In this third episode of the Navigating Big Career Change: Those Who’ve Done It and Their Secrets series (see episode one and two), I’m visiting with Jessica (Jess) Li, former McKinsey consultant turned teacher and tutor.
I got to know Jess as she was in the midst of a major transition. She was navigating towards a new choice of career, moving from one of the world’s top management consultancies to the relative unknown of being an independent educator.
What was more though, was the transition she was living on a more personal, emotional level. Breaking with the expectations of others, stepping out of the shadows of those in her life whose ideas of success and achievement had guided her every move.
But no more.
It was this reckoning she had experienced and was continuing to try to make sense of that made me take notice.
It is a transition not so unfamiliar to many of us I think, but maybe not recognized fully for what it is. We grow up wanting to please others – mainly authority figures – judging our self-worth through the lens of approval from our parents, teachers, and coaches.
As we get older and venture out on our own, we sometimes struggle to reconcile others’ expectations of us with what we’re learning to be our own, personal interpretations of what is important. This can be especially true of the work we choose to do.
For the lucky ones, our ideas of what we want to do for our work are unconditionally supported by those whose approval is important to us.
For others though, support is lacking. What some of us experience as encouragement is for the less fortunate, direct resistance.
It’s this resistance in addition to the task of making a 180-degree turn with her career, that Jess has faced and overcome.
Her story is one of self-discovery and perseverance but mainly, it’s one of courage.
I hope it inspires you to reflect on your own shadows of expectation and maybe gives you the daring to step out into the light.
What do you do for your work?
Most people would call me a teacher and a tutor, but I like to think of myself as a substitute parent. In the busy world we live in, I’m noticing that many parents do not mindfully budget their energy to leave something at the end of the day for their children, and that takes a significant toll on a student’s academic performance—it’s rather difficult to focus or feel motivated to learn when you don’t feel loved, understood, or even noticed by the people that matter most…and that’s where I come in.
Whether I’m at school working with special needs children, or tutoring in people’s homes, the heart of what I am is an emotionally available, present, and affirming figure to my students. The rewarding challenge of my every day is sniffing out what a given child is missing from their home and finding ways to deliver it so that they can have the psychological resources to cultivate self-love, motivation, and curiosity in order to learn and succeed.
What did you ‘used’ to do?
I was a management consultant at McKinsey & Company for 18 months before I began teaching; I spent my days working with Fortune 500 companies, doing anything from redesigning their commercial strategies to retraining their workforces. Before that, I was at Columbia completing a Bachelor’s in Neuroscience & Behavior. It’s been a bit of a winding road.
Why did you make the change from a top management consultancy – on the surface, a prestigious door-opening job – to teaching & tutoring?
Oh gosh. There were so many factors, but consulting just wasn’t the environment for me. I’m highly empathic, which means I literally take on the emotions of people around me—this may sound nice, but was completely overwhelming in the high-strung world of consulting. In a system defined by impossibly tight deadlines, panicking teams, and battling egos, I felt myself absorbing the anxieties and insecurities of everyone around me.
While others were able to walk it off or drink it away, I became emotionally paralyzed and lost the will to live in a matter of just a few months. Like many others that end up in this position, I stepped away and hoped that a solid meditation retreat, self-development program, and therapist would do the trick, and was soon back on the job, only to feel once again that I was profoundly misplaced. Though I had finally found a nurturing team, the work was no less a chore, and I felt somewhere deep within my soul that it was a distraction that was keeping me from where I needed to be.
It sounds like you were pretty unhappy doing that job, and you knew it wasn’t a good fit pretty early on – but you stayed for 18 months! How did you end up making the decision to leave McKinsey? What was the process that you went through?
Haha…honestly, I would chalk it up to my world-class type-A personality. I think that I’ve been able to succeed at various points in my life because I’ve learned how to power through and silence the parts of me that protest. Looking back, it’s a very unhealthy and unsustainable way of living, but it’s a strategy I’d relied on for pretty much my whole life up until that point. It was really only a matter of time before it caught up to me, and when it did, it pulled me up by the roots, and I had no choice but to take time off to rest and recover.
I guess that someone else in my position would’ve called it quits at that point, but I felt that I needed to give it one last “hurrah” before I left McKinsey for good. What I wasn’t ready to face at the time I returned to the Firm was that it was all about proving that I was good enough for the job, and not at all about pursuing passion or fulfillment.
I was lucky enough to be working with a Partner at the Firm who valued self-actualization enough to engage me in a very candid and confronting conversation about my career. Though I felt safe to admit that the job was not what I enjoyed or wanted, I was initially hesitant about doing anything about that, because I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what I’d rather be doing. In true McKinsey fashion, she gave me three days to “do my due diligence” and figure it out.
That weekend, I frantically put together a vision board and was completely blown away. Face-to-face with the hundreds of photos of my favorite movies, TV shows, artists, singers, albums, and quotes, I felt I had unearthed a creative side of me that had been dead for a very, very long time.
