How to Get a Job Like Mine in the Cannabis Industry


Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.

In my early 20s, I drove over two hours in the middle of a frigid Michigan winter to see Kurt Vonnegut speak. I was excited to see one of my literary heroes, and I thought it wouldn’t hurt for an aspiring writer to get some career inspiration. The name of his talk was “How to Get a Job Like Mine.” Once he got on stage, he cheekily admitted that the title of his speech was a ploy to get people to come to his event, which made me love him even more.

Thousands of people have entered the cannabis industry since I started a decade ago, and the top question I get is how to get a job like mine. I like to joke that you need to work in corporate, get fed up, take time off, switch to nonprofits and then get stage III colon cancer in your late 30s, but it’s more nuanced. It’s about finding what feeds your soul, stimulates your mind and finding work that, no matter what, you move heaven and earth to do, even if that means temporary financial hardship and sacrifice. It’s a deep resonance that not many people find.

Finding Your Heart’s Work

I never considered a career in cannabis. It was definitely not my plan to enter the cannabis space when I moved to San Francisco. Career fulfillment meant having a more direct and impactful job aligned with my ethos and strengths, but I wasn’t sure where to start. This is a common theme for many people. One of the gifts I received from facing my mortality was a new lens through which to see the world, and I realized when I finished chemo that setting for work that didn’t feed my soul was probably a big part of what got me sick. I needed to make a significant change.

My cannabis career began when California only had a medical program, and part of our training was learning how to calmly navigate a federal government raid. I went from being a middle manager at a nonprofit in San Francisco to working a job I loved but was reluctant to tell friends and family about. Landing my job was a complete fluke. I likened it to working at a bookstore or a coffee shop — things I always wanted to do but were never practical. I never thought I would spend a decade in the cannabis industry.

I started public education programming in 2013, and after thousands of hours working with human beings and cannabis, I started writing and creating curricula for higher education and consulting. I got involved in cannabis policy by becoming a co-chair of the San Francisco State Cannabis Legalization Taskforce. I also returned to my creative roots in radio through my podcast “Planted with Sara Payan.” The cannabis industry offers the opportunity for work that’s inspiring and challenging. I’ve learned that being a part of this industry means you’re always learning, which keeps everything fresh. We still have a lot to do, and though sometimes arduous, it’s also what draws people in.

The quest for better public education, training, innovation and policy is continuous, and I’m excited to see what the future has in store for our industry.

Finding Your Place in the Industry

Here are a few points for success to consider when you are looking for your dream job:

Research companies that align with your ethos. What’s important to you, and does the company champion the same values? Do they believe in profit sharing? Are they concerned about sustainability, diversity and inclusion or social justice? Do they promote professional development?

The Rolling Stone Culture Council is an invitation-only community for Influencers, Innovators and Creatives. Do I qualify?

Start with a company close to its inception — it’s an excellent opportunity to create your career. When everything is new, you have a unique opportunity to help build systems, programs and culture.

Pick work that you would happily do on your darkest day. When I was in theatre, I had no problem orchestrating a show even with the flu. When I was an actor and I got pneumonia during summer stock, I quickly realized I wasn’t as devoted to acting as I thought.

Find a team that encourages growth and collaboration. Is a win for you a win for the team? Do you celebrate victories together? Are mistakes looked at as learning opportunities? Does your manager trajectory encourage you to look at your career and help you with the tools to succeed?

Keep learning. The wise person never claims to be an expert. Find mentors, network with people you admire, read, take continuing education seminars and stay curious.

Dig in: When times are challenging, if you are still passionate about the work, you’re on the right path. So many people dive headfirst into the cannabis industry, simply thinking it fun, cool and profitable. While some of this may be true, the work is rife with ever-changing policy, competition and compliance issues that affect the very existence of the legal industry. Companies need professionals who offer skills that positively affect ROI and position them as differentiators. These professionals will likely rise to the top in the cage match for relevance.

I arrived at a fulfilling career in the strangest of ways. It was an enlightening, exhilarating though difficult path that led me to a place I never expected. To find your heart’s work, you must listen within, ignore the critics and be brave enough to leap. Obstacles come your way, face them with friendly curiosity. Be like water — there is always a way to maneuver through if you employ creativity and ingenuity and embrace change. Things hardly ever turn out the way you imagine, but if you’re flexible, they can be even better than you envisioned. Remaining rigid courts disappointment. As Vonnegut wrote in his inimitable, wry way: “Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, ‘It might have been.’”

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