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An Ex-Public Radio Host Asks Herself, 'Now What?'

After leaving 'Marketplace Money,' Tess Vigeland is trying to redefine career success

By Tess Vigeland | July 26, 2013
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Tess Vigeland is a veteran journalist and a well-known voice to millions of American radio listeners. Until November 2012, Vigeland was the host of Marketplace Money, a weekly personal finance program syndicated by American Public Media.

In early July, Tess Vigeland – the former host of public radio’s Marketplace Money personal finance show – gave a courageous speech about quitting her job without knowing what she’d do next. Below is an abbreviated version of Vigeland’s talk at the World Domination Summit in Portland, Ore., an annual gathering of creative people from around the world, founded by Chris Guillebeau, author of The $100 Startup.

Here’s the reaction I remember most from the day Marketplace announced I was leaving last August. It was a six-word tweet from an old high school friend:

WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!?!?

I’m here to try to explain what the hell I was doing. Leaving a dream job. My own national radio show. A place I’d wanted to work from the moment I left college.

(MORE: 3 Reasons Not to Quit Your Job on the Spot)

Walking Away From a Prestige Job

Marketplace is a trio of hugely respected programs with a combined audience of more than 9 million people covering business and economics. So this was a perch from which I helped hundreds of thousands deal with a difficult issue: money. A coveted spot in the media world. A very nice salary. Seriously proud parents.

And I walked away.

What. The Hell. Are you doing.

My first job out of college in 1990 was with Oregon Public Broadcasting and the very first national story I ever sold … was to Marketplace. It was a story about the first-ever Niketown. And right about then I decided I wanted to work there someday. Might take me 20 to 30 years to get there, but I’d try.

It took 11. Marketplace called in mid-2001 and asked me to come host a show. Of course I said yes.

The show was the Marketplace Morning Report – a series of seven newscasts each hour starting at 2:50 a.m. Pacific time. In 2006, I became the host of Marketplace Money, a weekend personal finance program.

So I had this amazing job, right? We went out and did stories about everything from the cost of personal safety to how to buy wine — my producer sent me to a wine store for that one, God bless his soul. I had fans. People would recognize me in elevators just by my voice. Perfect strangers thought I was awesome and had the coolest job in the world. Who doesn’t love that?!

And after 11 years I walked away.

(MORE: The Joy of Quitting)

What. The Hell. Are you doing.

Restless and a Little Bored

Here’s where I’m supposed to tell you that the reason I left is because I was restless. I wanted to pursue another dream. I wanted to see what else the world had to offer. I was ready for a new challenge. Right?

Well, part of that is true. I was restless. I wanted to do something different. But I never wanted to leave Marketplace.

I won’t tell stories out of school about my departure, but I will say that I’d been unhappy for a while. Partly I was tired of the subject I covered.

There are about six stories in personal finance and I told them over and over and over again. It got to the point where I wanted to reach through the radio, take listeners by the shoulders and say: "Don’t you get it?! Don’t spend more than you save! That’s it! I told you this last week — and the week before that! Do I really I have to tell you again this week?!"

But in the end, I left for a very personal reason, an unhappy one that culminated in an afternoon of heavy tears after which I told my husband: "I’m sorry, but I’m done. I have to leave Marketplace. I have to jump without a net."

"OK," he said. "We’ll make it work."

One of the questions I've been asked is "How do you know when it’s time to go?"

(MORE: The Career Reinvention Question You Need to Ask)

In my case, the answer is it’s time to leave when you have too much self-respect to stay. That — and when you’re so stressed out you start losing your hair.

When I left, it wasn’t for another dream. It wasn’t something I’d expected to do or had planned for years. I left a sure thing for the vast unknown. And it was easily the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done.

People kept saying: "Oh, Tess, this is so exciting! You can do anything! You’re so brave! You’re doing what so many would love to do! And, by the way, you're famous and people will walk through fire to work with you!"

The Question People Kept Asking Me

What’s amazing about a leap of faith is how everyone around you is so sure it’s going to work out, when deep down you are so sure it won’t.

What everybody wanted to know was: What are you going to do next? And I had the lamest answer of them all: I don’t know.

The followup question was even worse: Well, what do you want to do?

I wanted to go home and curl up with my cats.

Getting your brain to really, really open up to all the possibilities — it’s so much harder than I ever imagined.

When the Perfect Next Job Came Along

Less than two weeks after my final day at Marketplace Money, Guy Raz announced he was leaving as the host of NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered. And they’d be moving the show from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, where I live.

Holy cow, I thought, this is what I’m going to do next! This was meant to be! But wait, I said to myself, don’t get ahead of yourself. Send in your resumé, contact top leaders at NPR and let them know you’re interested.

In February, NPR called to do a preliminary phone interview for that job, the one I was made for.

Meanwhile, I was talking with people about producing podcasts, maybe going on a speaking tour with a friend. Another friend and I came up with this idea for a reality TV show and we actually got a meeting at a big agency in Hollywood.

