How My Mentor Taught Me Self Reliance on a Tough Career Path

When I finished my last semester of college, I started a spring internship at a government funded radio network called CKUA. The station was world renowned for its focus on eclectic arts and culture that otherwise wouldn’t be heard on the airwaves. It even had fans in major stars like KD Lang, who expressed her gratitude to the station in helping shape her artistic voice while growing up in a small prairie town.

Most of my classmates headed to the city’s commercial big wig stations, where some were lost in the shuffle, and a select few later carved out careers with the promotions and on-air departments. Maybe it was due to my eccentric musical tastes, or perhaps my rebellious need to be different, but CKUA somehow felt like a better fit. At the time, I was a shy, nineteen year old from rural Alberta. I didn’t have much confidence in my creative abilities, and I was the youngest in a male dominated Radio Arts program. The students in my class were city bred and street smart. Most were already in their early twenties, and many had already cut their teeth in bachelor of arts programs. One guy had even made it to the finals on Much Music’s national VJ search contest.

I was way out of my depth. I wasn’t outgoing, blonde, or bubbly, like the anchors I saw on tv, and I had no interest in reporting sports or news. I still felt like a kid in a room full of adults. There was no obvious place to slot myself into. For a brief moment, I considered throwing in the towel and moving home to find a real job.  

But, that first morning at CKUA, I had a change of heart. When I arrived at the downtown studio, the Program Director greeted me with genuine interest. “What is it you want to do with your career?” he asked. I was caught off guard by the question, since I wasn’t really sure yet. But, I went with my gut and confessed my passion was in arts and entertainment reporting. “Ah, I’ve got the right place for you!” he said as he sent me down the hall to the office of the Arts and Culture Announcer. When I introduced myself to him, thankfully, he spotted my need for growth, and took me under his wing to soak up what I could. I would soon learn that my mentor was a straightforward man who always said what he meant, and with at least twenty years of broadcasting under his belt, he was happy to spread the wealth. (In years to come, I’d also learn that not every manager shared his generosity).

That day, he took me into the studio, and taught me how to record my voice the correct way. Then, in the control booth, I learned how to cut and edit audio. Over the next few weeks, I wrote stories in radio format, created segment schedules, and went out on assignment to press junkets and photo calls.  When I finished a story for air, if any element wasn’t top quality, he’d make me redo it. Though frustrating at the time, I didn’t realize what a gift this was in developing standards. He showed me how to articulate when I read on air, how to engage with people I interviewed, and how to create stories that were consumed by the public. Gradually, over time, my work went from amateurish to professional. I was finally able to trust my own choices.

Meeting local artists at press events also inspired me to get back to performing. Since he had a theatre background, I turned to my mentor for advice when I had a call back audition for a tv show called Popstars (one of the first reality tv music competitions) where I had to perform a song that was exceptionally unsuited to my voice for a judge panel and cameras. His advice was simple, yet it was something I hadn’t followed. “If you want to be taken seriously, be on time, know your material, and be fully warmed up- regardless of what else is going on.” (this was in response to my immature observation about how “lame” the song was.) I didn’t get far with the tv show, but five years later, when I faced a gruelling audition schedule in New York, his words were imprinted in my mind. It was the frank advice I needed to realize it was time to put in the work, and stop making excuses for myself.

When the summer came to an end, nostalgia began to set in. I was already yearning for a place I hadn’t even left yet. But, I knew I’d miss this home I’d made among the city’s eccentric theatre scene. And, somehow, I was beginning to feel whole. I hadn’t felt like this since my pre-teen years. I had a renewed sense of who I was. Others’ opinions still hovered in the background, but they didn’t ring sharply in my ear the way they used to. Soon after, I applied for numerous television reporting jobs, and landed one at a small market station. This was something I wouldn’t have dreamt of attempting six months earlier.

When I once thanked my mentor for everything he taught me, he laughed good naturedly and said, “Make sure you mention me when you write your memoir.” I think he was half joking, but at the same time, part of me thought wow, he believes I’m going to do something with my creative life.

When we’re lucky enough to meet the brilliant teachers who have our interests at heart, whether they’re instructors, managers, or our peers, we must be still, and recognize that they’re showing us how we can be better. Many artists and entrepreneurs aspire to be the smartest person in the room. But in trying to be the best, we sometimes miss the lessons. Often, we don’t even know what we’re capable of until we meet others who’ve already achieved it.

You’ve probably heard Jim Rohn’s famous quote, “You’re the average of the five people you spend most of your time with.” The proof in that statement is obvious when we think about the times others have affected our choices by the examples they set in their own lives. They can raise the bar in our minds, or even give us the direction we sometimes need to move forward with something really scary. The people we choose on our journey can also influence our deconstruction, planting seeds of doubt in our goals, in an attempt to keep us paralyzed on that bar stool right next to them. I’ve also been there. Well meaning friends or family who project their own fears and doubts onto your dreams when they really have no clue what you’re capable of.

My internship was an ideal entry into the broadcast industry. I had a patient teacher who allowed me to experiment and acted as a safety net to point out mistakes in my work so I could fix them before it aired. But I know that’s not always the case. In fact, I had painful learning curves later in my career, but I learned just as much from the tough times. My CKUA experience taught me how to take action and embrace creativity, but some of the toxic environments I later found myself in  taught me how to conduct myself in turbulent company mergers, or even when to make a graceful exit when I’d done all I could to improve a situation. Working with difficult people also served as a cautionary tale in holding onto empathy and self-awareness. Though they were tougher to digest, I’m just as grateful for these lessons too.

I recently watched an interview with RuPaul, that struck a chord with me. He gave a huge amount of credit for his success to the influence of his New York mentors. In the early eighties, when he arrived to the Big Apple as a starry eyed kid from Atlanta, they taught him about his own heritage, and introduced him to important pop culture history which inspired his drag persona and image. In being educated on what he missed before adulthood, he was forever grateful and never forgot their compassion. To this day, he continues their work by paying it forward and shining the light on others with shows like Drag Race. “We are in this together and a civilization cannot work if everyone is a solo artist- a solo agent, and it’s all about me, me, me,” he said. “You have to think about how it affects everyone.”

Find the people who want the best for you and share your values. When you have them, nourish and appreciate the connection. With them, you can open yourself up to ideas and thoughts that you may never have had on your own. Growing up, I knew I loved being creative, but it was difficult to find my voice in a small town with limited options.  When I was suddenly a small fish in a big and overwhelming pond, it was my chance to meet people who could support me, and vice versa. Finding my mentor was a gift in building self reliance. It prepared me for a colorful, and sometimes turbulent future that would take me to New York, Vancouver, and Toronto. It helped me develop a sense of self in the face of naysayers. Most importantly, it gave me humility and the understanding that these lessons need to be passed on to others. Because, to quote RuPaul, “the truth is there’s no real separation between you and I.”

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