“Do what you love!” Famous words every parent parts to their kids as they pontificate an illustrious career. What great advice, enjoy what you do and get paid at the same time. Taking my parent’s advice literal, I got an undergraduate degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Science – with honors I might add. Think about it, who doesn’t love being in the outdoors and working with animals.
Growing up, I loved watching “The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams” and could easily see myself wandering the mountains with gentle Ben. With that in mind, I took the next step and pursed graduate research work trapping Black Bears (Ursus Americanus) for the lofty sum of $75/week – mobile home and all utilities included. Utilities were somewhat misleading since all we had was water and basic power (no tv, no telephone, and no air conditioning). Our research was used to assess the overall health of the black bear population. We were also collecting their blood as part of a 20yr research effort to determine how bears could hibernate for 3 months without suffering any muscle atrophy, able to run 35mph shortly after emerging from their den. In contrast, humans suffer muscle atrophy shortly after being bed ridden.
The research required 14 days in the woods (Great Smoky Mountains National Park) with 4 days off. Interestingly, we usually spent the 4 off days replenishing supplies and treating ourselves to movies and fast food – luxuries of life. Our days started promptly at 5am and we were on the trails by 6am to check our traps, rain or shine. One of our trails required wading through a river chest deep with our packs and shoes above our heads; made for a chilly start to a 12-14hr day. We even worked during lightning storms for fear a bear could be in one of our traps. The health of the bears was always of 1st priority and supposedly the reason why we used a 3ft aluminum pole with a syringe mounted to the end to sedate the trapped bears as opposed to a tranquilizer gun. The PhD student leading the research said tranquiller guns left large hematomas due to the amount of force and drug required to sedate a 400-500lb bear. Instead, we utilized a leg snare trap with a 5 foot lead that was secured to a large tree, allowing the bear to run around the tree in all directions. In essence, we’d show up to our traps every day and hope to be greeted by a 400lb bear caught by one leg, severely upset with being caught to say the least. Now think through this with me. Let’s do some simple math. We had to get within 3 feet of an angry trapped bear to sedate him. The bear was secured by a 5 foot lead with another 2-3 feet of reach. I’m not a math expert, but it seemed the numbers were in the bears favor. Oh, I forgot to mention, the drug took 10-15 minutes to take effect. Being 22 and eager to assume my Grizzly Adams persona, I just said “ok, makes sense to me.” Can’t remember what kind of liability waivers I signed but I’m sure I signed my life away.
Needless to say I did this for 6 months, including a 3 month stint in the Okefenokee Swamp. Believe it or not, swamps have bears as well as alligators and poisonous snakes. Having caught over 150 bears, all I could keep thinking was how do you put a price on this experience. How many people could say they trapped bears for a living? I had unfathomable experiences: saw 2 bears fighting, bluff charged by a bear in a full sprint (luckily I didn’t play dead), mother bear circling me as I held her sedated cub in my arms (never a good thing), and near death encounter with one trapped bear that grabbed my left arm with her claws (I got a little too close but luckily emerged with only claw marks on my arm). I also got to climb inside a 30×30 enclosure with a red wolf as part of the red wolf reintroduction efforts in the Smokies. Now is not a good time to debate my judgment or lack thereof. Despite 6 months of seeing what 99.9% of the world will never see, I came to the realization that I really enjoyed what I was doing but it was not going to pay my bills or provide the lifestyle I wanted – did I mention living in the woods is not conducive for a single man? This is not a proper forum for repeating what I was told about living in the woods with minimal human interaction.
A hobby or a career
Needless to say, living in the woods provides a lot of time for reflection and soul searching. You ponder everything from who was your girlfriend in kindergarten to graduation. During this time, I came to realize what my parents should have said is “Do what you love and will pay your bills.” I realized I had committed a major mistake of so many well intentioned college grads. I had confused a hobby with a career. The 2 are different and mistaking one for the other has a great impact on your well-being. As much as I enjoyed being in the great outdoors with wild animals, I realized that it took on a whole new meaning when it was ‘my job.’ In my spare time, the 4 days off, I no longer got the sense of freedom and exhilaration from just being in the outdoors. Instead of hiking through the woods during my down time, I now craved the basic necessities of civilization; watching a movie, eating a good meal or just driving around.
Immediately after the research project ended, I returned home with a new resolve to pursue a profitable career that could provide for the lifestyle and family I so badly wanted. Within a week of being home, I completed and next day aired my MBA application to the University of Tennessee as well as took the GMAT, admittedly with no benefit of months of preparation. By a sheer miracle, I received a high enough GMAT score, coupled with a good undergraduate GPA, to gain acceptance to the MBA program with only 6 months of bear trapping as my applicable work experience. I spent the next 2 years surrounded by some extremely talented people and quickly molded myself into a full-fledged business entrepreneur.
Fast forward 14 years and hard to believe my current status given my less than humble start as a bear trapper at $75/week. I’ve had unbelievable exposure to extremely successful people and those experiences have shaped me immensely. Although my journey has been less than a straight path, I now have a greater passion for my hobbies and a greater appreciation for my career. As the saying goes, I work hard and play even harder. I am a big fan of life experiences over short term income and believe experiences are what differentiates us from others. I also believe we should never be scared to take risk if we truly believe something is a life changing opportunity – always look at the bigger picture. For instance, at the ripe age of 30, I took a job working for an extremely successful man for $0 for 3 months, paying for all my expense. That ‘free education’ is still paying dividends. Trust me, do your kids a favor and tell them, “Do what you love and make sure it will pay your bills.”
Shay is an All American and World ranked triathlete, burn survivor with scars over 65% of his body and is a sought out national motivational speaker. Despite being told he’d never compete in sports again at the age of 8, Shay is living testament to “Anything is Possible”: 4x Ironman, 4x member of Team USA, ranked top 1% of Ironmen worldwide and has competed in 9 triathlon world championships, including the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. His mantra has always been to not merely be a “finisher” but to be a “competitor.” If you enjoyed this article, I encourage you to check out my other posts.