Quitter to Winner

Sunday, August 15, 2010

INTERVIEW: James Morgan's successful career transition

It's never too late to start over. James Morgan talks about his difficult transition from a teaching career into architectural woodworking.

You gave up not just your teaching job, but your teaching career. What happened?

There were a couple of factors in play here. For one, I had promised myself from day one that teaching would be viable only as long as I was effective. I have worked with lots of teachers who have far outlived their “expiration dates,” and I did not want to become one of these creatures. For me, being an effective teacher has to do with many things and includes, but is not limited to, relating to students, relating to college leadership, relating to peers, and generally being happy in the role. I found that I had trouble with all of these areas toward the end.

Another factor was my growing interest in transitioning from a service job to a skill-based, production-oriented job. Quite frankly, I wanted to be able to see the end result – and the quality – of my work. With teaching I was finding that students were nearly universally resistant to learning (sometimes resorting to astounding measures to get out of doing schoolwork). Administrators were nearly universally incompetent. My fellow teachers were fragmented and isolated for the most part. I wondered daily whether or not I was doing any good at all. About two years ago I decided to make a change. After a yearlong course of study at the New England School of Architectural Woodworking I made the transition from college teaching to woodworking. I now spend my days in the finishing area of a local company. I walk or bike to work. I could not be happier with the incredible transformation in my life.

What was the most difficult part about leaving your job/career?

Leaving my job was surprisingly easy, at least logistically. In fact, it was cathartic on some levels because I was able to say a few things that needed to be said (even though I am certain the words fell on deaf ears). What was difficult was philosophical: worry about finances during my year in school, worry about what would happen afterward, and the break in the existential connection one makes with their identity and career. I was also worried about the impact my change in direction would have on my partner. There was one other more ethereal worry about how I might feel at the end of my life with choosing to leave academia. That is a question I will have to answer in about 40 years. What I can say is that, given my current level of happiness, I am now far more likely to live that long.

You're now an architectural woodworker. Was making the switch easier or more difficult than expected?

The transition is happening, but is not by any means over. My work is going to take shape in two important ways. First, I am continuing to learn by working for an established business. The field is vast. With an open attitude one can learn indefinitely. I’m fortunate to have found a position where the culture is keyed into this concept. Second, I am interested in creating my own business. This was, in fact, always part of the vision of this transformation. The initial switch has been practically frictionless: I had almost no down time between attending NESAW and starting work after graduation. The establishment of my own studio will in all likelihood be a more drawn out process, and I am doing my best to prepare for whatever challenges await me!

Would you have done anything differently? Perhaps listen to your gut early on when you knew teaching wasn't for you?

I find this to be simultaneously the easiest and most painful question to answer. I remember a day in graduate school, after about $50,000 in loans had been taken out and perhaps two-thirds of the way through when I had an epiphany (with appropriate thanks to the Scottish play): “I am stepped in blood so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o'er.” I remember feeling that I had invested so much, and not just money but time, sweat, tears, everything that I just had to press on. Honestly, I don't think I will ever feel that my master's degree was worth it – at any level. I lost too much time for the return. And, for those who know me well and know just how well I can teach, and how much I really liked teaching, this is a powerful statement. So here it is: I wouldn't change a thing. I firmly believe that all of my experiences are critical to my composition as a person.

Based on your experience, what advice would you give someone contemplating leaving a job/career without another one to fall back on?

1. Have a plan that is not just a formula but that speaks from your being. And, as important as formulas are to a math teacher, this is a serious thing: do what you have to do, not what you think you should do. The key is a plan that is well thought-out, includes options for unexpected hurdles, and encompasses short, medium, and long-term goals.

2. Make sure that you have a support system in place: family, friends, social network of some kind.

3. Don't expect everything to happen overnight. Prepare for endurance. Real change is exciting, challenging, and takes time. In change you have to balance the opportunity you are creating with the difficulties of the journey.

4. Don't forget to fully experience the journey. If you always keep your eye fixed to the future, you will miss out on the joys of the change you are creating. This simple idea kept me energized along the way because I was so happy with the day-to-day progress I was making. Some ways to do this: take pictures, write a diary or blog, and talk lots with friends and family.


  1. Great interview. I loved his point about not changing anything, that all of our experiences create us. As a chef I can relate. I, too, spent over 100,00 dollars getting my undergrad and graduate degrees, then another 60K on culinary school before I transitioned into my current career. I have never doubted that my education would continue to help me to analyze, evaluate, create and lead. And all that worthless stuff I did in my MBA program comes into play now. I truly value those experiences. But as a person, taking the "plunge" (as some of my friends call it) from a suit and tie guy with a very narrow conception of society to a more working class, hands on profession, opened my eyes to the reality of the world. All of my experiences have helped me to understand my peers and that while work is important, respect and quality of life are paramount. For some people, seeking a career change is more about meaning, connection, and fulfillment.

    Chef Michael Chandler

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