Benjamin Goodly: So I was five years into my professional career when I was ready to transition. I had been an apprentice with one company for one year and then a quarter valet member with Eugene Ballet in Oregon for four years. And in those four years, I made it from that new guy to more of a soloist. During those four years, I started doing more musical theater to fill out my season and have more work throughout the year because our contracts at Eugene Ballet began at 31 weeks, and then the great recession happened. We were down to like 27 weeks, a year in the middle of that. So musical theater was a great way to build my season. I think the combination of getting to do something that wasn't ballet and getting to perform in a little bit more of a human way and having pretty success as a ballet dancer, getting to do some soloist roles.
I was just really done with classical ballet at that five-year mark. I'm glad some people never reach that threshold and feel ballet is a true expression of themselves. I do enjoy watching classical ballet still, but it is super-specific.
When I was ready to be done with classical ballet, I first explored some contemporary companies. I had always considered myself, or I had always enjoyed being a contemporary dancer more. And part of being singled out for solos was more because of the contemporary rep. I realized through auditioning for contemporary companies, the part I loved about theater was being hired for a specific show, which meant you had some agency and choice as to what you wanted to do next.
So then I started looking more seriously at doing theater full-time and did a few Broadway auditions, and skipping ahead is that I arrived at chemical engineering by process of elimination. Deciding not to move to New York and do Broadway full-time was because it was too risky. Part of that is because I realized through auditions that I don't have a strong type to rely on getting cast. I'm five foot, eight inches, which is just a little bit short, plus I don't have a teenage look. I have a good, generic look for dance, ideal for ballet dancers. I remember auditioning for an out-of-town production of Peter Pan. I made the first cut because it was a technical combo, and I was a good dancer with good technique. But then, after that first cut, it was 15 guys on one side of the room, all of which looked exactly like the lost boys. They had 'the look', and on the other side of the room were all pirates. They were all seven feet tall. They had scars, beards, and tattoos.
Something else that made it an easy decision for me not to move to New York was that a lot of the theater I'd been doing during my ballet career was semi-professional, where many performers were talented. Some of them had music degrees, and others were aspiring full-time musical theater performers. But everyone had other sources of income, and many people had other stable careers as their primary source of income and were committed hobbyists. One of my best friends ended up with someone with whom I formed a strong friendship and ended up being roommates for a year had followed that model, where she just really wanted artistic freedom to not depend on performing as the primary source of income. That was appealing to me again, circling back to wanting more choice about what I did and not wanting to do classical ballet anymore and some other artistic thing. Not wanting to have to do a commercial musical, like Shrek. I use Shrek as an example because even though it's a fun show to watch, I couldn’t imagine being that hungry, miserable Broadway performer.
Benjamin: It was a process of elimination. I never did the pre-professional ballet intensive thing in one of the big cities, which is traditional for the industry. Typically, when a dancer is 15 or 16-year-olds, they decide to commit to dance and finish high school as a side thing. They either drop out or do distance education to have a full high school credential, but it's not the best high school academic experience that can help get you into a top university.
I was fortunate to be in a place where I had good local ballet training and could be very rigorous with my high school education at the same time, such as advanced placement. Choosing to do that was a little bit of a reflection of how I saw my dance career from the beginning. I mentioned being short; I don't have great feet or turnout. So I was just never told I had that prodigy body where someone was like, you need to move to San Francisco right now—here's a scholarship. For the most part, the more enthusiastic feedback I got was on the academic side because I got top grades. So I was motivated to follow that through to the end of high school.
Going back even before my dance career, I got hired initially for an apprenticeship out of a workshop, a summer intensive. I was planning to go to college, not explicitly planning to dance professionally after high school. I discovered engineering later because I knew that I wanted to keep pursuing dance. My initial plan was to get a liberal arts degree with an economics focus; some liberal arts degrees have more math or science focus. The liberal arts offered great space and flexibility in those degree programs where I knew that I would have been able to maintain dance as well, both at my university.
