Life in the working world is rich with stories of people who one day decide to leap off the merry-go-round and reinvent themselves.
Jeff Bezos, for instance, was a computer guy on Wall Street who decided to start an online bookstore. Martha Stewart was a former model and stockbroker who turned her love of cooking and fine living into a media empire. Jonah Peretti was teaching middle school computer classes before he cofounded Buzzfeed and Huffington Post.
While these people and many others may have had a dream to pursue, award-winning journalist Tess Vigeland had no such aims for her future when she left her job at “Marketplace,” the premier business news show on public radio.
She had no Plan B, other than she assumed she’d be able to get a job. And when that didn’t happen right away, she admits to feeling a bit lost.
“What I did not realize was how much I was tying my identity as a person to what I did for work. I had high-profile job. People recognized my voice in elevators, and suddenly I didn’t have that anymore,” Vigeland said in a recent phone interview. “Now I was going to parties and people would ask ‘What do you do?’ … I didn’t have an answer for that.
“I would talk about what I used to do,” she continued. “I would say I stepped away and was trying to figure out what to do next, and people would give me the side-eye. Not only did I no longer have the cool identity, but I stepped off the ladder and nobody is supposed to do that.”
In 2013, she gave a speech at the World Domination Summit that talked about her life after leaving “Marketplace.” From that, she landed a book deal. “Leap: Leaving a Job with No Plan B to Find the Career You Really Want” came out in 2015. She since has built a successful career as a freelance journalist and spent three years in Asia, writing and traveling solo.
She will discuss her life and career in conversation with former Google and Twitter executive Karen Wickre at the Northwest Passages event “Making Life Work on Your Terms,” at the Bing Crosby Theater on Nov. 14.
Vigeland was raised in Portland, and started her journalism career with the public radio affiliate there, Oregon Public Broadcasting. She then moved on to WBUR in Boston, where she wrote and produced for “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered” and the sports program “Only a Game.” After a stint in public relations, she joined the staff of American Public Media’s “Marketplace,” which would be her home for the next 11 years.
Her transition from employed broadcast journalist and host initially was rocky.
“There were two camps. There was one camp who didn’t understand and would say, ‘You left what? And you’re not trying for the next big thing?’ And the the other camp was ‘Oh my God, I wish I could do that. You’re the bravest person in the world,’” Vigeland said. “The emotional and psychological aspects of stepping away from that were far more difficult and tumultuous for me than anything else. That was a big surprise.”
Fortunately, her career reporting stories on business and personal finance left her on decent financial footing. She’d clearly taken her own advice over the years, and when a new job didn’t magically materialize, she was OK. Things would be tighter, but her husband’s income would be enough to carry them through.
In the following three years, she wrote the book and carved out a satisfying freelance career. As the book was about to published, she found herself preparing to make another leap.
“I was in the middle of my marriage ending, so not only did I not have a full-time job keeping me in Los Angeles or even the U.S., I no longer had a marriage doing so,” she said. “I decided to take a break. We sold the house. I put everything I owned in storage. I thought I would be gone for maybe a year, then I forgot to come home.”
It was the same, she notes, as when she left her job in 2012. She didn’t have a plan.
“I just needed to do something different. I needed to push myself into a placed of discomfort, to force myself to get through it, to challenge myself in a totally different way,” she said. “I could have gone to Europe, but I’d been there. I could have gone to South America, but I’d been there. So I bought a one-way ticket to Vietnam. I’d never before set foot in Asia, ever.”
She fell in love with Southeast Asia. She spent four months in Saigon then moved to Bangkok, which became home for the next two and a half years. From there, she visited 20 countries, and aside from a trip to Burma and Bhutan with her mother, she traveled solo. What seemed daunting – the language barrier, the fact she was a tall, blond white woman living alone in southeast Asia – soon became part of the adventure.
“I really relished the time to myself,” she said, adding that she enjoyed being able to keep her own schedule. “I was rarely on a tour, and I didn’t schedule myself anything. So from day to day I didn’t know where I was going to go or what I was going to do. The freedom of that was only possible because I was by myself.”
When she remembered to come home, she returned to Portland and moved in with her parents. Relishing a road trip, she decided to drive to Los Angeles to visit her brother for Thanksgiving. That set the stage for another challenging career move.
As she was making her way back, the devastating and deadly Camp Fire still burned in Northern California. Soon, North State Public Radio in Chico faced a challenge. They had been exhausted by fire coverage, but wanted to provide local listeners with information on the fire that was up-do-date, helpful and accurate. They put out a call for volunteers. Vigeland saw the post on Facebook and made a quick decision.
“I already had my car, I had a suitcase full of clothes,” she said. “I had time and I had the experience to get there and hit the ground running.”
She arrived the day after Thanksgiving and within three days “After Paradise” was born. The daily, 30-minute show was dedicated to helping the community in its recovery efforts.
“We just did what we could day to day,” Vigeland said. “And we got people the information that they needed. … I personally loved it. It got me back to my roots.”
She anchored the show daily for its first three weeks, and “After Paradise” continued to air until the fire’s six-month anniversary in May. Vigeland and the North State Public Radio team just last month were given one of broadcast journalism’s highest honors, the Edward R. Murrow Award, for their efforts.
“It was both the most challenging and rewarding three weeks of my entire career,” she said. “In my entire 30-year career, I’ve never been more challenged or more rewarded just by what we were able to do and what we were able to bring to the community. I miss that feeling, there’s nothing like feeling that you’ve done a service for people.”
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