You Can't Buy Happiness, but You Can Rent It for Awhile

Marie Kerwan was a high-ranking sales executive in information technology, successful and well-paid -- but totally dismayed.

The Alexandria, Va., resident was "burnt out," by her job, she said, and took time off while trying to figure out what to do next. She had an itch to move into the television or film field, but didn't know how to do it.

She turned to VocationVacations, an Oregon firm that enables people to test-drive their dream jobs. Some of the Portland-based firm's clients sign on to determine if they want to start a small business in a certain field, while others, like Kerwan, scope out a possible career change.

Company founder Brian Kurth, 41, said about 75 percent of VocationVacations participants are people considering a career change with the remainder looking to experience a unique holiday.

VocationVacations pairs customers with mentors, who have been screened and hired by the company, which keeps a list of available fields of employment that clients can experience. Kerwan said she had perused the list several times since the company was founded in 2004, but it wasn't until TV production and talent agent were available that she jumped.

The gamut of jobs runs from A (such as alpaca farmer or architect) to Y (yoga studio owner). In between, highlights include dog sled trainer, film score producer, oyster farmer, perfumer and sword maker. Aquariums and animal husbandry will soon join the list. The firm tends to work with small firms, but also has agreements with larger ones like Schneider Trucking for aspiring truck drivers and McDonald's for those interested in learning the ins and outs of franchising.

The firm has grown from 10 working vacations in Oregon to more than 300 mentors covering 150 vocation types across 35 states. The average cost for an experience is about $1,000, and it usually lasts two days.

Kerwan, 50, has signed up for a "working vacation" twice -- once paired with Clear Talent Group in Los Angeles and then with Little Airplane Productions in Brooklyn, N.Y. "It's a really safe way of having the door opened for you," said Kerwan. "I don't know of any other way that you can go in [to an industry] and have someone spend as much time with [you] as they do."

Kerwan spoke highly of her time at Little Airplane shadowing the executive producer of Wonder Pets, an animated show for preschoolers that the production studio makes for the Nickelodeon cable network. Kerwan said she had a considerable amount of face-time with the president of the company. "It was a good experience because I realized I couldn't do the executive producer's job," she said. "It was too regimented. I need something a little more free form where every day is different."

VocationVacation, which now has four employees shared between three positions and four regular contractors, was founded by Kurth as a hobby business out of his back bedroom. Previously, he had worked in Chicago as a product management director for a telecommunications firm and then was laid off after leaving Chicago for a stint in the dot-com world. He took up traveling for a bit and decided to call Portland home. He started working at his dream job at a small vineyard in Portland in 2003.

Kurth said about 40 percent of his clients come from members of Generation X (late 20s to early 40s), 40 percent are Baby Boomers (mid 40s to early 60s) with about 10 percent retirees and 10 percent Millennials (mid-teens to late 20s) and their parents, who pay for them.

"We've also had a run on 70-year-olds who have received a vocation vacation as a gift," said Kurth, who has been a vacationer in the fields of inn keeping, cheese making, animation, TV production and wine making.

The company also offers clients career coaching and the opportunity to take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to pinpoint skills and interest -- something that Kerwan identified as valuable.

"It's all about the fulfillment and the pursuit of happiness," said Kurth. "I asked a mentor recently -- a television sports announcer -- why he agreed to be a mentor when we pay him so little compared to what he gets in his annual salary. He said 'It's about the passion. I love what I do so much it would be criminal for me not to share it.'"

By Sharon McLoone |  April 7, 2008; 11:35 AM ET Profiles in Entrepreneurship
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This is great idea that can really help. Its interesting that people will give freely of their time to help others on vacation. This validates a beleif I have about how to obtain happiness via kindness. In fact Thomas Jefferson felt one means to living a happy life was through loving others. For other practical ideas about finding happiness get my book Happiness in Five Minutes a Day at or ask for it at your local bookstore.

Posted by: Vince Chiles, LCSW | April 8, 2008 5:34 PM

Thanks for sharing this resource. It's such a great model for enabling people to get a glimpse into worlds they might not otherwise have the opportunity to experience.

I love the gift concept. Seems like a wonderful way for people who may be living with regrets (among others) to to taste a piece of their dreams.

Posted by: Carolyn Semedo-Strauss | April 9, 2008 1:15 PM

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