The Journey of a Lifetime

They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, but it’s never been clear to me exactly when we’re on a journey, and when we’re just walking around. For much of my life, I’ve just been walking and it has led me to some incredible places!  So, as I look back, it’s finally clear to me that it has actually been a journey after all. Recently, I was encouraged by two separate people, to share my journey with the hope that it might somehow encourage others on their journeys. I hope it does. So, here it is:

Let me begin by providing you with some basic details. I was an average student in school but a hard worker. I spent 25% of my time in high school in a Vocational School where I received A’s in Food Service and this enabled me to pull off a 3.0 GPA at graduation. Out of 325 graduates, I was about near the middle in my class.

Step 1: Culinary School:

Yep, you read it right; culinary school. I had decided that I wanted to be a chef. I took a gourmet cooking class at the local community college while I was in High School. I was serious. I had wanted to be a chef since 3rd grade.

A funny thing happened on the way to culinary school; taking the gourmet cooking class gave me the knowledge I needed to pass an advanced placement test that allowed me to waive my full freshman year of school by simply completing an eight week summer session. So, I was able to get my Associates Degree of Science in Culinary Arts in 11 months.

Unfortunately, years later, I found the hours in food service were not too kind to a person that wanted to be a family man. It became painfully clear that I needed to change careers so I could be at home during reasonable hours (AKA: daytime hours)! I needed a plan. I loved technology, so why not build websites?

Step 2: Building Websites:

I built enough websites to earn enough money to purchase a computer and put a couple dollars in my pocket. I also learned that customer service wasn’t easy. Many of my customers and potential customers had heard about the “gold rush” called the Internet, however, when the sites I built them didn’t deliver the “gold” they wanted, they felt it was the fault of the website.

During the time I was getting my feet wet building websites, I lost my last “real job before working for Hilton Worldwide”. I was one of two production managers for a bakery plant that was part of a small family owned grocery chain. The chain had 13 stores and we also sold some baked goods to some other clients. On my shift, we baked all the bread, breakfast items, iced all the cakes and loaded them up for shipping.

I enjoyed my job before they sold the plant. I had four managers and 65 hourly employees that I was responsible for. It was there that I learned to appreciate the work ethic of so many refugees that have come to America. About 75% of my employees were from Vietnam and most of them worked a full time job in the day and worked between 25-35 hours a week for me. I had workers from Sudan, Columbia, Bosnia and many other far away  places. Oh, there were Americans too!

When the bakery plant shut down, I took a leap of faith into a new career field. Our government had a wonderful program to help displaced workers at the time; they would pay for me to go back to school at the local community college. The school didn’t have a degree program for building websites at the time, so I took classes that were related such as: Photoshop, Illustrator, Quark Express, and even some Visual Basic programming.

As I mentioned earlier, the government paid for my expenses as a full time student. Full time status is 12 credit hours. The school had this crazy deal that allowed people to take as many credit hours as they wanted, but the school wouldn’t charge for more than 12 credit hours. That calendar year I completed 53 credit hours as I drew unemployment for six months and worked full time the remaining six months.

Step 3: Information Technology:

The remaining six months of that year, I landed a job making eight bucks an hour doing technical support for a high speed internet provider.

Microsoft Front Page was relatively new, and it made building a web page so simple that just about anyone could do it.  Art school students were banking tons of money building sites. I wasn’t a graphic artist, so I knew that career path in web development was closed for me. So there I sat, working in a call center, doing Tech Support.

If my memory is right, and my math correct, I was earning 60% less than what I had been earning as the Production Supervisor at the bakery plant. It was the first time in 15 years that I had worked for an hourly wage. We refinanced our home when I found out that the plant was closing, so we had some cash. Credit cards became our friend. It was a dark time financially. My wife and I had to learn to live by faith that we were going to be able to pay our bills.

There’s an old expression that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, well, I guess those years made us strong.

Step 4: The Learning Profession

Call centers are known for their high turnover. After a year of working there some of my buddies got hired on at Hilton Worldwide. They had recently purchased Promus Hotels Corporation and more than doubled in size, so they were hiring Tech Support folks by the bus- load. I got on the bus. I was hired the week before 9/11. They didn’t hire anyone else for at least six months after that.

I dared not recall all the dark days of working in a call centers. Losing my job and working for such a low wage in such a low position for such a long time weighed on me. I wanted to get out. I wanted to get ahead, but I didn’t know how.

One day the Learning and Development department did a presentation to team I was on. They were building some new learning that was web based instead of server based. I knew the tools. I could do this! Some months later, they were hiring. I landed the job!

