I am not what I do, but rather what I bring to my work and my relationships is who I am. - Rick Parnell
I recall reading something while I was still an undergraduate lamenting that most graduates did not work in the field for which they were trained and suggesting that on average Canadians could expect three distinct careers over their adult lives. Change and transitions are part of the landscape and may be the only certainty in life.
I did eventually work in one of the fields for which I was trained, and trained in the fields I worked as my roles and opportunities expanded. As a forecaster and analyst, I learned to understand and anticipate trends and shifts. It wasn't long before I was asked to help set the direction to navigate those shifting tides.
However for me there also seemed to be a narrowing that came with success. The stereotypes and definitions that were identified with the work and my roles felt like an increasingly tightening knot on my intellect and my sense of self. Each step forward in my career felt increasingly removed from who I was and who I wanted to be. Any admiration for the people "above" me was dwarfed by the fear of becoming one of them. For a little longer than I should have, I waited for someone else to fix my dilemma for me or to force my hand.
Consciously or unconsciously I had prepared my parachute. From my early twenties and through the waves of lay-offs that were common experience for me and my peers, I had planned for a future that didn't depend on a pension or working wage. With the combination of luck and thoughtful action I was vastly more successful than I could have expected and much sooner than planned. My wife and I began to openly and calmly discuss what we needed to live comfortably in the context of what we really valued and wanted to do. When I hit that wall that I just didn't want to climb, the groundwork had already been covered, and like a beam of light coming through the window, I knew what I must do.
That's not to say that walking away from a "successful" career that had spanned more than a quarter century was easy. What about my friends, and those who might feel let down having hitched their wagons to my rising star? What about my education, training and knowledge? Was I really willing to squander all that value? I could and had planned for the loss of a comfortable living, but all those other aspects proved the greater challenge. I still get the odd panic attack when the "what if" question crosses my mind.
At first I thought I would consult part-time, but in the tense political environment of the time hunger was more valued than knowledge and the work felt even less interesting than what I'd left behind. I directed my energies back to our investments and to my love of music.
It was that love of music and my creative side that had suffered most over the years. With where the music industry had gone and where technology was taking it, was it possible that I could reawaken the creative muscle at this stage? People who retired much older than I had taken to painting or poetry or other artistic endeavours. Why not me and music?
When I decided to become a songwriter I also decided to work hard at it with measurable targets and goals. Right away I determined to create a library of songs. I told myself that if I couldn't produce a three minute song every month (12 songs a year) I wasn't really a songwriter. No one was going to hear those songs unless I sang them, so I became a singer and enlisted the support of musicians and technicians to self produce. With online distribution my songs have reached thousands of ears and eyes around the world, and there are many now who could not imagine me as businessman in a suit.
So then, who am I? Here's what I think: I am not what I do, but rather what I bring to my work and my relationships is who I am.
Rick Parnell (www.rickparnell.com, and https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLuRbgcYND78zhwniVym5TyVyzzmPoZj99) is a Canadian singer-songwriter, business consultant, husband, father, uncle, son, brother and friend. Rick holds an MBA, degrees in Economics and History, and has formal training in finance, investment and project management. Other interests include philosophy, theology, sociology math and physics.
Nobody knows what your purposeful, meaningful, and passionate work and life look like better than you. - Nina Huang
In early 2013 I made the toughest decision of my life. I decided to leave the Sociology PhD program I was in at Harvard University, after 5 years of passing exams, writing papers, doing research, and teaching. I was in the dissertation-writing phase and about 3 years away from completing the program and getting a PhD. My funding was guaranteed. All I had to do was finish.
It had already been a long journey, getting to the dissertation phase. I think I knew that graduate school wasn’t where I truly wanted to be since the first year. But it was such a prestigious and competitive program, with great funding. My family was over-the-moon that I got into “the best school in the world.” My dad bragged about me at every opportunity. Social approval and respect came so easily. Everywhere I went, people gave me benefit of the doubt because I was going to Harvard.
Yet, there was a small and persistent voice inside me that kept saying “this isn’t what you really want.” I looked to the faculty members, and realized very quickly that I didn’t want anybody’s life here. I felt disconnected from the scientific method in my research and the discipline at large. Is this really the best way for me to know the world? I wasn’t convinced that the academic path holds the answers to my deepest and most important questions. Every day I spent in graduate school, I felt further and further separated from the social activism that inspired me to become a sociologist in the first place.
