We’re given one life. One life to love, enjoy, be kind, and be happy. We spend a large part of that life making a living to support ourselves and our families. If we’re lucky, we get to do that at a place we enjoy with people we like. Unfortunately, that’s often not the case. Many people dread waking up to spend 8 hours or more in a place they’re under appreciated, under challenged, and under paid, but go through the motions to make a living. Not everyone has (or takes) the chance to have a career that fulfills them. Below, you’ll read about James, who walked away from a lucrative career to pursue a lifelong dream.
You recently made a big life decision to change careers, and it’s pretty drastic. Can you share with me and our readers what you did for a living and what you are now going to be doing?
I graduated from La Salle University in 2007 with a major in Accounting. Out of college I worked for a large public accounting firm as an auditor. An auditor goes to various businesses and audits (examines and performs tests) on the accuracy of their financial records. The auditor then prepares financial statements for the business to present to financial institutions and investors. I was there for almost two years until I was laid off from that job in 2009 during the financial crisis and recession. It was actually a blessing in disguise – I never would have met my wife if I hadn’t been laid off and I was so miserable as an auditor, working long hours and weekends, gained a bunch of weight, and hated the work in general. For about 10 months I was unemployed, working odd jobs and looking for a new role. I ended up getting hired as an accountant at a real estate management company, which I was at for two years. I left there and worked for a year as a senior accountant at a steel fabricating facility. I left there, and worked at another real estate investment/management company for a little over a year. It was during this time that I realized I had to do something to change my life. I ended up being hired by a (fire) department in Northern Virginia, a suburb of DC. We sold our house, I moved down there, went through their six month academy to be certified as a firefighter and EMT, and worked at a station on an engine company for almost a year. My wife and I lived apart for a year! She needed to keep working as a cosmetologist in PA while she planned our wedding. I moved to Virginia a year before we were going to get married! After we got married, she moved down to Virginia with me. Out of the blue, in the summer of 2015, I got an email from Philadelphia that they were hiring people off of the test I took two years ago and I was eligible. I went through all of the background steps and tests and was hired – starting the academy in January 2016.
I am currently about 2/3 of the way through the fire academy, and when I graduate, I will be a Firefighter/EMT serving the citizens of Philadelphia with the Philadelphia Fire Department.
What made you decide to make such a 180 degree turn in your life?
Being a firefighter is something I’ve wanted to do since I was 3 years old. My uncle was a lieutenant in the Philadelphia Fire Department and used to bring me around the firehouse and always tell me stories about the fire department. So, it was something I have always wanted. During my last accounting job is when the light bulb kind of went off in my head. I hated working in an office, I hated accounting, and I hated the path my life was going towards (workwise). I was pretty miserable sitting at a desk working 60-70 hour weeks and weekends when we were busy, which is at the end of the month, end of the quarter, and end of the year! So it was constant long hours. I was engaged, I didn’t have any kids yet, I was 29 years old and I realized this was kind of my last chance to really go get what I wanted to do with my life. Accounting is a great career for plenty of people, but wasn’t for me. I looked down that career path and where I would be 10-15 years from now and it was not what I wanted. I was miserable professionally and had to do something about it. I had a long talk with my wife about how I was feeling and what I wanted to do, and she supported me 100%. I had already taken the Philadelphia Fire Department entrance test and not scored high enough to be eligible, so I realized I needed to look elsewhere. In Pennsylvania, most of the departments are volunteer staffed. So I started looking for entrance tests in Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey, New York – all the areas close to where I grew up but not halfway across the country. My family is very important to me and I wouldn’t have been able to move somewhere that it would be very difficult to get home for important events and to see them.
How did your family/loved ones feel about this decision?
My whole family – cousins, aunts, uncles, in-laws – all know how much I have wanted this and for how long I wanted this. They all have done everything they could have done to support me in any way as I chased my dream. It would not have been possible, or at least extremely difficult, without their support. They of course worry about me because it’s a dangerous job. Sometimes, when I’m telling a story I can see the concern or worry on their face, but they know I try to be as safe as possible, how much this career means to me, and how much I love what I do.
Are you nervous about taking on a career that is not only dangerous, but involves a pay cut as well?
