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Living His Mission: Why One Engineer Chose Art Over HVAC

The first time I saw Rick Huddle perform was at Edgefield in Troutdale, OR. We were surrounded by children with painted faces and parents with pints. Someone told me he was also an engineer.

Whaa-at? An engineer? That guy who was imitating a cow just a few moments ago?

Yes, in fact. Below is an interview with Rick Huddle that shows how he evolved from being a project manager for a construction HVAC company into a children’s storyteller. Given that Rick is a storyteller, I’m going to let his answers speak for themselves.

What was you previous job title and industry? My degree was in mechanical engineering. At the time I decided to make a change, I was working as a project manager at a commercial HVAC construction firm.

Why did you want to change jobs/industry? There was this moment… I’d only been there 3-4 years, and I’d just hung up the phone with this vendor who sold heating vents, and I’m sitting in this sea of cubicles sitting under heating vents so I can help other people in a sea of cubicles sit at their desks under heating vents…What was I doing here? What’s the purpose? It was like a real-life MC Escher painting.

I realized I needed to do something that helps people. And, yes, engineering helps people, but I needed to do work with more heart in it. After I’d graduated from college but before I started my first engineering job, I’d worked at a preschool making no money and eating townhouse crackers for lunch…but I LOVED the job. We had a direct effect on these kids’ lives. This one kid had been kicked out of four other preschools, but we took him in and taught him empathy. And sure enough, it worked. That’s what I feel is important and what I’m trying to do now through telling stories and singing silly songs.

What do you call yourself now? What’s your mission? Children’s Performer and Educator

My mission is to teach empathy; to create understanding of self and others through humor.

What were the signs that it was time to get out – NOW? Well, it took 10 years after that MC Escher moment to quit engineering and perform full-time. I went to part-time for awhile, but I was really struggling with it. It was a great job in a lot of ways—good salary, really good benefits. By the end I’d worked there for 13 years and I could just show up and it was fairly easy work.

BUT, I just couldn’t do it [engineering] anymore. I couldn’t do what I wanted to do with my life’s work because half my time was spent doing something I didn’t want to.

I was talking to my friend Walt about whether to leave the engineering job altogether, and he said, “I’ve quit a lot of jobs, and I’ve never once regretted it.”

What steps did you take? How long did the career transition take? 10 years to get to full-time status. My intent was to do it full-time, but it took awhile to get there. I had to overcome inertia. I had to break out of it. You don’t need to have a reason to stay – you need a reason to break out. At the time, my girlfriend and I had broken up, and everything was changing. That was a catalyst for making a change in career.

What were the big hurdles or obstacles you had to overcome, including that people might think you’re crazy?

Inertia was big. No good reason to leave. A lot of people asked me- and I asked myself, “Why would you give up a good job — to be a children’s performer?”

There was this one guy who has been telling stories and singing songs for kids for 40 years, Bill Harley. And I saw that he did this and he had a family. He made it work. These things are not mutually exclusive. He plays guitar. I play guitar. He’s bald. I’m bald. J If he can do it, I can do it.

At my engineering job, we were retrofitting schools with more windows and energy efficient lighting, so they were good projects, but I just couldn’t get excited about it. I just didn’t care enough—and I’m a guy who cares about the environment! But there are more important things that are my mission.

How have you made it work? Cobble things together. 80% of my work is finding more work. I’ve also gotten some grants that helped toward financial stability.

Are you making a living doing this?

Yes, but it’s hard. I’ve essentially been living on this for 10 years. I’ve recently been looking at trying to find a way to get more financial stability from this, whether it’s more jobs or more paid jobs. Every time I come up for air, it’s always, “How am I going to make more money?” I’d be stoked if I could do less of the finding shows and just do more shows. That’d be awesome because I love what I do.

What were your greatest fear(s) about making such a dramatic career change and how did you overcome them?

My greatest fear was that I would be homeless. And then I remembered, “I can always go back to my old job.” Fall of 2008 left permanently. Right in the middle of the housing bust. I haven’t lost my house, yet!

What has surprised you about this career journey? So many things … expecting that if I set goals and measure them and they are attainable that I will reach them, and having to let go of that a little bit. That’s a huge life lesson, and a spiritual journey.

I believed, you know, all you have to do is set your mind to it and pencil it in and make some file folders and some excel spreadsheets … but it didn’t work. When I first quit engineering, I created my SMART goals. I identified markets, contacted them, marketed myself…I did that for two years.

But since then I haven’t been able to plan where jobs will come from. They come to me kind of sideways. I always conduct year-end reviews, and I looked at where my revenue was coming from, and I saw it wasn’t coming from where I’d expected, so it seemed fruitless to overplan. I still try to be strategic about how I spend my time and where I invest money. But those SMART goals seemed overdone. For me, it didn’t make sense.

The other thing that surprised me … uncovering the depths of the work. I kind of believed that art can change the world. But, thinking that my art can change the world … whew, that was not a belief I grew up with. Art was something that you did in school as a kid, but not as an adult for your profession. I still have trouble even thinking or calling myself an artist.

How has your art changed the world?

I teach storytelling residencies to middle schoolers. Some of those kids - some of them have had really tough lives- they’ve lost parents, or experienced homelessness. But through the classes, they take their challenges and frame them as stories- where they are the hero. They turn their wounds into badges of honor. And then they tell those stories in front of 200 people. They show way more grace and bravery I ever had as a young person.

In the summer I work with kids with special needs at this camp. To see kids who are not gifted verbally and who might be the outcast at school, and to see them get up and do some silly dance in front of 120 people is pretty magical.

Would you do it again? I’m really happy with my choice. I can’t imagine NOT having done it.

What advice do you have for others who might be thinking about making a dramatic career change?

Really, do it when you’re ready, whatever that means to you. For me, it was great to wait those 13 years. But I know others who quit as soon as they can. But for me, if I’d quit too early, I would’ve crumbled.

Where can people find you and your work? Do you do kids’ birthday parties?

No, I don’t do birthday parties.

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