Take This Job and Love It
If you've ever wished you could "do what you love, not what you do," then maybe a Vocation Vacation is the right move for you
“So what do you know about blades?” asks Joe Waites.
“Not much,” I say.
He sighs, stares at me for a second and seems to feel a kind of weariness as if he doesn’t even know where to begin. Joe strokes his thick red beard, which along with his flowing ponytail makes him look half Viking, half heavy-metal roadie. Finally, he motions for me to follow him further into the sprawling, gritty complex that is Albion Swords, the New Glarus business where I am taking my “Vocation Vacation,” working, as it were, my dream job.
In the next room, on a whiteboard, Joe starts to draw.
“A lenticular blade,” he says with a professorial air, “has a sharp edge and curves up like this. It’s designed for a clean pass through. Dismemberment was never the objective. It was just meant to cut to the bone. All you had to do was touch, and step back.”
He makes a light lunge forward, then moves deftly back. It’s a move designed to bring down the burliest medieval knight.
“But,” I start a question that’s been on my mind. “But what about running someone through?”
“Oh, that’s just to depressurize the abdominal cavity. Have you seen those ‘injury’ videos on YouTube?” “No.” “You’ve never seen a stabbing?” He seems genuinely surprised.
“Well, it’s nothing but intestines.”
Joe goes on, until we’re finished with blade geometry, and he asks: “So, you want to grind?”
“Yeah,” I say.
“You might get cut.”
“That’s what I’m here for.”
Actually, I’m here to write an article, but I have to pretend this is my dream job because that is what this story is about: A fast-growing company called Vocation Vacations, founded by Madison native Brian Kurth, which is helping people who want to (or have to) take their lives in a new direction.
The firm was founded in 2004 but actually started years earlier in a cubicle at Ameritech in Chicago, where Kurth landed after he graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a master’s in political science. When he wasn’t immersed in the fascinating work of marketing broadband services, Kurth dreamed of things he might do on his vacation. Rather than parking his bum on a beach towel, he thought maybe he could do something useful, something educational, like a mini-apprenticeship. Maybe he could figure out how to train dogs or run a vineyard or be a tour guide. There were so many things to do and learn out there in the world.
When Kurth started looking around for a company that could facilitate a working vacation of sorts, to his surprise there weren’t any. So he went back to his TPS reports and continued to drag himself up the corporate ladder until he reached the promised land of management. He even had an office with a window that overlooked a vast expanse of … cubicles. But, then fate (and the 2001 tech bubble burst) intervened.
“When I took a job in the Internet world,” says Kurth, “I figured I’d make my millions and then I’d start my company. Well, like so many others, I got laid off and walked away with nothing.”
So Kurth and his partner drifted westward and eventually ended up in Portland, Oregon. There he tried hard to land another soul-crushing corporate job, but when that failed, he stepped back and thought, “So what do I really want to do?”
First he picked up the phone and started dialing local winemakers, looking for some kind of work in the industry. Eventually, he found a California company expanding into Oregon, and he got a job setting up their distribution office. All the while he was nursing the idea he’d dreamed up in that Chicago cubicle. He even coined a slightly corny term for it: Vocationing!
After a year working his own dream job, Kurth was ready to launch Vocation Vacations. He had ten mentors lined up (he now has three hundred), including a florist, a racetrack manager and a brewmaster. Then, in early 2004, he quit his job, typed up a press release, and sent it off. At first, a grand total of zero news outlets picked up his story, but somehow Outside magazine got wind of it and wrote up a small item about “job swapping.” Within a few weeks, the Associated Press published a story that ran in some 250 newspapers across the country.
Soon Kurth was fielding calls from all over, hiring employees and scrambling for mentors. It turns out a large percentage of people in this world have jobs that suck. And recently, he has found an untapped market entirely: With more than 2.1 million initial unemployment claims last year, and 21,137 mass layoffs, there’s a bigger pool of candidates pondering career changes.
“The older you get, the more the recession is going to hit you,” says Madison author and career columnist Penelope Trunk. “The trick is to always be thinking that you’re going to have to change, and that change is a part of your career, and to limit the financial cost of constant change. Something like Vocation Vacations is a way to limit the cost of that change because it gives you experience with stuff you might have to switch to.”
“Business is definitely on the increase,” says Kurth, who puts the average age of his clients at forty-five. “Whereas two years ago, the majority of our candidates were looking at career change theoreti-cally, planning ahead anywhere from six months to five years, now we’re seeing a huge increase in people who’ve been laid off, and are now being forced to consider what they really want to do.”
Bob Paterno started thinking about a career switch long ago but did something about it before he had to. He was working as a systems engineer, writing software for cell phones, when he heard a National Public Radio story about Vocation Vacations. At the time, he was putting his wife through law school and there was no money lying around to spend on dreams. But he filed it away, and when his wife finally landed a job he broached the subject. She agreed, so he went online and scrolled through all the possible lives he could explore: Alpaca rancher? Cheese monger? Schooner captain?
In the end, there was only one real choice: songwriter. It was something he’d always wanted to do. So he went to Nashville and met Thom Shepherd, who told him the ins and outs of the business, helped him write a song, then sent him on his sorry way back to Dallas.
“It was really hard coming home from that and knowing there was this whole group of people out there doing something that I had always wanted to do but didn’t think was possible,” says Paterno. “But when I got home, I just thought, ‘There’s no way I can do that for a living. ... There’s no guarantee you’re going to be successful.’”
Nonetheless, a few weeks after he got home, Paterno couldn’t shake the urge. If he didn’t at least try it, he’d regret it forever. So he told his wife he was quitting his job to pursue a career in songwriting. In the year since then, Paterno has gone back and forth to Nashville and is working his way toward producing 150 songs a year. A couple of them have even gotten nice reviews in somewhat important places.
“Things are starting to take shape,” Paterno says. “I’m very optimistic about the next six months.”
According to Kurth, about twenty percent of his clients have either made the switch, are back in school studying for their dream job or are writing their business plan. He expects this number to grow as more people piece together the lives they want. He now has more than three hundred mentors in thirty states. And given the high percentage of people out there who hate their jobs, the number of “vocationers” should keep growing fast.
Back at Albion Swords I am trying not to cut my fingers off with a belt sander and a serious piece of medieval metal.
“You gotta pull the blade toward you and turn it,” Joe patiently tells me.
I pull the blade with one hand while pushing it into the belt sander with the other. Sparks fly off as bits of metal are stripped away, leaving an edge so sharp it could cut though a Mt. Horeb troll like butter. Joe feels it and seems pleased that it could cut to the bone.
So he sends me off into more cavernous realms of Albion, where the steel is heated to 1,500 degrees to rearrange (and harden) the molecules. In another section, sword handles are painstakingly wrapped. In another, the parts are cast using the lost-wax technique. In another, pieces are buffed and assembled. It’s an elaborate process, as Albion’s swords are modeled on museum originals.
As I leave the building, the door in the shabby storefront locks behind me, and I realize that a love of swords has led all these craftsmen here. Joe came from Alabama. Joel owned a bar in Chicago. Harlan was a special education teacher in upstate New York. Even Jody, who passed away last year (and who designed Conan’s first sword), came all the way from California to work at Albion.
Looking down, I see I still have all my fingers. And as I think back on my day at Albion, I have more or less the same epiphany Brian Kurth had all those years ago: Even here in New Glarus, six hundred years too late, with a little love, a little money, a little imagination and a lot of work, your dream job can come true.
Frank Bures is a contributing writer for Madison Magazine.