I loved thinking about all these new things I could do with my life. And I started saying to myself, "Maybe I should do something totally different."

Then, in April, I did an in-person interview for the Weekend All Things Considered job and nailed it.

So this notion that, hey, I’ll just go do something different went away pretty quickly. Which was not wise.

A week went by. Then two. Then three. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is what the past eight months or so have been like: Something really cool happens and then … crickets.

So my life for eight months has been a roller coaster that has gone like this:

Host America Abroad to great success. I AM AWESOME! I AM TALENTED! PEOPLE LOVE ME!

Next three weeks. OH MY GOD WHAT HAVE I DONE? I WILL NEVER HAVE ANOTHER JOB AGAIN!

Host a show in L.A. for a week to great success. I AM AWESOME I AM TALENTED PEOPLE LOVE ME!!

Next two weeks. OH MY GOD WHAT HAVE I DONE I WILL NEVER HAVE ANOTHER JOB AGAIN!!!

Big story in The New York Times — made the site's top 10 most-emailed list. I AM AWESOME! I AM TALENTED! PEOPLE LOVE ME!

Next day: OH MY GOD WHAT HAVE I DONE?

Competing for a Prized Position

Then NPR asked me to come and audition for Weekend All Things Considered, which meant doing the show for an entire weekend in Washington. I was one of four finalists out of 160 candidates.

So about a month ago, I spent a week at NPR’s gleaming new headquarters. And I had the Time. Of. My. Life.

Did an interview with John Mellencamp, Stephen King and T Bone Burnett together! Had one of the first on-air interviews with the reporter who broke the Snowden-NSA spying story. When I walked out of the studio on that Sunday, the staff stood and applauded.

This was what I was meant to do. This was why I left a sure thing for the unknown. This was why I’d had such a tough time figuring out what else I wanted to do.

The producer told me the show got six times the amount of feedback — all positive. A focus group of 100 core listeners around the country thought I was great.

So I got the call a little over a week ago.

And …

I will NOT be the next host of Weekend All Things Considered. I placed second in the NPR host sweepstakes.

How to Feel Remarkable Again

When I was asked to speak at the World Domination Summit, here's what I said: "Well, the theme of this event is being remarkable in a conventional world and I’m not feeling very remarkable anymore."

I think I was pretty remarkable during my career of more than two decades. For 11 years I was “Marketplace’s Tess Vigeland.” She — and that — were nothing short of remarkable.

Now I’m just Tess Vigeland.

And I have to figure out how she is remarkable.

I know in my head that they’re the same person. But will anyone want to listen to me if I’m not a national journalist anymore? If I decide to follow what might be another passion and start working for the Red Cross, will I lose all my Twitter followers and all the fans – strangers — who’ve friended me on Facebook?

Will I disappoint all those people who think I was really great at what I did? Does it matter?

I know I’m not supposed to care what other people think, but I do.

So how do I get back to remarkable?

The only way is by redefining what remarkable means.

And I think this is an exercise that’s going to take some time.

A job defines you in many ways. You spend a good chunk of your day there. Your lifestyle is sometimes determined by how much the job compensates you; I’m on track right now to make one third of what I made last year. I know that doesn’t define me, but it does contribute to how I see my own value. I like what money allows me to do in my life.

So I need to redefine what success means to me.

I don’t know how to define that without an audience. If that sounds egotistical, well, you don’t go into broadcasting without some amount of ego.

And if I end up doing something that can’t or won’t feed my ego, how do I know if I’m succeeding? How do I know if I’m remarkable?

First of all, I know because the people who know me best — the ones who love me — tell me I am. Even now. So I’m not going to call them liars.

Second, I’m remarkable because I did leave. And my life hardly fell apart. It’s pretty good when I stop and think about it.

I’m still working. I’ve turned down opportunities over the last eight months because they were in places I didn’t want to live or because they just didn’t feel right. And I have to believe something really great is out there for me.

I know I’m supposed to tell you this has been a wonderful learning experience. That I’m a better person for the challenge. And that I’ve grown.

Instead, I’ll tell you it has been terrifying, it has been awful and it has been heartbreaking.

It’s made me doubt my decision-making ability, wonder if I’m in some loop of self-destruction and question whether everyone who’s ever told me I have talent was just being nice.

Trying to Find What's Next

But I guess what I want to tell you is that you have to give yourself permission to grieve the end of something.

Sometimes you have to work really, really hard to find what’s next.

By the way, the next person who tells me “Just make it happen!” gets a punch in the face.

I do think it is wise, though, to take time throughout your working life to re-evaluate what you’re doing, what you really love about it and what you don’t.

I didn’t do that very much — and I should have, even though I thought I was in my dream job. Dream while you’re in the dream.

So now I’m back to that infernal question: What do I want to do and how am I going to make that happen? I’m not talking mechanics; I know how to network. It’s more about opening my heart and brain to what might be out there.

I already stepped off one cliff. So bring on the next one.

What the hell am I doing? I’m still figuring that out. But one thing I can tell you: It will be remarkable.