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My 28-Year Job Search

How I finally found my calling and you can recognize yours

By Carrie McConkey

In late March of 2020, my body tensed as I read the apologetic email from the marketing director of Kimball's Jewelers, one of Knoxville, Tenn.'s most respected family businesses. It read: "I would love to tell you what the schedule looks like for our partnership, but I can't at the moment."

desk with laptop, calendar, coffee and vase of flowers, jobs, Next Avenue
Credit: Nick Morrison via Unsplash

We had announced a collaboration just three weeks before. I would offer my expertise as an image consultant to Kimball's customers as the jeweler's in-house fashion expert, providing sartorial advice and giving presentations on style at special events. But as the coronavirus descended, my venture with Kimball's was over before it had begun, along with my other client work and projects. I joined 84% of small- and mid-sized business owners who were to experience a significant impact from the pandemic.

Just a few months shy of my 50th birthday, I was on the hamster wheel again.

The truth was, I was unfulfilled and physically and emotionally exhausted.

Many Careers, But Not the Right One

Since graduating from college in 1992, I'd made veering, perched-on-two wheels, career turns no less than six times. While my peers sensibly rose to the next position where they worked, I broke into entirely new fields: interior design, couture bridal dressmaking, professional speaking, career services, fundraising and image consulting.

Each profession appeared to be good fit at the time, bringing me more income, bigger job titles, a variety of opportunities and recognition. My friends and family assumed I got a thrill out of reinventing myself. But the truth was, I was unfulfilled and physically and emotionally exhausted.

Yes, these jobs had common threads I enjoyed: helping people, coordinating projects and solving problems creatively. But they also required public speaking, managing large-scale events, immovable deadlines and high-stakes projects. All of those were a poor fit for my introverted personality and slow-and-steady style of working (more like a Crockpot than a microwave oven).

I felt crushed under the weight… until I started freelance writing.

In January 2018, 15 months after starting my image consulting business, a local magazine asked me to create a fashion-themed "Dear Abby"-style Q & A column. With this side gig, I found myself smiling and laughing while researching and writing. I finally felt a synchronization between my skills and temperament.

Was the Pandemic Showing Me the Way?

Over the next two years, in between presentations and client wardrobe sessions, I squeezed in challenging and satisfying writing opportunities. At the time my Kimball's partnership was forming, I was writing for four publications and my work was expanding into content and copywriting for clients beyond the fashion realm.

Freelance writing was all that remained of my small business during the shutdown. Was coronavirus offering a chance to make a meaningful career pivot?

For an answer, I sought out two experts: Kevin Gaw, a psychologist and executive director at Amica Center for Career Education at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I., and Katharine Brooks, Evans Family executive director of career services at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and editor and co-author of "What Color Is Your Parachute," the famous job-hunting bible.

Gaw advises his clients to make career moves based on passion, purpose and direction. He assured me that the physical and emotional peace I felt with writing was significant.

"Things don't happen by luck; there is a reason," he said. "We should explore, 'What does this mean to me? How can this be important to me?'"

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Gaw said that when a person's curiosity is piqued about a possible career pivot, they often push aside their burgeoning excitement. "It's a mentality left over from the day when parents got a job with an organization and stayed with it until they retired," he noted. "They're told to be happy: 'You have benefits. You have a good job.' It's hard to break away."

Brooks believes in the power of creative reflection, encouraging her students to use what are known as mind maps, vision boards and other visual aids.

When I spoke ruefully to these experts of the long and winding career journey I'd taken, neither of them felt it had been for naught.

The Petal Exercise

She recommended using the Parachute book's "Flower Diagram" (shown below) for career clarity. Each petal represents a facet of the workplace:

Petal 1: People — the demographics you enjoy working with

Petal 2: Physical setting — the environment you prefer to work in 

Petal 3: What you can do — your favorite skills

Petal 4: Your purpose in life — your immediate and long-range mission and goals

Petal 5: What you know — your favorite knowledge or interests

Petal 6: Your rewards — your preferred salary and level of responsibility

Petal 7: Your geography — where you prefer to live and work

Assigning one sheet of physical or digital paper to each petal, you then compile comprehensive lists. "Analyze your previous jobs for the 'energy gainers and drainers,'" Brooks advised. "What did you like and what didn't you like? And what job would let you do more of what you like?"

Next step: Write the top three to five items on each list in the corresponding petal of the flower illustration. (Career coach Beverly Nye's Prioritzing Grid can help.)

The completed "flower" will provide a blueprint of your ideal job, where you presumably will bloom and flourish.

Parachute flower diagram, 28 year job search

After speaking with Gaw and Brooks, I determined that the pandemic had opened the door to a more fulfilling, and fitting, vocation of freelance writing — and I was ready to walk through.

When I spoke ruefully to these experts of the long and winding career journey I'd taken, neither of them felt it had been for naught. Brooks said she was grateful for the variety of jobs she held before finding her career services calling. She pointed out by going straight into the field, she wouldn't have had the breadth of experience that's been helpful when advising students. "I don't think experience or education is ever wasted," she told me.

Many people, Gaw said, are afraid to take the risk of changing fields. "They look at it as a ledge… and they won't look over," he noted. But through self-reflection and asking ourselves the right questions, he added, we can marry our temperament to our skill set at work.

Oh, by the way: Almost a year to the day of the initial announcement of my collaboration with Kimball, I received another email from its director of marketing. With the pandemic seemingly dimming, the jeweler was ready to safely revive its event roster and wanted to check my speaking schedule.

Walking up to the ledge and taking in the view, I declined.

carrie mcconkey smiling at the camera wearing a black shirt and necklaces.
Carrie McConkey is a freelance writer and entrepreneur in Knoxville, Tenn. She can be reached through her website Carriemcconkey.com and Twitter @carrie_mcconkey.


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