The dots of my history began to form. I had always been interested in training. I had applied for training jobs in the food service industry and never landed them; and now, here I was in the training field. Ten years after losing my job, I was finally earning the same pay that I had been making at the bakery plant.

Step 5: CPLP Certification

After landing the job in the training department, I consumed all of the information I could about learning and development to grow my knowledge base. I was never a fan of the academic world and I felt there had to be better way to train people. I knew there had to be enough research “out there” to validate the “right way” to do learning. I wanted to know what it was.

I also realized that my Associates Degree would not allow me to advance in my newly chosen career field. Getting a Bachelor’s degree wasn’t much of an option. My college credits wouldn’t transfer, so I would have to start all over again. That was NOT something I wanted to do when I was in my early 40’s.

I found a certification program called “Certified Professional in Learning and Performance” from the American Association of Training and Development (ASTD, now known as ATD or the Association for Talent Development). Maybe I could get my certification to replace the fact I lacked a four year degree.

It was a great idea, but Hilton was not ready for it at the time. They were not going to pay for my professional development. I was on my own. Knowing it was something I needed to do to stand out from the crowd, to educate myself, and to increase my value as a learning professional, I dug out the credit card and away I went. After a long year of preparation, I took the knowledge exam and submitted my work product. I had flashbacks of my culinary school advanced placement test as I took the knowledge exam portion of the certification. It was one of the toughest things I had ever done, but I passed. Low and behold, I was CPLP Certified! I was the first CPLP in all of Hilton Worldwide.

Step 6: College Degree:

Six months after I completed my CPLP Certification Hilton Worldwide hired a true global Chief Learning Officer. A quick search showed that he was active in his ASTD Chapter in Washington DC. He had served on the board as President. Later, I would find out he also sat on the National ASTD Advisory Board (I’m told he was instrumental in ensuring the CPLP Certification came to fruition).

When I shared my resume with my new boss, he point blank told me, “You need to complete your degree, or you will never make it anywhere.” In hindsight, he may have not said it like that, but that’s what I heard. We discussed my concerns. He assured me that some school should and would accept my existing college credits so I wouldn’t have to go a full four years. I committed to research it before fully rejecting the idea.

I found a school that aligned with my work as Instructional Designer. The school was also reasonably priced. They would accept my college credits and I would only need to go for two more school years to get a BS Degree in Adult Education!!!! But wait, there’s more! They had an accelerated program that would allow me to go to school for 10 straight months (with a holiday break) and complete my degree!!!!! I was in!

After I signed up, I found out that Bellevue University’s online learning program had been voted one of the top 10 online universities by US News & World Report. Not only that, they are known for their research in Human Capital Development. I was in the right place.

I completed my degree on schedule and traveled to Bellevue Nebraska so I could walk down the aisle and accept my college diploma. My graduation was just months before I attended my 30 year high school class reunion. It was the first reunion I had attended. I was beginning to gain some confidence in my abilities 13 years after changing careers.

Step 7: The Future

Today, I stand amazed at my own journey as I look back on it. If I hadn’t been the one living it, I might be a skeptic. Did I really work full time and go to school full time (more than once)? How on earth did my wife homeschool our kids with so little support from me around the house? How did we ever survive on one income all of those years.

Along the way, I’ve met some awesome people. It’s the people that I have met along the journey that have made it all such a blessing. It’s the people that trusted me and gave me a chance to shine, and those who challenged me to do more, even when I was tired; I am forever grateful to them. They have earned my respect and as well as my gratitude. I could not, and would not, be where I am today without their support, their trust, and their love. I am humbled to walk among such greatness.

I don’t know what the future holds, but I know the dots just keep connecting and the journey continues on. No matter what I do, no matter where I go, I know it will be a great adventure.

So, what is the moral to the story? Work hard. Do your best at whatever is in front of you. Don’t lose hope, and don’t lose faith. I cannot promise you success, nor can I promise you riches, but I can promise you a life full of adventure. Embrace it. Don’t let it overwhelm you. Hold onto the things that matter most, and let go of the things that rust, rot and die away. When we look back, it’s not the toys that matter, it’s the joy that matters. Enjoy life. I wish you the best on your journey.

Leonard

Feel free to share your journey with me, no matter where you are. I would love to hear from you. leocochran@gmail.com

This is dedicated to the love of my life, my wife Paula. Paula, you are the chief among all of my supporters. You more than anyone know the journey and walked with me in the darkness and seasons of doubt. You encouraged me when I had lost faith. You cried with me, for me and on fortunately because of me, yet you still loved me. I thank God daily for you and I look forward to many more adventures with you.

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