From BA to beauty school: How the humanities made me a better hairdresser

Becoming a hairdresser was a sharp move.
Becoming a hairdresser was a sharp move.
Image: Reuters/Rodrigo Garrido
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

If I’d known when I was 17 years old that I wanted to become a hairdresser, I might have skipped the college degree and saved my parents about $100,000. But without the higher education I somewhat aimlessly attained, I wouldn’t be the hairdresser I am today.

Growing up, I’d always expected to wind up at an intellectually-minded desk job. My mother was a librarian; my dad wrote for the Associated Press. Although my paternal grandparents had grown up in working-class Jewish families in Brooklyn, my grandmother became an accomplished lawyer, while my grandfather wrote for the New York Times for decades. His 75th birthday party was a who’s-who of New York literati: Judy Blume and Kurt Vonnegut were among those who received a birthday cookie airbrushed with my grandfather’s face and the phrase, “Herb Forever.”

And so whenever I pictured my future, I imagined careers that would fall within my family’s purview. For a while in high school, I fell in love with the idea of becoming an architect. But in my first semester at the University of Illinois, I learned that the field wasn’t all about building tiny models out of balsa wood. English felt like the most logical alternative.

I spent the next four years immersed in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Poe and Emerson, along with copious volumes of history, philosophy, and psychology. Humanities classes encouraged me to trust myself to question authority and tradition, and to develop an aptitude for critical analysis. Every book I read taught me about the author’s historical context, which in turn piqued my interest in political, social, and economic current events.

But after earning my bachelor’s degree, I realized that I still had no idea what I wanted to do for a living. Sure, I had skills. My studies had heightened my sense of empathy for the human condition. I’m also practically a savant in my ability to memorize song lyrics. I can sew, knit, make a perfect pie crust, and polish my nails equally well on both hands. Basically, I excelled at things that didn’t readily coalesce into a career path.

So I worked at an administrative gig for almost two years before burning out on data entry. Next I landed an executive assistant position at a prestigious college’s office of alumnae affairs. But from day one, I could tell that everyone in the office thought I was an idiot. My new coworkers offered disdainful instructions about how to order sandwich platters and arrange printed place cards for luncheons. After two months, I was politely and unsurprisingly fired—and promptly sank into a tailspin of unmitigated panic.

I knew I couldn’t take another administrative job. So I concentrated on choosing a graduate school path that would lead me to a stable career. Every other week I had a new idea: social work, or nutrition counseling, or perhaps philosophy. But each time, my enthusiasm was quickly quashed when I considered the job’s realities. I wasn’t sure I was up for handling the bureaucracy that comes with social work, or striking out on my own as a nutrition counselor. And when I thought about becoming a philosophy professor, I worried about the prospect of dealing with grad students. Everyone knows they’re the worst.

In the end, the prospect of writing a dissertation was deterrent enough, to say nothing of the expense of another degree. I couldn’t connect the dots from intellectual pursuit to palatable career.

Lightning finally struck while I was working at Trader Joe’s for a few months to pay my rent. Having a chill job gave me the peace of mind to take a breath and think about what kind of career might combine my strengths and also make me a decent living. Until then, I’d felt locked into the idea that the only path to success was to follow academia on through to a desk job with benefits and upward mobility.

When I took a step back to consider the skills I had and the kind of lifestyle I might enjoy, I kept returning to the idea of becoming a hairstylist. I’ve always had a knack for doing hair. My mom is useless in that department, so I taught myself to French braid without a mirror for ballet recitals. I begged for an American Girl doll, and upon receiving Samantha I promptly cut her long chestnut colored hair into a jaunty bob. When my mom saw the doll, I could tell that she wanted to be angry—but instead she conceded that I’d done a pretty good job. (She still displays it at home as material evidence of my first haircut.)

Styling hair also brought together several of my seemingly disconnected skills. My sense of empathy would help me be more effective in client consultations. My dexterity is superb. I’d develop warm relationships with clients by chatting with them about literature, theater, movies, and the news. And working at Trader Joe’s while hashing out my future had proved that I could provide first-rate customer service, even in a state of existential hysteria.

The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that my natural styling compulsion had inadvertently given me twenty years of practice for a totally viable career. In college, I box-dyed my hair a strange shade of orange and then jet-black. I cut it myself with a pair of desk scissors, and spent hours frying it with a tiny curling iron until it evoked Roseanne Roseannadanna. Now I was finally ready to become a professional.

And so I gathered up my nerves and told my family I wanted to start beauty school. It was a tough sell at first. My grandfather stared blankly at me. “So ya gonna be a baw-buh?”

But as soon as I started beauty school, I knew I’d made the right choice. Academically, I was only ever selectively motivated. But at beauty school, I volunteered to be student council representative and graduated with the highest GPA in my class (which also happened to be completely unnecessary). I picked up lessons in cutting and color theory with natural ease. All the years of futzing with my own hair allowed me to nail roller sets, finger waves, and Marcel curling iron technique on the first try.

After gleefully and efficiently completing the requisite eight hundred school hours, I sat for a written and then practical state board exam to earn a cosmetology license. Then I spent two years as an assistant at a salon making minimum wage while attending weekly classes to refine my skills.

I also learned, excruciatingly, how to navigate the treacherous terrain of customer service. It’s such a delicate and intimate thing, touching a stranger’s head. You have to know how to speak and move in such a way that you swiftly earn trust and command authority, while catering to a client’s feelings about his or her appearance.

Studying literature, philosophy and psychology has helped me to become adept at predicting people’s responses in emotional situations. If a client asks for a major change, I’ll engage in a lengthy consultation, rewording and repeating the request back to ensure that there’s no miscommunication. When I work a wedding, I’m in the midst of a woman’s inner circle on a high-octane day—and I can bang out French twists and chignons right and left while keeping the bride relaxed. Killer hair is about 30% of my job. The other 70% is customer service.

Now almost a decade into my hair career, I work creatively with my hands, standing, moving and interacting with people all day. I work four days a week earning a very respectable income, leaving me time to follow other pursuits—such as writing about how I decided to do hair for a living.

My erudite grandparents came around when they saw how happy I was, chatting with me about my job’s complexities. I was honored to cut my grandfather’s hair a few times when he could no longer leave the apartment to visit his old Sicilian barber. My parents get free haircuts for life and a financially stable daughter, so they’re not complaining. And when my friends ask me to cut and color their hair and style them for weddings, I feel immense pride at having gained their trust—not just because we’re friends, but because they think I’m good at what I do.

My job certainly isn’t perfect. There are wackobirds who bum me out every once in a while, just as in every service industry job. But I’ll take a lady freaking out about a few lowlights over sitting at a desk any day.