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Changing Course

Alumni of all ages switch careers in pursuit of job satisfaction and personal happiness.


by Elizabeth Canning Blackwell

By any conventional measure of achievement, Cliff Garstang (WCAS75) was a success story.

After graduating with a degree in philosophy from Northwestern, he served two years with the Peace Corps in South Korea, then returned to the United States to pursue a master’s degree in English and followed that with a law degree, both from Indiana University. After more than 10 years at the prestigious international law firm Sidley & Austin (now Sidley Austin), he collected yet another degree (a master’s in public administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University) and went to work as a senior counsel at the World Bank in Washington, D.C.

Garstang, who lives in Staunton, Va., had a job he liked at an institution he respected and a résumé that would make many of his fellow Northwestern alumni pea green with envy. But something was missing.

It took the arrival of the new millennium to make Garstang reassess his life and career. And so he found himself reconsidering a longtime dream: fiction writing. To force himself to make the transition, he enrolled in yet another graduate program — this time a master’s of fine arts degree from Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina — and has devoted himself to writing full time for the past three years.

His track record so far is impressive for a relative newcomer — eight or so stories published in literary magazines and a completed novel under consideration by literary agents.

The one big adjustment, he admits, was adopting a new self-image. “For years, I was a lawyer,” he says. “That’s what I did and who I was. I still find it very difficult to say I’m a writer. For a while I felt like there should be an asterisk there — ‘I’m a writer, but I used to be a lawyer!’”

Any kind of job change comes with its share of stress and anxiety. Now that jobs are rarely — if ever — lifelong endeavors, more and more professionals have to face the realities of transition. But a job change can also be an opportunity, a chance to make a dramatic shift to a career in a very different field. You’re not the same person at 42 that you were at 22 — so why shouldn’t your career adapt to changing circumstances as well?

“Your career should grow and develop throughout your life,” says Janet Shlaes (GSESP91, 96), a psychologist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University who specializes in work and family counseling. (She’s also a career changer herself, who left a business career at age 41 to enter a psychology doctoral program.) “What appeals to you in your 20s may not appeal to you when you’re in your 60s. Your values stay pretty consistent throughout your life, but how you want to express them can be different.”

Garstang, like many career changers, followed his passions in hopes of finding a more fulfilling way to spend his days. He’s one of many Northwestern alumni who have taken the leap, forsaking job security and a steady paycheck to follow their dreams.

“Well-educated adults are more willing and likely to consider career shifts than in the past,” says Northwestern psychology professor Dan McAdams. “Young people today want to be paid well, but many are also explicitly looking for personal fulfillment of some kind. Career shifts that occur in midlife may be partly — if not largely — motivated by people’s feelings that their current line of work does not draw upon what is most important to them. I hear many midlife people say they would like their work to be meaningful as well as lucrative, and they sometimes even talk about a desire for a calling in life.”

For Daniel Pink (WCAS86), author of the books Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself (Warner Books, 2002) and A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future (Riverhead Trade, 2006), career shifting is a result of living in an affluent era. “Jobs are generally more interesting and creative now,” he says. “A lot of the rote work — adding numbers or tightening bolts on an assembly line — is now done by computers. So people have been liberated, but they’re not fulfilled. It’s particularly true when you hit certain milestones — like a major birthday or having kids. You’re more likely to search for a sense of purpose.”   

Taking the Leap: A Life-Changing Opportunity

The stereotype of the career changer is a familiar story: the burned-out lawyer who quits to run a bed-and-breakfast or the well-paid business executive who decides to give back by teaching in an inner-city school. While plenty of alumni have followed this general path, switching doesn’t necessarily mean slowing down. In fact, many alumni report working just as hard or harder in their new profession. The difference? By doing what they love, they feel as if they’re working less and enjoying themselves more.

Still, entering a new field means starting at the bottom and proving yourself all over again — hurdles that keep many people in jobs they find unchallenging and uninspiring.

What makes someone take the leap? For some alumni, it’s a matter of simple self-preservation. Ann Weber (J93) had a stable job that many journalism grads would have envied: a position as a senior editor at HOW, a graphic design magazine in Cincinnati. But after pushing herself throughout her 20s, she struggled with insomnia and other health problems due to her grueling work schedule. The one time she could truly relax was her weekly massage appointment.

Eventually it hit her — massage was more than an escape, it was a calling. “Massage made a powerful difference in my life,” Weber says. “I realized I wanted to help other people take control of their own health and happiness. Lying on the massage table one day, I made up my mind and quit my job the next day.”

