We all make decisions that change our lives each day. Many of our decisions affect our career, sometimes our home, and sometimes our lifestyle. And some look at their spiritual beliefs and take that leap of faith to make a choice to become a nun. It’s a decision that changes everything from who you are to where and how you live. Now that’s a big change. But what happens when you make that change and then decide it isn’t right for you? Today, I want to introduce you to Janet, who made those two very big decisions. Let’s find out why she left the convent to embrace change.
Can you please introduce yourself, tell us what you do, and where you do it?
Hi, I’m Janet Cobb. I am currently a strategy, and fundraising coach to small nonprofits across the United States – helping hundreds of small to medium-sized organizations bring their vision to reality by bringing reality to their vision. I live in Chicago with my husband as a semi-empty-nester because our children (ages 21, 19, and 16) are away at school. I have published a children’s nonfiction book, Raising Butterflies to Set Them Free and a memoir of my years in the convent, Surviving Sanctity. I currently have several works in progress and hope that my next iteration of starting over will be as a full-time writer/author.
Your first career was as a Nun. What drew you to be a Nun when you were 18?
My childhood had been tough. When I was about 7, my father left my mother with 8 children between the ages of 17-4. We were raised on welfare in a government housing project surrounded by drugs, violence, and financial struggle – and the anger and angst that came along with it. After a few years of rebellion and self-destruction, I experienced a conversion that led me to believe that Jesus had the power to help troubled teens make sense of a life that can sometimes feel senseless. I believed that Jesus gave me a sense of comfort and happiness, and wanted to share that with others. Through a series of circumstances, I came to believe that the only way to get that message to as many hurting people as possible – particularly teens – was to offer my life to the service of God.
In my blog, I write a lot about trying new things and people who start over. At 31, you decided to leave the Convent. Are you willing to share how you came to that decision? And what, if anything, do you miss about living in the Convent?
The truth is that how and why I came to the decision to leave the Convent in 1994 and how I understand the underlying issues after years of therapy are quite different. I spent just about 13 years in the convent. Someone once asked me when I knew I needed to leave – to which I somewhat facetiously answered, “About 5 days in.” In reality, I both loved my life and struggled constantly to ‘save’ my vocation. Some might say I was a square peg in a round hole because I’d never really fit the ‘profile,’ but I gave my entire heart and soul to that community and my power of choice over to the women who represented the voice of God for me.
As the years passed and my understanding of myself, the church, and the world expanded – my courage to stand up for myself and what I believed grew. And we grew apart. I thought I was leaving a community that was keeping me from living the gospel in the Franciscan spirit, and I intended to transfer to another one – so I took a year off (exclaustration) to explore another community. During the course of that year, I experienced gut-wrenching, heart-twisting grief at the loss of everything I knew and believed about myself and those I trusted – including meeting my father and learning about the 20+ years he’d spent building a new family after leaving ours. About six months into the year, I knew I needed to let it all go, and on my 31st birthday, I requested a dispensation of vows and started over.
Within a few short years, you were married and had two children. Was there any adjustment you needed to make going from life in a quiet Convent to a noisy household of children?
Absolutely! While the Convent was not a cloister, we certainly had regularly scheduled meditation, prayer, meals, etc. I enjoyed a monthly day of silent reflection and an annual 7-day retreat. I even had the privilege of completing a 30-Day Silent Retreat! I left that lifestyle in April 1994 and lived on my own until February 1996 – when I married, had child one in 1997, child two in 1998, and child three in 2002. In the hectic realities of bath time and bedtime, cooking, cleaning, and laundry, I was able to find fleeting moments of inner quiet because I carried much of what I learned about the practice of the presence of God and reflective living into my mothering – and it kept me sane. But the two lifestyles could not be more different – in the convent with a vow of poverty, I never needed to worry about having a roof over my head and food on the table. The irony! The toughest part was probably needing to be the one who had to make so many decisions – even the littlest things. That said, I loved everything about a noisy household of children!
In 2000, you and your husband quit your jobs to move across the country. Why this change, and how did you plan for it?
In April 2000, my doctor wanted to prescribe an antibiotic to address an infection but because I was still nursing our second child, I refused. She gave me three days to ‘turn around,’ after which she would put me in a hospital. On day two, I began improving, but on day three, we were involved in a minor fender-bender. No one was seriously hurt, but the children were quite frightened. That evening, my husband, whom I had promised we would never need to move to California, suggested that perhaps we needed my mother’s support with the children. We were already struggling to survive on my husband’s Catholic school teacher salary and we realized that if anything were to happen, we had no support mechanisms in place in Chicago. That night I searched the internet for homes and employment opportunities in California. By July, I had a job lined up, and my sister had found us a home – we sold our condo, boarded a plane, and started over.
And then in 2007, you reversed course and moved back to Chicago. How was this move different?
