Shining in the Colorado Sun

I’ve never worn jeans to an interview before. These are my best pair- dark denim, no rips. My buttoned-down, long-sleeved, collared shirt is not tucked in.

Caitlin greets me as I enter. She’s young, like everyone else I will meet at this industrial park office. She has long, straight hair between brown and blonde, and carries her tom-boyish good-looks with confidence. “Hi Gary. It’s nice to meet you. I’ll let the manager know you’re here.” 

I sit down in one of the six black-plastic, stackable chairs, lined up just inside the building’s entrance and wait. I’m fidgeting with the corner of the obligatory binder in my hands. It has extra resumes and references I know won’t be needed. Am I nervous? Nah, I have too much life experience to get nervous before interviews….so that’s not the issue. Honestly, I am excited. I’m getting my shot.

Caitlin reappears, “We’re ready,” motioning for me to come with. The walk to the conference room is short and soon I am shaking hands with Tim, the branch manager, and Tyler, the construction coordinator. I sit. They sit. It’s 3 against 1. I like my chances.

Tyler apologizes in advance for having to read from a prepared list of questions, “Sorry, but we have to do this to keep the interview process consistent.” He then reads outloud a long preamble about the company, and a little more about equal employment practices. I appear to be listening. On the inside I’m shouting, When do I get to tell my story?!

After getting through the cookie-cutter part, they are finally looking over my resume. The branch manager speaks, “I see here you did some traveling. What can you tell us about that?”

Aww yeah! This is the question I want. Stand back and put your shades on, folks. ‘Cause I’m about to shine like the sun!


Rocky Mountain High(way)

Reboot completed, I now had a plan. On August 30, 2018, I crossed the border into Colorado. The bed of my trusty Toyota pickup and the small trailer that chased behind it were stuffed with everything I wasn’t ready to part with. The emotions I felt entering Colorado were complicated; excitement and anxiety were playing for a tie.

The interstate that carried me into Colorado from the south had me winding through the mountains immediately. I knew just what I needed to hear. At the first scenic overlook, I slowed my truck to a stop and searched YouTube for John Denver’s classic song, Rocky Mountain High. For me, the brilliance of this song has never been the chorus. It is the song’s opening lines that resonate. 

He was born in the summer of his 27th year

Coming home to a place he’d never been before

He left yesterday behind him

You might say he was born again

You might say he found the key to every door 

My 27th year has twice passed, but the sentiment that life can begin at any moment….any age, I believe is universal. I played the song loudly, sang along badly, and garnered a trace of macho mist around the eyes. 

Anxiety was still very much in the game, but excitement had taken a small lead.

Where the Sunlight Meets the Glass

My first task upon arriving into Colorado was to find a place to live, which I did without much trouble. A Denver Facebook page for finding roommates helped me quickly settle-in to an old (built in 1900) house not far from downtown. Task number two was finding a job in solar. Colorado has an average of 300 days sunshine. How hard could it be, right?

Banking on the job-seeking adage, It’s not what you know, but who you know, I started my job hunt by pursuing connections to folks I’d met at Solar Energy International, the organization where I’d done my solar training. Within just a few days one of those connections resulted in me having breakfast with the CFO for a local solar company. This was significant; it felt like I was making headway at lightning speed. As I would soon learn, however, this CFO was not interested in me because of my inspiring passion for solar. No, not at all. His company was growing and they needed someone to help with their finances– someone with my type of background. 

Right there on the patio at the Snooze restaurant in Union Station, downtown Denver, over a tasty plate of mixed berry topped waffles, the CFO casually asked me, “Would you be interested in working at my company as a financial analyst?” His question was not a formal job offer, we were simply conversing. Nonetheless, his directness totally caught me unprepared. 

My determination to get into solar was crystal clear; however, exactly what my job within the industry would be was about as clear as a glass of milk. So quickly finding this super solid job lead forced my hand. Before saying yes to this job, or any job, I still had a few things to figure out. 

Computer or Hammer

Since I was starting with a clean slate, I first had to think about what type of job I wanted. Here’s what I asked myself: What did I want to be doing on a daily basis, both physically and mentally? Did I want to work alone or with people? Did I want to be in an office, or wherever people go that don’t work in offices? 

The traditional advice about doing what you love has never helped me a damn bit. Within the context of working, I don’t know what I love to do, man! I have never known. And I don’t think anyone else knows either. So, skip all that high-minded hooey and think about the day-to-day basics- sitting or standing, office or field, people or no people, computer or hammer. And if you can at least aim towards a specific industry, like me with solar, you’re more than half-way there.

Pretty quickly I figured out that sitting in front of a computer all day long and manipulating spreadsheets was off the table…even if I was working in solar. I left yesterday behind me. My life reborn had no interest in spreadsheets. What I envisioned for myself was some sort of hybrid position where sometimes I’d be in the office but then other parts of my day I’d be up on my feet, movin’ and shakin’. I also landed firmly on the idea that I’d prefer working with a small team of smart folks as opposed to working alone. [I’ll let you know later how well I achieved these early job-wants.]

