“Now looking back at it. I never really asked myself the questions of whether I wanted to to do this. It is just normal. Many of us do that.”
That’s what Michal Balass had said when I asked her where her career started.
She went on to explain that she spent years getting her Doctorate and when it came time to get a job she did it without thinking… because that’s what you do! It is normal.
Unfortunately doing things the normal way without question put Michal in the same place many others are.
In a job that isn’t a great fit and doesn’t particularly line up with what you want out of life!
Michal tolerated it for years. (probably for much too long)
“The troubling thing about that is when you don't fit the role you don't fit the job culture you'd get burned out very easily and very quickly and that's what happened. But I you know I'm an ambitious person and I held on and the whole time for a lot longer than I should have. And what the breaking point was is that I had my son two years ago and and I didn't want to go back to work.”
Michal knew that this job wasn’t the right one for her but honestly didn’t know what really would create the best situation for her or just what the real possibilities were like for her life and what they could be.
That is until she started working with Lisa her Career Coach
“One of the first questions she asked me to think about is what are the things that are really true of me. And when I started generating that list I sort of understood that there were a lot more sides to me than just this job and that this job is not what is supposed to identify me unless I wanted to. And that's how the process started.”
That’s when the possibilities really opened up. When she wasn’t just identifying herself as an academic but instead focusing on what she really wanted (and who she wanted to be)
When your Direction becomes “And” Instead of “OR”
She started focusing on what we call “And thinking” (how you can have cake AND eat it… because nobody likes to stare at cake)
She found that she could have a career she wanted AND be a mother.
She could have flexibility AND a role that paid well.
This difference in focus led her down a completely different path than what she had known before.
Fast forward: months later she had started a photography business AND got a new role the fit her and her family.
“This is what the process is about: doing something that fits your life in that moment. And if it doesn't fit, being flexible enough to think about that ‘I can always move on and I can always engineer my situation slowly to find something that fits better’ The biggest challenges are US standing in our own way.”
Michal’s move wasn’t easy, but in talking with her now 2 things are very clear.
She is a different person than she was a year ago at this time. She no longer defines herself the same way, she has a different outlook and there is a determination that if a situation is no longer a great fit, she knows she has the ability to change it.
To hear her full story and how she leveraged coaching and Career Change Bootcamp resources listen to the episode or download the transcript.
Transcript from Episode
Scott: I don't know if you have ever felt like you've hung on to something way longer than probably what you should. Maybe it's a job, maybe a relationship maybe it's something completely different. That was definitely the experience for our next guest, Michal.
Michal: So I get to do two things now that are my passion. One is that I'm a research analyst and I get to do research assessment statistics which I love for anything related to graduate school life at the university where I work. And I also get to do my second passion which is research in cognitive psychology as a research scientist on campus as well.
Scott: So prior giving that role. Show was at a different university and it wasn't really a bad job. Honestly it really really wasn't right for her. When we get to know her after she had started to burn out at this role and that she'd stayed in this role for way too long.
Michal: So I graduated with my PHD in 2011 but I left graduate school a year before I defended the big dissertation and it's pretty typical when students get towards the end of their graduate career. So if they land a job that they leave and they come back and finish up those loose ends. And I got my first position which was a temporary position at a college in upstate New York and it was really a big deal because this was a couple years after the recession and universities were not hiring. And so I thought that and I did very very big. So I was in that position for two years. I went back, I defended my doctorate. And then quickly after that, I knew that my position was temporary that I needed to find something more permanent. And so I went on the job market as academics say. And I had several interviews but I got one offer. This was what we call a tenure line job, academic job, which is again a huge deal because there's not a lot of those out there in that job as in Maryland. And I was so enthusiastic and my dissertation adviser was. And I took the job. I didn't really think because this is what my life graduate work was leading up to. Now looking back at it I never really asked myself the questions of whether I wanted to do this.
Scott: Interesting. Yeah. Which is normal, right? Many of us don't do that.
