Turning Points

On the path to professional fulfillment, sometimes we need a big change.

By Britany Robinson | March 8, 2024

“It doesn’t seem like you’re passionate about this work.”

Aaron Good ’01 was taken aback. No, he was not passionate about managing a server infrastructure to push videos of sneakers to iPads in retail stores. Who would be? He was capable and he worked hard. But the person interviewing him for a new position at Nike, where he’d already been employed for 13 years, was right. He was not passionate about his work.

In that moment, he realized he wanted to be.

The term “The Great Resignation,” was coined to describe the wave of workers who quit their jobs or were looking for new ones in 2021. After the collective trauma of millions of deaths, the closure of countless small businesses, the resignation of so many parents (moms, mostly) from the workforce to care for their kids, and innumerable impacts that continue today, a shadow was cast over how and why we work. The answer, for many, was to go searching for something new.

As quarantines lifted and business slowly returned to normal, 41% of the workforce was considering leaving their current employer, according to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index report for 2021. Of those considering changes, 46% planned to make “a major pivot or career transition.” 

Things have settled down a bit since then—as far as the job market is concerned. But there will always be people looking for something new—something better—when it comes to work. According to a 2023 survey of 2,500 U.S. workers, one in four was looking for a new job. While a majority will stick to jobs in the same field, changing careers completely isn’t uncommon; 29% of workers will change fields at some point after college.

The allure of shedding your title—your identity, even—for a new endeavor didn’t start with the pandemic. There have always been people who break away from the straight-line career trajectory for a greater purpose, passion, or paycheck. And there are those who are forced to do so, as a result of new technologies, layoffs, and all sorts of industry-specific crises.

In the late 19th century, for example, if you were a knocker-upper (someone hired to knock or throw something at windows to wake the inhabitants for work), you would have soon found your job made obsolete by the invention of the mechanical alarm clock. Today, if you’re a journalist, then you’re attuned to a steady stream of layoffs and the folding of so many publications.

Artificial intelligence is today’s career saboteur. According to 2023 data from Challenger, Gray & Christmas, AI replaced nearly 4,000 jobs in just May. Losing a job ranks as one of life’s most stressful moments, alongside death and divorce. It can also, in the right circumstances, present opportunity.

“Getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me,” Steve Jobs ’76 told the graduating class of Stanford University in 2005. “The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”

That’s easy to say when you’re a billionaire. For others, the “lightness of being a beginner” is often heavy with student debt and time away from loved ones to earn a new degree or start a business.

And yet, so many find it’s worth it.

The weekend after Aaron’s interview, he went to a coffee shop with a notebook and made a list of the things he did care about, narrowing them down to mental health, housing, hunger, literacy, and the environment.

Surrounded by the hum of coffee shop conversation, Aaron committed himself to pursuing work in one of these areas.

Before leaving Nike, he tested the waters of various career options through volunteer opportunities, first by wading into the literal water of the Sandy River delta, where he trained to lead riparian restoration teams. He also started packing food at the Oregon Food Bank, cleaning books at Oregon Children’s Book Bank, and building houses with Habitat for Humanity. Lastly, he started working at a suicide crisis line. After doing that work for a while, answering 4 to 15 calls from people in crisis each shift, he thought, Well, if I can handle this, I can handle being a mental health counselor.

Aaron found the work of helping individuals immensely rewarding, so he applied to graduate school at Portland State University, where he specialized in clinical rehabilitation counseling. He completed his first year while he was still working fulltime. In the summer before his second, Aaron was riding shotgun when the driver of their vehicle fell asleep; Aaron grabbed the wheel just before they careened off a winding road. Surviving what he’s sure would have been a fatal car crash, Aaron decided it was time to go all in, to quit his job and focus on school.

Today, he’s a therapist providing mental health and career counseling in Portland. About 65% of the clients he meets for career counseling are mid-career and looking to make a big change.

“It’s a process that starts with a simmering dissatisfaction,” writes Herminia Ibarra, author of Working Identity. Ibarra argues that people living and working today will face accelerated technological change and more working years, which result in a more circuitous path than the straight line to retirement followed by past generations. We have more time, and more reasons, to change our minds.

