Career, Redux

It’s funny what happens when you become complacent, believe you’re bulletproof, and assume that the very high-powered, well-paying job you have is yours for life. And then the unthinkable happens, and you find yourself, in your sixties no less, somewhere you never thought you’d be again. 

The starting line.

That’s what happened to me in November 2019. I lost my job as a university Vice President of Marketing just before the pandemic hit. I was approaching the pinnacle of my career. For years, I had skyrocketed through the administrative ranks of higher ed administration — at schools like Harvard, MIT, Sarah Lawrence, and a few others along the way. A career that began as an Emmy award-winning television producer turned higher-ed marketing wunderkind was suddenly, abruptly, and inexplicably over. 

At the ripe old age of sixty-something, I was staring into the abyss. Who was I without the title, the prestige, the salary, the staff, the accolades?

The timing couldn’t have been worse. Colleges and universities were shutting down as Covid took over the world, laying off staff and telling students to stay home. Higher education was in turmoil, and so was I. 

I began to beat the virtual pavement and was lucky enough to be offered comparable positions at two top-tier institutions. In another lifetime, I would have jumped at both. But taking either one of those would have meant even greater upheaval: moving to another state, selling a house on the Connecticut shoreline I had just bought and loved, and being itinerant once again.

I turned them both down. 

It was easy to tell myself and others that this was purely a pragmatic decision, but the truth was I didn’t want a “big” job again. I was tired of being in an ivory tower straight jacket and the pervasive misogyny of an archaic system. 

Instead, I faced the daunting prospect of starting my own brand consulting business as many friends and colleagues were looking forward to retirement. Now I would be gearing up to work harder than I ever had before. I was confronted with a truth that felt both liberating and daunting: I had to take a huge leap and pray that the net would appear.

This realization was the beginning of a profound period of transformation, out of which several long-lasting lessons emerged.

Embrace Change, Even When It’s Really Scary

I was terrified. The end of my executive role forced me out of a comfort zone built over decades. I felt I had failed on some fundamental level I couldn’t identify. But I had no choice; starting my consulting business was not something I had planned, but it offered a new avenue to apply my not-insignificant expertise and passions in ways that a traditional role never had; I began to see that life’s most valuable growth opportunities often come disguised as disaster.

Fall Back, Spring Ahead

The second lesson was resilience. We’re all stronger than we think we are, especially as we age, however counterintuitive that may seem. In the face of a global pandemic, starting a business was anything but straightforward. The economic uncertainty, the shifting dynamics of marketing in a digital-first, pandemic-impacted world, and the challenges of establishing a new brand from scratch were daunting. Yet, with each setback, I learned the importance of picking myself back up, reassessing, and pushing forward. This resilience was part necessity, with a huge dollop of the desire to prove myself again thrown in. My worth was no longer tied to a job title but to the impact and value I could create. 

Success is Personal

In the corporate world, success often comes with clear markers: promotions, salaries, and titles. As an entrepreneur, especially one starting later in life and under soul-crushing circumstances, success took on a new meaning. It became about the satisfaction of building something from the ground up, the freedom to choose projects that genuinely excited me, and the ability to maintain a work-life balance that had often eluded me in the past. This journey taught me that success is deeply personal and continually evolving.

There Is No Straight Path

Another thing I learned was the importance of adaptability. The pandemic dramatically and permanently changed the landscape of higher education and business. Traditional marketing strategies were upended, and the digital transformation accelerated. To survive and thrive, I had to learn, unlearn, and relearn — embracing new technologies, digital marketing techniques, and communication tools. This adaptability became one of my greatest assets, allowing me to stay relevant and competitive.

Taking My Experience to the Bank

Lastly, after an initial period of worrying that my age put me at a disadvantage,  I realized that my decades of smarts and experience were what I was selling. It became clear that my years in higher education branding and marketing were a significant, bankable repository of invaluable insights, relationships, and skills

These quickly became the foundation of my consulting business, differentiating me as I began to make my mark in a crowded market. My experience provided a unique perspective that added value to my growing client roster and helped me navigate the challenges of entrepreneurship with a strategic mindset honed over years in executive roles.

In Hindsight

Losing my starring role in higher ed as the pandemic was closing in was a turning point, marking the end of one long chapter and the beginning of an unexpected journey. It was a period of significant challenges but also profound growth and learning. Embracing change, cultivating resilience, redefining success, remaining adaptable, and leveraging my hard-won experience taught me more about myself and my potential than I could have imagined. Starting my consulting business in my sixties, amid a global crisis, required me to work harder than ever before. 

Yet, it has been an immensely rewarding adventure, offering a sense of fulfillment and purpose I had not found in my previous life. I believe more firmly than ever in the enormous power of reinvention, in our inherent ability to pick ourselves up when we stumble, to adapt, and yes, even in the twilight of our careers, to thrive.