When you follow a non-linear career path, it allows you to diversify your skills and experiences, but it can also create challenges when trying to explain your career narrative to others in your professional network, interviewers, and colleagues. Identifying the common thread that unifies all your experiences is one way to connect the dots for yourself and others.

In Career Relaunch episode 66, journalist turned Wall Street analyst turned rabbi Tod Jacobs explains why having a life outside of work is so critical to your overall happiness and what it takes to figure out where to focus your career energies. In the Mental Fuel segment, I’ll explain how I discovered the common thread that unifies the wide range of experiences in my own career.

Key Career Insights

  1. If you look closely, you may realize your disparate career experiences have some common themes that unite them.
  2. Find the overlap between the things you’re good at and the things you love. That’s what you should be devoting your energies.
  3. You have to take the time to figure out who you are and what you find meaningful before you dive head-first into a certain career direction.
  4. Make sure you develop other aspects of your life outside of your actual work, which allows you to derive more meaning from both.
  5. Focusing on what you can give in your life and career (rather than solely on what you get) allows you to focus on those things you can control and ultimately reap the benefits you deserve.

Listener Challenge

During this episode’s Mental Fuel segment, my challenge to you, especially if you find yourself struggling to pitch your story to your target employer or client, was to: #1: dedicate some time to capture a written inventory of your skills and experiences, and #2: selectively hone in on those you feel are the most relevant to your future work. Try to highlight and reinforce those specific skills and experiences as part of your career narrative moving forward. Identifying a common theme that ties all your experiences together can serve as a convenient, unifying headline you can use when describing your career story to others.

About Tod Jacobs, rabbi and co-founder of the David Robinson Institute

Tod JacobsTod Jacobs is the Director of the David Robinson Institute for Jewish Heritage in Jerusalem, which he co-founded in 2005. Prior to his current role there teaching and counseling his students and alumni, he worked on Wall Street as a leading authority on the telecommunications industry.

As a former managing director at JP Morgan and partner at Sanford C. Bernstein and Company, Tod acted as a frequent commentator to leading, newspapers, magazines and TV networks, and testified several times before the U.S. Congress as an expert on telecom and media policy. His credits in journalism, where he worked prior to Wall Street, include nominations for both the Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism and an Emmy Award.

He holds an MS in Journalism from Columbia University and an MA from Northwestern University. He’s recently published a book about marriage called Not a Partnership: Why We Keep Getting Marriage Wrong & How We Can Get it Right.

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Episode Interview Transcript

Teaser (first ~15s): Even though it seems like I have the crazy career going from screenwriting to journalism to broadcast journalism to Wall Street, I actually think that there is a certain thread that connects them. I don’t think that most rabbis think of themselves as being Wall Street analysts. It’s not as different as you might think.

Joseph: Good afternoon, Tod, and welcome to Career Relaunch. It is great to have you on the show.

Tod: Thank you very much, Joseph. It’s great to be here.

Joseph: I’m excited to have you on the show, Tod, because you’re our first guest based in Jerusalem. I’ve got a lot of things I’d like to talk with you about. We’re going to talk about your time as a journalist, your time on Wall Street, and also what prompted you to move from New York City to Israel which is where you’re based right now. Can you just start by telling me what you’ve been focused on in your career and your life there in Jerusalem?

Tod: I guess for the last 15 years, I have been pursuing a late-stage career, probably the last major career I’m going to have that I had at least in my plans. That is that I decided to leave Wall Street and come to Jerusalem to open up an institute with a mentor of mine. It’s called the David Robinson Institute for Jewish Heritage. It’s in Jerusalem.

I spend virtually all of my time now teaching classic Jewish subjects, philosophy, law, a little bit of kabbalistic wisdom, deep spiritual wisdom, and mentoring really a phenomenal group of young men who come from many different places in the world and many different backgrounds.

