It’s 8am and instead of heading into the office, I’m sitting at my dining room table pondering my next career move.  Having voluntarily been made redundant as part of the March 2019 Fox/Disney transaction (read about it here), I’m considering what’s next. Financially I’m OK, as they’ve bought out the last year of my contract, so I’m not worried about money — yet.  But emotionally it’s been a roller coaster; I’m used to actually mattering at work and for the last few months, aside from passing along my work to others, I didn’t. Things are easier in some ways now that I no longer have to go into the office, but the question looms: what do I want to do next?

In 1997 I faced a similar dilemma, having left my first job in the Pay TV industry to follow my heart from LA to NYC. I considered becoming an investment banker but lacked an MBA and felt too old to start from the very bottom of that ladder. I applied to a Master’s program in education, thinking I’d become a teacher or a school administrator, but bowed out when I realized the huge salary cut I would take, and how much it would cost to earn the credentials to get there. I decided to double down on Pay TV, and continued my upward climb, later moving back to LA.

So here I am in 2019, now 55 years old, wondering if maybe this time I can find a more fulfilling role, or at least one that affords me a more flexible schedule. I know how lucky I am: I’ve loved much about my career to date. I’ve honed my negotiation skills, worked with and mentored fabulous people, and become a respected expert in a dynamic field. But the pace of corporate America is punishing, and I’m not getting any younger. Hair dye and facials aside, how much longer do I want to keep pushing myself through twelve hour days, contentious deals, and feeling like I never give enough time to my son (let alone myself)? What could I do to finance my life, while protecting my time and my soul a bit more?

To help answer these questions, I thought that hearing other women’s stories about work transitions might help me. How hard is reinvention? Is it actually possible this late in the game? I reached out to some fellow Woolfers, and here is a sampling of what I heard and learned:

Kirsten Lynn Hanson-Press, 52, Los Angeles

Like so many of us, Kirsten’s career evolution looks a bit disjointed on paper:  she began her career as a grant administrator for the NEA film and video grant at the American Film Institute.  When the NEA stopped funding film, she switched to film project development, which led to becoming a line producer in commercials and music videos, and eventually producing big-budget music videos for Biggie Smalls (aka Notorious B.I.G.) and other rap & hip hop artists.  Life in production was logistically challenging once she had kids, so she followed her interest in education to study at UCLA. She was then asked to run a non-profit organization dedicated to providing parents comprehensive information about schools in LA, and now helps teenagers with college selection & applications for the nationwide firm Collegewise.  “To me,” she says, “it feels like a perfectly natural career evolution. I’ve always been about helping people tell their stories. I’m not an artist or a teenager, but I help them articulate what they want to offer the world, and I help them achieve it.” Connecting with others through authenticity and vulnerability has always driven Kristen’s career choices, and has made her work satisfying in a profoundly personal way.  She rejects the idea that we must find our “passion” in order to find a satisfying career. “Instead, I ask people what problem in the world do they want to help solve. What keeps them up at night? This puts a lot less pressure on them, and they don’t wind up feeling stupid because they can’t tell you their passion, or like a failure, because they didn’t dream a big enough dream or believe in it enough.”

Lesson:  Your interests can be a through-line connecting seemingly disparate jobs; don’t let the idea of “finding your passion” shut you down.

