awakening identity

What are you going to be when you grow up?

Try as he might, he just could not sway us.  We all turned out to be true creative people.  My brother, sister and I all turned out to be creative types in advertising, music, dance and photography.

My Dad (and to a lesser extent, my Mom) tried to brainwash us kids to all be doctors, lawyers or engineers.  In fact, I didn’t even know I had a choice other than that.  It was that deep.

People would ask me, “What are you going to be when you grow up?”

“A doctor, lawyer or engineer.”

It was automatic and I didn’t even think about it.  It was a given.

Then, one day, after experiencing a 2nd guitar lesson, I blurted out,

“Dad, I think I want to be a rock star!”

It was crazy.  My Dad turned red, no, even purple.  He was besides himself with anger.  Apoplectic.

“Where did you get this idea?”

I was 14 and had just caught the rock and roll bug.  I was so moved by the music, especially blues and rock guitar.  Because money was tight in our house, I had to figure out how to get lessons myself.  I dusted off my Mom’s old nylon string guitar and bought a book, the Lennon McCartney Guitar Course.  But it was slow going.

Then, one day I happened to come across a place called the Youth Development Association.  It was in the little prefab building that used to house our  town library before it moved into a grand building.  There was a guy there.  Young, hippy with a beard and long hair.  Cool looking.  He was playing the guitar as he sat behind the desk.

“Hi, my name is Jim.”

He said he could teach me guitar.  And we could even start right then.  For free.  He showed me a barre chord and how to play the Rolling Stones, “Jumping Jack Flash.”

I loved it.  I said, when can we schedule the next one?  He said come by next week.

Exactly at the same time next week, I arrived with my guitar.  Jim seemed surprised.  He didn’t seem to work with a calendar or anything.  Luckily he was free and he taught me my second lesson.  I was learning blues scales and really cool chords.  I was super excited.

Somehow, in the lesson, he asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.

“A doctor, lawyer or engineer.” was the automatic reply.

He looked at me strangely.  And then said,  “Really?  What do you really want to do?”

It was strange feeling.  I was off balance.  What?  Do you mean I have a choice?

“Well, do you mean anything?”

“Anything.  What would you do if you could do anything in the world?”

“Well I would be a rock star!  I’d play guitar in a band!”

“Well why don’t you do that?”

It was like the craziest thought.  It cracked open my mind.  I had a choice!

That night was when it all happened.  My Dad was prone to massive bouts of rage at this time of his life.  He yelled,  “Who told you this?”

“Well…I…It’s… this guy.  His name is Jim Petrungaro and he works at the YDA.  It’s the Youth Development Association.  He’s giving me guitar lessons for FREE!”

I thought he would be calmed by this.  How clever, I had found a way to get free lessons.  Didn’t he see how important this was to me?

“You are never to go there again!

“What?  But, but why?”

“That is a place for drug-addict kids.  Kids in trouble. You are not allowed!”

I was crying and struggling to get a word in edgewise.  This didn’t make any sense!  I’m not a drug addict.  I was being resourceful.  I had found a way to study guitar.  And he was giving me lessons for free!

But in my house, Dad’s word was final.

After that, I never saw Jim again.  I used to think he would be disappointed in me – that I had broken my word that I would come for that third lesson.

This incident was the beginning of my awakening to my self-identity.  It’s probably my first major turning point.  A pivot point.  It also began a long dark period between my father and I.



I Was Fired

I was fired.

It was a dream job.  Or what I thought was a dream job.  The pay was awful but the perks were amazing.  That’s the paradox of the music business.  All the free records, CDs and t-shirts you could possibly carry home daily.  Oh salary?  You want to get paid for this?

It was an independent marketing company.  I started as an intern even though I was only a junior in college.  It was not required for my coursework.  But I knew that the sooner I started, the easier it would be to find work in this crazy competitive industry.

We promoted music and bands that were so far from the mainstream.  With names like Anthrax and Megadeth, it was no wonder executives at major labels had no idea how to work this stuff.