That “simmering dissatisfaction” can be the energy that pushes one to reassess, to explore new options, to return to the thing you’ve always known you loved. That simmering can also feel like fear or uncertainty, like losing control, a feeling that might force you to take the wheel and change directions.

■ ■ ■

Sarah Kliegman ’02, at 10 years old, knew the pristine alpine lake was a lie.

She was sitting next to her parents in a gymnasium filled with neighbors and community members. At the front of the room, Battle Mountain Gold Company was telling the residents of Okanogan County, Washington, that if they were allowed to develop a large-scale, open-pit gold mine, there would eventually be an alipine lake at the top of Buckhorn Mountain. But Sarah had seen pictures of Butte, Montana, where a mine similar to the one being proposed left behind a pit full of water so acidic that to this day, it kills birds that land on its surface. “I knew Butte was like, one of the most polluted places in the country.”

The town was split, with many people standing fervently against the mine while others were excited by the promise of new jobs and a boost to the local economy.

Those opposed, who included Sarah's parents, spent the following years untangling a web of fine print, combing through massive environmental impact statements to find and expose all the ways in which the mine could hurt their town. The Okanogan Highlands Alliance (OHA) formed to organize the opposition.

Sarah was studying at Reed when the courts finally ruled against the mining company, citing the likelihood of massive environmental damage. Having seen the disruption caused by the proposal for so many years—how it forced so many working-class folks in the region to sacrifice their time and energy in fighting one of the largest gold mining operations in the country—Sarah wanted to help in her own way. She was majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology at Reed, to better understand the science behind mining’s impact on surrounding ecosystems.

She was especially interested in remediating mine pollution. Prof. Arthur Glasfeld [chemistry 1989–2022], her thesis advisor, suggested she focus on metal-dependent DNA-binding proteins, which are important factors in this process. Upon graduating, she felt as though she’d barely scratched the surface of this topic, but she was hooked on the science—the process of understanding, at a molecular level, what was happening to the environment.

After graduating, she got a job doing biochemistry at OHSU. The work there was not related to metals or mining. And she quickly realized something about herself.

“I was willing to struggle and fail when it was something I really cared about,” she says. “But when it was a subject I didn’t have a personal connection to, I was a lot less willing.”

Sarah stuck with it. After earning her PhD at the University of Minnesota—where she did get to focus on how metals could help degrade pollution in groundwater—Kliegman taught as a visiting professor of chemistry at Reed from 2014 to 2016, then at Claremont McKenna Colleges.

Teaching brought her a little closer to the reasons she cared so much about science. She loved sharing her passion with students, especially when she was able to connect the lessons to important environmental issues, like the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. But she was often frustrated by the distance between studying science and protecting precious places by using science.

“I needed to have my hands in the dirt,” she recalls.

Sarah visited Tonasket in the summer of 2017, the time of year when the pine trees smell of butterscotch. She says not many people love this little corner of the world. But she does. When asked why, she pauses and takes a deep breath. Sarah’s words turn poetic when she talks about home.

“I love it for the way the little creeks dance off the mountains; for the way the light filters into those shady, mossy places along the creeks; for each of the characters from the plants to the pollinators in the riotous wildflower meadows and the unique role each of them plays in their community.”

Sarah hadn’t lived in Tonasket since 1998. Now, she learned, there might be a really good reason to come back.

At this point, her father had been serving as executive director of OHA for 25 years. He wanted to retire soon. But there was still important work to be done.

Back in 2000, a grassroots effort had stopped the gold mine from moving forward. But just two years later, corporate mining interests renewed their efforts to develop a mine in the heart of the Okanogan Highlands. OHA again worked tirelessly to fend them off, but eventually the difficult decision was made to settle with the company, and an underground mine was developed. Operations began in 2008, but the robust protections they’d agreed to proved futile. Water monitoring revealed problems almost immediately, and violations worsened for years. The mine released sulfate, chloride, and nitrate, as well as arsenic and metals like copper, zinc, and manganese, polluting the local groundwater. It stopped operating in 2017, but destructive water violations continue today.

