A year and a half ago, I worked with Craig Collins for three months when he was struggling to figure out where to take his career next. He'd just suffered a major setback and was clear that he didn't want to keep doing more of the same. He also had no idea where to head. He was depressed and STUCK. His story (below), told through his own words, will take you on his journey beginning at a place of hitting the proverbial "career wall" and transitioning into one that brought unexpected success, purpose, passion, and aliveness. Don't miss one word...as I know that you will find your own story within his. His experience and triumph still gives me chills. I'm so honored to share this with you.
(Destiny) is touched by that dark miracle of chance which makes new magic in a dusty world. – Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel
by Craig K. Collins
Roughly two years ago, my career took a shocking turn.
How I came to write a book – Thunder in the Mountains: A Portrait of American Gun Culture – and sign with a New York literary agent, then land a major publisher, is still to me a dark miracle of chance that I don’t fully understand and perhaps never will.
Just previously, I’d reached what I thought was the pinnacle of my career. I’d been recruited a couple years earlier to take the helm of a once-promising healthcare technology start-up only to discover that by the time I’d arrived, the company was out of cash, saddled with enormous debt and hounded by a flurry of lawsuits. Not one to turn tail, I took out my machete and hacked a path through the jungle. I raised an emergency seed round of capital, resolved outstanding debt and settled legal spats. I then recruited a blue-chip management team, secured a remarkable roster of customers, and topped it off by raising a $7.5 million venture round of funding.
“In the annals of startup turnarounds,” my Board Chairman told me two weeks before he fired me, “this is one for the record books. I’ve never seen anything like it. Great job.”
“Congratulations,” chimed another Board member. “It’s the kind of success story that’ll end up as a Harvard Business Review case study.”
“I knew it was you, Fredo.”
“Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”
I’d done my job. I’d righted the ship. And now the Board had decided that the company needed a new skill set at the helm. So the Board Chairman, whom I’d personally recruited and hired two years earlier, sat me down and broke the news in a manner that was curt, crisp and professional.
It was a conversation that lasted no more than a minute. I never saw it coming. A bullet right between the eyes.
And the impact was sudden. My cellphone immediately stopped ringing. My corporate e-mail account was severed. Employees – all of whom I’d hired – put their heads down and averted their eyes as I walked out of the building.
IT’S ALWAYS DARKEST BEFORE THE DAWN
It was a Jerry McGuire moment.
It hurt. A lot.
So I did what any self-respecting, middle-aged unemployed person would do. I wallowed.
I went days without shaving. I skipped showers. I padded around the house in gym shorts and the same T-shirt I’d worn the day before. I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for breakfast and bowls of cereal for lunch. I looked longingly at my cellphone, which sat silent and forlorn on the coffee table. I checked my e-mails. There were only sporadic pleas from companies like Southwest Airlines, which wondered why I was no longer booking flights with them.
What I started to realize is that I didn’t want to find another “start-up turnaround” job. “Where do I go from here?”, I pondered. I didn’t have a clue.
A week passed. Then two. Then three.
One morning before leaving for work, my wife walked up to me, her high heels click-clacking on our hardwood floor. She shook her finger in my face and proclaimed, “This is ridiculous. You need quit feeling sorry for yourself. Suck it up. Do something.”
She was right. I needed something to focus on – something I could devote time to. So I turned on the TV.
Over the previous three years, I’d been working 60 to 80 hours a week. I’d been a man on a mission, wholly devoted to The Cause. I’d been oblivious to the cultural cacophony exploding around me.
I first slipped into something familiar and strangely comforting: The Sopranos. I’d watched every episode every week since the series had first premiered. But now with streaming video, I discovered the art of binge watching. So, starting with Episode One, I watched. And watched. And watched. Took me about two weeks to make it through every Soprano season. It was awesome. And enlightening. All the scheming, jockeying and back-stabbing reminded me a lot of the start-up world, only without all the guns, shovels, severed fingers or dead strippers – not that some VCs and tech founders don’t secretly long for such clear and definitive solutions.