On my first day at “work,” we ended early with beers at our desk for a birthday for one of the guys.  Then, we all went to see Metallica play a show at the Felt Forum.  Backstage, I met with a Who’s Who of heavy metal.   I was in heaven.

Remember Al Gore’s wife, Tipper? 

Around this time, the mid 1980’s, she and Susan Baker, wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker, started what became our greatest nemesis: the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC.)  It was probably Ozzy Osbourne, our client, who bit the head off a live bat onstage that caught her attention.

In testimony before Congress, Susan Baker said,  “There certainly are many causes for these ills in our society, but it is our contention that the pervasive messages aimed at children which promote and glorify suicide, rape, sadomasochism, and so on, have to be numbered among the contributing factors.”  The PMRC began pushing record companies for a ratings system, like the film industry, to warn parents about the evil music. 

Want To Sell More?  Get Banned

Of course, putting a sticker that says “Parental Warning” only made our clients music even more desirable to the kids.  Banned music?  I gotta hear this!  It probably was the greatest galvanizing force that helped our movement.


Because I joined a small company of less than 10 people, I was the lowest man on the totem pole.   One day I had an epiphany.  What if I recruited, trained and managed other interns?  Even though I wasn’t being paid, I could promote myself to management!

I presented my plan.  Of course, my boss agreed.  It was a win-win-win situation.  He had free labor.  I was promoted.  The interns were getting their first step into the music business.

An Army of Interns

We interns became part of a telemarketing force.  By calling independent, taste-making record shops across the country, we could introduce our clients and their music to the early adopters.  We would call, ship out a free package of goodies and soon, people in small towns would be talking about this cool new band, Guns N’ Roses.  This was back before the internet, mobile phones, Google.  Now it seems so antiquated.  But it worked.

Cold Calling

I became close friends with hundreds of shopkeepers and record store clerks by phone.  It was kind of amazing.  How could they resist?  I was just calling to ask them what was selling and if I could send them some free stuff that they would love.  It also really helped my shyness.  It was basically cold calling.  But the thing about cold calling, it’s a mental game.  You need to get past your fears, inhibitions and resistance.  I discovered that if I warmed up first by joking around with my colleagues, I would be in a better mood on the phone.  The hardest people were the owners of the stores.  They were busy!  They didn’t want to hear from some kid in New York City.   I started smiling before dialing.  Forcing myself to laugh right before they picked up the phone so that it was if we had already started the conversation and were past the awkward stage.  It worked incredibly well.  The more I just talked as if we had known each other already, the easier it was.  And, I truly believed in what we were doing and promoting.

And there was a side benefit.

It made me less awkward with talking to girls.  In fact, I made several long distance “girlfriends” over the phone.

So how did I end up getting fired?


I was young, brash, impatient.  There’s a fine line between confident competence and arrogance.  And even though I had the support of my boss, I caused a lot of friction in the office.  In hindsight, I also realize there was probably a bit of envy and jealousy among my coworkers.  I was the golden boy of the office.  But I was too naive then to realize this.  I still believed in meritocracy. 

One day, my boss took me aside for some mentoring.  He said, “You’re like a wild horse.  You’ve got such great ideas, but nobody can ride you.”

And it was true.  Thinking back, it was a great gift to be fired.  I needed to move on and wouldn’t just quit.  I needed to be pushed.  And, I needed to get a wakeup call.  Creativity, passion and action are great, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t fit in.

The Nail and the Poppy

This makes me think of the old story from Asia.  “The nail that sticks up will be hammered down.”  I think that’s from China.  Pretty good summary of Communism.  Or I think in New Zealand they say” the poppy that sticks out will be cut.” It’s fit in or die.

This is a struggle I’ve had all my life.  How to be remarkable, unique and different and still fit in, somewhere.

I haven’t given up on meritocracy completely.  It’s just that I know there’s a balance in life.  You can be amazing, brilliant and unique but still be kind, compassionate and generous.  I’m not the man I was at 24.  Hopefully, a bit wiser, kinder and more generous.

I went on to get fired several more times in my life.  It seems, it took me a long time to realize I’m an entrepreneur at heart.