Julia Child

Do you like your job? We all go through times when we feel restless in our careers. Many people fantasize about going back to school, living off the land or doing something completely different. But how do you actually make the switch? I talked to 10 people who changed careers to see how it’s done…

My dad worked at the same company for 35 years, which now sounds archaic, but many people stick to the same career path even if their minds are wandering. A study in 2008 found that 80% of people over 45 years old consider changing careers, but only 6% actually take the leap.

Still, switching paths is becoming more and more common. “As a generation X-er, I grew up assuming whatever field I started in, I would retire in,” says Cheryl Wischhover, who was a pediatric nurse practitioner for 15 years before she became a beauty editor. “But I realized it’s okay to have two or three careers in your working life — it’s even a positive. More life experience makes you more well-rounded.”

After all, Julia Child was an advertising manager and a spy (!) before she became the cook we know and love. So, over the last few weeks, I spoke to 10 people who went through major career changes. Not just switching jobs, but complete 180s — from an investment banker to a wedding planner, from a magazine editor to a psychologist, from an accessories designer to a nurse, and more. Here’s what I learned:

You Can Love Your Career and Want Something New

Lina Perl did marketing and editing for magazines from the age of 21 to 33, then she decided to become a psychologist. “My editing career was exciting. I loved brainstorming ideas, researching and writing, but I always wondered about the path not taken. I had been a psych major in college and even as a kid I used to tell people ‘I want to be a psychologist who writes books!’ As I grew older, got married, and had my first kid, I thought about that childhood dream more and more. But I was afraid to tell anyone because I thought people would think I was nuts. I had a good job that paid well, I was heading into my mid-30s with a family — why would I go back to school for five years? But when my second daughter was born, I suddenly knew I couldn’t spend the rest of my life wondering what if.”

Cheryl was a pediatric nurse practitioner for 15 years before she became a beauty editor. “I loved working in the pediatric oncology department. It was high-tech, so you had to know a lot of science, but it was also personal. Many families were there for a few years getting treatment, so you really got to know them. But when I had my own kids, I just couldn’t function the same way. The parents going through all this horrible stuff were suddenly my peers. I would see these sweet bald children, and I would start crying and have to run into the office.”

Burnout is Real

Sarah Walzer managed art galleries in Los Angeles, Berlin and New York for 10 years, now she owns a farm-to-table restaurant in rural Pennsylvania. “I loved my job for a long time, but after a decade, I got burned out on the art world and city life. I wanted to be outside. There’s something to be said for needing to get back to the land and environment.”

Siobhan Quinlan worked in production for TV commercials for five years before she decided to go to beauty school to become a hairstylist. “The TV industry was amazing, but it had crazy hours and could be very high stress. People older than me were always talking about their exit plans and how to get out of the lifestyle. It was hard to have a life outside work.”

Difficult Times Can Bring Welcome Change

Amisha Patel was a lawyer for four years and is now a children’s clothing designer and entrepreneur. “While I enjoyed the law, I’d always wanted to create and build things. Litigation felt like just the opposite, and it had begun to wear on me. Then, in 2008, the economy crashed, and my five-year-old nephew was diagnosed with leukemia. This gave me a much greater sense of urgency to pursue my passions and to embrace the uncertainty inherent in that pursuit, so I began to plot my exit.”

Nadia Kaufhold worked in finance for 10 years before she became an interior designer. “After my husband passed away from a long illness, I couldn’t spend another day at my finance job. It was suddenly clear I had to start expressing myself. It was like a compulsion.”

Both Tocha Albert‘s parents were artists, so he went to an art high school and college and ended up becoming a licensed accessories designer. But after 10 years in the industry, he decided to go back to school to become a nurse. “I was unhappy for a long time in my field — sitting at a computer all day designing backpacks and things for brands like Walmart, but I didn’t know what else I could do. Then in 2010, my dad died from cancer. He mentioned he had a nurse that he really liked and that he was a man. My dad was a hard guy to please on most days, but especially toward the end, so this meant a lot. It made me think start thinking that I could be a nurse, too.”

