In Backstory

Backstory Part 4: Be open to new ideas and opportunities.

Lesson 4: The Rebound. Be open to new ideas and take advantage of opportunities when they come your way.

In October of 2012 my boss at Nike told me my contract would end on December 31st. At that point our student loans had been in hardship deferment for 15 months. For those of you young and naive readers out there, hardship deferment is when you’re too poor, or don’t have stable enough income, to make the monthly payments on your student loans. And if you thought the student loan overlords would take pity upon our souls, and keep our interest from accruing while we were suffering through a difficult situation, think again! During this time our student loan balance was increasing to the tune of $18,000 per year!

Our student loan balance was so large we couldn’t wrap our minds around what it would take to pay it off. The enormity of the task when contrasted with our current financial situation was incomprehensible. At least knew we could cover our living expenses and count on a few months of stability.

We needed to take advantage of these few months and come up with a plan to get to the point where paying back loans was fathomable, let alone possible.

The Friday after my boss told me my contract would end, Katie and I went on a date. We brought a notepad and wrote down ideas.

One of the ideas we decided to pursue was for me to take the GMAT and get an MBA. Someone at Nike had mentioned an MBA as a way of becoming a successful business attorney. I thought maybe I could do part-time legal work for my own firm and spend the rest of my time getting an MBA from a school nearby (probably going into more debt to fund a portion of our living expenses and my education in the process).

The other idea we pursued was to aggressively and humbly send out my resume and cover letter to law firms throughout the state. My hope was that firms in more rural areas may have a hard time attracting young talent. Thus, they’d be more willing to take a chance on a green attorney.

I did two things concurrently.

I signed up to take the GMAT.

And, I went through the yellow pages for the entire state of Oregon and made a mailing list of about 175 small law firms. I crafted a cover letter and resume which spoke to my Rural-Oregon, blue-collar upbringing. Then, I printed out and sent those two documents to every firm on my list.

Then, a miracle happened: SOME OF THEM ACTUALLY RESPONDED!!!

I could hardly believe that after years of hardship, struggle and rejection, that anyone might want to hire me. Every time a firm contacted me I felt a rush of much needed confidence. In the end, I received about 20 positive responses. Each one brought with it the hope that I might finally get a real job.

A few weeks after my contract with Nike ended, in January of 2012, I took the GMAT, and our entire family took a road trip through Oregon to meet with 18 different law firms. We arranged to stay with friends and family to keep our costs as low as possible.

The morning of the GMAT I was frustrated. I had been sick with the flu for a week. I had barely studied. I wasn’t optimistic. I actually looked into postponing the test. But, there was a $50 dollar fee for rescheduling it, and we couldn’t afford $50 dollars, so I went and took it!

I finished the test and began walking to the front desk to collect my score. I caught the eye of the old couple that ran the Kaplan testing center. They both gave me a sly smile and thumbs up. As the old man handed me my score, he said “we don’t see many scores like this around here.” I looked at the paper, I read the numbers, and I had no clue what they meant. Was it good? It must be, otherwise they wouldn’t have said anything. But how good was it?

But, there was no time to figure out the riddle. I returned home late and early the next morning we were on the road to meet with a host of law firms. The next five days were a whirlwind of driving hundreds of miles with kids and meeting sage old men. Apparently, my eagerness and youth had most appealed to lawyers of advancing years. They were looking for a young man to add some energy to, and eventually take over, their firm. Of the firms I interviewed with, only one had an attorney younger than 55. It wasn’t until I had a day with no meetings, and we were staying with friends, that the subject of my GMAT score came back up.

My wise friend, Tyler, asked, “how good is your score”? When I didn’t really know we started looking up average entrance scores at the schools I was thinking about attending. My average score was WAY higher than the schools I had initially considered. We looked up a list of top business schools and compared my score to their average entrance scores I looked up and said “do I want to go to Harvard or Stanford or something?”

This test score opened a gaping door of opportunity that I hadn’t considered. I applied to, and was accepted at, several top business schools. Some offered very good scholarships.

