Footprints in utopia

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Confucius may have said, “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life,” but can we really trust the advice of a fifth-century philosopher who held day jobs that included shepherd, cowherd, and professional thinker? Loving your work is all fine and dandy for Confucius, but choosing a job in today’s climate is not that easy.

Long after the last bell rings and high school is but a memory—fond or otherwise—Canadian students face tough decisions about future plans. With a current national unemployment rate of 7.1 per cent and the average debt of a university graduate sitting at $37 000 (Canadian Federation of Students), it is hard to know just what move to make next.

If your future plans involve nothing more than winning big on the lottery—odds of one in 14 million—you might want to take some more prudent advice from three 21st century professionals—a video game designer, a bike park builder, and a film production associate—who have all managed to carve out dream jobs too good to give up for any amount of money.


Jordan Watt

Trust your instincts,” says Jordan Watt, a video game designer with Electronic Arts (EA). “I knew I wanted to make video games since I was seven or eight years old. I used to take pieces of bristol board and draw games on them and think I had an idea about how to make a video game. If only I knew how to put those drawings into a tiny cartridge.”

Putting his ideas into action is no longer an obstacle for Watt, whose journey to EA was anything but simple. After high school, Watt assumed that a career in gaming was completely out of reach. So, not knowing what else to do, he enrolled at the DeVry Institute of Technology and, three years later, walked out with a degree in electronics engineering.

“School was all right, I guess, but expensive,” says Watt, who holds little enthusiasm for that time in his life. “Three years. Nine terms.”

According to Craig Alexander, deputy chief economist at TD Bank, a four-year university degree, plus cost of living, weighs in at over $80 000—and that was back in 2009. And, considering up to 14 per cent of university students drop out before even completing their first year, an education without a clear objective can be an expensive mistake (Persistence in Post-Secondary Education in Canada, Statistics Canada).

And with well-respected magazines such as The Economist arguing that college and university may not be worth the time and money, it is hard to imagine why 69 per cent of Canadian parents still want to see their children in some form of post-secondary education (Business Council of British Columbia, 2003).

It turns out Watt did not need his degree to get where he was going. After spotting a job posting on EA’s website, Watt sent in his resumé, jumped into the backseat of a carload of guys heading out to Vancouver, and within days, was working as a quality assurance tester. It was the connections he made on the job—not his education—that finally got him where he wanted to be: working as a junior designer in EA’s creative department.

“Getting my foot in the door was the hardest part,” says Watt. “I didn’t have any formal training with game design.”

Now Watt spends his time jetting around the globe to places like London, Stockholm, and Los Angeles in order to promote his games; games that include the highly popular and well-received Skate 3, released in 2010. Back home in Vancouver, Watt can be found in his EA office, or at the movie theatre, or in the skate park, or  . . .

“You don’t live an office job the same way that any normal company does. We can take off to go watch movies in the middle of the day, take breaks to go play video games, leave the office if we need to. The freedom is the coolest aspect, by far.”

Not bad for the shy, geeky kid who spent his childhood afternoons hiding away in a dark basement playing X-Com and Star Control 2.


Jay Hoots

“I started out as a stationary petroleum transfer engineer while still in high school,” says Jay Hoots, professional bike rider and owner of Hoots Inc., a bike park and trail design and build company with over 45 skills parks, 25 trails, and 30 pump tracks to its name. “I made $3.50 per hour.”

“I walked into school with a mullet and trench coat,” says Hoots. “Then I shaved a sweet mohawk on my head and dyed it blue. I went on to sport a super buzzed-head and earrings. I did not like school, so I was pretty focused on getting out and starting my life.”

Like most 19-year-olds, Hoots had no idea what he wanted to do with his life after school. He burned through 12 jobs—business consultant, fiber optic cable installer, auto racing circuit mechanic, university instructor, television host, clothing and armor company entrepreneur, and professional athlete—before launching himself into his current role as a designer of internationally-acclaimed bike skills parks; think skate park, but for bikers.

“I really had no idea what I wanted to be or why I was even in school,” says Hoots, who briefly attended college before flunking out. “I simply used college as a way to network. I created a small business to pay my bills and keep my fun times going.”

