Inspiration Junkies

Three guys in a beat-up RV have been collecting career advice from the likes of Michael Dell and Sandra Day O'Connor. Now they're spreading the gospel on college campuses across the country.

Seek out the 4,500-square-foot warehouse in Costa Mesa, California, 15 minutes from the plush utopias of Laguna and Newport Beach. Seek, and you will find a shrine to rebellion and self-discovery, testament to creativity and, you know, goodness. Here it is, man: a 1985 neon-green Fleetwood RV. It has 140,428 miles on the odometer and is showing its age. The Church of the Divine Road Trip.

Inside, relics from an epic pilgrimage of hope. A giant map of the United States, laminated to the kitchen table. A note to cops in Washington, DC: "Please don't ticket us." And then the autographs. Eighty-six handwritten notes in black and blue plaster the walls, the dashboard, everywhere, like a breathing scrapbook. There's one from Michael Dell. Another from Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. And there on the ceiling, the most sacred of all: gently scribbled in marker on a map of the human-genome sequence, it reads, Follow your heart --J.C. Venter.

Amen, brother.

In the fall of 2001, Mike Marriner, now 28, Nathan Gebhard, 29, and Brian McAllister, 30, three existentially challenged Pepperdine University grads, set off in this very rig on a three-month, 17,342-mile lap of America. It was a supersized road trip, in search of . . . what? Relevance? Meaning? Just some decent career advice? They weren't sure, exactly. But they did know this: They weren't ready to consign the next 50 years to the safe paths--medicine, consulting, the family's landfill-operations business--that they felt pressured to follow.

Block out the noise and pave your own road guided by what lights you up.

So they cadged meetings with 86 luminaries, successful leaders in an eclectic array of professions. They switched on a video camera. And they asked: When you were our age, what were you thinking? And how did you get to where you are? "You sit in all these interviews with so many different kinds of people and ultimately they are telling you the same message," says McAllister. "Block out the noise and really pave your own road guided by what lights you up."

It was simple advice. Trite, possibly, even when it comes from a decoder of the human-genome sequence. But to twentysomething college students, it's gospel truth--enormously powerful stuff they've never heard from parents or teachers.

So it is that three naively idealistic guys in flip-flops and board shorts have created a for-profit company called Roadtrip Productions, their green RV now a seemingly ubiquitous symbol of self-definition on college campuses across the country. They produce a television series for PBS, have published three books, and are launching an XM radio program and Current TV series. They're spreading their unique brand of career advice through partnerships with 100 American and 22 British colleges, giving them unique grassroots access to career centers, student newspapers, even Greek systems.

The founders still spend months each year on the road, filming interviews with people from all walks of professional accomplishment, screening their documentaries, and meeting with students. They are "inspiration junkies," Marriner admits, still thrilled, even after 400-plus interviews, by evidence of human passion and self-determination.

But their original, seat-of-the-pants sojourn has matured into something more, as Marriner, Gebhard, and McAllister expand RTN's reach via smart corporate partnerships. Microsoft is rolling out 50 multimedia kiosks at college career centers, offering students access to video archives from the past four years. Starbucks is hosting RTN workshops in its cafés for older folks. And State Farm Insurance and J. Crew are helping fund road-trip grants for a new generation of self-discoverers to hit the road. The idea--and the movement's future--is to have students everywhere replicate the founders' experience by designing their own career-investigation journey.

"They're like what differentiates Billy Graham from other evangelists," says Tim Luzader, head of Purdue University's career center, an RTN partner campus. "He gives the message to people and tells them to go back to their churches and spread the gospel. It's the same thing: These guys are educating students and then having students educate other students."

For sure, there's no shortage of demand. Students from the Maryland Institute College of Art, Clarkson, Morehouse, and on and on--from all demographics and areas of study--have written RTN, literally begging for the green RV to roll up to their campuses. Countless emails arrive daily. "I sometimes [wonder] what would have become of my life had I never found your book that day in Target," reads one note from a recent grad who ditched her indifferent plans for law school and moved overseas. "Thank you . . . for writing about an experience in our lives most young people are too frightened to acknowledge."

