Welcome to the debut episode of Career Relaunch!
What does it take to leave a comfortable, stable job behind to pursue your lifelong dream? In this very first episode of Career Relaunch, Kelly Cara, a former Educational Researcher turned Health-Supportive Chef & Lifestyle Wellness Educator shares her perspectives on giving yourself permission to do work you enjoy, taking the brave steps to start that journey, and understanding the tradeoffs involved when you leave stability behind. I also share highlights from my own career reinvention story then share thoughts on how you can start reinventing yourself.
- Acknowledging you’re not satisfied with your day-job is the first step toward moving onto something more fulfilling and meaningful.
- Career change doesn’t happen overnight. It happens by taking small, manageable steps toward the life you want, then being brave enough to leave the status quo behind and take the plunge to make it happen.
- Initiating a change is the hardest part of change, but sometimes, you just have to force yourself to start somewhere.
Tweetables to Share
Free Tool: Define Your Starting Point
During this episode’s Mental Fuel segment, I talked about how starting somewhere, even if imperfect, is important to creating the career change you desire. To help you begin, you can download my “Defining Your Starting Point” Worksheet
About Kelly Cara, Health-Supportive Chef & Lifestyle Wellness Educator
Kelly Cara is a certified health-supportive chef and Complete Health Improvement Program (CHIP) facilitator. After completing a master’s degree in experimental psychology, Kelly worked for several years in a behavioral health facility and then for a higher education institution as a researcher. Through those career experiences, Kelly discovered a passion for educating others about health, wellness, and how to live one’s most vibrant life through research-supported nutritional and lifestyle modifications. She and her husband recently started their own business, V-Life, to turn that passion into a viable career. Learn more about her culinary adventures at Natural Epicurean.
If you’ve been pondering a culinary career yourself, check out Natural Epicurean’s Plant-Based Culinary School. They also offer a Career Changers and Entrepreneurs Scholarship, which you can learn more about here.
Finally, if you want to learn more about food virtually, Natural Epicurean has recently launched an exciting new online learning platform. So be sure to check that out too.
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Episode Interview Transcript
Teaser (first ~15s): I’d been in a place that wasn’t getting me closer to my life goals, that when I finally gave myself permission to go and do what it was that I wanted to do, that relief was definitely a sense of saying, ‘I’m not sure where it’s going to lead me, but it’s going to be okay.’
Joseph: Kelly, thanks so much for joining me today. I’m super excited to talk to you. Thanks for being willing to share your story here on Career Relaunch.
Kelly: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
Joseph: What’s keeping you busy right now in Austin?
Kelly: A lot of things going on. I’m working full-time as a manager of an up-and-coming, rapidly growing bakery here in Austin. It’s all vegan and gluten-free.
Joseph: What’s the name of the bakery?
Kelly: The name of the bakery is Better Bites Bakery here in Austin. That’s paying the bills, and it’s given me a lot of good experience in my new career area. I’ve also got a lot of side projects more related to wellness education and nutrition. That’s really my focus, so I’m keeping busy with a lot of that. Not a lot of free time right now, but recipe development, teaching a little bit at a culinary school down here called Natural Epicurean, also getting my own business started.
Joseph: Very cool. You have also been working as a vegan baker. Is that right?
Kelly: Yes, the bakery that I work in now, I started as a full-time lead baker over there. We’re now fully vegan, and I transitioned from the lead baker position into the management position in May of 2015.
Joseph: I definitely want to hear more about your journeys as a vegan baker, but before we get to that, I would love to just go back in time a little bit. When you and I reconnected, 2013 I think, you were back in our hometown of Springfield, Missouri, right?
Joseph: Just so people know, you and I have known each other since 1990. Then I left Springfield in 1996 for college, and then I know you went off to the Peace Corps. Then after 17 years, we reconnected. I was wondering if you could just take us back to the moment before you were doing the vegan bakery and the culinary school. What were you up to at the time?
Kelly: I was working full-time as the Assessment Research Coordinator for Missouri State University. What that means is I had a Master’s degree in Experimental Psychology, and I was teaching Statistics at the university just per course. Then I got this full-time position in the Assessment Office, doing a lot of research around educational benchmarks, anything related to student learning, student motivation. We’re looking at GPAs and test scores and doing all kinds of research like that.
