When you no longer feel your work, company, organization is the right place for you, that sometimes means choosing to walk away from your job before you have another role lined up. In this episode of Career Relaunch, former retail apparel buyer Maddie Potvin, explains what made her decide to move away from the Bay area to pursue other interests and how she’s managed her transition. During the episode, she shares honest perspectives on the emotions of career change, the challenges of leaving your corporate identify behind, and the importance of taking control of your future. In the Mental Fuel® segment, I’ll talk about defining your walkaway point as a guide to deciding when to move on to something new in your life and career.

Key Career Insights

  1. Your environment matters. Consider joining a coworking space is a great way of socializing with others who can support you.
  2. When you’re feeling knocked down, it’s important to make sure you’re kind to yourself and avoid making things worse.
  3. You may not feel like you have a choice about what sort of job you have or how long you stay in your current role, but you always have choice about whether you want to make a change.
  4. So much of your identity can be wrapped up in your job. It’s a big piece of who you are and a sense of purpose. Just recognizing this can help you understand what may be keeping you in a job you don’t necessarily enjoy.

Listener Challenge

During this episode’s Mental Fuel segment, I talked about defining your walkaway points in your career. For some help in doing understanding what will and will not be acceptable to you in your career, download my “Where Will You Draw The Line” Worksheet.

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About Maddie Potvin

Maddie-PotvinMaddie Potvin started her career in San Francisco working in the corporate retail & apparel industry after graduating from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. She held roles in buying, merchandising, operations and project management at companies like Macy’s. & Levi’s. After a decade working in the retail industry, she took a leap of faith and quit her job in order to craft the life she wanted instead of simply following one career path. She’s now been on her journey for nearly 3 years, pushing her way through the unknown and figuring out her own path. Recently, Maddie and her husband bought a camper van to feed their passion for exploration. You can follow along on her camper van adventures on Instagram.

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Episode Interview Transcript

Teaser (first ~15s): I was just really having a struggle with why this is no longer an environment for me where I feel like I’m thriving. I need to think about how I want to get out of this and move on.

Joseph: Okay, Maddie. Welcome to Career Relaunch. It’s good to talk with you again.

Maddie: Thanks, Joseph. It’s nice to connect with you again after quite a long time.

Joseph: Definitely. We last crossed paths in person I guess in San Francisco many years ago.

Maddie: Yes

Joseph: I’d love to start by having you tell me what’s going on right now and what you’re focused on in your career and your life.

Maddie: I recently left San Francisco actually about a year and a half ago and moved to Boulder, Colorado. One of the big things I’m focused on in life is growing roots here and building a community in our new home in Boulder, which has been pretty fun and an interesting adjustment in itself after spending almost 10 years in the Bay Area.

As far as my career, the biggest thing right now is I’m trying to figure out what my next step is. I left the Bay Area and left my corporate career path behind there. Since moving to Boulder, I’ve been working with my husband to help him startup his next business venture. I’m kind of at a place now where I’m exploring my next step, which has been interesting.

Joseph: We’ll definitely get into that. One thing I want to say is I just want to thank you for coming on the show because we normally feature people who have already begun the next chapter of their career, but in your case, like you mentioned, you’re still in the midst of figuring out what you want to do, which is actually where I think a lot of listeners are who tune in to this podcast.

Sometimes on these podcasts, you’ll hear people who have made it out already on the other end, and things seem amazing. I guess what you and I talked about before was it could be cool to just have a conversation with someone like you who’s in the midst of trying to figure things out.

I want to get to how you’re thinking through what your next steps are, but before we do that, you alluded to this, could we go back in time before you’re in Colorado? Go back to your days in San Francisco when you and I first crossed paths. Can you tell us a little bit about what you were up to before in the corporate retail and apparel space?

Maddie: When we met, way back when I was working for Macy’s in their West Coast headquarters, I graduated from the Michigan Business School and kind of fell into this opportunity to pursue a career in the corporate retail space.

I was working for Macy’s as a buyer, and probably after a year of being there, the company went through a major consolidation and actually shut down their West Coast headquarters. I got laid off pretty quickly into my career, which was an interesting place to find myself as a Michigan grad – one year out of school and feeling the effects of the recession.