Why is this next generation of workers so hungry for what seems like a very simple message? "Students think once you make a career decision, you're stuck in it for the rest of your life--or if you don't make a decision right away you'll fall behind, like it's a race," says Jordan Maness, a career counselor at UCLA. Arguably, students today deal with more pressure than any previous generation to make the right career choice. Raised by boomer parents, many have been hyperscheduled in extracurricular activities since they learned to speak. They leave college burdened both with loans to pay off and with the prevailing myth that upon graduation, they have just one chance to decide what they want their career to be. Many have witnessed the Porsche-littered midlife crises of their parents and want to be able to find meaning in their work. But actually doing so, that's the hard part.

"What blows my mind is, most people say they don't know what they're passionate about," says Marriner. He argues many actually do know what excites them but lack confidence to pursue that vision. Others are programmed to think their passions don't fit inside the boxes presented them in dusty college-career centers. That's why the RTN elders believe it's critical for students to use the trip as a vehicle to discover the hundreds of careers they never knew existed. You, too, could be a programmer for the Cartoon Network, or a designer for Burton Snowboards.

Annie Harleman, a 20-year-old Hamilton College sophomore, figured that out as one of 30 students catapulted on the road last summer with a $700 grant. The catalyst was a meeting with ESPN sports anchor Chris Berman. "He said, 'When you're in line at a gas station, what magazines do you pick up? What channels do you turn to on TV?' I started thinking, I always pick up National Geographic or go to the Discovery Channel," says Harleman, who had been interested in environmentalism but had strayed from the sciences because math wasn't her strong suit. "I learned that you shouldn't pursue something because you think it'll be easier." Back on campus, she rejiggered her course load with anthropology and environmental studies classes.

Now the movement is taking on a life of its own. Students such as Casey Roman, a 21-year-old grant recipient at Rhodes College in Memphis, have been so moved that they're starting up local RTN chapters. Emily Thurman, a student at Texas Tech, created a Roadtrip Nation network on Facebook.com, a hot social-networking site. At California State University, Al Striplen has built a five-week RTN program into the curriculum of his career-development course.

In 2003, Aimee LeFevers, project director for a nonprofit for 100 Pennsylvania schools in low-income areas, hounded RTN's founders to speak at a career-development conference. The students at her Brownsville high school were so inspired, they borrowed video equipment and interviewed leaders in their community. This past year, the kids struck a deal with a local PBS affiliate to air their footage. "After hearing Nathan explain that originally they didn't know what the hell they were doing, they were just trying to figure it out and chucked everything they had been taught, it gave these students confidence to say, 'If these guys could do it, we can too,' " says LeFevers.

Marriner and McAllister have just returned from five months on the road. Gebhard, who stayed behind to edit the fresh footage, is beginning to whittle 1,500 hours down to a mere 6 for next season's PBS series. They're still stoked by what they've heard. But they also realize that after four tireless years in the RV, they've finally found their passion and purpose. It's time to send RTN employees on the fall campus tour while they stay home to build the business.

And the business could be huge. Marketers call constantly, seeking access to RTN's coveted college audience. MTV has proposed a reality show where students get voted off the RV (seriously). Beer companies have offered sponsorships. Such deals might have ignited RTN's growth overnight. But they're not happening. "As much as this would be a quick fix to cash in, the second we compromise our honesty, our cause, we may as well close our doors," says Gebhard.

Instead, RTN aspires to get armies of students on the road and to extend internationally. "[Starbucks founder] Howard Schultz told us that success shouldn't be the target. Success is the by-product when you work toward the target," says Marriner, riffing on one of the many quotes he frequently drops from his network of mentors. His favorite is from Michael Jager, the founder of a design firm. "He said, 'When you really magnify what it is you believe in and follow it, the world conspires for you.' " For Roadtrip Nation, the conspiracy is just beginning.

Danielle Sacks (dsacks@fastcompany.com) is Fast Company's reporter/researcher. She was confused when she graduated from college, too. But she's figuring it out.

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