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.