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My Grown-Up Gap Year Changed Everything

Sometimes not happy (but not completely un-happy) is the hardest place to leave.

My first day of school pic, 2017.  All my friends were posting their kids' back to school pics, so I had to get in on the fun!

I spent the past 23 years working for large companies.  Over 100,000 co-workers is the only workplace size I know.  

As a journalism major back in the early 1990’s, I totally wussed-out.  I didn’t pursue what I wanted to do with my life.  I wanted to write, that much I knew.  I interned for a local news station as a writer, but got cold feet at the prospect of starting out in that field – moving to a small market where I knew no one, and would make very little money.  I wasn’t totally convinced journalism was for me, for lots of reasons.  It feels odd now, that I so feared living in another state.  At that point in my life, the furthest I’d traveled was to Florida to visit grandparents, or to the Jersey Shore during Summer.  I didn’t own a passport until I was 36 years old. 

I am one of the earlier Gen-X’ers – the first in my family to go to college.  As the child of a blue collar upbringing, and of the last generation which valued the following in a career choice; the stability of a big company, the 30-years’-march to the gold watch, solid benefits, and a retirement savings plan – I naturally took the first job that came along.  

In my case, that was selling ads for the Yellow Pages.   

Having taken a few advertising classes in college was enough to qualify for what was one of the worst jobs I’ve ever had.  To put that in perspective – In college I waitressed.  At the Sizzler.  While my classmates partied, I lived at home, and worked long hours, serving overcooked steaks and and fried shrimp.  Now, at a restaurant where people served themselves at the all-you-can-eat salad bar, customers sometimes thought it ok to not tip.  My brief service career ended when I chased down a family of 10 in the parking lot for stiffing me. (They totally deserved the verbal lashing I gave them.)  Besides, graduation was in a week, and I was quitting in a few days.  But, I digress – my point:  it was that bad selling Yellow Pages ads.  But that job soon turned to a role selling telecommunications and technology services, which then turned into a sales manager role, then a product owner role, and so on and so on.  

I worked with mostly great people, the money was good, I was apparently good at this work.  I was promoted regularly and highly recruited internally.  Then one day, I woke up, I was 23 years into my career, my business card said ‘Vice President.’  I was divorced, hadn’t had the kids I thought I would have, and was living a convenient six block walk from my office in downtown Philadelphia.  

My life was my work.  I didn’t love my work.  You do the math.  

None of this was in my plan.  I had begun to notice that when I saw family or old friends, the first question I always got was “how is work?”   It annoyed me.  I’d become a career woman.  Ick.  I had no passion – for any of it.  Ok, the paychecks – it was nice to be able to have a nice house and do nice things for my family and friends. It made me feel good to pick up the check sometimes after dinner.  But that was not enough.  I had found myself in this in-between place in relationships, and now I felt the same in my career.  It wasn’t enough, but it wasn’t terrible, either.  So I stayed.  Choosing to leave is hard.  Leaving is complicated.  It’s sometimes so much to untangle, that you just learn to live in the twisted knots.

I had this nagging feeling that, if I was good at this work, and I didn’t exactly love it or care much about it, what might I be able to accomplish if I loved what I did?

Fate stepped in.  My employer enrolled me in an intensive, off-site Executive Education program at the Wharton School at The University of Pennsylvania.  Most of the others in the class were either happy to be away from the office on the company dime, or stressed out of their minds about being away from the office.  I was just perfectly content – for the first time in a very long time.  I loved the classroom environment. I loved looking at case studies and problem solving other organizations’ issues.  I loved the lectures, hearing from the brightest minds at one of the countries best schools.  I felt more at home than I had in a long time.

I enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Science Organizational Dynamics Program.  For a few years, I had been considering this program, and eventually consulting, as a next step in my career, but it was always something for “later” “another time” “after a few more years in this current role.”   I decided to finally apply – and somehow, I got accepted!  Ivy League. Me. For a girl from North Philadelphia who used to sling All-You-Can-Eat Fried Shrimp to get through college – not too shabby.

I planned to attend part time, figuring the program would take me 3-4 years to complete.  Then, fate stepped in again.  Or maybe it was that the universe was sending me signs.  Whatever it was, I knew this; I was not happy in my current role.  We had highly dysfunctional leadership.  Moving to another department was not going to solve it.  My boss wanted me to commute to, or move offices to NY, over an hour from my home.  This would have made evening classes and the Masters Degree program impossible.  That was the tipping point.  Not-totally-happy-but-not-unhappy was no longer enough.  I stayed on for a few months at that job, ramped up my course load, waited to hit my 10 year anniversary at the company, and left – to attend Graduate School on a full time basis.

What a switch!!  Going from having an administrative assistant in the office to figuring out the jammed printer in the school library on my own was a lesson in humility!  But sneakers instead of heels, jeans instead of suits?   I could get used to it for a while…

I threw myself into my coursework.  It was an adjustment, not having someone manage my calendar, forcing myself to study, write papers, and research.  I had to be disciplined about scheduling time for all of it.  It was easy to let an entire day slip by.  And, you know what?  Sometimes I did.  I slept in some mornings. I went for bike rides in the middle of the afternoon.  I did accomplish some things, too. I did dozens of odd jobs around the house that I have been putting off.  I cleaned out that damn closet, finally.  I took up yoga.  I met and re-connected with colleagues and friends for coffee mid-day – all because I could!  

