If Only I had Known

Crystal Ball“Looking back, and knowing what you know now… what would you have done differently, and why?”

This question (and many of its variations), is really popular among those interviewing the rich and famous. It’s meant to elicit golden nuggets of priceless information, acquired over a long and illustrious career. It’s an old trick, and it still works.

As an interviewer I’ve probably used it dozens of times, and I could only get away with my lack of originality by editing myself out. I usually kept the answer until the end of the conversation. After a short musical interlude, the celebrity I was speaking with would “spontaneously” get philosophical, and come up with this profound life lesson that resonated long after the interview was over.

Mission accomplished!

Last week, the tables were turned when a young colleague asked me same question: “Looking back, and knowing what you know now… what would you have done differently, and why?”

At that moment one realizes that it’s much easier to ask than to answer, but I knew pretty quickly what I was going to say. It brought me back to the beginning of my American career, some sixteen years ago. Here’s what I came up with:

“I wish I would have listened to my heart, instead of to my mind, when I thought of becoming a voice-over.”

I realize that this is not an eye-opening, Zen-like insight, but I know I’m not the only one struggling with the battle between warm feelings and cold logic. 

At that time my analytical, practical mind came up with all these brilliant rationalizations as to why a VO-career would never work for me. This was at the beginning of a new millennium, and I had just arrived in the United States.

I had very little money, no contacts in the industry, and I didn’t know where to begin. How would I promote myself in a country with over 300 million people? Who would hire this nobody from Holland with his funny accent?

I felt overwhelmed, unprepared, and insecure.

Of course there was no Facebook or LinkedIn group where aspiring voice-overs could ask questions. There were no books about the business, and the concept of home studios did not exist. It was much easier to find a job waiting tables, and as someone who needed to make money, that’s exactly what I did.

My first job was at The Fish House in Lambertville, NJ, and even though I was a vegetarian, I knew how to sell sardines, swordfish, and Chilean sea bass. Because I didn’t know anybody, the so-called celebs who frequented this restaurant didn’t impress me.

One day, a colleague took me aside and said: “Do you know who you just served?”

I had no idea.

“The coach of the Eagles!” he replied enthusiastically. “You know… THE EAGLES!!”

I looked at him with a straight face, and said: “What Eagles?”

In hindsight I think coach Andy Reid appreciated that I treated him like a regular customer. He even laughed at one of my wine jokes. His wife Tammy wanted to know why the Jersey Chard she was drinking had such a distinctive yellow glow. I told her the vineyard was next to a nuclear power plant.

Fortunately she though it was funny. 

Meanwhile, I didn’t know that I had just taken the first step in becoming a real actor: I was waiting tables!

The restaurant was also where people began commenting on my voice, my accent, and my ability to speak several languages. To me it was kind of a party trick to help my tip jar, but kind customers asked: “No offense, but why are you a waiter? You should really do something with that voice of yours!”

Encouraged, I signed up for an open casting call at Mike Lemon Casting in Philadelphia. My heart told me that’s where I should go, but my mind was skeptical. Once again it came up with a million reasons as to why I wouldn’t make the cut. All those reasons made perfect sense, but they were all wrong. 

That day, voice casting director Joanne Joella signed me on the spot, and my American adventure in voice-overs officially began.

Well, not quite.

Even though I was booking some decent jobs here and there, my mind told me this wasn’t going to last, and that I really needed a serious position doing serious work. I was doing well on tips as a waiter, but recommending Jersey wine and pan-seared scallops did not make a career.

That’s how I ended up in a call center, surveying European hard- and software specialists by telephone. Of course these overworked, stressed out professionals had nothing better to do than talk to me, and they all loved telling me about their satisfaction with the latest network servers.

NOT.

This job had two amazing perks. One: Because we called businesses in Germany and in the Netherlands, I lived on European time, getting up at 2:00 AM, making my first call at 3:00 AM (9:00 AM in Amsterdam and Munich). Two: I had to use a script from which I was not allowed to deviate.

