Pro-Voices: Knocking Down Blocks
Adversity is an inevitable component of our personal and professional journeys. While the struggle can seem debilitating, a positive outcome is the ultimate reward. Inevitably, what you choose to do with the lessons taught by struggle will define your journey, as it did for mine.
As a toddler, my mother used to play a very specific game with me. She would stack all of my toy blocks until they were far taller than my three-year-old frame and wonder aloud whether I had the ability to knock them down.
Reverse psychology be damned, knocking those meddling blocks out of my path forward was the highlight of my babbling toddler days. And while even a toddler can in some capacity recognize struggle, those memories meant far more later in life, where I recognized my mother’s intent of encouraging me to embrace challenges.
That experience would prove valuable throughout my formative college years at Syracuse University, where I worked four jobs while a full-time student. Three anecdotes in particular stand out, each with its own important lesson.
At the grizzled age of 18, I interned as a news producer for a local news station in the New York tri-state area. Interns, particularly college freshmen, weren’t expected to do much other than run errands. But that to me was another set of blocks to knock down, and after hustling for a few weeks to put myself in the right places at the right times – answering phones when I wasn’t asked to, sneaking into empty edit rooms to practice editing video, scanning for news stories – my defiance was recognized as commitment, and I was sent out with a videographer to collect b-roll and soundbites for an afternoon newscast.
We were dispatched to the headquarters of a major factory which was being evacuated due to a bomb threat. We arrived on-scene to the sight of hundreds of employees scurrying out of this factory for safety. Security guards demanded that everyone vacate the premises, but I needed to get my story.
Noticing that for a brief moment, the guards were distracted, I tucked my microphone into my shirt, slipped under the security barricade, and swarmed into the sea of panicking employees to ask them how they really felt, my videographer frantically scampering behind me, losing hair from the stress of trying to keep up with “Sean the Intern”. And you know what? We got some of the best, most dramatic soundbites on the airwaves that night, and soon afterwards I was lining the news station’s entire Saturday and Sunday morning programming.
The lesson: Ask for forgiveness, not permission.
My jobs during college were what we at Prosek call “dirty jobs” – difficult, character-building grunt-work where you roll up your sleeves and grind. One of my dirty jobs was as an overnight shuttle driver for our school’s Department of Public Safety, driving students home who preferred not to walk alone at night. This shuttle was big and clunky, but it got the job done.
One night I was dispatched in the middle of a blizzard at 2 a.m., which saw me driving up the steepest, iciest, and least shuttle-friendly of hills. The shuttle inevitably stalls. I exit the vehicle and start kicking the tires, hoping for a snowy miracle.
Looking towards the bottom of the hill for inspiration, I noticed a large crowd of people moving uphill on what was an otherwise empty street. As they got closer, I realized they were running. And not just running, but running towards me.
Resigned to what seemed like the classic college prank of auto-theft by none other than my university’s entire female rugby team, I simply held out my keys, waiting for them to inevitably have their fun and drive away with my vehicle. Maybe we’ll get a new shuttle out of this, I thought.
But this was no prank. Rather, it was divine intervention. The team approached, and without a word, 11 incredibly kind, strong women formed a rugby scrum underneath my shuttle’s rear bumper, pushed my shuttle loose and bid me adieu.
The lesson? Never judge adversity by its cover.
Third and final story.
At the end of my junior year, I began applying for summer communications internships in New York City. I did great with my initial phone screeners but had to find time between all of my jobs and classes to make the 5-hour drive down to New York City for in-person interviews.
I scheduled an in-person interview in NYC for a Friday morning, but couldn’t get out of my shift the night prior, where I was a doorman for one of the campus dormitories. So I worked until 2 a.m. on Friday morning, hopped on a Greyhound bus straight after, and arrived in New York City just in time for the interview. Fatigued, with no time to print copies of my resume, and wearing a perplexingly wrinkled suit, I bombed my interview with the one company I had fallen in love with.
But something funny happened at the end of that interview. Rather than showing such a dazed and unprepared candidate the door, the senior interviewer took me aside and told me, “This may not be the right fit today, but don’t let this get you down. Go out, get some more experience, and don’t give up on us. You never know what can happen if you believe in yourself.”
For the first time in a long history of challenges, I wasn’t being told no. I was being told to do better. To try harder. To validate a firm’s belief in me in the wake of personal failure. It was a simple but powerful message.
I took their advice to heart and spent the next three years getting every temp job, internship, and other semblance of quality professional experience I could muster.
Three years later, in 2012, I unexpectedly crossed paths with that very firm. That firm was Prosek Partners, and I’ve worked here ever since.
If you take anything away from my experiences, it’s an acceptance that not every checkpoint on a journey feels like a checkpoint. That struggle today will make for a better, more complete tomorrow. And that nothing outlasts the power of belief, perseverance, and the exuberance that comes with knocking down life’s big blocks.