In September 2008, 10 years after winning an Academy Award for Best Actress, Gwyneth Paltrow founded Goop and achieved her lifelong goal of seeking out and sharing recommendations. Arnold Schwarzenegger had bodybuilding, until he had Hollywood, until he had the governor’s mansion. And John Grisham practiced law before writing best-selling fiction about it.
We all fantasize about vocational revolution, stepping outside of the present to pursue some longstanding dream. But how do we know if fantasy should become something more? And, if we think it should, how do we transmute dream into reality?
Stanford GSB sought answers to these questions with three joint-degree graduates from Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER). Each one veered sharply off a rising career arc. Here they explain when they knew it was time and how they made it work.
Co-founder, Chulengo Expeditions
Nadine Lehner graduated from college, spent five years doing conservation work in Patagonia, then headed to Stanford with the sense that “now I would come back to the U.S. and have a slightly more conventional job,” she says. She started the joint-degree in 2014. In 2016, she worked as a summer associate at Bain & Company and signed an offer letter to return in July 2017.
But she couldn’t let Patagonia go. Throughout her time at school, she built up Chulengo Expeditions, an educational ecotourism company in Patagonia. Six months before her full-time job with Bain was to begin, she moved south to test the business model. “It was designed to be an experiment for a few months,” Lehner says. “I figured I might keep it up part time once I went back to work at Bain, but when I got to season’s end, I realized it made more sense to continue with Chulengo.”
Several things helped convince her this was the right decision. First, customers who got to know Lehner through days spent together on remote mountain trails encouraged her to stay on. “There was something affirming about people seeing this and saying you seem to be happy,” she says. Second, her cofounder recommended she spend a day imagining what it would be like to remain at Chulengo — a way to shake her from a post-MBA mindset and think through alternatives. Lehner was immediately filled with ideas of what she wanted to do. She extended 24 hours to 48 — and then continued dwelling on the idea for a week. “I felt much more excited as a human,” she says. She also had ample time to sort through priorities. “Taking long walks in the mountains with no cell service and really smart, caring people to talk to — this has a great de-cluttering effect,” she says. Not everyone, she realizes, has this luxury.
And, finally, on Lehner’s last expedition before her job at Bain was to start, another hiker recounted advice from author Cheryl Strayed on choosing paths in life. Whatever we don’t choose simply becomes “the ghost ship that didn’t carry us,” Strayed writes. “There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.”
“I had to realize that there was this perfectly legitimate version of life where I moved back to San Francisco, worked at Bain, was near my GSB friends, pursued hobbies,” says Lehner. The decision then became less about sorting out which option was, by some quantifiable or objective standard, better, but rather about recognizing and accepting that “Bain offered a valid and good life, but I’m just not going to choose it right now.”
Lehner has now been running Chulengo for almost two years, and it has been a challenge — the distance from family and friends, the need to create her own solutions to obstacles, the absence of immediate supervision. “I’ve realized that it can be satisfying to be told what your job is by someone else, go do a good job at it, and then be told that you did a good job,” she says. But she also finds the work of Chulengo immensely invigorating and fulfilling. “The more I dive into it, the more I realize it’s a life I’m excited about.”
Executive Director, Positively Groundfish
Jana Hennig burst into tears one day while leaving work. There was no clear trigger that day—she liked her job well enough, but for 18 months she had been distraught over a problem beyond her day-to-day: the state of the world’s oceans, a concern born from months spent volunteering with researchers on the southwest coast of Madagascar. She was still crying when she got home, and two hours later after journaling whatever came to mind, she knew that she needed a radical career change. She applied to graduate school.
At Stanford, Hennig focused on marine conservation. Ten years in marketing at some of the world’s largest consumer packaging goods companies did little to prepare her for classes like aquatic chemistry. “I had a lot of catching up to do,” she says. But, beyond the intensity of coursework, Hennig also fought an uphill battle convincing the world of marine conservation professionals that her skills were worthwhile.
“The organizations that interested me were mostly staffed by marine biologists with PhDs,” says Hennig. “Figuring out my unique value and framing it to a new set of people was really key.”
To clear this hurdle, Hennig networked extensively once at Stanford, not simply describing her skills, but demonstrating them. For instance, before starting her E-IPER capstone project, in which joint-degree students draw on their coursework to address a real-world, environmental problem, she informally surveyed several marine conservation nonprofits about which issues they considered understudied. She then designed her project around these responses and later called the nonprofits back to ask if she could present her work, which looked at applying the ideas of community-supported agriculture to fish. “Of course, they were happy to have someone come in and offer insights that they needed,” she says. One of these presentations led to a lunch, which led to a job offer.
Hennig is now the executive director at Positively Groundfish, where she coordinates a group of nonprofit partners as they publicize the story of one of the West Coast’s best ecological comeback stories — groundfish fisheries, resurgent after their collapse in 2000. She spoke bluntly about the fact that even a career imbued with great moral purpose is often defined by the mundane: spreadsheets, conference calls, meetings. “But here,” she says, “when we are winning, I know we are winning at the right thing.”
Vice President, New York City Economic Development Corporation
For three years, Matthew Mo was an investment banker at Morgan Stanley, and for three years he struggled to balance the demands of work and the demands of being a good husband to his wife and a good father to his young daughter. “It was hard to have comfort that I was doing both things well, or that I even could,” Mo says. When he finally decided to leave, “it wasn’t the result of a particular moment, but the accumulation of a lot of thinking.”
With his wife’s support — “that was absolutely key” — Mo left Morgan Stanley and committed himself full time to finding a new career. Perhaps the most important step was deciding whom to consult; mentors and people who have appealing jobs are obvious choices, “but you should also go back and talk to old friends, or to people who have faced similar career challenges even if they’re in a very different sector,” he says. “At the end of the day nobody is going to be able to answer what you’re looking for so you need people who are willing to test your thinking and challenge you.”
During his search, Mo also learned the importance of being willing to back down from an idea. At a certain point, Mo essentially decided that a career in real estate development was “the right idea.” But a series of conversations with people involved in the work and people who knew him well demonstrated that it wasn’t, at the time, the best fit. Mo wanted to build experience from a diverse group of projects, and he learned real estate development would pin him down with one or two projects over many years. Though he had committed a lot of time and thought to the idea and had mentally started to prepare himself for the work, he pivoted his search. “There is an overwhelming desire to find something quickly, and it takes a lot to fight that temptation,” he says.
Finally, as with Chulengo’s Nadine Lehner, Mo found that time and space to reflect on what matters helped him define precisely what kind of workplace he wanted. It was disconcerting to leave Morgan Stanley without a job lined up but doing so was necessary to meaningfully sound out new career options.
Upon the recommendation of a friend, Mo eventually landed on the strategy team of the New York City Economic Development Corporation. In this role, he and nine colleagues support the work of the corporation’s core projects, from managing the expansion of New York’s ferry system to facilitating a rezoning project at the northern tip of Manhattan. “It is really interesting work,” says Mo. “And these days I’m home for dinner.”
— Dylan Walsh
All images courtesy of featured alumni.