Michal: Yeah. And I want to say that the job that I had up to two months ago with that university was great but it wasn't the right fit for me. And I think I knew that the first, maybe, month when I started. But I talked myself out of it. I said “well you know it's just a new job and this is what you've been working for.” And the troubling thing about that is when you don't fit the role, you don't fit the job culture, you get burned out very easily and very quickly. And that's what happened. But I know I'm an ambitious person and I held on and held a lot longer than I should have. And what the breaking point was is that I had my son two years ago and I didn't want to go back to work. And a lot of people told me, “well it's because you just had a baby and you want to stay home.” I didn't want to stay home. I was happy to sort of transition back into work. I just didn't want to go back to that role. And that's what sparked the career transition. And I'm smiling as I'm saying this but as I was going through it I was very nervous. I was very upset all the time. I didn't know what was next. I had a lot of fear in being able to leave.
Scott: Yeah. I want to come back to that fear here in just a second. But before that I want to ask you about something that you said just a moment ago which was that you felt like you hung on a lot longer than you should. And I'm curious. Since you've recently been through this through this journey, through this cycle. Why do you think ambitious and high performing people do hang on so much longer. I hear that again and again. And actually we just had another another graduate of Career Change Bootcamp that had come on the show, her name is Louise. And she was talking about that as well. We hear it all the time. So why. Why do you think that is. Why do you think that we hang on so much longer than we probably should.
Michal: I think because you are sort of working towards this goal and in that process what gets you through is that you want to achieve this goal and that goal for me in graduate school was to get this tenure a job. And what it means to get tenure in academia is that you work really really hard. A lot of hours for the first five years then there's a committee of people who review all of your work and if you get tenure that means that you are permanent, you can't be fired and you get a lot more flexibility and autonomy. And this is what as academics, a lot of academics works toward. So I got to that point and I didn't want to give it up but the thing of it is is that I didn't want that. I worked towards it but I didn't want it. But I said to myself, I worked so hard. It's sort of like there's some cause-effect. You invested so much time and to step away from it makes you feel like you wasted your time. And I don't think I wasted my time at all. There's a lot of value in a graduate education. There's a lot of value in any role that you take on. I think now I'm so much smarter to know that if something doesn't fit or whatever your gut is telling you, you're smart enough to know that “hey, I got here and this is great but I'm going to move on.” So I think this is a pretty common phenomenon among people who are very ambitious. You invested so much time and you get to that point and you look around and you're like “well this is not really quite of what I wanted, I work so hard for it, why would I give it up?”.
Scott: That's so interesting though that this really is something that can take a hold of so many of us especially when we do work so hard for. I mean you're a professor of psychology and very familiar with the with social and how that impacts your emotions toward different things. And still I think that's proof positive that it's difficult to be able to see yourself and recognize that you're in it when you're in it to some degree. So I'm curious then, fast forward a little bit, you ended up having a baby and then all these people around you are telling you “why you were were experiencing what you were experiencing.” It sounded like that really wasn't the case because you did want to go back to work. Well what happened from there what else caused you to begin to look at this in a different way?
Michal: So you might be able to relate to this, Scott. When you become a parent, your time becomes very very different. And your priorities change. And one of the things that came about from not fitting in with the role that I was in is that I was frustrated and angry and I wasn't enjoying my family life. And I didn't want to spend my time that I was away from my son doing something that wasn't fulfilling to me. So the idea in my mind was “Well, I'm sending my son to this wonderful daycare and he's getting a lot out of it. But that time that I am away from him should be something that was very fulfilling to me.” So that's part of the process. And I was googling career advice on Google. And as you and I came across your podcast. And I started listening to it on my commute to home and I became obsessed with it, hopefully find that as a compliment.
Scott: I very much find that as a compliment. That is the highest compliment. Obsession is, I would say the highest compliment we can get. So I appreciate that.
Michal: Yeah absolutely. So it was after maybe one or two episodes that I listened to. I went on your website and I filled out a request for coaching. And I didn't know what to expect. And you so kindly emailed me back so quickly. And you said that you are happy to have a chat. And I was so nervous because in my mind and I was talking to this career change God and I don't know where it was going to go. And you talked about some options. And one of the best things that I've think has happened to me in the past years besides having my son, of course, was being introduced to Lisa Lewis. She is a wonderful coach.
Scott: Isn't she phenomenal? Oh my goodness.
