David de Haas had his life in the advertising industry all planned out.
First, he would spend five years at a smaller agency where he could express his creativity, do great work, and win awards. Then, he would spend five years at a larger agency with big clients — a job that wouldn’t allow him to do much great work, but would pay him lots of money.
What he hadn’t planned on was a stint as a bus driver for Vancouver’s public transit department.
And yet, there he was late one night in the early part of 2012, driving one of British Columbia’s most notorious routes when a passenger alerted him that a woman in the back of his trolley bus was in the process of injecting herself with heroin.
De Haas tried to get the passenger to stop by asking politely via the bus’s intercom. That didn’t work, so he pulled over to the side of the road.
In a combination of poor planning and great luck, the bus got stuck because de Haas had taken it too far off the wires that ran overhead. Everyone on the bus, including the passenger in question, got off.
“Shouldn’t I be in an edit suite somewhere sipping on a latte and eating organic strawberries?” he asked when recounting the incident in his e-book Advertising vs. Bus Driving. “How did I end up here, driving a bus full of drunks and junkies?”
Indeed, driving a bus was supposed to have been a respite for de Haas, a chance to take it easy and spend more time with his family after being burned out from the psychological toll advertising had taken on him.
At the time, he was tired of the long hours his job required, as well as the feeling that the work he was producing was neither good nor important.
On the rare occasion that he was able to work for a client he cared about, like the charity Developing World Connections, de Haas said his bosses wanted him to focus on winning awards rather than actually helping the client succeed.
And so, inspired by the scenic bus route he took to work each day, he spent roughly a year ducking out of meetings to do personality assessments, physical tests, blood work, and a host of over steps required to get a job as a bus driver.
“You sort of look at yourself and say why aren’t I enjoying this?” de Haas told BI. “Now that I’ve had the outside perspective, it was more about the clients was I working with. I didn’t have a great relationship with the creative director I was working with. All those things weigh on you, and at that point I thought, ‘I’m not enjoying the job I used to love as much as I did and I want to find out why.'”
De Haas began driving for the city of Vancouver in early 2012 at the age of 42. He quickly found out the job was a lot more difficult than he had imagined it while stuck inside the office.
Being a new driver meant he had all the worst shifts — late nights and early mornings — evaporating the time he had planned to spend with his wife and kids.
And though he would later fill a book with them, de Haas had to deal with a number of unpleasant incidents, including passengers who refused to get off the bus, and one who insisted on simulating sex with a bus pole before boarding.
Unfortunately, de Haas was caught on camera running a red light one night six months into his tenure, just as he was about to finish his training hours. He said it was an accident, but the bus drivers’ union suspended him for two weeks with pay and said that in order to finish his hours, he would need to restart from zero.
It was then that he decided to quit bus driving and figure out what he really wanted from life.
“It gave me a lot of respect for bus drivers. It was so much harder to become one than I thought, and it’s a tough job,” de Haas said. “I don’t think I was ever an excellent bus driver. Meeting all those different people was probably the best part of the day.”
Still, there were bright spots. In one humorous anecdote in his book, de Haas recalls losing his way while driving, only to be led to the correct destination by a blind passenger.
And though de Haas had to significantly cut back his personal spending — bus driving paid only about a third of his advertising salary — the experience allowed him to reacquaint himself with his creativity and reflect on what would really make him happy.
“It was an adventure and it was totally worth it,” de Haas told us. “I was feeling thin creatively, like butter spread over so much bread. But doing something completely different lets you remember who you are.”
Though de Haas ultimately returned to advertising, he does so now on a freelance basis, careful only to work with clients whose missions he supports. This includes the organic energy bar company Prima, and the Vancouver Aquarium, where his wife works in marketing.
He’s also able to set his own schedule, and is home when his kids get back from school three days a week.
With his creative juices following and his batteries recharged, de Haas said he’s even ready to consider going back to a big agency one day, if the right opportunity arises.
“I’ve kind of gotten to the point where it’s like, ‘It would be nice to have more money again.'”
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