What unites them is that they’re all smart high-performing people who have finished college, who usually finished graduate school, who are pursuing careers, but then decide they want to take maybe a year off and maybe two years off of what they’re doing career-wise to figure out what makes them tick as human beings, get training in relationship building, and armed with that centered spiritual vision of what they want out of their life, they return to their careers with a new sense of vigor and idealism.

One of my colleagues and I wrote a book which is based upon a lot of the work that we do in the area of relationships. The authoring part of my career is really just sort of an offshoot of what I’ve been doing for the last 15 years.

Joseph: We’re going to come back to your time there as director. I know you haven’t always been the Director of the David Robinson Institute for Jewish Heritage, and you’ve got a really rich career that started off as a journalist. Could you tell us about your career, starting off as a journalist? I think you did a stint in screenwriting also, and then we can move forward from there.

Tod: The career really began with sort of a failed career in screenwriting. When I say ‘failed career,’ there was a group of us. I think there were three of us. We were all close friends. We were all writers. One of us was, not myself, one of the three was a film maker, one was a bit of a poet, and I was more of a journalistic writer by nature.

We decided to write a screenplay which we really almost never finished and never sold and never was able to do anything with it. I was waiting tables in New York City at the time to pay the bills. At some point, I just decided, ‘I just can’t go on like this. I have to get a real job,’ or at least what I thought then was a real job.

I applied to go to the Colombia University Graduate School of Journalism so that I could continue doing what’s one of the things I viewed as the key thing that love doing which is writing but bring into a professional environment where I could actually have a regular job, get a paycheck while doing something that I enjoy doing and thought I was relatively good at.

That took me into journalism. I can keep talking about the crazy things that happened in journalism, if you’d like.

Joseph: Why don’t you tell me a little bit about what you enjoyed about journalism and some of the challenges that you had to tackle during your time as an investigative journalist?

Tod: The beauty of being a journalist is just that incredible exposure to a lot of exciting and interesting things that are going on in life and the pressure to become experts in many, many different areas quickly, and to be able to communicate them to a broad audience who is not expert in those areas.

Via a strange series of events, I wound up falling as a student into a very, very big investigative story. I never had in mind that I was going to become an investigative journalist. I was sent to do a story that was about a company called Wedtech. Wedtech had started out as a little tool-and-die shop that had grown to become a company that not only was successful but had gone public, had made its owners wealthy and famous. I was sent up to do what we would call a puff piece, just showing what a great little company that is, take a few pictures, talk about how wonderful they are.

When I was up there, just something didn’t smell right. In going down to the SEC to get some filings on the company to find out about how their finances looked, I discovered some interesting data there which showed that some very, very powerful figures in the New York political world and in the New York business world seem to have been manipulating the company, taking control of it, and then handing it over to this guy to be more or less a puppet master in the company, or a front man I should say to the company, so that they could bill the government out of what turned out to be $100 million, $200 million or something like that.

The great ending to that story is that for one year as an investigative journalist, my partner and I were both nominated for Pulitzer Prizes for Investigative Journalism because it was such a gigantic story. It was good enough to get those credentials to then get me into broadcast journalism where I then spent the next couple of years basically making documentaries and working in broadcast.

Joseph: You’re a successful journalist. You’re nominated for a Pulitzer Award. You work in documentaries. What made you then want to transition into the world of Wall Street?

Tod: At a certain point, I decided with a friend of mine that we would launch out on our own and have our own production company. We got a little bit of venture capital funding just to pay the basic bills. We gave away a part of the company to somebody in order to do that.

About a year later, we absolutely totally failed as a company. At that point, I was married. I don’t think we were expecting our first child yet. It was kind of like in the near future, we thought. I had no money. I was out of a job. I just literally, not knowing what to do, had to start thinking about the next step.

I wound up running into another friend of mine who had been working on Wall Street as a bond trader. He was working for Salomon Brothers at the time. He said to me, ‘Well, you know, you seem like a smart guy.’ He said, ‘What do you view as your core talents?’ I said, ‘Writing and reporting. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last couple of years: writing and reporting.’ He said, ‘Okay, writing and reporting.’

