Living the Dream

Making risky career moves despite challenging times

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Dancer Luke Bermingham
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Living the Dream

Conventional career wisdom dictates that kids choose a solid profession where jobs are plentiful and paychecks are large. But certainty doesn't appeal to everyone. WNPR’s Sujata Srinivasan meets some young people who instead, are following their dreams.

 “Dance has the ability to take you places that being, you know an accountant or working a retail job just couldn’t take you.”

That’s Luke Bermingham from Windsor Locks. He’s 23 years old and graduated from the University of Hartford’s Hartt School last year with a major in dance. But it’s not been easy finding a job as a performer. So he works at a retail store while living with his parents – his dad’s a pilot and mom’s a CPA.

“Right now I’m working towards my dream job. It’s definitely been a long road and I’m continuing on that journey. So right now I’m just saving up money to hopefully move to New York City this summer and really just pursue that dream and just audition, audition, audition for whatever comes my way.”

Bermingham works part-time as a dance instructor and hopes to someday dance for the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet company in New York City or the Boshoi in Moscow. The retail job, which he’s had since he was 16, is just a means to his dream job. Dan Whelton, a stage actor in Manchester, feels the same way. He used to work as a substitute teacher to support his acting career and has also done some television.

“Job security doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing. It’s like you’re perpetually going through job interviews, you’re auditioning and you have to be good at the craft of auditioning in order to get the next job. It’s always exhilarating and I guess you have to have the kind of personality that fits the style of not having that next paycheck, of not knowing where it’s going to come from and be able to put up with the excitement, especially for the long term. But you know, it’s difficult too.” 

When Whelton became a dad, he gave up his part-time teaching job to look after his daughter, a toddler, and son, born recently. He says it works out better financially since daycare is expensive and he also gets to spend time with them when he’s in town. Acting jobs could take him anywhere – he currently has an eleven-week contract for a play in Boston.

“I’m lucky that I’ve had a lot of support from my family and from my wife, who works. It’s definitely a balance to try to find with the amount of acting work that you can do, with how much day-time money-making work you would have to do in order to perpetuate your acting career.”

Many people drawn to offbeat careers at first have tried a mainstream field. Whelton studied business with the idea of joining his family firm. But he switched to theatre after acting in a college play, when he realized there was nothing else he’d rather be doing. Emily Woodward, owner of Get Baked in Windsor, also followed her dream after dropping out of three colleges. She tried to study theatre, general studies and then English. But when she got an opportunity to travel, and work in the bakery at, of all places, the McMurdo research station in Antarctica, it seemed like the perfect choice. And that’s where she discovered that her future was in cupcakes.

“I’ve always loved to bake. I’ve baked with both my grandmothers when I was young and I just loved to bake when I was at home and there was just no possible way to eat all of the stuff that I was baking! And my parents were finally like just please stop baking things. Let’s just figure out another way to do this."

Back in her hometown Windsor, Woodward opened a bakery last year, chock-full of goodies she’d baked in her two grandmothers’ kitchens. It’s tucked in the corner of an antique auction house. Almost all of her employees are volunteers.

“My mom works here four to five days a week. And then my father works every auction night even though he’s busy running his own business. My sister-in-law works on the weekend cake decorating. My brothers will come and work on the weekends or on the auction night and my boyfriend works here with me for free everyday.”

Woodward says the bakery has made a little bit of money. But it’s been tough. She’d just finished paying off her student loans when she contracted viral meningitis last year. With no health insurance, she’s now left with a pile of medical debt. Still, Woodward’s excited to come to work each day and that makes the struggle worthwhile. Ralph Braithwaite, a career consultant in West Hartford, says a job becomes drudgery if one isn’t happy.

“Mark Twain said that a vocation should be more like a vacation than a job. Far too many people have jobs that they really don’t look forward to going to work to. And I truly believe you should enjoy going to work eighty percent of the time. If it could be a hundred percent, great, but that’s not realistic. But too many people can’t wait for Friday to show up for the end of the work week and they spend forty, fifty years doing that and not enjoying what they’re doing.”

Braithwaite says he can’t imagine ever retiring because he enjoys what he’s doing too much. That, he says, is the basis of any career. The thought of delaying one’s financial independence, the reality of not having health insurance, the need to work other jobs to pay the bills, and not being able to buy a car or a house one might like does not appeal to many. But for the few brave ones and their families, it could be the adventure of a lifetime. 

For WNPR, I’m Sujata Srinivasan