It's important for context as to how I ended up as an engineer because my thought process was that I was ready to go back to school again after a lucky five-year dance career and had eliminated most of my interests. I chose engineering as the logical step; I wanted a sure bet. What are high-paying college degrees that guarantee you a job? Okay. Engineering. I ended up loving it, and I loved how committed you have to be. In an engineering exam, the professor has the correct answer. There's a logical-mathematical flow to get to that answer. Whereas in an English exam, there's no definite answer even if it's graded. Like in ballet, there are competitions and casting; you're still being judged.
Benjamin: I was very privileged to know that my family was supportive of me going to college and getting a degree. So that understanding, which at the time, felt like pressure to get a degree. They were supportive of me, essentially dropping out of college the first time to take this gig because the investment in a university degree would have been a lot for them at that time. In seeing that I got this other opportunity, they were enthusiastic that I could pursue this and not try to juggle so many things in college. So when I was ready to go back to college, my parents were enthusiastic, especially about choosing engineering and just my thought process. Every parent is entitled to worry about their kid and want them to have that stability. It was so valuable to have their support.
During the application process, I reached out to Career Transition for Dancers, which is now the Actors Fund. I think that at the time, there were more specific requirements to get one of their micro-grants. Then, you were supposed to have had a seven-year artistic career, and now they don't have that strict requirement anymore. I had a coaching conversation with their career counselor to get some advice on which schools to apply to and how many.
Through the college application process, I also had to get my credentials sent and help with writing personal essays. I found trusted people in my network who were good at writing essays, like friends who had studied English in college so that I wasn't writing something on my own and sending it to Northwestern University without anyone proofreading it before. That was another valuable resource; getting feedback from others, which isn't something that people always think about. All of those things came together, and I got into Northwestern and was successful there in Chicago.
Benjamin: No, I did not. I had a complete high school experience with lots of advanced science and math. They ended up still accepting some of my advanced placement credits, which I was surprised by; it worked out well for me. In the beginning, there was a lot of value in deciding to do engineering because, at Northwestern, you had to declare that engineering interest before you apply to start straight away. If you wanted to transfer in later, it would take longer. Larger universities can be the opposite, where you have to apply for the major after your second year with some of the more foundational credits behind you.
Even though Northwestern was a more expensive option, I got a lot of value at a smaller university where they didn't have that weed-out type of structure. You can go in and have people rooting for you to be an engineer rather than a gauntlet to pass.
Benjamin: I feel like it's an intimidating number, but I think it was USD150,000 in tuition fees, and it was all funded by my parents, which was very generous. They had been planning for a long time for me to go to college and were able to support that. It was a full year less expensive than it should have been. In some regards, it was a very inexpensive Northwestern degree because I had ended up having a full year of credits from high school that they counted towards my degree, and it took me four years to finish my degree. For a year of that, I was working in internships and not paying tuition. I had also paid most of my living expenses through part-time work at a coffee shop, and then through this internship income, I earned something around $35,000 as an intern for like two years of engineering work. I was also a tutor on campus. I was doing 20 hours of tutoring a week as an upperclassman. The tutoring was great for self-reinforcing because it was extra study time for me. I was tutoring the fundamental math courses that would show up in my actual classes, where professors would expect a certain familiarity, so it ended up being a great asset.
The biggest sacrifice I made was my social life. I did not juggle going out and having lots of different friends. The four-year investment, especially that monetary investment, I knew was going to be temporary. I knew I could get back to having a balanced friend group and going out. The degree was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I would've done a show in the Chicago area, but they were all doing these small dramatic musicals. However, I did find a great opportunity that was my one big summer of performing.
I work for Procter and Gamble, but I also did two summer internships at Northwestern. During my second internship, it was more than nine to six—fixed hours. You're not taking classes at the same time. So I was able to do A Chorus Line during one of my internships as well.
Benjamin: As a dancer, the mentality is that you have to do it while you're young, which was helpful for me in school; having to do well academically. Now that I am an adult, I still have this mentality to make good on what I wanted to do; to have a stable and successful professional career. Have more of a social life and still make time to be creative.
Auditioning was more difficult. Absolutely. It was much easier to find a great job as an engineer, and it's something I want to talk about and have dancers know so that they can imagine they would be a commodity. But I had a pretty easy audition experience. The first apprentice job I got out of a summer workshop. I wasn't auditioning, but I was close to New York. The whole year as an apprentice, I was doing all the cattle call auditions. It takes a lot of time, and you've got to pay fees and get into the city. There are some costs in addition to that, but it's also emotionally devastating. It was sometime in 2007 and 2008 when some ballet companies were already starting to fold. I was lucky to get the contract with Eugene Ballet Company, which is a smaller company. Many people don't even know where Eugene, Oregon, is, and I nailed that audition.
