Will This Decision Lead to Career Suicide?

It took me six years to fully change my career, and I’m still learning about the path in which I am headed. Here’s my story on the steps I took, why I took them, and most importantly, the many errors and lessons I learned along the way.

This is a four part series, which will explore:

  1. Part I — When Your First Job Out of College is Not Your Dream Job
  2. Part II — Will This Decision Lead to Career Suicide?
  3. Part III — Can Graduate School Lead to Career Change?
  4. Part IV — A Career Change Success Story

Part II — Risk Taking

Me: “I want to move out of the country to work in microlending.”
Friend: “Where?”
Me: “I don’t know.”
Friend: “When?”
Me. “I don’t know.”
Friend: “umm…”

I know I’m considering a big change when I say it out loud, even though I may not have the details sorted out, like the conversation above. When I’m considering something, I force myself to share it with others as it increases the likelihood that I’ll do it.

Lesson 1 — Shout it from the rooftops! Or just tell as many people as possible.

The minute I voice a new change, challenge or goal three things unfold:

  1. The idea becomes real. I thrive off of the additional layer of pressure — what will others think, or even worse, what will I think of myself if I don’t follow through?
  2. Others start looking out for me, which typically leads to a flow of articles, introductions, ideas, comments and more. There are always many people helping me achieve my small and large goals.
  3. A friend or family member will keep me accountable. i.e. With these blog posts, I have Belma McCaffrey to edit, help me meet deadlines and ensure I don’t procrastinate. I have no shame in admitting that I’ve had to fight off binging on House of Cards — Thanks, Belma!

The why and how behind deciding on a life change.

Remember the discouragement I felt with working in event management from Part I? To counter this, I began volunteering at the Business Center for New Americans on Friday afternoons. The organization provides small loans to immigrants in New York City to enable them to start their businesses, ranging from restaurants to small cell phone accessory kiosks.

I liked microlending because (once again I identified the likes and dislikes):

  1. It makes a long-term impact on people’s lives.
  2. That impact reaches people beyond the entrepreneurs themselves as it provides for families and communities.
  3. With the loans organizations provide, they also offer business training and mentoring, which help business owners further expand their companies.

I was growing antsier to leave event management, but I needed a plan.

Language: I knew I needed field experience in microlending in another country, but I lacked the necessary language skills for many of the opportunities available. I had taken Spanish in high school and decided to narrow my search to Spanish-speaking countries, so I signed up for Saturday Spanish courses.

Skills/Training: Next, I needed a source of income if I was going to volunteer. (There are paid positions in non-profits, but they oftentimes require significant work experience and fluency in another language.) I researched a range of job opportunities and chose teaching English because I could become certified in New York City. Most countries have visa programs to accept English teachers from the U.S. After researching the requirements for teaching programs, I selected a TEFL certification from i-to-i.

Job: Lastly, I notified my network of my plans and began researching locations. Through the insistence and help of my Chilean roommate Hugo, I decided Santiago, Chile was the place for me. I landed a job through Teaching Chile and a volunteer opportunity through Fondo Esperanza.

Lesson 2 — Do your homework.

My transition to Chile was fairly seamless due to the research I did prior to moving. There was risk in leaving my job, friends and family, but I also had set myself up to succeed by relying on help and recommendations from others.

Other methods to reduce risk: read books that are relevant to the change, do skills assessments, set up informational interviews, read forums, join professional groups, talk to a career coach or therapist, or take classes.

So, how did I do in Chile?

It was a life changing experience to grow as a person, and I loved it. I mean, who doesn’t love completos, hot dogs doused with avacodo? It was not an easy risk to take and certainly the journey throughout those eight months was far from perfect. However, here is just a small glimpse of what I gained:

  1. More Risk Taking: Hiking Patagonia, skiing the Andes, paragliding in Mendoza and more. There is something about being in a foreign country that increases your likelihood to do things you might not normally do, which is why my mom made me buy emergency insurance. Thanks, Mom. Beyond fun, I took on executive clients for English lessons, something I might have been too nervous to take on otherwise.
  2. Friends that became family: We’re having our 5-year reunion next week!
  3. Deeper Understanding of other Cultures: I’ve always benefited from learning and appreciating another person’s background, experience, history and culture. I believe it makes me a better employee, especially as I work with people across the globe.
  4. Confidence: I believe moving to Chile alone, gave me the confidence to do other things alone and try things foreign and uncomfortable to me. This confidence was helpful later in life. i.e. I later returned to school to study finance (classes I found incredibly challenging, but my confidence helped me to stick with it even when I wanted to quit).
  5. Identified more dislikes:

I can’t work with children. I tried, but within one week I lost complete control of the classroom, and I still have nightmares from being bullied by a 7 year-old.

I didn’t like working for an English institute because my pay was much lower than what I could make teaching private lessons (equivalent to why some people leave corporate to freelance).

I hated not being fluent while volunteering at the microlending institute. I couldn’t be as effective as I wanted to be at times, and this gave me an entirely new respect for those working in a second language.

6. New Skills: My resume/elevator pitch grew substantially. Now I could speak Spanish, teach, network (find new students), discuss small business issues, explain microlending, research grants and identify funding opportunities, work with teams from diverse populations, develop lesson plans, debate Chilean politics and more.

All of these new skills and life lessons have played a pivotal role in my career today. For example, I frequently use teaching methods I learned in Chile to break down technology at IBM and explain how it works.

Lesson 3 — It’s great to have a plan, but be flexible.

I only stayed in Chile for eight months, even though I planned to live there at least one year. However, things don’t always turn out as planned, and I had to return to the United States for family reasons.

In addition to moving back early, I returned to New York City and had to start my career from scratch. I arrived in NYC for a second time in 2010, still in the midst of the recession, and I couldn’t find a job. I took a summer internship as an event planner for hourly wages to make ends meet.

For a couple of years after, I felt I had failed for needing to return to interning. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It was a short-term decision that met my needs at that time, and it was only another step of the journey leading me towards a new career. At the end of the day, I needed to get over myself, and bills had to be paid.

This is just a glimpse into one large risk I took but there have been many others along the path towards changing careers. The key for me is to always approach these decisions proactively. It’s much harder to suddenly quit your job and move to Chile without a plan (though it can be done this way too).

More importantly, it didn’t lead to career suicide, but instead turned into a career boost.

Coming up next:
PART III — Help! Can Graduate School Lead Actually Lead to Career Change?.