Krisann Wampler, 55, Indianapolis

Like me, Krisann voluntarily left a long career in corporate America.  After nearly 20 years in the HR group at a global educational resources firm where she worked directly with the CFO and Chief Counsel, she took advantage of a downsizing period and opted to seek a new type of work for the next phase of her life.  She decided to give herself a “Gap Year” to figure out what’s next, and is focusing on travel and volunteering as well as getting very clear about what she wants.  “This way,” she says, “you can measure any opportunities that come along against that filter.” She has reached out to friends and former colleagues for their input, and values hearing ideas “that would never occur to me,” such as one recent conversation that’s made her wonder about executive coaching.  Now nearly 4 months into her year, she “may be beginning to miss” having a professional purpose, and has set herself two goals before an upcoming trip to Thailand: to write her “brand statement,” and to create a plan for building her local network. “I realized that my network is global, but I want to stay in Indianapolis.” Knowing she’d counseled many employees who were being laid off or who were looking for new opportunities, I asked her what different advice she’d give them now.  She said she would tell them to spend some time to really think about what they want next in terms of role, company, and lifestyle – and to get better at networking. She also said many people leaving corporate America don’t make use of proffered outplacement services, and believes “they’re really missing the boat” as the help with resume writing and job search in this highly networked, digital world is not easy to find.

Lesson:  take time for multi-dimensional goal-setting and call that outplacement service on Monday!

Charis Warchal, 52, NYC

Three years ago Charis was laid off by a global bank along with 30,000 others, after 25 years in Corporate Communications.  She immediately went to work for a makeup startup launched by other laid-off colleagues, but that imploded after about a year. She’s found work through consulting gigs, while continuing to search for a full-time role at a stable company. Along her journey she’s tried to stay open to advice from all comers, and predictably gotten some that’s been less-than-helpful: “become a computer programmer” (um, ok?), “go back to school” (BTDT), or take advantage of the gig economy. She asked a therapist friend “Are men advised to work for Task Rabbit or walk dogs?”  Answer: no. They’re more often advised to start their own companies. So that’s what she’s done: she’s now trying to convert her volunteer work with a local women’s group into paid work to promote their events.  She has an inspirational tape made by a hypnotherapist, designed to provide comfort and inspiration, and listens when she feels anxious or stuck. “I always think of something new to do,” she says, “Sometimes it’s things like cleaning out a closet or making a fabulous dinner, unrelated to work.  But those are great, too – they keep me feeling positive about my life and moving forward. That’s part of reinvention, too.”

Lesson:  stay open to advice, but there’s no need to follow what doesn’t make sense to you. Keep active, positive, and flexible.

 

Elatia Abate, 42, Miami

Elatia was a VP at Dow Jones/Wall Street Journal, earning a good salary and working in a job that was sexy on paper and going fine. But a persistent inner voice kept saying “There’s got to be something else out there for me, something bigger.”  Although she didn’t have a fleshed out business plan, she knew she wanted to help others find happiness. So, “I quit my job,” she chuckles, trusting hard-won wisdom from early in her career: “Between a known that isn’t working and an unknown with some potential, you always have to go for the potential.”  Her entrepreneurial venture began with her developing a curriculum to help graduating students not only find jobs, but find fulfilling ones. “I knew no similar program existed, and thought it would be a slam dunk. I thought I had found a market need,” she says.  But, “I didn’t sell a single one. Zero!” So she pivoted to teach this methodology to individual coaching clients, entrepreneurs, and students at organizations like General Assembly.  As this business grew, her interest in innovation pulled her toward exploring macro trends in technology that affect how we work, what work means, how we live, and how we find meaning in our lives.  She saw a massive wave of disruption on the horizon, and decided to pivot again to build solutions that “create pathways to economic empowerment in the face of the disruption that technology creates in our world.”  (See her TEDx Ogden talk “Pioneering the Future of Work” here).  Today, she advises CEOs and political leaders around the world on the business models and strategies of the future, supports early-stage startups, and educates others about the future of work and why it matters. Additionally, she serves as Futurist in Residence for Fesa Group, a human capital consulting firm.   Elatia believes that the future of work presents the greatest opportunity that humanity has ever encountered. If people can understand that the rules of the game have changed “jobs will no longer simply be a means to an end, but acts of creation. We will shift from a world rooted in scarcity, zero-sum game thinking, and move to a world of abundance where everybody wins.”  

Lesson:  be the captain of your own ship, not a captive of circumstances.

