or I’m the most insane fountain of idiocy on the planet.
What. The Hell. Are you doing.
Act Two: Whatdya Wanna Do Now, Punk?
What’s amazing about a leap of faith is how everyone around you is so sure it’s gonna work out – when deep down you are so sure it won’t. I think maybe they don’t know what else to say. I mean what – they’re going to hear you’re leaving your high-profile national broadcasting job with an economy barely in recovery from the worst recession in decades and they’re going to say oh my god no don’t do it it will never work out and hey good luck with that, though!
No of course not. What they will repeat over and over is how you’re chasing the dream of every worker bee that’s ever lived. And we know that’s the case for most people, right? In fact just recently Gallup released the result of its most recent employee engagement survey… and out of the 100 million Americans with full-time jobs… 70 percent… 70 PERCENT… are disengaged. The survey mentions how these people cost companies money as they “roam the halls spreading discontent.”
70 percent of us!
So yeah. At least I up and quit instead of roaming the halls spreading discontent. Yay me!
I had a big party the Saturday after my final day in the newsroom. Friends made speeches about how proud they were of me and how excited they were to see what I was going to do next — and all I could think was what the hell am I going to do next?
Less than two weeks later – I had an answer. Guy Raz announced he was leaving as the host of NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered. If you’re not familiar with the show – that’s a big deal. IT’s a big deal. Holy cow this is what I’m going to do next! This was meant to be! But wait – don’t get ahead of yourself. Send in your resume, contact a couple of the top leaders at NPR and let them know you’re interested. Chill out, you’re probably not going to get it.
But jeez… the timing! Oh and by the way… they’re moving the show from DC to LA… where I live. IT WAS MEANT TO BE!
So we’ll get back to that in a bit – I’m going to give you a taste of just how long public radio takes to make hiring decisions.
Meanwhile back to all these people saying how great it is that I gave up my dream job for… a dream. But here’s the thing… when you have your dream job – or something really, really close to it – you don’t spend a lot of timing dreaming about what else you might want to do with your life. Why would you?
What everybody wanted to know was… what are you going to do next?! And I had the lamest answer of them all: I don’t know.
The followup question was even worse: Well, what do you WANT to do?
I want to go home and curl up with my cats.
No, no, Tess – go read “What Color Is Your Parachute!” Watch some TED Talks about finding your passion! Go take a class that you’ve always wanted to take!
Great advice… But inside my head – I was paralyzed. Getting your brain to really, really open up to all the possibilities – it’s so much harder than I ever imagined.
I know a lot of you here are entrepreneurs so maybe you were good at this – it wasn’t a struggle for you. I mean, starting a business is of course a struggle, but maybe your brain was quick to absorb the idea of trying something completely new.
Not mine. I did the same thing for a long time. And I got pretty close to the top of my field when I was 32 years old. So this question – for me – was a doozy.
But here’s the thing. I think it’s a doozy for a lot of us. In fact I started to turn it around on my friends. And a lot of them didn’t have an answer. So let me ask YOU…
(What do you do? You like it? If you could quit today, what would you want to do?)
As the months went by I kept trying to figure out an answer to this question – because people kept asking it. And while I thought about it… I kept doing what I was good at. As a freelancer – I hosted a show called America Abroad, which was great because when you’re doing interviews about terrorists in northern Mali, nobody asks about how to allocate their 401ks. I hosted several shows at the public stations in Los Angeles, did some freelance features for a few websites and broadcast outlets and a long piece for The New York Times.
In February NPR called to do a preliminary phone interview for that Weekend All Things Considered job, which I’d heard by then would be going to an internal candidate so I didn’t put much stock in the idea that I might get THAT job. You know – the one I was made for.
Meantime I was talking with people about producing podcasts, maybe going on a speaking tour with a friend of mine who’s a former financial advisor, and another friend of mine and I came up with this idea for a reality TV show, and we actually got a meeting at a big agency in Hollywood — CAA! Big!
And I really loved all these experiences and thinking about all these new things I could do with my life . It was exciting – different – proof that there was life beyond public radio – proof that I had value beyond public radio.
So you know what? Maybe I *should do something totally different. Just go try something new.
