Leaving the corporate casino when you don’t have a better position (or any position at all) lined up is scary — especially when you’re adulting and have bills to pay. It’s even harder when you’re climbing the career ladder and all types of perks keep coming your way. But let’s be real: how many people actually like their jobs? And if you like your job, would you even dare to say you’re going to leave in order to follow your heart? That’s nonsense in most people’s heads. But that’s reality for me.
Ever since I stepped foot on corporate soil, I harbored a pipe dream of impacting the lives of others beyond my cubicle. I didn’t just want income; I wanted to make an impact.
For years, I expressed my desires to become a speaker, entrepreneur, and author. I wanted to travel around the world to unknown places and get swept off my feet by the beauty of it all. I wanted to dance to the tunes of salsa, learn a new language, or, heck, just take time out to host a financial workshop or lead a motivational seminar for youth in marginalized communities without writing a 2-page proposal as to why I wanted to do it and how I would make up those hours on the weekend.
All of this sounded good, but it just didn’t seem like it was possible for someone like me, a first-generation college student who came from a family legacy of proud blue-collar workers that claimed I’d “made it” with my fancy college degree and corporate salary.
I had a head full of dreams and a pocket full of pennies with doubt written all over them.
I wanted to live a nontraditional life using my gifts to make an income and impact as I traveled around the world, but I didn’t know anyone who looked like me and came from my background who had actually done it.
I was consumed with the thoughts of what everyone else would think about my actions, instead of giving enough attention to what I wanted for myself … until I competed in a pageant.
It was 2010, and the work wouldn’t stop coming. Mornings, nights, and weekends, my head was buried deep in Excel spreadsheets, trying to do credit calculations and analyze large amounts of data as fast as I could. On top of that, I was studying to become a Certified Public Accountant, one of the most difficult professional exams in the world, in which fewer than 40% of the test takers pass on their first time.
My 24-hour daily schedule consisted of working, studying, and maybe sleeping. After taking the last of 4 exams needed to become a CPA (find out how I became a CPA in less than 9 months!), I called my mom and told her how “I wanted meaning and fulfillment in my life. I wanted a chance to make a difference. I wanted a chance to do service every day and inspire others to live their dream. I wanted to go after a goal that was so big that it would transform me into a person worth becoming.”
I suddenly paused because someone was calling me on the other line. You wouldn’t believe who it was! The Miss Illinois USA state pageant coordinator was calling me to interview for a chance to compete. I would have the opportunity to represent my state and serve others in a greater way! Are you serious? That moment was so unbelievable. I took the leap and did it. I lost that pageant, the next one, and the one after that.
But my confidence and leadership skills increased, allowing me to sell myself in the workplace and be added to the firm’s talent pipeline. So I got two promotions within 3 years! And 5 years later, after competing in 4 different pageants and receiving multiple rejections, I won the Ms. Corporate America 2015 pageant in Orlando, FL. Life was absolutely wonderful — but I knew this momentous victory would cause me to think bigger. As Oprah Winfrey says, “Think like a Queen.”
This seemed like the perfect time to pave a path as a speaker, entrepreneur, and author — the dreams that never seemed to go away, no matter how many hours I spent analyzing financial statements. And who’s to say I can’t be a financial-statement queen while traveling around the world?
Even though I appreciate the opportunities I was given at my job (a new position was created based on my interests!), I decided to take a career pause after winning the title of Ms. Corporate America, because my mind couldn’t destroy the mounds of curiosity that kept creeping up on me.
I had been in corporate America for a total of 10 years. I didn’t want 10 more years to pass me by and to ask myself, “What would have happened if I had followed my heart?”
Even worse, I didn’t want to look up 10 years later and say, “I’m stuck. I’m too scared to leave. I don’t believe my dreams are possible for me anymore.” There was no way I was going to let that happen. I’ve witnessed the tears and anxieties of those who didn’t have the courage to live their dreams before or even now, and it seems to haunt their soul daily.
No way was I going to sign up for something like that. My dreams are too precious to just go down the drain. And I just think I’m smart and gritty enough to make it work, whatever path I take. So if the grass isn’t greener on the other side, I can always say I tried and position myself for a corporate return.
Then there was this other side of me thinking about everything I had done in order to get this fancy corporate job and title. I took classes EVERY single quarter that DePaul offered them (summer, winter, fall, December intercession — you name it, I was there). The standard number of classes for a full-time student was 4, but for the majority of my college career, I took 5-6 classes, making me eligible to graduate within 3 years.