The reason I even got into that field was that I was interested in wellness – specifically mindfulness, being able to live your best life by paying attention to the world around you, paying attention to how you feel, paying attention to the people around you. The research I was doing at the university wasn’t about that, so I was starting to feel some job dissatisfaction.
My job paid well, and it had really nice benefits. I was in my hometown with my family, and my husband’s family were all there. We had a good apartment. Life wasn’t bad by any means, but I just did not enjoy going in to work every day because it wasn’t focused on anything that I was really that passionate about or interested in. The skills I was using were valuable, but the topics themselves were not really that interesting to me.
Joseph: This is going to sound like a strange question, but how did you know you weren’t happy?
Kelly: I kind of came in in the morning, I did my work, and I left, and I tried not to think about it when I left. I think that’s a good clue.
Joseph: It’s a good sign.
Kelly: I’d heard somebody somewhere say, you should try to live your passion, and if you’re able to get paid for what you love doing, then you’re a lucky person. I thought the things that I do in my free time, on my own time, have nothing to do with what I’m doing at work, and I’m really interested in these other things. These other things feel much more engaging and fulfilling for me, and I’m not getting that at work. Those were all telltale signs that I wasn’t enjoying it.
I also wasn’t always taking good care of my health, and so during the first three years of that job, I didn’t feel vibrant.
Joseph: Why was that?
Kelly: It was a desk job, and I’d had pretty active jobs prior to that, being in Peace Corps, and I worked at a psychiatric hospital where I was up on my feet a lot, moving around, working with people. This was a desk job where I was sitting in an office with no windows in the attic floor of an old administrative building. I felt like my legs would ache as I was sitting there. I was getting vitamin D deficiency. I wasn’t in the sun.
I started going to yoga like crazy. I was actually coping with some of these work stresses with copious amounts of hot yoga. I thought, again, another telltale sign that something’s not working for me in my eight hours a day at work.
Joseph: How did that balance play out for you between what you’re doing at work, which wasn’t very enjoyable, and then all this stuff on your evenings and weekends, which you found a lot more enjoyable?
Kelly: It wasn’t enough to offset it, and I think that’s ultimately what led to the decision to make the career change: I wanted to do recipe testing and development, I wanted to start my own business, and I had written down all these ideas, waking up at 2:00 in the morning and thinking we’ve got to help people and let them know practical ways to make lifestyle changes. I’m writing all these ideas down but not having real time to dedicate to it. It was enough to kind of keep my non-work life interesting, but it wasn’t enough to be really fulfilling. I saw a lot of potential in the direction that I wanted to go, and I wasn’t able to pursue that with the amount of time or attention that I wanted to pursue it.
Joseph: When did you realize it needed to be more than this ‘middle of the night’ stuff?
Kelly: I don’t know what inspired this, but one day, I was sitting around in the evening with my husband. I was really feeling dissatisfied, and I asked myself the question—maybe we were having a conversation about it, maybe the lottery was on the TV or something—I was like, ‘What would I do with my life if I had a million dollars and could just stop and do whatever I wanted?’ The immediate response to that was go to culinary school, which was a surprise to me.
I’m vegan, and a big part of food in our household is about nutrition and what food can actually do to help heal you and to energize you and equip you for life. I was thinking, ‘Man, I’d love to go to culinary school. I wonder if there’s a vegan culinary school out there.’ I get on the computer and I look, and lo and behold, here’s Natural Epicurean Academy of Culinary Arts in Austin, Texas, 10 hours south from where we lived in Springfield.
I think just knowing that that place existed was enough for me to say, ‘This is something that I actually really want to do. How can I make this happen? Is it possible for me to do this?’ This would mean moving to Austin, at least for the six-month program. It would mean completely shifting careers from researcher at a higher education institution to a culinary world. How do you explain that to anybody?
Joseph: Totally different.
Kelly: Knowing that my ultimate goal was to be helping people reach healthier, more well-balanced lives through nutrition and a variety of things, culinary was just going to be one piece of that. Just knowing that that resource was out there really made me start thinking about the possibility of change.
Joseph: What did you do next once you knew this was out there? Because this seems like a pretty big leap. Comfortable job, near your family, decent income, stable lifestyle, and then this leap into something totally different. What did you do the next day once you started to realize you wanted to pursue this?