Plus, there was another dream of mine that kept tugging on my heart strings. Since I was a very young girl I had this strange fascination with colors and papers. I was more into office supplies than dolls and dresses. Whenever I had extra money, I would add to my collection of pens in different colors. Before bedtime, I would lay all my pens out on my pillow and bask in the magic of the colors. In my early teens, this fascination turned into a passion for painting, and I attended drawing and painting classes during the weekends. In high school, I prepared an art portfolio for applying to art schools.
When my first-choice art school (Emily Carr) didn’t offer me early acceptance or even invite me to apply after Portfolio Day, I was convinced that I didn’t have any talent. I believed in the faculty member who didn’t see any merit or promise in my work. I didn’t even officially apply to any art school before I threw in the towel and gave up (and this is the first time I am admitting this in writing). I was humiliated, disheartened, and totally defeated. I couldn’t stand the thought of having my dream crushed. It would be less risky to just not pursue it at all. Sometimes, our dream can feel so precious and vulnerable that we don’t dare speak its name. Our dream can feel so surreal and amazing that we don’t think we can possibly be worthy of its actualization.
Being an artist became this forbidden fantasy for me. Lofty, grand, and totally out-of-reach. It was for others who had more creative talent. I was perhaps more suited to a conventional path. I put my artist dream away, and went to a traditional university instead. As an undergrad, I was the top student in my program. In my last year, my professor encouraged me to pursue graduate school. He told me to shoot for the moon. I had no idea that I would get into Harvard.
So there I was at Harvard, mostly sifting through what I didn’t want. I started painting regularly again. I took classes, went to workshops, and found solace in my creative practice. I felt reborn with a commitment to my art. A line of fresh colors still delighted me like nothing else. But could art support me? Could art really be a viable alternative career?
I worried and stressed incessantly. I lost sleep. I became depressed. And each day that I refused to follow the path of my heart, I died a little more inside. Like I said, leaving Harvard was the toughest decision I ever had to make in my life. Nearly everybody I consulted told me not to do it. Even my therapist said that I was so close and that I should just finish (I’ve since stopped seeing her).
I still remember the moment the decision became final. It was at the end of a hot flow yoga class, and I was in the final resting position on my mat. My mind was clear and calm, as it often was after yoga. Then, out of nowhere, I burst out crying in the middle of the silence, in a room full of people. The answer appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, with such power and clarity. It was time to leave. Nothing could keep me any longer. Not status, not security, not approval. And I haven’t looked back since.
Breaking the news to my dad was awful. Informing my advisors was awful. But everything else, my friend, was exhilarating. Much to my surprise, I was able to make a profit from art sales almost immediately. Fast forward a year to early 2014, I now run a profitable and blossoming art studio in Portland, Oregon with my husband. I am a published author and illustrator. My work has been featured in newspapers, magazines, and prominent blogs. I am working on my second book. Most of the paintings I’ve created in the last two years have been sold. The growth in the first year of my art business has been phenomenal and nothing short of miraculous, and the first year isn’t even over yet! But most importantly, I cannot wait to get to my work every morning. I cannot believe how blessed I am to be a working artist. I give thanks every single day. A line of fresh paints on my palette still gives me butterflies.
I want to share three things I learned from my transition from PhD candidate to artist entrepreneur. I hope they help you find some clarity.
1. Nothing was wasted.
Please, please, please don’t stay at a place you don’t want to be anymore because you’ve already invested x number of years there.
When I was deciding to leave Harvard, this was what everyone told me. “You’ve already done your time for 5 years, what is 3 more?” Or “If you leave now without your PhD now, everything was wasted.”
None of these statements are true. If you’re paying attention and learning, nothing you’ve ever done or will do is ever wasted. Sure, I didn’t get my PhD from Harvard, but I did get my Master’s. I did grow significantly in my critical thinking and writing skills.
I met some of my closest friends in graduate school. I met my husband in Vermont, where I wouldn’t have been if I wasn’t residing in Massachusetts. I discovered my great passion for teaching and helping others, which plays a big part in my studio practice today. And the flexibility of graduate school allowed me to grow my creative practice on the side, until I was ready to make the transition.
The truth is, I am glad that I didn’t go to art school. My path was a little windy, but I am certain that it maximized my learning and allowed me to accumulate a diverse array of skills. My creative voice is unique because the path I’ve walked is unique.
You need to trust that you are where you are for a reason. You came to learn, you came to explore, and it’s perfectly reasonable to decide that you’re ready for a new adventure. And on your next adventure, you’ll have a toolkit of everything you’ve learned from your last.
