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How tough love and pizza changed my career

Whoever came up with the term “tough love” clearly met my father.

I never had any doubt that my dad loved me. He would always plan family vacations and would give my sister and me anything we ever wanted. There was a saying in my house that the Davis children weren’t spoiled, just well taken care of.

And sometimes being well taken care of meant going to live theater. I was completely taken with the magic of theater and the arts but, as my father found out as I got older and started to think of a career, cultivating my love of the arts had some undesired consequences.

I remember when I was a junior in high school my father asked me if I had given any thought to what I would do after graduation.

“Yes,” I said, “I’m definitely going to college.”

His eyes lit up.

“And I’ll study to become an actor!”

At this, the light left his eyes and he started to give me a stern, sullen look. Now, while my father has many strengths, delivering his opinion with tact isn’t exactly his strongest suit.

“Jeff,” he said. “Well … how should I put this … you can’t act. I saw your last high school play and let’s face it. You’re no Tom Hanks. Hell, you’re not even a Tom Arnold. You’re just not good enough to compete in the entertainment industry. Your mother and I think you should be a lawyer or a businessman. Maybe you should consider that.”

And so the conversation ended, and though my ego was slightly bruised, the more I thought about it, the more certain I was that a traditional corporate desk job wasn’t for me. I knew I wanted to be an artist because art has the ability to make people see the world differently and change people’s lives. I knew I wanted to do that.

I had to find a career where I could make an impact, so a while later I came back to my father saying, “Dad! I’ve got it. I’ll go to school and study to become a singer.”

At this he gave me the same stern, sullen look.

“But Jeff, well, how should I put this. You can’t sing. I can hear you singing in the shower in the morning and, well, let’s just say you don’t have perfect pitch. You’ll face a lot of competition as a singer, and quite frankly I don’t think you’re good enough to compete. Once again, your mother and I think you should be a lawyer or a businessman. Maybe you should consider that.”

And so the conversation ended. Though my ego was slightly bruised once again, I thought about the matter a bit more, and a while later I came back to my father saying, “Dad! This time I’ve really got it. I’ll go to school and study to become a dancer.”

At this he gave me that same stern, sullen look, which now looked a bit tired and frustrated by the whole situation.

“Jeff, there’s really no good way to put this. You’re a terrible dancer. I’m surprised you could even do the Macarena at your cousin’s wedding. Really, think about the doctor or lawyer or businessman thing.”

And so the conversation ended, and though my ego was really bruised now because I rocked that Macarena out, I thought about the matter a bit more and came back saying, “OK, Dad. I know you’re getting tired of this, but really, I’ve got it this time. I’ll go to school and study to be a director.”

This time my dad didn’t give me the same stern, sullen look. Instead, his response shocked me.

He said, “Well, you’re stubborn, you can be bossy, and you’ve got an ego the size of Texas. You’d be fine as a director. I still think you’ll face a lot of competition, but if you apply to the most prestigious theater school you can think of and can get in, you have my blessing.”

And so I applied to the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television and, lo and behold, I got in. I finally would get the chance to be around creative, narcissistic artists just like me, and I would study under even more.

One of those narcissistic artists I would study under was Michael Hackett. He was a legendary director who directed productions all over the world and had even worked as a director for prominent Los Angeles landmarks like LA Opera and the Hollywood Bowl. If you ever forgot any of his resume, not to worry. Michael would remind you.

Michael was my professor for my Shakespearean directing class. The curriculum for the class was very simple. There were no textbooks, no tests and no finals. The only assignment was to direct a 10-minute scene from a Shakespearean play, bring it in for the class to see, have the class rip it to shreds with their critiques and then bring it back in after another week of rehearsals for some more criticism.

Before we could bring in our scene, we had to get it approved by Hackett. So one day I walked into his office and said enthusiastically, “Michael! I know what scene I want to direct.”

“Great, Jeff! What play is it from?”

“My favorite Shakespearean comedy, ‘Titus Andronicus,’ ” I said sarcastically.

“Uh, that piece of garbage?” Michael exclaimed. “No one ever does that play.”

“I know. That’s why I want to do it.”

“And what scene do you want to do from it?”

“The one in which Lavinia’s tongue and hands are cut off.” What can I say. I had a very interesting sensibility at the time.

“I really don’t want to see that,” Michael said authoritatively. “Go back to the drawing board and come back to me tomorrow.”

So I came back the next day and said, “Michael, I’ve got it! I’ll do Petruchio and Kate’s introduction scene from ‘Taming of the Shrew.’ I’ve always loved that scene, and I really want to work with something that’s so physical and slapsticky.”