Also, my trip through Oregon bore some fruit. I received full-time offers from three of the law firms I had interviewed with! Now, for the first time in 5 years, we had choices to make.

First we considered the legal opportunities. The law firms were each offering about $70k/year. We did the math and realized that if we took one of these offers we wouldn’t be able to significantly pay down our student loan balance right away. However, it was likely my income would increase when I took over for the older attorneys within a relatively short period of time.

Then we thought about getting an MBA. This time, unlike when we started law school, as we considered the return on investment for higher education we did it right. We researched. We talked to people. We thought about probabilities and best (and worst) case scenarios in real terms. We looked at industry outlooks. We looked at growth forecasts. We considered the trajectory of the economy. We thought about the types of jobs my experience would lend itself best to. Finally, we looked at how fulfilling the jobs I could expect to find would be to me.

When we weighed the two options, we decided to give higher education one more try. In an ironic twist, I think the fact that I had options made it easier for me to go back to school and get an MBA. I wasn’t going back to school out of desperation. I was doing it because it felt like the objectively right choice. Also, if our projections were correct, I expected my earning potential would be greater with an MBA than it would have been with one of the legal jobs. Plus, I just thought I would enjoy business work more than being a small-town attorney.

As cool as going to Harvard or Stanford would have been, seeing as we were already heavily in debt I decided to attend a much less expensive MBA program with excellent average starting salary statistics and a very high job placement rate.

During the first year of my MBA program my suspicions were confirmed. The business world is COOL! Business school is all about human behavior, math and statistics, and ethical responsibility. It’s about creating value and sharing that value with the world. I felt empowered to directly make the world a better place. I LOVED business school. It fit me, and it felt right.

During the summer between the first and second years of my MBA program I won the internship lottery! I worked in a process improvement strategy internship at Adobe. I love Adobe. Their products are cool. Their employees are cool. The company is just cool.

After graduation I worked as a business manager at an engineering firm. In early 2016 some friends at Adobe reached out and said the perfect role for me was opening up. I was offered the job and in March of 2016 I came back to Adobe. After seven months of being back at Adobe I can say without hesitation that an MBA was totally worth it for me. I love what I do, I love the people I work with, and I don’t believe there’s any other path I could have taken that would have resulted in this much happiness and satisfaction for me.

As a HUGE bonus, while I was in my MBA program Katie networked with a local graphic designer. That designer asked Katie to shoot some styled desktop images. It sounded fun so Katie agreed. After the shoot she asked her graphic designer friend “is there a market for images like this”? The graphic designer explained the market need and in true Katie fashion she though “I can do that”!

She began selling styled images on Etsy in April of 2014. Her sales grew like crazy during the first six months and steadily continued. In August of 2016 Katie launched a new full-service subscription model website: katemaxstock. Things are going phenomenally. She’s providing value to her clients and she’s able to make her business work within her schedule.

So, after nearly a decade of misadventures we both feel like we’re in a position where we can be happy long-term and we have a solid plan for paying off our debt!

So, how did we get here? Let’s recap.

When a new opportunity came our way we never said “this isn’t part of our plan,” or “this isn’t what I went to school for.” We always took the time to look into it. We objectively evaluated all new opportunities and thought “will this make my life better”?

When I jumped to different contract roles, and took the leap to humbly send out my resume and take the GMAT, eventually leading to business school and getting the job I have today, my one goal was always to do what was best for me and my family. The same is true for Katie as she left law school, began in floral design, pivoted into photography and finally specialized in stock photography. The goal was always to do what was best for our family.

So, to you out there who are about to go to school or who have already graduated and are trying to pay off debt, my advice is: be creative. The road less traveled often has the richest rewards. Look at every opportunity for what it is: an opportunity. Take advantage of the ones you should, and ignore the rest. But don’t ever disqualify yourself from an opportunity simply because it wasn’t part of the original plan. Needs change, circumstances change, and plans change. Take advantage of those opportunities which best meet your current situation.

Things will work out.


Next week: How much student loan debt can you afford?

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