By Dana Hall.
A change in career can be stressful, but is it worth it?
A few years ago, Caitlin Hartlen feared she might never achieve the career that she wanted. She had dropped out of college after her first semester due to stress: her father had been diagnosed with cancer and her first long-term relationship had come to a close. Leaving her program, Music Business, after her first semester meant temporarily letting go of the goals she’d been working towards and pressing pause on the life she wanted.
When she’d still been in school, Caitlin worked as a cashier at a grocery store. After ending her studies, she continued working there, viewing the job as way to make ends meet until she felt ready to get back on her feet. Gradually, she fell into the comfort of routine and began losing sight of what it was she was looking for in life. As the years went by, she fell into a depression, unhappy with her place of work and questioning if getting stuck in a job she didn’t like was something that was going to happen to her.
The longer she worked, the more she realized that at some point, she was going to need to make a choice: she could either continue on at her current job, or try making a change into something that fulfilled her. She began thinking about what it was she would want to do instead. The answer came quickly: radio. It combined her two biggest passions: music and communication with others, while also allowing her to be creative.
Having heard about a Radio and Television Arts program offered at the same school she’d attended years ago, she attended an open house to learn more. Unfortunately, the deadline to apply for the program that year had passed, but nevertheless, Caitlin was inspired. The program was appealing and she’d liked the people she’d spoken with. She decided she would apply anyway, in case space opened up.
It was during this time that Caitlin lost not only her father to cancer, but a close friend as well. Having lost both men within two months of one another, she entered into a phase of depression and emotional exhaustion.
By the time the application period opened for the following year, she felt strong enough to apply again. A few months later, she learned she’d gotten an interview. She began preparing herself, hoping that this would be her break back into radio; a world she’d always loved.
Just days before she was set to have her interview, Caitlin triggered a chronic back injury that left her bedridden and unable to leave her apartment. A phone interview was arranged, but the stress of not knowing whether or not she would gain back her mobility had left Caitlin distracted. This, paired with technical glitches in the phone call resulted in a poor interview. A couple weeks later, she got a letter from the school informing her that she’d been rejected.
Devastated but not taking no for an answer, she applied again for the following year. Once again, she got an interview, which she attended in person this time. The interview went well, and she was accepted.
Two years later, Caitlin finished her program with a Highest Achievement Award in radio and now works part-time at a station in Bridgewater, near her home in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She loves her work and has no intentions of working a job she dislikes ever again.
Caitlin, What kept you working in a job you didn’t enjoy for so long?
That’s a loaded question. There were a variety of factors that kept me in my rut at Sobeys as long as I was. There was a degree of comfort, of familiarity…I could man the cash with my eyes closed, and each shift was just a matter of hours I had to get through until I got to leave, and I’d get almost enough money to live on at the end of it.
It’s really easy to fall into that trap, because the alternative is trying something new that you could potentially fail at. So yeah, the work is stressful and the customers make it worse sometimes, but at least you know what you’re doing and are confident about your skills. And at that point, I didn’t have post-secondary education to fall back on…to prove to society that, no, actually, I’m worth more than this.
This is not to say that people who choose to do this work their entire lives have no value, I just knew it wasn’t for me forever. But I really struggled with how to get myself out of it. Jobs don’t exactly grow on trees, especially in Nova Scotia.
When did you decide you wanted to do something different?
I made that decision several times over, but I didn’t have a concrete plan for how I wanted to do it. I’ve battled myself the majority of my life when it comes to going after things I want.
I can’t say I don’t have support because I do, my friends and family all want what’s best for me and are aware of my potential. That’s half the fear right now – trying something and failing and letting all those people down. Even though I know in my heart that none of them would abandon me if something I tried didn’t work out, I set those standards for myself anyway. I tell myself it’s them holding me back, when really…it’s me. I’m my own biggest obstacle, I’ve always been this way.
Significant events in my life started happening and I couldn’t ignore this pull to do something else, to start to make something of myself anymore. I lost my father in 2012, and one of my close friends, both to cancer within 2 months of each other. I never felt like I really got a break from life to deal with all of that, I just kept pushing on because I knew both of them would be disappointed in me if I didn’t. I had their voices in the back of my head keeping me going, pushing and pushing.
The changes I wanted to make didn’t happen right away though, it was baby steps over several years, and I’m getting closer and closer to the version of myself I want to be. I still have a long way to go in terms of goals I’ve set for myself and things I’d like to accomplish, places I’d like to go…but within myself, I feel more capable of reaching them than I ever have before.
What made you choose to go to school for Radio and Television Arts?
From a very young age – well, since birth, really – I had an interest in music and communication. It only made sense to combine my two main passions into one career.
I first learned of the Radio & Television Arts Program (RTA) at NSCC when I was there in 2010 taking Music Business. I didn’t finish; that was the year my dad got diagnosed with cancer, my first really serious relationship ended, two of my best friends moved across the country and I was going to school, working and volunteering at shows as part of my program in the wee hours.
