Shifting Perspective in a Mid-Life Career Crisis


(Originally written Jan, 2015)

I have a two-decade career as a multi-media producer in television and communications that has flatlined, proving to be the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve traveled the world with my work, met amazing people, had exciting experiences, worked on some super cool stuff. And yet here I stand. A total loser in a barren government building with squeaky-clean reflective flooring in a floor-to-ceiling sea of beige next to an easel tripod with a sign that says, “Emergency Dispatcher Testing Lobby”. What the fuck am I doing here?

In the stark government lobby at 8:30am with me are five other people there for the dispatcher testing. One guy is wearing gym shorts and a beat up t-shirt next to a girl wearing a hoodie. Another guy is wearing jeans and flip-flops asking us questions as if any of us have answers. I was happy there was one woman wearing a suit and heels so my business casual at-least-show-you-care selection wasn’t so over the top.

We are all standing quietly next to one another trying not to make eye contact. There is just something embarrassing about being in this place, at this time, for this reason. Or maybe it was just me.

Many of my career counterparts around my age (or older) in the young-person’s soul-sucking industry that is my chosen profession are in the same boat with me – seeking the next gig, wondering if it’s time to finally get out. But then what? We have all endured the hurricanes that are production. We rose to the occasion. We developed the expertise to anticipate, react and problem-solve. We got beat up, beat down, and we got back up, every time. This business is not for the faint of heart, thin of skin or fail and give up types.

We – the producers – saved the day, saved time, saved money and saved other people’s asses time and again in a thankless bi-polar cycle of highs and lows, job after job. Now we are all floating, each in our own life rafts, in calm seas with new life-preservation priorities. We are each waiting for that single next wave to come that only one of us can catch at a time. We are each just hoping we can ride it all the way to the shore where we can finally get out and have something, anything, to show for it, besides remember-when stories and production photographs from a lifetime ago. But if my extremely talented friends who are a decade or two older than me with monumental careers exiting involuntarily with nothing to show for it are any proof, that will never happen – and I know it.

So here I stand, 40-years-old and no degree to fall back on in the wake of 20 years of blood, sweat and tears still pursuing some carrot on a stick creative career, entertaining the idea of being an emergency dispatch operator for San Diego County. What the hell, right? I’m tired of the fight. I figured a complete and total change from my slowly dying career would be better than the depressing endeavor of trying to defibrillate it – again. CLEAR! Just die already!

Interrupting my self-annihilation, a couple of dispatch trainers retrieve us trainees from the lobby and lead us to a large meeting room with computers and headset stations atop rows of tables. A PowerPoint presentation title page is on the projector screen in the front of the room that says “Emergency Dispatcher Testing” with a San Diego County logo. The second I walk in the room, I immediately know I should turn around and walk back out, but my curiosity and strict follow through protocol takes the lead.

We all spread out and choose a computer station to sit at. The trainers begin their presentation, speaking quickly in between sighs with the monotonous tone of having repeated this information over and over and over again. Slides pass about the details of the job, the hours, the pay, the benefits. That feeling of going backwards, of being 20-years-old again, of wasting my youth on bad decisions instead of getting an education washes over me.

Then, as if a sign from “God”, they played an edited audio recording of example 9-1-1 calls. The visual on the screen was a static PowerPoint slide with a collage of generic still images – a woman wearing a headset taking a call, police, fire and ambulance crews in the field, downed utilities scenes.

Here’s the sign from “God”… Guess what music they chose to open the recording with. Yep. The theme from COPS.

The room, and my exploding-from-disbelief brain, filled with, “Bad boys, bad boys, watcha gonna do, watcha gonna do when they come for you?”

I actually laughed out loud. Out loud. I was the only one in the room that thought it was funny. I was also very likely the only one in the room with decades of presentation experience where choosing that song for this presentation would be career suicide or an intentional tool for comedy. “God” was even saying, “What the fuck are you doing here?”

After quickly straightening my unwittingly disrespectful smile, the recording continued through fire calls, shooting calls, numerical jargon, a guy getting stabbed by his wife in real time, one call of an old man thinking he was calling 4-1-1 for Information. I didn’t know 4-1-1 was still even an active service – or maybe it’s not. Maybe that’s just how old and tired this presentation was – just like my career. Of course, the music they chose to close the recording with was equally humorous – the instrumental theme song from LA Law. This time I refrained from laughing out loud.

Instead of actually paying attention to the presentation itself, or feeling any nerves about the upcoming 2-hour-long computer-based testing I was now convinced would be a waste of my time, all I could think about was how they probably didn’t license either of those music tracks in that recording for public use – which is, technically, breaking the law. I looked around the room having no one nearby that would enjoy the irony. What the fuck am I doing here?

The whole time I was in this training session, all I could focus on were the areas where their marketing department is failing from a consumer and recruitment perspective. Knowing that San Diego County is currently experiencing low recruitment in law enforcement and apparently high turnover in the emergency dispatch department, there was so much room for improvement here. My mind raced with ideas. A high-energy video campaign needs to be done that makes being an emergency dispatch employee or police officer look “sexy”, exciting, life changing, life saving. A series of these kinds of messages online, on TV, on radio and in print need to be done in a US Military-type fashion, conveying the importance and pride of service to others, in order to get people motivated to complete the arduous amounts of year-long test-taking and background checks before one is even offered this job.

Note to self, set up a meeting with San Diego County marketing department. Anyone have any connections they can share?

For the sake of a personal challenge reminiscent of a Facebook personality test, I did stay and complete the 2-hour-long testing. I did pass all the tests, which consisted of listening to conversational 9-1-1 calls while typing the information we were hearing accurately in a timed response in the proper fields. All while simultaneously routing emergency calls to the appropriate agency – police, fire, EMS (emergency medical services) or utilities. They tested our ability to remember specific details accurately after hearing it only once. They tested our ability to remember numbers, our ability to spell, our ability to read maps, know our North-South-East-West directions, to determine quickest routes among one-way streets.

Those dispatch folks do not have an easy job. It takes intense multi-tasking of sight, sound and attention. It takes quick critical thinking and analyzation skills. It takes dealing with people on the other end of the phone in bad situations, people with behavioral issues, people confused, anxious, panicked, all without judgment or assumption. It takes remaining calm, alert and extraordinarily accurate under pressure. It’s a complicated and important job – way more important than mine. It takes absorbing some very difficult-to-process situations for not a lot of pay, and anyone who does it has my utmost respect.

In the end, it’s not the career change I was looking for. It turns out, though, that the couple of hours I spent in dispatch testing was not wasted. Sometimes it takes falling out of your life raft to know it’s there for a reason. I realized that one of those waves is coming, and it’s going to take me all the way to shore one way or another – even if I have to shake the whole damn ocean to make it happen.

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