Joseph: What was that like for you to get laid off reasonably quickly from your first job for a very well-known brand?

Maddie: I had had serious other challenging events personally. After graduating and moving across the country, that was the cherry on top of the sundae, the bad sundae. For me, I was kind of like, ‘You know what? I have no control over this situation.’ It really didn’t impact me as much as it probably could’ve had I not had other things also going on.

I’m actually really grateful for that happening to me so early on, because through other changes that I’ve experienced within large organizations throughout the rest of my career, I kind of knew how to ride those waves and not really let it impact me as it did some of the other people that I was working with. I just took it for what it was and figured out how to use it for myself.

I ended up taking a little bit of time off after that just to be in San Francisco and live there and not stress about having to find the next thing immediately, which was at times challenging because I did feel kind of like a little bit of a loser, not working, but it was actually really important for me to take that time.

It eventually led me to an opportunity to work for Cost Plus World Market, which then led me to eventually getting in an opportunity to work at Levi’s, which was such a great experience for me. I think if I had just jumped in to try to find something right away, I think I would’ve maybe found a job, but maybe not one that would’ve given me the experience that I got at Levi’s.

Joseph: One thing, Maddie, that I think a lot of people wonder about is after you get laid off—I remember during the time you’re talking about between 2008, 2009-ish, probably that time, I remember a lot of people getting laid off from their jobs—I’m just wondering, how much did, the fact that you got laid off, affect your prospects or your ability to eventually land your next roles, which sound like, once again, they’re a very well-known, reputable companies.

Maddie: At least within the Bay Area, I think a lot of companies really welcomed anybody that had worked at Macy’s with open arms. I don’t think it necessarily impacted me in a negative way, also not necessarily in a positive way. I think the challenge was just there’s only so many jobs in corporate retail to go around in that market, and so it took a little bit of time for everybody to get absorbed.

Joseph: What, ultimately, made you decide to leave Levi’s?

Maddie: I knew that that wasn’t going to be what I wanted to do forever. I saw all these executives, a lot of them were women. I saw them doing their jobs. I really respected them, and I appreciated them, but I was like, ‘I don’t want that to be me.’ I wasn’t going to sit and try to climb the corporate ladder.

For me, I wanted to pursue that path so that I could learn as much as I could, and get as many different experiences in different areas within a company. That was always in the back of my mind.

As far as when I actually got to a place where I realize that it was my time to go, I remember the moment I was at this big milestone meeting that I had planned where people had flown in from all over the world, and our leadership team is up there speaking. There’s a lot of really great, brilliant people at Levi’s. I was watching this leadership team and was just really having to struggle with why this is no longer an environment for me where I feel like I’m thriving, so I need to think about how I want to get out of this and move on.

Joseph: What do you think was the hardest part about walking away from all of that, in spite of the fact that it sounds like it was quite clear for you that this wasn’t where you wanted to remain?

Maddie: It wasn’t that hard for me actually, because once I make up my mind about something I’m pretty sure about it. As my next step of, ‘I need to start figuring out what my exit looks like, and when that’s going to happen.’ My next step to doing that was working with a coach.

He wasn’t a career coach. He was really more, I would say, a life coach. He really just helped me reframe my perspective on life and really helped me understand that I have choice in my life. The cultural pressures that are out there: You have to have a solid salary. You have to have benefits that your company pays for. You have all these things that keep people in these corporate jobs. At the end of the day, everybody has choice every single day and how they spend their time and what they choose to do.

I worked with him for six months or so, and that really helped me get to a place where I was very confident and sure. It really took the fear out of it.

Joseph: For those people out there listening to this, Maddie, who are maybe in a situation where they’re feeling a little bit afraid of making that leap, was there anything in particular that you can remember from those sessions that helped you take the fear out of making the move?

Maddie: One thing was the worst-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is that we have to leave San Francisco and move in with one of our parents and live with our parents and get a job that we don’t love but can totally do. That was the worst-case scenario. When you actually break it down and look at the truth and take some of the fears out, it makes it a little bit easier to make those leaps.