That was my second step in becoming a real actor: I got to use scripts!

A year or two into that pathetic call center job, something wonderful happened. All the interviewers were mercifully replaced by an automated voice response system that was much better at taking verbal abuse from German software specialists who were sick of revealing their satisfaction with product X on a scale of zero to ten, zero meaning completely dissatisfied, and ten meaning completely satisfied.

It was time for me to move up the ladder!

Did I listen to my heart this time, and would I be pursuing a full-time voice-over career?

No, my friends. My mind talked me into accepting a job as a customer service trainer at Wachovia Bank. As we all know, banks are a secure place to work. Some of them even offer benefits.

Yea for me!

Luckily, I knew nothing about the financial industry or balancing books, and I suffer from dyscalculia. That’s like being dyslexic but with numbers instead of words. It’s particularly useful when you have to stare at bank accounts all day long, and figure out why this infuriated client got slammed with five overdraft fees after buying a burger with money he didn’t have.

Here’s what I loved about this job. Since I was the lead trainer, I was in front of a class of sleepy, unmotivated students all day long. 

Looking back, Wachovia was my third step in becoming a real actor: I got to perform in front of a live audience!

By the way, if you can’t remember the name Wachovia, that’s perfectly understandable. Wachovia was eventually overrun by the Wells Fargo wagon, and they brought in their own training team to cultivate a new corporate culture.

Good for them. Great for me!

After three pointless, mind numbing, soul crushing, dream dashing jobs, I finally got the message:

“Follow Your Heart, you idiot! Become a full-time voice talent, and conquer the world.”

And that’s exactly what I did.

I strongly believe that living is learning, and that every job helped prepare me for the future I created for myself. Yet, when I look back at all those years of doing things for money while my heart wasn’t in it… When I think of how miserable I used to be, and how happy I am now… I often wonder:

If only I had known…

If only I would have taken the risk, and had followed my dreams from the get-go. Where would I be now?

Would I be a household name? Would obnoxious fans ask for my autograph at crazy comicons and conventions? Would agents fight to represent me? Would I be rich and famous?

Well, if that were me, I’m pretty sure that one day, a young reporter would knock on my door. After an in-depth, hour-long interview, he would pause and get ready for that very last killer-question:

“Looking back, and knowing what you know now… what would you have done differently, and why?”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: you probably don’t wanna know via photopin (license)

About the author

Paul Strikwerda

is a Dutch-English voice-over pro, coach, and writer. His blog is one of the most widely read and influential blogs in the industry. Paul is also the author of "Making Money In Your PJs, Freelancing for voice-overs and other solopreneurs." goo.gl/ihVpMc

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Personal

16 Responses to If Only I had Known

  1. Daniel Compo

    Paul- Thanks for the trip in the way-back machine. I read some of the details of your journey to one of my VO classes and realized this: these students HAD listened to their hearts. They ARE in class to pursue this odd profession we love so much. They deserve to pat themselves on the back for making the leap. It took your story to remind me of this. Thanks! Dan

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I’m so glad to hear that, Daniel. Thank you for reading part of my story to your class. I wish every student a happy and fulfilling career in VO.

    [Reply]

  2. Ruth Weisberg

    Paul, Thanks for revealing and sharing the back story and colorful arc of your storied life and illustrious career. I first met and shared a mike stand with Mike Lemon in the early 80’s, when we were both audio book narrators at RPL (Recorded Publications Laboratories). It was a huge audio bunker located in Camden, NJ. Mike and I had the best studio sessions (and outtakes!) together. How wonderful to openly validate and thank the folks who were there for you when starting out in this madcap industry.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Wow… it’s a small world, Ruth! Mike went on to become one of the casting directors for M. Night Shyamalan. Thank goodness Mike and Joanne gave me an opportunity to start recording voice-overs in the States. They helped me believe that it was possible to have a career in this field.