After my Sopranos binge, I kept the momentum going, delving into new and long-ignored (for me) cultural touchstones. I found them all equally engrossing. Breaking Bad, Weeds, Dexter.
Then I hit a wall.
The thought finally occurred to me that I might be depressed.
So I turned to the Internet for a quick diagnosis and perhaps an even quicker cure.
An article in Psychology Today listed things to avoid after a job loss lest you slip into severe depression: Avoid isolation. Avoid lethargy and inactivity. Avoid negative emotions. Avoid going it alone.
Whoops. Whoops. Whoops. And whoops.
MAYBE I CAN’T DO THIS ALONE…
Even though I was depressed, I was aware enough to know what I’ve always known: We do not journey through this world alone. And when we find ourselves lost, we must cease wandering and reach out for a guide – another human who might show us the way. It takes a large helping of humility to reach your hand out and ask for help. Yet, counter intuitively, it is in this moment of vulnerability that we find the wellspring of our strength and resolve – two crucial accessories to take with you for the long journey out of the maze.
I rifled through my database of executive coaches and emailed Kelly Studer out of the blue. She was an executive coach – or Career Stylist, as she calls herself – specializing in helping people discover and transition into more fulfilling careers.
She booked me for a series of one-hour weekly appointments over Skype and then immediately gave me a series of assignments that were heavy on reading and personal-assessment.
Given my current state, I figured I’d at least give this a whirl. Either way, I now had an assignment, a purpose, a task – Something To Do.
I turned off the TV for the first time in weeks and read. Then I went for a run. I read some more and the next day went to the gym to play hoops with some friends. I spent the week, reading, running, assessing and hooping.
I logged onto Skype and told Kelly my tale of corporate woe.
“Wow,” she said. “That sucks. So now what?”
“What do you mean, ‘now what?’ Weren’t you listening?”
Translation: “Let’s dive into the morass. Pick at the scab. Relive the past.”
She would have none of it.
“No,” she said. “Let’s talk about what’s really true about you and then take that into the future.”
Over the next few weeks, we spent time diving into my natural talents as well as my core values in order to gain clarity on what made me unique, am most passionate about, and what I needed to honor to feel good.
“Ok great but now what?”, I thought to myself.
TIME TO STOP TALKING, START DOING
A few sessions later, Kelly pointed out this consistent thread of writing throughout my life. She mentioned that she’d read a Business Journal profile of me online where I mentioned that my secret ambition was to write the great American novel.
“Oh, that,” I laughed. “You read that? It was just some off-the-wall thing I told a reporter about a year ago.”
“Well, it must be something,” she said, “Because you said it in an interview and to a reporter, no less. So tell me about this secret ambition of yours.”
“Ha. It was something I wanted to do when I was 21, but now that I’m 50, not so much.”
“And why not?”
“Well, because when I graduated college with a degree in English and after four years of reading and writing about Shakespeare, Hemingway and Proust, I opened the newspaper to the want ads and looked for job listings under the heading of Great American Writer. There were none. So I went to work, made some money, got my MBA, and made some more money. It’s hard to be an actual writer, let alone a Great American Writer.”
“But you’ve always had a job where writing is central to what you do. Writing is one of your real strengths, isn’t it?”
“OK. So for next week, I want you to write something.”
“What do you mean?”
“You tell me,” she continued. “What moves you? What compels you? What fires your passion?”
“Hmmm,” I thought. “Well, I’m pretty ticked off about the gun issue in this country. I think it’s fairly tragic and appalling.”
The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting had taken place three weeks before.
“Yes?” Kelly said, nudging me to expound. “And how would you write about that?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, thinking out loud. “I grew up with guns in the rural West. I’ve hunted since I was young. And I accidentally shot myself with a .30-30 rifle when I was 13. So I’ve always had a different perspective on guns than just about anyone I’ve ever known. I have a deep understanding of them and the culture surrounding those who embrace them. Everyone just seems at a loss to explain the horrific deaths of these children and every attempt to give meaning to it seems insignificant and pointless. I think I could write something that might help. Maybe.”
