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How much would you have paid for good advice at your biggest life fork in the road?

Chris Martin 0

In my first two posts, I looked at what makes a good Sage and when or why you might want to pay for Sage advice.  Today, a story about a time I needed advice and how not getting that advice cost me time and money. Literally, years of my life and more than six figures.  This example is personal, and I think it reflects the kind of major life choice that people face.  When your first plan hasn’t worked out and you must pivot to something new, how do you decide the best course of action?

When we met, my wife and I were both teaching ballroom dancing while pursuing careers in musical theater.  After we married, we moved to NYC to pursue that dream.  Fast forward seven years, and now we have a son approaching his third birthday.  Though we focused on auditioning, taking classes, and doing shows, we both had “day” jobs. I was managing and teaching at a ballroom dance studio, and my wife taught English at Berlitz. We had a small rent-controlled apartment on W49th street between 9th and 10th avenue. We loved everything about our life, with one exception: the cost of living. Living in Manhattan was simply too expensive for the three of us.

Every year the rent went up, and our income remained about the same. I started juggling balances on credit cards. I’d apply for a new credit card and pay off the old one with the promotional 0% interest rate. But that debt was climbing, and I didn’t see any way to get in front of it.[1] On the one hand, we were lucky.  My wife worked a normal 9-5, and I didn’t have to be at work until after lunch.  When our son was an infant, we were able to manage childcare ourselves, negotiating the transitions and handoffs. I taught more than one dance lesson wearing him in a Baby Bjorn!  That wasn’t going to be feasible much longer. Our dream of living in New York and doing theater was going to have to end.  The question became: what would we do next?

Without a dream, how are you going to make a dream come true?

Over several months my wife and I talked over options. I had been coaching the competitive ballroom dancing team at Cornell University, and Ithaca didn’t have a dance studio. We could borrow money (somehow), move to Ithaca, open a studio, and try to make a go of it. Or, I could go back to graduate school and get a master’s degree. Then I could get an academic job teaching ballroom dancing, ideally someplace like Cornell. She would keep teaching ESL while I was in school. Going to grad school would also involve borrowing money, but Federally backed student loans. On the other side would be a job in academia. Here, as best I remember, was how those choices broke down for us:

Choice One:  Open a new Studio, in a new town, with only the lessons and coaching I was doing at Cornell

The economics of teaching private lessons are simple, really. Get an hourly fee, deduct your costs for renting the space you are working in, and the rest is profit.  The economics of running a studio is orders of magnitude more complicated. I’d been teaching ballroom for more than a decade and managing a studio for about two years, and my experience suggested that to be successful, we would need a few patrons. Patrons would purchase a lot of lessons at a discount in advance, receiving instruction over time. If enough people committed money upfront, that would support the studio until we had more community participation. Patronage was how every studio I knew of had started. Unfortunately, very few of them evolved beyond those early patron-client relationships. 

In our analysis, the first year would be the hardest. We didn’t have any relationships outside of Cornell in Ithaca, there was no established ballroom community in Ithaca, and in the summer coaching students would dry up entirely. We didn’t know anything about finding real estate, and what we knew of the costs of equipping a studio were basically that it was not cheap. Hardwood floors and walls of mirrors, a good sound system, and lighting. If all went well, after a few years, we’d have an established clientele and a small business whose model we both understood. We were worried about being under-capitalized for that first year, though.

Choice Two: Go back to graduate school, in order to get a job teaching at a University.

I grew up steeped in academia. My mother earned her tenure as an economics professor at the University of Nebraska. By the time we were facing this decision she was the Dean of a major university’s business school.  I had seen up close what kind of life a university professor could have. I thought I understood the nature of the work and had a fair idea of what it would take to get the degree I wanted. I’d go back to school, my wife and I would teach ballroom and English to help pay the bills, and in three years I’d have an MFA in dance. My first job would probably be at a small midwestern college. After a few years we could get to a big city where we’d put down roots and raise our family.

A Fork in the Road

A close up of a street

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This is where I could have used better advice. I did get advice. I got a lot of “I’m sure you’ll succeed at whatever you put your mind to.” This, while affirming, was not exactly useful. What I didn’t get was a sense of how either of these paths would work, what success or failure would look like, and what pitfalls we might encounter.  In hindsight, we didn’t look closely enough at the “opening a business” option. I think this was largely because the early risks of failure seemed so high. Neither of us knew a small business owner outside of the ballroom world. Most of what we knew about THAT world we didn’t like.[2] In order for that choice to be one we could practically consider, we would need to answer questions like:

  • How could we, with no collateral, secure funding?
  • How much funding would we need?
  • What kind of permits would we need to open a business in New York State and Ithaca?
  • How do we negotiate for a lease?
  • What kind of insurance would we need?