I discovered that who I was beneath the hard-boiled, utilitarian consultant persona I’d been maintaining was someone who wants to inspire, to connect, to deeply understand, to heal and that there was a whole world of mediums to explore—singing, composing, screenwriting…
Though I didn’t return to the Partner with a single career path in mind, I felt after that weekend that staying at the Firm was not the answer.
So you left McKinsey without having another job already lined up. That must have felt risky – were you scared about not being able to find something else? What did you do with your time?
Oh yeah, it was completely terrifying. I think that if I’d done it “my way” I would’ve made the transition much more slowly, but the Partner at McKinsey spoke to the part of me that was beyond fear, and that compelled me to take the free fall. The most powerful thing she said was that I could totally go one foot in and one foot out for a while, but that I would be slowing myself down significantly and cutting myself off from ideas and opportunities that I’d only be able to access if I cut the cord completely. So, within the next week, I rolled off and took the jump.
In the short period thereafter, I followed the trail on my vision board and picked up the guitar, drafted a song, sang in Times Square, and earned my first dime on the Subway—it was absolutely amazing to reawaken my creative side and to share it with others. I felt for the first time since recovering from being suicidal that I was truly grateful to have stayed. Music was like my anchor to life: anytime I felt like I was regressing, I would pick up my guitar and sing, and be reminded of life’s beauty and richness. I realized from these experiences that music needed to take the front seat in my life. My initial plan was to land a handful of gigs and to support myself financially with a day job.
I actually landed an opportunity to perform with a friend of mine at a rooftop bar on Park Avenue but ended up canceling when it provoked an absolutely nuclear-level conflict between me and my parents, who considered the idea of performing in a bar to be equivalent to prostitution. It was devastatingly derailing, to say the least. At that moment, I was presented with a choice between my family and my passion, and I wasn’t self-assured enough at that point to choose against my family, so I put music on pause and prioritized finding a full-time job.
Making the decision to turn away from pursuing your creative calling in music and instead pursue a more traditional path must have been extremely difficult, not to mention dealing with the conflict this created with your family. How did you end up finding such a good fit in teaching and tutoring?
Yes!!! I felt like I needed to put my life on hold—it was utterly frustrating and soul-crushing. I was also living under the same roof as my parents at the time, which added exponentially to the tension among us. I didn’t like the idea of prioritizing my search for a day job over playing gigs, but I felt like I needed to land something to regain my independence and to walk out if it came down to it.
During the initial phase of my subsequent search, I dipped back into the corporate world in search of a “Hail Mary” position with reasonable hours and content that resonated with me. No luck. After two weeks on search, I felt like it was a dead end, and turned to tutoring part-time to stem my negative cash flow (thanks, Neill!), so I could afford to take a mindful step back for deeper reflection. It helped to know that I was signing up for something that I would enjoy, and that wouldn’t require a huge commitment. Teaching greatly appealed to me as a context that would piece together a lot of what I was looking for: engaging deeply with individuals, inspiring self-confidence and empowerment…it definitely fit the bill.
Lucky for me, I struck gold from my first class. It felt like my first breath—it was natural, fulfilling…it just made sense. I found myself wondering why I had waited so long to teach.
It was as energizing as music (I’ve never laughed this much in my whole life!) and actually felt even more natural and accessible for me. With teaching, I felt like I could hit the ground running with students in nearly every subject, but with music, I could see the years of intense study and practice that I would need to keep up with to become a fully evolved musician. It’s nice to know that as I ramp up my abilities as a performer that I can have a stable, nurturing, and exciting way to grow and give back as a teacher.
Having experienced this “aha” moment with teaching, I scaled my business up to full-time hours within a week or two. When the fights with my parents persisted even with my newfound work, I finally found the strength to make a full break with my family and multiplied my earnings to move out and support myself sustainably. In an effort to capitalize my daytime hours, secure benefits, and hop on the next teaching learning curve, I found a position at Clear View School for emotionally disturbed children—the final piece to my current career puzzle.
It’s been a long and rocky road, and the narrative is anything but clean, but that’s just the nature of the rabbit hole.
I look back and feel surprisingly grateful for all of the curveballs that life has thrown my way; I feel that they’ve accelerated my journey to becoming my higher self and doing the work that I feel truly called to do.
Has your new gig been what you’d imagined? What do you love about it? What makes it meaningful and fulfilling? Anything you’d change about it?
Oh my god, yes. Not to get too woo-woo on this interview, but somewhere along the way I had what you might call a spiritual “vision” or “download” that I was going to find work that would make my past pale in comparison, and I just couldn’t be more blown away by how true that is. Every day is great.
There are so many “best parts” of the work, but one of the things that really puts a spring in my step is how much room there is for silliness and humor. I never even remotely conceived that I could run around a white board, high fiving and slow clapping students, and call it a job, but it transforms the experience of learning into something that inspires energy, confidence, and fun. Compared to my previous professional environment, where saying phrases like “awesome” was frowned upon as unprofessional, the freedom to be silly and young is so, so wonderful.
