When Starting Something New is Really Coming Back to the Beginning
“It’s really fascinating to think about what a jagged career trajectory you’ve had.”
Those were my father-in-law’s words to me a few weeks ago when we started talking about my next steps professionally. Many readers already know that my wife and I are moving back to the midwest in a few months to be closer to family. Fewer people know that I am taking a leap of faith and starting a business. More about that in a minute. But first, the jagged career path.
On the surface, my father-in-law’s statement rings true. I went directly from undergrad to a Master’s in Social Work program, but dropped out after the first year. I then spent a few years as a Graduate Student Advisor at UC San Diego before becoming a graduate student (again) myself, pursuing a PhD in Social Psychology. I then surprised many people when instead of becoming an academic, I “defected” to the tech industry, spending a combined 5 years as a researcher and leader at HP, Facebook, and Microsoft. In my last 9 months at Microsoft, I managed product designers, a discipline I have zero training in.
Back to what I said earlier - my next step is starting a business. A coaching business.
I will be honest, putting those words out for public consumption hits me in the pit of my stomach. Despite leaving academia for industry, at my core I am a scientist, and I have prided myself on the rigorous training I did to be able to call myself Dr. Erin Baker. Until a year ago, my image of coaches was extremely negative. All I could imagine were stay-at-home moms getting certified online and calling themselves professionals. It turns out, there are a lot of incredibly smart, capable, compassionate, and more-than-qualified coaches out there. Sure, there are some bad ones too. But I was too quick to overgeneralize.
Given how hard I judged the coaching industry, I have been worried that many people I love and respect will judge me for choosing this path. That worry hasn’t subsided, but here I am anyway. I am building a coaching business and I could not be more excited about it.
Despite the appearance of a jagged career, coaching is the path I have always been on. It’s taken this last year of experiencing the magic of coaching first-hand for me to shed my judgment and to give myself permission to jump into that world. Though my writing might be tempered in this blog - likely a function of the nerves of “coming out” - I have no doubt in my mind that this is the right next step for me, whether it’s for a few years or for the rest of my career.
So with that, I want to share a bit more insight as to why I believe everything is coming full-circle for me, and then I want to share a sliver of the transformation I had in the last year as result of being in 1-on-1 and group coaching programs.
Everything is full-circle.
I vividly remember talking to my academic advisor during my senior year of college about wanting to “counsel” people - potentially college students - on navigating everyday life issues (e.g., relationships, careers, etc.). I wasn’t interested in being a clinical psychologist, but I liked the idea of helping people in a similar format. She and I talked about what graduate degree I would need - it was a choice between a PhD in Counseling and a Masters in Social Work. Coaching was not on either of our radars. I chose the Master’s in Social Work route, but the first week of school I discovered that my required internship would be doing therapy with individuals suffering from schizophrenia and bipolar. That was about as far from “everyday lives” as I could imagine. I switched to an internship in student affairs, specifically at the University of Michigan LGBT office, and headed down a path of working with students on their everyday campus lives.
During my three years at UCSD, I considered again whether I should get a counseling degree, but I had a lot of reservations about whether I’d end up in a similar situation to my social work internship. Coaching was still not on my radar.
During my four years at University of Texas in my PhD program, my favorite activities were mentoring students and teaching. A teaching school was on my radar for awhile. Coaching was not.
Four years ago when I was thinking about whether Facebook had been the right career choice for me, I sent out a survey to some friends about what I should do next if I left Facebook. The #1 answer was coaching. I was too judgmental to let coaching be on my radar.
I quickly learned in industry that I wanted to be a people manager. Not because of power and influence, but I loved the idea of helping people develop their skills and careers, and wanted to build strong teams of talented people. During a manager training a few years ago, I first heard the idea “you are a coach of your employees.” I liked the idea of considering myself a coach. A career in coaching was still not on my radar.
In the last year at Microsoft, my role has basically been professional development coaching. Through helping some of my employees get clear on their goals, and through the magic of my own coaching experience, coaching got on my radar. I realized that coaching was the concept that had been on my mind in college, and had to some degree, been on my mind throughout my various career stops.
And instead of being a 22-year-old with no training, I now have a PhD, a wealth of professional experience, and twelve years of additional life experience to bring to the table.
The difference a year of coaching made in my life.
The photos of me above were taken exactly one year apart. The first was on my last day working at Facebook in 2017, and the second was just a week ago. The difference is stark. In 2017, I was exhausted. Not only had Facebook been an intense (to put it mildly) place to work, but I had been flying home every few weeks to be with my mother while she was undergoing a major health issue. My stress levels had been at an all-time high for months. The human in the picture from 2017 looks 10 years older than the current me.
Sure, leaving an intense job and my mother’s continued health improvement could be part of why my picture on the right looks so much better. But I also know that because of the work I did through 1-on-1 and group coaching, I don’t recognize the person I was a year ago. Here are just a few things that have shifted for me:
I went from rushing out of the house every day to having a solid morning routine that includes journaling, a nice walk with the dog, and a game of cribbage with my wife. Easing into my day and taking time for myself has greatly reduced my overall stress, making me much less reactive to external stressors I can’t avoid (like work fires). I used to have a pretty short fuse. I still stress out at times, but the fuse is MUCH longer.
I drastically cut back on how much alcohol I drink. Alcohol was a regular part of the culture at Facebook, and I had let that culture affect my habits. Drinking less often has greatly improved my energy and mood (and likely my skin).
I said “yes” to a bunch of things I would have never done before in my life, and as a result, I have visited some incredible places and created several deep friendships with people I would have never met otherwise.
I shifted a lot of the language I use, which then shifted my mindset. Two prime examples are ridding myself of “shoulds” (e.g., I should go to this party) and using the word “yet” to end sentences like “I haven’t created strong habits…yet.” I don’t beat myself up as much as I used to, and am much more willing to try new things without fear of what failure means.
I built my self-confidence and became intimately familiar with the things I want in life. The clarity that I wanted to be back in the midwest and that I was ready to start a business would not have come without being coached.
I became extremely comfortable in my own skin. A signature moment of that comfort was me having top surgery in March and coming out as non-binary gender to my entire Facebook network.
Break the rules. Reinvent your life.
That is the tagline, for now, for my business and my new website. I won’t go into detail here about what that means because you can read about it on the main site (www.erinmbaker.com). What I do want to say is that if anyone out there is interested in what coaching might do for them, please reach out. I’m happy to talk generally about coaching, share more of my experience, or to explore what it might look like to work with me.
(Oh and for those that knew the blog was on hiatus, yes it’s back. Maybe not every week, but I do have several posts up my sleeve).