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by Vault Careers | August 05, 2010


What would you do if you got the opportunity to make a completely fresh start with your career? Not necessarily to go back and have a do-over, but to take your current skills and experience and apply them to any field of your choosing?

Alissa Medley found herself in a similar situation in March, after getting laid off from a management position at a Washington, D.C. not-for-profit that develops standards for the communications industry. Once the initial shock passed, realization set in that she had actually been handed an opportunity to remake herself. Next step: Investigating long-held plans to attend business school.

The timing of her layoff, however, was not ideal: having not taken the GMAT, she couldn't complete the application process in time to begin school in the D.C. area for fall 2010. So she hit upon a different idea: spend a year traveling and return to pursue that MBA in 2011. It's a vision that took some courage—and an offer of support from a family member—to follow through on, but one that she has ultimately begun realizing: three days after speaking to Vault, she took off for Kenya. Medley will spend the next six months working for a local NGO that provides education and other services.

Since the onset of the recession, the concept of job satisfaction, and of finding a larger purpose in one's work has all but disappeared from public discourse. Small wonder when there's one vacancy for every six unemployed workers; simply having a job, any job, tends to take precedence. But it was exactly this concept of satisfaction and self-worth that persuaded Medley to make her decision—despite being offered a comparable position at a rival operation.

Reality demanded that she apply for the position. "My initial response was 'well, I need a new job'—any adult person's response would be that," she says. As she went through the interview process, however, she realized that her heart wasn't in it. Having spent over a decade with her former employer, Medley says she realized, she was no longer "sure that was what I wanted to do with my life. I didn't want to wake up in 10 years and go 'Oh, wow, I've been here for ten years now.'"

That led to a period of soul-searching during which she came to a few conclusions. First, that she was ideally positioned for a drastic change of tack: "I don't have a mortgage. I don't have a car. I don't have kids. I did have to sell a lot of my stuff. But that's kind of cathartic, because you collect stuff that you're not sure you need."

Medley also realized that, while her urge was to travel, she needed a reason to do so beyond mere escapism: "I feel like volunteering is going to give me some purpose to it […] remind me that I can do good things in life instead of just sit at a desk."

Not that any amount of rationalizing made the decision to turn down the job any easier: "Really, one of the hardest things I've ever done was to turn down a perfectly good job to go and do something crazy on a different continent," she said.

Whatever else happens on her journey over the next year, Medley's experiences will stand her in good stead as she transitions to completing an MBA with a focus on nonprofit work. And she believes that her professional experiences will carry over well into the nonprofit world: "It's not necessarily the technical skills, but the management skills and knowledge of how to deal in a not-for-profit environment. That can definitely translate into other arenas."

Even those whose ambitions don't—or can't—extend to voluntary work that requires working on the other side of the world can learn something from how Medley handled her layoff.. And the real key, she suggests, is your mindset:

"The truth is, when you get laid off it's a huge shock, and it took a while to process that. Then I started thinking 'this is a good thing, I needed to move on to the next phase in my life anyway, and this is an opportunity to do so.'"

-- Posted by Phil Stott,


Filed Under: Job Search

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