As an engineer, all these employers come to campus, and they are looking for me. I had a great resume, and I was getting courted. I still had to do the application and interviews, but I had great offers coming in. Honestly, it was a surprise because I knew engineering was like a sure bet once I had my degree, but I didn't realize before how much work engineers get even before they have their degree—it's standard. Then to get $17 per hour, or now it's probably closer to $20-$25 per hour as an engineering intern, is a lot.
The amount of time and investment to get to that place in ballet was at least 10 years and then 12 years before I got my first paying job. I had only been to an engineering school for a year before I got job offers. I had two years by the time I started doing them, but still, it was just a year.
There was a little bit of uncertainty in my senior year if Procter and Gamble would have a full-time spot for me. Their engineering internship program is competitive, similar to how an apprenticeship works in a second company, where there are more second company dancers than full company spots available. In the end, there was a spot for me, which was a great fit. So during that bit of uncertainty, I was doing some other interviews, and again, it was an easy process where a lot of it was through campus and employers coming to find me.
Benjamin: In so many ways. The way it helps most day-to-day is the listening skill, which probably comes a bit more from my acting and theater experience than dance. You're listening for the way people say something, and there's always subtext: picking up on body language, energy, and learning how to read a room. If I'm on the other side trying to convince people, I've convinced the leadership of my recommendations as a result. Being able to read a room and deliver a specific presence is very powerful. So that is a huge asset.
The other one is not being afraid of structure and organization. You know innovation is hard to achieve. Even day to day, production is difficult, and engineers spend so much time on technical skills. They've never treated collaboration skills as something that they need to invest mental energy in to learn. It's a recognized industry problem where companies, including Procter and Gamble, have dedicated project managers whose job is to bring people together. They don't have any technical duties.
In dance, collaboration is so structured, and communication is necessary, even in the concept of rehearsal. You're going to try things multiple times, and even if it's not going well the first time, it doesn't mean there's an argument. The number of times I've had colleagues slightly misunderstand each other and assume there was conflict and start treating it as an argument is just astounding. It helps to have some set procedures to enable collaboration, like counts, music, and that same type of structure, not having it be only ideas or free for all. So that's, that's been hard.
Benjamin: No, I don't see a lot of similarities. I would say that my personal experience day-to-day feels pretty similar. As a dancer, they throw you into these challenges, and you need to apply the technique and the discipline to figure them out body-wise and deliver exciting movement. For me, becoming an engineer has made me realize how much I enjoyed that. The left-brain side of being a dancer; figuring it out, extending your balance, and getting another turn in, which is a little bit more mechanical. The mechanical problem-solving aspect of dance was always more enjoyable than the performing aspect. It helped me make the transition a bit earlier than most people.
So that describes my day-to-day engineering experience; encountering a problem and unexpected results. I need to pull from my fundamental understanding of physics or previous reports and work done in the past, then sometimes figure it out through trial and error. A lot of the time, we try to use more sophisticated research methods and then try it. But there are a lot of situations where the fastest and most efficient way to get past the problem is via trial and error. The same way you dance, where you rehearse and try it. And every time, it gets better. My headspace is often similar, but back to the differences, the two industries are so different.
The business value in engineering is clear; profit and loss calculations. In some ways, it puts less pressure on the schedule. For example, if you launch a product worth X millions of dollars, you need to improve the efficiency to save X million dollars. You keep going after that, even if you don't get it right the first time. Whereas in dance, there is less monetary value in each performance. As a dancer, I never had leadership come back and say that we made $40,000 from a show. Good job. While they could have had someone doing the math, telling us the value of our day's work, it's the arts, so it was more about exciting people and donors which puts more pressure on time—the show must go on. You perfect as much as you can, but you're not going to delay the performance by a week because it's not perfect enough.