Sarah, like the wildflowers, was still part of this community, and it was being polluted by a greedy corporation. She felt called to join the effort to hold those companies accountable, and to make sure they cleaned up the damage.

“That water runs in my blood,” she says.

When it came time for Sarahs father to retire, she could take his place at OHA, and continue that work.

She asked herself, could she leave her teaching job to head up a nonprofit, sacrificing the financial security of a career she'd been building for years?

“It’s too late!” she told a friend. “I’ve invested too much time in becoming a researcher and an academic.”

Her friend didn’t hesitate to respond: “It’s never too late.”

Sarah considered the option for two years. When she thought about leaving academia, she thought about what she enjoyed most about teaching. She loved helping students make connections between fundamental chemistry concepts and real-world environmental issues like climate change. As a final lecture of the semester at Claremont, she dove into the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, connecting everything they’d learned about oxidation, reduction, and acid-base chemistry to the real-world tragedy of a community without clean drinking water. But that was just a handful of lectures. “I felt like I was 20 steps away,” she says, of the issues she felt were most urgent. “And I wanted to be one or two.” She now had the opportunity to step directly into what she cared about most.

After the birth of her child, Sarah felt ready to return to the Okanogan Highlands. She accepted a position as co–executive director, an arrangement that allowed for a healthy work-life balance for both Sarah and her counterpart. It was a chance to be part of building a strong community, to prioritize clean drinking water and a healthy environment for generations to come. It felt right. It felt like home.

■ ■ ■

Leah Lockwood ’92 was working as a paralegal when she bought her first home at 25. She knew it would be a long journey to see its full potential. Purchased for just $50,000, the house needed major renovations. Leah didn’t know much about houses at the time, but as a young, recent graduate with a degree in American studies from Reed College, she thought she could figure it out.

Three decades later, she would earn her master’s in architecture and begin a new career. But just like the house, it would take a lot of tearing down and rebuilding, and many years of trying new things, first.

Leah grew up backpacking and rafting with her parents. She’s always felt most at peace in the outdoors. But she was also a bookish, high-achieving child, who developed the assumption that to be successful meant becoming a doctor or a lawyer. So. That’s what she would do.

At Reed, she majored in American studies, with firm plans to become a lawyer. But those four years were difficult.

She recalls being in classes full of brilliant students. “I was smart. But I wasn’t brilliant.” Suddenly not being the smartest kid in the room was distressing, and she had to work extra hard to keep up. Bouts of depression followed. Depression runs in Leah’s family, but she suspects all that time spent cooped up studying, and the pressure to keep up with her classmates, were contributing factors. 

After graduating, she got a job right away as a paralegal.

She liked the challenge of the work, but the environment felt combative. Everyone was always arguing. When she left the office each night, she was relieved to go home and work on her house. She loved the physical labor and the satisfaction of slowly seeing her progress. The house was becoming a home, one nail at a time. And it occurred to her: if she could remodel her own house, perhaps she could work on others, too.

In 1995, Leah quit her job as a paralegal to become a contractor—without any formal training. Whatever she didn’t know how to do, she’d teach herself.

“I thought I could do anything,” Leah recalls, laughing. “That’s what you think when you’re young.”

She wasn’t entirely wrong. She got work right away, painting and doing finishing work. Eventually she went to Portland State for a second bachelor’s degree in architecture, and for the next decade she worked on designs for homes, restaurants, and bars. But most of her work was limited to writing reports; the program wasn’t accredited, and she still wasn’t a licensed architect. That would require graduate school, then accumulating enough hours to earn her license and passing final exams. She had two young children at the time, so continuing with school didn’t seem feasible.

In 2008, the economy crashed; suddenly no one needed or could afford new construction. Leah lost her job, and without a license her options for architecture work were limited. With two kids, she had to figure something out, fast.

Leah knew the bar business well, from working on designs. She loved craft beer. And she was always looking for a place where she could enjoy a pint and also bring her kids. Maybe she could run a pub? 

In 2010, she went for it and opened a family-friendly beer bar, and then another the following year. The social atmosphere of the bar business engaged her extroverted nature as office work never had. Managing her teams and keeping customers happy was hard work, and the long hours were tough while parenting, but overall “it was a huge success,”  she says. Then her dad got sick.