Jumping into a new career had serious financial implications. She undertook two years of professional massage training before starting her own business, and her family’s income was cut in half. “But it was worth it,” she says. “I’m totally in control of my own destiny now. I have no regrets at all.”

Although writing magazine stories would seem to have little in common with massaging tense muscles, Weber says her Medill School of Journalism training has come in handy in her new career. Years of conducting interviews gave her the training to empathize with and understand her clients’ needs. She also uses her writing skills to put together a newsletter and web site to educate clients on health and wellness.

Some people, Weber says, questioned her reasoning for quitting a high-profile lucrative job. “But a lot of people in their 40s and 50s said to me, ‘I wish I had done something like that.’ That stunned me. I guess I got my midlife crisis over with early.”

For Carol Rizzardi (J78) the shift from journalism led back to a hobby from her childhood. “I’d always enjoyed teaching,” she says. “Some of my favorite memories with my younger brother were when I taught him the alphabet and how to write his name.

“But coming of age in the ’70s, I was profoundly affected by the social changes happening, particularly the women’s movement. Now that I could be anything I wanted to be, I never considered being a teacher because it was a typically female occupation.”

Instead she went on to a 15-year career in magazine publishing, including stints at Better Homes and Gardens in Des Moines and as marketing manager at Advertising Age in New York. In Iowa she hosted exchange students and worked as an adjunct professor of journalism, experiences that made her realize she enjoyed working with teenagers. But once she moved to New York, work took over, leaving time for little else. As her 40th birthday approached, she began to question where she was headed.

“I distinctly remember coming home one night at 11 p.m., sitting in my dark apartment and thinking, ‘There’s got to be more to life than this,’” says Rizzardi. “What would they say at my funeral — ‘She wrote a great marketing plan?’ I wanted a better legacy than that.”

Money — especially in Manhattan — was a major hurdle. Rizzardi enrolled in a teacher-education program with a flexible schedule, which allowed her to go to classes and earn money by teaching part time. She also worked from home as the executive director of the Business Marketing Association, which kept her busy at night and on weekends.

The financial rewards of teaching may be paltry compared with her corporate salary, but Rizzardi says the emotional payout is immeasurable. “It’s easy to make a difference as a teacher,” she says. “All you have to do is care. I know there are kids alive today because of me, students who were in such emotional pain and who reached out, and I was lucky enough to be there. One of my students once instant-messaged me about ‘doing it right this time.’ Another wrote me a note at the end of the year telling me that my being there made her believe that someone cared and convinced her not to kill herself.” 

Teaching also led to a dramatic change in Rizzardi’s lifestyle. Frustrated by academic bureaucracy in New York and wanting to travel, she now teaches high school English at Colegio Maya, a U.S.-type international school in Guatemala City that offers pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade instruction. “I still don’t know exactly what they will say at my funeral,” she says, “but at least now I’m sure it won’t be, ‘She wrote a great marketing plan.’”

Fire Away: Making the Most of Job Cuts

Making a career change does not always mean voluntarily leaving one job to take another. Sometimes — especially in these days of perpetual downsizing and restructuring — change is forced upon workers. “The world of work holds much less security than it used to,” says psychology professor McAdams. “The American economy is ruthlessly Darwinian, and it is difficult even to predict who the ‘fittest’ are and who will ultimately survive and flourish.”

Many alumni have found that being laid off, while difficult emotionally, also opened them up to new possibilities that they may have been reluctant to pursue before. It was, in effect, a fresh start.

Paul Mistor (GMcC92, KSM92), of Winston-Salem, N.C., is one example. After a four-year stint at Sara Lee (where, he laughingly says, “I restructured myself out of a job”), he ended up as a management consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers, only to end up being laid off in 2002. “I decided it was time to do something entrepreneurial,” he says. He had worked overseas in Eastern Europe and Afghanistan, and he enjoyed teaching his 11 nieces and nephews about different languages and cultures. Drawing on his longtime passion for travel, he developed a board game called Travel Mania, where players learn about geography, foreign languages and other aspects of life overseas, collecting passport stamps and visas to move around the board.  

After about a year-and-a-half in the board game business, Mistor is open about the challenges facing his startup. “I’ve struggled financially,” he says, “and there are some points where you question yourself. You need to have very high hopes and a lot of courage to overcome obstacles.

“Even if it doesn’t work out, I gained a lot of experience,” he says. “And ultimately, I could transition back into something else in a couple of years.” Career changers, after all, have learned to be adaptable.

