So You Chose the Wrong Career: 8 Women on Their Second Acts

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Taking Care of Business: A week devoted to taking our professional lives up a notch.

No matter how much you like your job, there has probably been a moment of intense drudgery, when you stared out the window and imagined becoming a landscape architect or poetry professor or attorney. Who doesn’t wonder, if not panic, about paths not taken? Leaving behind a hard-won first career often means fighting questions like “You really think you can do that now?” or “You’re quitting?” And those questions aren’t always unmerited — seeking out a new profession does mean taking financial and emotional risks. But, for many women, these new challenges are worth their price.

Americans switch jobs most often in their 20s, but no one knows exactly how common it is to change fields overall; the Bureau of Labor and Statistics doesn’t keep track of career changes because they’re too hard to quantify. While we don’t have statistics, what we do have are interviews with eight women who followed new courses throughout their lives, for a wide variety of reasons. Here’s what it’s like to realize you need to escape your current profession, and what fears, stress, and rewards come from trying on a new one.

“I was a coward.”

After graduating college, Carlota moved to Moscow, where she produced TV news for major networks. At first, the work was exhilarating, but after years of tense overnight shifts spent churning out 2 a.m., 4 a.m., and morning news segments, she would “be cutting video of water-skiing squirrels in the middle of the night, and thinking, ‘What the f— is my life?’” She remembers, “I apologized to my parents for spending so much money on my undergraduate degree.”

In her early 30s, she moved back to the States and applied to law school. “I was a coward. Law school was easy prestige.” When school started, she realized she had no interest in studying law, and that she’d been motivated by appearances. But she thought, “If I leave now, what will I do?” She sunk into depression. After she graduated, friends would email her with job postings and she’d think, “Why don’t you just give me a gun? I couldn’t even respond to the emails.” When people congratulated or complimented her, she only felt worse. “I realized that if I do things for society’s reasons, I’ll be miserable,” she says.

“I’d never experienced failure,” she says. For years she’d wanted to start a business that used her talent for connecting with and helping people. Being incredibly depressed, she says, gave her “do-or-die courage.” The year after earning her law degree, she started her own professional coaching business. Even when she struggled through “grinding poverty and hustle,” she was happier than she’d been in years. “I had no money. Sometimes I could feed the cat but not myself,” she says. “But what I had was passion.” Eight years later, her business is thriving. “Having to make a comeback was a gift. I don’t need your approval. I have my own.”

It’s what she does, not who she is.

“For any working creative person, it’s not just a job, it’s a culture,” says Alena, now 41. In her 20s, she didn’t just perform in musical theater. She was a performer. “I felt intimidated to date men not in the business. I really felt more at home with people who did what I did.” Then, around age 30, she got sick and doctors urged her to stop performing. She saw a therapist who had also been an actor. He told her, “Performing is not who you are. It’s what you do.” But she struggled to accept that.

She’d studied psychology in college — when her parents forbade her to major in theater — and her therapist suggested she pursue a master’s in social work. “I thought social workers were ‘the people who take away the children,’” she says, but, nervously, she applied to programs, deciding not to commit until orientation. Alena recommends taking small steps toward a new career, to see how you feel. “I was really excited about the suicide class, and that was telling,” she laughs. Other students had artistic bents, and they were a variety of ages, which helped her feel comfortable with her decision.

“It took a couple of years for me to de-identify as a performer. I’m still really proud of what I did then,” Alena says. “Now I’m a therapist, a mom, and I don’t feel like my identity is so wrapped up in being either. Some of that might be that I’ve matured — I know that I am creating a life for myself, not just creating work.”

“You’re making the biggest mistake of your life.”

“You only have one shot at life. Take the leap. Just don’t go to culinary school,” says Erica, 42, laughing. “Being a chef is not glamorous. It’s standing in a hot basement peeling onions.” Erica went to an arts college “and quickly realized that if you want to make it as an artist in New York it helps to be independently wealthy.” While working as a server to support her photography career, she discovered her interest in food. For seven years, she worked in kitchens, then burned out and taught at culinary schools. She told students dissatisfied with their corporate jobs to consider the reality of standing on their feet for 12-hours at $10 an hour before bailing on a six-figure salary: “I’d say, ‘You’re making the biggest mistake of your life.’”

