It’s Never too Late to Change Careers

New Year, New You
Part I

By 27 years old, I had a desk overlooking New York’s Soho neighborhood and an impressive client roster.

As a public relations manager for fragrances that often linger in department-store air, I could finally afford food—not just groceries, but also dinner at restaurants whose names I couldn’t pronounce. International brands flew me to Paris for meetings. They gifted me designer handbags as “thanks” for a job well done.

Early-Career Missteps

Image: MacKenzie

MacKenzie Kassab

It’s laughable now, but Sex and the City was one of the reasons I went into communications. Samantha Jones (played to perfection by Kim Cattrall) was the first publicist I’d ever encountered as a high school student. She was a PR powerhouse, schmoozing at New York’s finest establishments for a living.

After three years with my head buried in books at New York University, I scored a coveted PR internship at Kiehl’s, owned by L’Oreal. My supervisor was whip-smart and driven. She introduced me to the realities of public relations: strategy, research, evaluations, budgets, and big-budget events. Work hard, party hard? Count me in.

I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communications and accepted a position at an agency nicknamed “the sweatshop.” Taking home $333 a week while working 15-hour days, I fantasized about my future.

Eventually, I landed an enviable spot in the PR department at Bumble and Bumble, a haircare company with celebrity followers. Then I moved on to a promising role at a startup.

So here I was, in that startup’s Soho office, tapping this season’s “it” shoe against my desk and dreading the day ahead. I felt sick to my stomach.

There wasn’t one task on my to-do list that I looked forward to accomplishing. The problem wasn’t my company, clients, or colleagues—I couldn’t have asked for better. It was simpler.

I had chosen the wrong career.

A Leap of Faith

After an uncharacteristically short period of deliberation, I resigned. What happened next goes something like this: I set out on a backpacking trip around the world, met my future husband in a Beirut bar, moved to Lebanon, married, had a child, and moved back to the United States, all within seven years.

MacKenzie Kassab in Lebanon
MacKenzie Kassab in Lebanon

It’s a tale I’ve chronicled for several women’s publications, but I always omit my professional saga. But to someone stuck in a career rut, it might be the most intriguing chapter.

My savings were depleted after three months in Lebanon. I knew I wanted to become a professional writer. But job prospects were slim. Defeated, I was scanning the web for tickets home when a text message flashed across my cell phone.

“Are you still looking for work?” a new friend asked. “Let me introduce you to someone.”

The introduction went well, and I was hired as assistant editor of an English-language magazine—in the construction genre. The pay was paltry, I was back at the bottom of the professional food chain, and my beat was steel and timber.

I took this job out of desperation, but let me clarify: I weighed all of my career options before accepting it. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice.

Testing the Waters

Legend has it that Americans change careers an average of seven times. Where that figure comes from is a mystery. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has never done a study on the subject, because what it means to “change careers” is vague, particularly if a professional’s new job is in the same industry.

What we do know is that career-jumping is common among millennials. You likely know at least one person who’s done it. It wasn’t unheard of in earlier generations, either. Julia Child worked for the CIA prior to becoming America’s first celebrity chef. Andrea Bocelli earned a law degree before making a career out of music.

At the start of my career, there were clues that my love affair with PR was doomed. But I found my niche at the agency by drafting press releases, even for accounts that weren’t mine. I volunteered for extra work because I wanted writing practice.

At Bumble and Bumble, I sheepishly asked to join the creative team launching an in-house magazine. Another department ran the publication, but they appreciated the help and gave me my first writing assignment.

I wish I could say it was Pulitzer-worthy. Instead, I’ll classify it as an invaluable learning experience. Those supplementary, uncompensated responsibilities were the highlight of my early work life.

In retrospect, writing was an obvious match. What took me so long to realize it? For starters, even Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw—a newspaper columnist—was perpetually broke. It seemed better suited for a hobby than a career. The biggest obstacle, however, was self-doubt. I was a publicist, not a writer.

So, unhappy and insecure, I dipped my toe into other potential industries while maintaining a position in PR. After work, I’d trek across town to noncredit courses on NGO management or French.

An underfunded refugee organization welcomed me as an intern on “summer Fridays,” while the rest of the city jockeyed for space on the Hampton Jitney. This informal research added to my knowledge and skillset, but it was particularly useful in ruling out a long list of other paths.

Change Is Good

Pinpointing a “dream career” often comes down to introspection. Forbes magazine compiled a checklist to determine whether a professional change is right for you. It suggests assessing your core values, assets, skills, and what you’d like to do even if you wouldn’t be paid. The most discouraging question to ask yourself: Am I willing to start over?

I did my share of soul-searching. But acting on it required a job offer in Beirut. I started out as an assistant (again), living paycheck to paycheck (again). I’d be lying if I said fetching coffee and making copies weren’t a blow to my ego, but at least part of my day was dedicated to writing. It felt less like starting over and more like getting a clean slate.

At the start of each day, Career 2.0 presents a to-do list that I’m excited to tackle. That’s the true mark of a dream job.”

Once I learned the ins-and-outs of publishing, something unexpected happened. I moved up, and quickly. The experience I’d acquired overseeing PR departments was equally useful in another industry. I now had writing skills and an arsenal of management tricks up my sleeve. I was hired as managing editor of the Time Out Beirut, part of the Time Out family, and then editor in chief of a prominent Middle Eastern luxury magazine.

After my daughter was born, I went out on my own as a freelance writer before moving back to the States. Magazines, websites, and businesses now hire me to write about fashion, beauty, design, travel, relationships, and parenting.

Some of it pays really well. Some of it doesn’t. Occasionally, it’s glamorous. Most of the time, it isn’t. But, at the start of each day, Career 2.0 presents a to-do list that I’m excited to tackle. That’s the true mark of a dream job.

It turns out life is nothing like a Sex and the City episode. It’s more like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. And it’s never too late to change your story.


Check out more inspiring stories from career changers in our New Year, New You series:

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