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What My Young Colleagues Have Taught Me

An ex-money manager turned ski instructor loves working with Gen X and Gen Y'ers

By Erica Whittlinger | March 25, 2014
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A financial guru on MPR’s Sound Money and chief executive of a successful money management firm, Erica Whittlinger de-stressed by chucking it all to become a ski instructor in Park City, Utah. She also conducts retirement and investment workshops for small businesses, professional associations and affinity groups. Contact her at ewhittlinger@cs.com.

Editor's Note: Erica Whittlinger wasn't able to ski in 2014 due to a non-skiing-related injury. She will speak about tax strategies at a free "Your Money" Next Avenue Experience in St. Paul, Minn. on Saturday, March 29, from 9:30-11:30 a.m.

Ever wonder what it would be like to get that dream job you fantasized about when you were young?
 
I’ve done it by becoming a ski instructor — and I've learned a few things about life and work from colleagues who are way younger than me.
 
I fell in love with skiing when I first tried it in college. But I dutifully earned my degree, finished grad school then got a “real” job in Minneapolis as a planning analyst at a Fortune 500 company. My career developed and I soldiered on.
 
(MORE: How to Get Along With Younger Co-Workers)
 
Goaded By My Friends

After selling my money management firm in 2002, I started spending winters at my second home in Park City, Utah. From time to time, friends at a ski school in Aspen, Colo., asked why I wasn’t teaching skiing.
 
I figured if they thought I could do it, I probably could. After all, I’d spent years educating adults about everything from charitable giving to investing for retirement. Why not show them how to ski?
 
So since 2005, I’ve been spending my winters giving adults skiing lessons at Park City Mountain Resort. The challenges and surprises have been many, often because most of my colleagues on the slopes are Millennials and my supervisors are generally Gen Xers.
 
Learning How to Teach Skiing

The first thing they taught me was how to teach skiing the way they do.
 
My young colleagues grew up skiing on parabolic or shaped skis, which have concave sides. But boomers like me were taught on “straight sticks” — very long skis that looked like narrow boards. I've used the parabolic skis for years, but had never taught anyone.

So using the "reverse mentor" method, I turned to my fellow instructors for tips on teaching skiing with today's equipment.
 
(MORE: Working for Someone Young Enough to Date Your Kid)
 
Going From Boss to Employee

After decades of being my own boss, I now had to learn how to be an employee, working for and with others from wholly different generations.
 
I studied the company handbook, learning where to be and when, and I found myself standing in the snow, bundled in three layers of fleece, fat mittens and a helmet, staring at the first real bosses I'd had in decades.
 
Every one of the supervisors and managers was younger than me; a boomer or two, here and there, but mostly Gen Xers.
 
Despite decades of business experience and a lifetime of accumulated wisdom, I managed to keep my mouth shut. Maybe these people knew more about running a ski resort than me, I figured. I knew they were better skiers than me.
 
An Important Reminder I Received

Watching the young instructors reminded me that when adults ski, we can have fun doing what the kids do without being laughed at. That includes going over “the wall of doom,” a drop-off on the side of the bunny hill; bouncing through “whoop-de-do’s,” rippled troughs on the sides of trails; and scooting up and down sidewalls.
 
I also realized that young instructors bring freshness, fun and energy to the slopes, whether they’ve been ski bums for a few years or are just starting careers in the business. They don’t get worn down by the end of the season. (But some of the guys don’t wash their ski socks as often as they should, in my opinion.)

And I found that age does bring a heightened sense of worry. Here's one example:

I was standing at the side of a ski run during an instructor's clinic, chatting with a young colleague when a kid flew by, sitting on the back of his skis. "There goes a serious ski injury," I said, in a motherly manner.

"Wow! I bet he's really rad in the terrain park," my friend said. "Great young talent!"

Boomer Instructors Like Me

There are a few other “old guys” working at the resort.
 
Some are grizzled veterans; others are retired or, like me, have scaled down their initial careers so they can share their love of the sport.
 
(MORE: How to Start a New, More Meaningful Career)
 
The “late bloomer boomers” I’ve met include an amazing array: Ph.D. professors, lawyers, nurses, MBAs, a former NFL player, carpenters and even a deep-sea diver.
 
What I'm Glad About

As I watch the young instructors race out of the locker room at the end of the day to work second, or even third, jobs as waiters, bartenders and bellmen, however, I’m glad I’m teaching skiing in the sunset of my work life, rather than doing it just out of school.
 
The young ’uns pack themselves into rental housing with wall-to-wall roommates. I prefer coming home to a comfortable, quiet house, good food and an even better bottle of wine.
 
Money and My New Life

One thing I had forgotten: When you’re young, you’re used to working toward the bottom of the wage scale.

I didn’t realize the shock that a huge pay cut would present until I received my first few ski instructor checks.
 
But money isn’t everything. I’ve got a great job, fun colleagues, the joy of constantly learning from experts, fresh air, sunshine and plenty of exercise.
 
I like to think that I earn what I did before, except the decimal point has moved a few places to the left.

The highlight of my new career — maybe the most important thing I've learned from my younger fellow ski instructors — is that I am not only in natural splendor all day, I am of it.


These views are my own and not the views of Park City Mountain Resort. 
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