Erica was offered public-speaking events, which led to guest spots on TV cooking shows. She enjoyed the appearances, so she called a radio producer and asked for a show on his new online network. Then she found a voice-over agent and started auditioning for commercials. “The acting thing just kind of happened,” she says. She no longer teaches. “I don’t have kids, I’m very frugal, I have an apartment and a husband, so it’s not a huge risk.”

“I had to learn how to present myself as a professional adult woman,” she says. “I hadn’t ever really learned to dress. For years, I wore chef whites. In the kitchen, it’s like in the military, our uniforms make us part of the brigade.” When teaching, she wore clothes that de-emphasized her femininity. “Suddenly I’m in my 40s and I don’t know how to wear lady clothes. I had to ask myself: Who do I want to be?”

“Yes! … This is how I think!”

Catherine, a long-time stay-at-home mom, enrolled in law school in her 50s, after two of her four children went off to college. Her family and most friends were supportive, but, she says, “I was surprised by how many people were shocked that I thought I could go back to school. When you reach a certain age, even women your age think you’re done.” When friends pointed out that she would be 59 when she graduated, she pointed out that she’d turn 59 even without a degree. “I never doubted that I could do it,” she says.

On her first day of school, Catherine thought, “Yes! I love this! This is how I think!” She became totally absorbed in her studies. Once, a male professor whom she liked and respected asked her, “Are you planning to do anything with your degree?” as if he were saying, “Oh, aren’t you cute!” But she secured a clerkship with a judge, which she describes as “absolutely the best job ever.”

“I relished every single day I had with my kids,” she says. “People say, ‘Being a parent is the most important job,’ but that’s baloney. They don’t mean it. Society does not look fondly on housewives.” She says both working and stay-at-home parents often feel insecure and guilty, so they judge mothers who have chosen differently, but they shouldn’t: “Damn anybody who wants to criticize you. It’s not their business. It’s not their life.”

After graduation, younger students had an easier time finding jobs. In interviews, it felt unnatural not to mention her family — “the most important part of my life” — and she knew employers probably preferred someone younger. She told interviewers, “Look, I have the enthusiasm of a new lawyer and the seasoned judgment and maturity of someone my age. It’s a unique combination.” She found jobs at small firms. “I’m loving every minute of the law — I’m a total SCOTUS nerd,” Catherine says. “What frustrates me is that women my age and younger drink the Kool-Aid that they’re done. We need to value ourselves.”

She doesn’t regret giving up her passion.

“I’m a type-A person. I strive, strive, strive,” says Robin, 38. As a middle-school orchestra director, she earned her master’s degree online and climbed the ranks within her school district, but her paycheck only increased by $50. She knew she didn’t want to be a principal, and she’d otherwise hit the ceiling. Whereas most other teachers she knew were women whose husbands had good salaries, she was the family breadwinner.

“I remember crying when I was writing my résumé, knowing I was resigning my passion in order to make more money, and knowing I had to,” Robin says. “I wanted my daughter to go to college, to be comfortable.” She had a connection at a government IT department. When working on her résumé, she researched keywords associated with both teaching and IT — like communication and organization — and listed them. When she landed a position at age 31, she “kept her musical-education background on the DL.” Her new job seemed plush — with free trainings and a salary that automatically increased every year — and managing staff with the help of sub-managers and team leaders was easier than coordinating an orchestra of 300 kids by herself.

After hours, she studied to get herself up to speed. Her teaching skills transferred to her new position. Only once, when she disagreed with a supervisor in a meeting, did she hear, “Well, I have a master’s in IT, and you only have a music degree.” The career switch translated to many more changes, including less stress, a better credit score, losing 100 pounds, and feeling confident enough to leave her now ex-husband.

