Born to Organize*

Telephone central office main distribution frame

People ask me all the time how I became a professional organizer. Here is my story:

ONCE UPON A TIME in Los Angeles… after earning degrees in Mechanical Engineering, Drafting, and Fine Arts… I worked as an Integrated Technology Planner for the local telephone company. (If you really want to know, it was the portion of AT&T which became Pacific Bell, which eventually became SBC, which morphed back into AT&T again over the course of my 21-1/2 year career.)

There were many times when I enjoyed my projects and coworkers very much. And other times where I felt useless and frustrated. At those times I would ask myself, “Hmmm, what do I really want to be when I grow up?”

I did the “What am I good at?” exercise, ala the concept popularized by Oprah Winfrey: Do what you love and the money will follow. (Click here to read my ode to Oprah.) I thought to myself: Well…people always say I’m so organized. But they didn’t say it like they wanted my help. And they also said things like, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, what is an empty desk a sign of?” (Naturally, I now prefer to reframe that as a clutter-free desk, and a clutter-free mind, ready and able to focus on the task at hand!)

I also thought to myself: So what if I’m organized? Is that a marketable skill? Wasn’t I just born that way?

Previous attempts at this exercise had been easily abandoned in favor of large, regular paychecks, yearly bonuses, several weeks paid vacation, and great medical benefits. Then, in early 2004, with the use of a new tool – Google, the magical font of all knowledge — I tried again, and there it was: Professional Organizer. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I realized there was a whole National Association of them out there in the world!

I learned that the local NAPO Los Angeles chapter had scheduled a conference that anyone could attend for a fee, and that the keynote speaker was going to be Julie Morgenstern. Well, I knew Julie from the Oprah Winfrey show! I had purchased, and eagerly read, her book Organizing from the Inside Out. (Click here to read my take on Julie’s S.P.A.C.E. formula.) Somehow, though, this hadn’t been enough to trigger the idea of becoming a professional organizer myself. As far as I was aware Julie was the only professional organizer in the world. I could no sooner become Julie than I could become Oprah…could I?

So I attended the conference, thinking that either I would fit right in, or that everyone would be so anal that I would run screaming from the room. The rest is history.

Oh, except for that pesky career in which I had already invested more than 20 years. I decided that what I would do is to become a professional organizer in my retirement, which was still several years away even if I retired early. It would simply be foolish to just quit now and fail to put the money I stood to make in those remaining years toward my retirement fund…wouldn’t it?

So I started doing organizing consultations for my friends, for free, just for the fun of it and for the experience. Then — later that same year — I got “surplussed”. This was the term they were using that year to mean “laid off”. What? Me?! Who in their right mind would want to get rid of ME?!?! I was simultaneously surprised, insulted, indignant, and…excited, relieved, and elated! This meant I could go do what I really wanted to do! And so I did. I immediately joined NAPO, got involved in the local chapter, started taking classes, and started charging for my services.

After six months of learning all I could from NAPO Los Angeles (which was only a tiny portion of what they had to offer), I moved to Albuquerque where the cost of living is lower, and where I have family ties (but I had never lived here before, except for some summer and winter vacations as a kid). I re-started my Organized For Life business and co-founded a group of local NAPO members called Professional Organizers of New Mexico. (Click here to read our story.)

It’s funny how my skills transitioned from the Telephone Company to working in people’s homes and offices without my realizing it. In my corporate life I performed economic studies, with input from large multidiscipline teams, which either proved or, more often, disproved the need for multimillion dollar building additions. Usually the solution, instead of an expensive addition, was to spend considerably less money to remove large, antiquated analog equipment (or just plain even-older dead equipment still sitting around taking up space) and to install new, smaller-footprint digital equipment. I created a plan for my “clients” to use their space more efficiently, and kept in touch with my teams, between in-person meetings, via email.

I remember telling my former coworkers about what I was doing now for clients in their homes and offices – removing clutter, teaching them to organize their spaces and maintain order — and that I was writing a monthly newsletter. They said, “Oh. So, basically the same thing you were doing here?” Indeed!

So… she was born to organize. And she lived happily ever after. THE END

* The title of this post is a nod to my friend and colleague Sara Pedersen’s book of the same name. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in becoming a professional organizer.

Copyright 2015 by Hazel Thornton, Organized For Life.
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  1. Christina Rogers on March 19, 2015 at 10:20 am

    Why would anyone want to get rid of Hazel? That’s just crazy talk! Funny how fate just sometimes opens up and allows what is best for you. I am happy you found your calling.