So, I did a 40-hour busy season internships from January to March with a Big Four Accounting Firm and took advantage of profitable corporate internship (every single summer of college, starting when I was 19). I double-majored in Accounting & Finance with a minor in Community Service Studies so that I could be a well-rounded business leader and be in demand for multiple job opportunities on the market.
I was consistently ranked in the top 10% of my class at DePaul University. And I won’t begin to tell you in length about the honor societies (at least 4!), community hours (300 service hours annually), and leadership opportunities (President of Golden Key International Honor Society, VP of National Association of Black Accountants, Senator for Student Government Association, Founder of INSPIRE and the Libby Adopt-A-School program… okay, there’s so much more, but I won’t bore you with it all).
So, yes, I did all of this so that I could maximize my college experience and land a job with a top firm when I graduated — and I did! What makes it more remarkable was that I received numerous opportunities during the height of the 2008-2009 financial crisis. So my work did pay off. I got what I wanted. And now, was I really thinking about giving it up?
“It’s insane to be leaving a stable job with benefits after you were just told you were on track for another promotion within a 3-year period. You could become an executive at this firm,” said the logical side of my mind.
“Think about using your passion for speaking to inspire people all over the world! How many lives would you change when you publish your book? You have tons of certifications and network connections and can always get another job, but will you always have the flexibility in your life to just travel, free of commitments? What’s the worst that could happen? Besides, you’re not getting any younger,” argued the right.
I remember a co-worker approaching my desk and asking me, “Charlene, are you sure you want to do this? I’m a bit worried. How are you going to make your money?” (I felt like she tried to attack me by using the fears of most Americans). But I knew the answer to that question. I was going to do the same thing I did to be successful at the company. I was going to work smart, network, and believe in myself. If I could survive a 7-year stint in the male-dominated world of financial services as an introvert without collapsing, I’m 100% certain that I can use my speaking, leadership, and writing skills to add value all over the world.
As I’ve spent countless hours obtaining certifications (CPA, CFE, PMP, DTM … yeah, you can call me a certification junkie) and working for the most reputable companies in the world, I’ve become keenly aware that success is not quantifiable by the accolades you put all over your resume or the number of hours you spend on overtime in the office just so you can receive a promotion.
Success is your ability to live a life that aligns with the essence of who you are. And if you want to achieve true success, you need to make the time for it. No matter how much money we accumulate, time is something that we can’t buy back. We have to be intentional about our time and how we use it or, perhaps more specifically, make use of the quality time we have with the ones who energize us with their unconditional love.
For the first time in my life after I left my job, I was able to attend family events without a guilty conscience about not being more productive just so I could satisfy work expectations. I gave my family more of myself, and I got so much more love in return. I was able to attend family reunions and see faces I’ve never seen before, support my younger sister by driving to Indiana State University to share in her fondest memories, and visit my younger brother in Mankato Minnesota for family weekend.
And I’m so grateful that I got a chance to build a closer relationship with the woman who gave birth to me. I love my mother so much, and I don’t take for granted any of the time we spend together, even if we’re just sitting on the couch complimenting the amazing talent on the hit TV show The Voice.
And that’s not it. When you give up the things that fill up every second of your schedule and mental space, you make room for experiences that sweep you off your feet. Last year, I met a person who is just as passionate about traveling as I am.
I spent several months traveling the world on a tour and thought about how rewarding it would be to do it with a travel buddy. Only one month after arriving back home in Chicago from my 6-month adventure, I met someone who matched my desires, and we immediately started traveling together.
I’m thrilled we’re exploring this next chapter or, as my friends have told me, this next journey, in our lives together as we work toward our exciting personal goals.
I’ve already started posting our travel adventures all over the web, and you can follow my personal social media profiles on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and, of course, LinkedIn. 🙂 I’ll also have another source of motivation coming soon. Stay tuned!
So, I ripped up my strategic 10-year plan and finally decided to make room for the beautiful surprises that await me. I have no idea what next year or even what next week will look like, but I can guarantee you that I will forever keep growing, expanding, and living a life that I can fall in love with over and over again.
I’m saying YES to my dreams and NO to all the demands and expectations that don’t serve my greater purpose. That’s the type of life story I am going to “be bold” enough to create.
Have you ever thought about putting your bucket of expectations to the side in order to live a life of freedom? What is it that you want to do but don’t have the courage to do? Have you decided to take a huge leap in your career and follow your desires? Please feel free to share!
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Guess what? I’m hosting Profit from Pageantry workshops to show you how you can “Get Paid to Speak, Blog, & Travel”. Join me! Click here to find out more!
If a girl from the south side of Chicago can do it, what’s stopping you? You only have one life, so you have to make sure you make it the best one possible.