Courageous Acts of Career Questioning: Stories about people who made job shifts during the pandemic

by Megan Taylor Stephens

Nov. 2021

I’ve learned that ‘making a living’ is not the same thing as ‘making a life’.

–Maya Angelou

Career Questioners

My friend, Dorothy Davis, up and quit during the pandemic. She had a demanding job in an intense line of work: Head of Marketing in the tech sector. I knew she had been thinking of making a change for some time, and I’m so very proud of her. She had saved up money and finally gave herself the gift of walking away for a while to ponder her next career move. She is extremely talented and a genuinely good person, so I don’t doubt that something amazing will come her way. Dorothy’s Act of Courageous Quitting made me wonder who else has done something different or even radical with their careers during the Times of COVID.

Before I regale you with motivational stories, I want to acknowledge that there is great privilege in making a radical change in one’s career. Not everyone is in a place where they can throw caution to the wind and start over from scratch. Inadequate savings, childcare issues, unsupportive partners—these are only some of the things that might prevent someone from taking the plunge into a new line of work. Some people may be better off pivoting while staying within their lane of experience and training. Others might want to dip their toes in the water and test out their passions as a side hustle rather than jump straight into the deep end.

As I was poking around, I realized that I had lots of friends and acquaintances who went through both subtle and drastic professional shake-ups during the lockdown. A colleague, Emma Reznic, has kept her day job as a speech-language pathologist while pursuing a side gig as an illustrator. My neighbor, Gretchen Cook, went from being a product advisor for a food company to being a restaurant server. Sean Brochin reduced his special educator job to half time and became a half-time realtor. Jasmine Landry turned her educational leadership job into a fully remote position and launched herself as an educational consultant. Bridget Saladino was in a professional rut and decided moving to Italy was a now or never event, which she called “making limoncello out of lemons.”

While many doors of employment and opportunity have slammed shut, others have opened wide. Based on stories I was hearing, I came up with three broad categories of job change-ups that are happening during the pandemic: The Pivot, The Side Hustle, and The Radical Leap. I reached out to some job shifters and asked them exactly what they did, why they did it, and how they feel about the outcome. Spoiler alert: They all seem pleased with their Courageous Act of Career Questioning.

The Pivot: Ben

Ben Cosloy has been a general and finish carpenter for years. He has busied himself mostly with residential remodeling of old houses, doing the gamut from design to framing to finish work. He has also been a musician for years. He grew up with a love for jazz and rock that he largely attributes to Pink Floyd and his music-loving dad. Ben picked up the guitar in middle school, played in bands in high school, and plays in gigging bands part-time with his wife starting about twenty years ago.

As his carpentry jobs were delayed and work dwindled during the pandemic, Ben found that he had time on his hands to focus on things that brought him joy, such as his luthier hobby. Guitar building was a hobby that he started dabbling in about 15 years prior because he was too frugal to buy a guitar that he wanted. So he bought the parts he needed and more or less taught himself to build and repair guitars.

During the pandemic lockdown, Ben finished the first guitar he had started years before, built a new one, and it just kept going from there. He already had the basic wood shop needed for carpentry and could have stayed low budget by sticking with a jigsaw and endless filing and sanding. But he had a little extra unemployment money and used it to buy some specialty tools to enhance his luthier hobby.

It turns out that there was a robust market for hand-hewn guitars and Ben’s hobby could bring in money. Now Ben makes more than 50% of his money from guitar building, and his hope is that it will gradually take over carpentry and contracting altogether.

Ben was able to take his experience with building, woodworking, and finish carpentry and re-fashion it into something that gives him greater joy. He doesn’t think he would have made the pivot from his less satisfying and more stressful job to this more gratifying and creative line of work if it were not for the pandemic. First of all, the pandemic gave him the gift (and curse) of time. “Anyone with some woodworking experience and tons of patience could build an electric guitar—which is mostly what I do—but it took me a lot of builds to improve to where it wasn’t a totally white knuckle ride building them.”

The lockdown also gave Ben the gift of clarity. He calls it The Big Pause. “The Big Pause is something that helped me mentally, realizing that I was not locked into doing exactly what I had been doing previously.” He adds, “When everything is going to hell, it’s a lot easier to decide to do things that are important to you.”

Ben’s advice to others who don’t feel fulfilled is: “You don’t have to be stuck doing what you’re doing. Think about what you enjoy and what you’re good at and try to align those to your career goals. Also, it’s incredibly helpful to talk to folks who are in a field you’re interested in. I can’t imagine doing any of the stuff I’m doing without friends and mentors.” He particularly wants to give a shout out to Todd Mylet at Portland Fretworks repair shop.

Check out Ben’s guitars on his Instagram page and make sure to check out his bands Lord Master and Bad Assets.

The Side Hustle: Temujin

Pre-pandemic, Temujin “Temu” Nana worked fulltime in the tour industry as a tour manager and photo instructor. The company he works for takes tourists to far flung places all over the world, such as the Galapagos Islands, Antarctica, Norway, India, Morocco, and Namibia. Photography tour packages are Temu’s specialty. These small-group luxury expeditions are exhilarating and rewarding. Temu thoroughly enjoys going on these international adventure trips and doesn’t plan on quitting this day job. However, COVID-19 had other plans.

