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.

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