Tess Vigeland on her new book and leaving ‘Marketplace Money’

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What would make you give up on your dream gig? Former Marketplace Money host Tess Vigeland had to answer that question for herself when she left the show. Since stepping down in November 2012, Vigeland has been readying her book, Leap Without a Net: Leaving a Job With No Plan B, which comes out Tuesday. Not only does she tell her story, but she introduces readers to others who voluntarily walked away from their jobs and lived to tell the tale. Vigeland appeared on our podcast The Pub in April to discuss the book, life post-Marketplace and what she misses about hosting. This is an edited transcript.

Vigeland: I miss the listeners more than anything; I miss having that conversation with them, especially because my main show was a call-in show, so I got to talk to people all the time, and that was the pure joy of it. I miss the microphone. I mean, all of us on the radio have egos, and I miss that part of it. I miss being part of the news when a big story breaks. I’m like, “Oh no, I want to cover this.” But I have no way to cover it, no reason to.

There are a lot of things I miss, and every time I get that feeling of missing it, that’s regret. But at the same time, I had to do it, and a lot of amazing good has come from it for me. So there’s regret mixed with . . . what’s the word I’m looking for? I guess “newness” that I’m kind of rolling around in still, two years later.

Current: Remind everyone why you felt you had to leave.

Vigeland: I’ve been very circumspect about those reasons. People can fill in the blanks based on the fact that I won’t talk about it. But beyond the usual kind of reasons why people usually leave jobs, I just felt like I needed to go do something new. I was bored in a lot of ways, particularly with the show that I was in. I wanted to make a lot of changes that weren’t happening. And, honestly, I was little bit tired of the subject matter.

Current: And the fact the Marketplace Money has been discontinued since then would seem to bolster that opinion.

Vigeland: I don’t have anything to say about that. Well, actually I do have something to say about it. I have not listened to the show since the day I left, so I don’t know what they’re doing; I know what the press release said they were doing, and what they did with the program is exactly what I wanted to do but was — shall we say? — kept from doing.

Current: For anyone who hasn’t been listening, I guess what they did was change Marketplace Money, which was a personal finance call-in show, to Marketplace Weekend.

Vigeland: Yes, and I don’t know what’s on the show; like I said, I haven’t listened to it. So you can read into that as well. But from what I could tell from the announcement, it is much less about personal finance, and it’s basically Marketplace but on the weekend.

I have joked many times that — as with the adage that there are only six stories worldwide and they come around all the time, and we’re just covering them year in and year out — I make the same joke about personal finance, that there’s six stories in personal finance. And you can only talk about them until you’re blue in the face so many times before saying, “Uncle. I have nothing else to say about 401(k)s.”

That drove some of it, but I will say — and I have said this publicly — that I didn’t want to leave. Marketplace was the place that I wanted to be from the very beginning of my career; it’s the first place I ever sold a national feature to. And every time I hosted the big show — the afternoon show, when Kai Ryssdal was away — I got chills when that theme music came on. Even 11 years in, I could not believe that I was sitting in that chair. In fact, I feel myself choking up as I say that.

It was the most extraordinary thing to have that goal, and achieve it in a relatively short time space, and love it as much as I did. It was where I was meant to be, and I did not want to leave. But for all kinds of reasons I felt like I had to, and so I miss it terribly; I really do. I guess I miss radio.

Current: You’re still doing a lot of fill-in hosting in L.A., right?

Vigeland: I have, and that’s been really fun. Both KPCC and KCRW here in L.A. have had me come and fill in for both Warren Olney’s show and Take Two here in Los Angeles. And I’ve also been doing backup work over at Weekend All Things Considered over in Culver City at NPR West.

I’ve definitely been keeping my toes wet, my fingers in everything, my fingers and toes. But it hasn’t been enough to make me feel like I’m still a part of things. I feel like I basically parachute in, do what I love for anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks, and I’m just happy that whole time. And then I leave. In some ways it’s great because I don’t have to deal with a lot of the internal politics and machinations of a workplace. I can just go and have fun, and then leave.

But every time I go back, either to Take Two or to Weekend All Things Considered, it reminds me of what I’m missing. And that has been the ultimate struggle for me over the last two years in figuring out whether I want to stay, and somehow find a different place within this world of public radio, of journalism. Or if I’m just going to say, “You know what? I’m done with that. And I’m going to move on, and I’m going to find something else to get really good at and fall in love with.”

I feel a little bit like a failure sometimes, that I haven’t figured that out in two years; two years is a long time, right? But I’ve also read a lot of studies that say that actually this kind of particularly mid-career leap, the reinvention-of-yourself transition, takes up to three years, so I guess I have another year to get my act together. Although my budget would appreciate it if I got my act together before then.

Current: I don’t doubt it. But there’s a reason, of course, that you are aware of the academic literature on the subject. You’ve been working on a book about people who have made decisions like yours, people who have voluntarily walked away from amazing gigs.

Vigeland: That’s exactly it. And I’ve interviewed 80 or so people from around the world who responded to a speech that I gave in July of 2013, about eight months after I left Marketplace, about how difficult that time had been.

