It’s a tough spot to be in: You’ve worked hard to create your career, and you’re doing pretty well — but now you’re realizing you were meant to do something else entirely. Your dream lights you up. It makes your heart race. But it’s also intimidating. It doesn’t fit your familiar self-image or others’ image of you. And it’s hard to think about being back at square one again. Jane Mosbacher Morris, the founder of TO THE MARKET | Survivor-made Goods, wants you to know that starting over doesn’t mean starting from scratch. And she should know: She went from working at the State Department to being a social entrepreneur who economically empowers survivors of abuse, conflict and disease by selling their wares and telling their stories. Here, Jane tells us about her own career transition and shares what you should know if you’re at the same crossroads she faced.
I remember sitting on my front porch last summer, shuffling through models’ headshots for an upcoming photo shoot and thinking what a far cry this was from scanning intelligence reports. I never thought in a million years I would ever be lugging around a suitcase filled with inventory or learning what makes a post on Instagram “likeable.” It just wasn’t the career I had planned.
If you’re at this crossroad, know that you are not a failure.
I became intrigued by international relations, particularly national security, in high school. I was pretty Type A: I plotted out how my passion for international relations would eventually translate into a job at the State Department and beyond. My senior year of college, I landed a job at the State Department in counterterrorism.
My plan was working! I had become a national security professional.
But soon I found myself unusually focused on one portion of my portfolio—the intersection of women and security. I vehemently rejected the idea that this issue was “soft” or more about “women’s empowerment;” it was just that neither of those topics felt like “me,” and they certainly weren’t a part of my career plan.
Even with no shortage of work on my plate, I devoted more and more attention to expanding my knowledge about women and security. My colleagues and I disagreed about the facet of my research I was most sure about: National and human security were inseparably linked.
More than five years in, my work began to garner increasing attention. It felt wonderful to be so supported but also uncomfortable — this wasn’t supposed to be my shtick. I knew that if I continued down this path, it would not lead me to the end goal I had set for myself so many years before. And I was right.
On a trip to investigate human trafficking in Kolkata, India, I had my “aha” moment. I met with a social enterprise that employed survivors of human trafficking. They were giving women another option (where there often is none) besides working in brothels, and they were empowering women economically. They were fulfilling a role desperately needed for both national and human security.
It was what I had been trying to accomplish through my own work. And thus began the idea for my social enterprise, TO THE MARKET | Survivor-made Goods. I deeply love what I do. It is a beautiful intersection of my personal and professional interests, and I feel uniquely suited to do it. While I know now that my past experiences all contributed to my ability to found and run TO THE MARKET, I struggled with the gradual transition, and I know that many others have felt or may feel similarly.
So many thoughts raced through my head as I contemplated starting my own business. Why am I starting all over? Am I a failure for abandoning my original plan? How will I build a reputation in a new field? What about the years I dedicated to my current field? Were they all a waste? I worried that my colleagues and friends would see me differently. I soon learned that these worries are common. We belittle the things we are passionate about because it lets us wriggle out of the opportunity. We make our current occupation seem somehow more “legitimate,” while our genuine interest is something superfluous. Just because you enjoy what you’re doing does not mean it is unessential. In fact, that same passion that draws you to it is what will give you the edge to succeed.
If you’re at this crossroad, know that you are not a failure. You are not abandoning a plan. You are not losing a part of your identity. You haven’t wasted any time. And you are NOT starting over!
As I was making the transition from traditional counterterrorism, it was hard for me to understand that it was OK to diverge from my original career plan. I came to peace with my journey, however, because I did not forsake my guiding principles. I was still committed to the same work ethic, to making people’s live better and to always trying my best. I had learned skills along the way that were universally applicable, and I was putting them to use as I moved forward.
The meetings I had attended on Al Qaeda or collaborating with the Defense Department taught me how to create an agenda. The strategies I had written on U.S. counterterrorism policy showed me the value of setting clear objectives and measuring follow-through. And the grant proposals I had reviewed gave me the blueprint for a well-constructed action plan. I bet that if you examine your skills, you could trace them back to your early school or professional days.
Now look to the future: You might be struggling with the same feelings I experienced. You may want to do something quite different than what you had originally planned. This doesn’t mean you have to jump ship this second. Be strategic about your exit. Are there skills you’ll need in your new pursuit that you could be sharpening at your current job? If these skills are not part of your job description, ask how they can be. If feel you have already exhausted your resources, though, it may be time to head out!
I want to leave you with the idea that it is not only OK to question where you are and what you want in your career, it is good. It represents growth, curiosity and a desire to be connected to your vocation. Compare your potential next step to your guiding principles. Do they align? Compare your potential next step to your skills. Do they align? If you’ve got alignment and you’ve got desire, then you’ve got opportunity that you’d be foolish to ignore. Who knows—it could be what you’ve been preparing for your whole life.