Only a person with a life as fascinating as Dan Carroll could throw out a line like that and have it make complete sense!
As Media Engagement Director for Atlanta’s renowned Dragon Con, Dan has numerous stories of memorable guest (i.e. pop culture phenomenon) encounters to share. Avenging Carrie Fisher’s mistreatment by press he’d credentialed, reuniting “Darth Vader” with “Chewbacca,” and being asked to hang out with a celebrity he admired are a few he shared on the inaugural episode of A Day in the Life.
For anyone who thinks they’ve got to have their career plans nailed down by the time they graduate from high school or college, Dan’s story blows that idea completely out of the water. In fact, his aspirations as a young adult never fully came to fruition. Instead of living in Siberia putting his hard-earned Russian language skills to use, he taught himself HTML, focused on his strengths, and earned the credentials he needed to launch a successful career as a Senior Project Manager.
On our podcast, “A Day in the Life” Dan gave us a backstage pass into how he is able to merge his natural strengths with how he makes a living. He discussed how he got a jumpstart to his career, what inspired him to start embracing his passions more, and how a crowd of monkeys saved him from a debacle that involved the one and only Carrie Fisher (more on that later).
Aspirations prior to becoming a project manager
When Dan was in the process of finishing college, he realized it was time to get a job. He found himself taking a liking towards journalism and ended up speaking with a Navy recruiter about his options. Dan figured he’d be an apt fit for the Navy’s media crew, which encompassed their radio stations, television, and various film departments.
Dan took the test to get into the Navy. He was told he was too talented to be just a journalist. The Navy recruiter pitched him the idea of becoming a nuclear engineer. Dan declined and instead decided to pursue a role focused on linguistics and communication.
When presented with the option to learn Arabic or Russian, Dan’s familiarity with Russian culture and literature prompted him to pursue learning the language.
Everything seemed to be going well for Dan. He had started on a solid career trajectory, received education at various (classified) schools, and was even awarded a scholarship to study in Tobolsk. This all changed when the Soviet Union collapsed and related PhDs lost their value. For those with PhDs, the industry saw “50% unemployment within 6 weeks” of the Soviet Union collapse.
Through no fault of his own, Dan now had to re-evaluate what his life and career would look like from there on out.
Transition to project management
When Dan’s plan to pursue a Soviet PhD became moot, he took an interest in HTML, SQL, and software development. At one point, he was a Microsoft developer primarily using a language called ASP.
Eventually, Dan was presented with an opportunity to become a Documentation Manager. He notes in the podcast that this had been his first role with “Manager” in the title.
His first project was to deliver a $75 million dollar data center design working cross-functionally with 17 different departments. This was over two decades ago. Nowadays, Dan is well-established as an senior PMP-certified project manager.
Dan was able to recognize his own natural abilities to keep things in order and bridge the divide between technical and standard business jargon communications. As he put it, “Know what you’re good at and don’t be afraid to say this is what I’m good at. Sometimes that means minimizing the stuff you’re bad at.”
Introspection is a learned skill – One worth cultivating. Have you been able to determine what you’re naturally good at? What empowers you? What individual skills do you possess that have helped you overcome hurdles and face challenges?
A turning point: Reflecting on the loss of a friend
There are moments in life that change our entire life trajectory and thus, evolve our perspectives. A turning point in Dan’s life arrived when an old friend whom he had recently connected with passed away. The loss of a friend ushered in introspection and made Dan contemplate how he was really spending his time.
At the time, Dan was an empty nester and found himself wanting more. He discovered he could volunteer at Dragon Con, a popular pop-culture and multi-media event held annually in Atlanta, Georgia. While the pay was nearly nonexistent (a whopping $20), it positioned Dan as an integral component of an influential ecosystem, where celebrities walk the floors and take the stage.
Eventually, Dan ended up with the position of Media Engagement Director at Dragon Con. He related the story of how he saved the renowned Carrie Fisher from a swarm of reporters in a (paraphrased) “Tony Soprano-esque way.” If you’ve seen the Sopranos, you know what that means.