The pandemic lockdown radically thinned out the queue of customers looking for the travel experiences that Temu’s company offers. During his period of employment stagnation, Temu and his wife realized that they could easily relocate. They decided to test out a “gap year” move from urban Philadelphia to a rural area of Utah. The impetus was for him to be immersed in nature and delve into his area of passion: astrophotography.

“The idea was to go somewhere beautiful, near nature, not too close to people, and with dark skies. With the skies we have here in Utah, I was able to shoot consistently and in ways that are impossible in more light polluted areas. That was the big kicker. I learned and shot a ton.”

As Temu honed his skills in his area of passion, he was surprised to find out that even experienced photographers often knew very little about photographing the night sky. He found himself giving advice on deep space astrophotography, which led to presentations, which led to the bona fide money-making side hustle that he finds himself currently enjoying.

Now he says, “I simply love sharing my love of the night sky, and the more people I can get to appreciate it, the more we can protect places where we still have views of the incredible spectacle we have above us.”

Temu has succeeded in the sometimes challenging alchemy experiment of making lemonade from lemons, and he may not have done so without the impetus of the pandemic slowdown. “Not having the ability to travel simply made me focus on other things to take up my time,” he explained.

Temu says, “I think the greatest obstacle for most people is their own fear of uncertainty.” His advice is: “Make the jump, slowly at first and in segments if you need to, but just try. You can (usually) always return to your old life, if you want.”

Check out Temu’s astrophotography photos on his Instagram page here: Night Sky

And here’s the tour company he works for: Open Sky Expeditions

The Radical Leap: Jackie

Jackie Haddon has been a licensed clinical social worker for twenty years. She was the director of a large mental health agency for the last decade. As a social worker, she specialized in adolescent girls and their mental health challenges—depression, anxiety, sex abuse, etc. Jackie was very tired. After losing two friends to breast cancer and a father-in-law to ALS, she paused and reflected. It dawned on her that time was short, and she was allowing work to completely deplete her.

“I realized how much I had come to believe that busyness and stress was a natural byproduct of working,” she said. With the passing of friends and family, “I was made keenly aware that I was being arrogant to assume I had years ahead of me to find what made me happy professionally.” In order to have the quality of life and creativity that she craved, Jackie knew she would have to make a huge change in careers.

Jackie loved houses, interior design, home renovation, and project design. She is also passionate about equity and inclusion. To top it off, she has a charming and bubbly personality. She decided to become a licensed real estate agent, something she had been interested in for a number of years. She took an online class over the course of three months. Then she studied for and passed a test covering national and state real estate laws. She says it took her awhile to get off and running after that—she blames general pandemic distraction and disorientation—but now she’s making as much money as she was in her old job and having a ball in the process.

Even though her new career seems like an obvious choice to people who know her,

it was hard for her to take the plunge into the real estate industry. “I couldn’t imagine making the leap from professional do-gooder to selling homes. But once I realized I could incorporate my values around equity and accessible housing, it all began to fall into place.”

Jackie can credit the pandemic to helping her come to terms with the fragility of life. Life is unpredictable and sometimes unfair. But life is uncertain whether you’re working yourself to death or enjoying a creative and fulfilling career. She feels fortunate that she had a good sense of what profession would make her fulfilled, and she had support and resources to make the leap, which she knows can’t be taken for granted.

Jackie’s advice is: “Don’t just assume that it is impossible to leave your current career. Sit down and really look at what you need financially and then assess if there’s a way you can meet those needs somewhere else.”

As if propelled by all her forward momentum, Jackie is now working on other areas of interest. She is planning on starting a nonprofit to help train women in the trades and help individuals with mobility challenges stay in their homes. 

Jackie works at this Real Estate company in the Portland, OR area: O’Donnell Group Realty­

What Will You Do?

Amid many stories of struggle and despair during the pandemic, there are also stories of empowerment and renaissance. Many people adjusted to new pandemic parameters and ended up liking the outcome. Perhaps you are questioning how you spend 40+ hours per week (more than 2000 hours per year!) in your current employment situation. If so, what better time to change it up than during a global upheaval? The Pivot, The Side Hustle, or The Radical Leap could be right for you.

Consider Jasmine Landry’s epiphany once she gave herself permission to change course: “I think my biggest personal lesson from my career move and the pandemic is that I don’t ‘have to’ do anything.  It was a big mental shift for me.  I don’t ‘have to’ take a safe job opportunity just because it’s what I thought I would do next. I don’t ‘have to’ stay in my expensive rental. I can weigh my options and make big moves—and change my mind and make new big moves.”

Jasmine’s parting words of wisdom to others is: “Think about what needs to be true for you to feel safe in a career shake-up. Figure out how much a safety net you need, put that net in place, then see what happens!”

Mary Oliver says it best in this poem called The Summer Day: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

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