When I was a boy, I was always jealous of my friends who had fathers with a career. Whether it was a tobacco salesman at one of the many warehouses in our small rural town at the time, or whether it was the local attorney or Lance Truck delivery guy… there was something I felt prestigious about having a career with a “real job” attached to your identity. My dad was on track to be an architect before he went to work for himself. I just recently stole a notebook of his drawings from that time before I was born (sorry, Dad). He would mention buildings or features that he designed in his earlier career path as we drove past them on the way to yet another car dealership in the area. We’ve never discussed it, but I always wondered what it would be like to have a dad with a formal career.
Dad has always been the entrepreneurial type and I can’t count the number of other side ventures he’s been involved with to go along with his main profession as a car wholesaler. He’s carried a leather briefcase for most of his life, and I used to sneak extra copies of his evolving business cards to put in my briefcase (which I, unfortunately, didn’t realize was not considered a cool fashion accessory during the first few days of Middle School).
But yet, he created his own job. As did his father. As did my Great Grand Father. Probably further back on down the line if I go check our family history file. There’s something about growing up in a small rural town of just a couple thousand people that makes you create your own path, whether that’s politically or theologically… or career-wise. Our town was full of women and men who were self-starters and “worked for themselves.”
God Helps Those Who Help Themselves could be on the official seal of Mullins, SC.
Perhaps that’s why I coveted a dad with a career in a fancy office building that he’d go off to in a white shirt and tie every morning after we ate corn flakes and he asked me how I liked my teacher and how the homework was going as he read the folded up paper at the breakfast table. Instead, I would see my dad often during the day in his mobile office. That’s what I called his truck. It was always full of papers and industry figures on cars and random tools or car parts. He’d drive up at 11 am or 2 pm or 4 pm while I was outside playing basketball in our yard. We’d exchange quick hello’s then go about our day. He’d drive off again after and I’d see him a few hours later. Dad would also travel to cities with exotic sounding names like Charleston or Savannah or Lumberton or Atlanta. I’d find the cities in our copy of The World Book and try to guess how far they were from Mullins. While he was on these trips, I would often stay up late drawing the logo for the business I was going to create in a big office building in a big town somewhere (hopefully Chicago so that I could go see the Cubs play when things weren’t too busy). I still have a notebook from childhood with a few of those drawings and designs for the invisible company. It was going to be called Harrelson Agency and the logo was a fancy “H” that I lifted from a crystal glass that was in the China cabinet that I wasn’t supposed to ever dare touch (I did).
After I left Mullins for college (where I got to fly on planes and travel overseas) and then graduate school (in another part of the country, even), I moved to Columbia. I had the option to go back home and teach there (in an alternate universe, there’s a very happy and inspired 40 years old AP US History Teacher Sam doing his thing), but we chose Columbia. I ended up in the classroom for a while but was tempted away by what I had always sought… a job in an office.
I stumbled into the marketing agency building here in Columbia on my first day not knowing much of anything about the real profession of marketing. I was good with computers and had a pretty quick wit, so I guess that was good enough to land the job in 2002. I loved the job and the connections I was making with people all around the world even if I was just writing email copy or begging advertisers for money. I bought a home. I had a steady paycheck with a beautiful girlfriend and a dog and I wore a white shirt and tie to work every day. Living the dream, I thought.
Then as the months went by, I started realizing I should be getting more money. I was “Sam Harrelson” after all. I was important to the company. I should get at least a commission on these big deals I was landing, right? I was 25 and knew everything.
I even considered becoming a registered Republican. As those thoughts entered my mind, I quickly realized it was time for my next career step. That’s what a career is, right? It’s a series of vertical movements until you hit a “Chief” position where there’s no one to tell you what to do. So I made vertical moves over the next few years until I realized enough was … well … enough. And I walked away from the office job with the white shirt and tie. I walked away from that career. I ended up back in a classroom.
Teaching wasn’t just a job for me. It was and is my true passion. I don’t know why. Some people love jumping out of airplanes. Some people love selling makeup. I love teaching. I’ll teach anything (just give me an hour to brush up beforehand). My partner has become accustomed to my dinner table mini-lessons on the newest star formation in the Orion constellation or how Egyptian mummification techniques changed rapidly in the late Ptolemaic period, or why 2 Samuel’s depiction of Uriah is so damning today. She handles me with grace.
Over the course of 8 years as a professional teacher, I taught 11th grade American literature, 8th-grade science, 8th-grade robotics, 8th-grade algebra, 7th-grade pre-algebra, 7th-grade science, 7th grade US History, 7th grade English, and 6th-grade Design Tech along with many summer camp courses. I worked with students to launch a balloon into space (well, upper atmosphere… close enough) and we made the TV news and front page of the local paper. The students had a copy framed for me, and it still hangs on my “office” wall (more on that in a second). I just knew I was going to be a teacher forever.
Then as the years went by, I started realizing that I should be getting more money. I was “Sam Harrelson” after all (Well, “Mr. H”). I was important to the school. I should be getting at least a moderate pay bump for all the exposure and social media likes and parent involvement I was generating, right? I was 32 and knew everything.
