Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Look Closely Before Leaping From a Steady but Unfulfilling Job - Note for a lecture, "Reinventing Oneself in America"

Wealth Matters

By PAUL SULLIVAN FEB. 12, 2016, New York Times

Stroud image from article

WITH bonus checks now sitting in bank accounts and the malaise of winter
settling in over the holiday weekend, some people may be dreaming of leaving
their career to follow a latent passion.

For a dose of reality, though, consider the tale of DeJuan Stroud, a former
Wall Street broker and compliance officer.

Mr. Stroud said he had a true existential crisis sitting in a car late one
night 20 years ago. After more than a decade working on Wall Street, he was

“Everything was negative,” he said. “A lawsuit. Brokers complaining.
Clients losing money. It was that constant negative. It just began to wear you
down. I couldn’t imagine feeling fulfilled.”

But he had four children and a wife who stayed home to care for them.

“My wife and I sat down and said, ‘Can we? Should we?’” Mr. Stroud said.

They decided they could, and he gave up his well-­paid job and put their
modest savings at risk to turn a hobby — floral design, which he had learned
from his grandmother growing up in Alabama — into a business.

Now, two decades later, Mr. Stroud is one of the most sought­-after floral
and event designers in New York City.

His is a success story. But there are big risks in following a similar path —
giving up a regular salary and losing your savings for one; throwing away the
security of a career is another. For those who go forward, the payoff may be
more psychic than monetary, and they need to feel comfortable that the
chance of a more modest lifestyle is worth it.

“We have this myth that is still following us that you prepared for one
career, you got a job in it and you stayed there for 30 years,” said Helen
Harkness, founder of Career Design Associates, near Dallas. “We’re still
dealing with that with mid-career people even though most know it’s a dead

Myth or not, trading a well­-paying, secure career for the chance to try
something different is not an option for a lot of people, particularly for those
who do not have wealth, or at least a hefty bank account, as a backstop.

“We financed the business with some savings we had and a small­-business
loan guaranteed by our home,” Mr. Stroud said. “It was kind of scary. But
when you reach that point of, ‘I can’t do this another day,’ you choose that fear
over that misery.”

Still, a Gallup Poll in October found that when American workers make a
career change, they almost always do so by leaving their employer instead of
taking a new job within the company. Some 93 percent said they took a new
role elsewhere. The survey found this was true whether the job change
occurred 30 years ago or within the last year.

While most people take similar jobs at other companies, Dr. Harkness
said, the executives who work with her firm have realized that jumping to
another company will not satisfy them.

“The people who come to me who have the easiest time are people who
recognize this is an opportunity for them to gain what they didn’t have before,”
she said. “They’re accepting the fact that life will be better after this. It’s their
expectation. They don’t doubt it, even though this is not an easy process.”

Those who stay put, Dr. Harkness said, may not realize the opportunity.
But some are perfectionists, she said, paralyzed by trying to get everything
right before moving.

“When you’re changing careers, you can’t be a perfectionist,” she said.
“You have to get insight and counseling and then you have to take some risks.
You have to identify that risk and be prepared to deal with it. Some people who
have been very careful, they can’t turn loose of that.”

Robert Cox, a former bond salesman, is on his second big switch. When he
turned 40, in 2000, he left Wall Street to go into real estate in the Hamptons,
the wealthy summer haven on Long Island. He and his wife bought and
renovated homes. But in 2012, they divorced, and he began looking for
another career change.

He had been a vegan since 2000, and he said he struggled to find good,
quick vegan food when he moved back to Manhattan. That gave him the idea
for a fast vegan chain, VBurger, which opened its first restaurant in Manhattan
last fall.

Mr. Cox said his newest career was driven as much by a humanitarian
aspect of not eating animals as it was about serving what he sees as an
untapped niche in the fast­-food world.

“I am mindful of the fact that restaurants don’t always work out,” he said.
“It’s good to have some sort of backup plan. I do have some reserves that I can
fall back on, but I would breathe a lot more easily if it was profitable at a
certain amount of time.”

Fear of financial failure keeps many people from taking these risks.

Mr. Stroud, who recently designed a wedding in Hawaii where the
ceremony moved through a series of tents created to evoke the homes the
couple owned or loved in Las Vegas, Paris, London and Hong Kong, said it
wasn’t clear for at least the first seven years that he was going to keep his
business afloat. And he counsels others thinking of making a similar switch to
be sure they understand the risks.

“Career and financially, are you really at that place where you’re that
unhappy with what you’re doing that the remembrance of that unhappiness
keeps you pushing ahead?” he said. “In 13 years on Wall Street, I interviewed
with other firms and thought I’d go somewhere else. But it was still the same
unfulfilling day-­to­-day job.”

That was how Kathy Andersen felt 16 years ago. She had risen quickly
within Ford Motor in Australia and was earning a six­-figure salary and living
in a nice apartment in Sydney.

“I realized I was really suffering and not happy and I needed to make a
change,” she said.

She sold most of her possessions and had enough money for six months of

In Miami, near the end of her trip, she heard about a nonprofit
organization that helped children by teaching them sailing. She sailed, so she
volunteered. That led to work in Haiti and eventually to the John F. Kennedy
School of Government at Harvard for graduate school.

“I needed to see life differently,” she said. “I saw it like a chessboard. If I
made this move, I’d get here. It gave me a sense of security. I was a planner.”

“When I stopped, when I saw life as a piece of art that takes shape with
each step we take, something happens that we can never plan for,” she added.
After years of working at various nonprofit groups, Ms. Andersen is now a
life coach in South Florida where she helps people leave their jobs — or at least
find something they can enjoy in their present career.

“People say, ‘How could you leave your job? I could never do that,’” she
said. “My work with people is to say, ‘Start where you are and write down the
things you want. It gets you to the things you need. Then it gets to what one
thing could you do today.’ ”

These are people for whom a second or third career has paid off — and
who had the luxury of trading one highly paid job for another. That’s not
always the case.

And even Mr. Stroud, who said he now earned far more than he ever did
on Wall Street, struck a cautious note.

“My wife and I say all the time, ‘Thank goodness we didn’t know what we
didn’t know,’” he said. “It was truly such a jump.”

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