There’s a saying in the fire department, “if you ain’t scared, you’re crazy”. It’s one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, but a lot of our training revolves around doing things as safely as possible. You learn to channel any fear into heightening your level of awareness and concentrating on the task you need to do, and falling back on your training. There is also another saying in the fire department: “risk a lot to save a lot”, which means you put yourself in more danger to rescue someone that’s trapped, than you would at a vacant house that’s on fire. The risks we take depend on the situation.
I am much more excited than I am nervous. I was a volunteer firefighter for 6 years and a career firefighter at Prince William for a year and a half, so I know what I’m getting into.
When I left my job as an accountant I took a $30,000 pay cut. I have never been happier. Money can make things in life easier, but it truly cannot buy happiness. Being a firefighter is such a rewarding career. I am proud when I tell people what I do for a living, I love going to work, and talking about work. It’s a job that really has to be a calling for most people. You can make a nice living as a firefighter and the job has great health benefits and retirement plans (not why I wanted it), but the pay cut was almost the last thing on my mind after I talked to my wife and we figured out our plan.
Do feel like you wasted time in your life by going to school for and working as an accountant.
I have actually thought about this a lot, and people have asked me this before. I think it’s important to try to live life with no regrets. I don’t think it was a waste of time. I have lifelong friends and experiences that never would have happened if I hadn’t gone to college. I think anything we do in life adds to our life experience and forms our perspective and how we handle adversity and respond to different situations. I also have the option of doing work on the side as an accountant or doing taxes on my days off to make extra money. A college degree is also very helpful during promotional processes to become an officer or chief within the department. I think it also helped me with critical thinking and test taking. I had to score a 102 on the entrance test for Philadelphia, just to have a chance at being hired! Being an accountant also gave me plenty of experiences that helped form me into the person I am today. While it was an office job, it was still difficult dealing with clients or annoying/bad co-workers at times and you learn from that. There is a lot of problem solving and step by step processes in auditing and accounting that actually kind of apply to the fire department! And doing something I hated ultimately only increased my drive and determination to get where I wanted to. I lost 65 pounds to get in shape to pass the physical tests, spent countless hours and money driving to different states and staying in hotels by myself for the different steps of the hiring process, and never minded it one bit…because I knew I was getting closer and closer to what I truly wanted.
When will you officially be a Philadelphia firefighter?
We have about two months left in our training, the academy is a total of 6 months. We are set to graduate at the end of June. You get assigned to a firehouse towards the end of the academy, take the oath at your graduation, and some people start work the day after graduating!
What would you say to someone having that internal struggle of what to do with their lives?
I have a few pieces of advice for people having that struggle of what to do with their lives. Sometimes you just have to step back, take a few deep breaths, and kind of look at your life from a different perspective. I was miserable, but until I stopped feeling sorry for myself and took ACTION, I wasn’t sure of the plan and changes I needed to make to get to where I wanted to be. If you have a family or significant other, they have to be on the same page as you, because it will be like swimming upstream if they aren’t on the same page as you. It’s not impossible, but it’s much easier.
Make a plan, do things one step at a time. It took me 7 months to get hired by Prince William and almost 3 years to get hired by Philadelphia after I took each of their entrance exams. Changes this big can’t happen overnight. Patience is key. But if it’s what you really want, you can make it happen. It seems corny but it’s true. A lot of people don’t think it is, because they decide to just settle or accept being miserable, or blaming other people for their unhappiness when they actually have the power to go get what they want if they go outside of their comfort zone. Start by taking a couple college classes at night to get the credits you need, start by working part-time or volunteering in the field you’re trying to get to. Do as much research about what you need to do to get to that end goal and start chipping away at it!
Unfortunately, not everyone in life has something they are as passionate about as I am about firefighting. It is my calling and I knew it was what I wanted. If people can’t find that, then I would encourage them to try to find something they at least don’t mind doing or somewhat enjoy. Or just take satisfaction that they are providing for their family. The key is to figure out the “why”, as my dad once told me. If you can figure out the “why” – why you are working hard, why you make sacrifices, why you want what you want, it can make it easier. Life is too short to be unhappy. Go out and get what you want, you really can do it!