So I walked away from the classroom with the coffee mugs and bow ties. I walked away from that career. I ended up back in my bedroom.
For the last 8 years, I’ve been carving this Harrelson Agency thing out of marble. Michelangelo might have seen the David in a block of marble that had laid neglected for 26 years in the yard of a Cathedral, but I certainly didn’t have the same privilege with the 26-year-old career block that has been sitting in the corner of my mind. Sculpting this company and this life from that block of hard stone has caused me much psychological and physical and emotional and relationship strife. It’s only now, 8 years after I started chipping, that I realize what I’ve done to myself and what Harrelson Agency has done to me. You could call it the male impetus for chasing “The Great White Whale” or the Concord Fallacy, but I’m not giving it up just yet even though it remains a difficult beast to direct and has fits of starts and stops and continuous bucking. We’re conjoined now. I’ve engendered it with life and meaning and kicking it out of the Garden is not a practical resolution to this creation.
I realize, as a Pirate Looks at 40, that I have become very much like my dad. I don’t have a typical office. My truck is my mobile office. I carry a leather briefcase. I’m consistently changing my business card designs. I’m at home during random times of the day, and I get to spend a good deal of time with my children and partner. It’s a good job if you can get it.
Yet, I’ll still put on a white shirt and pair of slacks just to go work at the dining room table or my makeshift office here in our bedroom, which makes no sense. I’m always pulled back to that childhood fear of being a man without a career and when I look at my 10-year-old daughter I wonder now if she has the same thoughts I do. “My mom is a doctor, but what in the hell do I tell people my dad does? Play on the internet all day?” I hope I’m not causing her that anxiety as I work on this marble block. My tools have gotten better, and I have a better sense of how to chip and strike and know when to walk away and leave the block for a day to give us both rest as I work on it and it works on me. I hope she understands that I’m doing this intentionally for her and her sister and her brother and our family.
There’s a Coldplay song (I’m not a Coldplay fan if you’re wondering) titled “The Scientist” that has always pulled my heartstrings. Willie Nelson did an excellent cover of it a few years back and I prefer his version but that’s irrelevant. Having gone through a divorce and having lost people close to me in death, the song of loss and hurt resonates deeply. One of the lines that will pop up in the ever playing jukebox that is my head is:
No one said it was easy. No one said it would be so hard.
It was a constant partner to me during the divorce and during hard times with Harrelson Agency. I wish my dad would have warned me. Maybe he did, and I’m just now hearing him.
Harrelson Agency has grown every year in client base and income. Now it’s growing in offerings and direction (more on that in a second). Despite that, I’ve tried to walk away from this career a few times. I’ve flirted with a big job in an office high rise downtown with a parking garage and a hierarchical ladder for climbing. I’ve flirted with going back into the classroom. None of those dalliances amounted to me leaving this block behind though. I realize now that what I’ve always been looking for has been right there in the notebook that I created while wondering what my dad was doing. Living in Columbia now and having many friends and acquaintances in the “professional class” here has only ratcheted up that anxiety of not “having a career.” I get asked “So what do you do?” weekly as I’m introduced to parents at our son’s school or meetups or church. “Oh, Communications and PR. Who are you with?” To which I answer “Myself.” I need to start answering “Harrelson Agency… up and coming PR agency here in town. Heard of them?” Imposter syndrome is real, y’all.
What I’ve realized is that Harrelson Agency continues to shift from being a pure “marketing agency” into more of a public relations and communications firm. Marketing is a part of that to be sure, but most of our newer clients don’t need a website or a social media plan and are looking for real strategy and real communications help. We all thought Public Relations as a “career” (more on that in a second) was dead as a doornail in 2005 as the social web was just beginning to flourish and everyone could be their own PR rep.
What we realized is that effective communication, especially online, is a job and a career in and of itself no matter the medium. In our current age, we’re able to use artificial intelligence to create audio and video of anyone saying anything we’d like. Our human brains are still tied to our pre-Paleolithic environment and we’re just now beginning to understand how the brain “sees” and “hears” scientifically. But good luck explaining that to an angry Facebook user who saw the video of you saying something you didn’t say, or the angry Twitter person calling you out for a snippet of audio in your voice but not from your mouth. We’re entering dangerous, but exciting, times. I want to be more a part of that conversation as it relates to what I love doing with nonprofits and religious organizations marketing-wise, but also in the political realm. Not a full-on change, but a slight pivot to keep up with the times and my passion and the tools I have on hand to work on this block.
What I’ve realized is that my dad has had a great career that he sculpted himself. I’m proud of him. He is, for all intent and purposes, my role model. I’m still working on this damned marble block, but I’m not letting the cherubim and seraphim have at it just yet with their flaming swords. I’m not condemning it to a life of thistles and thorns. We’re going to make this work, Harrelson Agency, and we’re going to continue to build this career as we hammer it out in the sunshine and in the rain of that cathedral yard.
Running in circles, chasing our tails Coming back as we are