Kelly: That night, I actually filled out a form on their website that was like, ‘Are you interested in learning more about the school?’ I filled it out, and for the next two years, I got emails from them saying, ‘When are you going to come to our school?’ Because of that, I constantly had this connection with them, and I was starting to have a dialogue with them:
‘Here’s my situation. I don’t know that I can leave right now, but I’m thinking about it. We’re going to have to save up some money if we’re going to do this.’
‘You don’t understand. My husband just started teaching, and now, we’re both going to have to uproot and move, or I’m going to have to find an apartment for six months. That seems kind of odd.’
I mean there was a lot to work through. Twenty-twelve was when I first had that experience, and then 2014 was when I actually started in the school. It was filling out a form. I guess really just taking the first step by asking that question: What would it mean for me to come and attend your school? Are people like me doing this? Is this something that you could see as being possible if I don’t want to leave my job and Springfield? I just had to start asking some questions.
Joseph: Can you take us to that day when you made the move out? What was that day like? I want to just imagine. That would just be full of excitement and nervousness. I’m just curious what that was like for you – that day when you moved to Texas.
Kelly: I was over the nerves by that point. I was very excited and relieved actually. I don’t want to say like a burden had been lifted because that probably happened the day I turned in my resignation for my position, but there was a sense of that too – this relief and a little bit of sadness leaving my apartment back home. We lived there for three or four years, and so there were some familiar things I’d grown up in Springfield. I had never lived somewhere else in the United States. I had lived other places overseas.
I am an adventurer and I do like to go travel to new places, but picking up and moving someplace else, I guess there was a little bit of this unknown. You’re just driving toward it physically, going to this place that I’ve never lived before. I’d say a lot of excitement.
I did have a lot of peace of mind though. By that time, I’d worked through a lot of the nervousness and the doubt. I was feeling pretty hopeful and excited to start my new culinary school. I mean it was a dream. That was something that I’d been wanting to do for two years, and four days later, I was going to be in my first class. It was exciting.
Joseph: Very interesting. There’s one word you used in there that I’d love to go back to. What you said was ‘relief.’ What was the relief about?
Kelly: I think the relief was about finally doing it. I’d been wanting to do it for so long, and I’d been in a place that wasn’t getting me closer to my life goals for so long that when I finally gave myself permission to go and do what it was that I wanted to do, even if it meant telling people.
I had a hard time telling people, ‘I’m quitting my job to go to culinary school in Austin. Devin doesn’t have a job. I don’t have a job. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m just going to go.’ People can look at you like you’re crazy, but that relief was definitely a sense of saying, ‘It doesn’t matter. I’m doing it anyway. I’m going to find out what’s going to happen,’ and, ‘I know enough about myself that I’m not going to be a failure. I’m not sure where’s going to leave me, but it’s going to be okay.’ I finally allowed myself to acknowledge that. That was definitely a moment of relief.
Joseph: How much did it affect you when people gave you those strange looks? You got something so stable right now, and now you’re going into something that you don’t even know how it’s going to work out. This is something I hear from a lot of people: they’ve got friends or family who are working in stable jobs, and they just look at you funny when you go and pursue something that’s so non-traditional. How much did that affect you, and how did you deal with that?
Kelly: I caught myself doing a couple of different things. I emailed everyone that I had ever really worked with face-to-face in my four and a half years at the university, and I let them know what I was doing. I tailored some of those emails more personally for people I’d really worked closely with, but in general, I kind of let people know what was going on.
I got a lot of email responses. Half of them were, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so glad for you. Do what you love. I had a chance to do that in my life, and I’ve never looked back. I never regretted it a day,’ and then other people that were saying things like, ‘Really? This sounds like an interesting experience.’ You could tell they were trying not to be mean, but they definitely were like, ‘What the heck are you thinking?’
I definitely caught myself pulling on the more research and nutrition side of the school when I was explaining myself instead of just saying, ‘You know what? I’m going to culinary school. It sounds like fun. I’m going to try it out and see if it helps me get closer to my career goal.’ I caught myself explaining it a little more, like, ‘Oh, no. I’m going to get into nutrition research, and they’ve got this Science of Nutrition Class. It’s all very scientific, and I’m a researcher.’
Then I eventually started just being more and more real about it. Depending on who I was talking to, I was able to say things like, ‘I want to try it out. We’re trying to start a business eventually, and I think this is going to help me get there. It’s going to at least give me confidence.’