Michal: Yes. She holds a very special place in my heart. Like my whole family's heart. I talk about her a lot to my husband. And from there it sort of spiraled on. We had these really wonderful conversations. And she made me think about things that I never thought before. And one of the things, one of the first questions she asked me to think about is “What are the things that are really true of me?” And when I started generating that list I sort of understood that there were a lot worse sides to me than just this job. And that job is not what is supposed to identify me unless I wanted to. And that's how the process started.
Scott: So let me ask you about that. Because I think that's another common theme that we see all the time. Even if we don't intentionally, I know this has been true to me and I've heard the same thing from many of our clients and students, but even if we don't intend to a lot of times unintentionally I think we find after the fact that we have allowed our career to be our identification for lack of a better phrase. So I'm curious for you. As you started to untangle that, what was that process like for you? And then what did you start to realize instead?
Michal: Well that process was very hard. And I think I'm still going through it especially because from day one when I started graduate school I was groomed to be a professor. And so it became really entangled in my identity. And what really helped was to look for opportunities that were fulfilling that I could still identify with. And do I feel a little bit sad sometimes that I'm not a professor? Yes. But I do not think it's because of anything else besides the fact that it's just this transition. And you know it's just something from my past, by no means I don't think I regretted in any kind of way. It's just I'm doing the same kind of work just with a different title and a lot more flexibility in doing. I think 90 percent of my job is doing things that I like which is tremendous. Right?
Scott: That is tremendous. Most people barely have 10 or 15 percent of their job that they really truly enjoy. So especially if it is lining up so clearly with other things that you value too like that flexibility you're talking about. And like some of the other elements. So that's super interesting. Now I know that during this time you actually started doing photography as well as a more intentional piece of your your life. So how did that come about? Cause I know that was tangled up someplace here in the process.
Michal: Yeah. So I had a lot of hobbies. I used to be a ballerina with a small ballet company in upstate New York. I did that for a couple years. And I always had these other interests. And what I've noticed is when I stopped engaging in those interests there's something going on in my life that is not going quite right. And I was always taking photos and once I started my tenure line job I stopped doing that. And I want to backtrack a second and say that, in this process of transitioning out of this traditional academic role that I had I actually took an unpaid sabbaticals. So my supervisor at that time was very supportive. I spoke with him I said that I've needed a little bit of time and they allowed me to take an unpaid leave from my position.
Scott: And this was a difficult decision for you if I remember correctly too. Very difficult right?
Michal: Very difficult.
Scott: So what prompted you to decide to do that?
Michal: The thought of going back and teaching again just made me so miserable that I preferred to just struggle financially and not do it.
Scott: I am very familiar with that. I have been in that same place where that thought in some ways I think at that time, it's been 12 years or whatever it's been, at that time bet it was probably a less healthy approach because I think for me it was less intentional than what you did because you ended up talking with your husband in planning out and figuring out how could we do this and what would it look like. Mine was more “how do I do anything else but this, which I was running from, which was exactly what we tell people not to do. So I would love to ask you a little bit about what took place between the time where you started thinking about this and you're like “I have to do something else on this.” This thought is making me miserable, just the thought of it is making me miserable. Let alone the actuality. And what took place in between there and then taking the sabbatical.