Basically, we knew nothing about opening a studio beyond knowing that other people had done it! Add all that to the lack of connections to the community outside of Cornell, and it seemed like a big hill.

On the other hand, the path through graduate school to an MFA and a job as a junior professor seemed straightforward.  Student loans would be easy to acquire. Taking dance classes was something I had never stopped doing, and every major university had a dance department, so there should be a job on the other side, even if it wasn’t in an ideal location.[3] 

Academia it was! How did that work out?

Reader, the path from graduate school to a job in academia was not straightforward. Instead of an MFA, I ended up with an MA in American Dance Studies and a Ph.D. in Performance Studies. Instead of three years in school, I spent six.  For two of those years, I didn’t bring in any income at all!  I could go on at some length about the ways that choosing the academic path had unexpected outcomes, but probably the top three were

  1. You can’t get an MFA with a focus in ballroom dancing in the United States, and even if you could, no University wants to hire a dance teacher with ballroom as their core specialty.
  2. Six years of academia has a lot of hidden costs. Working full time while writing a dissertation is a great way to not finish your dissertation, but not working full time while writing a dissertation is a great way to make those revolving credit card loans from NYC look like chump change.
  3. Getting a job in academia during a major recession requires an excellent fit between your work and the hiring institution. While you can get a Ph.D. writing about ballroom dancing, that and $4.50 will get you a latte at Starbucks! At that time every job opening for a dance professor requires a focus in Ballet or Modern, every opening for a theater professor requires a history of directing (not choreographing!) shows, and every academic opening requires three published books … I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Not so great, as it turns out.

As a family, we came out the other side of my journey into academia much, much worse off financially than when we went in.  I had an expensive degree that didn’t translate into a job that would pay off the debt accrued in acquiring the degree.[4]  My wife lost six years in which she might have been pursuing a career or getting an advanced degree.  We had no savings to speak of and six figures of student loan debt.

Professionally, I had gained skills that would prove useful – even valuable! – in many working environments.  Eventually, I was fortunate enough to find a position that enabled us to get out of debt for my wife to get her Master’s degree and start on a career in education. I would not have been able to achieve that success without the skills I learned in graduate school.  That journey is another story, though!

Make no mistake, we might have failed spectacularly as small business owners and had an entirely different set of problems! No one can foresee all outcomes, but if we’d done more research or gotten better advice, we might not have dug such a deep hole for ourselves. 

What is the value of advice if no one listens to it?

In the time since I bought and paid for these lessons, I’ve tried to pass along what I’ve learned. A few years ago, I participated in a panel for the University of Maryland’s Theater & Performance Studies MA/Ph.D. program, with two other alumni who had found careers outside of academia. We articulated the challenges we’d faced with a degree that didn’t move easily into a tenure-track academic position, the absolute train wreck that was adjuncting, and how much corporate positions paid.  More, how desperately corporations wanted to hire people who could think critically and write articulately. 

At the end of the sessions, we took questions. What they asked us suggested that few, if any of them, were ready to hear what we were saying.  They’d already crossed the Rubicon. If we’d been talking to people who were applying to graduate school and been able to ask them if they knew what they were getting into, then we might have reached someone who was open to our message. 

This is all coming back to Sage, right?

Which brings me back to Sage. I guess a question about the value of the site might be: “Are major life decisions going to be influenced by a relationship fostered by a website?”  To which I immediately think, “if the number of people getting married based on first dates they set up on dating apps is any indication ….”  😊  But seriously – if there had been someone like me, who had been down the road I was thinking of walking, and I’d been able to have an hour of their time to learn more about the choices I was facing, I might have made a better choice.  At least, I would have been more informed about the choice I was making! 

One of the reasons I’m such a big supporter of Peter’s vision for the site is that I know firsthand how painful not getting good advice can be. It doesn’t have to be a major life choice-level problem to be worth getting a second opinion, either.  I’m a believer that there is a value in providing a marketplace where seekers of wisdom can find the sages who can help them.

In my next installment, a happier story, in which I sought out some good advice and even better, took it!


[1] “It’s a trap!” – Akbar

[2] Franchising a license from Fred Astaire or Arthur Murray chains would have been an option, but we’d both worked in those organizations and found them deeply problematic. But that’s a different story!

[3] When I was an undergrad at UNL, several of the dance professors came in for a year from NYC, so I thought this was not uncommon.

[4] I could adjunct. For $2700 per Class per Semester.

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