The Cost of Passion: Following Your Dream

Straight talk from women who took the twisting path to meaningful work that pays. They followed their dreams to start businesses, find creative jobs, and make a difference, but what did it cost them?

By Mary Lou Quinlan
Mary Lou Quinlan
Photograph: Photo courtesy of Mary Lou Quinlan

Find Your Calling, But Don’t Find Yourself Broke

It’s hard to get through cocktails on a girls’ night out without hearing about an old college roommate who has chucked the corporate sweatshop and opened a tea shop or yoga camp. But what’s usually missing from these tales of dreams fulfilled is a reality check. What about the money, honey?

As a cheerleader of the "find yourself" squad, I admit I was once guilty of dodging that question myself. After I quit my corporate job to create my soul job, I earned well short of my former "number" and eventually added writing, speaking, and TV gigs to even the score. Many women I’ve talked with have relied on a spouse’s income, savings, or family money to help them get through — or well past — the start-up phase.

As you may discover, it helps to start by simply asking the question. If you toss your day job, can you make a move that’s not only personally rewarding but also fiscally smart? How long will your cash last? What are the compensations? Simply put, what is the cost of passion?

Eyes Wide Open

In June 2005, Lisa Green Hall, 41, made the big decision to leave her six-figure job at an investment company in the Washington, D.C., area. "My days were all about managing internal politics," she says. "I felt I was too old not to be enjoying my work."

The birth of her daughter Leah Michele helped spur her to find more meaningful and flexible work. But the move meant a pay cut of more than 50 percent. At the Calvert Foundation, a small nonprofit in Bethesda, Maryland, Hall manages a loan portfolio that supports community development organizations. The list of trade-offs is long: Hall works longer hours; she has fewer vacation weeks (three, down from five) and is no longer eligible for company-paid life insurance, disability insurance, or stock options. She found the flexible hours she sought, but she misses the assistant who helped schedule her days.

Giving up what you’ve spent decades to achieve is tough. And the impact is family-wide. Hall’s husband has also made changes recently, opening his own contracting business. It’s starting to take off, but the combined effect of their choices has altered their lives. They used to fly abroad for vacations, for example. "We stayed mostly at luxury hotels and ate every meal out," Hall says. "Last year, we drove to Rehoboth, Delaware, rented a friend’s condo for a week, and cooked."

The most pressing issue, though, is her daughter’s education. Hall and her husband hope that his business will grow enough to pay for private school, but they’re plotting alternatives, such as moving to an area with better public schools. This is one of the few pressures "that could push me back to the kind of work I used to do," Hall says.

"Some days I have to remind myself of the benefit of the trade-offs I’ve made," she adds, "particularly when I hear about former classmates or colleagues who have hit the big time. But mostly I’m happy to be doing work I love, with people I enjoy, in a stimulating environment that nourishes instead of drains me. That’s something that many people can’t say."

Taking a Plunge

Acting on an entrepreneurial inspiration can be particularly difficult. Many women boldly start from scratch, with more passion than planning.

Linda Geldermann, age 44, had been home raising four children in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, for 15 years. "As a stay-at-home mom, I assumed that working people always knew exactly what to do," she recalls. "That held me back." But a stint working at a local real estate title company awakened her confidence. "I realized that nearly everyone makes it up as they go along," Geldermann says.

She had always wanted to own a creative business. "But I had no idea what I would make," Geldermann says, laughing, "and certainly no plan. I didn’t even know that business plans existed!" When a fund-raiser in her lakeside community was looking for auction items, Geldermann hit on the idea of making rugs with images of owners’ boats. She took an intense two-day lesson in rug making, and her first sample raised $1,200 for a local charity.

Malarki Designs was born. "I knew I was on to something. But it was so labor intensive! All I did for a year was make rugs," Geldermann says. She found materials online and called on her parents and friends for free or low-cost help, including a nurse who wanted to practice her sales skills and a lawyer who helped with artist agreements. There were creative snafus too. "I’ve made some bad color choices," Geldermann says. "Who knew that so many people hate blue?"

After three years, Geldermann’s company is not yet in the black. "I’m at that point where I could easily be without a business," she says. She may do more custom work, which could simplify supply and inventory issues.

Despite the challenges, Geldermann is proud to show her kids the power of following a dream. "They love when we get a new shipment," she says. They do inventory, help figure out problems and offer design ideas. She gets moral and financial support from her husband, who sells real estate. His earlier career as a trader helps him shrug off losses.

Geldermann, too, takes the setbacks in stride. "Everything takes time," she says. "It’s not always about the money."

