Canned Foods and The Defense Industry—And Why You Should Choose Your Own Path

tree with halls

I went to one job fair my last year in college. The hope was to have a nice “real” job waiting for you once you graduated. The mythical smooth transition. I walked into a large room. Everyone, including me, was wearing a suit and tie and looking good and professional.

Every company had a table set up with their name on it, and a line of students building up waiting for their chance. The students were asking the companies for jobs. It looked like humans being rounded up like cattle.

I walked into the big room, saw the mass of eagerness and hope, and stood there shocked. I stood there for three minutes. Then I turned around and got the hell out of there.

With the graduation near and the real world fast approaching I went to the guidance counselor’s office. I think the school called it a career center or something like that. I met with a counselor who was supposed to guide me in the right direction. A person who would tell me what I could do for a job, for the ultimate in stability—a career.

She looked over my course of study. A major in business management, a concentration in human resources, lots of classes in mathematics and Excel. I had all the makings of America’s Next Great Business Leader. I was excited for my future.

“I think you should look for a job in the canned foods or the defense industries.”

What… The… F…?

I was stunned. Canned foods and the defense industry did not sound awesome. I thought she was joking until I saw her face. She was not joking.

In 2002 the economy was reeling from the dot com bubble and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. If you watched the news it sounded like the world was coming to an end. The counselor figured those were growth industries. She was looking out for my best interest.

I didn’t know what to do.

I moved back into my parent’s house and started working at a hotel. I had to wear a suit and a tie to work every day. And I got paid minimum wage.

I wanted to go snow skiing. I figured wherever there’s skiing there are hotels to lodge the visiting skiers. Best to get experience and save money before moving to far away mountains. So I wore a suit and tie to the hotel everyday and I hated it. At least I finally learned how to tie a tie.

With my hotel experience I easily got another minimum wage job at a hotel in Lake Tahoe. I was on a grand adventure. I moved to the other side of the continent to live the dream, to ski powder in the big mountains. I moved to the mecca of snow skiing in North America—Lake Tahoe.

Earning just enough money to buy a ski pass, beans, and ramen noodles, I lived a life I had dreamed about as a little kid. I went on new adventures. I skied deep powder and steep mountains. That life was bigger and scarier than I ever imagined.

After several seasons in the mountains I moved back to my hometown in North Carolina, broke, with no direction in life, no marketable skills, and trying to recover from injuries I sustained while skiing.

I caught the wine bug while living in Tahoe and I fell in love with wine, particularly Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. So I got a job buying and selling wine in a small wine shop in Durham.

One day I realized that wine is basically a food product. That darn guidance counselor was right after all. I figured I was pretty much working in the canned food industry.

After a couple of years I wanted to see where wine could take me so I moved to the capital of the wine business in North American—Napa Valley.

I was homeless for the first month I lived in California, staying at a rundown motel for a couple of nights and camping in parks other nights. I needed a job. The harvest was fast approaching. There are always lots of temporary jobs during the harvest working in the cellars cleaning barrels, crushing grapes, and making wine.

I took a temporary job working in the cellar for Pine Ridge Vineyards. It was an established winery with vineyards scattered across some of the best growing areas in the valley. It was hard work. I cleaned floors, barrels, and got inside the huge stainless steel fermenting tanks and cleaned those too. I crushed grapes, pumped wine from the bottom of the tank and sprayed it over the must, and transferred wine into the small oak barrels.

We worked with hoses to transfer wine and clean tanks. Removing the hose from a tank after a pumpover is an adventure. The hose has pressure and wine in it. Once the pressure is released the wine explodes out of the hose. I’ve taken more cabernet showers than I can count.

It was hard work. I went home every day soaked in wine and water. I’m glad I did it. It was something I never wanted or expected to do. I learned a lot. There is some beautiful magic that happens when you see a tank of red grapes turn from juice to fermenting juice. The young wine tastes wild.

When the harvest was over they moved me to the shipping department where I shipped wine all over the country. I worked in a beautiful winery, working with great people and the years flew by.

Living in Napa Valley is the good life, it’s easy to get complacent, and that’s what I did. During the warm months the weather is unbelievable, warm in the day and cool at night. During the cold months I drove to Tahoe every weekend to go on ski adventures with my old buddies from Tahoe. We climbed and skied many of the classic lines I’d been dreaming about for years.

Then I got run over by an avalanche and life was very painful. With a lot of help from family, friends, and doctors and nurses, I recovered and went back to work. It was a bookmark in the story of my life. Or maybe the end of a chapter. Whatever. I had to learn from it. I started searching.

After five years of working the same job I made a change. I quit and left the comforts of Napa Valley and moved back to the mountains. I had to jump. With no job and no ideas I hoped I’d figure it out quickly.

It is hard to be satisfied with what you have. It is easy to obsess over what others have or what you do not have. This seems to be a common human characteristic. I look at my friends back home that I grew up with and I still remain close to. Most of them have houses, jobs, wives, kids, dogs, and their friends and family close by. I catch myself being jealous. I find myself focusing on what I don’t have instead of being grateful for what I do.

Of all people I should know better. Not so long ago I wanted just to be able to breathe on my own. To be able to swallow. And then to be able to speak. When it was all taken away from me I longed for the simplest of life’s pleasures. It pains me when I forget that lesson.

It’s important to remember that we all have our own path to take in life or maybe our own path to make in life. If I had stayed at home and attained the joys of a house, wife, kids and a career, I would have been miserable. I would have always wondered what it would have been like to ramble on and seek out adventures.

There is no right way or wrong way, there just is. And that is ok. Accept things as they are. Go out and learn and then keep learning. Never stop learning. Try to create a lot of value for other people. If you have a want, a goal, or a dream, well, go out there and give it a hell of a shot.

In her commencement speech to Dartmouth College in 2014 Shonda Rhimes said, “But dreams do not come true just because you dream them – it’s hard work that makes things happen.”

When dreams come true they are no longer dreams. The dream becomes a truth or a reality. Reality can be taken for granted. As a kid my bedroom was plastered with posters of my hero’s climbing and skiing huge mountains. From my home in the flat hot middle of North Carolina, these pictures did not represent reality, they were not real, they were dreams. Before I knew what happened I had lived a version of these pictures I grew up staring and dreaming at. I had my own pictures now. Living the dream was better and worse than I’d ever imagined. It was not a fairy tale. It took a lot of hard work, sacrifice, and climbing mountains of self-doubt to achieve my dreams.

And then what happens once you achieve your dreams? Complacency, self-doubt, looking at what your friends have that you don’t. It’s a cycle. There is a price to pay for chasing your dreams, for choosing your own path. It’s worth it. For me it was the only way. I don’t wonder “what if”. I have the scars of experience.

So if you find yourself stuck in a bleak situation with no ideas, then step back for a moment. Don’t make a choice. Wait, observe, read, figure out a goal or maybe dream one up. Try many things. Stumble around and see what Life has to offer. If something doesn’t work, quit, and try something else. Never stop learning. There is no script you have to follow except the one in your head and you can change that if you want.

If that doesn’t work there is still plenty of opportunity in canned foods and the defense industries.

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