How I changed careers (and found work that is truer to my nature)

Rachel Cohen is a licensed New York social worker, freelance writer, and Fordham grad. She currently works at the Association of Community Employment (ACE), assisting the homeless population in finding full-time jobs. She loves writing about social work, self-care, mental health, and vocational development.

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For the last three years that I worked as a digital editorial director, I loathed not only my job, but also my career. “Loathed” is a pretty strong word, but it’s accurate. I felt dread at the first hint of my alarm clock every day. What’s worse, I felt despair every night, thinking that I was powerless and that this feeling would never end.

Depressed, I tried to eat away my problems — my typical solution — which led to major weight gain. I was sick and lethargic, often from the stress.

I didn’t have the nerve to quit, and instead I fantasized about getting fired. At the same time, I continued trying to do a good job. This disconnect between wanting out and still trying to do well only added to my stress.

The voice inside

I realized, slowly, that I wanted to make a huge career shift. A voice inside me kept telling me to check out social work. At first, I ignored it: That was ridiculous! But it wouldn’t go away, and over time, I realized that this was what I really wanted.

I finally got up the courage to share my dream with other people. I hoped that saying the words, “I want to be a social worker,” out loud, to someone else, would make the career shift I was contemplating feel more real. I also hoped it would make me accountable for moving forward.

I opened up to a longtime acquaintance, a social worker herself. Her immediate response: “Why on earth would you do that?!”

She was just one of a number of naysayers I encountered early on. Looking back, I realize that they weren’t trying to be unsupportive or unkind; I think they honestly just couldn’t imagine me outside my existing career — it was too tied up with the picture they had of me.

Seeing myself a different way

In truth, I suffered from this same mental block. I was stuck for a long time simply because I was unable to really picture myself on a different path.

I was also hung up that the next thing wouldn’t be the “perfect fit” and afraid I’d have egg on my face for failing. I didn’t realize then that when it comes to finding my path in life, trial and error is required, which means there’s really no such thing as failure.

A life coach friend of mine encouraged me to think of exploring a new career as an exciting expedition rather than a daunting task. The notion of “just exploring” took the pressure off. I worked up the courage to attend an open house for social work school. Unfortunately, its presenters gave me the (false) impression that keeping my current job and easing into school part-time would be impossible. I was frightened off. Two more years passed.

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“This is doable.”

I finally realized that any move was better than remaining unhappily stagnant. I think the catalyst was finally meeting someone who had made a career change like the one I was considering. She had gone from being a Wall Street trader to a mental-health counselor. I realized how commonplace changing careers can be. She was honest about the potential challenges I’d face, but in the end, I realized it was doable. Period.

After that chat, I was ready to move forward…sort of. The day I quit, I went into the office of my closest friend at work and begged her to “make me do it.” I needed one last nudge to take the plunge. Later that day I told my boss I was leaving. I remember holding back from vomiting. My hands trembled.

Relief came in small doses after I gave notice. Pride and indignation came later. My second-to-last week, there was a staff meeting regarding low morale. One boss announced that work was not a prison and if we didn’t like it, we should quit. I declared my independence in my last week by wearing an orange shirt with a prison number on it to show that this convict was busting out.

Terrified to commit

Despite the bravado, I didn’t make a beeline for social work school. I freelanced for a spell and moved a few times first, including a short stay with my folks. I needed to figure out finances. I also needed to time to breathe and convince myself this was the right way to go before committing. I was terrified of committing.

I eventually came to terms with the fact that I was going to be fretful throughout this transition; not just because I’m a grade-A neurotic, but also because changing careers can be nerve-racking for anyone. I found motivation by consistently envisioning myself happy in my new career. I also reminded myself that for years, my gut had been telling me, “go do social work!” — and I was finally listening.

True nature, true calling

Today, I am happily employed as a vocational social worker. I help homeless people secure full-time employment. I’m so much more at ease with my life in a way that I’ve never felt before.

Every once in a while, I think, “Wow, this is weird: I’m a social worker and not an editor anymore.” It’s challenging to live on a reduced salary, and I miss my coworkers, who had truly become like family. But I’m content and am sure I’m in the right place.

I love when a client gets a job and builds a whole new life and I was part of the journey. I love helping and supporting people every day. It’s always been my nature, and now it’s my career, too.


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