Welcome to Our New 2013 “My Gutsy Story®” Series
“Giving Up the Illusion of Control”
“Can’t we just sail around the world now, instead of waiting until we’re retired?”
My story begins with that simple question to my husband Tom, posed on a snowy February night in 1985.
The answer seemed an obvious “no.” At age 40, we both had successful careers in high finance. My success was all the more significant as a woman in what was still very much a man’s world. Abandoning the career I’d worked so hard to build seemed crazy. After five years at sea, I’d be approaching 45 and totally out of touch with the ever-innovative financial markets. The odds of getting back into that competitive world would be perilously small.
But something didn’t feel right. Tom and I both worked long hours, week in and week out. We had no time to enjoy the fruits of our success. Life seemed to passing us by.
And so, Tom and I held hands and jumped off the corporate ladder. Barely seven months later, we headed out of New York Harbor on a 37-foot sailboat en route to the rest of the world.
Almost nothing on that voyage worked out as planned. But what I learned, as I recounted in Sailing Down the Moonbeam, is that sailing is a metaphor for life. The route is not well marked. You can’t control your environment. All too often, you end up somewhere other than where you intended to go. As Ted Turner famously noted, there’s no point in worrying about the wind; the only thing you can do is adjust your sails.
It was a lesson I learned early in the voyage, and it changed my life almost at once. But the way that lesson applied to my career was not apparent until years after the voyage ended. That is the story I will share here.
I began my professional life as a researcher and problem solver for companies with financial exposure to interest rates, currencies and commodity prices. I loved the work, which appealed to my analytical nature. It seems I was good at it and I moved steadily up the corporate ladder. But with each move, I was spending more time managing people and their schedules, and less time doing what gave me a sense of satisfaction. A nagging concern about my ability to master the job I’d been promoted into—I hated routine and didn’t think I was a very good people manager—was a significant factor in my decision to leave on that sailboat.
At the time, I felt I was running away from a looming sense of failure. But as the analogy between sailing and real life began to rise to my consciousness, it struck me that during those last few years in New York, I’d been trying to control the metaphorical wind … trying to make my career go in a direction that my introverted, analytical persona was not designed to go.
With the realization came an understanding of what I wanted, what I was willing to do— when and if I returned to the work-a-day world. I liked research and problem solving. I didn’t like jobs with routine and repetition. I didn’t want to manage people. I didn’t want to waste energy trying to be good at what other people thought I should do.
With that insight came another. Fancy titles and big salaries mattered far less to me than having an interesting job in which I could continue to learn and grow. As I thought back over my career, the jobs I had loved most had constant variety with little or no managerial routines, as well as the opportunity to learn even as I used my analytical skills to help others. It was the classic consultant role.
It was easy enough, sitting on the deck of my sailboat, to say what I wanted. But what if the world didn’t care what I wanted?
And for a time, it seemed the world didn’t care. When I did go back to work, I started out as a mid-level financial consultant in Auckland, New Zealand, much lower in the pecking order than I’d been when I left New York. Within four years, however, I was running the financial risk management practice for Peat Marwick in Australia. In 1994, Arthur Anderson recruited me to return to New York. In 2000, I was appointed Chief Financial Officer of one of the twelve Federal Home Loan Banks.
Although I didn’t seek them out, promotions and handsome salaries came my way. It was like being paid to go to school. It seems that what mattered was not being good at everything, but focusing my energy and attention on doing what I loved and was good at.
With the benefit of hindsight, a career decision that initially looked like a “gutsy” thing to do seems to have been the safer course of action. In New York, every rung on the corporate ladder is a stop on the road to somewhere above. If you don’t move up, you’ll get pushed off. I have no doubt that, had I stayed on that management track in New York, I would eventually have been pushed off by someone who loved managing people in a way that I did not.
My point is not just that I took a risk and it worked out. My point is also that doing what is expected, following the conventional path may, in reality, be the riskiest choice of all. We all know people who stayed in jobs they didn’t enjoy just because they thought the job was safe—and lost their jobs in the last recession.
I often wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t gone sailing. Would I have stayed in a miserable job? Perhaps not. But if all I did was change jobs in the competitive, high pressure world of New York, I would not have learned the lesson I absorbed as I crossed the Pacific Ocean … that you can’t control your environment … that you can only control how you respond to it. Given that reality, you might as well spend your time doing what you love.
Go for it!
Mary Gottschalk Bio:
Mary has made a career out of changing careers. After finishing graduate school, she spent nearly thirty years in the financial markets, as an economist, a banker and a consultant. Her work took her to New York, New Zealand, Australia, Central America, Europe, and amazingly, Des Moines, Iowa.
Along the way, she dropped out several times. In the mid-1980’s, Mary and her husband Tom embarked on the round-the-world sailing voyage that is the subject of her memoir, Sailing Down the Moonbeam. Several times, she left finance to provide financial and strategic planning services to the nonprofit community, both in New York and Des Moines.
In her latest incarnation, she is working on a novel, writing for The Iowan magazine, and lecturing on the subject of personal risk.
Sonia Marsh Says:
“Abandoning the career I’d worked so hard to build seemed crazy,”
and yet, this is what you did. I find it amazing that stepping out of the corporate world into a world where nature is your boss, can give you clarity, and make you realize what’s important in life. You state the message you learned with such clarity:
“that you can’t control your environment … that you can only control how you respond to it. Given that reality, you might as well spend your time doing what you love.”
Many of us need to hear your message to get the courage to take a risk, rather than staying in a situation we’re not happy with.
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