Leah’s parents owned a winery in Northern California, and now her dad couldn’t work. They needed help keeping the business afloat. So Leah moved her family to Humboldt County, so she could take over. Again, she hit the ground running, tripling the winery’s business in mere months. The outdoor tasting room was regularly packed, and they were producing more wine than ever before.

In 2017, she sold the Portland pubs; they were just too hard to manage from a distance. For a couple of years, the winery was thriving. Then came the pandemic.

Leah had 18 weddings booked for the upcoming season; they all had to be canceled. “We had a very successful, profitable business that came to a screeching halt.” 

Suddenly there were no wine flights to pour or events to plan. Instead, she spent long days alone in her car making deliveries. Her life, once full of customers and staff, went quiet. It was just she and her family; the rows of grapes outside of their home sitting quietly, ripening while the world retreated.

In the years Leah lived at her parents’ winery, people would often tell her she was lucky to live in such a beautiful place. “But I found it to be very lonely and strange,” she says—especially after lockdown. “What I really wanted was to be around people.”

The pandemic gave Leah time to think about what was most important to her. What did she really want to focus her energy on? Community came to the forefront.

She enjoyed running the pubs because they brought people together. But the alcohol and the customer service angle didn’t feel right. Slowly, in the quiet of lockdown, two seemingly disparate things came together for Leah. She missed building things. And she missed people.

She wanted to build things that brought people together. 

■ ■ ■

Aaron Good, the former Nike employee who became a therapist and career counselor, often counsels people who are having a crisis of purpose.  “They’ve gotten to a point where the work they’re doing isn’t fulfilling anymore. Or the mission that got them there no longer seems relevant.” But starting from scratch can be a huge commitment. Part of Aaron’s intake process with new clients is to break down the financial risk versus reward of changing careers. What is the minimum they need to earn to make ends meet? What’s their target? What kind of training or education will they need to pursue this new path, what will it cost, and how can they get it done most efficiently? Could they continue working their full-time job while going to school? Can they save enough to cover a period of unemployment?

In 2021, Leah enrolled in a two-year program to earn her master’s in architecture at the University of Oregon and moved her family to Eugene.

She made it work financially by assessing her expenses and cutting everything that didn’t seem absolutely necessary. She canceled streaming services, stopped eating out, and downsized to a small rental home, in walking distance to her kids’ schools and the University of Oregon.

Leah recalls how the light in the fridge flickered, glaringly, and most of the blinds were broken. The paint was peeling and the rooms were small. But she spruced it up with fresh paint, lots of artwork on the walls, and some flowerpots in the front yard.

Other challenges related to being a student again at 50 (her next oldest classmate was 26) proved more significant.

Instead of the perceived intelligence gap that vexed her as an undergraduate, there was a very real age and experience gap between Leah and her classmates. The other students knew their way around the software they’d work with in their program. That was all new to Leah. But she had on-the-ground experience with both design and construction. Her hands knew how to build many of the structures her classmates were drawing.

“Reed taught me to work really hard,” she says. She felt behind on the technical side of designing, but she knew how to study and how to learn new things.

Also, Leah had a purpose. Along a meandering path from one job to another, from contractor to pub owner to winery manager to graduate student, she had collected knowledge about herself and the impact she wanted to have on the world.

The time Leah spent living in her parents’ home while she managed their winery had convinced her that the way we build houses is not conducive to our lives. Watching friends face challenges with aging parents who needed increased assistance, too, led Leah to think more about housing options. She started considering architecture as a way to make people’s lives easier and more sustainable.

In June of 2023, Leah graduated with her master’s. She is now working on accumulating enough hours to earn her architecture license. Every week, she flies somewhere to inspect a new commercial building and file a report. Once she has her license, she will focus on infill housing.

