Burnout, a Road Trip and a Midlife Career Pivot

How a road trip with my daughter sparked a life-changing career pivot

image from the ground level viewpoint of a road with 2 painted yellow lines in the center against beautiful mountains and sky

“How’s work going, Dad?”

I missed her question at first. My mind wandered as I enjoyed the beautiful driving weather on Route 95 as we passed through Virginia. My daughter and I were on a road trip to Fayetteville, NC. The playlist that kicked off our six-hour road trip had now faded into the background.

“How’s work going, Dad?” she repeated.

That simple question sparked a life-changing decision.

How WAS work going? 

My usual response would be, “Oh, it’s fine.” But today was different. Something about the road trip put me in a philosophical mindset. Maybe I’d read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance too much.

I was a physical therapist and clinic director. We had a great team, and the clinic thrived. It was an ideal situation from the outside, but something felt off.

I’d been restless since exiting my physical therapy practice a few years earlier, but I attributed it to the switch from owner back to employee. Since my exit, I changed jobs twice, moving from The Johns Hopkins Hospital to this outpatient practice.

I’d settled into a great job, but there was a heaviness that I couldn’t shake. 

I was usually patient. But lately, small things irritated me. I snapped at family members and coworkers.

The guy once described as the most patient person his family knew was gone.

My attention returned to our conversation as she repeated the question.

I started talking about the team and how the clinic was growing. But as I spoke, my grip tightened on the steering wheel, and tension started in my lower back. Trying to relieve some pressure, I adjusted the lumbar support in my seat.

My discomfort intensified as I continued to speak. By now, my daughter noticed me shifting in my seat and looking uncomfortable. She asked what was wrong, but I didn’t know.

After a few awkward minutes, I said, “Things are going well overall, but there are just some things about this job that drain me.” My schedule was back-to-back patient visits every 30 minutes every day. My administrative work added 5-10 hours to my 40-hour patient care schedule.

There was no downtime, no thinking time, and no time to regroup. Operations issues interrupted my patient care sessions and pulled my attention to business matters. Every minute of every day, someone needed something from me.

The Epiphany

As I continued to talk, it hit me. I was experiencing burnout.

The warning signs were there, but I’d missed them all – irritability, poor sleep habits, fatigue, and concentration problems. I’d lost interest in things I enjoyed, like writing, but I attributed that to doing too much freelance writing while working 50 hours per week in my day job.

“What are you going to do?” she asked.

What could I do? I’d spent seven years and $70,000 to become a physical therapist. I’d dedicated 22 years to patient care and running clinics. A dozen questions raced through my mind.

How could I walk away after spending all that time and money?

What would people think?

What else could I do?

Would it require starting in an entry-level position at this stage of my life?

How could I give up being a physical therapist? I’d spent 30 years working toward BECOMING and BEING a physical therapist. It was a part of my identity that I’d held closely for years. It was how I usually answered, “What do you do?”

Realizing I couldn’t answer all of those questions at once, I focused on my next step. I needed more time and less stress. It was time to quit my job and move on.

Home health had been the perfect haven when I opened my practice earlier in my career. It provided income and benefits but required fewer patient visits and a flexible schedule. It could help again by offering less stress, flexibility, and time for freelance work and exploration.

I knew what to do. 

PIVOT!

Within two weeks, I left my clinic director job and became a staff physical therapist at a home care agency. The flexible schedule and extra mental space allowed me to resume freelance writing and consulting.

Things improved after a year on my new path, but the pandemic gave me a cosmic nudge that led to a significant career pivot.

Two months into the lockdown, I got laid off. I was shocked! As a clinician, I never thought job security would be a problem – especially during a global health crisis.

I was relieved to avoid risking infection by visiting patient homes and senior living facilities, but I needed to support my family. As I processed the loss of my job, a heaviness consumed me. At 51 years old, they cast aside me, like my years of experience, clinical expertise, and career achievements were worthless.