Sometimes even the hint of impending layoffs is enough to inspire a career shift. Take William O’Neill (J73, GJ74), who in the early 1990s seemed to have it all. He had a successful 20-year career in advertising, eventually becoming a vice president with D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles in St. Louis, one of the world’s largest advertising agencies.

But the view from the top wasn’t exactly rosy.

“The advertising industry was changing,” he says. “There was so much consolidation that I said to my wife, ‘I don’t think D’Arcy will have an office here in 10 years.’” Then he saw a short article in the newspaper announcing that St. Louis University would be starting an evening law school program aimed at working professionals. “It sparked something in my mind,” he says. And so, at the age of 42, he enrolled.

“Pretty much everybody thought I was crazy,” he says. “‘Why would you start at the bottom of the food chain in another field?’ ‘How can you leave the corner office?’ Even my father-in-law, who’s an attorney, couldn’t understand it.”

At first, he thought of the law degree as a backup credential, just in case he got laid off. He gave himself a 50 percent chance of actually finishing the four-year program (he also told himself he wouldn’t pursue the degree unless he got a scholarship, which he did). But about a third of the way through, he found that not only was he enjoying the work, he was ranked in the top 5 percent of his class. By the time he obtained his degree, he was ready to interview at law firms — although he was concerned about how his age would be perceived at interviews. 

“It’s easier for firms to hire the standard 25-year-old just coming out of school because there’s no risk involved,” he says. “But other firms saw I had already demonstrated my ability to work hard. That turned out to be my advantage.” As an associate at Senniger Powers, an intellectual property law firm in St. Louis, O’Neill focuses primarily on trademark issues, which in many ways are closely tied to his earlier career in advertising.

O’Neill is still working hard, putting in nights and weekends, and he has resigned himself to working well past the standard retirement age because he had children when he was over 40. “I knew I wouldn’t be in a position to retire at 55, like everyone else in the advertising business,” he says. “But I saw lawyers working until they were 90.”
Taking on the long, hard slog of law school in your 40s may seem insurmountable, says O’Neill, but he counsels others not to be afraid. “When you’re starting off, looking ahead, it seems like such a long time,” he says. “But when you’re busy, it goes by really fast.” And now that his former employer has been bought out by another company and closed its St. Louis office, “Everybody’s saying what a smart move I made!”

Law schools, it seems, look favorably on applicants with prior work experience. At Northwestern, it is now practically a require-ment. “Employers need people who have been in a professional environment and can hit the ground running,” says Don Rebstock (Mu87, KSM93), associate dean of enrollment at Northwestern’s School of Law.

An internal School of Law study found that students with work experience had higher grade-point averages than those entering straight from college. Rebstock emphasizes that prior work experience need not be law related. “In fact, it’s probably better if it’s not,” he says. Recent students at the law school included former professional actors, an NBA basketball player, the stage manager for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a South Pole researcher and a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist.

The Retired Life: Finding Fulfillment 

As more and more Baby Boomers retire, many of the them, like J. David Nelson (WCAS63, KSM66), of Old Greenwich, Conn., will be searching for meaningful postretirement work. 

Toward the end of a more than 30-year career in global services at IBM, Nelson spent three years working in China. While there, Nelson learned that one of his oldest friends, who had been working as a lawyer in Washington, D.C., had taken a new position at the Pew Charitable Trusts, overseeing millions of dollars in charitable grants. The friend’s letter began, “You may find this amusing … ,” but Nelson wasn’t amused.

“I was envious,” he says. After retiring from IBM, he decided to focus on finding a new position in the nonprofit world.

Despite his years of high-profile corporate experience, Nelson’s job search felt like running into a wall. “There are perceptions that people in the nonprofit and for-profit communities have about each other,” he says. “The corporate people say, ‘If the nonprofit employees were really good, they’d be making more money,’ while the nonprofit people say, ‘If the corporate executives had any compassion, they’d be doing something good for the world.’”

It took him two years of searching before he found a job: chief operating officer of the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, which teaches business skills to low-income schoolchildren. Five years ago, soon after Nelson started, the foundation served about 7,000 children. In 2006 they served 32,000 while cutting the cost per student in half.

Now 65, Nelson considers his work at NFTE an “encore” career. His work schedule is no different than when he worked at IBM — 55 to 60 hours a week — and his commute is actually longer. “If I didn’t like what I was doing, I wouldn’t have stuck it out so long,” he says. “On Fridays I work from home, and my wife will come up to my office at 6:30 at night and say, ‘I thought you retired!’”