The other thing that my coach got me to think about was, ‘When you’re 90 years old, you’re a little old lady, you’re all wrinkled, and you’re sitting on your front porch on your rocking chair, and you look back at your life, are you going to be proud of yourself with the accomplishments that you would have if you continued to work for Levi’s or another big company and just really did the corporate grind? Is that going to make you feel proud?’

‘Or if you take the leap and you stumble and you fall, and it eventually leads you to something great, you’re giving yourself a chance to have a completely different trajectory. When you look back on your life, how do you want to feel?’ Everybody always has a choice. Nobody’s ever stuck in a situation. You do have a choice to make stuff to get out of that or at least try different things.

Joseph: What did you decide to do next then?

Maddie: Right around this time, my husband and I got engaged. Also around this time, my husband who had started and run a green building consulting company in the Bay Area for about eight years, he was going to be peeling off of that company and going on his own. We saw both of our paths converging to this place, where we were potentially both not going to be working, so we decided to take some time off together and travel and get married and decide where we wanted to live and really use the time to define and shape what we wanted our life to be and not let that be dictated by our careers or anything else.

We traveled a lot. We did a two-month honeymoon and a camper van in Europe and had a lot of fun. That time is going to be one of those moments where we’re always going to look back on in our life as a really pivotal moment.

Joseph: I think we’ve all seen probably on, for me mostly, Instagram, where you see these people doing these travels or taking a little bit of a hiatus from work. It’s great if you have the opportunity to do that, but I’m always curious what’s happening behind the scenes because it looks so incredible and amazing. I’ve never done it myself, but I just wondered how it actually goes versus what you envisioned.

Maddie: It is great to have that freedom and to have all these different experiences. It is also really isolating. I didn’t realize how much of my identity was wrapped up in my job. Even if it isn’t a job that you are passionate about, it’s still a big piece of who you are, and it does give you a sense of purpose.

Once the traveling and the fun was done and we decided to move to a new place was when it really got hard. The reality of all that has been really, really challenging.

Joseph: So you finished up your travels, and you moved to Colorado, right?

Maddie: Yes.

Joseph: I think when we spoke before, what ended up happening was you eventually got involved with your husband’s real estate endeavors. I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about that and specifically what it was like for you to go into business with your husband.

Maddie: It kind of happened organically. It wasn’t super intentional. I think that that, maybe, was something that I would go back in time and really be more intentional about defining how we were going to work together and why we were working together and just really getting on the same page with that, but it ended up happening a little bit more organically.

The reason why it happened was because our skillsets are very complementary. When we work well together, we feel like we can take on the whole world. Of course if he needs help in these areas that I have the expertise in, why wouldn’t you? Moving to a new place where I don’t have a network, it was kind of like ‘Alright, at least I can start doing this while I’m meeting people here and building a network and all that.’

The reality of working together is it’s just hard. A lot of people will say that. I think it’s especially hard when you’re building something from scratch together, because there are so many decisions every single day that need to made. The two of us were opposite on how we think about things and how we approach things, so as you can imagine, that becomes pretty challenging when you’re in a loving relationship with somebody.

It reminds me of an example: when a high school teenage girl, their mom suggests something, and the girl rolls her eyes and is like, ‘That’s so stupid.’ Then the cool friend’s mom says the same thing, and it’s like the greatest idea.

Just like the people that you love, sometimes, it’s hard to hear them in the ways that you want to, so it’s been interesting.

The other thing for me that I’ve learned is that I kind of swung the pendulum too far. I am used to working at these huge companies, these global businesses, interacting with hundreds of people every day. Then I moved myself to a new place that’s a smaller city. I’m working out of my house with one other person who’s my spouse. For me, it was just too big of a shift for me. I think I really struggled with that.

Something that I’ve done recently, which we’ve talked about a little bit, is I ended up renting a desk at a co-working space just to get out of the house.

Joseph: That’s where you are right now, right?

Maddie: That’s where I am right now, yes. That has been really, really helpful. I really wish that I would’ve done this a year ago. I think that maybe my husband and I could work together still, but you know what? You live and you learn.

Joseph: Right. What do you like about working in the co-working space there?

Maddie: It’s just about having a place to get up and go to everyday.