Existing neighborhoods, to Leah, are full of potential to become more communal and house more people while reducing the environmental impact of individual homes. Building smaller houses on existing lots creates more supportive living environments, where parents can move closer to their grown children and grandkids, or vice versa; where people can live together and share resources, but also have privacy. She thinks a lot about the dramatic increase in autism diagnoses in the last few decades. The housing available today is not conducive to parents who need to support grown children who are neurodivergent or living with disabilities. Also, she tells me to consider the homeless people suffering from addiction or mental health crises. What if they had friends or family who could have offered them housing at earlier signs of trouble, before they were living on the streets? Better housing design has the potential to improve the lives of so many. Leah is determined to be a part of that.

Some loans were needed to pay for grad school, but Leah taught classes and her teaching stipend kept her debt minimal. She’s not too worried about paying it off, because she’s confident she’ll find work doing what she really wants to do.

“If you’re able to adjust your life, and you’re able to pick up and move to do the thing you want to do—you’re going to figure it out,” she says. “You just need to be creative.”

■ ■ ■

“We’re not shooting to be 100% sure of something,” says Aaron. When clients are in what he calls the “exploration phase” of their career change journey, they’re often ambivalent about which direction to take and how. 

A career change doesn’t have to mean quitting a job for something entirely new. There are often small steps one can take in the direction of a more fulfilling career. Maybe you stick with the same kind of work, but in a different industry that is more aligned with your values.

For instance, Sarah Kliegman didn’t really stop being a teacher and a scientist. Her days as co–executive director of OHA look very different from her time as a researcher or a professor. But she applies her knowledge in science daily.

“I’m so glad I became a scientist first.” Sarah says her background makes it easier to connect the dots, to teach people about what happened in the past and what can be done to make things better.

Aaron recalls a speech delivered at convocation his freshman year at Reed. “They told us we would all do amazing things like cure cancer and save starving children,” and that struck him as unrealistic. Even as an enthusiastic freshman, he worried they were being set up for disappointment.

But Aaron concedes that eventually, he did feel that pull to do something bigger. After 13 years at Nike, “I was like, all right, I guess I do need to save the world.”

From majoring in anthropology to the years at Nike and the time spent questioning and researching what to do next, Aaron says he’s happy with the decisions he’s made along the way. They all led him to a place where his work has a snowball effect. When he helps people get even a little closer to work they care about, each one of them can go on to have a positive impact on the world. Maybe they’re not curing cancer, but they might be happier. They might make people around them happier. They might work harder at a task that ultimately makes someone else’s life a little better. Or, maybe, they will go on to save a little corner of the planet.

When Sarah moved back to Tonasket, she knew it was the right decision. “When I came home and didn’t have to leave in a couple of weeks, I felt so at peace.”

In 2020, OHA filed Clean Water Act lawsuits in U.S. District Court against Crown Resources Corporation.

“Our community will not stand for the pollution of our waters,” wrote Sarah in a press release. “The mine has not taken sufficient actions to either investigate the fate of pollutants at the site or to clean up the pollution. This lawsuit is intended to impel the company to clean up their mess.”

In 2022, a federal judge ruled that Crown Resources, the owners of Buckhorn Mountain gold mine, had indeed violated the Clean Water Act—thousands of times. The penalties are yet to be determined, but will likely be in the millions of dollars.

When Aaron works with recent graduates, they’re often “freaking out” about what they’re going to do with their lives. They see their friends getting ahead, and they worry they’ll fall behind or make the wrong decisions.

“I try to normalize those feelings,” he says. And he encourages them to just take the first steps, without worrying too much about the direction.

Reed seniors who meet with advisors at the Center for Life Beyond Reed are encouraged, similarly, not to focus too much on the particulars of first jobs. The “purpose-driven advising model” at CLBR instead emphasizes purpose.

“We know this generation is probably going to change careers a couple of times,” says Shania Siron, assistant director of​ career and fellowship advising​ at CLBR. “We want students to have the skillset to be reflective of what matters to them.”

Aaron emphasizes that first jobs are about building confidence, not necessarily picking a path to be stuck on for the rest of your life. And then, he says, you can shape your purpose and direction along the way. “There’s a tremendous sense of relief to hear that you definitely don’t have to have your professional life mapped out at 21.”

Are you a professional seeking a new job, changing career paths, or need graduate school advising? Reed's alumni network of career coaches and the Center for Life Beyond Reed can help.

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