Try S*** – An English Major’s Journey to Career Success

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Harold Thurman Whitman

Let’s get this out there first – by reading my story, you’ll walk away with 4 takeaways: 

  1. Try S*** (a.k.a. experiment. Excuse my language, I tend to have a potty mouth).
  2. Focus on the Weak Ties
  3. Givers Gain
  4. Better Together

Now, the story of my career launch.

I grew up in hospitals. When I was 13, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. When I was 16, I lost her. One of the last things she told me was,  

“It’s not how much time you have to live, it’s what do with that time.” 

She didn’t mean I should rush through life like a frantic gerbil on a wheel, never seeing an end in site. She was encouraging me to be present for life’s moments and enjoy the journey.

Why did I start my story this way? Because you need to understand the reason I chose an English major, and the beautiful, challenging, frustrating and rewarding path it took me on.

Mom wanted me to get out in the world and “try s***.” So, 8 months after her death, I became an exchange student in Brazil for a year. A chance to reinvent myself.  Out of my comfort zone…living in the 5th largest city in the world in a less developed country under a military dictatorship – the experience was a catalyst for me, to say “yes” to experimenting. 

In college, I wanted be involved in healthcare and make a difference in the world, yet I’d pass out at the sight of blood. Dad said, “you’re going to be surprised how many professionals don’t know how to communicate orally and in writing. This is critical for business.  Learn this skill and study what you love, English, and you’ll use it throughout your career.

I loved my major. Then the reality of graduation and a major recession hit. My claim to fame a few months after graduation? The UW Career Center chose me to interview with Time magazine, because they felt I was top talent that couldn’t get a job. That English degree. 

Try S***

A nicer way to say this is to “experiment”. The Career Center recommended Enterprise Rent A Car’s management training program. Are you kidding me, rental cars? I didn’t even start driving until I was 21. Turned out to be a fantastic move, because l learned business – sales, operations (receivables, pricing, fleet management, referral partnerships). It was the best first step out of college.

I frequently turn to the most amazing Herminia Ibarra for insight. She’s renowned for her research into career management, and throws the “think first, then act” mantra out the window! Knowledge, she says, is the result of doing and experimenting. For Ibarra, career change is not a onetime event, but a psychological process of transition. I encourage you to explore her article, “Reinventing Your Career In The Time of Coronavirus.”

Focus On The Weak Ties

Enterprise wasn’t a good long-term fit. My dream job was to work in pharmaceuticals and I landed an interview with Eli Lilly! The recruiter loved me. The managers wanted business degrees, MBAs and pharmacists. So, I was rejected. So what? No means no now, not forever. Don’t give up!

As luck would have it, I rented a car to an Eli Lilly sales rep; I helped her navigate the messy process of insurance, body shops and reimbursements and this “weak tie” contact became my “Lilly Champion” over time. For more on networking, take a look at my Medium article.

What a shame people cringe at the concept of networking, because done the right way, it’s both rewarding plus lets you imagine diverse possible futures. Ibarra says, “The golden rule of networking for career change has always been to mobilize your weak ties — that is, the relationships you have with people you don’t know so well or don’t see very often, in order to maximize your chances of learning things you don’t know already.”

I resigned from Enterprise to pursue my dream, yet knew I had to get creative (try s***) in order to be considered. Physio Control is a local medical device company owned by Lilly. I cold called the HR department and asked them which temp agencies they used. I then reached out to one agency, and proved myself to them by taking on tough assignments. When an open temp role came up at Physio, they immediately placed me.

At Physio, I provided “Sales Support”, helping customers and the field sales team. It was a fantastic way to build my internal network plus understand customer and field sales needs. We were undergoing an FDA shutdown due to documentation, so there was a hiring freeze. I volunteered to support two sales territories, doubling my workload. I also identified a major blocker to sales and volunteered to do a marketing research project that helped us to retain many key clients.

Remember that “weak tie” from last year? The Lilly rep called me and said, “All three regional managers are in the office today. Can you get down there with your resume and introduce yourself?” I always kept a suit in the car, so I threw it on. The managers were standing around eating doughnuts when I arrived, “I work for Physio and I want to work for you. I’ve already been vetted by one of your recruiters.” That extra effort landed me the interview.  I fully realize that my approach may seem over the top and that many individuals may not feel comfortable being so bold.  The key is trying to be a little more courageous than your norm.

Givers Gain and Better Together

Remember at Physio I had stepped in to lend extra help (givers gain)? Never expect to get anything back from giving, it’s about doing the right thing. Yet, I now had many supporters who offered their help in preparing for the interview. No one has all the answers, so surround yourself with curious, inspiring people who have diverse wisdom (Better Together) – it’s amazing what you can accomplish!

Physio’s V.P. of Sales suggested I write a business plan for the job and I did just that: I took two Lilly sales reps out to lunch and interviewed them; I researched, created a territory backgrounder and plan. The Physio V.P. edited my document, and I professionally bound the final product.

I had interviews with 3 Lilly managers, for three different open positions. The first manager had an MBA, “So, you have an English major. Why would I want to hire you?” Arms crossed.

“Because I already know the territory,” and I slid that business plan across the table. He was dumbfounded. I had three different job offers that day. Out of a “new hire class” of 65, I was the only one with a liberal arts degree. Fast forward a year, I was the only one promoted to a specialty role.

And that English major? She ended up overseeing training and development for a diabetes specialty division that encompassed 10 states and 130 reps.

It’s not just about business & career results, it’s about growing as an individual; by spending extra time and energy experimenting, giving back and building a collaborative network, you’ll gain insight, inspiration and the feeling that sometimes you truly make a difference in the world. Plus, you’ll be surprised how interesting your career journey will be. Go for it!


Nicey Hilton / Sales, Communications & Training Consultant: Atelier
Nicey Hilton has two passions: bringing out the best in people and launching products and services that make the world a better place. Her current focus is on healing a broken U.S. health care system by championing novel care models and technologies. Nicey has broad healthcare industry experience in SaaS education, telehealth, medical devices, pharmaceuticals and eldercare services. She has supported disruptive startups backed by McKesson Ventures, Founders Fund, Trilogy Equity Partners, Cambia Health Solutions, and Martin Ventures and achieved multiple honors over the course of a decade at Fortune 500 industry leader Eli Lilly. At Lilly, Nicey supported the building of high performance, high-engagement teams and coached leaders how to innovate in competitive markets. She is an honors graduate of the University of Washington and a 2016 graduate of Leadership Tomorrow’s flagship development program, which each year selects 80 emerging regional leaders to foster healthier and more resilient communities, to leverage the power of collaboration, and to work to advance equity for all. In March, Nicey will be launching a new UW CoMotion Circles offering innovators will experience a unique “group coaching” support system for accountability, rapid momentum and ongoing motivation.
By Nicey Hilton
Nicey Hilton