When I left Levi’s I was like, ‘I want total flexibility. I could totally work from home. I could be a remote person.’ I’ve realized that that’s actually not a good environment for me. That’s not a good situation. I thrive in a little bit more of a collaborative environment, and I need to have that social interaction with people.

For me, just physically being in a place that is not my house, and having a place I can go and create a little bit of a structure around has been amazing and simply interacting with other people and talking to other people, whether it’s about working things or not – just the simple fact of social interaction.

It’s interesting because I totally thought I was an anomaly by feeling that way, but now that I’m here and talking to other people that have joined this space, some people were like, ‘I thought I was depressed. I couldn’t get out of bed, and I was about to see somebody.’ Some other girls were like, ‘We should make T-shirts that say, “I’m not depressed. I just work from home.”’ There is something, I think, to just being in an environment with other people, whether or not you’re actually working together, that changes your mindset.

Joseph: The last thing I want to talk with you about, Maddie—before we wrap up here with one of your interesting project that just kicked off, I think, a couple of weeks ago, which I want to talk about—is the fact that you’re in a transition right now. Like I said at the beginning, sometimes, we catch up with people after they’ve already begun the next chapter of their career. In your case, you’re actually in the process of figuring that out. Can you just give us a glimpse into what’s happening right now with you in terms of how you’re thinking about what’s next?

Maddie: It’s just been messy. When you’ve been in an environment where there’s always a clear path and a clear understanding of what is next, to be in the complete opposite, it’s like you’re a fish out of water. I struggle a lot with what is the right thing for me to do next.

I’m at this place where I just really want to get back in and be doing something and be part of a team again. The fastest way for me to get that would be to do something similar to what I was doing before, maybe a smaller company, but I was having a little bit of a struggle with that because I felt like I was selling out on myself.

On the other side, I really am looking a little stability. I’m looking for these social elements and things like that. I was pursuing that for a while.

Even since we’ve talked a few weeks ago, my mind has changed. I’m kind of shifting directions again. Sometimes, that’s hard because you are like constantly doubting yourself and trying to constantly reassess – are your efforts leading you in the right direction or not?

Right now, I’m exploring what’s out here in Boulder. There’s a ton of opportunity here. Because it’s smaller, it’s even much more so about who you know, so I’m really focusing right now just on networking and meeting as many people as I can here, which has been fun, but it’s also really pushed me out of my comfort zone. You’re constantly vulnerable with people, and I hate when somebody asks me, ‘What do you do?’ and I’m like, ‘Do you have like 20 minutes for me?’

You also don’t realize that in a job, you have a full day of constant reinforcement of what you’re doing. That really gives you a baseline of just general confidence in yourself. When that’s stripped away, I’ve never been somebody that has not really been confident in myself. This experience for me has been a total 180. I’ve been shocked at how much just not having a job impacts your confidence. You just feel like a loser.

On top of that, having to put yourself out there to go talk to people, it’s crazy.

Joseph: I was chuckling earlier, Maddie, because I think you have so precisely described what it’s like to be in a transition, because I’ve been there myself in the past. You get asked these questions, ‘What do you do?’ and you aren’t ‘doing anything’ at least professionally in that moment, and that feels really awkward.

You have lost a part of your professional identity at a time when you actually need to feel confident in yourself. Your situation is chipping away at your confidence all the time.

It’s this really tough transitional period. If anybody’s been through that, and I have myself, it really does test you. It really is hard to keep your psychology positive during those times.

Another thing that you mentioned there, which really resonated with me, was the idea that when you’re on your own, it is very easy to get lost in a downward spiral of thoughts. I’m not talking about anything clinical or anything but just keeping yourself motivated.

I watched a movie with my wife last weekend called ‘Brad’s Status.’ I don’t know if you’ve seen it.

Maddie: No, I’m going to write it down though.

Joseph: It’s really good. It’s a comedy. It features Ben Stiller, and it’s about this guy who is stuck in his mind related to how he stacks up compared to the other guys he was friends with in college and feeling like he’s just not quite as far along as they are. It literally is him lying awake at night wondering if he’s a failure or not.

I’ve mentioned the movie because I think it relates to some of the things you were talking about, about the psychology of a transition being so difficult.