What am I doing here?

“Every day I walked in and thought, What am I doing here?” says Shelley, who is in her 50s, when describing her first week at a public-relations firm after working at a daily newspaper for 18 years. Like many other dailies, the newspaper had struggled in recent years, so raises were infrequent. Shelley wanted to be able to save more for retirement, but she worried about losing accrued vacation time and 401K contributions. She assumed prospective employers would think, “What is she going to want? Is she going to use our health insurance? That’s expensive.”

“I didn’t want to get thrown into another business that wasn’t thriving,” Shelley says. She used her reporting skills to find potential jobs and weigh their merits. She advises “doing your homework and being a little skeptical.”

She says the change was the right one — her co-workers have been friendly and she’s settled in. But working in a new environment, surrounded by younger people better versed in marketing lingo and protocol, was “intimidating at first.” At the paper, she worked on an Apple computer. At the firm they use Microsoft OS. “You have to be able to say, ‘I need help.’ That’s not easy.”

No decision is perfect.

After majoring in engineering and finance, Meredith was offered a coveted job working in private equity. In the first few years of her career, back in the early ’90s, “an era on the cusp of change, when women in the office didn’t wear pants,” she held prestigious corporate positions. A boss told her, “You’re a five-foot-two woman. You need to go back to business school. When you walk into a room, you’ll need the degree to prove yourself.” “He was my biggest fan,” she says, adding that he was simply being realistic.

In business school she learned that no one’s career follows a straight line. A job that isn’t your dream can still move you toward your ultimate goal. After earning her MBA, Meredith began working at a venture-capital firm with a “very male dominated, let’s call it ‘locker-room culture.’” She knew she wanted to have kids and “saw no future there,” because she couldn’t imagine negotiating the grueling hours and spontaneous business trips with having a family. She began looking for a less cutthroat job and, after a nine-month-long interview process, landed a position at a pharmaceutical company. By then, she was already pregnant. “Things tend not to go according to plan with fertility,” she says. “So you put the family piece first.”

“No one can have it all,” Meredith says. After she had her second child, juggling family and work became more difficult and she left the pharmaceutical company. She started a business and stopped second-guessing every decision. “Kids feel like if they don’t get good SAT scores they won’t get into a good college and their lives will be ruined, and women almost feel the same way about when and how they have their kids and if and how they decide to keep working.” She has enough perspective now that she doesn’t “need to get caught up in needing every decision to be perfect. They were the right decisions at the time.”

“Okay, you earned your own self-respect.”

“I didn’t burn out,” says Lindsay, 37, who decided not to seek out academic positions after earning her PhD in history two years ago. When she was still earning her master’s, she heard her fellow students say they’d “be lucky to get a tenure track position in Tennessee or Arizona or some other place completely alien to them.” She couldn’t imagine uprooting her life for a lectureship: “I like being a small fish in a big pond. I didn’t care about pedagogy or laurels as much as staying in the city.”

“Yes, I would recommend you take a hard look at the job market before committing to many years of training,” Lindsay says, laughing. “But I also don’t regret my decision. I loved school, and I can’t think of anything else that would have motivated me to quit my barista job and harness my intellect and ambition.” While in school, Lindsay published several peer-reviewed articles and presented at conferences. “I think that was enough for me to say to myself, ‘Okay, you earned your own self-respect. You can put your mind to something.’ I struggle with myself, because I do value ambition, and I see how someone could look at me and think I’ve quit, but I think of it as moving on to the next thing.”

Now she works at a foundation focused on international development. “All those hours writing my dissertation taught me self-discipline,” she says. “Office culture — the language, the hierarchy, the dress code, the meetings — it is a different culture. Offices have their own myopia, inefficiencies. People here are very distractible. I miss the freedom of the academic schedule, and I sometimes wonder if I’ve cut myself off from my kind of people, but I’ve been challenged, I’ve learned, and I have been surprised how easily I’ve been able to assimilate.”

So You Chose the Wrong Career: 8 Women on Their Second Acts