Changing Course

 

More and more women are discovering that where their careers start may not be where they end up.

by Elicia Brown

In the quiet of an ashram in the Bahamas, Leslie Pearlman was touched by a deep and visceral sense of inner peace – a feeling that was unfamiliar in her daily routine as a legal services attorney in Brooklyn, where she practiced family law, and felt as if she could never turn off her work life. The experience transformed not only the moment, but also Pearlman's life course.

Almost 15 years later, Pearlman is the owner of a successful yoga studio in the beach community of Hampton Bays, Long Island. A petite woman in her 40s with a warm smile, she retains the quick wit of those born and bred in Brooklyn, and can do splits and handstands with the ease of a child. Good Ground Yoga, which she founded two years ago after working as a yoga instructor for 12 years, has already attracted 1,000 students, and a regular client base of about 300 per week. As a single mom, Pearlman also makes sure to “carve out time for all the things I need to do,” including reading in bed with her 9-year-old daughter for up to an hour every night.

“I have been very successful,” says Pearlman. “I think a part of it is because I love what I do. I work hard at cultivating relationships and getting new business, but it doesn’t feel like work.”

Pearlman advises younger women just beginning their career journey to remember that “what you start out doing may not be what you end up doing. Nothing is permanent. You need to allow yourself permission to make a change,” if a job is not fulfilling, even if it feels safe and comfortable. “It’s really easy in life not to follow your passion, and just take the path to the end because you’re already on it,” says Pearlman.

For many people though, taking those first steps down a new path can be daunting, if not downright terrifying. It’s also difficult to know when to leave the career path you’ve chosen. What is clear is that many women, at many stages of life – after new motherhood or an empty nest, after sickness or after a separation, and other times too – decide to navigate this transition.

Making the Leap

For Jewish women, especially those who hail from high-achieving and tight-knit families, making a career shift from a secure profession to a less certain field can include some challenging conversations. Pearlman recalls telling her parents, “Thank you for helping me pay for law school. Now I’m going to move to the Hamptons and wait tables.”

 Liz Brown

Liz Brown

Michele Prince, executive director of OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center in Los Angeles, says the move from the corporate world to the nonprofit arena was a more difficult one for her because she is the daughter of Holocaust refugees. When she left a highly compensated job at an advertising agency to work as a social worker in a cancer hospital, where her salary would be cut in half, Prince, who is now in her 40s, says she quickly realized that she’d moved in the right direction for her personal fulfillment. Still, she says, “I heard the voice of my father in my head.”

Liz Brown, author of the 2013 book Life after Law – who has a degree from Harvard College and Harvard Law School and traded her partnership at an international law firm for academia – says that “breaking the news to my mother was not easy.”

These sorts of conversations may occur less frequently between younger women and their parents. Many researchers suggest that, in the current economic climate, the millennial generation is more focused on overall job satisfaction than financial success. “Rather than chasing the money, they appear to want a career that makes them happy—a job that combines the perks of Google with the flexibility of a start-up,” notes an article from November 2013 in the New York Times by a marketing professor at Stanford and an editor at a Hoover Institution journal.

Even so, professional transitions may be on the rise. Liz Brown, now an assistant professor of business law at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., believes that younger adults will likely make more professional transitions than previous generations. “It’s more normal to move between careers, partly because of economic necessity and partly because of an attitudinal shift,” says Brown, who has spoken widely about career change. She says that at her college, “We are preparing students to be fluid; we are not preparing them for a single career.”

As for her own professional transition, Brown doesn’t look back. She now earns a very decent salary, and says there’s “a payoff in letting go” of a career that’s unsuitable for one’s personality, passions or lifestyle.

Nothing is permanent. You need to allow yourself permission to make a change. It’s really easy not to follow your passion, and just take the path to the end because you’re already on it.

Rethinking Your Options

In some cases, you don’t have control over the timing of a career change. Andrea Fisher was a Manhattan lawyer who specialized in bankruptcy litigation for two decades, until the year of the “parade of horribles,” a procession that included the death of her father, the illness of her mother, and a diagnosis of abnormal cells in both of Fisher’s breasts, a condition linked to developing full-blown breast cancer.

Fisher has a strong family history of breast cancer and decided to undergo a double mastectomy and a breast reconstruction using her abdominal tissue (DIEP flap). But just as she was recovering from the surgery, the final spectacle in the parade presented itself. She was informed that her job was about to be cut. Fisher didn’t despair.

“I loved who I worked with, but not what I did,” she says, adding that “starting over seemed super appealing.” At the age of 52, Fisher is in the process of launching two businesses, one in jewelry (August Fisher Design), and a second in counseling women who undergo mastectomies (Breast Cancer Concierge Care), offering practical advice about the process (for example, buy or rent a recliner chair for recovery at home) and knowledge about the latest techniques for breast reconstruction.

In most scenarios, determining when to leave one job in pursuit of another isn’t so straightforward. Still, “Life is too short to do a job you hate,” advises Prince, who found herself assigned to health-care companies in her advertising agency, learning about the “brokenness of our health-care system” rather than repairing it.  She adds, “Don’t leave a job without a job, and don’t be afraid to take a sideways step or a downward step,” at least for an interim measure. 