“Ugh. Why are all my students so obsessed with that scene? Someone brings that in every year. Try something original.”

Instead of arguing with Michael that it’s tough to be original with Shakespeare considering that the source material has been around for 400 years, I went home and came back in the next day.

“Hey Michael. What about ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’?”

“Ugh Jeff. That one’s overdone too.” He went to his bookshelf, grabbed his copy of “Henry IV, Part 1,” and said “Here, do a scene from this one.”

And two weeks later, I walked into class with a scene from “Henry IV.” I will admit, my scene was held together with nothing more than duct tape and hope. After watching the five-minute long train wreck that was my scene, Michael turned to me and said, “You know Jeff, I didn’t see a lot of you in this piece,” and he gave me a C minus.

While I completely agreed with him that my scene was awful, I was infuriated with the whole situation. College theater should have been my time to take on any project I wanted without any rules or boundaries. This was supposed to be my time to discover my voice as an artist and be myself. I expected to have complete freedom to create anything I wanted to and to express myself without hearing the words, “you can’t.”

Instead, I found college theater to be unbelievably constricting and political. This was not what I signed up for, and if it was any indication of what to expect in my career, I was in trouble.

I thought about giving up as soon as I realized I wasn’t getting what I expected, but I decided that I’m not a quitter. I carried on and stayed in the theater department, but everything changed one night in the fall of my senior year. I decided to order a pizza during a night of late-night cramming, and the pizza delivery man just happened to be someone I recognized. No, it wasn’t professor Hackett, but it was a recent graduate of the UCLA theater department directing program.

I was staring at my future, and he was holding my meat lover’s pizza.

At around 10 o’clock that night, I called my father, crying as I ate my pizza.

“Jeff? Why are you calling at 10 o’clock at night? Are you OK?” my dad said in one of his rare panicked tone.

“No,” I managed to get out between tears. “I’m … I’m gonna end up a pizza delivery man and I’m scared.”

My dad asked me to explain, and eventually dad was able to calm me down.

The following day, my dad called me.

“So Jeff, are you OK?” he asked in a gentle tone.

“I’m OK,” I said. “Still about worried, but I’m OK.”

“Well I have some ideas for you,” dad said, in his patented problem-solver tone.

“Dad, I really don’t want to be a lawyer or a businessman,” I said back.

“Well what about human resources?” he asked.

“What the hell is that?” I asked. I had never heard of human resources before, and it sounded like it dealt with illegal black market organ trading.

After Dad gave me a brief definition of human resources and explained how my outgoing personality, my passion for solving problems and my desire to help others would be an asset to that field, my ears perked up.

“I really think you should take a class in this,” Dad said. “You’ve got nothing to lose.”

A few weeks later, I started my Introduction to Human Resources course, and I immediately fell in love with it. A few months later when I took my first recruiting class, I became obsessed. The idea that I could make a positive impact on someone’s life by finding them their dream job — and by using nothing but my personality, my communication skills, and my gut instincts — inspired me more than anything I learned in four years in the UCLA theater department.

I finally found my calling, and I’ve never looked back since.

I have, however, thanked my dad profusely for his years of tough love. At the time, my ego got a bit bruised, but in hindsight, I realize that my dad was always trying to guide me into a career that would make me happy and successful. He understood and recognized the skills and talents I had when I was focusing on the skills and talents I coveted but never really achieved.

I’ve meet a lot of successful HR and recruiting professionals so far in my career, and none of them dreamed of a career in that field as a kid. They all fell into it by accident. I didn’t fall into it. I was pushed through some tough love and pizza, and I am damn grateful for both.

So, dear reader, I hope you can learn from my story. We all have goals, dreams and aspirations, but those goals, dreams and aspirations can change over time.

I’ve heard time and time again that when it comes to your career, you should follow your heart and the money will follow. I completely agree, but I will add that sometimes people have a change of heart.

That’s OK. If your heart is no longer in whatever you’re doing as a career or you feel you’d rather do something else, then do something new.

You’re not trapped, and you’re not quitting. You’re just continuing your career in something different and new and daring. And pay attention to those voices in your head (or if you’re like me, the voice of your father) that tell you you’d be better suited for something else. Sometimes that voice, whether it’s internal or external, is onto something.

Jeff Davis is a graduate of UCLA and has an extensive background in human resources and recruiting. He currently works for Career Strategies Inc. (www.csi4jobs.com), a staffing firm specializing in direct and temporary placements in corporate capacities.

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