Joseph: I think that comes up a lot: we almost feel like we’ve got to justify our decisions or defend our decisions, both to other people and also to ourselves.
You started the National Epicurean Academy of the Culinary Arts. What’s it like for you when you start there, because this is radically different from being an Assessment Research Coordinator?
Kelly: I’ve always been a good student, but a traditional classroom is where you sit, and you have your books, and there’s the teacher, and you kind of know what that environment is like. The first day of culinary school, we’re sitting there in our chef’s coats and these wacky, black-and-white chef pants that look like clown pants, and we have these big clogs on that are nonslip shoes and a hat. Here, I come from this really professional setting, dressing up every day, and then now I’m taking out the trash and doing these other things.
Joseph: Were you literally taking out the trash?
Kelly: Yeah, we did. At the end of every day, you’re cleaning the kitchen and all of that. It was six months of having to understand that industry a little bit, but that first day, I was actually a little nervous. Like I said, I’ve always been a good student, and I always feel very good and excited on the first day of school, but at the culinary school, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, knife skills. What if I don’t have it?’ I was nervous, but within a couple of days, I felt very much at home. It took me a little while to get over the outfit, but other than that, I felt pretty good about it and started getting a lot of confidence.
Joseph: Were there other challenges that came up with this career change?
Kelly: Financially, I knew that if I was going to stay within the food industry side of it, which I was going to have to do at least a little bit to complete my certificate, there’s no money in food unless you’re at the top or unless you’re like a chef star or something on Food Network. Austin’s an expensive place to live, much more expensive than Springfield, Missouri. We had savings, and we knew that we were making this move, and there wouldn’t be a lot of money in the beginning, but trying to figure out how to make a comfortable life for us here on a very small pay check, that was a big challenge at first.
Joseph: What do you say to people who use money as their reason why they’re not pursuing something that they would rather be doing?
Kelly: I kind of don’t consider it a great excuse. I understand it because I felt it too. If you really want to do it, you can find other things to cut out of your life, other expenses to cut out of your life in order to save and to make those moves toward what you want. The rewards on the other end, even if I’m not making as much money—which actually, now that I got moved into a management position, I’m making approximately the same salary I was in my research job by the way.
Kelly: It worked out really well for me, but I was serious about it, and I had a really hard decision to make when that opportunity opened up, ‘Do I actually want to be a manager of a bakery? This is not what I moved here for.’
I just feel like people cushion their lives quite a bit with a lot of unnecessary comforts. If you’re really trying to break out and do something different, you’re going to have to tighten the belt a little bit for a while, save up, and give yourself some leeway, so that if you don’t get a job in your new field right away, you can survive that. I don’t need the newest phone. I don’t need the newest computer. The resources that I have right now are working for me, and they’re not getting in the way of me pursuing my goals.
If I start spending radically in other ways, then I could use that as an excuse, but I think, ultimately, if you want to do it, money doesn’t need to stand in your way.
Joseph: When you look back on this trajectory, is there something that you wish you would’ve known?
Kelly: I wish I would’ve known that it was okay to change because I probably wouldn’t have held on to that job for so long. I’m a very logical person, and I’m very plan-oriented. If I don’t know what the plan is, then I don’t like to leap. I wish I would have known earlier on that it was going to work out and that it would be okay. That’s not something I could have known.
Ultimately, that’s what pushed me to make that final move. I had a conversation with my mom at the dinner table before we moved down here to Austin, and I asked her. I said, ‘Is this the stupidest thing I’ve ever done?’ She looked at me and said, ‘It’s going to work out. It always does,’ and it’s true. Sometimes, it’s just that little reminder that it is going to work out.
I will find a way to make it work out. I never just give up. That’s not who I am. If you really know yourself and if you pay attention to how you’ve managed your life, then I think you can have that confidence to just step out there and say, ‘You know what? My heart is leading me in this direction. Maybe my mind is leading me in this direction, but it’s something that I want to pursue. It’s going to be okay.’ If it’s not okay, you’ll find something else to do, ultimately. That’s the comfort. There will be something else that you can do. You can always find something else.
Joseph: That’s a great story to hear, because I think sometimes, we get in our own ways of making progress in our careers. I know that things kind of work out, but obviously, you’ve also put in a lot of work. Has there been a tool that you’ve used that has helped you stay on track with your goals?