We all hear so often that, “Oh, just follow your passion and everything will fall into place. And you will find riches, and you will find what you love to do.” That’s not how it works. So I gave a speech to that effect, and talked about the regrets, everything that I’ve just kind of shared with you — the fear, there’s a lot of fear that goes on.

It happened that an executive editor from Random House was in the audience when I gave that speech, and 11 days later I had a book deal. This doesn’t happen to people, so I’m extraordinarily fortunate and grateful. And it’s been an interesting process to write a book after 20 years in daily and weekly journalism.

Current: It’s all writing tight — your whole life is writing tight —and then suddenly you got to fill a whole book. It goes against everything you stand for, right?

Vigeland: Seventy-five thousand words instead of, you know, 300. And the timeline is so different, too. Having to manage myself over a span of a year-plus in putting this project together, I wasn’t very good at it. In fact, I was terrible at it.

Current: As you know, I recently left daily journalism as well, and one of the things the experience has led me to realize is that being in daily journalism allowed me to forget how bad I was at managing my own time . . .

Vigeland: I’m totally stealing that.

Current: . . . and I remember, this is why I was a screwup in school.

Vigeland: Well, I’m like 22, 23 years on the other end of that, so it really is different, and I think journalism is actually very good for procrastinators — of which I am one — because it forces you. You just get it done. You have no option; you’ve got that deadline, especially if you’re going on air. That light is going to come on, and you better be ready to go.

Whereas here I had a year to write the book, and I pretty much wrote it in the last six to eight weeks that year. I wish I could say that I’d been doing some really cool, fun stuff while I was procrastinating, but no, I was sitting at the computer.

Current: Worrying.

Vigeland: Worrying, basically, yes, instead of writing. I’ve heard that this is not uncommon, that this is very writerly of me, but it still bugs me because I have this need in me, after so much journalism, to just get it done, and get it out there, and move on to the next thing. And you can’t do that with a book, so it’s been an interesting process.

Current: Who are the people that you’ve interviewed? Can we get a couple of examples?

Vigeland: I interviewed people all across the spectrum: working-class, upper–middle-class, people who made a lot of money in what they did, people with children, people without children, people who were involved in the restaurant industry, a lot of lawyers. Lawyers really are not a happy bunch; they all want to quit their jobs, I will tell you that.

The interesting thing is that all of these people came to me. My speech somehow made its way into that viral atmosphere, and people wrote to me after either reading it or watching it or hearing it, and shared their stories with me. And those are pretty much the stories that are going into the book.

I have one couple, a pair of Harvard-educated attorneys who worked in the same workplaces actually over a span of years and really just got tired of their own lifestyle. They got tired of the hours; they didn’t feel like they were really enjoying what they were doing on a daily basis anymore. And although they weren’t sure exactly what they wanted to do next, they both left; they both left the same company at the same time and moved to a different city. And they had one young child already, I think 3 or 4 years old, and they had one on the way.

These are not people who you would think would just up and quit, right? Who does that, especially with a kid on the way? But they just felt like they didn’t want their children to see them not enjoying what they did for a living. One of them is trying his hand at becoming a sitcom writer here in California, and the other, she’s writing her own book about a journey into being kind of a more positive person.

So that was one really interesting story to hear. I also spoke with a gentleman who ended up going to divinity school after trying to figure out what he wanted to do for, I don’t know, somewhere around seven or eight years, and just never really found what turned him on. Went to divinity school at Harvard, ended up being one of the primary chaplains after that at Memorial Church in Harvard Yard. He basically was at the top of his own career track in his early 30s. And then just for various reasons felt like he needed to, wanted to, leave; didn’t know what was going to happen next. And just up and moved from Harvard back to his home town.

He talks a lot about what work is supposed to mean in our lives, and how we’ve distorted that so much so that it has become who we are. I talk about this a lot in the book too, because something that I’ve had to really get over is identifying myself only with what I did for a living. We do that here in America; they don’t do that everywhere. It’s very unique to us; we are obsessed with what we do for a living. It’s the first question you ask someone, right, when you go to a party.

Current: What do you do?

Vigeland: Yeah. They don’t do that in other places; in fact, in some places it’s rude to ask that question. It was really interesting to hear from him kind of, obviously, a little more of a spiritual perspective on this process of reinvention, of figuring out what you want to do and who you want to be, even though you’re already well into an established career.

Current: Over the course of reporting the book out, did you encounter anyone who wasn’t coming to this decision to walk away, to give it all up, from a place of significant socioeconomic privilege?

Vigeland: Excellent question. Yes, although I would say that we’re still talking about solid middle-class, if not leaning toward upper–middle-class. The money issue comes in immediately, which is good for me because it’s a topic I’m vaguely familiar with.

And the way I’ve put it is that clearly, if you are a family of four making the median income in this country of what? — $52,000, I think it is at this point — and you are struggling to pay the bills month to month, it is highly unlikely that you are just going to up and leave without having a safety net, right?

And if you’re living month to month, you don’t have a savings account; you don’t have anything to back you up. So you’re probably not going to do this. I think there are books out there that will tell you you can, and they will try to teach you how to pinch pennies, so that you have the freedom to leave a career or a job when you want.