As a general guideline, it’s time to rethink your options “when you wake up in the morning and don’t want to go to work,” says Andrea Dine, director of the Hiatt Career Center at Brandeis University, who counsels many alumni in the midst of such transitions. Such was the situation for Jennie Rivlin Roberts. With a doctorate in industrial and organizational psychology from Georgia Tech, she worked for Fortune 500 companies, including Home Depot and Bell South, in leadership development and strategic marketing. She didn’t feel satisfied. “I didn’t love getting up and going to work in the morning,” says Roberts, an Atlanta native.

 Jennie Rivlin Roberts

Jennie Rivlin Roberts

She decided not to return to work after her daughter was born in December of 2004. A couple of years later, in an attempt to lend an entertaining spin to a Chanukah party she hosted, she and her husband, Webb Roberts, invented a board game, “No Limit Texas Dreidel.” It was the start of a new career. At the urging of friends, she packaged the game for sale, and in the first year, sold 1,500 games. 

Today Roberts runs an online store for hip Judaica – Moderntribe.com – and has opened a Modern Tribe retail store. “My work often doesn’t feel like work. When I go on vacation I always bring my laptop with me,” she says.  Roberts’ mother expressed surprise at her daughter’s creativity. “I’ve always been like that,” says Roberts. “I just didn’t have the confidence to show it.”

Many women approach the decision of making a change gradually. The first step should be introspection, exploring your values, interests and skills, says Dine. Those seeking help might consider speaking with career counselors at the universities they attended, or a trained career and life coach. Deb Elbaum, who works in this capacity by phone with clients across the United States, says that unlike psychotherapists, coaches focus less on patterns and the past, and more on “what you want to create moving forward.”

After the reflection period, the next step could be strategic volunteering and networking. “The No. 1 mistake people make is not actually meeting people in the career they are thinking about,” says Brown. The informational interview is an art form in itself, she adds. An entire chapter in her book is devoted to the proper etiquette. But for starters, keep the interview to 20 minutes in length, don’t talk about yourself, and be courteous. Remember: “You are imposing on their time,” says Brown.

Finding Balance

Sometimes the reflection period can stretch on for years. Julie Rubinstein, who is 42 and senior vice president of business development for Adaptive Biotechnologies, a small but growing startup in Seattle, thought about leaving her former marketing position at Pfizer, the pharmaceuticals giant, for almost half of the 9-year-period she worked there.

Rubinstein felt stirrings of frustration because Pfizer, a big company wary of risk, wasn’t fully embracing the promising new field of cancer immunotherapy. But the final decision came as she started to feel dizzied by the rhythms of her own life. With three young children at home, one receiving many therapies after a premature birth, and with a husband who worked many hours, Rubinstein didn’t like the constraints involved in commuting to an office every day.

Now, working on a West Coast schedule from her apartment in New York City, Rubinstein has found a balance that works – most of the time. She says, “I can do a flip flop between work and kids,” shifting between intense concentration on developments in oncological treatment, and applauding the innovative musical numbers staged in the living room by her children, Emily, 11; Nicholas, 9; and Kate, 6.

“When I’m walking to pick up the kids, I’m working in my head,” she says, stooping to cuddle her Havanese puppy, a fuzzy, toy-like creature, who the family calls “Little Red.” Rubinstein takes another sip of chai latte. She’s a master multi-tasker, and the moment suggests as much. Sitting on a bench outside a neighborhood Starbucks, Rubinstein glances at her phone, dashes off a work email, ruffles Little Red’s head and that of the family’s older Havanese dog, Reggie, and offers warm greetings to a parent passing by. “I devote my hour of freedom to the dogs,” says Rubinstein of her early mornings. “I’m always trying to accomplish multiple goals at the same time.”

 Rabbi Sherre Hirsch

Rabbi Sherre Hirsch

Like Rubinstein, Sherre Hirsch yearned for greater control over her working hours. Between 1998 and 2006, she served as associate rabbi at Sinai Temple, the largest Conservative synagogue on the West Coast, where she put in as many as 70 hours a week. By 2006, she was the mother to two children, and pregnant with a third. She felt so depleted at day’s end, she didn’t have energy for her husband. “I had two marriages. I felt like one wouldn’t survive,” says Hirsch.

The time had come to reinvent her rabbinate. Now 45 and the mother of four, Hirsch works as a spiritual consultant to Canyon Ranch properties, an international group of wellness resorts; speaks nationally and on television; and writes books. Her second book, Thresholds: How To Thrive Through Life’s Transitions, was released by Random House in summer 2015. She manages her household like a corporation, making sure that she has a half-hour reserved for each child in the evenings, and time left for her first love – her husband. 

“I live an incredibly blessed life,” she says. “I’m happy with what I do professionally. I’m proud of myself as a mother.” When she served as a pulpit rabbi, she rated herself as a D- spouse. Now? “B+ and working toward an A. ”She says, “I’ve made sacrifices, but the gains are tremendous. I’m in better alignment with God.”

(Originally published in fall 2014)


Elicia Brown is a freelance writer who lives in Manhattan.