Written by Ben Opipari, Ph.D., a Hope alum and business owner.
What I really wanted to be was a rock star.
I settled on starting a business helping attorneys at some of the most powerful law firms in the world perfect the art of clear writing.
I wanted to be a rock star because I had been around music all my life. My father was in a band, I wore band t-shirts to school every day, and I went to concerts all the time. When I was at Hope, I worked at a local record store on River Road called Believe in Music. But there was a problem: I couldn’t sing or play any instruments.
So after graduating from Hope with degrees in English and psychology—with lots of help from Dale Austin of the Boerigter Center for Calling and Career—I got a job at WKLQ radio in Grand Rapids, the top station in west Michigan, as an account executive selling radio spots. WKLQ was my favorite station because they played the hard rock I loved. It seemed like a natural progression to work at the place I frequented every day.
And that’s why I tell you this story: there will be time for your career. There’s nothing wrong with first doing what you want to do, not necessarily what you are supposed to do. I knew I had no career in radio, but I got to hang backstage with some of the biggest music acts in the world. Radio did teach me three things, though. One, it’s OK to have no idea what you want to do when you graduate. Two, each job you have narrows your focus to the job you’re meant to have. And three, every job will teach you a skill you can take with you forever. (Other jobs I’ve had: camp counselor, bartender, EMT. No job will ever prepare you for stress like the back of an ambulance.)
Radio was not for me: I loved music, but I missed literature. So I moved back home to Rockville, Maryland to pursue my Master of Arts in Teaching at American University with a goal of teaching high school English. To make myself more marketable, however, I also became certified to teach special education, with a focus on learning disabilities. There were few job openings in English at the time, so I accepted a job in Montgomery County, Maryland teaching middle school special education.
After three years it was time for a change. I enjoyed teaching, but I still missed literature. I went back to school and got my PhD in English Language and Literature at The Catholic University of America, specializing in 20th-century American dramatic literature. As your professors will tell you, academia is a tough profession to crack, English even more so. There are hundreds of qualified applicants for every job. I found one that interested me: director of the writing center at Colgate University, one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country.
I dusted off my radio sales skills for my job search because with so many applicants, I had to sell myself. A woman on the hiring committee told me that she was going to be at a rhetoric conference in Charleston, South Carolina later that month. I flew down and met her for coffee—an informal interview before the official interview.
When she got back to Colgate, she told the other members on the search committee about me. That made me a face, not just a name—and the only face in that giant stack of resumes. After a long process, I was offered and accepted the job.
Colgate is in Hamilton, New York, a town of about 2,000 people. The closest city is Syracuse, about an hour away. Hamilton is a perfect small town—if you like small towns. My wife Kelly and I didn’t. To be sure, Colgate’s campus is spectacular, the town is quaint, and the surrounding countryside belongs on a postcard. But small town life wasn’t for us. I knew we had to move when I went to the grand opening of a drugstore in town because, well, what else was there to do? I remember thinking I’m at the opening of a drugstore out of my own free will. I went home and told my wife my epiphany. We decided to move back to the DC area, even if that meant leaving academia.
But there was a problem: English PhDs are not a hot commodity outside of academia. One morning, though, I saw an ad in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Howrey LLP, a big DC-based international law firm, was looking for an in-house writing instructor. It was a new position, and Howrey wanted to hire an academic—not an attorney—to develop a writing curriculum for the attorneys. A rhetoric professor at a law firm! The firm wanted someone who could look at a piece of legal writing with fresh eyes and say Really? That’s the word you’re going with? An old friend was already an attorney there, and he knew the woman who would be my boss. I reached out to her, and we had coffee before the official interview day. (Sound familiar?)
Quality of life superseded almost everything for Kelly and me, including my job. I loved my time at Colgate, but we didn’t want to spend our lives in a town smaller than many high schools. We had to get out. But this was a huge career change. I went from the relatively slow pace of academia to a profession where most things need to be done yesterday. I was not an attorney, had never seen the inside of a law firm, and only knew the term motion from football. But judges always say that attorneys should pretend that they’re writing to anyone other than attorneys. This made the challenge slightly—slightly—less daunting.
I worked at Howrey for five years, developing a rotating series of writing seminars for the attorneys and traveling to each worldwide office twice a year to deliver them. I also offered individual writing coaching sessions. But in 2011, in the middle of an economic downturn, the firm dissolved. I received an email at 10:37pm—I’ll never forget that time—that the firm was shutting down the next day. Come in the next morning to turn in your keycards and laptops, we were told. We received no severance pay, and even worse, since the firm had a self-funded medical plan, our health insurance stopped. We had our fourth child ten days earlier and my wife stayed home with the kids. The timing was horrible.
We had three options. The least realistic was a return to academia. I could also send my resume to other law firms, but no one was hiring an in-house writing instructor, especially in a downturn. The third option was to start my own business. It’s courageous to start your own business right after losing your job, people told me. Nah. It was desperation. We had no income and a dwindling savings account. It would have been courageous to quit a great job to start a new one.
I like to think that I founded Persuasive Matters the day I lost my job, but it took about six months (and six months on unemployment making $300 a week with four kids) to land my first client. I started a website, and—twenty years after graduating from Hope—again reached out to Dale Austin for help. Howrey’s dissolution meant that its partners scattered to other law firms, and I noted where all of them went. I reached out to many of them for a way in the door.
My job involves the same thing I did at Howrey. I deliver writing seminars and writing coaching to attorneys at some of the most powerful law firms around the world. I travel all around the US and the world, from Mexico City to Beijing. And thirty years after my first job in radio, I still use those sales skills when I meet with prospective clients. I love my job, but my favorite part is that because I’m self-employed, I’m my own boss.
I was 41 when I started my eventual career. Which means it took me 20 years after graduating to settle on what I wanted to do. And that’s OK. I never wondered whether I was on the right path, but I knew I would eventually find that path.
There was a point in each of my jobs when I recognized that I wanted to do something else. Once I knew this, I got out as soon as I could. I never lingered. But that job narrowed my focus for the next one, which was a positive. And that’s the through line in my life from Metallica to motions, from global literature to global litigation.
I never got to be a rock star. But I’ve been able to weave my love of music into my career in two surprising ways. One, in 2010 I started Songwriters on Process, a site featuring over 300 interviews with songwriters about, well, their writing process. And two, last year I signed my first book deal, a collaboration/memoir with a good friend of mine who happens to be a well-known metal guitarist.
In a follow-up post, I’ll talk about how my Hope experience prepared me for everything after. Meanwhile, if you want to reach out, email me at email@example.com.