Michal: Yeah absolutely. And I want to mention I will tie this back to the photography eventually. So what happened was, I had my maternity leave, I went back to work. And a couple of months later the semester started and I went back to teaching and that semester was okay. I just really slowed down these tasks that I used to do really quickly felt so burdensome to me. I just wasn't as productive as I used to feel because I just didn't really want to do it. When I came back after winter break that's when things really started to break down. I found it was really hard for me to get up in the mornings. I didn't want to go to work. And this was really unfair to the students that I was teaching because they weren't getting a professor that was there a thousand percent. And that semester ended. And I had a little bit of time to think during the summer. And as time was inching closer and closer to going back in the fall I just had this really nagging feeling that I just can't do this. So my husband and I had some very tough conversations about what it would mean for me not to work for a few months and just take a break and step away. And there wasn't any doubt that we were going to do whatever it took for me to feel better. And so we sort of planned ahead for this a little bit and put money away for me to be not working for about four or five months. And I went to spoke with my supervisor and I explained that, I didn't give too much detail, I just was feeling burned down and I wanted some time. But at that point I didn't quit. What happened was so I studied my unpaid sabbatical in August and then by September I had to let them know what classes I will be teaching starting in the next semester. And I looked at that email and I said, “I'm not going back.” So I spoke with him and I explained to him the situation. Again, he was very supportive and it ended there. And so I said that come January 1st I will be resigning from my position. And once I did that I felt this burden and this heaviness lift off me. But I was still very emotionally burned down so I wasn't working and I was supposed to be looking for another job. And the financial pressure was always there in the back of my mind but I wasn't able to do anything. I was working with Lisa for a good few months and I knew what I was supposed to do and she treated me very well. I just couldn't do it. And so I would wake up in the mornings with my son. I would drop him off at his pre-school. I would come home. And sometimes I will honestly admit this, I would sit on the couch and all I could do is just watch TV. And in my mind I thought that I did that for a longer time than I actually did. I think it was a period of three weeks. And one day I woke up in the morning and I just felt better for what's that – I don't know what made it better. And I started picking up a camera. And I started photographing random things and posting them on Facebook. And then I asked if anybody would be willing to model for me for my portfolio because I just wanted to do it for fun. I didn't think of it in any other way. And I got a lot of volunteers. And I went out there and I started photography. And people were asking me to photograph them. And so I started this little business on the side. And I felt alive again that I was doing something that I was very passionate about and that made me feel so much better that I think it was late October that I started applying to jobs and positions and networking. And once I was actually ready for that the process went very very quickly. So I think I mentioned this to you before that in that span of time I applied to five or six jobs. And every job I got at least a phone interview and an in-person interview. And it was because I was hyper focused. I knew what was going on I was sending and having phone calls. And I don't know that I would have been able to do that while still working the other job. It was just taking up so much mental and emotional energy that for me and I know that you don't recommend this to a lot of your clients – Quitting was the best thing.
Scott: It's not right for everybody. And you know we get that question many many times. In fact we did a full episode on how to know whether or not you should quit. I can't remember the episode number. But if you google ‘should I quit in happen to your career' and it will pop right up. But yeah it is a very very particular thing that it's not always the same answer for everybody. And it depends whether or not it's going to rewrite for you because actually some of the pressures that you just called out can influence whether or not it's a great decision. Here's the reality that I've come to terms with is that it is it's going to be difficult no matter what. A lot of times we get into the situation and we think “well if only I had more time. If only I didn't have this job in the way” and everything like that. And then it would be OK. But the reality is one way or another it's still going to be challenging. And it sounds like that was the case for you because you had the financial pressures on your mind, you were still in some ways it sounds like recovering from the burned out pieces. And I think that's one of the important things that we've observed that people must have. They must get, when they get to their point of burned out, they must get some kind of time away. Then after that, like some kind of distance sometimes not always time sometimes it's space, but some kind of distance and some way in order to remove themself from the real world of their situation and what it's been in the past. And then how to have to get momentum again. It seems like you were able to do that through photography, were you felt alive again. So I'm curious, as you as you kind of went through that cycle, what did you think the big pieces and big takeaways for you that really really helped you move through that? Because everybody goes through that in some ways or another.
Michal: Yeah, I think being patient with yourself. The more that I push myself and the more that I, in my own mind, beat myself down that I should be doing this and I should be doing that and I should be pushing harder, the more resistance I gave to myself, the more it took me away from the process and the more I had this aversion to figuring out my future. And the moment that I stopped and I sort of let my mind engage in something else that calmed me down. And you know those fears were still in the back of my mind. The financial fear that, “oh my goodness I'm never going to be employed again, what am I going to do, how much longer can we do this just for my husband's salary?” And I've heard this before once you sort of give yourself some space to just calm down, you become more solution focused and you can start to see a lot more clearly than when you're hyper focused and pushing and resisting where it just doesn't get you anywhere.
Scott: That's one of the things that we find that we are doing a lot of times with folks that we work with – is helping them create that type of space. And it's almost never an easy thing to do. But for you, now that you have done that for yourself, what do you think helped the most to create some of that space? I heard you say already that I just need to stop being so hard on myself in some ways. But what else do you think actually made the difference for you there? At least from what you can reflect upon now.