    [Reply]

  3. Marisha

    Paul, this is a timely one for me… and a fascinating glimpse at your backstory! Thanks for sharing some perspective!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    We all have a backstory, and I was happy to share part of mine. It makes us who we are today.

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  4. J S Gilbert

    I would have bought stock in Amazon, the red, white and blue beanie baby, the first swatch and property in South of Market, San Francisco, oh and I probably wouldn’t have bought 37 microphones and 6 mic-pres.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    There’s still time, JS, although the deals might not be as sweet. The trick is to predict the next Amazon or San Francisco area. Once you make a killing with your investments, you can buy your microphones and preamps.

    [Reply]

  5. Steven

    Holy flashbacks!

    Mike Lemon…Wachovia….geez

    Awesome post

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thank you, Steven. Sometimes I look back at that period in my life, and I can’t believe that I had those experiences.

    You know a thing or two about being at a place that didn’t make you happy. Hopefully, you like what you’re doing right now, and life feels a little bit lighter…

    [Reply]

  6. Paul Payton

    “Once upon a time,” I was in a band, trying for rock stardom in and shortly after college. Due to some personality issues and differing musical tastes, I left it after several years of starving for a living. We had fun, but one can’t dine on fun alone. I should have had the courage to leave sooner and start my own group playing my own music, but had that good ol’ fear of failure/fear of success combination in full swing.

    Eventually, reality set in and I realized that the rock star “train” had left the station. Instead, I would end up with long and satisfying careers, first in radio broadcasting and even more in voice-over. I love(d) both and have been lucky (and determined) to do fairly well in VO. Still, that “what if?” thing lingers. If nothing else, it would have been kinda cool to have had my musicianship on an artifact of one of the most creative eras in music, or maybe I would even have had a hit and/or a performing career, etc.

    Instead, the experience of listening to and playing so much music while in radio and absorbing what I think was the best of it to influence my own gave me the courage to put out my own records and CDs, both with a band and on my own, and to be planning more. And this time, I’m trying to get to what I want to be doing while the feeling is still fresh. Of course, I have to take time out for my career, my wife, my family and friends, but these are privileges I can have today. Sure, I’m human and I could still find things to complain about, but if I did, no one would listen, and they’d be right.

    So while looking back I see some things I might have done differently, they would have made me a different person than who I have become – and I rather like the current version. So “color me grateful” for what I’ve got and color me happy to be looking forward to the next good adventures!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I love the expression “One can’t dine on fun alone.” The outside world usually sees the fun. Insiders see the hard work that eventually leads up to something that could be a success or a total flop. Of course the “What if” question can never be answered, unless we have some sort of Charles Dickens Christmas Carol experience. But that only happens in books and in movies.

    For those interested in Paul’s music, click this link: http://paulpayton.com/benefit.street.html

    [Reply]

    Paul Payton Reply:

    Thanks for the shout-out, Paul. Actually, that page is old, like too much of my website, although the demos are new. The whole design needs an overhaul, but it always seems to be #11 on my top 10 things to do!

    My music, both the classic rock of the first album, both albums by my current band (I think our new one is pretty good) and my doo-wop project can be found here: http://www.presenceproductions.com. There are links to full versions of all songs from each album. Happy listening!!!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thanks for the updated info and link, Paul. It’s music to my ears!

  7. Kent Ingram

    I’ve held some similar jobs in my youthful past! LOL! The telemarketing position lasted about a week, especially after I got cursed-out for the 12th time in one day! Like you, each job I had, whether it sucked or was great, gave me experiences I’d never have and I could take that forward with me. My former career as a graphic artist taught me customer service and teamwork, for example.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    It’s all about using obstacles as stepping stones. My lousy jobs also gave me great respect for those who are professional waiters, and call center employees. The latter are among the most hated professionals in the world. Having to work for tips is incredibly tough and exhausting.

    [Reply]

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