The First Step is the Hardest

Meg Dinga worked in the film industry for seven years, her last three as a talent agent, before switching to graphic design. “The period between realizing you don’t feel fulfilled and starting the career change was very stressful. For a while I was straddling two jobs — working full time as an agent, while also attending classes and producing design work. It was intense, but my overall trepidation and uncertainty made the transition even more stressful.”

Lina: “The year leading to my career switch was not happy. It was very hard for me to admit to myself that I needed to make a change. In fact, I spent a lot of time trying to convince myself not to take a risk. But when I was 33, I took the GRE. I figured if I did badly, I wouldn’t apply to schools. But I did well, so I figured I’d apply and if I didn’t get in, it wasn’t meant to be. But I got into a great Ph.D. program. Once I decided to take those first steps, doors started opening. Getting your doctorate while being a mom to young children is not easy. There are many challenges — financial, marital, not enough hours in the day — but these have been four of the happiest years of my life.”

It May Sound Cliché, But You Can Do What You Love

Tzo Ai Ang worked as an investment banker for seven years, then became a wedding planner. “Before getting married, I never thought about how I wanted my wedding to feel, but I loved every minute of planning it. I found myself reading the wedding blog Style Me Pretty every day, and I realized wedding planning was what I really wanted to do. So, I started researching industry events and networking at anything I could get myself into. I created a website; studied SEO, social media and marketing; and figured out where successful planners got published. My first client was through a friend of a friend, and I worked for basically nothing. I was lucky because the wedding got published on Once Wed. Looking back, I can’t believe I managed that wedding myself with no assistants — now I have two!”

Cheryl: “I had always loved fashion — the business, the personalities, the designers. I started blogging about style while I was nursing and really enjoyed it, so I decided to take some writing classes at NYU. I saw that the fashion website Fashionista was looking for an unpaid intern. I told my husband I was going to apply, and he said, ‘Are you crazy? Do you know what interns do? They get coffee.’ At this point, I was a 37-year-old nurse and mother of two. But I sent them a long and (I thought) funny email saying if I could handle toddlers’ tantrums and a bunch of doctors, I could handle the fashion world. I got the internship and was hired as an editor a year later.”

Siobhan: “Working in production, I always secretly wished I could hang out with the hair people on set instead of sitting at my computer. My whole life, I had been interested in hair, but I never thought of it as a job possibility. Once I moved to NYC and saw stylists with amazing careers, I thought more and more, ‘Why can’t I do that?’ Then during a slow time for production when I was watching lots of Tabatha’s Salon Takeover, I finally thought, I can do this. I gave myself six months to save money and then went to beauty school. I loved learning about hair and still do. I’m now the creative director of my own salon.”

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask

Shannon Rodriguez was a flight attendant for three years, then in advertising for 16, and now she owns three juice bars. “About five years ago, I walked into a Nekter Juice Bar and I knew they were onto something. I wanted to be a part of it. Nekter wasn’t franchising at the time, but for a year and a half I kept sending them emails saying I was interested and eventually I got my first store. There have been lots of tears, lots of hours, lots of hard work, but with passion and perseverance I have gotten through it. I love being my boss on being able to reinvent myself. I just got rid of all my suits, now it’s yoga pants and Free People.

Sarah: “My husband always said the Indian restaurant in our small Pennsylvania town was the perfect restaurant location. It wasn’t for rent, but one day I went in for lunch and asked the owner if they’d ever be interested in renting the space. He and his wife had run the restaurant for 15 years, and it turned out they had been thinking of retiring. I had recently moved from New York to rural Pennsylvania to be with my husband — but I didn’t want to continue my art career there, and he was working as a chef in mediocre restaurants. We thought, this is our shot. We were both very interested in food and were already raising chickens and growing a garden at home, so we decided to open a farm-to-table restaurant. It was huge challenge and risk, but it was our chance to create something together.”

Being Older Can Be To Your Advantage

Lina: “I used to wish I had gone to grad school at 21. For a while, I considered all my years as an editor a long wrong turn in life, but now I see that they were incredibly valuable. I learned a ton, and I hope to come back to writing in my new career, just in a new form. I’m also at a huge advantage because I know how to pitch myself as a psychologist and market myself to get clients.”