It wasn’t a healthy period for me, and I lost a chunk of weight that I’d also gained through unhealthy means, and I was just kind of a train wreck of a person at that point. I dropped out of school after the first semester because I was stressed and sick 24/7, and the education I was getting wasn’t at all what I thought it would be.
I met and worked with a local band, Three Sheet, for about a year, selling merch at their shows and working the door and networking within the music community in Halifax. I also met people through my classmate’s roommates who were in RTA that year. I didn’t seriously consider the program for another several years, and it ended up taking several tries to get in, but that was where that path started.
I was that kid in the neighbourhood that would invite you over to record ridiculous things on my boombox in the basement. I made my own fledgling radio shows, and recorded my friends and myself just talking and the nonsense stories we’d come up with based on whatever happened to come into our minds that day.
Sometimes I’d talk into my boombox in my room late at night like a sort of audio diary. Talking to a machine that couldn’t talk back was therapeutic for my pre-pubescent self. I could talk about the girls at school I liked that I couldn’t tell anyone else about. I could talk about my hopes, dreams, fears…whatever came to mind.
I started making my own mix tapes recording songs off the radio – the original piracy, before the internet! I would do little intros at the beginnings of the tapes and sometimes introduce the songs throughout. The radio was my best friend. I listened to it every night before sleep and it would still be on in the morning.
Your father and good friend both died of cancer while you were in the process of applying for your program the first time. What was this like for you emotionally?
Oof. I was shattered. As difficult as it was dealing with the passing of my dad and Chris, in a strange way I feel like this is how life was supposed to play out. I am by no means religious, but I put a certain amount of faith in the universe and I’m starting to look at setbacks as turning points. Like okay, that didn’t work out, but maybe something else will that wouldn’t have happened if that first thing didn’t fail, you know? It’s what I keep coming back to.
So, because I had lost these two men who had so much life left to live, it made me took a long, hard look at my own life. I was 26 years old when they died, and not at all where I thought I’d be by then. I was stuck in a dead-end job, had given up on my education, and my love life was hilarious. I was living each day just to live it and get to the next one. I had no goals, no ambition. But something sparked in me as I dealt with my grief. Life really IS too short. Why did I keep holding myself back?
Why couldn’t I try getting the education I so sorely wanted and pursue the career I knew I was meant for? Because I might fail? Silly! Seeing such promising lives cut short so cruelly gave me the drive to push myself and not waste the gifts I’ve been given. It wasn’t easy, and like I said, it took several tries, but it paid off in the end.
My father and I had a complicated relationship at best, but we had really worked to let bygones be bygones and put aside our differences and try to finally understand and support each other. This process only really got started when I moved out at the age of 23. Not being under each other’s noses all the time definitely helped to strengthen our relationship, and I had started to trust my dad as a confidante and advice-giver, something I hadn’t given him credit for most of my adolescent life.
I think one of the biggest turning points for my relationship with my dad was that breakup in 2010 that I mentioned. I was visiting home on a break from school, and I’d gone to see my ex. It hadn’t gone well and I ended up absolutely gutted and upset by the time I came home.
It was Dad who talked to me and held me as I cried into his chest. He gave me some of the best advice I think anyone has ever given me in my entire life thus far: “You don’t need to be so all or nothing about everything.” Simple words, right? But it hit me in a way that no other breakup advice had, because it wasn’t just about how I handled relationships, it was about how I handle EVERYTHING. Jobs, school, friends…I’ve never been content with the in-between or the feeling of limbo. Uncertainty wigs me out.
In the years since that conversation, I’ve been trying to work on this within myself, and it’s partly what led me to going after school and pursuing my dream of being on the radio.
Can you tell us about how you injured your back?
The original injury is actually kind of a funny story. I had worked for Sobeys just shy of two years at this point and I was carrying my register up to the cash office while closing after my shift. I stepped out from the cash and slipped on a grape that someone had missed sweeping up. Now, anyone who’s worked in a cash handling environment knows what a pain it is when you drop a register and have money go everywhere. My instinct was to save the till, not my back, so I dropped like a sack of potatoes on the unforgiving concrete-based floor.
I was an invincible 23 year old and despite the immense pain I felt that night, so I didn’t go to a doctor to get it checked out. A report was made with my manager and that was pretty much the end of it.
Almost a year later, I had moved to Dartmouth and transferred to a store there. I was putting one of those multi-packs of yogurt into a bag and I felt the most unholy pain in my lower back that I had experienced up to that point in my life. I was taken off cash and put on light duties after that. I couldn’t raise my arms without significant pain and walking was a chore.
The next morning, I was immobile in bed and terrified at the amount of pain I was experiencing. I called in sick to work and my manager at the time didn’t believe and insisted I come in to work … I broke down crying and refused.
I went to the hospital and was prescribed physio treatment for the next several months, which thankfully Worker’s Comp covered. I’ve had various flare-ups since, including one that landed me bedridden for an entire week. People had to help me get dressed and simple things like going to the bathroom or taking a shower were nightmarish.
