Saturday, April 4, 2015

The best jobs I ever worked were seasonal jobs

Seasonal jobs aren't exactly understood by those that have never done it. 

When I was in college at Loyola University Chicago, earning my B.A. in Advertising and Public Relations, the phrase "seasonal job" never came up in classroom discussions, one-on-ones with professors and academic advisors, and in casual chatter with friends or family. We're so focused on getting that expensive piece of paper wrapped in a leather-bound cover with our school's insignia on the front of it, and expected to instantly start a 9-to-5 traditional career, the second we cross that graduation stage. And while I'm not going to tell anyone that's the wrong path to follow, I would recommend thinking twice about it. Why?

As we grow and the years rapidly fly by after graduating, we need time to explore. Not just this incredible planet we live on, but to seek out who we really are as a person. Between finishing college and starting my first career job, I had less than two weeks of "life'" before BOOM... two years filled with commuting more than four hours a day to sit in a cubicle for eight hours a day. Wake up, do this, go home, sleep, repeat. While I loved most of my immediate team and some of the duties of the job, the hellacious commute was making me feel miserable and I burned out. My work/life balance was overwhelmingly harsh and didn't quite feel authentic. So, desperately in need of a change of pace, I left that job and spent the next 12 months working three contracted, full-time seasonal jobs across the country at various YMCAs.

In spring 2014, I worked as an Environmental Education Naturalist at a YMCA camp located on a beautiful lake for two months, teaching school classrooms and rental groups about outdoor recreation and natural sciences. Did I know anything about the material I was going to be soon teaching? No, of course not, but my passion for the outdoors was unchained finally and allowed for eager, quick learning. The pay was embarrassing, like in all seasonal jobs, and the free housing and food were...meh, but the memories and experiences, were filled with pure joy. This "new" lifestyle was relaxed, slow and just fun. I liked it.

After my spring contract was up, I continued to work another seasonal job, this time a six-month position as an Activities Director at a different camp, YMCA Camp Matawa, a place I grew up at as a kid and had worked before. 14-plus-hour work days, hundreds of kids from around the globe, living in a rural Wisconsin forested, the best sunsets, spending all day and night outside, a whole family of fellow co-workers I treasure dearly and... cheddarwurst, after cheddarwurst, after cheddarwurst (camp food at its finest). A typical day ranged from teaching wilderness survival and mountain bike classes, driving a heavy-duty Ford F-250 towing 10 towering canoes, fixing hardware on top of a 60ft climbing tower, playing capture the flag, then singing ridiculous songs and acting out skits around a campfire. Don't let anyone tell you wrong, working at a summer camp is the best job you'll ever have. It was quite possibly the most enjoyable summer of my life. An unexpected bankruptcy unravelling in the greater association that YMCA Camp Matawa was apart of resulted in my beloved camp closing after that summer. For good. My new path hit a dead end, at least that's what it felt like. 

It seemed like people my age these days, would go west to start something better and new. That's what I wanted to do next and Colorado was calling. YMCA of the Rockies Snow Mountain Ranch, a dream YMCA to me, was hiring seasonal Rec. Attendants and Rec. Programs Supervisors. As the cool, fall Wisconsin winds began to arrive, I packed up my car with almost everything I owned and drove some 2,000 miles with my dad out to a tiny town called Granby with my father, located in the heart of the Rocky Mountains at just under 9,000 ft in elevation. I had my departure date set for October 7, with the return date to Wisconsin unknown, and I was okay with that. A completely new state, new people, new job, new me. I was intimidated and scared shitless at first, but the reality set in soon and I began what would be so far, the best life decision I've made. I learned more about my self, what I want in life, and what's important to me in those six months than I did in the past 25 years I had been alive.

Sure, I lived in a small 10 ft x 10 ft furnace with no windows, shared a community bathroom where you disposed your used toilet paper in a trash can and yelled out '"Flushing!" to avoid giving someone third-degree burns in the shower, ate glazed plastic cafeteria food and drank piss-poor coffee mug after mug... but I had mountains. Tall, prosperous snow-capped mountains, 360-degrees around. If I rarely had a rough day or ounce of stress? I'd just look up and awe. Those mountains were also the stage for some of the most picturesque sunrises at 6:30 am. The sky lit up with fire, every morning over Berthoud Pass, the Indian Peaks, and Snow Mountain. Even now back home, a few thousand miles away from Grand County, I still get the chills thinking about just how breathtakingly beautiful that place was. Colorado was my escape, freedom and pure adventure.