Cheryl: “My bosses at Fashionista were 23 and 24, while I was 37. When I started, I was so nervous. Can I actually do this? Am I going to make a complete ass out of myself? I wasn’t trained as a writer; I didn’t go to journalism school; I came from a place where I was a mentor and now my bosses were millennials. But later they told me they saw me being older as a positive. So many interns are 19 and 20, they said — they can be flaky, they don’t know how to act in an office, maybe they don’t have that work ethic down yet. I probably made too many jokes about my age, but I came to realize that it was a plus. I could remember trends and brands that the 21-year-olds didn’t even know existed, and when I wrote about beauty, my science background was really helpful.”

Tzo Ai: “Since I had worked at a bank, the organization of wedding planning came very naturally to me. On a trading floor, you get used to working with very difficult personalities, and that groomed me well for dealing with difficult wedding vendors.”

Check Out the Field First

Tocha: “While I was taking my nursing pre-requisite classes and still working, I decided to volunteer at a hospital. I told the director that I was trying out a career change and didn’t know anything. ‘I haven’t even taking anatomy and physiology,’ I said, ‘I just want to see if this is right for me.’ She said, ‘I know the place for you,’ and put me directly in the intensive care unit. Right away, I was assisting the nurses in some very outrageous situations. I found that I had the stomach for it and I got along well with the patients. I finally felt comfortable to give this nursing thing a real shot.” 

Sarah: “Don’t be afraid to take a risk on something that sounds completely insane. If you have an interest in beekeeping, figure out a way to get an internship and learn more. Be courageous! It’s okay if you make the wrong decision; it’s worth trying things out.”

Learning Something New Feels Good

Cheryl: “Writing and meeting people in the beauty industry has given me new life. When you have two little kids you’re run ragged, and sometimes you lose sense of who you are. I can’t say enough about learning something new later in life. And you should never discount learning from people that are younger than you.”

Nadia: “After my husband died, I contemplated many different avenues. Should I go into political writing, academia, photography, healing modalities? Ultimately, I embarked on a gut renovation of my apartment and decided to go to school for interior design. My three-year-old twins and I moved into a small studio during the renovation. I would study by lamplight while they slept in a bunkbed a few feet away. That period of grieving which mobilized me was crystalline: I was focused, efficient and absorbed information like a sponge.”

You Will Probably Make Less Money at First

Siobhan: “One of the hardest parts was going from a well-paying job to having almost no income in beauty school and as an apprentice. But don’t let money hold you back; if you want it enough, the money will figure itself out.” 

Cheryl: “You’re going to have to start lower on the hierarchy, so it’s important to save money and be financially ready. There was a significant time where I was not making any money; none of this would have been possible without my supportive spouse.” 

Amisha: “Going from the top of the legal industry to the bottom was an adjustment. Foregoing a salary, benefits and free office supplies was also rough.”

But You Won’t Regret It

Tocha: “If you put one foot in front of the other, you’ll eventually get wherever you need to be. And if you get there and it’s not quite right, you can always take a few steps to the left. Am I 100% happy as a nurse all the time? No. But now I have a whole other field ahead of me with options. I’m also very proud to be a pediatric nurse. I leave work every day exhausted, but fulfilled by the work I’ve done. I’ve been able to make a difference in these kids’ lives, even if only for a moment.”

Lina: “The most rewarding part part has been finding a career I love and being able to share that with my kids. Although I’m super busy, I genuinely love working with patients, and I think my kids see that. I’m showing them that work can be wonderful. I’m intellectually challenged, and I’m happy to be making a difference in the world by helping others.”

Sarah: “We just celebrated the Blind Pig Kitchen’s second anniversary. It’s been hard, stressful, fun, extremely rewarding, a big learning experience, a test of our relationship — it’s been everything. But even when we’re super overwhelmed by running a restaurant, it’s our restaurant. I still get excited when I think about the change that I made. You get a little spark: this actually happened.”

Are you thinking about changing careers? What would you most want to do, in your heart of hearts? Let us know — we are rooting for you!!!

P.S. Career tips from smart women, and the best work advice.