    • Hazel Thornton on March 19, 2015 at 11:19 am

      I KNOW, huh? Thanks, Christina! By the time I was laid off the company had changed so much that I was reporting to someone I didn’t even know (and who didn’t know me), in another part of the state. So I couldn’t even take it personally! Even more crazy is that they got rid of the planning department, at least as we knew it. WHAT?!?! I mean there HAS to have been some form of planning in the ten years since I left, but what form it takes I couldn’t begin to tell you.

  2. Seana Turner on March 21, 2015 at 9:40 am

    Isn’t it interesting how the timing worked out? I love your story. I think many of us had similar experiences, discovering this terrific profession. NAPO was a big help to me as well. My first career was marketing consulting!

    • Hazel Thornton on March 21, 2015 at 11:59 am

      Yes! And thanks! I do think it’s interesting how many different backgrounds we all come from. As for youngsters going directly into organizing these days, I’m not sure whether to be jealous, or whether they’ll be missing out on what life experience brings to the game.

  3. Janet Barclay on March 21, 2015 at 9:57 am

    I knew bits and pieces of your background, but it was very interesting to read the whole story.

    I was surprised to read that you were “surplussed” because I’ve only heard the word used in that context within the Ontario government, from which I was surplussed (although technically, I took a “voluntary surplus notice” which meant a bigger bag of money).

    • Hazel Thornton on March 21, 2015 at 12:08 pm

      They were starting to do it once or twice a year, and they called it something different each time. “Downsizing” and “rightsizing” come to mind. Never “layoffs”, though. The name of the company at that time was SBC. It was late November or early December, I forget exactly, but I do remember SBC = Surplussed Before Christmas!

      • Janet Barclay on January 24, 2018 at 12:30 pm

        Somehow “layoff” sounds better than “surplus.” I guess it’s better than “purging” though!

  4. Sarah Soboleski on March 21, 2015 at 11:55 am

    What a neat journey, Hazel. It was nice to learn more about you. Thanks for sharing and inspiring others!

    • Hazel Thornton on March 21, 2015 at 12:00 pm

      Thanks, Sarah! Your comment means more to me than you probably realize. Even when I wasn’t sure (as an adult) what I wanted to be “when I grew up” I knew one thing: I wanted to be an inspiration to others!

  5. Audrey Cupo on March 21, 2015 at 1:06 pm

    I love reading how others got their start in this most rewarding profession! Your story is an inspiration to others.

    • Hazel Thornton on March 21, 2015 at 2:18 pm

      Thanks, Audrey. We all have a story, don’t we?

  6. Kathy Vines @ Clever Girl Organizing on March 21, 2015 at 6:48 pm

    Love your story… My story also starts with a liberating lay off after a 20 year career… It’s amazing how we find the path to start over, and so grateful at how much happier we become! Thanks for sharing!

    • Hazel Thornton on March 28, 2015 at 1:31 pm

      Interesting that you, too, consider your layoff to have been “liberating”!

  7. on March 21, 2015 at 8:24 pm

    It’s always fascinating to read about how people came to the profession. I, too started my business after being ‘surplussed.’There are so many of us that have cultivated our skills in past careers and are able to now use them to help others as Professional Organizers. Thanks, for sharing your story, Hazel.

    • Hazel Thornton on March 28, 2015 at 1:32 pm

      Yes, it’s also interesting how many different ways we can help people as POs, depending on our backgrounds!

  8. Sharon Lowenheim on April 5, 2015 at 7:10 am

    Hazel, our stories are eerily similar – the joy of regular paychecks (and benefits and retirement plans) from a large corporate employer, the surprise of being downsized, the elation at realizing that a generous severance package would enable me to finally figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, the self-discovery that I could be an organizer but not knowing if that was really a profession, and the thrill of googling it and discovering NAPO!

    • Hazel Thornton on April 5, 2015 at 7:35 am

      Fun to have similar stories! And hope to see you soon at conference!

  9. Olive Wagar on July 20, 2015 at 4:58 pm

    Thanks for sharing your story, Hazel! I appreciate your encouraging words. It is amazing how much we can learn from each other. P.S.New Mexico is on my “Someday Travel List”!!

    • Hazel Thornton on July 23, 2015 at 7:16 am

      Come on down, Olive! We love visitors here.

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