Sure the pay was dismal, but I got a chance to work outside every single day. My work uniform typically consisted of flannel plaid shirts, jeans, sunglasses and winter boots. Daily duties of the job at YMCA of the Rockies Snow Mountain Ranch included anything from teaching rock climbing and teambuilding classes to teens, educating middle-schoolers from Denver about avalanches and snow science, helping run a tubing hill, chopping cords of firewood with an axe, leading snow shoe hikes in the woods to see moose, and putting dow coats of ice on our ice rink with a bootleg mini Zamboni our boss had made called the "Bambini." I unexpectedly became an expert at repairing anything from vacuums and pool tables to computers and broken bows for archery. The best part, I even worked on our YMCA's dogsledding team at, grooming miles of trails at dawn on a snowmobile, handling all 19 characteristic Alaskan Huskies and managing the program's logistics. Where else do you get experiences like this?  

Another key difference I noticed between working a traditional career job and a seasonal job, was how much more personable and caring your bosses and other superiors were. They were role models who actually wanted to get to know you and help you succeed. You weren't just known as 'employee____'. 

It was never-ending fun during the day followed by campfires with s'mores under starlit, Colorado skies in the evenings, only to be later capped-off with a late "Mario Kart" or "Goldeneye" marathons on Nintendo 64. Essentially we lived as glorified ski-bums in a small mountain town. One of the best perks of having this particular seasonal job was the free access to ski world-class mountain resorts like Winter Park, Copper, and Steamboat. A $20 season pass to a small, family-run ski resort just minutes down the road allowed for daily skiing in the morning before work at noon. This county had bar after bar, each with its own character and charm for apres-ski with your best friends. With the few dollars we'd praise each week from our hard-earned paychecks, we drank craft beer from Colorado's best microbrews, and apparently if your car didn't have a roof rack for skis or snowboards, you stuck out like a sore thumb. 

But to me the most valuable part about this particular seasonal job out in Colorado, and the other two I worked this past year back home in Wisconsin, were the people I met. People came from all walks of life, all different backgrounds and situations came to work seasonal jobs. We all did it for a reason. Maybe you just got out of a divorce or graduated from college and are taking a gap year before jumping into said "real world." Maybe you just needed a break from your old routine and craved something different. Maybe you just wanted to ski or strengthen your relationship with the man above. Maybe you want to travel across the country and this is a temporary stopping point. Maybe you're retired and looking to volunteer and give back. All of us, used this seasonal job as a prime opportunity to discover who we really are. We saw what our strengths were, what we sucked at, and what areas needed rapid fixing. We might have been trying out this job to explore a new career field or as a resume builder. Regardless, we were all here for a reason and that solid commonality bonded us together in a special way.

We learned what we value in people, whether it be in close relationships or best friendships. When you bounce between so many seasonal jobs, in so many different places meeting a complex variety of so many people,- it really came down to quality versus quantity. You'd meet and get to know people who are ever-inspiring, motivated, genuine, loyal, and just...honest. These were people you could go on hikes with in a blizzard up a mountain, hang out with in a hammock during a two-hour off period, have deep conversations with while doing laundry, grab a bite to eat "off-campus" we'd call it and engage in epic venting sessions, stay up late with you on your last night of the job as you pack to go home, and the ones who would hug you tight, lending a shoulder to cry on when you're shaken to your inner core. These new, similar-minded good friends who shined in your eyes every day at these seasonal jobs, were the ones who mattered. These were the ones who would call you up from half-way across the country to check-in on you and ask how your next, new chapter in life was panning out. These were the people that really helped shape into a better person. I can't even find the words to express the gratitude I have to this day, for the best friends I met at all those seasonal jobs. 

Of course seasonal jobs obviously have their ups and downs, but contrary to what so many people have told me- they are real jobs. You can stay in a seasonal job as long as you want or as short as you'd like. You'll learn way more than you'd ever even imagine, see places of the world you'd never thought existed, and add the most important people into your life. 

There's no shame in working a seasonal job to figure out what you want to do next, and when you do, leave proudly with your chin up and head held high. Be proud of that short-term gig you had and grateful for all it provided you. 

And if down the line things don't go as well as expected for me or I find yourself stuck in a rut again, I wouldn't hesitate to go back and find a seasonal job to reignite that flame.