Tweak That Job!

Sometimes a small change is all it takes to reenergize your career and find a new job that makes you happy.

By Heather Millar

Change Your Job — Slightly

Here’s one scenario: Woman chucks successful career to, say, care for chimpanzees in the wild. Inspiring, yes. Practical? Uhh…

Come down to earth and meet four midlife job tweakers: women who found creative ways to make their work feel fresh again.

Tune It Up

Lisa Mathews | 45 | Baltimore, Maryland

The job: Singer in a rock band

The tweak: Singer in a band for kids

Why the Old Job Stopped Fitting

When Mathews became pregnant seven years ago, she started worrying about the effect that playing in bars — up late, surrounded by earsplitting noise and secondhand smoke — might have on her baby. So five months into her pregnancy, she quit the band. The timing was bad: Love Riot was just starting to get national airplay, gigs at the Lilith Fair festival and cameos on TV shows like Homicide: Life on the Street. "But I said, ‘I gotta stop,’" Mathews remembers. "We did a farewell concert, one of our best. And that was it."

Giving Up Was Hard to Do

The salary of her copywriter husband, Miles Anderson, 55, and residuals from network appearances kept the family afloat, but Mathews felt bereft in the months after that last show. "I figured I’d never do music again, that I would have to get a day job," she says. Then she noticed something: Love Riot had died, but the music hadn’t; she was spending her days singing ditties to her daughter, Jesse, and composing lullabies with her husband.

A New Band Is Born

A year after Jesse’s birth, Mikel Gehl, the guitarist from Love Riot, and his wife had a baby boy. Mathews and Gehl started playing songs inspired by their new lives as parents. Then they took their show on the road with a gig at a daycare center, competing with a Moon Bounce and chocolate chip cookies for the attention of toddlers. Their catchy beats stole the show, and when they finished playing, a 4-year-old girl bounded up and insisted on buying a homemade CD with her piggy bank money. "It was so different from my rock band, where there was this invisible wall between band and audience," says Mathews. "This is much more challenging — and much more fun."

The Learning Curve

The duo — now called Milkshake — recorded and distributed their first CD themselves. Over time, Mathews developed a business plan that calls for putting out a minimum of five CDs over 10 years and starring in their own children’s TV show. She also unveiled a new look, ditching her tight dresses and stilettos for tutus and combat boots.

More Successful Than Before

After six years as Milkshake, Mathews and Gehl have released three CDs, starred in the first season of Noggin’s Jack’s Big Music Show, and are currently appearing on PBS Kids and Discovery Kids. "With Love Riot, we’d pile into a rental van and drive hundreds of miles for $100 and free drinks," Mathews says. "Now we get airline tickets and play performing arts centers. It’s been incredible."

Branch Out Again

Heather Fitzenhagen | 47 | Fort Myers, Florida

The job: Finance lawyer

The tweak: Finance mediator

The bigger tweak: Financial asset manager

Her First Move

Fitzenhagen started out in the financial services industry as a trading assistant. Looking for a way to get ahead, she went to law school and eventually landed a job with AIG, the financial services firm, where she recruited broker-dealers and helped set up new offices.

Reinvention, Part One

In 2000, when she became pregnant with her second child, she decided to cut back on travel and long hours. She knew that most securities-related arguments are settled outside a courtroom with the help of a professional mediator, a job that seemed to fit her requirements for flexibility. So while she was on maternity leave from AIG, she got certified and then took a weeklong advanced mediation course at Harvard. She also started calling her contacts in the financial and legal fields. When her daughter was 18 months old, she quit AIG and hung out her shingle. "When I launched, after the tech boom and bust, demand was so high," Fitzenhagen says, "it only took a year to get things really rolling."

Reinvention Redux

After several years, Fitzenhagen started to feel isolated in her one-woman business. When a former colleague asked her to join him in a new financial firm, they became partners. Now she’s chief operating officer of US Asset Management and is phasing out her mediation practice. "I don’t think anyone ever stops transitioning," she says. "Change is inevitable. I’ve always tried to plan for that."

See a Need and Fill It

Elizabeth Landsverk | 46 | San Mateo, California

The job: Doctor

The tweak: Geriatric specialist-consultant

What Wore Her Out

Nine years as a primary care doctor — fighting office politics and overscheduling — left Landsverk tired and frustrated. One day an elderly man came in complaining of chest pain. When Landsverk tried to do an EKG, the man started hitting everyone within reach. "I had to ask the staff to take him away," she says. "It bothered me that I didn’t know what to do."

Finding the Path

The incident inspired her to take a geriatrics fellowship at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, where she became interested in the mental health problems of old age. When her husband landed a job in San Francisco in 2001, Landsverk joined the geriatrics division of the University of California at San Francisco. "I wasn’t getting the exposure to teaching residents that I really wanted," she says, so she started moonlighting at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Palo Alto and making house calls for a home-visit medical practice. She became passionate about alternative ways of treating the elderly — for example, using sedating drugs as little as possible and emphasizing behavior modification and lifestyle changes.

Making It Happen

In May 2006, she left UCSF and divided her time between house calls and a part-time job as a medical director of a hospice. By early 2007, her private practice had grown so large that she was able to leave the hospice and work full-time at her own business, ElderConsult, which coordinates the complicated medical, social, and psychological issues confronting elderly people. "Letting go of a steady paycheck was terrifying," she says. "But I tried to focus on what really matters to me: helping these really frail, difficult patients."

How It’s Working Out

Her business has become so successful that she’s been able to hire a secretary, a bookkeeper, and a nurse practitioner; more staff will follow as demand grows. Her gross income has more than doubled in a year. "I haven’t had to do any marketing — people just find me," she says. "It’s really nice to practice medicine the way I think it should be done."

Don’t Do, Teach

Holly Rice | 59 | Houston, Texas

The job: Dental hygienist

The tweak: Associate professor of dental hygiene

Why She Needed a Change

After Rice spent 22 years as a dental hygienist, her body rebelled. "My neck hurt, my back hurt, my hands hurt," she says. "I was spending all my money at the chiropractor."

Her First Step

Rice called a friend at the school of dental hygiene at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston: Dental Branch, where she had taught part-time almost 20 years earlier. She wasn’t hopeful; she had interviewed at the school the year before and lost out to someone with a master’s degree. "But my friend asked, ‘Are your ears burning? Someone just quit and your name came up,’" Rice recalls.

The Snowball Effect

Rice cut back her dental office work to one day a week and began teaching three days. At 55, she also went back to school (which cost $8,000) for a master’s degree in education.

What She Learned

Rice was nervous during her first months as a student but surprised herself by making almost all As. "I was in a class with three PhDs, four MDs, and me, the dental hygienist, the oldest in the class," she says. "But being older made me confident." She put up with a grueling schedule for two years — work four days a week, school two nights a week, studying all weekend — and earned her degree in 2004.

Why She Loves It

She’s earning 30 percent less than she could in a dental office, but she thrives on the variety implicit in academic life: clinical days teaching technique, lecturing, office days doing research, the constant give-and-take of a scholarly community. "I’m always learning new things," she says. "Teaching keeps you on your toes."

Originally published in MORE magazine, November 2007.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:03

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