In Need of Life Lessons
Sometimes the present sucks. At 48, I was pulling in a six-figure salary at a well-known publishing company — and feeling as if I were being slowly poisoned. The career that had sustained me for 25 years was killing me: I could no longer sleep without Ambien; despite regular yoga, my always-iffy back was giving out frequently. I knew the physical symptoms were from the stress I dealt with every day. "I have to quit my job" became my mantra.
But a funny thing happened as I started to look for a new position: I realized I didn’t want one that was anything like what I’d had before. Except I was clueless about what to do next. I didn’t have the luxury of quitting first and figuring it out later; I was my family’s breadwinner and provider of the health insurance. Thanks to my job, we had a spacious house, and my older son had been able to start college without financial aid. Plus, my 12-year-old was finally in the perfect school, and my husband, a psychologist, was happily settled in private practice in an office up the block.
I thought I was chained forever to a fat paycheck. So instead of bolting, for more than a year — okay, closer to two — I moaned about work to my endlessly patient friends. I gave my book group monthly updates. I subjected my husband to tales of work woe on many a Friday night at the restaurant around the corner. To keep my creative side engaged, I wrote two children’s books and threw myself into volunteer work. These activities kept me going until I knew I just couldn’t go anymore.
After months of listening to my agonizing, my therapist suggested I try a life coach. I was wary — the idea seemed so trendy — but by now, even I was sick of listening to me complain. So I went to see Ellen McGrath, founder of the Bridge Coaching Institute, who my therapist had recommended. Ellen and I met in her comfortable office, with its warm yellow walls and welcoming red couches, and began to disentangle my personal identity from my work life.
That’s how I became coaching’s newest convert. There are roughly 50,000 life coaches in the United States today — and the numbers are going up like crazy (the International Coach Federation reports at least 200 new members a month). For $2,000, over the course of seven sessions, Ellen took me through a process that freed me from my old way of thinking and set me on a whole new path.
She started by putting me on a five-step plan. At first I thought the concept was hokey (there’s a lot of jargon in coaching), but I did eventually come around. She asked me to buy a journal that I would devote to the project, so I went to my favorite stationery store and picked out a fat spiral notebook with flowers on the cover. I loved it, and for the next several months, it went with me everywhere.
Making a Change, Step by Step
Step One: Figure Out the Money
For my first entry, I was to write down the practical things I needed to investigate before I quit my job: What were our monthly expenses, other sources of income, insurance costs? I filled a half-dozen pages with lists, and at our next meeting, Ellen and I discussed what my next steps should be.
Although my husband and I didn’t have much in savings, we did own a house that had appreciated in value. We thought hard about how much money we’d need, then refinanced our mortgage and took out a home-equity loan large enough to carry us through two years: one year for me to get started, the next to figure out a realistic financial picture. While he was supportive, all this talk of change did make my husband rather nervous. More than anyone, he would feel the difference when my paychecks stopped. This is where Ellen’s background as a psychologist was useful. "My coach says I’m going to make myself sick if I keep working there," I told my husband one night. It helped us both to see the urgency.
Step Two: Decide What’s Most Important
My next assignment was to take a day off to dream about my future. Ellen told me to find a special place to think, and I chose the Rubin Museum of Art, in New York City. It turned out to be just what the coach had ordered: lovely and quiet, with a great cafe.
In the course of my day, I walked and thought and wrote, and then walked and thought and wrote some more. It was like a mini retreat, one where I was the only guest. Ellen had directed me to write out all my needs, no matter how trivial, and rank the top five. "And then stop," she said. "Don’t try to figure out what to make of it all." This part of the assignment — to stop — was freeing. Without pressure to interpret my thoughts, they flowed easily.
Here’s what rose to the top of my professional list: Be creative, feel valued, be in a stimulating environment, generate ideas, act on ideas. And on my personal list: Pay both kids’ tuitions; stay in my neighborhood; have time to spend with my family; have a nice kitchen. I brought the journal to my next session, and Ellen made me read it out loud, every last word. Then she drew some conclusions: I had to create and connect — those needs came up again and again; I shouldn’t work in isolation; I didn’t have to be in charge. To me, going from a corporate environment to a less-structured one felt like a seismic shift. But Ellen convinced me that my new job would most likely draw on many skills I already had. Hearing her say that gave me the confidence to continue with the process.
Step Three: Imagine Many Possible Work Lives
My notebook and I went to work on my next assignment: designing my new life. Should I start my own business? Become a baker? Study photography? I wrote down organizations I liked, places such as Consumers Union and the Children’s Defense Fund. I made a list of people whose work lives I admire, such as my friend Jenny, a painter who teaches art to public school kids and has her own studio.
At my next coaching session, Ellen and I talked about what I’d written, and it became clear that I didn’t want another 50-hour-a-week job. Nor did I want the other extreme: the life of a lone freelancer. It looked as if I wanted to work at least part time from home.
Step Four: Talk to Absolutely Everyone — and Their Friends
During this next phase, I was to survey the landscape of careers that involved creating and connecting — my two theme words — and look at jobs that offered plenty of flexibility. My notebook and I spent the next few weeks coming up with lists of careers: literary agent, book editor, product developer. I made a list of contacts for each: people I knew, or friends of friends.
I called them all. I felt as if I were a kid asking for career advice, but I was nicely surprised at how competent I was at it. The last time I’d gone on informational interviews I was 23, just out of college. It went better at 48. I wasn’t awkward approaching people. I was able to carry on an intelligent conversation. I knew what to wear. Changing careers when you’re a grown-up has its advantages.
I ended up meeting with about 10 people, all of whom were exceedingly generous. I visited everyone at their offices — Ellen had encouraged me to see the working environments so I could try to imagine myself there. One of the careers I was considering was book packaging, and the more I learned, the more excited I got. Packagers come up with ideas for books and then sell those ideas to publishers. They work on commission; a good year could be great; a bad year could be awful. But I was staring change in the face, and I wasn’t blinking.
Step Five: Take a Breath
Suddenly, two informational interviews at book-packaging companies turned into actual job offers. The enthusiasm from both managers encouraged me that I had found the right next step. Ideas for books filled my head as I lay in bed each night. I was giddy, in a good way, and it was a perfect counterpoint to the low I’d been going through. Knowing I would soon be leaving my day job was making it easier to go into work in the morning.
Ellen cautioned me to put on the brakes: "When you’re about to leap, you can make the mistake of acting too quickly." Ha! Just when I thought the coach’s job was done, she had a critical role to play. "The excitement is masking the terror," Ellen told me. "You need to be grounded to make the right move." So I made a list of pros and cons, talked with each company again, and within a couple of weeks — four months after starting the coaching process — I negotiated the right deal with the right company.
Now I work as a book packager, two days a week from the office and three days from home. I also teach a kids’ cooking class and consult for publishing companies. I volunteer for two nonprofits. I go to a noon yoga class. Nine months in, here is what I know: Being happy in work makes me better at everything else I do. And here is what I don’t know: whether it’s going to work out financially. My income has been as low as I anticipated, less than half of what I had been earning. We may have to move; my older son may have to apply for financial aid. But any trade-off will be worth it. At last, I’m energized, invigorated, and setting an example of professional happiness for my children. And if I need to make another change down the road, I’ve got a process — and the coach’s number.
Pam Abrams is flourishing at Downtown Bookworks in New York City. Her cookbook for kids, Gadgetology, is coming out this month.
Originally published in MORE magazine, April 2007.