In September 2021, Evelyn Lai was sitting at the brown teak desk in her nursery and looking out the window. She felt as insecure as she had two decades ago.
“I remember sitting at that same desk when I applied for colleges,” said Ms. Lai, 36.
Now she was recalibrating her life. Feelings of professional burnout had made her cry on a street in downtown Austin, Texas three months earlier. It had been more than a year into the pandemic, on her day off, which she had spent with her mother and sister. She was eventually overcome by a panic attack.
Ms. Lai had worked 50 hours a week as a pediatric nurse in a community clinic in southeast Austin. Some of her patients at the clinic, who Ms. Lai said mainly served a Latino population, had no access to clean water. Some had relatives picked up by U.S. Immigration and Customs. Some had lost loved ones to Covid. As Ms. Lai walked past people drinking and laughing at a trendy Austin cocktail bar, she reached a breaking point. Her mother put an arm around her and she struggled to catch her breath.
“It was shocking to see that and then think about the world I would go to at work,” Ms. Lai said.
So instead she went home. After considering a career as a writer for pharmaceutical companies, she realized she wasn’t ready to see patients yet. Four months later, she took a job as a pediatric nurse in a Seattle hospital with compassionate colleagues and a less hectic schedule. She now spends most of her free time in nature, walking along a local river and in the mountains.
For many of the more than 50 million people who have quit their jobs since early last year — a widespread phenomenon known as “The Great Resignation” — the shift has been a moment of great personal exploration. Finally given the space to think about what matters most, some are now rethinking their work-life balance. Some have made drastic changes and others, like Ms. Lai, discovered a newfound purpose in old goals.
“It took me a while to find this job, or for this job to find me,” Ms. Lai said with a chuckle.
Here are some stories of people who have turned their lives and careers around and feel more fulfilled as a result.
‘I’d rather have freedom than a lot of stuff in my basement’
On a sunny morning in mid-June, Jim Walker, 53, took in the view from the roof of a riverboat, sitting next to a man old enough to be his father. As the boat sailed across Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, Walker recalled recently, pointing the man to Naval Station Newport, where he and his wife had been married 65 years earlier.
Mr Walker, an ordained minister who quit his job in June 2021 to become a tour guide, listened as the man described his wedding day. “Sometimes people don’t need to hear me talk,” Mr. Walker said. “They need an ear to share what’s on their mind.”
Mr. Walker began church work at the age of 24. But when his church in the Pittsburgh area was temporarily closed in 2020, he moved his services online and had some extra time to think. He realized that his most enjoyable experiences as a minister came when he led congregation members on mission trips and volunteered. He wanted more freedom.
After acting out of a long desire to become a freelance tour guide, he moved into a room in his brother’s house. Mr. Walker has spent much of the past year on the road, giving tours in Madrid, Paris, Amsterdam, Hawaii and elsewhere.
“Now I find myself interacting with all kinds of people from all over the world,” said Mr. Walker, “and helping people connect to the important things.”
WAS IT WORTH IT? Mr Walker believes the transition has given him more opportunities to use the “gifts I’ve been given.” He still uses the skills he honed in the pulpit, but with a new congregation every week. “I had to make sacrifices to do it,” he said. “But I’d rather have freedom than a lot of stuff in my basement.”
‘I could understand what it would be like to be able to make my own choices’
For much of her adult life, Jennifer Padham followed a well-known script. On the weekends she often went to spiritual retreats, and during the week she edited reality TV shows in a cramped room with no windows, daydreaming about the outdoors.
A month before the pandemic hit, she resigned as an archivist at Netflix and agreed with her partner to watch over a friend’s property in the woods of New Hampton, NY. Then New York’s stay-at-home orders went into effect.
“Everything has changed,” said Ms. Padham, 41. “I could understand what it would be like to be able to make my own choices.”
She said she started listening to the plants on the property. Finally, Mrs. Padham and her partner bought the property, and they plan to turn it into a spiritual retreat center called Mystic Hill.
WAS IT WORTH IT? Mystic Hill will open in early 2023, Ms Padham said, and will offer nature walks and yoga and meditation classes. Amid the isolation of the early months of the pandemic and away from the darkness of the studio, Ms. Padham found a way to connect with her deeper mission: “to show people the reality they see around them.” may not be the only reality. ”
‘I think I’ve found utopia’
In high school, Marlon Zuniga passed the time at his grocery store job by flipping through tabloids and mentally putting himself in the photos of vacation spots surrounded by turquoise water and white sand.
When the pandemic hit, Mr. Zuniga, 37, rarely left the house. He worked hectic hours as a corporate banking manager, and because he worked remotely, the lines between work and leisure became blurred. His wife, Maria Kamboykos, 32, who also worked in banking, felt the same burnout. So last spring they both quit their jobs, let their apartment lease expire in West New York, NJ, and embraced a nomadic lifestyle.
While the couple was traveling in Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore and other countries, Mr. Zuniga and Ms. Kamboykos picked up elements of different cultures that they planned to bring back to the US.
WAS IT WORTH IT? “I think I’ve found utopia,” said Mr. Zuniga by phone from a bar in Bilbao, Spain.
However, Mr. Zuniga and Mrs. Kamboykos’ sabbatical is coming to an end soon; they will settle in Charlotte, NC, where they own an apartment, and return to work. But they say they will do so with a stronger sense of how they structure their lives, and with a greater diversity of perspectives.
‘I have been transformed’
Daniel Raedel had become a therapist because he wanted to help LGBTQ youth understand the world. He saw his younger self in the students he met. But as the pandemic continued and his clients’ mental health problems worsened, Mr Raedel, 31, became anxious and depressed himself. He began to wake up with a sense of fear and began to limit his food intake.
“I felt like I couldn’t put on my own oxygen mask,” said Mr Raedel, referring to the universal commercial airline guideline to parents in the event of a loss of cabin pressure. “I couldn’t help others with theirs.”
Mr. Raedel quit his job at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and opened a small private practice to help his husband pay the bills. But he also took the time to look inside. Taking advantage of his long-dormant artistic side, Mr. Raedel enrolled in an MFA program. He also rediscovered his physical appearance: he bleached his hair, grew his fingernails and wore dresses. In the end, it came out as non-binary. (Mr. Raedel does he/she use pronouns.)
“I’d never had a year to nurture that artistic self,” said Mr. Raedel. “Parts of my identity that were more latent were expressed. I have been transformed.”
He eventually returned to an academic setting and landed a job as a clinical psychologist at Yale University, integrating art into his practice: Mr. Raedel encourages students to bring a pen and paper to scribble during therapy sessions, and to try water on their skin at home as a way to make contact with their bodies.
WAS IT WORTH IT? Mr. Raedel feels more equipped to help students after undergoing his own personal transformation. He is also enrolled in a doctoral program in philosophy at the University of San Diego that focuses on education and social justice, which he believes will further strengthen his practice. Today, Mr. Raedel’s oxygen mask fits just fine.