Kelly: Periodically, probably about twice a year now, maybe even three times a year, I’m reassessing, ‘What am I doing right now? Am I on track?’ and I’ll sit down and write, ‘Here’s what I’m doing. This is what I want to be doing. What steps need to happen in order for me to get there?’ You helped me work through that actually when we were trying to decide whether or not to move down here. ‘What would you need to do in order to get there if that is where you ultimately want to go?’ I sit down and I do that. I write down some of those things.
Sometimes, it’s very practical stuff. ‘I need to email this person about this piece of equipment that we’re going to be using. I need to get the business cards made. I need to reach out to these people about getting some videos done.’ Sometimes, it’s much more fluid than that. ‘I am working full-time at a bakery. What does that mean in terms of my time dedicated to opening my own business? Is it helping me or how is it hurting me at this point?’
Joseph: Is there a great piece of career advice that you’ve received?
Kelly: It’s very simple, and it is not a plug for Nike, but my dad told me, ‘If you’ve got all these ideas, you’ve got all this stuff that you want to do, do it.’ That’s ultimately the best career advice that I’ve had. Instead of just thinking about it all the time and saying, ‘I’m wanting to do this. I think it’s a good idea. I can’t see how I could fail,’ go do it. I think ultimately, that’s the hardest part of it, but it’s also the only part that’s going to make it happen.
Joseph: That’s true. That is really good advice. I know that I’m like you. I’m a planner. I like to reflect on stuff and then map things out. At the end of the day, you’ve got to do something. It’s definitely a mind-set shift when you’re working for an organization, very task-focused, and then running your own business or trying to start your own thing, that action leads to opportunities. Easier said than done sometimes.
What’s one habit that has consistently served you well in your career?
Kelly: The first word that comes to mind is responsibility. I’m just always, probably to a fault, very responsible, and I always do what I know I’m supposed to do. If it means fill out these forms to create your new business, I read the whole form, I figure out what it means, I do all of the parts, and then I don’t have to redo it later. If you can do the job well the first time, you don’t have to redo it.
Joseph: It’s really interesting to hear, and it’s also good to get a glimpse into what’s been working for you. I definitely want to hear more about V-Life, Kelly. I know this is just kind of in its infancy right now, but what are you up to right now with V-Life?
Kelly: V-Life is a lifestyle wellness education business that my husband and I have just recently inaugurated, started out.
Kelly: Thank you very much. Very exciting.
We are really going to be aiming our focus at corporations in this area that want to provide wellness programs for their employees. We’re going to be educating people about the connection between nutrition and exercise and health in a very practical way with a lot of videos and things that we get to show people, food demonstrations. We can also do that for individuals, personalized nutrition assessments, recipes or menu development for families or businesses. We spent probably 8 to 10 years figuring that out for ourselves, so we want to share that with people.
Joseph: I have to admit. I am not a vegan, but last week, my wife and I actually went on this detox vegan diet for one week. I tell you what – it was a struggle for me. Do you have one go-to vegan either recipe or favorite food for what I’ll call the reluctant vegans out there who are still eating meat and animal products?
Kelly: We do a lot of beans, lentils, which is something that I didn’t eat much before I became vegan.
Joseph: I heard those are great for you.
Kelly: They’re really, really nutritious, superfast, easy to cook, and they have a little more of a meaty texture when you mix them into things.
The V in V-Life stands for ‘vibrant,’ so our little tagline is Your Path to a Vibrant Life. The idea is not that we’re out there to convert everyone to being vegan. We actually just want to inform people about the relationship between nutrition and wellness. If that just means getting closer to health and closer to optimal health by making a few different changes, that’s what we’re going to help people achieve.
Joseph: If people want to learn a little bit more about how they can lead a path to a vibrant life, where would you suggest they go or how could they learn a little bit more about what you’re doing or the types of programs that could help them make these little steps to improve their lives?
Kelly: We are on Facebook at Facebook.com/AustinVLife. Also, the CHIP Program, the Complete Health Improvement Program, is the educational tool that we’re going to be teaching. That website is CHIPhealth.com.
Joseph: Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. It’s really inspiring to hear your story of leaving something stable behind to pursue something that you find a lot of passion in. I’m just excited to see how this all turns out for you. I definitely wish you the best in your culinary journeys.
Kelly: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me, and good luck to all of your folks out there who are considering making that change. It’s worth it.