Profiting from Failure

Finding dollars in your dreams can take more than one try. Judi Henderson-Townsend, 49, took two jumps into the deep end of the passion pool. After 15 years as a sales executive for a Fortune 500 company, Henderson-Townsend was itching to set her own course and interact with more imaginative people. But when she quit to become a photographer’s representative, she faced financial disaster within two years. Looking back, she blames her "young cockiness — I thought I could sell anything." Ego bruised, she took a job in another big company.

But a few years later, Henderson-Townsend tossed off the golden handcuffs again to join a dot-com start-up, where she got new perspective on failure. "I was surrounded by serial entrepreneurs, and many of their ventures had not been successful," she says. "But unlike me, they didn’t assume that their business failures meant that they were failures. They just saw it as part of a learning curve. That got my entrepreneurial juices flowing again."

Henderson-Townsend also decided to do some homework. She took a 14-week management course at a community center, shoring up the skills she had needed in the first venture. That set the stage for some luck, or, as Henderson-Townsend explains it, "Intention combined with preparation leads to serendipity."

Cruising craigslist.org, she noticed a mannequin for sale and decided to buy it for a garden art project. But in conversation with the seller, she learned that he was the only source for renting mannequins in the Bay Area. "I had an ‘aha!’ moment," Henderson-Townsend says. She bought his inventory and took over the business. Since she had no prior retail experience, Henderson-Townsend planned to run Mannequin Madness part-time and keep her day job. But the dot-com folded, and she went full-time with her venture, relying on savings and her husband’s income. They altered their budget, cutting back on the services of a personal chef and a housekeeper.

Five years later, the company has exceeded her wildest expectations, with recognition from the Environmental Protection Agency for recycling discarded mannequins and a $100,000 grant from Intel. The company is in the black, and she can pay herself a salary. She says her story should reassure anyone who wants to turn a creative idea into a thriving venture: "I am living proof it’s possible."

Pangs and Payoffs

When Nancy Green, 46, of Cazenovia, New York, decided to give up her lucrative work as a stockbroker after 10 years, she did it carefully. She brought in a partner, who agreed to work with her for one year and then buy her out over the next three years. If there was any surprise, it was the reaction of colleagues, including the new partners. "She thought I was crazy!" Green says. "She loved what she was doing."

But Green went on with her plan. She earned a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, and now works as a counselor at a private school. She earns substantially less than she used to, so the family has had to adjust to a more limited budget and rely on a different mix of income, including savings, her husband’s salary and support from her parents. "The only pangs of regret are when I wish I could bring more to the table financially," Green says. But her pay package includes an invaluable benefit, she says — tuition to the school for her two children.

"I have faith that this has been a great investment in us," Green adds. Looking back, she feels that her lucrative brokerage work had seduced her into a certain "lifestyle" even as she felt out of place and found no meaning in her work. To be able to "blend the line between what I do and who I am is the greatest benefit of all," she says.

Moonlighting Your Dreams

Lisa Yee, 46, of South Pasadena, California, test-drove her passion for writing before abandoning Magic Pencil Studios, a marketing and design company she had built with her husband. With big clients and a staff of 12, Magic Pencil was thriving. But over time Yee lost enthusiasm. "I was managing art directors and copywriters, when I wanted to be doing the creative work myself," she says. Shortly after her second child was born, she found herself clocking 60 to 70 hours a week, getting depressed and gaining weight.

All her life, Yee had wanted to write children’s books. So she started writing at night, only to feel pressed on all fronts: "bad mom, bad boss, bad wife, bad author." Finally, she ramped down at work and hired a new associate art director. Then her novel, Millicent Min, Girl Genius, was picked up by a top children’s editor, sold 250,000 copies and won a humor award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators.

Does she miss making more money? Yes. And Yee supplements her income with speaking and teaching. "Would I trade what I’m doing for the big bucks? No," Yee declares. "For the first time in my life, I am absolutely loving my job; my children have a happy mom."

For Yee, the calculus of passion has changed. "In my 20s and 30s, success had to do with proving something to the world. Now it’s more about proving something to myself."

Making It Work

Tracy Stewart, 52, sees that attitude in many women. Stewart left a highly paid job at a savings and loan to be a personal financial consultant. "When women get to a point where they cannot tolerate their situation, they will change it. If they don’t, it’s because it doesn’t hurt enough to battle the fear of failure." Stewart herself has made trade-offs. She misses being an equal breadwinner but likes demonstrating to her daughters how to be in control of their own finances. "When women choose to follow their passion," Stewart says, "they make it work financially because they don’t want to turn back. We’ve all heard that money doesn’t buy happiness. Some women prove it."

Originally published in MORE magazine, October 2006.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 17:30

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