Now with three kids – aged 10, 9, and 5 – my husband and I had been working at the same high school for seven years. In Spring 2007, they made some decisions that we believed were unethical – first towards several other teachers and then, more hurtfully, to each of us. Although some friends encouraged us to fight the decisions – and even sue – we knew we could not stay. Rather than look for other jobs in California, which my husband didn’t particularly care for anyway, we decided – on Memorial Day – to return to Chicago. In June, we put our house on the market, and without jobs or a home lined up, we returned to Chicago, staying with old friends until we found a home and jobs. We traveled armed only with the confidence of our convictions that the best move for ourselves and our children was to start over.
In addition to all the changes you previously went through, you recently started working for yourself. Will you share with us why you made this decision and what steps you may have taken to prepare for this transition?
We returned to Chicago in 2007, just as the Great Recession took hold. While we were fortunate to find jobs and home before the summer ended, by 2010, my husband had lost his job. As he searched for work, he took the opportunity to obtain his Master’s and, unfortunately, remained unemployed until 2013. I sought and secured an administrative job in 2010, something I swore I never wanted, to make up for our income loss. Over the next five years, in 2012, 2013, and 2015 – (a story much too long to share here) – I also experienced unemployment.
In what is best described as an implosion of my career, with each round of unemployment, I began to consider how I might work for myself. As someone who generates ideas at top speed, I had numerous business ideas but no real resources. I attended every free workshop and webinar, and course about starting a business, social enterprise, and nonprofit. I immersed myself in the possibilities of how I might turn my passions into a business. But each time, reality struck, and I took another ‘job’. Until 2015, when I finally realized that I could never again work for a church institution – and preferably never have another employer. I needed to be my own boss. I immediately shifted my thinking from ‘finding a job’ to ‘creating revenue streams’. And as I pursued a few business ideas, I quickly realized that while I didn’t want an employer, I also never wanted my success to be dependent on the work ethic of another person. I could neither be an employee nor an employer. I had set up a website and taken one-off jobs as an education and fundraising consultant for years, but now I somehow needed to replace my annual income.
I scoured the internet for freelance platforms in any industry in which I was qualified to work: teaching cooking, tutoring, fundraising, yard work, woodwork, house cleaning, uber driving, etc. I calculated how much I would need to make each day to keep our bills paid and food on the table. And I pieced together as much as I could at every minute.
Three years in, I am making more than I’d ever made with a job, am able to set my own schedule and work from anywhere, and absolutely love what I do! I’ve narrowed my ‘revenue streams’ to a primary focus as a strategy and fundraising coach to small nonprofits, but continue to offer tutoring and editing services a bit on the side to supplement months when my client load is lighter than usual.
Looking back to when you went through any of these changes, is there anything that you wish you’d done differently or anything that you felt wasn’t working out and you dropped or changed along the way?
I’ve already shared some of the pivots I made when things weren’t working professionally, but if I reflect on what I wish I’d have done differently, I would say that I would not have allowed my job to steal as much time and energy from my family as I did. At the time, I thought it was my only choice, but my mental and physical health suffered – which impacted our home life. Thankfully, my children are resilient, and they seem none the worse for wear today.
Did you get any advice or help from others while embarking on your new career? What is the best advice or assistance that you got along the way?
In addition to the workshops, webinars, and courses I took, I mostly sought advice from folks on raising funds for a startup. Nothing significant came from those conversations, particularly because by the end of 2015, I’d realized I needed to go the solo route. I felt like I’d been caught in a version of Groundhog Day where I kept repeating the same mistakes and getting burned. Because my three rounds of unemployment and my career shift resulted from an unplanned implosion, I was embarrassed, depressed, anxious, and devastated.
And to go along with that question, what advice do you have for someone looking to make a career change or even multiple career changes in their life?
My advice is to frame your experiences as the difference you’ve made in your positions rather than the duties and responsibilities you’ve had, because the difference you made speaks to your character and the value you bring to any new project. The more you’ve done, the more options you have for transitioning into something new. Don’t be afraid to try new positions.
If you face an unplanned career transition, my advice is to begin by thinking about ‘revenue streams’ and all the different methods you might have for making money. Brainstorm everything possible and pick a handful to begin with. By diversifying, you can test what gives you energy and makes you feel alive, see how others respond to the gifts (products and services) you offer, and gain traction in one or another area to truly grow into your business model.
My advice on a more personal front is to not be afraid to step out of a situation that is causing you emotional or physical harm. Each day you have a choice to stay or leave – a job, a relationship or friendship, a city – or even a country. I’m not saying it will be easy. But if something is gnawing at you, don’t ignore it. Others may never understand but sometimes we must choose – for our integrity, sanity, and well-being, to start over.
Talk about big changes. Going into a convent and then coming out of the convent. Getting married, having children. Moving across the country and then moving back. Starting and losing jobs and then finally starting her own business. And through it all, Janet shows that you can adapt, that you can change, and that you can find a new and better path. Below are links to Janet’s social media as well as a link to her Amazon Author page.