Fear and anxiety became daily companions as I watched my industry crumble. Many colleagues lost jobs or closed their practices. After dedicating half of my life to healthcare, it was time to move on.

I secured a contract medical writer and editor position with a medical education company. It provided income, helped me expand my network, and provided validation that a career pivot might be possible.

My freelance work grew to include projects for digital health and healthcare SaaS. I added recommendations for content design and UI/UX notes to client projects. The extra effort paid off when I landed freelance UI/UX consulting jobs.

That’s when my second epiphany struck.

Through my lifelong passion for tech, I learned many technical skills like web development, CMS, databases, and no-code. My freelance work had tipped toward digital health. I understood how to write for users. As a clinic director, I spent years optimizing business processes and implementing systems. I wanted to combine everything to pivot into tech consulting.

I created a new resume and updated my LinkedIn profile. My background was diverse, and I had over two decades of experience. I was confident I’d be able to land a position in digital health.

Over the next few months, I applied for positions, contacted my network, and accepted interviews. 

Crickets.

I became more frustrated and cynical with each rejection and recruiter who ghosted me. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t crack the code.

After a couple of months, the CEO of a digital health company messaged me on LinkedIn. His company was building virtual reality systems for rehabilitation. He wanted me to join his company to help with business development and to serve as a subject matter expert on the product team.

I was thrilled. It was the type of role I wanted. But there was a caveat.

As part of the hiring process, I had to complete several interviews and small test projects. The CEO coached me through the entire process. I sailed through each challenge over the next three months. Then, the fairy tale came to a crushing end.

On the day I was to receive the offer, the executive team needed to reallocate the budget for my role to the sales team. Hospitals restricted access to new salespeople as part of their pandemic restrictions. The company needed to hire experienced salespeople with existing connections.

It devastated me, and I was angry. I questioned whether a career pivot was possible, but there were no jobs in my field, so I had to move forward.

Another month passed before a medical recruiter from my network reached out to see if she could help. We got on a call where I explained everything I’d been doing to make my career pivot. When I finished, she asked a question that hadn’t occurred to me.

“Have you thought about removing some of the physical therapy information?”

Her question confused me, but I listened as she continued. She pointed out that I was trying to transition into the tech industry, but most of my focus was on physical therapy and healthcare. Why would a tech recruiter think a physical therapist would be a good fit in tech? How could they see any connections when most of my focus was on healthcare?

By the end of our call, I understood. I was tied to my identity as a physical therapist and couldn’t let it go. For my career pivot to succeed, I needed to adopt a new identity aligned with the tech industry.

Armed with a new identity, I updated my information and removed the words physical therapist from the executive summary on my resume. I focused on transferrable skills and career achievements aligned with the tech industry. 

It had been eleven long months since my layoff. I’d battled through fear, anxiety, frustration, and feeling disposable, but this new mindset and approach worked. I secured a remote position with a digital consultancy.

Lessons Learned

I learned two important lessons while transitioning from clinician to tech consultant. The first was that the sunk-cost fallacy is a real thing that can be invisible when it strikes. 

I’d spent so much time and money on my physical therapy career that I resisted letting it go. I needed to focus on my new destination and only take actions that moved me in that direction. Anything else was a distraction.

The second lesson was about identity and how we often place too much importance on our careers. When people ask, “What do you do?” our response usually starts with our job. One problem with that approach is that losing a job or career can be traumatic because it takes a piece of our identity.

Another thing I learned is the potential conflict between our internal and external identities. An external identity is the identity you want others to see. The internal identity is how you see yourself. 

I’d created a new external identity as a tech consultant, but my internal identity didn’t align with this external identity. This conflict caused friction and prevented me from succeeding. I finally realized that no one could see my new identity until I let go of the old one. Once I learned this lesson, I aligned my identities and achieved my career pivot.

“How’s work going, Dad?”

Now, a few weeks into my new career, I replied, “It’s awesome!”