From Archaeologist to Designer: How One Man Made an Unusual Pivot to Find Work He’s Excited About

I know how helpful it can be to hear about people like you who have made successful career changes, especially those who have overcome common challenges along the way.

With that in mind, this week I want to share with you Jeff Leon’s story so you can learn exactly how he went from a job that filled him with dread to work that he’s excited about.

One caveat: Jeff is a client of mine, first in Passion Quest and then in Pathfinders Group Coaching. Though this is significant, I also believe that his story can help inspire and guide you whether or not you ever choose to participate in one of my programs.

So, in the hope that it can catalyze your own journey to work you love, here’s Jeff’s story (in his own words):

How Things Were:

“In March 2016 I defended my PhD dissertation in archaeology at Cornell.  It was the end of a long and arduous process that took the better part of seven years, but rather than being a moment of excitement and enthusiasm for the next steps in my career and life, it was a moment of complete fear and confusion.

“I had realized by that point that I spent the better part of the last three years of my PhD dreading the work I was doing, dreading the solitude of the research, and dreading many of the professors and administrators I was working with.

“I knew I wanted (and needed) to make a career change and find something that was more fulfilling and rewarding to me, but I didn’t have anything resembling a professional support system. I was blessed with strong personal support from family and friends, but no one quite knew how they could help me or what my next steps could look like. I felt like I was staring into the deep, dark unknowable future all by myself.”  

The Challenges:

“Looking back, the fundamental challenge I faced in my life transition in March 2016 was that I didn’t really know what I was even looking for – and it’s hard to find something if you don’t know what you’re looking for to begin with!

“In a sense, I had forgotten who I was, what I was naturally good at, and what I valued most; by doing that, I had lost touch with my purpose in life and, ultimately, happiness.

“During grad school, I had enjoyed and found value in discussions with students, debating, and problem-solving, but [later on] I was being encouraged to publish research that few people read, or present papers at conferences to add another line on my CV. Deep down this kind of work felt valueless and unimportant to me. I knew I wanted to spend my time making the world a better place, but I didn’t know how.

“I also suffered from a couple key mental blocks. For one thing, I had a bad case of imposter syndrome and it was doing a number on my self-esteem. When you’re surrounded by Ivy League PhDs who have 10, 15 or 30 years’ more experience than you, and whose job is to critique and ignore your work in equal measure, it’s easy to feel dumb and think you have nothing to offer the world.

“Beyond that, I looked at the years I took to complete the PhD as ‘sunk costs’ – I thought about how while I was sitting in a library by myself learning about things I cared less and less about, my friends had been off building job experience, professional connections and 401Ks. It seemed like if I didn’t become a college professor (even if it made me very unhappy), my 20s would have been a waste of time. But the problem was, I just couldn’t bring myself to apply for jobs in academia, which meant (in my mind) that the whole exercise in getting a PhD had been a big, long failure.

“As I was coming to grips with all this and wrapping up my degree, I began meeting with career counselors on campus. After a couple of meetings they told me that academics ‘weren’t my tribe,’ which was an important insight.  But, the trouble was, they didn’t know who my tribe was, and neither did I. I was adrift, unsure of which way to turn, and thinking I had wasted my 20s on a fool’s-errand of a PhD. Worst of all, I was terrified to make another seven-year career mistake.”

How He Did It:

“First, it took time and it took patience.  I know that’s the last thing anyone wants to hear when they find themselves in a period of chaos in their life – and it was the last thing I wanted to hear when I first spoke to Meredith, but it true and it was right. I (like many people, I imagine) wanted the 10-day solution, and maybe, just maybe I could hang on for the one month solution, but a six month-plus solution?! No way.  But that’s how long it took me, and it was well worth it.

“The first step for me was to ‘show up’ and confront the turmoil I was struggling with, and the second step was to trust the process.  I had to give myself the time, the space, and the permission to find out who I was and what made me tick. Weekly and bi-weekly group meetings with Meredith were crucial in helping me in this process. They were tangible examples of progress in my self-discovery and helped mark my progress. Plus, I learned to meditate and it’s a practice that I’ve begun to incorporate into daily morning yoga sessions to bring clarity to the beginning of my day.

“I also learned a number of important tools and exercises to help me check in on myself and to really listen to my mind and body to understand how different events and situations were affecting me. Most of all, I learned to trust myself again, and to give myself permission to explore, be curious, and make mistakes.

“I learned these things in a supportive, collaborative environment with other people going through similar challenges to myself—people who had suggestions, solutions, and—perhaps most important of all—smiles and words of encouragement. The unknowable future was (and still is) scary, but I began to feel much better equipped to take it on.”

How Things Are Now:

“After a few months of working with Meredith I had built up the confidence to begin setting up informational interviews in fields that struck me as interesting. In other words, I had re-developed the confidence and self-esteem to be curious again and to explore potential career options.

“I was intrigued by a user experience designer I spoke with, and one conversation led to another until I decided to enroll in a 10-week immersive user experience design program at an educational tech incubator called General Assembly. It was thanks to Pathfinders and the process of re-building my self-esteem that I was able to confront the fear of the unknown head on.

“Taking that leap was a great decision – I’m currently about halfway through the course, building a portfolio of work, and looking to apply for jobs in February and March.  The work is fascinating, the people are fun and energizing, and the field is growing, so I’m excited about my prospects.

“I realize my path is still uncertain, but having participated in Pathfinders I feel like I have the tools to help me navigate similar challenges throughout my life.”

Last Chance to Join the New Year’s Pathfinders Group

Pathfinders Group Coaching is one of the most powerful and cost-effective programs I offer to help you identify and move into work you love. It teaches you the most powerful tools and techniques I refined over 6 years helping dozens of individual clients find their calling and supercharges that process with the support and power of community.

There are only 2 spots left, and the group is starting next week. This is your last chance to start fresh alongside everyone else until I open a new group, and I’m not sure when that will be.

Pathfinders Group Coaching includes:

  • Highly interactive small group sessions that walk you through the 5 Steps to Find Your Calling, help you work through common challenges, and give you opportunities get ideas and feedback from the group
  • Specific action steps to take in between sessions that help you clarify and move towards work you love
  • A private Facebook group where you can get support between sessions
  • Email access to me for any questions or challenges you need help with
  • An Enneagram assessment to determine your type
  • A one-on-one onboarding call with me to go over your Enneagram type and create personal strategies for you to get the most out of the group
  • Access to Passion Quest, the online course I created to teach you how to find your calling, and all its modules, recordings, and PDFs

 To find out more, click here to schedule a free 1:1 call with me. We’ll discuss your needs, go over the details of the program, answer any questions you have, and find out whether group coaching could help you find the work you were meant to do in the world. (There’s no obligation to buy anything on the call.)

Over to You

Which parts of Jeff’s story can you relate to?

Do you have your own story of successful career change that you can share to inspire others?

Please leave a comment below. (As a bonus, you’ll have the option of publishing a link to your latest blog post alongside your comment.)

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