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Can we lose COVID — but keep the new outlook it gave us?

How to make your own window of career opportunity, in good times and bad

cristina bernazzani/Adobe Stock

Some days, being the same age as my professors and missing all my classmates’ TikTok references makes me squirm in my desk chair. Still, going back to school for creative writing at 41 is one of the best things I’ve ever done. And yet I wonder: Would I have made the leap if it hadn’t been for COVID?

For 15 years, writing for brands gave me a creative outlet, making it easy to forget that night in my teens when I found my neighbor’s byline in a magazine and wished that could one day be me. Then the pandemic forced us to face our mortality in maddening isolation, and many — myself included — saw with new clarity the gap between the lives we were living and those we dreamed of.


As I rocked my baby with one hand and helped two tweens manage IT mishaps with the other, I kept my wits by writing stories in my head. The stories accumulated as my father, who lives in Moscow, was hospitalized with COVID. As I worried about my mother and stepfather when the numbers peaked in Boston. As I worried about how our bottle-averse newborn would eat if I got really sick. When I imagined my obituary, I realized that my stories meant nothing unless I wrote them down. It was time to join the Great Reinvention.

After the pandemic’s first year, half of US employees planned to make a career change, according to a 2021 US Catalyst-CNBC survey. And of the employed adults who quit a job in 2021, 53 percent have changed fields or occupations, the Pew Research Center found. Research supports the benefits of choosing change over the status quo. But why did so many leap from thought to action during the pandemic? And can we keep it up during “normal” times?


To initiate a positive change, we typically need to receive new, inspiring information, says Nicholas Covino, president of William James College in Newton, which specializes in psychology. “We’re bombarded with information all the time,” he says, but typically don’t absorb it, focused as we are on the daily grind. For many, COVID changed that. “In isolation, we had plenty of opportunity to be inspired,” Covino says. “We had free time. Bandwidth.”

COVID put the brakes on our “old normal” and caused “habit discontinuity,” spurring self-reflection and a realization of new possibilities, says Herminia Ibarra, professor of organizational behavior at London Business School, who has studied career transitions for over 20 years and previously taught at Harvard.

In my orbit alone: One writing classmate returned to school in her early 50s after completing cancer treatments during the pandemic. A friend trained as an architect left her job in construction as COVID wreaked havoc on her workplace and made her acutely aware of her mental and physical deterioration; she’s now designing a more joyful career. Another friend realized how much better remote work suited him, reducing what he calls “extraneous social noise” — a new remote job allowed his family to move to the quieter, pastoral Walpole, New Hampshire.

“If you want to make the change,” Covino says, “you have to think: How do I schedule the opportunities? How do I find the partnership to be motivated to do this thing? How do I acquire the expert coaching I might need? And how do I reward myself for doing this?”


This proved true for Boston-based Monisha Patel, who had long loved making charcuterie boards for friends and family. In March 2020, she started delivering free snack boxes to health care workers, who in turn asked to purchase charcuterie boards for date nights at home. Two months later, Patel — then a full-time software sales rep at HubSpot — decided to officially launch a business. “Although I truly loved both HubSpot and BoardsbyMo, I knew for my own well-being I needed to make a choice,” she says. “I set a BoardsbyMo revenue goal and decided that if I could hit that goal for six months, I would quit my corporate job.”

Today, BoardsbyMo’s team of six women serves hundreds of clients each month. “It was scary to take such a big risk,” Patel admits, “but I knew I owed it to myself to see what I could accomplish on my own. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the real failure would be not to try at all.”

If reinventing ourselves when we feel comfortable feels more daunting, we can still look for windows of opportunity. “If you’re going back to the office, start building in some new patterns right away, because that window is going to close up if you’re not paying attention,” Ibarra says. “If you don’t keep working it, the old thing with its clear rules and guidelines and expectations and networks and reference groups overwhelms the new baby that is still trying to find its legs and figure out how to walk.”


Even in the absence of major life triggers — say COVID, or a health scare, or a milestone birthday or anniversary — it’s possible to intentionally seek and open opportunities. “That might mean taking on a side hustle,” like Patel, “or enrolling in an evening course, or reaching out to people who are doing the thing you want to do, or reading about that thing. Just get out of your head,” Ibarra says.

Though grad school isn’t a constant joyride, and I falter as frequently as my kids get sick or injured, I know it’s a privilege to be able to do this at all. More than half of those who changed careers since March 2020, including me, took a pay cut. In an ideal world, pursuing a better life wouldn’t be a privilege: We know that fulfilled individuals make happier societies.

We need to do what we can to bolster anyone seeking a more fulfilling path. And we need to be gentle with ourselves as we strive for change. If you’re losing in the early innings of the game, Covino says, the key is to remind yourself: “There are more innings. There are more opportunities. Eventually, if I stay in this game, I could win.”

Asya Partan is a graduate student in creative writing at Emerson College. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.