Then in April NPR called and wanted to know if I’d like to do an in-person interview for this job. Are you kidding me? Yeah. Couple of producers flew out from DC to LA and I gotta tell you – I nailed it. You know how you just know when something important has gone well? Yeah – that’s what I felt like when I left. But I’d also continued to hear… and you all know that reporters are just glorified gossips, right?… I’d continued to hear about a couple of other candidates who were shoe-ins. So the producers went back to DC and I went back to… freelancing. And guest-hosting shows.
But in the back of my head I started to think well… maybe this could really happen. Is it really possible I could be the next host of Weekend All Things Considered? And I tell you – when that possibility starts invading your consciousness – good luck trying to think beyond it.
So this notion that hey I’ll just go do something different, find another passion… that went away pretty quickly. Which was not WISE… hope is a dangerous thing sometimes… but it’s also a fun thing to have when you’ve got one eye on the future, and one on the past, and you think they might just come together.
A week went by. Then two. Then three. And I’m thinking ok – it’s over.
And this, ladies and gentlemen is what the past eight months or so have been like. Something really cool happens… and then… crickets. So my life for eight months has been this…
Host America Abroad to great success. I AM AWESOME I AM TALENTED PEOPLE LOVE ME!!
Next three weeks. OH MY GOD WHAT HAVE I DONE I WILL NEVER HAVE ANOTHER JOB AGAIN!!!
Host a show in LA for a week to great success. I AM AWESOME I AM TALENTED PEOPLE LOVE ME!!
Next two weeks. OH MY GOD WHAT HAVE I DONE I WILL NEVER HAVE ANOTHER JOB AGAIN!!!
Big story in The New York Times –made the top ten most-emailed list. I AM AWESOME I AM TALENTED PEOPLE LOVE ME!!
Next day. OH MY GOD WHAT HAVE I DONE!!!
Eight months of this roller-coaster. Stop the world I want to get off!
Then… NPR asks if I’d like to come and audition for Weekend All Things Considered. As in… do the show. For an entire weekend. In Washington. One of four finalists – out of 160 candidates. Why yes, I think that would be fine, thank you.
So about a month ago I spent a week at NPR’s gleaming new headquarters.
And I had the Time. Of. My. Life.
Yes, being on Marketplace was a big deal – it’s a huge show. But this was bigger. Did an interview with John Mellencamp, Stephen King and T Bone Burnett… TOGETHER. Had one of the first on-air interviews with the reporter who broke the Snowden-NSA spying story. Did this great piece about the National Aquarium in Baltimore. When I walked out of the studio on that Sunday – the staff stood and applauded me.
I could not have had more fun if I was bathing in a tub of kittens. THIS was what I was meant to do. THIS was why I left a sure thing for the unknown. THIS was why I’d had such a tough time figuring out what else I wanted to do. Because this was the next step in my career… in my life.
The show producer told me they got six times the number of listener feedback letters than usual – all positive. Unbeknownst to me they also had a set of 100 core listeners across the country evaluating me and my performance that weekend – a focus group. And THEY thought I was great. My parents, my friends, and perfect strangers said there was no way I wouldn’t get that job. I’m pretty sure John Mellencamp would’ve said the same thing. It was meant to be.
I AM AWESOME I AM TALENTED PEOPLE LOVE ME!!
So I got the call a little over a week ago.
I will NOT be the next host of Weekend All Things Considered.
I placed second in the NPR host sweepstakes. Literally – they told me I was runner-up.
Whatdya wanna do now, punk?
Act Three: Getting Back To Remarkable
When JD asked me earlier this year about speaking at this event, here’s what I told him. I said well you’ve got this theme about being remarkable in a conventional world…
And I’m not feeling very remarkable anymore.
How can I pretend to tell anyone else how to be? Especially when there are so many people here who’ve really thought about that idea, who have some fantastic advice for you, things for you to go out and do and try and act on – presentations with bullet points and fun illustrations and real insight.
I don’t have any of that – I’m a journalist. At least I think I still am. For now. We’re a generally cynical lot, not especially given to real introspection or self-analysis. Or Powerpoints.
So— remarkable? I don’t feel remarkable. At least not anymore.
I *was*. I think I was pretty remarkable for a career of more than two decades. I was lucky to strike gold with the first job I got. Not everyone can say that their first gig turned out to be the only thing they ever wanted to do.
