Sometimes I have to pinch myself. This many years into my new career, it's still hard to believe that I'm living on a 2,100-acre ranch. That when I finish breakfast I will saddle my young horse and ride him along dirt roads dappled by shady aspens, with droopy-headed purple columbines and wild rosebushes abloom with sweet pink blossoms appearing like treasures in the tall green grass.
Horses grazing on the ranch. (Image: Dina Bennett.)
Not that long ago, I was an executive vice president at my husband's fast-growing software translation company.
Fast forward a dozen years and I've moved from software deadlines to nature's deadlines, from tearing my hair out over a sales proposal to picking hay out of my hair, from cleaning up project messes to cleaning up horse stalls.
In this, the final week of the Reinvent Yourself series, we're exploring what it takes to switch to a completely different career. Here's how I accomplished it, and some of the lessons I learned along the way that could help other career changers:
1. Life is a series of doors: When you find one, push it open and don't worry that you don't know where it will lead.
Dina and Magic.(Image: Christy Hoover.)
Thirty years ago no one could have predicted I'd become a rancher. I grew up in a lovely, leafy suburb of Manhattan, went to a West Coast college and got my MBA in Boulder, Colorado. I began a career in PR and marketing working for a Denver firm with clients like Marriott, Citicorp and the Denver Broncos. I wore strappy sandals and silk blouses for work, loved opera and traveled every year. When my husband, Bernard, launched a software translation company I applied my talents to his business. We were a dynamite combination. Though I had no technical background, I proved adept at convincing people to sign with us. Our firm grew from a handful of employees to hundreds. I grew with it, becoming executive v.p. and closing million dollar deals with the biggest names in the software industry.
2. Find whatever thrills you about your new direction and focus on that.
After a dozen years, we sold the company. Burned out from years of sacrificing everything to the Holy Grail of business success, I had no idea what the next act of my life would be. Bernard suggested we secure a large patch of ground, aka a ranch. My first thought was, "And leave my friends?" followed by, "What'll I do there?" and then, "If the place has enough pasture, my horses can feed themselves!"
3. Doing a career 180 may strip you of self-defining traits and provide nothing to replace them. It's OK to grieve.
The old ranch house. (Image: Dina Bennett.)
Moving to the ranch was difficult. For countless days I languished in a swamp of loneliness, boredom and regret. I had no friends nearby and nurturing friendships long distance was new to me. I was clumsy with tools, insecure with manual labor, completely out of my element with tractors. I couldn't square feeling so useless and incompetent with the 'me' I used to be. What to do?
4. Use existing skills and talents on your new path: it's liberating to apply them in unexpected and different ways!
I was confident in one area: horses. What does every horse without pasture need –- hay! I decided to wear my badge of ignorance with pride - there’s nothing shameful about being a novice. I gave myself permission to ask questions without embarrassment until I could rattle off a riveting array of facts on hay quality and nutrition. To my delight, the phone skills I'd used to sell translation services transferred beautifully to selling hay. I responded to every customer as if Microsoft was calling. When first-time buyers began asking to have hay reserved for the next year, I knew I'd found my niche.
5. You'll fail at some new activities, but that does not make you a failure.
At cattle auctions, I sat next to our local brand inspector and plied him with questions about cows that bordered on the ridiculous. Instead of feeling mortified, I laughed. Eventually we built a viable herd. I screwed up my courage and banished fear of failure to learn how to use the mini-loader so I could muck out the horse stalls without risking injury or death. I adopted a mustang from the Bureau of Land Management, taking many a crashing fall on my way to accomplished horsemanship. Through my horses I met a woman who is now one of my closest friends. I also discovered I had a small talent for making elk hide jewelry. I joined with some acquaintances to open a gallery -– no small feat for someone who'd never drawn a thing. My business background was especially welcome, and in the process, the acquaintances became friends.
6. When you change careers, you keep your good parts and discard, or at least improve, the not so good.
It took several years before I felt I was no longer embarking on a new life, but living it. During those years, I bumped into unpleasant truths about myself, including a nasty habit of being judgmental. But over time, I befriended truckers, hunters, cattlemen and loggers, people whom I would once have dismissed as not my kind. They showed themselves to be far more hardworking, curious and good-hearted than I had ever been. I had to humble myself in terms of competencies, as the success of my previous life meant little in my new surroundings and my new skills did not impress people from my former life. It me took years to accept myself for who I am, sharp edges and all. Now, no business card could adequately define who I've become.
7. You're bound to stumble, even fall. When you do, the only important thing is taking one more step forward.
On the ranch.(Image: Dina Bennett.)
Today I'm starting yet another career. I wrote a book about my unusual life that's in a literary agent's hands. I realize that striding through the open door to an unknown future 12 years ago gave me tools I can use to continue transforming myself for the rest of my life. Tackling something new, conquering uncertainty, reaching deep to manage novelty, reinventing yourself –- they're all grand and rare opportunities. Embrace the challenge.
Copyright 2012 Dina Bennett
Kaplan University provides a practical, student-centered education that prepares individuals for careers in some of the fastest-growing industries. The University, which has its main campus in Davenport, Iowa, and its headquarters in Chicago, is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission (www.ncahlc.org). It serves more than 53,000 online and campus-based students. The University has 11 campuses in Iowa, Nebraska, Maryland and Maine, and Kaplan University Learning Centers in Maryland, Wisconsin, Indiana, Missouri and Florida.
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