“You’re kidding. You got shot? That must have been scary and…painful.”
“Yeah, don’t ever do it. It really hurts.”
“OK. I’ll do my best to avoid it,” she chuckled. “So what form do you think this writing assignment might take?”
“I dunno,” I mused. “Maybe an op-ed piece for a newspaper. I think those are usually around 900 words or so.”
“Great,” Kelly said, sealing the deal. “And how will I know that you’ve done it?”
“Well, I could email it to you.” I offered.
“Fantastic! I can’t wait to read it.”
“But I thought you were supposed to be giving me career advice. What does writing an op-ed piece have to do with my career? It’s not like I’m going to be a writer.”
“Perhaps, but that’s not the point. You’ve done enough thinking. It’s time to get moving. Put one foot in front of the other. Feel passionate about something. Sometimes the path forward isn’t obvious. And sometimes things that don’t seem related are.”
“Uh, OK,” I shrugged. A minute later, we hung up.
“Hmmm,” I thought. “Guns.”
I went for a run. I thought about guns. Every day for two months I thought about guns. Each week, Kelly pushed me for my op-ed since I clearly hadn’t emailed it to her. Each week, I told her I was working on it in my head.
When she’d finally had enough of my excuses, Kelly threw down the gauntlet. She told me that I couldn’t schedule our next session until I finished the assignment that I’d agree to.
Reluctantly, I got to work.
The next day I plopped down in my favorite La-Z-Boy chair and opened my MacBook Air. I put my fingers on the keyboard, took a deep breath, closed my eyes and thought back to October 19, 1973 – the day of my hunting accident. I’d just turned 13 and was on a deer-hunting trip in Northeastern Nevada with my dad, brother and stepbrother. Everything was still vivid in my mind – like yesterday. I could see the brilliant yellow of the aspen leaves quaking gently against an impossibly blue October sky. I remembered it all, especially the pain, for which there was no adequate description. The memory of it all was so real and raw that my foot began to throb as I sat in the chair.
I opened my eyes, took another deep breath, and began to write.
I quickly typed letters, which became words, which became two sentences, which became the opening lines of Thunder in the Mountains:
“The shot cracked sharp through the crisp October sky. It boomed once, echoed twice and tore off into the distance like the fading hiss of a car racing toward the horizon.”
THE GLORIOUS MOMENT WHERE YOU NO LONGER WANT TO TURN BACK
After writing those first two sentences, a path opened before me. I had no idea where it might lead. I plunged ahead, if for no other reason than to satisfy my innate curiosity.
I wrote another sentence. Then another and another and another. By the end of the first day, I’d written roughly 7,000 words, or about 30 pages. I knew about 15 pages in that I’d just done the best writing of my life. I also knew that I not only had an entire book in me, but also that I now possessed the skillset and natural talents– carefully honed over decades of related work – to not only finish this project, but to also sell it, market it and deliver it to the world alive and robust.
Over the coming days, I was a man obsessed. Gone was the slacker TV binge watching. In its place was a fully energized, rejuvenated individual using fully his entire mind, body and spirit. In short, I was once again working. In the zone.
I would write from 5:30 a.m. to around noon every day. I’d then go for a run, during which I’d contemplate what I’d just written and muse about what I might write tomorrow.
This continued every day for three weeks, at the end of which, I scheduled my next session with Kelly.
“So you still haven’t e-mailed me your op-ed piece,” she began.
“That’s because the assignment got a little out of hand,” I replied.
“Out of hand?”
“Out of hand.”
“Well,” I said, “I blew through the 900 words and still had plenty more to say. So I wrote a book.”
“WHAT? A book?! Really?”
“Yeah, it just sort of happened. I’m not sure how. Or why. No one’s more surprised than me. It’s all kind of surreal.”
A NEW PATH, A NEW BEGINNING
I quickly sent my manuscript to a contact in the publishing industry who’d been pestering me for nearly 15 years to finish writing a book – any book. From there, they sent it to a leading New York literary agent, who immediately signed me as a client and then helped me land a publishing contract with Lyons Press. It’d taken an astonishingly short five months from having tapped out those first two sentences to becoming a bona fide author.