In actuality, what Hoots did was turn his love of biking into a full-time career. In addition to securing a grassroots riding sponsorship with Norco Bicycles, Hoots began making kneepads in his living room and screen-printing his own line of clothing. He soon had a thriving business on his hands.

“The company was started on credit cards, because I could not get a loan,” says Hoots, “but I believed that I could somehow pay off three high-interest cards if I worked hard and kept my focus. At one point, I had eight grandmas sewing for me in my living room.”

Seven years later, Hoots was finally able to pay off his credit card debt. “That’s a lot of interest the bank made,” says Hoots. “That’s desperation for ya, but the banks would never loan me money because my businesses have always been outside the box.”

Hoots has a knack for creating businesses that fill hidden niches that other people just do not see. Tired of watching countless hours of work being mowed down by municipalities worried about the potential injury lawsuits inherent in illegally built bike jumps, Hoots began looking into policy-making and community relations, and soon had a new business up and running.

Hoots Inc. essentially creates a much-needed communication bridge between recreational bikers and the city councils responsible for tearing down unregulated jump parks. Hoots now spends his days negotiating contracts with municipalities in order to plan, design, and build safe urban playgrounds for biking enthusiasts.

“It seems I have always taken the long way to create my own jobs,” says Hoots. “Ultimately, I let rejection, the words ‘no’ and ‘it can’t be done,’ inspire me to find a way to make it get done.” So, was it worth the wait?

“Frick freakin’ yeah,” says Hoots, in his characteristically enthusiastic style. “Imagine how many times my high school teachers demanded that I consider what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t have a fricking clue. And at the end of the day I dig jumps and ride bikes. Ha!”


Nicole Reid

“Check your ego at the door,” says Reid, who spends a lot of her time in the writers’ room throwing around creative ideas for films and TV shows as a development and production associate for Reel One Entertainment. “Yeah, sure, sometimes you just get trashed, but that is life. You just have to try. The most that can happen is you fail and move on.”

Reid gave up a stable career as a high school teacher after discovering that her talents lay in filmmaking; a discovery made while teaching an electronic media class at an elite prep school in England. She immediately enrolled in a masters program at Bond University in Australia to pursue an education in film production, but not before first making sure that she had the Ministry of Education’s Teacher Regulation Branch stamp of approval; approval that guarantees an automatic increase in salary for teachers who hold masters degrees.

“I wanted a plan B,” says Reid, “a fall-back, just in case things didn’t work out for me in the film business.”

Reid says that, in the end, she could have gotten by without her post-graduate degree, arguing that it was her on-the-job experience that got her foot in the door of Reel One Entertainment.

“Interning in Vancouver—yes, for free—was probably the single most important thing I did to further my career,” says Reid. “Yeah, I probably wouldn’t have gotten as much out it if I hadn’t gone to school, but I still could have gotten the internship. It is all timing; timing and drive, and I had both.”

Reid echoes Watt and Hoots when she says you just have to stick with your guns. There were many times—80 hour weeks of subbing at schools during the day and interning for a production company at night—when giving up looked too damn easy. And Reid might have done just that, had the phone not rung minutes before she was set to hand in her application for a permanent position with the Vancouver School Board.

“I had to really think about it,” says Reid, who had a job offer with a film production company on the other end of the phone line, “but I made a conscious decision to take a pay cut for the job, and I have no regrets.”

The Ball is in Your Court

Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book The Outliers that it takes 10 000 hours to master anything. It makes sense, then, that your greatest skills lie in what you have been doing most since childhood. If Watt, Hoots, and Reid can turn playing video games, riding bikes, and watching movies into full-time careers, we can all find a way to make our own talents pay up.

Still feeling the pressure to become one of the classic moneymakers, a doctor or a lawyer perhaps, while your true calling lies elsewhere? Relax. No matter what you do, you can take comfort in the fact that, according to the Canadian Education and Research Institute for Counselling, over 80 per cent of Canadians said they were satisfied with their jobs. So, chances are you will be too.

“Happiness is the most important thing,” says Hoots. “If you create a job or work at a job that you are happy in, then the money will work itself out.”

Sounds awfully similar to what Confucius had to say, doesn’t it? Perhaps the fifth and 21st centuries aren’t that different after all.