Making a career 180 isn’t easy but, for some, the rewards are worth it.
photography by Curtis Comeau
It’s the middle of the night, but Kelly Gordon is sitting upright with his eyes wide open. He’s working his usual shift at the wheel of a Freightliner big rig as it rumbles south on I-15, hauling upwards of 60,000 pounds of UPS freight bound for Salt Lake City.
In a few hours, Gordon will pull into the Pilot Flying J truck stop on the outskirts of sleepy McCammon, Idaho, where he’ll stretch his legs, fuel up and turn over the driver’s seat to Laurie, his wife and driving partner, so she can complete the final leg to their destination.
Life on the road has been the Gordons’ norm ever since Kelly pulled the plug on a rising career in corporate communications 15 years ago. Judging by the numerous commendations he received, he excelled at his former job, but he says he couldn’t stand the constant juggling of meetings, personalities and politics.
“It just sucked the energy out of me to work in that environment day to day,” he says.
Now he and Laurie make the 40-hour round trip from Edmonton to Salt Lake City twice a week, Kelly driving nights and Laurie driving days. During his shifts, Kelly likes to settle into his regular podcasts — focused on news and the Edmonton Oilers — then move on to whatever non-fiction audiobook he has on the go, all the while scanning the road and ditches for reflective eyeballs.
“I love my night shifts ... I love driving a truck,” he says. “It’s just this quiet, black, peaceful inkiness that envelops the truck and I can just be in a zone.”
Hitting the wall
The 21st-century reality is that most people will have 10 to 15 jobs during their lives and could change careers five to seven times, says Kathleen Johnston, an Edmonton-based career strategist. Common reasons for changing careers include boredom, a poor fit, burnout or a full-blown existential crisis.
“It can be a niggling, nagging kind of discontent before it really emerges as, ‘Good grief, I need to change careers,’” she says.
Even a person who has been happy at a particular career for a long time can reach a point where he or she feels their work is no longer meaningful and have hit a wall, Johnston adds.
Kelly’s career in communications was the result of his parents’ insistence that their children pursue white-collar work. After high school, he studied broadcast journalism and worked as a news reporter before moving into public relations, serving for 10 years as a spokesman for the Edmonton Police Service before becoming the communications manager for Edmonton Airports. At the time, as a high-achieving professional who was still in his 30s, he thought he was on track to an executive position and maybe politics.
Then something happened. He was a year into his job at Edmonton Airports when he realized the path he was on didn’t suit him.
“The brakes went on ... urch! [I thought,] ‘I’m acting. This is not who I am,’” he says.
‘I don’t fit’
It’s not uncommon for people to take on careers that don’t fit who they are, Johnston says.
“We’re hugely influenced by our family and our friends ... when we’re making that huge life decision at the ripe old age of 18 or 20,” she says.
These outside influences can lead people to overlook the intrinsic factors that provide personal satisfaction.
“We live in a culture that puts a lot of emphasis on extrinsic rewards and motivators, like money, status, power, positions,” Johnston says. “It’s just in our face every day.”
Like Kelly Gordon, Poul Mark knows about choosing a career based on external factors. He was in his late 20s when he left a dissatisfying masters program to pursue law, prompted by high scores on the LSAT exam (which he wrote out of frustration) and the fact that people told him he’d make a good lawyer because he had “the gift of the gab” (an ignorant view of what being a lawyer is really about, he says now).
He went on to a three-year career in this field that he’d chosen on impulse — seven if you count law school and articling.
“I questioned all the time when I was practising law whether I’d made the right decision,” says Mark, who left law to become a serial entrepreneur. “That whole world is just such a rules-based world that I don’t fit very well.”
Johnston subscribes to an approach called the authentic vocation model, which holds that everyone has a purpose that can be manifested through work. Put another way; by doing the kind of work they feel most satisfied doing, people can bring meaning to their lives.
Changing careers requires consideration of numerous factors, such as finances, family situation, emotional supports and additional training.
“You don’t drop your big-paying job even if you’re having an existential crisis,” Johnston says. “You’ve got to have your resources stacked up in order to be able to do that.”
The Gordons’ transition was made easier by the fact that they’d chosen not to have children.
They both took truck-driver training while they were working full-time (Laurie was a server at La Ronde, the restaurant atop the Chateau Lacombe).
At that point, Kelly wasn’t even sure he’d be able to pass his training course, as driving a truck was outside his comfort zone. But the iron beasts had held a fascination for him since he was a boy, and he wanted to try it.
When he and Laurie both earned their commercial licences, they decided to give the career a try and got a route hauling oil and gas materials to and from Houston. This brought a switch from climate-controlled inside work to sweating over trailer loads in blistering Texas heat.
“It was a pretty stressful transition. We were pretty green,” Laurie says. “We weren’t going to quit ... we promised we would give it a year of honest effort.”
For Mark, the turning point came when his law firm fired him over a disagreement he had with a senior partner. Though he had offers from other law firms, he instead worked as a project manager for a former legal client while exploring other interests. The one that really took hold was roasting coffee, which he did as a hobby before founding Transcend Coffee, a roaster and retailer. In fact, he burned through two hot-air popcorn poppers in his attempts to roast beans.
“It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done but it’s also the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” he says.
“In all honesty, being fired from my law firm was the best thing that ever happened to me, because I don’t know that I would have had the courage to quit.”
To orchestrate a career change that is a solid fit, Johnston advocates for an in-depth self-assessment that includes a look at factors like personality, strengths, successes to date, natural talents, likes, dislikes and values.
When she works with clients, she provides resources and guidance, but they do the work and find their own answers. The process generally takes between three and eight months.
“It takes until you get there,” she says. “If you stop short, then you could be unhappy again.”
Since our careers are interconnected with all other aspects of our lives, such a change will inevitably have a ripple effect.
“Change always has a bit of a loss to it,” Johnston says. “You’re giving up something in order to change into something else.”
Relationships can be particularly affected by a career change. Friends or even intimate family members may not be comfortable with the new you, or the new you may realize that certain relationships could use a reboot, too.
An example of this occurred with one of Johnston’s former clients. Buoyed by the confidence she gained from invigorating her career, she found the courage to terminate a dead-end marriage.
“You’ve got to be prepared, as you move into this new world you’ve created, maybe there will be some pretty serious fallout,” Johnston says.
For people who are successful in shifting to careers that align with their values, the results are palpable, she says.
“They are happier, they stand a little taller. They look different; their faces will glow.”
Mark can identify. “It’s life-giving,” he says. “It energizes you, whereas I found law sucked the life out of me, all the time.”
For the Gordons, being a long-haul team allows them to spend time together and be in tune with each other’s lives, a core value for both of them. They also like the scenery, the solitude and the point-A-to-point-B simplicity of the job. They like being compensated for their output (they’re paid by the mile) and having no work to take home when they’ve finished their run.
“I can’t recall a time when I’ve said, ‘Geez, I do not want to go to work today,’” Kelly says. “I really do feel like this is where I belong, with Laurie, and this is what we should be doing.”