So here I stand, far down a path I’d never intended to take – not this late in my career and my life. It is a path, I suppose, that had lain before me for years, perhaps decades, though I’d not taken the time to properly see it. In a way, the path found me, not visa versa.
Depression can be a dangerous condition if it lasts too long or goes too deep. But in its mildest form, it serves a purpose, I believe. It can be a way for your body and mind to force you to step back, take some time, reorient yourself and perhaps discover the multitude of paths that beckon. And when the dust settles and you you’ve had time to reflect and you’re able to see with greater clarity, you’ll almost certainly take one.
Is my path scary? Yes. Is it filled with uncertainty? Yes. Can I see what might lie ahead? No. Regardless, I move forward, if for no other reason than sitting and waiting and worrying is not a long-term option for anyone who wants to move ahead and build a career. I am sure, though, that this path that opened up to me so inexplicably also perhaps saved me. It invigorated me. It gave me purpose. It filled me with passion. It put me to work. Most of the time, that’s all anyone can ask from a path.
Perhaps I shall be telling this ages and ages hence. But with each passing day, I grow more and more confident that it won’t be with a sigh.
EPILOGUE: MY TIPS FOR GETTING UNSTUCK
Based upon my own personal experience, I would offer the following eight points of advice to anyone who finds themselves amid the turmoil, disappointment or depression that accompanies career disruption or even stagnation:
- Take Your Time (at first). Grief and loss are something of a natural process. Step back from your situation, don’t dwell on it, and refrain from making any hasty or rash decisions. Put your life in idle, if you can, for a couple weeks or maybe even a month.
- Take Care. Pretty simple mom-advice. Eat well. Exercise. Sleep. Get out of the house. Be around people. Refrain from overeating, drinking alcohol or watching TV.
- Reach Out. Job loss or career change can be terrifically stressful. It sometimes seems like it’s too much to handle for one person. That’s because it usually is. Find a coach (obviously, Kelly would be my recommendation), mentor, or friend. This isn’t a time to find a pal who might happily wallow with you in your pool of misery. Rather, you want to pair up with someone who isn’t trying to solve your problem for you but will push you to try new things and try on different perspectives.
- Find a Project. Doesn’t have to be a moon launch. In fact, it shouldn’t be anything close. Rather, it should just be something you like and brings you satisfaction. Something (gulp) fun. Doesn’t have to be in your “career” related. Preferably something small and manageable.
- Create Accountability. There’s a huge temptation to make a list and start doing things. But there’s also the danger that your list might go unchecked. And then you’ll just feel worse. By having another person assign you tasks or hold your feet to the fire on the ones you said you wanted to do, you’ll not only receive some much-needed direction and a strong nudge, but you’ll also be accountable and more likely to be proactive and get something done.
- Take that First Step. Sounds easy. But it’s not. In fact, it’ll be the most difficult part of the process. But do it anyway. No matter what. Try not to overthink things. Just start doing. Put one foot in front of the other. Once you start working on your project, don’t stop. Push yourself forward.
- Look for Connections. After you’ve really built some momentum, lift your head up. Look around. You might be working on a project that’s way out in left field from your career. But in all likelihood, there are similarities, bridges and connections. Ponder them. Embrace them. Soon you will begin to see paths that lead you back to your original career trajectory or even something that’s different but parallel.
- Circle Back and Repeat. Touch base with your coach often. Discuss your thoughts. Talk about the future. Make a plan. Take another step forward. Then another. And another. You’re on your way.
Craig K. Collins is a San Diego-based author and entrepreneur. His book Thunder in the Mountains: A Portrait of American Gun Culture (Lyons Press) is available now on Amazon.com and in bookstores nationwide. He is also President & CEO of Boost Academy, a wildly innovative educational technology start-up that promises to transform the tutoring market for math and science. He just completed a 10-city national book tour and has appeared coast-to-coast on TV, radio, print and the web. Don't miss his piece on Huffington Post.