If we do not meet our quality specifications and aligned criteria in engineering, we would delay the launch by a month, year, and so on. I think about it a lot because I mentioned so-and-so millions of dollars. Especially in process engineering, there's just big money. We're doing high-volume manufacturing, which equates to lots of sales volume, and then the machinery is crazy expensive because they are sophisticated. I think about dancing a lot because everyone panics around how expensive and how much money is at stake in engineering. But in dance, big stuff happens, like big full-scale giant costumes, sets, and productions, and there isn't nearly as much drama around whether we are on track or not. Dance has a more of a perfectionistic culture, but you would never delay the performance. We are going to perfect it, and then when the curtain goes up, we're going to stop perfecting it and do it.
Benjamin: Yes. I talked earlier about really wanting to be a hobbyist performer, and that I did a couple of shows, but as I became more successful as an engineer and got back to a social life: starting a family, dating, getting married, it became harder and harder to prioritize theater at the level that I wanted, which was still going to have 20 hours a week of rehearsal. So that's where writing came into my life as a great, flexible, creative outlet. Writing filled the need to reflect upon my career transition. I can articulate this whole journey well and, in a concise way, because I spent years thinking and imagining it. Imagining through fiction was the idea to pursue fiction writing and all the ways it could have happened differently. What if I had left dance without a plan at all? What if I had hated engineering and needed to do something else? In some ways, it was a bit of a therapy exercise as well. Even having a successful transition and referencing back to where I was hyper-focused in college, I never questioned what I was doing. Fiction came into my life, knowing that I was successful and happy as an engineer, but what could this transition have looked like under different circumstances? Both emotional and logistical circumstances.
After about three years of writing, I had evolved and was enjoying learning. There was a question I read somewhere about how to manage your time and set priorities. It said to ask yourself about your most important core value, and it was surprisingly easy for me to answer, which is to learn something new every day. I love learning. That's why I love to dance. After five years, I felt like I had plateaued on my dance learning curve, and I was ready to tackle something like engineering with a steep learning curve. And again, learning how to be a storyteller. There are some techniques behind writing good novels and telling compelling stories. Writing for me started as a personal need and then evolved through a fun learning journey. It's called Smoke And Lights, and it's about a dancer who experiences some trauma in the ballet company and leaves with no plan.
Through that came the inspiration for the podcast. That part of my success and gratitude was the need for more stories about career transition for dancers out there. Now that I’m an engineer, I want to erase the misinformation around career transition because it shouldn't be surprising that dancers can become engineers. I've interviewed two others, like programmers, doctors, lawyers, and creatives in the dance industry. I knew I wanted to tell the full set of stories out there.
Benjamin: I'll start with the disciplines because engineering is a rigorous field with very standardized accreditation programs. With an engineering degree, you learn how to approach problems with humility, where you grab a textbook, previous reports, search the internet for good research, and do experiments. To try and prove it.
Civil engineering focuses on structures, buildings, and bridges. Mechanical engineering focuses on machines. Production is very advanced, where it can range into robotics and very sophisticated machines. These can also be machines that consumers operate, like blenders. Chemical engineering applies the same problem but to the transformation from raw materials into usable goods or usable ingredients to do other things. That was what essentially drew me to chemical engineering, the concern about climate change and wanting to trace back these carbon footprint factors to the fundamentals of where stuff comes from.
Ultimately, things are either grown, mined, or refined. For example, a wooden desk is grown, but if it has metal-like brass ornaments, then it was mined. If there is the glue holding it together, then it was a chemical product generally refined from oil. We're synthesizing as well, and that's where you get deeper into the actual chemical transformations of what raw materials you can mine and then do chemical reactions to get something else. For me, that was fascinating, the complexity around carbon footprint. There are other more specialized fields like biomedical engineering, where you have medical devices such as surgical instruments and imaging. Electrical engineering is very broad and important. Some days I wish that I had been an electrical engineer because it's everything from power and the computer control of things; the brains behind the machines that end up being electrical components.
Benjamin: I work on multiple projects, with each having sort of three phases. On a typical day, I might be balancing different things between three main types of work for each project, depending on where it is. The first is the quality definition. What does it mean for this product to be a good quality product so we can sell it? It involves collaboration with people doing consumer research and prototyping the physical products by hand, like arts and crafts, and assembling them.