Probably best of all, I got to study abroad.  I spent seven weeks traveling around Europe.  Click here for a link to my blog.   A few of those weeks were attending classes, but a few were just for me.  I visited nine countries, and over 20 cities. I lived out of one small carry on bag for six weeks.  I ate and walked, and ate and walked more.  I didn’t plan more than 2-3 days ahead. I booked a train to wherever seemed interesting along the way.  I enjoyed the classes, where I studied topics like Corporate Social Responsibility in the Netherlands, and Approaches to European Project Management.  I learned and experienced so much during those seven weeks, traveling alone.  It’s hard to look back and recognize that 22 year old girl who was afraid to move to someplace as far flung as Albany, NY.

It did not take me long to realize that I had made the right choice, taking this year, and going back to school.  Some might call it a mid-life crisis.  Eeeek!  How is it possible I am at “mid life” already?   I was just 25, like, last week.   

Truth is, 25-year-old me was a chicken-shit.  Now, I continue to surprise myself every day.  Back then, I thought I would finish that 30-year-march to the gold watch.  Thought I’d be married, have kids.  Nothing went according to plan.  Now, I have no idea what the future holds, and I am excited more than scared.  During the past few weeks I have officially started my “job search.”  I know I will face rejection.  On a personal level, I had my heart completely broken recently.   That is the ultimate rejection – so bring it, you corporate recruiters – I’m quite prepared for your unreturned love.  

OK, truth: I feel very vulnerable and alone some days.  I could easily look in the mirror and see a huge failure.  But, this year has taught me a few things.  I didn’t die or cease to exist when I left my job.  Sure, I had to tighten my belt a little to adjust financially.  I have come to realize my work does not define me.  People no longer ask “how is work?” and it’s a relief.  I’m more resilient than I ever thought possible.  I am surrounded by great family and friends, who, it turns out, don’t care what I do for a living, or if I don’t always pay for the dinner or drinks. 

I am doing some consulting and advisory work with a fantastic and fun firm, MBB Management.  I am learning that my skills are transferrable across many industries.  I like working for a smaller company.  We have this super-cool warehouse office in a hip neighborhood just on the outskirts of downtown Philadelphia. (Port Richmond for you locals.)  I work in a building that is just like one that was abandoned in my old neighborhood, and like so many others in many working class neighborhoods near where I grew up.  It’s fun to see the revitalization, the rebirth of these beautiful old spaces.  Rebirth of the old.  Hmmmm…

I have a boss who says things like “you made this happen, we are going to cut you in on the revenue.”   Whaaaaat?   I spent the last 20 years selling, creating and launching new products. I squeezed the last life and dollars out of dying product lines. I created new product lines and revenue streams.  I transformed the culture of sales teams.  And not once, did anyone ever say to me – “you’ve made us millions, we’re gonna cut you in on some of the revenues.”  Sure, I got my small annual increases, my standard bonuses, and occasional promotions.  I was supposed to be grateful.  I was, sort of.  But it was not enough.   

It can be hard to feel you are making an impact in a large organization.  When you have to wait three weeks to simply get a meeting with someone critical to your product launch, or two weeks for the lawyers to review your marketing copy, it’s hard to go home each day feeling you make a difference.   It’s easy to get complacent, and just ride the wave of never-ending, frustrating, seemingly meaningless change and reorganization.  Deck chairs on the Titanic, and all that.  

The program I am enrolled in at Penn focuses on many skills, including the skills needed to better navigate large, complex organizations.  Should I ever return to one, I would do lots of things differently.  

Then again, I may never go back to a large corporation.  It’s exciting work I am doing now, and while not my area of expertise, it is something that I care about and have a passion for.  We help small businesses, mainly restaurants, improve and grow their businesses.  We take single, successful locations and teach them how to franchise.  We help the new franchisees get started.  It’s fun, and meaningful.  And, we get to taste-test the products!

I am looking into teaching as an adjunct professor.  I am exploring some full-time consulting opportunities, closer to my background and experience.  Turns out I’m pretty good at, and really like this consulting thing.  I have experience and expertise that really can help people.   

Taking a grown-up gap year was the best thing I have ever done.  I am a little more fearless, a little bolder.  I’ve learned a new industry, developed new skills.  I also realize now how much I do know.  What comes naturally to me or what I take for granted – whether creating and designing a process, or coaching and managing, or basic marketing skills – are skills that small businesses don’t always have, and that they desperately need.  I have a lot to offer, I can make a difference. I won’t settle for not-unhappy.  

I hope my experience and my story inspires you, if you’re thinking of making a change.  My journey is not over, I can’t tell you how it turns out.  

I do know it will have a happy ending. 

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