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Lessons learned in my 9 careers
Work with Marty Nemko

I began my first career at 13: the world's youngest barroom pianist. The money was great, but ultimately I felt I wanted to accomplish more than to play "Danny Boy" 10,437 times.

Lesson Learned: Meaning does matter.

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Next I was a medical researcher at Rockefeller University, which sounds impressive but mainly consisted of my implanting electrodes in the sex center of rat brains 12 hours a day. My boss tested me to see if I had aptitude for something more challenging. I didn't, so I quit. Ended up being a great decision.

Lesson Learned: Persistence ain't all it's cracked up to be. I think Kenny Rogers had it right: Know when to hold 'em; know when to fold 'em.

Next, I became a rap group leader in an inner-city junior high school. I thought, piece of cake. All I need to do is treat the kids with respect. Wrong. They took my kindness as a sign of weakness and ran around the room nonstop. When I tried to stop them, typical comment: "You ain't my mama. You can't make me!" The district superintendent, who was touring my school, heard the chaos in my room and told me, "Son, you need a new career."

So I applied to graduate school, lots of them. My criteria? Any school with a prestigious name and a program with the word "education" in it. I got rejected from almost every school except Berkeley, which not only admitted me, but gave me a free ride. Why? An anomaly: Berkeley looked only at applicants' senior-year grades. I happened to get all A's because my entire senior year was field work. Now that was a piece of cake.

Lesson Learned: Throw a lot against the wall. Something will stick.

While in graduate school, I became a school psychologist but soon got laid off in favor of another psychologist. I was sad, but they did the right thing. I didn't have the patience to deal with what I perceived as lazy, often stupid teachers.

Lesson learned: Losing a job you're not right for is a blessing in disguise.

After finishing my doctoral degree, I couldn't land a professorship. On my more confident days, I blame it on anti-white hiring practices. On my insecure days, I think it's because I have too big a mouth. In either case, the only job I could get was back teaching inner-city kids. This time, it was tough-love Marty Nemko and the kids behaved -- and liked me much more. But despite working very long hours, putting on plays with my little darlings as the cast, even taking many of them home with me on the weekends so they could interact with a middle-class family, I felt I wasn't fundamentally changing them. So after three years, I quit.

Lesson Learned: Consider working with people with the greatest potential to profit rather than with those with the greatest deficit.

I then landed some part-time, temporary professor gigs. At UC Davis, the students liked me so much that when my temporary assignment ran out, they staged a protest demanding my rehiring. That demand, of course, was ignored. Yet my officemate, another temp, who was a true lightweight, to my amazement got rehired, full-time, in a tenure-track position.

Lesson Learned: This is a lousy time to be a white male.

While at Davis, I saw my first personal computer, an Apple IIe that was sitting in the demonstration kindergarten class. I figured if kindergarteners could learn to use it, maybe I could too. I loved that its word processor enabled me to make as many changes as I wanted without having to use correcting fluid. I started writing and -- consistent with my compulsive personality -- before I knew it, I had written a book.

Lesson Learned: Computers are your friend, as long as you stay basic.

I wanted to promote the book but didn't have a clue how. Naively, I sent the book ("How to Get Your Child a Private School Education in a Public School") and the following note to KGO's Ronn Owens, host of Northern California's most-listened-to talk show: "Dear Ronn, I just wrote this book. Do you think it might be a good topic for your show? Marty Nemko." He responded almost immediately: "That is the shortest pitch letter I've ever received. Refreshing. Let's try it."

Lesson Learned: Brevity indeed is the soul of wit.

On Ronn's show, I answered callers' questions. People liked my answers and asked if they could consult with me privately. Having no career, I said, "Sure." I kept appearing on Ronn's show and my practice grew.

Lesson Learned: Demonstrating your wares is a great way to find employment.

My practice has evolved from elementary school consultant to college counselor to career coach, learning my craft by reading the best experts' writing, watching the best counselors and having them watch me. That taught me much more of value than I learned in my entire doctoral program at Berkeley.

Lesson Learned: Consider "You U" before State U.

What keeps me fresh is the variety: I counsel 20 hours a week, write 20 hours a week, host a radio show one hour a week, and always have some outside project.

Lesson Learned: A work life is most vibrant when it's a three-ring circus.

-- Posted: Dec. 27, 2004

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