(MoneyWatch) "I'm 51 years old and I finally figured out what I want to do with my life," says Chris Hopkins. And what is that? Just about the coolest job ever -- designing fireworks displays for Celebration Fireworks. If you live in eastern Pennsylvania or New Jersey, there's a good chance that the fireworks display you see after the ball game or on the Fourth of July was designed by Hopkins.
And how did Hopkins manage to get a job where he spends his days figuring out how and what to blow up, timed perfectly with music? He didn't major in fireworks, nor in design. What he did do was work, but not only at his regular job in sales and marketing. He also learned how to edit music and videos, and, he says, most importantly, learned how to ask questions.
Hopkins was asked to head up the public affairs work for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Philadelphia area (an unpaid position), and with that responsibility he needed to figure out the best way to get people to hear about the church. "At one point I said to myself it would be very helpful if we could have Gladys Knight help with something. How do I do this? I don't know." So he started making phone calls. He finally ended up with a contact number for Knight and managed to get through to her staff. "She couldn't come, but I got the phone number," he said. If asking questions could get him Gladys Knight's phone number, he figured he could ask for other things.
Like how to do fireworks.
He'd been a longtime fan of pyrotechnics, and he and his wife, Kim, frequently traveled to Montreal to see the international fireworks festival. While other people oohed and ahhed over the displays, Hopkins took notes on what worked and what didn't. "It's awesome, and then you start picking things out. It was where I was sitting in the audience and I started telling Kim what was going to happen next. I thought, OK, I have a good handle on this."
And then he started making phone calls. He called a regional fireworks company and explained his love for their products, adding that he wanted to help out. He discovered he could take a course to learn how to stuff the tubes and set up a physical fireworks display. So he, along with a group of friends, enrolled in a daylong course. Seventy or so men (no women) showed up for the course. For breakfast, there were 50 dozen doughnuts, and for lunch, 50 large pizzas. Toward the end of the day, they handed out T-shirts -- XL, XXL or XXXL. Hopkins said, "I looked around and said, 'I have found my tribe.' "
Armed with the physical skills and years of watching, he began stuffing tubes and setting up fireworks displays. In his nonexistent free time, he worked on computer simulations to design his own fireworks shows, even if they never came to fruition.
Doing the dirty work while diligently learning the technical skills necessary to master design prepared him to pounce when an opportunity came up. But Hopkins didn't just wait for opportunities to appear -- he created his own.
He says, "After two years of working in the field, I went to the guy who owned the company and said, 'I'm getting to the point where I can design shows.' He said, 'If you can make it happen, you can have it.' So I started looking around, and the local YMCA was considering doing a show. I started to sell that show and design it at the same time in the simulation software. I picked two of the songs and set them up. The YMCA never sold, but an hour after I sent him the two virtual songs, he was on the phone with me. It turns out that his designer just quit and I just sent two designs that he really liked."
Hopkins had just landed his first freelance designing gig. Something that wouldn't have come about if he hadn't put effort into something that could very well have been considered a failure. His first actual show had to be designed twice. "I had to hold the fireworks within x amount of dollars. I did that, but it turns out that it was too sprawling of a show for the labor pool. While the dollar amount was fine, I had too many devices. We couldn't physically pull it off." So, instead of being disheartened, he dug in and tried again. Learning from failure was another key step.
After two years of doing freelance designs while working his day job, Hopkins said it was time to ask another question: Can I have a job? The answer yes. And now he's one of the few full time firework show designers in the country. Hopkins thinks it's the coolest job ever.
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