He said, ‘Okay, how are you with numbers? Are you good with numbers?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ I took calculus in college, but I haven’t really done anything with any math or economics.’ He said, ‘Well, if you think you’re even okay at it.’ He said, ‘I’d suggest you try and get a job as an analyst.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘Well, they are these people who kind of investigate and report about a given industry and given sets of companies.’

I had literally no idea what to do, but he told me, ‘Go get a Wall Street Journal, collect all the names of the Wall Street firms you can find in the advertisements, and write letters to all their directors you’ve researched.’

The truth was we skipped over one little step in broadcast, which is that I had actually got nominated for an Emmy Award for a short film that I made for NBC. The film that I had made, there was a person who raised $1,000 for me to hire the camera crew for that. He raised it from a guy named Sanford C. Bernstein. This Mr. Bernstein had given me $1,000 for that project. I had never met him.

In the letter I wrote to him, I said, ‘You once gave me $1,000, and I turned it into an Emmy Award. Imagine what I can do if I were working for you,’ or something like that. He thought that was humorous, and it was enough just to get my foot in the door and get an interview. Very, very happily, Sanford Bernstein hired me.

They hired me as a total grunt. I’d never used a computer before. I’d only used these old typewriters, the manual typewriters in the newsrooms, but they figured I knew certain things an MBA student know, and so I spent the next two and a half years as a junior analyst before they promoted me to being a senior analyst.

Joseph: As someone who didn’t start his career on Wall Street, what was it like for you to work on Wall Street? I’d be curious to hear about what you liked and maybe what you didn’t like so much.

Tod: There were different stages. The initial couple of years were incredibly exhilarating on one hand, because the learning curve was amazingly steep. You can just imagine walking in, having a little bit of a sense that you’re sort of the smart guy, you know how to write, you know how talk to management, you’re not a pushover, but on the other hand, you don’t know anything that anybody around you knows.

Happily, they gave me enough rope and enough time to get more and more responsibility over a period of about two and a half years. Slowly, slowly, I came up to a point where I actually had some sense of what I was doing. That was a year of amazing learning curve and amazing stress coming along with it.

I wound up being a senior analyst with Sanford Bernstein. I was at Sanford Bernstein 11 years altogether and then got hired away by JP Morgan, where I went for the last couple of years, I guess the last two and a half, three years in my career.

Joseph: I know at that time, you’d also had some children along the way. I think when we spoke before, I think you told me you have four kids.

Tod: Yes, we have four kids. The fourth of them was born, by the way, during a meeting, a conference call that I was having with JP Morgan bankers and the company. As my wife was being wheeled into the OR to have this baby, I was on the phone with these guys saying, ‘You must let me off the phone. I got to go. I have to be part of this birth here.’ That one I’ll never forget. That one was part of JP Morgan.

Joseph: On this show, we talked about transitions and what compels people to make major changes. In your case, I know you eventually made a major decision to not only move countries but also move away from the world of Wall Street and also change your role. What made you want to make such a major change and eventually move to Jerusalem?

Tod: Throughout my career, I always try to make sure that I had things going on in my personal and private life which I felt were intrinsically meaningful.

As much as I loved the time at Wall Street, which is an incredible time, incredible experience, I never felt that trying to make money was the highest calling of a human being. I did feel that it could give a person the tools and the stature and the assets to really make a difference in the world if you could extract yourself from doing that full-time.

I wound up working for a couple of years at JP Morgan, and I just felt it. There’s going to be this time before I become too old, before my kids become too old, where if I’m not going to make a big move to go try something very idealistic and not money-oriented, that I’ll never be able to do it again.

I had been, sort of quietly on the side, speaking to a mentor of mine for many, many years about the possibility of starting with him an institution in Jerusalem. It was years in the making while on Wall Street but never really knowing if it’s going to come to fruition.

At a certain point, I just decided we have to fish or cut bait at this point, so I quit my job, and we moved to Jerusalem. I went back to full-time study to become a rabbi, basically, and then we opened up that institution in 2005. I have been up and doing that for close to 15 years now.