For most people, that’s just not realistic. So, yes, I am talking with people who are beyond the median income. And that’s just something that I have to acknowledge right up front. Now does that mean that you can’t take some lessons from this experience in terms of what it’s like, and how it changes your sensibilities, your notions of what success looks like and how much money it takes to get that success? Yes.

I think those are themes that resonate no matter what, and I’m still not middle-class. I was only able to do this because my husband makes enough money to pay the bills. Now our lifestyle has changed radically because my income is so catch-as-catch-can at this point. We have no idea from quarter to quarter what our financial situation’s going to look like. But we do know that we can pay the mortgage, and we can keep our cats and dogs in cat and dog food.

This whole idea of quitting your job not knowing what you want to do and taking some time to figure that out: Yes, it is a luxury. But I don’t think you have to be rich to do it; you have to have confidence first of all that you’ll be able to make some work for yourself. And that’s one big difference now from even five or 10 years ago. The ability to be entrepreneurial is so much more significant now than it was, mostly because of technology and the Internet.

So you can find a way to make a buck. Whether that’s what you want to be doing all the time, whether that’s what you want to do for your new career — that’s another issue. But you have to have the confidence that you’ll be able to somehow support yourself and/or you have to prepare before you take a leap like this.

I would say a good 50 percent if not more of the people that I talked to gave themselves a cushion. Now some of those cushions ran out before they figured out what they wanted to do next, but it did give them some time — whether it was two months or four months or six months — to take a little bit of time to decompress and start to ask yourself a lot of the questions that come up when you do something like this.

Current: Do you have an excerpt you’re going to read us?

Vigeland: Sure. In fact, this is related to what we just talked about. I wrote a whole chapter on that question that you have to answer whenever you meet someone new — “What do you do for a living?” — because I started to hate that question. This is an excerpt from that chapter, the chapter is called, “Don’t Ask Me That.”

When you no longer have the cool answer, you dread the question about what you do for work; you try to avoid it. I think that’s magnified if you’ve been a public person, because then the perceived fall from cool seems so much more dramatic.

In fact, for almost a year when people would ask that question, “What do you do?” I would reply with “Well, I used to be (pause).” And I’d absorb the looks of approval and wonder, and I’d smile, and I’d say, “Yes” when they asked if I knew Scott Simon or Robert Siegel. But then the follow-up, “So what are you doing now?” That question, I did not want to answer it; I felt shame; I feared being judged; I no longer had something cool to say; it felt like failure, even though the decision had been all my own.

“Oh I’m a freelancer.” Look of pity. “Ah, I’m a solopreneur building a career of writing, voiceover and event hosting.” Look of bewilderment. “I’m on a break from office life.” “Oh, so you’re unemployed and looking for work? Sorry to hear it.” “Ah, I left my 20-year career and I don’t know what comes next.” “Ah, what? Did you win the lottery or something? Aren’t you bored? Did you lose your ambition somewhere along the way too?”

Most people cannot fathom the idea of leaving a career without having a next step lined up. So these quizzical looks stem from a very real sense that either you’ve given up on yourself, or there’s something wrong with your mental or physical health. Explaining it can be exhausting because everyone wants to know why you left, and how you’re going to support yourself. “What does your family say about all this?” And the whole time your own psyche is revisiting all those same questions that you’d finally banished before you attended this event.

Current: That’s great, and it reads so well. Have you found yourself writing for the ear out of habit, even though you’re writing for the page now?

Vigeland: Yes, I’m doing that purposefully, and I told my editor that, and luckily she was cool with it. I am not writing for the reader because I think a lot of these readers — not all of them, and hopefully when it sells like five million copies it’ll be a lot of people who’ve never heard of me — but I want people to hear me in their heads. People have said when they read my blog posts, even the pieces that I’ve written for the New York Times, that they can hear me saying those words. That’s the lovely thing about radio; people come to know your voice, they come to know your syntax, they come to know your pacing, and that becomes who you are with them.

So I am writing exactly the way I talk; that’s how I wrote for radio, and I think that’s part of why I had this amazing relationship with my audience, because I just talk to them. Why do anything else? All of my writing was just a conversation, I hope; that was always the goal. Why make that any different when I’m putting it on a page?

Current: When does it drop?

Vigeland: August of 2015. Coming up, yeah, it’s a — it’s a little scary. I have vowed that I will not be that author who is obsessed with the New York Times Best Seller List and the Amazon list. Whether I can make good on that vow, I don’t know, but what I want most of all is to feel good about what I’ve written.

I hope this helps people, because so many people feel like they’re stuck in their jobs, especially if you have a really cool job — a job that you love, a job that you’re really good at and that you’ve been doing for a really long time. Taking this step is terrifying, absolutely terrifying. I’ve never been more scared in my life, but there is a process to it, which surprised me. Hopefully, people can read this and say, “You know what? I might be able to do that. Here’s how I can prepare to do it; here’s what’s going to happen when I do do it.” From there, it’s up to the individual. But we’ll see.