Advice from a Conestoga alumnus


By Benjamin Wagner, CHS ’89

On April 4, I returned to Conestoga to speak at Career Day. It was the first time I entered the building since graduating in 1989.

The last time I walked the hallways, George H. W. Bush was president, the Internet didn’t exist and 9/11 hadn’t happened. It was before Miley or Cardi, Apple or Amazon, the MCU or WWE. And yet, save for a coat of paint, not much has changed.

I remember how rudderless I felt as I took my diploma; how much pressure I felt from my parents and peers; and how much I appreciated everyone who leant me advice, bought me a meal or gave me a break. And so I volunteered to return and share what I’ve learned so far.

When I graduated, I was Managing Editor of The Spoke, Student Council Senator and lead singer in the poorly named band, Underground. 

Three decades later, I’ve earned degrees from Syracuse and Columbia, and written for half a dozen magazines, newspapers and radio stations. I ran MTV News, produced and directed an award-winning documentary (“Mister Rogers & Me”) and wrote, recorded and performed twenty albums. And for the last five years, I have travelled the planet for Facebook. 

At the end of the day, I am still a storyteller, leader and performer — with a fair number of miles under my belt and a few pointers on how to navigate Life After School.

Do It Yourself

You don’t need permission, a ton of money or some big corporation to write a book, code an app or direct a movie; you have everything you need in your pocket. The only thing missing is an idea. So watch Netflix later. Play Fortnight another time. Instead, wake up early, go to bed late and use your time to do it yourself. 

My brother and I wrote, shot, edited, produced, directed and scored our feature-length documentary, “Mister Rogers & Me,” after work and on weekends between 2006-9. Sure, we had twenty years of production experience between us, but we’d never made an 80-minute film. 

So we learned as we went: how to frame a shot, how to clear footage, how to het into film festivals. We made the doc we wanted to make. It premiered at festivals in 2010, and on PBS, iTunes and Amazon Prime in 2012. I still receive emails from viewers, so podcast and radio interviews and receive modest checks.

I’ve taken the same approach to my music career. I produce my recordings, design my artwork, shoot and cut my videos (with an assist from my editor brother, also CHS alum), author and manage my own social media and book my own shows and tours. 

When recent graduates have sought informational interviews and asked me how to get a job at MTV News or Facebook, I always say the same thing: make something awesome in your free time and show it to me. Better yet, build an audience for that thing. Then you have the leverage, and you won’t be asking me for a job, I’ll be recruiting you.

Always Be Learning

Many of you are, have been, or will be swept up in the process of identifying a field of study, finding the right college to get you started towards it, and then selecting a major. Those four years are critical and you should immerse yourself in that experience and extract every bit of learning (in and out of books) you can. But it doesn’t stop there.

Every day is an opportunity to learn and grow; there are lessons in everything. All you need to do pay attention. 

A year after college, I was offered a job launching Lifetime Television for Women’s website. At the time, they were known for melodramatic, “damsel in distress,” movies of the week which was of zero interest to me. But the job offer came with HTML, Photoshop and design training. “Don’t be an idiot,” my mother said. “They’re paying you to learn.” I took the job, learned a ton, and — while on assignment for Lifetime at the Democratic National Convention — introduced myself to the guy launching MTV News’ website. He hired me a few weeks later.

These days, I seek new information every day. I read voraciously (including publications and topics I don’t know much about), listen to podcasts and watch TED Talks. I attend conferences (in fact, part of my job at Facebook is to design and develop them) and industry workshops. I seek “Learning & Development” opportunities at work. I take ongoing education courses (ex: Agile Development at General Assembly), and a few years ago (in my forties, gasp!), I was a year-long Sulzberger Fellow at Columbia University.

I meet with industry friends to talk shop, seek mentors and hire executive coaches. And sometimes, I learn from unexpected sources. My 87-year-old neighbor, Audrey, taught me to slow down and savor the quiet moments.

Sometimes you learn in unexpected ways. Running ten New York City Marathons has taught me that I am capable of far more than I could have ever imagined; the imperative to train and prepare; the beauty of sunrise over an empty city; my way around the Five Boroughs; and the courage to set out jogging anywhere on Earth (rush hour in Delhi wasn’t my best idea, but I learned from that too).

And I take notes on all of it.

Set (And Re-Set) Goals

I was admitted to Syracuse University, I didn’t get into the Communications School. And so I set a goal, and spent my freshman year taking the right classes and tests and working for the grades. I was admitted my sophomore year and graduated with dual degrees in Creative Writing and Newspaper.

The summer after my sophomore year, I set the goal of driving to California and back. I spent two months covering 8553 miles in my $900 Nissan Sentra with just a (paper) map, a tent and my guitar — an experienced that changed the way I view the country and my capabilities.

Two years after graduation, my brother invited me to move with him to New York City. I had just $400 in savings, an acoustic guitar, a Mac SE40 (a predecessor to the MacBook Air, maybe, but far less portable) and a Daruma doll.

A Daruma doll is a small, egg-shaped, Japanese traditional figurine. The idea is that a person will paint on of the doll’s eyes when s/he makes a wish or sets a goal. Once the goal is achieved, you fill in the second eye.

I used a Sharpie to make the first eyeball, setting the goal of writing for or appearing in Rolling Stone Magazine. I networked my way to an internship, flipped it into an editing assignment, then waltzed into an editors cubicle with a fistful of writing sample to land my first assignment (covering a Weezer Show, as it ends up). And though I’d achieved the goal, I never painted in that next eyeball. Instead, I left it empty to remind myself to keep setting new goals.

Careers (and life, for that matter) is not straight lines. They’re more like rivers, meandering, flooding, pushing and pulling you along. You will paddle with and against it. And you will get to where you’re supposed to be.

In the end, you are not defined by your career; it’s what you do, not who you are. Who you are is a measure of who you love, how you treat others, what you do when nobody’s watching and what you leave behind.

Still, you’re likely going to spend 100,000 hours working on something. So strap on a life vest, grab an oar and get paddling; it’s going to be a wet, wild and awesome ride.