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Career Transition, by Jak Wonderly

It had seemed like an ordinary January day until I answered the phone and heard James, a director at the ad agency, say, “We lost the account. I guess we won’t be working together anymore—good luck.” My throat dropped into my stomach as I hung up...

It had seemed like an ordinary January day until I answered the phone and heard James, a director at the ad agency, say, “We lost the account. I guess we won’t be working together anymore—good luck.” My throat dropped into my stomach as I hung up. My only client and a year of work had just dissolved.

I worked remotely for a company that made computer-generated advertising images. I had never loved the job and even tried to quit once, but stayed on when they allowed me to move to San Francisco to build a relationship with this agency. I had a good life: a nice townhouse, a sporty German car, and by 3 pm, I was usually running on the beach. But it was all about to unravel, and I knew it.

The second difficult call followed a few weeks later, where my boss told me, “If you want to be in this business, you need to be where the business is, and that is now Los Angeles.”

I considered moving. The money was good and they were opening a beautiful new office in Venice Beach. It was someone’s dream job, just not mine. I had just settled in San Francisco, made friends, and was talking marriage with my girlfriend, Jennifer, who still had two years of graduate school left. In a panic, I scrambled to find a new local client, or a new job.

In the afternoons, when I felt cooped up and stressed by my situation, I often went to the nearby San Francisco Zoo to photograph animals. My best friend Pat, a designer, was impressed with the images. When I told him I was shopping for a better camera and he replied, “Trust me on this, get the best one you can afford.” I did just that, even though my future paychecks were numbered.

When summer arrived, I still hadn’t found any new clients or a new job. As I was now flying to Los Angeles at the company’s expense, the pressure to move was increasing. I was terrified to quit, but knew in my gut I could not take the job in L.A. When my employer planned a trip to L.A. and wanted to meet with me, I knew it was the end of the road.

The weekend before the meeting, I went out to the coast with Jennifer. Walking along the shore, I discovered a humpback whale washed up on the rocks. Only the blubber remained, bleached from the sun but otherwise intact. I stopped and took photographs of the startling scene.

whale

Further down the trail, we came across a hawk. It stood above a rocky cove, eating a squirrel. From 25 feet away, I crouched down and started to photograph him. I crept closer and tried not to scare him off. Jennifer followed, keeping much further back. Soon, I lay in the ice plant with my lens just a few feet from the beautiful bird. His eyes blazed fiercely and he had blood smeared on his beak. I climbed up next to him and put my camera down. He looked at me and kept eating. Impressed at how close I was, Jennifer grabbed my camera and took a picture. I remember thinking “I would love to do that every day.”

hawk

jakhawk

 

The next day, I flew to Los Angeles, met with my boss, and stood my ground about moving. Relieved it was finally over, I was also scared, and unemployed for the first time since college. Although I had some savings, I knew it would go quickly.

Back in San Francisco, I applied relentlessly at all the places I thought I should work. Despite interviews at Apple, HP, and IDEO, nothing came through. In December, I moved into a smaller place to cut back on expenses while the search continued. Then on Christmas Day, a tiger escaped her enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo and killed a young man, then was shot dead by police. Following the news coverage, I noticed the images were old or incorrect; the press was relying on outdated stock, as the zoo was a closed crime scene. I had spent countless hours photographing that exact tiger; I felt like I knew her. I had hundreds of images of her, and thought the least I could do was share them. I sent a brief email and the phone began to ring. First, CNN picked up my photos and broadcast them around the world. Then came requests from Brazil TV, and the Oprah Winfrey Show. My short burst of fame soon passed, but it had planted the idea that I could serve the animals I loved through photography.

Meanwhile, after a year of job hunting, I had no offers and was running out of money. Jennifer and I split up. Feeling alone and hopeless, I needed to get out of the house. I found an 11-week photography class that was surprisingly inexpensive and provided a weekly break from my depression.

By spring, I was having trouble making the rent. A friend generously offered her spare room in a house that was under construction. It was my only option, so I moved in to the dusty space an hour north of the City. My yuppie townhouse days were definitely over.

Almost immediately, I was invited to interview with a software company I had applied to months earlier. Of all the jobs I’d applied for, this one felt like a perfect fit and could certainly lead to an offer. To my surprise, I declined. Even though I needed money, I could no longer imagine working in computer graphics. The idea of being a professional photographer had taken root. Over the course of two years, I had taken tens of thousands of photographs and improved dramatically.

Still, it took months before I could say, “I’m a photographer” when asked, “What do you do?” And I had no idea how to make money at it. I simply kept taking pictures and showing them to everyone I knew. Eventually, a veterinarian hired me to photograph his best clients. From one client, I suddenly had 25, and the project led to several more jobs. For the first time in a year, I had a couple of good paychecks. Confidence bolstered, I began building my own business, right down to planning an office and gallery in the house where I lived.

However, when the economy tanked, work became scarce. I was barely covering my expenses. By spring, my friend and landlady was feeling the pinch too, and she put the house where we both lived and worked on the market. I lost my office before I could even properly open it.

At the same time, I was developing a new romantic relationship that would change my course yet again. Laura is an editor and travel writer who spends half the year abroad. A new vision emerged: I decided to travel with her, and take photographs internationally. I sold almost everything I owned, one transaction at a time, and purchased camera equipment with some of the proceeds. Eventually, I sold my car. I bowed out of social circles and lost some close friends. I automated bills, mail, and telephone messages. Packing up the remains of my life took six painful months, during which I borrowed cars, crashed on couches, and lived out of duffle bags while I scraped together every dollar I could find. I sold tools, painted houses, and planted daffodils. After two years of earning a fraction of my previous salary, I still somehow gathered the gear and money I needed to travel abroad for a few months, albeit frugally.

On New Year’s Eve 2009, we drove out of San Francisco and headed towards Mexico. Emotionally and physically exhausted, I felt like I had lost everything. My career, a relationship, my social life, my home, my car, my savings, and almost all my possessions were gone. But, really, only things that no longer served my life’s purpose had disappeared. I still had a wonderful relationship, my family, close friends, and most importantly, self-respect.

During our first days in Mexico, Laura and I took a boat trip to look for whales. We spotted a California Gray and as our small boat approached her, I noticed some blood in the water. A moment later, a small head emerged and we watched the newborn take its first breath. Thrilled to witness and photograph the birth, I knew this was the true beginning of my new career, just as the dead whale washing up signified my old career had ended, two years before.

babywhale

Where I’ll go from here is unknown, but I intend to take portraits of wild animals at close range, as I did with the hawk. I hope to inspire people to protect them before they are gone. Perhaps it is too early to call this a success story, but I do feel it is a survival story. In retrospect, the consistent anxiety and rejection I felt was understandable, but unnecessary. Whenever I needed a car to drive or a place to stay or a little money, a solution always presented itself. I am grateful no one hired me. I was so busy trying to land the next bullet point on my resume that I couldn’t see what my friends had already recognized. I was on the path of being a photographer long before I walked away from my corporate job. I made a few definite decisions to leave a path that wasn’t fulfilling, and simply by allowing room for it, a passionate new career was born.

wonderly

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