A personal trainer once coached me about lifting weights to the point of failure. I scoffed at first—failure was not something I liked or sought, and I assumed that failure meant, well, that I had failed.
In 2006 everything seemed to be going according to plan: I would finish my PhD and seek a tenure-track position, beginning my academic career. A setback in my program — though not insurmountable — caused me to reconsider whether that path was right for me.
As I worked to deal with the setback, I found myself reflecting on issues that had been niggling at me. For example, the faculty member who, in reviewing one of my projects, slashed my recommendations as she opined that academics work to advance theory rather than offer solutions. Or another’s suggestion to not to make gender a core focus in my dissertation, so I would be more employable. Wait until you get tenure, I was told, which amounted to waiting ten years to follow my passion.
My decision — putting my PhD on hold, possibly forever — was one of the hardest choices I have ever made. In fact, I couldn’t make a final decision until I landed what at the time was my dream opportunity: becoming a researcher at Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on advancing women. But following that path didn’t look like “leaning in” to everyone else. Many suggested I was making a mistake in quitting my academic career. And I wasn’t even one hundred percent certain I was making the right choice either.
But I’ve come to learn it was definitely the right path for me. I spent the last several years learning and growing as an applied researcher, working directly with companies to initiate fact-based changes to their talent management strategies. The role satisfied my need to focus on the “so what” for companies looking to make change. It also reminded me of something else the trainer said: If you don’t push until you reach your limit, you don’t know how far you can go. And with continued effort, those limits keep extending outwards, opening up new possibilities. That point where you’re not quite certain you can do it—that’s where you grow.