How do you measure success? If you live on the north shore of Chicago chances are that things like a good education, a prestigious career where you can command a high paying salary would be counted among the indicators. All good things but not always the measures that count for everyone.
What happens when a young person growing up in that environment measures success differently? How easy is it to fit it when your dreams and goals don’t? Joe Wortell, who grew up on Chicago’s north side and attended the highly-touted college prep New Trier High School, knows this experience well. Against the tide, he made the decision early on to avoid the trap of fitting in and instead chose to fight for a career path that resonated for him.
Joe remembers it clearly. He was eight years old and his mom took him for the first time to the local barbershop for a hair cut. It was Andy’s Barber Shop in Glencoe, Illinois. He fell immediately in love with the experience. He loved everything from the red, white and blue barber pole to the vintage porcelain and cast iron hydrolic barber chair to the classic smells of scent aftershave.
This of course was a stark contrast to the salons that his mother and her friends would frequent and often take Joe along for a haircut. In those salons with their trendy décor and stacks of fashion magazines, Joe felt awkward and out of place. It was a punishing experience, rather than a pleasurable one.
Today, Joe Wortell, age 19, attends Success Barber School in Chicago located at the corner of Wabash and Adams. Joe enrolled as their first student in October of 2009. He is part of the renaissance movement to bring barbering back into vogue. Joe says barbering lost its popularity starting in the 1960’s with the arrival of the Beatles and long hair – the precision practices of barbering just drifted away.
Joe’s mission is to bring barbering back. He believes he is a part of a new generation that values the precision haircuts, head and neck massage and straight razor shaves with hot towels, hot later and the ability to get a shoe shine before you walk out. He feels strongly that men appreciate being able to walk into an environment where there is an air of nostalgia, reading material geared to the clientele, 1950’s television featuring the game of the day and conversation that is “just for men.”
Most of us spend years trying to understand what it really is we want to do with our lives. We dedicate ourselves to our educations, we seek career counseling, we interview, we pursue mentors and we often blindly follow a career path that is aligned to what others want us to do or what society at large says we should. Many find themselves in mid-life still asking the question, “What do I want to do with my life?”
Joe Wortell has never had this problem. Yes, from age eight, he knew he wanted to be a barber and never waivered from that decision – not once. He began collecting barbershop memorabilia that he plans to fill the shop he’ll open and own one day. Elvis posters will cover the walls and late 1800’s to 1940’s iconic barbershop chairs will line the walls. Joe shares that his passion and purpose emanated from the experience he had during that first visit and it just kept getting re-enforced through the years.
During high school, he remembers feeling like an outsider when his classmates’ conversations focused on the colleges and universities they planned to attend. He would sometimes get comments from them or his parents’ friends like, “All you want to be is a barber?” “You should set your sights higher.” Rather than be discouraged he would address the questions by confidently educating those who inquired about the virtues and future of barbering. Even Joe’s parents, at first, found his commitment confusing and certainly tried to steer him in another direction. Over time, however, they have grown to appreciate and admire his passion. They now support his efforts fully.
In retrospect, Joe says he sometimes wonders if he was the odd man out more because he knew so clearly what he wanted to do with his life rather than his decision not to attend college and follow a more traditional path. His level of clarity was difficult for others to grasp.
Joe’s schooling is a ten-month course that equates to 1500 hours. He will need to pass a state board test in order to become a barber. He has his eye on a couple of barbershops in the Chicago area he’d like to start working at after graduation and eventually buy and operate his own shop.
Joe says that he always wanted to find a job that didn’t feel like a job. He wanted to work in an environment that was relaxed and congenial where he looked forward to going every day. He wanted to work in a profession that allowed him the flexibility to easily pursue his other interests which include playing steel pedal guitar, rockabilly and roots music. It is hard to argue with that rationale. He may not get rich he says but he surely will enjoy his life.
When asked if he felt choosing an unorthodox path took courage he says at times, yes. “It’s not easy when you are surrounded by people who are urging you to go in one direction – their direction.” Joe shares, however, that once you become comfortable with who you are, it gets easier. “I wanted to live my dream, not theirs.”
When asked what advice he would give to others struggling with what they want to be when they grow up, Joe simply says, “Pay attention to what you love. Be willing to learn new things. Trust that you will find your path as long as you allow yourself to discover your passion.”
And one more thing. Andy’s Barbershop – the place whose experience captivated Joe at age eight – still exists. Andy, now in his 80’s, still has his shop in Glencoe, has one single chair and is open one day a week. Still setting his own hours, serving customers and doing what he loves to do.