Joseph: What was it like for you to go from Wall Street analyst to rabbi?

Tod: Had I not had the Wall Street experience, I do not believe I would have had the confidence or the wherewithal, really in anyway, from the know-how standpoint, from an asset standpoint, to be able to do such a venture.

In many ways, I viewed it as a next step, a progression, which as I look back, even though it seems like I had the crazy career going from screenwriting to journalism to broadcast journalism to Wall Street, I actually think that there’s a certain thread even into what I’m doing now.

I don’t think most rabbis think of themselves as being Wall Street analysts, but in a way, there are so many similarities in terms of the boiling down and communication of complex concepts and hope that the person’s able to then integrate it and take it all to the next level themselves. It’s not as different as you might think, but it’s obviously got a whole spiritual component to it, which makes it, for me at least, much more personally gratifying and meaningful.

Joseph: It’s really interesting, Tod, because I think one of the things that people sometimes struggle with is how to talk about their careers if they have a wide array of interest or they’ve made some pretty major career pivots. As you mentioned, you’ve had a wide range of professional experiences. How did you go about figuring out what the common thread was across your experiences and how to clearly and concisely communicate that to other people?

Tod: I do think that most of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, can spend a little time trying to think about, first of all, ‘what do I love to do’ and try and list the things that you love to do, irrespective of whether they are professionally oriented or not, and then try and figure out what are you better at than other people – not just good at, but where do you have an actual competitive edge?

That may have nothing to do with what you love, but if you have a list of things you’re good at and you have a list of things you love, you can compare those lists and put them together, and you could try and circle something at the top of both of those lists, where ‘not only am I good at it but I also love it.’ That is pretty much going to define what you should be pursuing for your whole career.

In a way, I always knew at heart that what I was better at than other people was writing and communicating, taking ideas that were complex and then figuring out different ways to communicate them to other people. Maybe one of the big lessons of this whole story is all I really knew was what my competency was, and I sort of trusted that, over time, I would keep falling into the right things, those opportunities would happen.

Almost none of those opportunities could have been predicted before they happened. Certainly, they could not have been generated by me. I think a lot of life is just figuring out what can you do, what can you do well, and try and stick with it, and then be flexible enough and opportunistic enough to try to find places to make it real. I think if a person can do that, you can have a career that will be extremely unpredictable in many cases, but often quite meaningful and often quite successful if you just keep sticking to what your core competency is.

Joseph: That’s a great segue, Tod, into one of the last things I want to talk with you about before we wrap up with your book. That’s some of the lessons that you’ve learned about yourself in your own career, having navigated and made changes in your career multiple times.

The first question I had actually relates to some of your observations there at the David Robinson Institute, having crossed paths with so many individuals who are taking breaks from their careers. What do you think is a common mistake that people make when it comes to thinking about where to take their careers?

Tod: One of the biggest mistakes people make is they rush headlong into their careers before they really figure out who they are as human beings – what makes them tick, how do they want to work, do they have the wherewithal to go into a really competitive, hyper-aggressive type of a business like Wall Street or certain parts of tech or certain parts of consulting or certain parts of law.

To the contrary, they may have been guided that way by their parents or by their schools, but maybe they want to be a social worker. Maybe what really turns them on is helping other people, and therefore, they can be a great therapist, or they can be a great nurse.

People sell themselves short. They do what society or their parents or their community pushes them into, without actually trying to figure out if that actually fits them and if it has anything to do with what they’re real ideals are, and by the way, and if it’s really the place where they can shine the most relative to others, which again, I keep coming back to. Competitive advantage is a very important thing to have in your career, whether you’re going to a psychologist or a nurse or whether you’re going to try and go to Wall Street or go to consulting.

To me, one of the important things is take some time and figure out who you are, the extent to which you can develop things in your life which are meaningful to you, which are not directly related to your job, whether it’s community work, whether it’s volunteering, whether it is deep involvement in your family or community. The more you have in your life which gives you meaning outside of work, the greater longevity you’ll have in your job, the less stress you’ll have in your job.