I’ve been told by several doctors over the years that I have permanent muscle and nerve damage in my lower back, and pain is just a constant for me. My back is never not hurting.
What was it like for you when your application wasn’t successful the first time?
Depressing. The process, all told, took two years and three separate tries. The first time was in April of 2012, just three months before my dad died. I’d gone to an Open House at NSCC and was told that the program was already waitlisted for September. I had planned to apply anyway, but my procrastination got in the way and then when Dad died, everything else kind of fell apart and school fell to the back burner once again.
I decided to try again and applied the following year though, and even got to the interview process. However, my interview happened to fall during that week that I was bedridden because of my back, and I couldn’t make it in person. There was a conference call set up for applicants who were living out of province and I was allowed to conduct my interview that way.
To this day, I still feel like that hurt my chances, as there were several technical difficulties throughout the call and I didn’t feel as though I’d been given a fair shot at answering some of the questions. So I didn’t get in, and was discouraged again.
What made you decide to reapply for the RTA program?
Well, after my first two failed attempts, I was pretty discouraged. I was starting to question if I’d really chosen the right career path for myself, but it was that sort of thinking that had held me back most of my life.
By the time early applications were being accepted in the spring of 2014, I couldn’t make up my mind if I wanted to apply again. It wasn’t until probably June or July of that year that I decided to just get over myself and go for it.
I’d done a lot more extensive research into the program after my second attempt, talked to more people who’d graduated from the program, and even spent part of the year taking vocal lessons to try and show that I’d been working on myself since the instructors had last spoken with me. I even interviewed a musician friend of mine, Jessie Brown (who was coincidentally also my voice teacher) and prepared a mock news article complete with a photo I’d taken.
I brought it with me to the interview as further proof of my commitment. My journalism teacher later told me that they’d already made up their minds that I was in just from talking to me, but I like to think it wasn’t in vain! Anyway, I had been told that there were two spots open on the waitlist and that was what I was being interviewed for. There were three of us in that interview, and as fortune would have it, all three of us ended up accepted into the program for September.
How did you feel during your first few weeks of college?
Amazing. I was so happy, and surrounded by creative people and instructors and equipment I could never dream of affording for myself. I felt like I was finally, truly in my element. I had never felt that way about school since probably elementary school or early junior high. It wasn’t just education, I wasn’t there because I had to be, I was there because I WANTED to be. I was learning all about a craft I’d admired since I was five or six years old.
Now that you’ve graduated, you’re working at CKBW in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia. Are you liking it?
LOVING it, would be more accurate. I have a pretty casual position right now, just doing a few weekends a month on air or filling in when I’m asked, but even this looks better on a resume than three unpaid internships! The company I’m working with has been great so far. I’ve only been with them a couple months, but they got me a Christmas card and gift card for Sobeys that was equal to the amount I used to get working FOR Sobeys after 7 years.
I already feel like a valued member of the team and everyone has been incredibly welcoming, and of course I love the work I’m doing. I get paid to talk into a metal stick!
What would be your advice to people who feel stuck in their jobs?
Break the hell out of it. If you look at your career and think, “I’ve gotten everything out of this that I’m ever going to”, then it’s time to move on. I had that thought every single day of probably the last two years that I was at Sobeys, and I should have left a lot sooner.
The uncertainty is terrifying, don’t get me wrong; it’s something I still struggle with now. In our current society, so much emphasis is placed on career goals and amassing some kind of wealth that will finally make you happy, but the richest thing you can be is content with the decisions you’ve made and the path your life is heading on. No fleet of yachts will ever make you feel that. I may be broke, but this is the best version of myself I’ve seen yet.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I could go on and on about the importance of education, seizing opportunities and building friendships and connections that will aid you in your goals, but ultimately what it boils down to is you.
You have the power to do with your life what you see fit. The worst phrase you can keep in your vocabulary is “I can’t”. This is something I still battle with on a daily basis, but the more you tell yourself you can, the easier it becomes to not only visualize it, but DO it.
Humanity goes in cycles – we repeat our mistakes, we learn and grow but things generations ago were dealing with will come around again. As smart as we are, we’re also kind of dumb. Our memories are short. So take comfort in that. As bad as your life is, you’re capable of surviving it. You were meant to. Lean on the ones who love you, don’t be afraid to ask for help and just GO FOR IT!
Accepted not only into her program but into a community that makes her feel at home, Caitlin’s perseverance paid off in the end. The journey to finding her passion in radio was a long and challenging road, from dropping out of programs to experiencing the deaths of loved ones. Using the strength she’d found through her seven falls, she rose up eight and refused to commit to a job or life that she didn’t want.
For Caitlin, failure meant giving in and allowing her discouragement to get the better of her. With this in mind, she kept going and didn’t stop until she’d reached her goal.
A couple years ago, Caitlin dreaded her work. If she was having a bad day, she suppressed her problems in order to get through her shift and keep food on the table. These days, Caitlin cures a bad day with the knowledge that a couple times a week, she gets to sit down at a microphone and connect with the music and the people that bring her joy.