It might happen on an overwhelmingly busy day at work: your stress levels shoot through the roof, and you feel undervalued. Or the idea may rise slowly, percolating each morning as you dream of a simpler life that would allow you more time with your loved ones, or just one that you could be more passionate about.
But, most people dismiss these thoughts, in fear of feeling like a “quitter” or, of course, because of very real financial responsibilities. You may tell yourself, That’s impossible. I need my job.
But that isn’t necessarily true. All sorts of people find the courage to step out of the “rat race,” trading in money, prestige or just a traditional career for meaning in their work. To help you reflect on your own career path and find the courage to re-evaluate your lifestyle, check out the inspiring journeys of these five women:
Heather Campbell, from Successful Marketer to Mom to Business Owner
After finishing business school at NYU, Heather Campbell landed her dream job: working in marketing for ESPN. But it wasn’t to last.
After returning from maternity leave, she found that a reorganization led to a position she no longer enjoyed, or felt she excelled at. Campbell shared her frustration with her husband, who encouraged her to name what she had loved best about her previous role at ESPN.
“It was the possibility of setting other people up to succeed, of managing others, that I had really loved. I wanted more of that,” Campbell says. “And then I opened my eyes to my daughter. I realized that I would never find a more perfect opportunity to set someone up to succeed.”
So Campbell turned in her resignation and left the corporate world for the role of stay at home mom. She loved the time she spent with her daughter. Campbell kept herself engaged by volunteering locally and connecting to other at-home moms who had left corporate life to stay home with their kids.
“And,” Campbell says, “I kept my eyes open to what all of this meant to me and to continue embracing the changes and opportunities.”
Which included seeing a need and acknowledging the idea for a business opportunity when it came along. After an operation, she created Ready Set Recover, which helps others get through the recovery period after surgeries. “What I am doing now changes people’s lives. If I was still bogged down by the corporate race, I would have dismissed the opportunity to create something I care about.”
Mary Bartnikowski, from Silicon Valley Photographer to Retreat Leader
As a photographer in Palo Alto in the mid-1980s, Mary Bartnikowski saw her wedding photography business in the Silicon Valley area skyrocket. What had once been a mere hobby and passion of shooting candid wedding shots became a successful career.
“Steve Jobs lived down the street and one of the first investors of Google lived next door to me,” Bartnikowski say. “My son was growing up in the center of this genius culture. You stepped out your door and ran into highly intelligent people on a daily basis. It was exciting.”
But as thrilling as her neck of the woods was, Bartnikowski realized something was missing. “I had always dreamed I could travel the world some day,” she says. “But when my son started volunteering globally, I saw it could be possible for me, too.”
So she began with a three-month journey to visit her son in Nepal and to volunteer alongside him as part of the Nepal Youth Foundation in Kathmandu. “My role was teaching photography to their staff so that they could take better photographs of the children they raised and educated.”
The whirlwind of travel and volunteering that followed changed her life, she says. “It was amazing to work in humanitarian foundations and not think about money,” says Bartnikowski, who now leads retreats for people who want to recharge. “It made me see that I could make a difference and help people just by being myself. That was a huge epiphany.”
Blakely Downs, from Producer to World Traveler
In her “previous life,” Blakely Downs produced television commercials for well-known clients such as ESPN, Target, Heineken and Delta. Downs loved her job. And she loved the apartment she shared with her husband in New York’s West Village. But, Downs says, she wanted more. “Our life in New York challenged us and inspired us to be the most we could be,” she says. “We kept thinking that there’s a big world out there, and we wanted to see it.”
Downs and her husband had been talking about taking a trip around the world since they first started dating, and the dreams, she says, “slowly grew into a certainty.” Though quitting steady jobs was scary, Downs and her husband knew it was “now [before they had kids!] or never.”
Packing for a yearlong trip across the globe was the hardest part of the trip, she says. But well worth it, of course. “In our nine months traveling,” Downs says, “we’ve witnessed some deeply emotional things that have dramatically changed us. I feel privileged that I get to see this gorgeous world, and that I get to meet and learn about the incredible people who inhabit it.”
Carolyn Higgins, from Sales Person to RV-Living Consultant
With a degree from UC Berkeley and a fast-climb up the sales career ladder, Carolyn Higgins was a success. She bought her dream home, a luxury car, designer clothes, bags, and shoes. Higgins had everything, as they say, except joy. “I was empty,” Higgins says. “Something was missing.”
When a downshift in the economy led to a layoff, Higgins says it was the best thing that could’ve happened to her. “I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off me,” she said.
Higgins began living out two dreams: running her own consulting business and backpacking. Within three years, she backpacked through eight countries. During this time, a new dream emerged. After spending a month at a time backpacking “off the grid,” only to return feeling confined by her apartment, Higgins began to explore ways in which she could live, work, and travel all at the same time.
Higgins surprised even herself when she realized that RV living was the answer. She paid for a used RV with cash, bought a “huge data plan” for her phone, and hit the road, staying in National Parks across the country. This lifestyle, she says, allows her to “spend more time where I am at my best — in nature; where I’m energized, creative, happier and more content.”
Janice Holly Booth, from Non-Profit CEO to Travel Writer
After serving as CEO of three nationally based non-profits, Janice Holly Booth’s career stopped short.
“The organization that was to be my last career — the Girl Scouts of the USA — entered into a nationwide merger of councils that was going to eliminate my council and therefore my position,” Booth says. All this happened the year she turned 50. She faced a big question: “Now what?”
Booth spent about a year in “deep introspection,” aided, she says, by several solo adventure trips. During a dog-sledding trip in Minnesota, she found the clarity she sought. “As I was driving my team of dogs across a frozen lake, the whiteness appeared to me as if it were a blank canvas. What would I paint on it, I wondered, if I were painting my new future? One word kept coming to me: Freedom, freedom, freedom.”
Ultimately Booth decided the freedom she craved was freedom to be herself, away from the rules and bureaucracy she had so long worked with. Booth knew she couldn’t have the freedom she longed for if she pursued another CEO position, so she pursued a new dream instead: traveling the globe and writing about it.
In her life as a writer — in which she has now chronicled a decade of solo travels in her book, Only Pack What You Can Carry — she says, “I’m meeting the most incredibly intelligent and provocative people. All the things I thought I wanted — status, money, visibility — turned out to be burdens. I adore my low-key life, and already feel like I’ve added years of quality to it.”
3 Morning habits that start your day off on the wrong foot