Quitter to Winner

Monday, July 26, 2010

INTERVIEW: Ryan Fuller's Consulting Rehab

Ryan Fuller and his wife, Jen, burned out from their high-pressure consulting jobs. Now they're in rehab: via extended vacation in Argentina. Ryan and Jen are part of the many professionals taking careers breaks. They're chronicling their literal and figurative journey on their website www.consultingrehab.com. Ryan talks with Quitter to Winner about what lead the couple to where they are now and what's next for their career.

I read about your intense careers. Wow. What was your long-term life goal in the midst of your high-pressure job? Why were doing it?

Ha! Good questions. What were we thinking? Not really sure. When you go to a top business school you meet tons of very interesting, dynamic and talented people. You are given a general set of guidelines of what success looks like. This usually involves going into some intense field like management consulting (what we did), investment banking, private equity, etc. The competition for these jobs is enormous, making it feel all the more important to go after them. Many people find themselves getting caught up in the momentum of it all and end up getting very excited about the 'achievement' of attaining one of these mystical jobs. Few have the time or inclination to consider what the job actually looks like on a daily basis, the sacrifices it will require in the rest of their lives and/or whether they might actually enjoy it.

We didn't know each other at the time, but it's fair to say that we both had a somewhat overly glorified view of what our consulting jobs would be like (and were also very excited to get them!).

In terms of longer term goals, I think most people go into management consulting for the option value of it. It's a great place to learn core business skills, build expertise, gain a network and begin to pay off the vast student loans you acquired in getting there (we hate them). I always had relatively short-term aspirations in consulting (just wanted to gain some skills and resume credibility after working primarily in tech start-ups before b-school). Jen had longer term aspirations for the job, but after having already lived in Tokyo and Nairobi for extended periods of time, she too was always planning to have a more dynamic and diverse life/career over the long term. Eventually the 12-18 hour days got to us.

What was the time frame from seriously considering a career break to boarding the plane on your trip?

While we had toyed with the idea a bit previously, it always seemed like something that was at least six months away. When we finally decided to do it, we were on a plane three weeks later. It was a pretty intense three weeks: we quit our jobs, moved all of our stuff into a storage unit, got married and drove from San Francisco to Seattle. Without the whole wedding part, it probably could have been quicker (haha!).

There is never a convenient time for something like this. All conventional wisdom goes against it. At some point, if you want to do it, you just have to go. It's worth it. Everything will be OK.

Did you tell your boss that you were taking a career break? What was his/her reaction?

Absolutely. Most of the reactions were jealousy/envy. Consulting is a bit unique in that the work is very short-term project based, so everyone is relatively easily replaced. The partners at our firm were extremely supportive and excited for us, which we are grateful for. I think many of them secretly follow our blog.

What did you friends and family think?

"There they go again."

What's been the reaction/response to Consulting Rehab? (Excellent name, by the way.)

It's been really fun. We started it primarily with the intention of using it to keep in touch with friends/family. We wanted to have a digital scrapbook of sorts to remember our trip. Over time, we started getting more and more people reading the blog that we hadn't met before. It felt a little odd at first having so many strangers know so much about us (particularly when people come up to us in Buenos Aires and tell us that they recognize us from our blog!). But it's extremely satisfying to be able to help people in trip planning and to inspire people to get out there and do whatever it is they've always wanted to do. Also, it's been fascinating getting to know other bloggers such as yourself and start to become part of a community of people that have chosen very unconventional paths in life and are thriving. There truly are so many more possible paths out there than most people consider and seeing people succeed in them is thought-provoking to say the least.

Preach, brother! Are any of your friends/colleagues following your lead?

We tend to be a bit careful discussing former colleagues at our firm so as not to anger anyone important there. Suffice to say, we know of many people who are off doing different and exciting things now. We certainly can't and wouldn't take credit for it, but it is unbelievably gratifying and exciting when we get an email or call from a friend that tells us that we've inspired them to go off and take flying lessons, work for a non-profit, travel, etc. We’re proud to play even a very small part in anyone pursuing the life they dream about rather than the one they think they are supposed to have.

Does the term "career break" help you overcome any stigma associated with leaving a "good" job to travel, especially with high unemployment rates? Or did you hit a point where, recession or not, I need to split?

Interesting question. To be honest, we only recently learned about the term ‘Career Break’. I think I actually found it while using StumbleUpon and came across BriefcaseToBackpack (a very cool site!). I like the term a lot though and do think it makes it sound like a more reasonable and less whimsical thing to do. For us, we haven’t yet worried too much about finding future jobs. Having gone to the business schools that we attended and the consulting firm that we worked at, theoretically we shouldn’t have too much trouble finding jobs when necessary. That 15 hours a day should count for something! To be sure, it helped to see that people leaving our firm even in the height of the recession had very little trouble finding jobs quickly. We likely would have thought twice about it otherwise. That said, I am a big believer that doing something like this exposes you to many new opportunities that you may never have realized existed (most of which involve doing things you truly enjoy) and that if you wait for a convenient time, you’ll never do it.

What do you think might have happened if you hadn't taken a career break? To your health? Relationship? Job?

We were both seeing a chiropractor two days a week and getting professional massages at least once a month in San Francisco. Yet we still had pretty significant back/neck pain. We no longer have any back/neck pain.

While the high quantities of cheap yet phenomenal steak and wine here in Buenos Aires are unlikely to have done much for our overall health, it’s fair to say that we feel much healthier without all of the stress and take-out dinners while slaving over laptops.

In terms of our relationship, we went from seeing each other for 20 minutes in the morning and maybe an hour in the evening. Occasionally we’d sneak away to have coffee for 10 minutes during the day since we worked in the same office. Now we're spending 24 hours a day together for the last 4+ months. In many ways it’s like a different relationship altogether. It’s been great, but be sure you really like each other before you do something like this as a couple. That’s a lot of time!

In terms of our job, if we hadn’t left, we’d still be working the same hours under the same stress. Lots of benefits to having a job like that, but lots of down sides as well. Thanks to how supportive the firm was of our plans, I’m reasonably confident that we could likely pick back up where we left off, which is pretty great.

How do you feel now that you're out of the pressure cooker job?

Younger, more energetic, healthier, more excited about life and more open to crazy ideas.

How will you approach the work-life balance if/when you decide to return to your career?

With far more emphasis on the ‘life’ part and without feeling that we have to do things a certain way in order to be successful. Success is often defined for you rather than by you. It’s not just about having a great career, it’s about having a great life. This requires balancing a career, a relationship, a family, a set of experiences, and whatever else you want. If you define it broadly enough (e.g., your career is only one piece of a much bigger puzzle), it's easier to make decisions that will make you happy. Too many people get caught up defining ‘success’ to mean getting the next promotion, raise, etc. and end up choosing their career (which offers more concrete and emphasized success metrics) at the expense of their overall happiness without even realizing it. Not sure what our future careers will look like, but the option set and criteria are far broader than ever before, and that is very exciting.

1 comment:

  1. So happy to hear that Americans are using the term 'career break' more and embracing the concept! When we launched Briefcase to Backpack in March 2009, the only searches that came up for career break were based in the UK or elsewhere. We hope that in some way we have had an impact on bringing the idea of career breaks and extended travel to the American culture!