It initially felt like I was sucker punched. The air left my lungs, and I was left momentarily speechless and very confused. What, I’m being let go?
I should’ve seen the writing on the wall. There were warning signs months in advance that I was blind to or perhaps that I just didn’t want to see. They started giving me new assignments that were unrelated to my area of expertise because there wasn’t enough of “my” type of work to keep me billable. Stress levels were on the rise in the office, and as the surest sign of impending doom, I was given a serious salary cut.
I’d come home some days so wound up over work I must have been vibrating like a tuning fork. Nevertheless I persisted, even though taking this job was actually something I had hesitations about from day one. From the start, my colleagues and bosses came across as aggressive, and the office always had a nervous, edgy energy. But I had never quit anything in my entire life, and the idea of throwing in the towel and looking for something new simply wasn’t a concept I could wrap my mind around. And, I was trapped in the “golden handcuffs.” How could I give up a job with great benefits and a good salary (even after the pay cut) in this economy? So I hung on and held out hope that work would improve, until it didn’t.
I was laid off from my public relations job in early April, and after a day or two of feeling sorry for myself and processing the shock of the situation while hibernating at home, watching TV and eating ice cream I actually started to feel better. I wasn’t happy about being unemployed, but I had the sensation that the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders. I was no longer tethered to a job that wasn’t right for me—a job that I likely would not have left had I not been forced to go.
I wondered what to do next. After returning from a serendipitous trip to Spain (traveling allowed me to put everything on pause and clear my head!), I thought about my professional background. I was 37 years old and had worked in PR for big agencies for the past 12 years, 10 years in New York before coming to Chicago.
Although I have a background in communications/PR and a degree in journalism, I knew that I didn’t want to go back to the same type of corporate environment of the big PR agency that I’d just come from.
I saw a career counselor to help me find my calling. She guided me on how to marry my field of expertise in communications to the causes I’m interested in. She wanted me to take a step back and think about what it would take to make me get excited about getting out of bed in the morning. Although my ultimate goal is to find a job, we discussed the benefits of volunteering (in tandem with job hunting) to help me test drive possible career paths and fill my resume gap. We also discussed the technical aspects of job hunting and the importance of putting out feelers to my personal and professional contacts because as is the case with online dating, the more of yourself you put out there, the more you will receive back—it is a numbers game.
Working with her I discovered that being a CEO of a Fortune 500 company won’t make me happy. Neither will working at a tech start up. Following an exercise in which I had to make a list of 50 companies that I’d like to work for, I discovered what I had an inkling about all along—that I’d like to work for an organization that “does good.” Simply put, I’d like to work for an organization that contributes to the greater good in a meaningful way and prioritizes this above profits (so I’m thinking I likely won’t work for Martin Shkreli).
Women’s issues have always been important to me, and they have become even more so since the presidential election. Also I’m a huge animal lover. These interests have led me to volunteer at Paws and Planned Parenthood. At Paws I’m still in the training phase, shadowing cat experts before I’m allowed to interact with/“socialize” the cats. (Apparently, playing with and petting the cats so they become accustomed to humans are nuanced skills that require rigorous training.) Meanwhile, at Planned Parenthood I’ve been helping design educational materials on birth control. (FYI, abortion is actually only a small part of Planned Parenthood’s services—health screenings, counseling and community outreach account for the majority of the work the organization does.) It’s been fascinating to dive into the history of contraception as I pull presentations together, and I’m reminded of how lucky I am to have access to this type of healthcare… for now. After just a few volunteer sessions they have already started hinting about paying jobs that could be available.
Life is so short that it’s a pity to spend your life going to a job that makes you miserable. Getting laid off in April is probably one of the best things to ever happen to me. Now it’s time to both repeal… and REPLACE my former career path.
Question: What was the best or worst career change you made in your life?
Stephanie Herzfeld has been working in the PR field for 12 years. If you know of an interesting job in the field of “doing good” email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.