2. No one else really knows.
During a time of transition and change, most of us love to ask everybody else’s opinion. We want to know we are doing the right thing, we want to cover all our bases, and we want to study the problem from all angles.
But nobody knows you like you know you.
We’re all so different. We have different dreams, aspirations, and past experiences. Somebody said that it was ridiculous for me to leave Harvard because some people would kill for the same opportunity. Well, that might be true, but clearly I am not wanting the same things as those “some people.”
Nobody knows what your purposeful, meaningful, and passionate work and life look like better than you.
And if you say, “I really don’t know, either,” then I invite you to spend some quiet contemplation time with yourself. Because I guarantee you, no problem ever presents itself without an accompanying solution. The moon appears when the water is still. When you quiet your own internal chatter and everybody else’s opinion, your heart and your intuition will guide you.
3. Follow your heart.
Once you know what your heart wants, it is my sincere hope that you become a loyal servant to your true desires. Pursuing your burning desires with gusto and commitment is the only path that will satisfy you on a deep emotional and spiritual level.
If you do in fact know what your heart desires, but cringe at the thought of just going for it and failing miserably, I want to tell you that you absolutely have what it takes to make your dream a reality. You start by believing in it fully. You continue by aligning your thoughts, feelings, and actions with your dream. You treat every obstacle, challenge, and setback as temporary stops on your way to inevitable success. As best as you can, you stay hopeful, optimistic, and positive.
This is how every remarkable person has accomplished their “outlandish” dreams. They see their visions so fully, with so much conviction that sooner or later, reality, time and space bend to accommodate them. Your heart holds this magic. I believe this is the creative power in all of us, and I also believe it’s time more of us start to exercise this power.
For more information on Nina Huang's beautiful dog portraits and children's book, please visit ninahuangart.com.
Success is often the result of taking a misstep in the right direction. - Al Bernstein
How many times in life do we begin something new, sometimes unintentionally, and come to realize it was the right thing to do, after all?
It's interesting when I think about where I was only one year ago. I had just started a college diploma in Career and Work Counselling at George Brown College in Toronto. I had also just quit a three year PhD program after getting through a year of coursework, grueling comprehensive exams, and an approved dissertation proposal, all of which took three years of my life to prepare for.
I was exhausted. I was burnt out. I was uncertain. I wanted a change.
Beginning a college program was not my first choice of alternative options to grad school. In fact, I didn't have a first choice. There was no clear indication of what I 'should' be doing if I quit my PhD. I played around with different ideas: volunteering, applying for jobs, traveling, sleeping, going back to school. I happened to come across the Career and Work Counsellor program online late one night when I was perusing college websites. The program seemed to align best with my interest and volunteer experience in mentoring undergraduate students who were dealing with the same or similar career related concerns I was: What do I do with a university degree(s)?!?
Little did I know that this new beginning would be the start of a career transition that, for the first time in a long time, felt right.
Being in a college program was so different from being in graduate school. The practical approach to learning was miles away from the theory I was reading in social history books. I didn't know if I would ever crack open one of these books again, and there was a part of me that wondered what those three years of PhD graduate work had been for.
As it turns out, the skills I developed in grad school did come in handy, and weren't just something I could talk about when I got that pestering question, "so what did you really get out of your university degree?"
My graduate level training was an invaluable tool in enhancing my understanding and approach to my new area of study, career counselling. While getting industry specific training at a college, I was devising new approaches in delivery of career counselling services based on my ability to research and critically analyze the industry, how it was evolving, where there was room for new ideas, and what my contribution, or niche, would be. I attribute this kind of thinking, brainstorming, and analysis to my graduate level training, especially all the hours of generating ideas for my essays and thesis work, founded on the studies and research of the brilliant minds that came before.
When I started on my pathway to becoming a career counsellor, I was uncertain whether I was embarking on the right pathway, or how I would apply the skills and knowledge from my previous degrees to a new learning experience. There is never a clear cut application of knowledge, unless you go into the exact profession you train for. For most of us though, that is rarely the case. More often, in today's labour market, students have to apply their learning and skill set to the work they do, or to the continuing education they pursue, which may not be directly related to their previous studies.
In taking a step in a new direction, don't lose sight of the learning you've already gained. You will most likely surprise yourself when you begin to use this knowledge in interesting and different ways. Especially if you change career pathways, all learning is good learning. It is sometimes when you start a new journey that you actually begin to realize it.