There’s almost no business now where there’s not ups and downs, where there’s not a lot of competition, where there’s not a fear factor and anxiety factor. The more you’re the person that can stand behind that job, who has your own substance, your own life, some meaning that you’re pursuing and a bit of psychological distance from your job, the extent to which you have all of these things is I believe the extent to which you’ll be much more successful on the job ironically than the people who have nothing else, nothing else but their job. I’ve seen that over and over and over and over again.

My advice really strongly to people is you’ve got to figure out what’s meaningful in your life, and make sure that you are developing that at the same time you’re developing your career.

Joseph: You’re also someone, Tod, who has successfully made a few career pivots. What’s something that you wish you had known about making such major changes, in your case, multiple times that you now know?

Tod: The extent to which you can cannot force these changes to occur and these opportunities to occur, if a person understood that at an early stage, I think there would be a bit less stress and anxiety associated with their career in general.

The idea that we don’t control the world like we would like to, the earlier you can get an understanding of that, in a sense, the more flexible and malleable you become with respect to your career, the more relaxed and healthy you’ll be, which again, always brings you back to bigger, better employment with much more longevity in your job.

Joseph: What have you learned about yourself along the way of your twisting career journey?

Tod: There are a lot of people that, based upon unhealthy relationships in their careers, make life extremely rocky for the people around them. I learned early on to try not to do that and then to trust in yourself and work really, really hard and try and develop things outside of your life to make life richer and more livable.

Joseph: Speaking about relationships, Tod, I want to wrap up by talking about your book, which is titled Not a Partnership: Why We Keep Getting Marriage Wrong and How We Can Get It Right, which you co-authored with Peter Lynn and released in April 2019. Let’s talk about the title first. What did you mean when you said ‘not a partnership’?

Tod: The way many people approach their marriage is pretty much like people approach partnerships in the business world. If you look at the statistics on partnerships, you know what you find? Most of them fail.

The way we tend to look at ourselves is ‘I’m doing everything I’m supposed to be doing, and you’re not pulling your weight.’ That leads to bitter recriminations. It leads to lots of in-fighting. It leads to lots of failed partnerships, frankly in the business place. When you port that perspective into your marriage, it is corrosive. It is destructive, and people spend much or their marital energy resenting their spouse, because after all, ‘I’m doing my part, and you’re never doing your part.’ That’s just the absolute worst mindset to go into marriage with.

Joseph: This isn’t a show about marriage, but I cannot let you go, Tod, without asking you at least a few questions to get your tips on marriage and get your perspectives on things. I’ve been married now for about seven years, and I’m always interested in this topic.

One of the things that you say early on in your book is that the job of each spouse is to help the other in every way. I’d be curious how you think about that topic, especially as it relates to the context of someone’s career, if they are not feeling so great about their job or their career.

Tod: If I’m going to have a successful marriage, any successful relationship by the way, I really need to be thinking about what are your needs, and how can I help you fulfill them, how can I help you accomplish your goals. We need a total mindset change that says rather than marriage being someplace where I’m entitled to get from the other, it’s a place which creates a whole vehicle in which I can now become a giver.

People become bigger and better people as they give. Research shows that they are happier the more they give. When a person begins giving to the other, the other always responds by giving back. The actual fruit of giving tends to be that you awaken giving in the other person.

When it comes to our career, there’s a sense of excellence, a sense that we are held accountable, and a sense that we got to work really hard to be experts in any arena that we’re going to be in in our careers. Marriage is no less complex than any career that any of us faces.

By the way, what’s a great proof for that? How many people do we know who are very successful in their careers and extremely unsuccessful in their personal relationships? Because guess what? A personal relationship also requires learning, studying, finding out what a healthy relationship looks like, some version of a review process where I at least find out how am I doing as a spouse.