Lisa Barry, 55, New York City

Lisa grew up in Norman, Oklahoma and moved to NYC after finishing law school in Colorado; she worked as a government and corporate securities lawyer for about ten years before leaving to raise her three children.  Seventeen years later, while in the middle of her divorce, she volunteered for a startup tech/communications company, and found that she was both challenged by the work and enjoyed being “in the mix.” “We’re capable of getting things done,” she says, “Because we’re moms – that’s what we do!”  That startup eventually foundered, but a digital media consulting firm working with them asked her if she would be interested in coming to work for them. Now she does legal, HR and business operations for a company she loves, and has a small ownership stake in one of their investments. Her role is varied and interesting, and keeps her in the company of much younger people.  I ask how it feels to be the only adult in the room, and she surprises me by her admiration, saying “I find these kids really motivated and interested in lots of different things. I have become friends with people of all different ages, and am really inspired by them,” trying new things and places she wouldn’t have thought about before. She’s recently bought her first apartment as a solo owner in Brooklyn, and faces the future with confidence and energy.  “I can’t imagine ever leaving where I am now,” she says.

Lesson: consider volunteering to get back into the game after a big gap out of the workforce. Embrace your age & wisdom, and appreciate what’s great about younger people.

 

So what have I learned?  

Be proactive!  This is the common thread that links all of the stories of successful career evolution or reinvention.  Whether that means starting your own business or being thoughtful about the role you take in a new organization, the key is to retain ownership of your own life and future – do not let yourself be an observer of your own story. Remember that you’re trying to create a life you will love, not just “get a job,” though of course paying the bills, for most of us, must also be part of the plan!

Great, so how do I do that?

Yes, it’s easier said than done, but attitude adjustments and a little planning can help a lot.  Here are some tips:

  • Marshall your resources.  Have a plan about your finances, and remember that you’ll need moral support, too.  Identify trusted advisors (ignoring the fear mongers) and seek counseling or other help if you get stuck or are fearful.
  • Stay curious & keep learning.  Elatia likens this to taking on the role of a scientist, embarking upon a journey of discovery, versus a sniper zeroing in on a single goal.  Lisa has stayed open to what much younger people can teach her, and Krisann has taken a year off for self-discovery.
  • Ask for favors, guidance & feedback.  Several Woolfers advised creating an informal “advisory board” of 3 to 6 people who know you well and can act as a sounding board.  As women, we often feel shy about asking for help: stop that!
  • Develop your vision.  Take the time to figure out what you want your next career phase to feel like.  Meditate or find other ways to get quiet in your own mind so that you really identify what motivates you and what sort of live you want to create.  Use your vision as a filter through which to evaluate the opportunities that come along.
  • Be open and flexible about the “how.”  You will almost certainly need to pivot when you meet a roadblock, whether to find a new use for your business idea or to find different kinds of organizations to work in.  Listen to what the market is telling you. And please don’t overlook volunteer opportunities as entrees into new organizations or roles!

OK, thanks, but really:  Is reinvention possible?  The answer to this is a resounding yes, though what it means is different for each of us.  While “follow your passion” may be nothing more than an annoying slogan, I’ve come to realize that my passion must really be my own life – and rather than following it, I’ve got to drive it.

Resources
  • For skills-building, coaching and online training:  ReBoot
  • For those returning to the workforce after a career break:  Path Forward
  • Interview tips for SAHMs returning to the workforce:  Interview Tips
  • A 2-evening online course for designing your dream job:  Dream Job
  • Thoughts about the modern economy and how to thrive in it:  Disruptor Not Disrupted
Sherry B.
Sherry is a senior television executive based in Los Angeles, where she lives with her teenage son. She also devotes time to lobbying Congress on behalf of nutrition assistance programs, supplies food and hygiene "welcome pacs" for refugees through the LA-based Program for Torture Victims, and is a Mod in the WWVWD Facebook group.