Redesigning Your Career with a Reinvention Coach

A new twist on career coaching helps people get not just the job they want but the lifestyle they want.

By Virginia Sole-Smith
Photograph: Illustration: Paul Blow

The Reinvention Institute

For Pamela Mitchell, it all came down to whether she could put together a bookcase.

She’d left her job as a vice president at Playboy.com, sold her loft in New York City, and moved to Miami to launch her own business. "I didn’t know a soul, I was approaching 40, and this bookcase just kept falling apart," says Mitchell, now 43. "It seemed like some kind of metaphor for my life, and I basically collapsed on the floor, thinking, I have no idea what I’m doing." But she didn’t let herself wallow. She pulled herself together, and the bookcase held. Now, nearly five years later, she runs her own company, the Reinvention Institute, and has helped thousands, mostly midlife women, rethink their careers and their lives.

Although there are at least 1,300 career coaches nationwide — and countless books on career change — Mitchell is among a handful who are pioneering a new spin on the concept: lifestyle reinvention. "Today the goal of coaching is to get to the heart of who you are and why you’re here," says Jay Block, cofounder of the Professional Association of Resume Writers & Career Coaches. "Then we can find a career opportunity that works with your life values."

The approach really resonates with midlife women. "Once you hit 40, the question is no longer ‘How do I get the career I want?’" Mitchell says. "It’s ‘How do I get the career I want so I can have the life I want?’" Of course, knowing what you want and getting it are two different things, especially when achieving your goals requires an overhaul of your life. That was Mitchell’s experience: She sold her apartment to raise start-up capital, then enrolled in a program to learn to be a career coach, jumped into the public-speaking circuit, and mapped out a slate of services her firm would offer, including one-on-one coaching (which starts at $2,000 for a three-month package).

So how exactly do you make your job line up with your personal goals? Meet three women who are working with Mitchell to reimagine their lives.

Security Expert to Natural Foods Chef

Helene Seligman, 42

Former career: Deputy technical assistance expert to the United Nations Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee

Reinvented career: Natural foods chef and food photographer; training to be a holistic nutrition counselor

How She Did It

Seligman had worked for the United Nations for 12 years but grew weary of the long hours and office politics. "I joined the UN because I wanted to help people," she says, "but I found it difficult to see a direct impact." She quit blindly, then remembered she had a voucher for coaching sessions with Mitchell, which she’d won at a silent auction. Seligman decided to give it a try.

She and Mitchell brainstormed her next move, at first focusing on jobs in international relations. Soon, though, Seligman realized that if she really wanted to help people — and improve her own quality of life — she needed to try a different kind of work. She enrolled in the chefs’ training program at the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health & Culinary Arts and began working as an apprentice to a high-end chef. Last summer, she took a job as a chef aboard a sailboat in Turkey; a few months later, she returned to the gourmet institute to learn to be a holistic nutrition counselor.

Lessons Learned

Find your passion. Seligman left the UN with a few months of living expenses saved but no idea about what to do next. To start, Mitchell had her list everything she disliked about her old job in one column (one complaint, besides the lack of direct impact: long hours that made it difficult to eat healthy), then put what she did want in a job in another column. From there, they narrowed Seligman’s job list to two targets: photography (a longtime hobby) and food (another interest). A career in nutrition appealed to her; not only would her own eating habits improve, but she’d easily see her positive effect on other people.

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