When I begin to take some of those lessons that are true and obvious and self-evident in the business world and every other arena that I operate in and I begin porting that sense of responsibility, professionalism, desire to keep learning, desire to keep working and the willingness to look at honestly who I’m doing, again, I become a better spouse. I give more, the marriage becomes more something that blossoms more, and I get a lot more meaning and pleasure and happiness.

Joseph: The other thing you mentioned in your book, and I think this is also applicable to our careers, was that as problems arise in our marriages, we seek solutions, but we often get stuck at the surface level. I think you give the example of how great and mediocre doctors differ in their approaches to treating illnesses. What did you mean by this, and how do you think this applies to marriages?

Tod: Let’s take the classic example. I go to a doctor, and I say I’ve got an infected throat. You don’t have to be any better than a mediocre doctor to look at my throat and say, ‘Oh, throat infection. Okay, I’ll give you some antibiotics for that.’ That’s the mediocre doctor who basically reads symptoms and treats symptoms.

When I begin looking at underlying causation, I can begin treating much deeper levels of your health, which will then reflect themselves eventually and getting fewer signs of infections and fewer throat infections.

When it comes to marriage, it’s like the husband who leaves his socks around the room, rather than putting them in the hamper. The real problem is his wife wants him to stop doing the sock on their floor thing, but really what the much deeper issue is obviously he’s just not very thoughtful, and he doesn’t really value his wife’s time as much as he values his time. ‘I don’t have the extra two seconds to grab my socks and go put them in the hamper. Oh, but she obviously does.’

That’s a fundamental character issue that has to be worked on. How do I think about another person? How do I make space for another person? How do I elevate the needs of another person to at least where they’re as important as my own? That is a lot of the real work that has to get done within the context of marriage.

Again, once again, in other arenas, we do these things naturally, because we know that there will be consequences if we don’t.

Joseph: You also mentioned in your book that it’s really important. I think this is one of the pillars you mentions of having a successful marriage is to keep things fresh. You go on to saying in that chapter that you have to prioritize your spouse.

I have found that, especially in the context of having children—we’ve got an 18-month old at home—or anything else that takes up space in your life, this can become tough. Do you have any simple tips on how to keep things fresh?

Tod: I’ll give you one practical piece of advice which is hard to do. I’ve actually had students, husbands and wives. I’ve sometimes asked them to literally sign a contract. I even put an example of a contract in the book. Sign a contract with each other that says, ‘We’re going to make sure that every Tuesday night, we’re going to work as hard as we can to make sure we have a date night, that we get out of the house, and we don’t talk about the kids, and we don’t talk about work. We talk about each other. It shouldn’t be about solving practical issues. It should be about constantly remembering why we got married, why we fell in love, why we price each other so much, why we like spending time together.’

When people do that, people are worried, ‘Oh my gosh, my kid is going to be traumatized, because she’s going to wake up in the middle of the night, and there’s going to be a stranger there babysitting.’ The happiness engendered by the two of you being in love, happy with each other, communicating well, having great intimacy and an over-flowing relationship would have much positive impact on the kid over an entire childhood than any little trauma and crying fit will have when you walk out and leave them with a babysitter or they wake up with a babysitters.

It has huge impact on the home, but it won’t happen unless you prioritize it.

Joseph: I’m going to keep that in mind, Tod. I’m going to share some of this with my own wife. I’m also going to keep that in mind for myself. There are some really great tips there.

If people want to learn more about your perspectives on marriage and get some great tips on how to have a successful marriage and to check out your book, Not a Partnership, where can they go?

Tod: Amazon.com, the book is called, Not a Partnership, and they’ll find us there.

Joseph: Cool, I definitely recommend people check it out.

I just wanted to thank you so much, Tod, for taking your time out of your busy day to tell us more about your life as a rabbi and how you made your career pivots, being born to figuring out who you are, and also sharing a few useful tips about marriage right there at the end.

Thanks so much and best of luck with the book and all that you’re doing for your community there in Jerusalem.

Tod: Thank you so much. I appreciate it very much.

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.