All caught on video, Dan, visibly emotional, helps Carrie. Then, he’s saved by the monkeys. Wait, monkeys? Oh yeah, the people in monkey costumes who (thankfully) stole the spotlight by acting like… well, monkeys.
There was also that time Christopher Lloyd personally attended one of his events.
A day in the life of a project manager
Dan’s journey to becoming a project manager was unique and beneficial. As a former Soviet analyst and Russian translator, Dan developed strong analytical and research skills. As a software developer, Dan gained experience in holding himself accountable to deliver projects.
By learning how to code, he developed the valuable skill of “speaking technical in business.” His volunteer experience and role as Media Engagement Director at DragonCon allows him to fuel his passions without compromising on his values.
We’ve taken a look into Dan’s resume. What about his daily life?
After Dan’s alarm goes off in the morning and the smell of coffee does not fill the air (Surprisingly, he is content without it), he starts the day by taking some personal time for himself.
He catches up on his favorite shows and gets work done for Dragon Con. Around 8:30a.m., business as usual commences. As a contract based project manager, his 9-5 includes meetings, preparation for meetings, and administrative duties like responding to emails.
A project manager and his monkeys
Dan is aware of his strengths, which include strategic thinking, project management, and the ability to stay focused. He brings these qualities to his passions, hobbies, and relationships. For example, in his work, Dan is able to develop and execute successful projects.
Dan is a tenured professional who has held various roles throughout his career. He understands the value of leadership, confidence, focus, and patience. He gives himself grace so he can do the same for others, a lesson all of us can do well to implement. As a leader, he recognizes when his colleagues might be distracted or underperforming and redirects their course.
Dan is able to set goals and achieve them. He brings projects from general ideas to fruition. When you know who you are and what you’re good at, you’re in a better position to choose a suitable life and career course.
Some have the notion that there is nothing beyond the 9-5 ritual. If there is, it’s the respite of the weekend where we can finally let loose and live our lives. Leave work for another day.
Let’s say we all have our monkeys that can save us too. Sure, they may look and act a little funny. They may come in the form of an endearing habit or secret ritual. Maybe it’s a quirk of ours, or a nagging feeling in our gut telling us to do something about our situation. It’s not something that’s easily ignored.
Some may feel that their situation doesn’t allow them to pursue their passions outside of work, or that the two are mutually exclusive. Billionaire investor Ray Dalio advised, “Make your passion and your work the same thing.” Standard American advice, but it doesn’t work for everyone and may actually do more harm when all is said and done.
When the loss of an old friend gave Dan the time and space to reflect on his life, he was moved to pursue more than work. What seemed like a small act at the time, volunteering at Dragon Con for menial pay, catapulted him into finding a newfound sense of purpose and community.
He had always been interested in science fiction and fantasy. When he started volunteering at Dragon Con, he met people who shared his interests. Being a part of a community is an integral part of better well-being. We all need companionship and a sense of security.
Dan embraces his monkeys daily in the pursuit of his passions outside of work. What if we did the same? Wouldn’t we be happier?
We’ve taken a look at Dan’s journey – How he started out with dreams of becoming a journalist, but ended up studying the Soviet Union and translating Russian in the Navy. He then found himself in the coding space, where he learned HTML, SQL, and full lifecycle software development.
We learned from Dan that we should not be afraid to change our plans or pursue new interests. Sometimes, the best way to find our true calling and improved well-being is to explore different paths and see where they lead us.
Dan’s journey ended up with him becoming a tenured project manager who totes many successful projects under his belt.
Dan found what he truly excelled at, and it allowed him to pursue his monkeys, an example being his passion for pop culture. He is able to use his skills and experience to manage projects related to his favorite movies and TV shows.
Know what you’re good at, and don’t be afraid to say “This is what I’m good at.”