The second phase of work is defining the machines. This part is about knowing the industry and physically getting the correct machine into our building or manufacturing plant. It also involves working with different third-party companies that specialize in tooling and machinery. It's about negotiating, and that's where pricing becomes a big part of my job.
The third type of work is validation and efficiency, where we put everything together. There are always things we can physically adjust, like temperature pressure and physical parameters that we can change and experiment to deliver these quality parameters.
So those are the three main kinds of work. They can take place either at my office or offsite because we're starting up equipment in manufacturing sites all around the globe. So I get to travel occasionally to inspect vendors who are selling us the machine before we receive them, or that final verification stage can happen in a plant. It can be fast-paced because everyone wants us to pass and start shipping into production as fast as possible.
Benjamin: I have been singled out as an excellent communicator, which has paid off in advancing quickly. The more complicated something is, the more valuable it is to have the ability to tell the story clearly, be cognizant of your audience, to tell a different story to someone close to the work versus someone further away from the day-to-day.
I think that for anyone pursuing a career transition, you can bring everything with you and have your second career be the sum of it all. My communication skills come from my dance experience and writing (which I consider a side career). So, it's not by luck that I happen to be a good communicator. It's also part of the value of processing the emotional side of career transition, having that commitment to take my skillset with me and apply it in different ways of communicating even when no one else on my team is doing it that way. Try it because it will pay off.
Benjamin: I have a few pieces of different advice. First of all, if you are curious, especially about climate change or carbon impact, start doing your research about where stuff comes from. Even though engineering is a field where a degree and credentials are so important to get work, there's also so much self-learning available, like online courses. A lot of them have more real-life impact interests, such as life cycle analysis. There are great ways to guide yourself through some self-learning about that. In my experience, getting serious about writing and doing that entirely through self-learning makes it my advice to anybody career-related. Get started with some self-learning. You can probably find some free resources, so don't force yourself into something rigorous right away, especially not knowing if you like it or not. I got lucky, but I wished I had done a bit more self-learning beforehand.
That leads to my second piece of advice, which is to have a strong focus. It was very helpful in transitioning into engineering. The third piece of advice is that if you don't have any privileged resources, like a focus on a four-year traditional engineering degree, then there are great non-degree ways to get started in the manufacturing industry in general. Some small businesses are always looking for unskilled line operators who pay great attention to detail. Some fast technical degrees can qualify you to be a machinist and more of a skilled fabricator in an industrial setting. It’s a big deal in America, and it’s growing more internationally because it's harder to convince young people to join the blue-collar/industrial workforce. The current global industrial workforce is much older than it should be. So I always want to encourage dancers and young people that you might be able to get started in this field and get a high wage with very few credentials now. To do what I do, such as solving problems and doing innovation, some pathways lead there. They tend to take about 10 years of experience in proving your curiosity, competence, and credibility. So, it's not a dead-end, just a much slower path to get into an engineering position. Some larger companies are willing to promote those workers who have 10-15 years of capable experience into an engineering position, even without that degree.
Benjamin: I think the willingness to try things out and experiment is the biggest asset. Discipline is also helpful, but many engineers see the big numbers and stakes and get overwhelmed. It helps to have a dancer mentality of trying it over and over again. It goes back to my earlier advice about project management roles, like one of the episodes of the Count Nine podcast with Britt Spitler and his role. He works for a large company that manufactures agricultural products in the food industry, and he is not an engineer. He has a project management background, and that skillset is the same as being a dance captain or a ballet master in some ways where you have attention to detail. You have approachable credibility where when you approach someone and say, I think you need to rethink how you're doing something.
Large technical companies need project managers to help poor technologists, who hate talking to each other, get it done. There are actionable ways for people to get qualified quickly and market themselves as project managers. So it would benefit the engineering world to have more dance captain/stage manager/ballet master personalities.
Another thing is ownership. If I don't know what's going on, then nobody will because in these big engineering teams, everyone chooses their piece of the pie, and then they focus on that. But I need to know the whole show and all the tracks in a Broadway show for two hours. It's helped me personally, having been a dance captain. It would help the whole industry to have more dancers bring that type of skill set.
Top Image: Photo by Vedrana Filipovic