The day following my breakfast with the CFO, I sent him an email explaining that taking another analyst position seemed too close to the job I’d left. As graciously as I could say it, the answer was, No, I am not interested. If I was going to be in solar, I needed to be where the sunlight meets the glass, out in the field, on the roof, talking to customers. What sweet relief it was to finally have enough clarity to narrow my job search. From that day on, I no longer applied for jobs I didn’t really want. Thankfully, I had enough savings to resist any ‘I just gotta get a job’ impulses. For the first time ever in my life I was going to find a job I was actually excited about.

A Shameful Realization

What a sad and shameful realization it is to know that at no previous point in my working life had I ever taken a job based on my enthusiasm for what the position entailed. As I reflect on it now, it’s truly infuriating. I was guided (or more accurately, misguided) over and over again by a society that steers us towards its own one-size-fits-all notion of how to create a good life for yourself. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying I was particularly driven by society to “achieve success,” in either the professional or materialistic sense. What I’m pushing back against is the entire corridor of this supposedly advanced civilization we are all expected to march down, unquestioningly. 

Not all of the blame for my zombie-like allegiance to the go-to-school, get-a-job, work-hard, save-money, retire-and-go-on-cruises lifestyle rests on the shoulders of society. There were some key shortcomings in the parenting I received that left me unprepared to make enlightened choices later on. Of course, my parents were simply adhering to the standards of their day; one does not blame the fish when the river has left its banks.

However, I am also thinking about the effects of having been raised by an angry, unnurturing father, and a well-intentioned but disconnected mother. You don’t have an older brother commit suicide in your house if everything’s okay. [Yes, I will elaborate in a later post.]

Buying What I’m Selling

With the added clarity of knowing what I did and didn’t want from a job, the wind was now at my back. Only a week or two out from my arrival into Denver, I scored my first formal interview. The job was Solar Technician, and the company was Sunrun. Though not a household name, Sunrun is the largest residential solar company in the US.  

What I perceived to be the biggest hurdle in making this huge career pivot was convincing a potential employer I was for real. Why would a 50+ year old guy with a bachelor’s degree in accounting, a former licensed C.P.A., intentionally seek out an entry-level, blue collar job making $17 per hour? This question had an answer; an answer that made total sense, but only within the context of my larger story– trip around the world, doing something meaningful, big changes, new challenges…. I was selling an exciting real-life story of rebirth, renewal, and personal growth. I was inspired by solar. Would they be inspired by me?

Evidently so. I got the job.

Does This Blue Collar Make Me Look ???

My very first job after graduating college required me to wear a suit and tie…. everyday. Subsequent jobs were not quite so rigid, with business casual (i.e., slacks and buttoned-down shirts for the guys), being the rule. And then finally there were the halcyon days of “Casual Friday” when the dress code Gods allowed us to wear jeans one day a week. Are they not merciful?

All of these dress-coded jobs paid me a salary. Getting paid by the hour was simply not part of my post-college work-life. Clocking-in and clocking-out was something I’d not done since being a waiter at the Olive Garden. Everything would be changing with my new job in solar. I was leaving the familiar world of the “professional class” to drive around town in a company truck and wear shirts bearing my company’s logo. I would be setting up ladders and standing on rooftops; crawling through sweltering, insulation-filled attics; seeking out restrooms in 7-11’s, fast-food chains, and grocery stores, because the convenience of having a clean bathroom down the hall was gone. I would be one of them.

Accepting the Solar Tech job forced me to confront my class-conscious, judgemental, elitist self, head-on. Even though I entered this world of physical labor willingly, it was hard not to feel like I was stepping down a level or two within society. I most definitely felt self-conscious about it. Some small, insecure part of me was asking, What will my friends think? Countless times I found myself telling people, prospective Sunrun customers even, how I used to work in an office. I’d like to believe I did this because I’ve got a cool story to share. But the truth is I felt the need to let people know I’m not really the guy they think they’re seeing. 

I do not like admitting this to you…my friends…that I’ve spent my whole life judging as ‘less than’ those who don’t wear khakis and collars to work, and spend their days in the glow of a computer screen.  

To this day, I’m still not 100% comfortable wearing the blue collar. But living this new life in the way that I am is certainly striking a blow to whatever sense of class-consciousness I used to have. And that’s a good thing. This experience is also making me realize that wiping away assumptions you’ve held in your head for decades isn’t so easy. Like so many things, you have to live it….to get it.

I had no idea the large number of mental paradigms I needed to smash. Just wait ‘til I tell you about me and drugs. 

But not quite yet. First, we will take up smoking….and you’re gonna love it.

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Gary is a Solar Technician and writer living in Boulder, CO, who loves to play Ultimate frisbee!!

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