Michal: Sure. So, one is giving myself space. Two, in those days where I wasn't looking for a job but doing something to occupy my time, it was photography, it was engaging in this day to day activities that were sort of preoccupying my mind. So I wasn't thinking about the job process itself. And then I said to myself that I was just going to have conversations with people about what they do. And it wasn't about finding a job. I was just interested in somebody talking to me about what they do. So maybe that would spark inspiration for me. And I had so many networking conversations. And when I came added in that perspective where I was just going to talk and I wasn't going to ask for anything else. All of a sudden having these, I don't want to call them networking conversations, I don't know what to call them, but I would contact somebody on LinkedIn and say hey “I'm really interested in what you're doing. I would love to hear more.” And they would be really eager to speak with me and that sort of sparked my own journey to say one of the things that was stopping me from moving on is that I didn't want to do anything academic, right? So I just came from academia and I had this like a version and I was just I wasn't going to go back. Surprisingly enough I'm still in academia. I still love academia and I needed to acknowledge that and I just needed to have conversations with people who are doing academically aligned careers which there are a lot of people who are doing it. I just restricted myself from it because I couldn't think beyond my career and situation. And once I stepped away from it it became pretty easy to do that. And once I did that things progressed very fast, I think.
Scott: That is so interesting. And we see that time and again too and I'm fascinated by the psychology element of exactly how you come out of something and then you're like I need to get the heck away from that. And you're sort of attributing that to be the problem, when that isn't necessarily the problem. Sometimes it's something completely different. And then many times people end up in a variation not always but like in your case you ended up in it still academia, but in a completely different way. In a way that was much more in line with what you wanted and needed. And first of all, that is amazing because I think that a lot of people don't really realize what it takes to be able to do the work in order to get yourself the time and space and everything and all the conversations and all the things that have to happen in order to be able to get to that point and have that learning for yourself. But second of all I would ask what was the hardest part for you out of this whole thing. What were some of the most difficult challenges for you out of out of this whole journey or piece of the journe?
Michal: Oh my. Several things. As I mentioned before, letting go of the word professor being a part of my career identity. And once I let that go. That released me a little bit from the pressure. The other hard part was the financial aspect of it. And I want to echo what you said before is that it's a dangerous thing to do. And it's not for everyone. And in my position there wasn't any other way to engineer it. So before deciding to quit your job I would recommend to talk with your supervisor whoever is in a position to be a mentor to you and see what other things could be worked out. I think that's very important. In my situation, there wasn't anything else that could have been worked out. And that's really important for me to say because I wouldn't wish that financial pressure and fear on anybody especially if you have a young child and you're trying to support a family. So I think that's really important. So in addition to this identity crisis and this financial aspect and the pressure of like having to do something right now. I mean those were two big things about it. And you know I have to own this, that I was the one standing in my own way. You know it wasn't that there's not a lot of opportunities out there. It was just me letting go and not trying to find the perfect next step. And I think that's really important and that's the third aspect of this that was really really hard. Like when I was looking for something the next step I said, “I need to do something that is perfect and it's going to fulfill X Y and Z.” And that's really hard to do. And so you want to step into the process. Being Very patient with yourself being very kind to yourself and thinking about just improving from where you came from to where you're going to go and make sure that the next step is gonna allow you the opportunities to grow. One of the most fantastic things that I love about my supervisor now is that when I interviewed he said that he doesn't expect for me to stay there forever. He wants to create opportunities for me to grow and the highest compliment to him would be if I stay in this role for a while and then I move onto something else. And when he said that, I said “yes this is what the process is about – is doing something that fits your life in that moment, and if it doesn't fit, being flexible enough to think about that I can always move on and I can always engineer my situation slowly to find something that fits better.
Scott: That is amazing advice. And I think also going back to what you said you were the one standing in your own way. I think we've had exactly zero people that we have interacted with where the biggest challenges were something that was external. My personal experiences literally 100 percent of the time, the biggest challenges are us standing in our own way which is not what I think many of us go into this thing. So that is amazing for you, one, acknowledging that and then two, doing something about it. And then does the not trained to find the perfect next step. I think that is so valuable. It's another type of pressure like you're talking about pressure earlier right. That is just another type of pressure that we have a tendency to put on ourselves and then it causes us not to be able to find any step.