Another thing that never fails to warm my heart is watching curiosity bloom and grow in my students over time. I feel kind of like I’m watching eggs hatch…there’s something so unbelievably magical about seeing a student go from being collapsed, shy, and resistant to opening up and asking questions purely driven by a love of learning. It’s hard not to get emotional when I see that sparkle of unadulterated wonder in a student’s eyes…I always celebrate it as a sign that the psychological resuscitation I do is working.
The last thing I’ll mention is that teaching has been the most amazing context for my empathic nature. Whereas my intense emotional sensitivity was a handicap for me in the corporate world (if I got a cent for every time I was told to “grow a thicker skin…”), it is now one of my greatest assets. The ability to feel what another person is feeling, and to design the learning environment accordingly, has allowed me to facilitate breakthrough experiences and results with people who had gone through huge swaths of tutors with no success. What’s funny is…once I embraced my sensitivity and started leading with it rather than shoving it aside, I actually did grow a thicker skin…and developed a kind of resilience that I never imagined I could possess, which is how I can sustain 13 hour days, work weekends, remain centered when verbally abused by upset students, and keep a roof over my own head as a mostly self-employed teacher.
My research mentor in college loved to always say “I’ve never worked a day in my life, because I do what I love,” which I used to roll my eyes at and dismiss as some banal platitude that gets passed around, but I find myself profoundly aligned with that now, and I go to sleep every night feeling that my day was worth it.
How did you manage the uncertainty of doing something new and unfamiliar?
Honestly, I feel lucky that this wasn’t an issue for me. My fear of uncertainty was nowhere near as strong as my intense longing to pursue my calling. It also helped that I was jumping from a burning platform, which left me with no option but to move forward.
What has been the most difficult about your transition?
The hardest part about my career change has been the people I’ve had to leave behind. The moment I decided to leave McKinsey set off an existential avalanche in my life because I was breaking a pattern of silence and submissiveness in favor of self-actualization and unfortunately, many relationships I had were no longer compatible with the person I had become.
In embarking on this journey of self-discovery, I transitioned from people-pleasing to honoring my values and tapping into an inner strength and independence that I didn’t know I had.
I started seeing how many of the people in my life were holding me back from stepping fully into who I really am, and began setting firm boundaries with people from every sphere of my life; I ended a six-year romantic relationship, broke ties with my parents, left my religious community, and allowed many of my friendships to dissolve. I feel rather like I’m cleaning up an oil spill, and that I’ll be at it for a while…
What keeps you going? What do you do to stay positive?
Somewhere along the way, I came up with this game that I like to play with myself called “emotional alchemy,” which is based on this theory I have that all emotional energy—whether good or bad—can be channeled for good.
So, whenever I feel an overwhelming amount of frustration, anger, stress…you name it… I challenge myself to transform it into something positive.
This practice absolutely saved my sanity during the worst and most turbulent moments of this transition; instead of dwelling in my resentment and hurt, I channeled all of that energy into healthy pursuits (kind of like diverting a stream), like finding new sources of income, which allowed me to create security, impact, abundance, and joy out of the abysmally dark emotions that were arising.
What would you tell someone who is contemplating a major career change?
Sock away as much money as you physically can—you just never know where you might be led once you agree to venture down the rabbit hole, and there’s nothing nicer than knowing that you won’t starve on the search for your calling.
What do you know now that you wish you could go back and tell your previous self (i.e. when you were in your old job or before)?
“Their truth is not truer than yours.” I can’t tell you how many places in my life—spiritual, romantic, professional, etc.—this single sentence could have transformed.
There were so many moments along the way that I silenced myself because someone else disagreed with how I felt about something, which held me back and is part of the reason why I spiraled down as hard as I did.
What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?
Definitely my relentlessness! I wouldn’t be who I am today if I had said “ok, fine, you’re right” to any of the people who tried to talk me down from stepping up along the way.
If there’s one thing anyone can do to improve life at work, it would be…
Take care of your own needs as immediately and thoroughly as you can—I think interpersonal conflict arises and persists when individuals do not articulate and follow through on honoring their own boundaries and meeting their personal needs in a timely manner.
Everyone should own…
Something that they can use to creatively express themselves regularly, be it a nice journal, musical instrument, etc.
Everyone should read…
Codependent No More—the world would be a vastly different place if everyone took care of their own needs before controlling/projecting onto others!
Everyone should visit….
I would say “the woods on a regular basis” but I’m not sure that does it for everybody.
Learn more about Jess and her work by visiting her LinkedIn page.
Neill Beurskens is Founder of This Fearless Life and creates profound change for incredible people looking to get more out of their life and work. To explore the possibilities of a life lived fearlessly visit www.thisfearlesslifecoaching.com