Just one more question about this before we wrap up: how do you personally manage to keep going during those times when you’re feeling a little bit like, ‘I don’t know if I can keep doing this.’ How do you manage that?

Maddie: I try to just know that there’s going to be ups and downs. I just know that.

When I’m feeling great, and I’m feeling momentum, and I feel like what I’m doing is leading me towards something, I really try to maximize that, and I try to just push myself – not think and not doubt myself and just reach out to people and work off of that momentum.

When I’m feeling down, if I’m getting really discouraged, I try to be as kind to myself as I can and not beat myself up more. Sometimes, it is just like taking a little bit of a break from it and spending energy on some other things that make me happy.

I’ve gotten involved with a couple of volunteer opportunities within Boulder that have been really great for my soul. Things like that that fill me up in other ways and give the other things a little bit of a backseat. That seems to help me.

Also—and I’m not just saying this to you to butter you up—listening to the Career Relaunch Podcasts and other similar stories of people that have gone through transitions like this has really helped me. When I’m really feeling crappy, I will turn on an episode, and I’ll be like, ‘Okay, you’re not alone. There are other people that have been there. They’ve gone through it, so you just got to keep trucking on.’

Just that reinforcement that you’re not crazy for what you’re doing and that it is going to all work out, just reminding yourself of that has been super helpful for me.

Joseph: First of all, that’s really great to hear that these stories that we feature on this show, including yours, are sort of a way of providing people with companionship on what is otherwise, or can be, a rather lonely journey whenever you step off the beaten path. That’s great to hear.

Speaking of things, you mentioned, that are good for your soul, I would like to wrap up with what you’re doing right now. I’ve been following you on Instagram, and I would love to hear a little bit more about your new adventure of building out your Mercedes Sprinter Van. Can you tell us about what that’s all about?

Maddie: Yes, our beast. I mentioned earlier, we did this epic honeymoon, two months in Europe in a camper van that we rented. It was just a crazy idea my husband had for our honeymoon, and I said, ‘That sounds awesome. Let’s do it,’ but neither of us had really traveled that way before. We just totally fell in love with the lifestyle and what it allowed us to do and see. When we came back from that trip, we were like, ‘Definitely, someday, we are getting a van here and explore the states.’

We bought a van. We waited a year for it to come because they’re in high demand. We got it back in November, and we’ve just been enjoying it on its own. It’s a total metal shell. There’s nothing inside of it. Our goal right now is to just get it ready for summer camping. It’s going to be quite an undertaking.

Joseph: Definitely. That sounds like a cool adventure. If people want to follow you on Instagram to follow along with your camper van adventures, Maddie, where could they go?

Maddie: We just created an Instagram account to document us building it out and also some of the adventures that we go on, because all of our friends and family are very interested in what we’re doing. Our handle is ThePotVanAdventures. The name is just a play on our last name. There’s no other association to it.

Anybody’s who’s ever thought about doing it, we love to help share any of our insights and how we navigated through buying it, because it’s something we’re super passionate about.

Joseph: We’ll include a link to your profile on the show notes. Maybe we can also include a couple of pictures for people to check out on the episode page. Very exciting.

Maddie, thanks so much for telling us all about your career journey, especially the realities of career change, moving geographies, and how you managed the ups and downs of a transition.

Maddie: Thanks for talking to me.

Joseph: Absolutely. Best of luck with the camper van adventures. Hopefully, the next time we connect, maybe we can talk again about what you’ve decided to do during the next stage of your career.

Maddie: Thanks, Joseph.

About Joseph Liu

Joseph Liu is dedicated to helping people relaunch their careers and do more meaningful work. As a public speaker, career consultant, and host of the Career Relaunch® podcast, he shares insights from his decade of experience relaunching global consumer brands to help professionals to more effectively market their personal brands.

About Joseph Liu

Joseph Liu helps aspiring professionals relaunch their careers to do work that matters. As a keynote speaker, career & personal branding consultant, and host of the Career Relaunch podcast, his passion is helping people gain the clarity, confidence, and courage to pursue truly meaningful careers. Having gone through three major career changes himself, he now shares insights from building & relaunching global consumer brands to empower professionals and business owners to build & relaunch their personal brands.