Michal: Yeah absolutely. And I think the difference between when I accepted the position that I'm in now and the one that I accepted when I moved to Maryland was that I accepted my other academic job as I started it. I was going to get tenure and I was going to retire from that institution. The end, right? I accepted this position knowing that I'm going to do this for a while. I don't know how long. I'm enjoying it thoroughly as we speak. And at some point I'm probably going to grow into something else. And that mind frame that different framing is so powerful. It's nothing that I've ever studied with any other job knowing that you know I may need to move into something else. And that's very powerful.
Scott: Well in some ways, and I love what you're talking about. In some ways it is really setting us up for different types of unneeded, I hesitate to use the word failure because I think really failure is actually good in a lot of different ways and we try to engineer failure into a lot of different things that we do so we can our fast learning. But it is really setting yourself up for whatever the opposite of success would be and the opposite of what most people actually want. If we're going into it the way that you did and I did many years ago too. We were thinking that “hey this is the end.” Because you're leaving the job, you're leaving all jobs one way or another. Whether you leave or whether they decide to leave or whether either now you get to the point where you pass away like something is going to happen eventually somewhere something in life is going to come up. And so it is really an impossible thing to find that perfect place where you're going to stay forever. So my my last question to you. You've given so much great advice so far, what else aside from not trying to find the perfect next step and getting out of your own way to some degree. What else after having gone through this would you give his advice to people who are in that place back where you were way back when where they might be thinking about their role and be like I don't know how much longer I could do this. And I'm trying to figure out what would be right for me. But what advice would you give them if they're back there to be able to really figure this out and let them know what's coming.
Michal: I would say first of all and I said that this before – Be kind to yourself, be patient to yourself and that things do always work out. That's one. The other thing I would recommend is to keep on having conversations. Don't have conversations because you're looking for another job. Have conversations with people who are doing things that are interesting because you're interested in it. And that's going to open a whole world to you that you don't know about because you're not having conversations. And I want to say that I'm a very introverted person. When I walk into a party I'm not the center of it and never was. But I can have these conversations now and I am still connecting. And you know even now where I'm very happy with my current position and I'm not looking to do anything necessarily in terms of living or anything of that nature, I'm still having conversations. I'm having conversations with other people at universities. I'm having conversations with people outside of my department learning about interesting things because I don't know what circumstance is going to change which is going to spark another move or another design for a career change. And I think that's really important. And the important part of having conversations is about that it enlightens you about the possibilities and when you hear about somebody who's doing something that is so fantastically interesting to you, I don't know, for me it's very inspiring and it keeps me going it keeps me growing as a professional.
Scott: That is amazing. I so appreciate that. Well one I said it at the beginning but I really do just appreciate and I think I'm trying to think whether the right word, I'm struggling for words here as it turns out, but I'm just really proud of the way that you have gone about this. I think that is another absolutely correct term. And I just want to say congratulations again. And I appreciate you making the time to come and share your story with all of the folks that listen to this on a podcast that you've listened to and started out listening too. And that is amazing.
Michal: Thank you so much for the very kind words and I hope that this is helpful for somebody out there. And I also want to say thank you for taking a chance on me and bringing me to into the Happen To Your Career family. Even now that I have made this career change, I still tune in. I still listen. I still want to be engaged and what you guys do is profound. I feel like my whole family feels that we are profoundly changed. We're empowered to take a lot more control or as much control as you can take. And so thank you for bringing me in.
Scott: Hope you enjoyed that episode. We have so much more coming up for you next week right here on happen to your career. In fact we've got Lisa Lewis back on the podcast – Breaking down the difficulties of career change.
Lisa: It's interesting that really smart really talented really capable people still make some of the same mistakes or hit them in the same stumbling block in all the other professions and doing all kinds of applications. And I think that was a great indicator for us that there are some key principles that differentiate the good from the great.
Scott: All that and more right here in Happen To Your Career. We'll see you all next week. Until then, adios, I am out.