This week in our A Career Choice is a Life Choice series, we had the pleasure of talking to Tom VanHaaren, a reporter for ESPN.com. After starting out in a different field, he quickly realized sports reporting was what he wanted to do and shaped his career path around his ambitions. Read more about his journey and the insights he has to offer.
DB: Hi, Tom! Thanks for speaking with us today. Can you tell us about your current position at ESPN.com?
TV: I’m a reporter for ESPN.com, where I cover college football and college football recruiting. Despite what some of the people who send me messages on LinkedIn think, I am not a recruiter for ESPN. Completely different thing.
DB: What has your career path been like?
TV: I took somewhat of a winding path to get where I am now. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do while in high school and even in college. I thought I wanted to go into advertising or marketing, but went back and forth.
I ended up graduating with a communication degree and a business minor and I still really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I took a job out of college in the mortgage industry and realized very quickly that wasn’t the path I wanted to be on. I reached out to an advertising agency in Arizona, even though they weren’t hiring, and asked them to meet with me over lunch for an hour, and if they liked me, we could talk about maybe creating a position for me.
We met for over two hours and they made me their new business coordinator. I realized that was still sales and I grew tired of it very quickly. I started to formulate a plan to get me where I really wanted to be and get me off of a carousel of finding a job that I would love. I always wanted to work for ESPN when I was younger, I always loved writing, and I love talking to people and telling stories.
I figured out that sports writing was where I needed to be and formulated a plan in terms of path, branding and marketing and networking, to get myself as far as I could go. I emailed a few websites expressing interest in working for them and only one, MGoBlog.com, responded. A person emailing with no portfolio or experience, I don’t blame the others for not responding.
Brian Cook of MGoBlog responded, and I offered to work for him for free for two months and if he liked me after those two months, we could talk about employment. He brought me on and eventually hired me after those two months. I worked every minute I was awake trying to break news, build relationships, find stories and network as much as I could.
After two years of working at MGoBlog.com, through some of the networking I had done previously, I found out that ESPN.com was hiring. I reached out to some people and was eventually hired in 2011. I have been with ESPN ever since, trying to imitate what I did at MGoBlog to continue improving and getting better every day.
DB: What do you value most about your current role?
TV: There are a few aspects of my job that I really love. Working for ESPN was always a dream, so to realize that dream is something I am grateful for and humbled by every day.
The fact that I get to work from home, in a press box, on a football field or wherever a story takes me is another important part of my job for me. I love that I get to be with my kids, drop them off at school, and be with them when they get home from school. Family is very important to me, so working from home keeps me very close to my wife and kids.
I also just love talking to people, hearing and telling stories, and building relationships. I have met people of all walks of life through this career, and it has been remarkable to hear some of their stories. My parents always tell people a story about when I was five years old, they took me to a park, turned around for a minute, then turned back around and I had a group of kids gathered around me while I was telling a story. I think that’s just always been a part of me, and that I get to do that as a job now is pretty spectacular.
DB: What is the most important thing you’ve learned so far in your career?
TV: As I mentioned before, I took a winding road to get here. I think I realized along the way that you have to create your own path. If you sit around and wait for other people to give you something, or sit around and wait for something to come along, you’ll find yourself waiting forever.
I created a job at an advertising firm, created a job at a sports website then made sure people knew who I was. Had I waited for people to come to me, I truly don’t believe I would be here in this position.
Whenever I receive emails from college students or people looking for advice, I always tell them they have more tools available now through social media, social networking and the internet, to create their own path and create their own opportunities. You just have to want it and you have to have a plan to go get it.
DB: What has been the best question you’ve been asked in a job interview?
TV: I don’t do any hiring, but the best question I’ve ever been asked, is if I like winning or hate losing more.
In the industry I’m in, and all the other industries I’ve been a part of, competitiveness is a big factor. Having a competitive nature, but also balancing that with a team mentality is important. Everyone likes winning, but not everyone hates losing. I hate losing more than I like winning and I think that questions shows if you have a competitive temperament or not.