I worked hard for it – but the journey itself wasn’t really that hard. I never struggled to get a job… I never struggled to keep a job. And in the end, hundreds of thousands of people… on a good day more than a million… wanted to listen to me, to what I had to say.
For 11 years I was “Marketplace’s Tess Vigeland.” She – and that – were nothing short of remarkable.
Now I’m just —Tess Vigeland.
And I have to figure out how SHE is remarkable.
I know in my head that they’re the same person. But will anyone want to listen to me if I’m not some national journalist anymore? What if I decide to follow what I think might be another passion and go work for the Red Cross… admirably, but relatively anonymously? Do I lose all my Twitter followers and all the fans – strangers — who’ve friended me on Facebook? Will I disappoint all those people who think I was really great at what I did? Does it matter? Why do I care what other people think? I KNOW I’m not supposed to care – but I do.
How do I get back to remarkable?
The ONLY way… is by redefining it.
And I think this is an exercise that’s going to take some time. We all know we’re not supposed to define ourselves, and our success, by money, by page views, by Twitter followers, by fan mail, by audience size. But if you have a job, it does define you in many ways. You spend a good chunk of your day at that job – whether that’s at home or in an office or out in the field. Your lifestyle is sometimes determined by how much that job compensates you. I’m on track right now to make one third of what I made last year. One third. I know that doesn’t define me… but it does contribute to how I see my own value. I like what money allows me to do in my life.
So I need to redefine what success means to me. I don’t know how to define that without an audience. I don’t know how to define that without strangers recognizing my voice in an elevator. If that sounds egotistical – well you don’t go into broadcasting without some amount of ego – it’s a performance, after all. And if I end up doing something that can’t or won’t feed it… how do I know if I’m succeeding? How do I know if I’m remarkable?
Well first of all because the people who know me best – the people who love me – tell me I am. Even now. So I’m not going to call them liars.
Second of all – I’m remarkable because I DID leave. I’ve got a set. I’ve got some Paddy Chayefsky in me after all.
And my life hardly fell apart. It’s pretty good, in fact, when I stop and think about it. I’m still working. In fact I’ve turned down opportunities over the last eight months because either they were in places I decided I didn’t want to live… or because they just didn’t feel right. And I have to believe something really great is out there for me to find and catch.
I know I’m supposed to tell you this has all been this wonderful learning experience… I’m a better person for the challenge… that I’ve grown and that this was all really good for me.
Instead I’ll tell you it has been terrifying, it has been awful, and it has been heartbreaking.
It’s made me doubt my decision-making ability. It’s made me wonder if I’m in some loop of self-destruction. It’s made me question whether everyone who’s ever told me I have talent, everyone who’s ever said I’m exceptional, everyone who’s ever said they admired what I’ve accomplished… if they were all just, you know, being nice.
Which is ridiculous. Of course they’re just being nice.
But I guess what I would tell you – wherever you are on your career timeline – wherever you are in your relationship with this thing you do for a living – is that you have to give yourself permission to grieve the end of something. And sometimes you have to work really, really hard to find what’s next. I did NOT think it would be this hard. Maybe I was naïve. And maybe it’s not this hard for everybody… certainly I’m not the first one to jump without a net… and plenty of people move among jobs and careers and go from one thing to another and they’re good at all those things and they relish it. Good on ya if you’re that person! But don’t worry about it if you’re not.
And by the way… next person who tells me to “just make it happen!” gets a punch in the face.
I do think it is wise, though… throughout your working life… to take time to reevaluate what you’re doing, what you really love about it, and what you don’t. Because I didn’t do that very much. And I should have, EVEN though I thought I was in my dream job. Dream *while you’re in the dream.
So now I start over with that infernal question… what do you want to do? And how are you going to make that happen? And I’m not talking mechanics – I know how to network and call the people who can help and I know the resources available to me. But it’s more opening my heart and my head to what might be out there.
Maybe I *can’t live without a microphone… I sure do love these things.
But I already stepped off one cliff – the toughest one. So bring on the next one.
Bring on Act Four.
What the hell are you doing?
I’m still figuring that out.
But one thing I CAN tell you… is that it WILL be remarkable.