CHANGE means...stepping out of your comfort zone

Mary Gottschalk has made a career out of changing careers. Born and raised in the Midwest, she spent nearly thirty years in the financial markets working as an economist, a commodity banker and then a financial consultant to multinational corporations—first in New York, and then in New Zealand, Australia, Central America and Europe.

In the mid-80’s, Mary (along with her husband), left her New York career to embark on the sailing voyage that is the subject of her memoir, Sailing Down the Moonbeam.  After the trip ended, she returned to the financial markets.  A decade later, she opted for another career change, this time to become Deputy Director of a nonprofit that provides housing and support services to the mentally ill in New York City. She returned to finance again in 2000 when she took a multi-year consulting assignment with a bank in Des Moines. While there, she fell in love with Des Moines, where she still lives. After finishing her work with the bank, she provided financial and strategic planning services to the nonprofit community in Des Moines for several years.

My story of change begins on a cold Sunday night in New York City in January 1985. That night my husband and I, both about 40, agreed to abandon our successful careers in Wall Street to circumnavigate the world in a small sailboat. Our primary reason for leaving, or so we told ourselves at the time, was that we had all the trappings of success except for the most important one: a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment in our work. So, we opted for a lifestyle that would give us a more tangible and direct feeling of being alive each day.

What we didn’t appreciate as we planned our five-year voyage was how much our success, and our eventual frustration, was linked to being rational, organized, highly motivated, goal-oriented, and determined to succeed. As we made plans for the voyage, we approached the task much like a project at work.  Where to go?  How long to stay?  What to see? What equipment and provisions to get?  We were experienced sailors; by the time we sailed out of New York Harbor, we were confident we had it all worked out. Except it didn’t work out.

Our first serious encounter with being out of our comfort zone came a mere two weeks after leaving New York. As we headed south toward Florida, we ran smack into Hurricane Gloria. Despite our best efforts to tuck up into a hurricane hole, we were blown into a stand of cypress trees where our hull became encased in five feet of mud.  When the storm ended, our propeller shaft was badly bent. We limped to the tiny town of Belhaven, NC, where the boat was hauled out of the water for repair.

Over drinks a few days later, we were swapping sea stories with Alan, the harbormaster at Belhaven.  When we began to talk about our itinerary, I could see Alan shifting around in his seat.  He seemed frustrated.

Finally, when he could contain himself no longer, he leaned forward and waggled his index finger. “You’re doing it all wrong,” he said, not mincing words. “You’re visiting countries you know almost nothing about. If you plan everything in advance based on some old guidebook, you’ll miss what’s best about your journey.”  He paused, obviously for effect. “The best experiences will be the ones you didn’t plan for.”

At first we were offended, but it was hard to ignore his advice. Here we were two weeks into our trip and already a week behind schedule. In a face-off between our plans and Mother Nature, she would win every time.

Alan’s advice hadn’t been about the weather, though; it was about living life in real-time. Buddhists call it mindfulness—the art of living in the moment. In the Buddhist tradition, the source of suffering is desire—the desire to get something you haven’t got, the desire to hang on to something you already have. In the Buddhist view, any time you have expectations, the chances of being disappointed are very real.  But if you step out into open space unconstrained by expectations, you have unlimited opportunities for discovery and adventure.

We were confronted with Alan’s advice time and again during the rest of our trip. A few examples will suffice to make the point.

  • What was supposed to be a weeklong stay in Panama to transit the Canal lasted seven months. The bad news was that Tom needed surgery for both a hernia and a melanoma. The good news was the surgeries were successful and we found part-time jobs in finance. As a result, we experienced the rich and complex culture of Central America in a way we would never have in a week’s time.
  • What was supposed to be a five-year voyage around the world ended in just under three years. The bad news was that the cracks in our New York marriage resurfaced when Tom and I started full-time work in finance in New Zealand. The good news was that trying to come to terms with a failed marriage in a country where I knew no one forced me, for the first time in my life, to make choices based on what was right for me and not what was right for my mother or my husband.
  • I had given up what seemed to be a promising career to see the world, but when Tom and I separated, I was only halfway around. Instead of going back home to New York, I arranged a transfer to Australia. Being an American woman in the male world of Australian finance in the early 1990’s was a challenge unlike any I’d ever met. But because I was determined to focus on jobs that reflected my skills, my five years there offered me far more—in terms of both satisfaction and money—than I ever would have had if I’d stayed in New York.

I have lots more examples, but you get the point. People often comment on what an ‘interesting’ life I’ve had.  Much of it I ascribe to good genes and a large dose of good luck.  But a significant part of it comes from a willingness to step outside of my comfort zone on a regular basis.

I often think of a quote from Ray Bradbury: “Sometimes you have to jump off a cliff and grow your wings on the way down.” Taken literally, that quote seems absurd. I mean, really, if you don’t have wings when you jump, how can you possibly grow them as you fall?  But the point is that any time you take a risk—even a calculated one—you’re almost certain to find yourself outside your comfort zone, coping with a host of things you didn’t think of. But if you can cope with those unknowns—if you grow those wings on the way down — the view is fantastic.

In 2009, Mary changed careers again, to make her living as a writer.  At present, she is working on a novel. She writes regularly for the Iowan, and does a variety of other freelancing projects. You can contact Mary at: WebsiteTwitterFacebook.

As an author of a memoir - Out of Sync - a story about the impact of expatriation on relationships, I believe the dynamics of change affect characters in storytelling as much as they do individuals in real life. If you’d like to share a story about what change means to you (or to one of your story characters), contact me to make a guest contribution to this insightful story series.