Let passion guide your career
From careers to motherhood and back to work-life balance
During my first maternity leave, I spent playdates and time with other moms talking about baby sleep and developmental milestones. We were all first time moms and new to parenting. I loved talking about babies, hearing people’s ideas, finding solutions to our challenges.
During my second maternity leave, the tone shifted. This was our second child, and probably the last. Our conversations were no longer about how to get a baby to sleep through the night and whether they were crawling or walking, but instead about our careers and our own next steps. It was as though we had put career progress on hold while pregnant or planning to have more kids, but once we were done, we were ready to lean in.
Every woman’s position was a little different. Some women realized they didn't love what they did, but weren't sure where to go next. Others enjoyed their jobs, but were feeling bored, or unsure how they could move up. Some women wanted to make large career changes, but were afraid of how to do that, whether it would be the right move, and how to make it financially if they switched careers. And while they dreamed of career ambitions, they worried about all of the family responsibilities at home.
One evening, I was sitting in Starbucks with a girlfriend, talking about our next career steps. She is a thoughtful, intelligent, successful addictions counselor. She had a list of ideas and potential opportunities. After she went through her list, I mentally stepped way back from the detailed questions she was thinking about and asked her "what do you want?". There was a long pause, she thought for a while, we discussed some ideas back and forth, but the answer was she didn't really know. For so many years, she had been thinking about what other people wanted and needed that she hadn't really stopped to think about what she wanted.
Finding your passion
As we navigate work-life balance, it's easy to get caught up in joys and challenges of raising a family and continue with the status quo at work. We focus on the wants and needs of those around us - children, spouses, parents, siblings, employees, bosses... Being considerate and supportive can be amazing, but somewhere inside us, we have our own passions, things that inspire us, challenge us, and push us to greatness.
I'm writing this post on Friday evening; after what has probably been one of the best work weeks of my life. It's a moment in time, where I have so much clarity about my passion, even though my own career next steps feel very unclear. I just finished delivering a course I developed. It's an intensive 5 day workshop that presents the culmination of years and years of school and work to understand how we can effectively take research evidence and put it into practice. As participants finished the course, many commented on how inspiring it was to spend the week with us (myself and the other facilitators), because it was so clear that we are so passionate about what we do and we love working together. And they were right. The thing that inspires me to wake up and go to work every morning is that I want to help people, organizations, communities, and the world be a better and happier place. This course does that, it helps people understand how they can put research evidence in practice so that they can improve whatever health outcome they are looking for. It's hard not to get swept up in the excitement of figuring out how to do this. This was the 9th time we offered the course and the best delivery yet.
While I sit here typing away, part of me feels so lucky to have had the opportunities to learn what I did so that I could build this course and deliver it to new participants every year. But it isn't just luck. I made a series of deliberate and sometimes difficult choices to get to this place.
Being intentional in creating the life you want and the work-life balance that makes you happy
I started undergraduate school with a double major in Economics and German - my two best subjects in high school. But by the end of first year it was clear to me this wasn't the right fit. So I did some soul searching and realized my favorite activity in high school was being a camp counselor, so I switched majors to Education to be an elementary school teacher. While doing my placement in an inner city school, I realized that the kids there needed so much more than a teacher could offer. They needed programs to help support them. I started doing research and came across the idea of using evidence-based programs in schools. So I switched majors again and got a degree in Psychology with the goal of going to graduate school to develop evidence-based programs.
I got into a bunch of graduate schools and decide to go with an obscure choice - Penn State in rural Pennsylvania. My second choice was to stay in my hometown and attend the local university, so relatively speaking, Penn State was way riskier. While going through an intensive debate about where to go, my father once asked "would you rather be a big fish in a small pond (i.e. local university) or a small fish in a big pond (i.e., Penn State)". This stuck with me and I picked the big pond, even if I was going to be a small fish there. When I arrived, I felt for the first time like I had found my people. I loved it, I loved the learning, I loved the intensity, I loved what I was doing. When I started, I always imagined that when I finished I would become a professor. While I was in grad school, the recession hit and the world changed. You could no longer get a PhD and become a professor, you had to spend years and years doing post-docs, and I was just not prepared to do that. As I approached the end of my PhD, I wanted my life to settle down and start, and I wanted a job - a career.
PhDs don't set you up well for the workforce. I was trained in these really, really specific things, and it quickly became clear that I wasn't going to find something that checked all of the boxes of things I enjoyed and had been trained to do (e.g., implement research and evidence-based programs for children in schools using complex statistical models to evaluate long-term outcomes). So I sat down and thought about everything I had been trained to do and I ranked them based on what I was most passionate about. I picked the thing at the top of my list - implementing evidence to improve lives - and I discarded everything else. Then I looked for jobs where I could help people implement evidence.
I was offered 4 jobs within a few weeks of each other. The one I picked didn't offer the most money. It wasn't the most prestigious. But I saw potential. My boss clearly wanted to implement research evidence - her vision aligned with mine, and it seemed like the team was growing and I could help shape the next steps. It was a totally different topic area, healthcare instead of education and focusing on older adults instead of kids, but it was still about using evidence to improve lives.
Fast forward 6.5 years later and I've built an amazing team of 20 people, I've led over 50 projects, and managed millions of dollars in grants and contracts. But what excites me, what drives me is still helping people use research evidence to improve lives. I do this directly or indirectly every day, but when I'm teaching, that's when I see and feel how I am living my passion.
As I write this, I know I am on the cusp of the next steps in my journey. I don't know exactly what will happen next, but I will keep focusing on my passion - helping people improve their lives and the lives of others, while creating a work-life balance that makes me happy.