Changing careers doesn’t necessarily mean that your original career was a mistake or a bad fit. Nelson, for example, is proud of what he accomplished during his 30-plus years at IBM. Some career changers say that each job they’ve held has been a necessary rite of passage — without experiencing the first career, they never would have made it to the second.

A Second Chance: Life After Law

Gary Sircus (L85), of Chicago, found his career as a lawyer fulfilling — up to a certain point. “I enjoyed helping people with their problems,” he says, “but I always said, if I win the lottery, I’m going to be a math teacher.”

Ironically, it was when he made partner — the goal of many an ambitious young attorney — that he began to question his career. “I realized I had done everything I wanted to do to be a successful lawyer,” he says. “I had represented lots of different clients, been involved in litigation, been a partner at two different firms. What I saw ahead of me was mostly selling — selling services to existing clients and selling myself to new clients.”

And so the dream of teaching returned. But because he had family responsibilities — two kids, a mortgage — he didn’t see how he could stop working to go back to school.

“You can’t script these things,” he says. “The best thing to do is leave a lot of doors open, so you’re ready when the opportunity presents itself.” That opportunity came when he found out about NU-TEACH, an alternative teacher-certification program offered through the School of Education and Social Policy (see “An Alternative Route to Teaching,” spring 2006) and the Golden Apple Foundation and Inner-City Teaching Corps. The program allowed him to earn a provisional teaching certification, and soon he was teaching in public and parochial schools in Chicago. (He is now NU-TEACH’s program coordinator.)

Although he loves his current job — most of the people who come into the program are also career changers — he has no regrets about the years he spent as a lawyer. “If I’d become a teacher straight out of school, I probably would have always wondered if I should have gone to law school,” he says.

Sometimes making a change within the same field can lead to unexpected opportunities. Attorney Michael Reynolds (C84), of Rapid City, S.D., says he loved every minute working at a prestigious downtown Chicago law firm. But after the birth of his first child, “I found it impossible to be a good and attentive dad in the suburbs and a good and attentive lawyer in downtown Chicago. It troubled me after a while that I barely saw my daughter.”

Then, during a family reunion in Colorado, he had what he describes as a mountaintop epiphany. “I thought to myself, ‘What do you want your tombstone to say, that you were a great lawyer or a loving dad who knew his kids?’” The answer, he felt, was to keep practicing as an attorney but do it in a different setting. So he and his wife decided to move back to South Dakota, where they had both grown up.

“There were two different levels of responses from my co-workers,” he says. “The young partners thought I was out of my mind. But the more senior partners, in their 50s and 60s, many of them opened up in a way they never had before. They told me what courage it took. I heard some very poignant stories about how they barely knew their kids. The responses were like a line drawn between generations.”

While practicing litigation at his new Rapid City law firm, Reynolds soon found that South Dakota required a whole new set of skills. “I had to temper my aggressiveness,” he says. “When you practice in a smaller city, the people you’re up against in a case today may be sitting next to you in church tomorrow.”

Although he seemed to have left high-profile work behind, within a few years he found himself working for his most famous client of all: actor Kevin Costner, who fell in love with South Dakota while filming Dances with Wolves there and began buying properties in the state. Eventually Costner asked Reynolds to be president and CEO of Dunbar Enterprises, the company that oversees Costner’s various business interests, including a number of tourist-focused attractions and a casino in Deadwood. “The thought of doing something creative was intriguing,” Reynolds says. “As a lawyer, you’re always operating in the realm of adversity. Now I’m doing something constructive rather than destructive. My work will enhance the economics of this community, and I find that really rewarding.”

Making a bold career change takes a lot of things — courage, determination, time and energy — and the thought of taking all that on can be daunting. “Transitions are rarely perfect,” says psychologist Janet Shlaes. “Maybe you’ll fly, and maybe you’ll fall flat on your face, and unfortunately you don’t get to know in advance. But even if you fail, if the vision of this career still pulls you in, then you should keep listening to that inner voice.”

Keep in mind the words of journalist-turned-teacher Carol Rizzardi. “Instead of worrying about what will happen if you make the change, think about what will happen if you don’t.”

Elizabeth Canning Blackwell (C90) is a freelance writer in Skokie, Ill.

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Changing Courses - Illustration
Illustration by Dave Cutler
Daniel Pink believes career change is natural in an affluent era.
Daniel Pink believes career change is natural in an affluent era. Courtesy of Daniel Pink
Ann Weber left her career in journalism to become a massage therapist.
Ann Weber left her career in journalism to become a massage therapist. Photo by Michael R. Mitzel