Taking the Unexpected Journey to Finding Happiness in Your Career
Widener alumna Kristin Weldon Peri '99, '01L, embarked on a law career but ended up owning and running a cake decorating shop.
By Jennifer Kitchen '11
Kristin Weldon Peri grew up wanting to become either a judge or an artist. The Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania-native followed the more practical advice of friends and family and started down the legal path, earning a bachelor’s in business administration from Widener in 1998 and a law degree from Widener Law three years later. Soon after she began working as a defense attorney in Philadelphia, building a foundation for becoming a judge.
She was living the dream, so she thought.
But then, at 28, a significant moment—what career experts call a "critical incident"—occurred: Her first child, Reagan, was born.
Peri, whose husband Jonathan is a 1999 Widener Law alumnus, intended to return to the courtroom after maternity leave, but when the time came she couldn't bear to be away from her daughter.
She made the decision to stay home. It wasn't an easy one. "We made a lot of sacrifices," said Peri, now a mother of two. "And we still do: We don't go out to dinner; we don't go on vacations."
While at home, she took a class in cake decorating "and fell in love with it."
She practiced long days and nights to perfect her skills, eventually finding success in cake decorating contests. In 2006, she founded a shop, Divine Cakes in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, and in 2013 competed as a contestant on the Food Network reality show Sweet Genius.
Although her career move was not planned, it turned out to be the perfect fit. "It was just something I needed to do, and as it turned out, I was good at it."
Like Peri, the majority of working adults have or will follow career paths that don't always lead them to where they expected. "Years ago people were loyal to their companies and employers gave them rewards, like pensions and retirement packages," said Jan Moppert, director of Career Services at Widener. "Today the consensus shows that individuals change jobs ten to fifteen times and careers three to five times." Moppert said a recent study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that baby boomers held an average of 11.3 jobs from the ages of 18 to 46.
Experts say there are a number of explanations why adults feel the need to change their careers. Often times, it takes a critical incident to take that risk—whether a new move or a new addition to your family, as was the case for Peri.
Other reasons prompting dramatic career shifts include becoming unsatisfied in the workplace or desiring a transition in life as one matures. "High school students often pick a major that interests them at the time," Moppert said. "Our values change as we grow, which is why students should consider things like work environment, work-life balance, and organizational settings when choosing a profession."
Dr. Hal Shorey, assistant professor of clinical psychology and director of Organizational Development Services at Widener, said that in a number of cases a college student's goals aren't their own, but that of a family member. "Some students start off wanting to make a lot of money, based on the idea that money brings happiness, but then they realize along the way that they do not enjoy what they are doing," Shorey said. "Once you have enough money for your basic needs—a home, mini luxuries—more doesn't bring happiness."
The flipside of that is some students don't anticipate the debt and financial pressures that mount after graduation. Some career choices, though they may provide happiness, don't provide enough financial support. "A main issue is that we are reactive in our careers, not proactive," said Dr. Dennis Laker, a Widener associate professor of business management. "We don't think ahead about what we want to do—we just react to the situation at hand."
Moppert said long-range career planning is hard for an 18-year-old to do. "Students don't understand the full level of their strengths in college," she said. "It's no surprise that this happens several years down the road, after one is in the industry and has learned about more career opportunities."
Laker said in the past a person's career would take place in three prolonged stages: exploration, establishment, and disengagement. "Today, it's happening quicker; young adults are becoming disengaged within five years at one job and looking for something different."
Finding your way
Shorey suggested on your journey to finding what you love to do, you must be willing to "decenter" yourself. "You must pull yourself back from constraints," he said. "You can make money doing what you love. You just have to believe you can."
Some basic exploration strategies include looking at what's trending, growing your network through in-person meetings and on LinkedIn, going on informational interviews, shadowing someone, and exploring resources such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Shorey also encourages writing a personal mission statement exploring where you see yourself in five years and creating a vision that supports that plan and evaluates taking any risks that are needed. "You need to be willing to experience short-term pain for long-term gain," he said.
He believes workers often limit themselves in what they are capable of doing. "Take a step back from what you are doing and write down what you love about your job—name the components and then consider what types of jobs include those aspects," Shorey said. "We discount so many options because of society, our parents, or our own attitude."
Laker suggests being more proactive with your career and truly ask, "What if I could do anything I wanted to?" He said challenging your basic assumptions allows you to reinvent yourself in ways that you may never have thought of in the past or even had given yourself permission to consider.
"You may need to challenge what you believe to be true," Shorey agreed. "Toss things up and let them become messy, so you can create a new pattern. It's often a trial and error experience."
Laker also supports trying new things. "People often make the mistake of not making the time to explore their decisions first," he said. "When you are searching for a new career or job, you must take the time to explore it first. Every week explore something new."
Chris Boyd '90 concurs. After graduating from Widener with a bachelor's of science in mechanical engineering, Boyd took a job as a process engineer, which required a lot of travel and client visits. "Going on so many dinner meetings I began to acquire a taste for wine, and not just any wine, but really good wine."
Boyd eventually applied his engineering skills into learning wine making. He started making it for family and friends and eventually was storing 3,000 gallons of it in his basement. In 2006, Boyd opened Cardinal Hollow Winery in North Wales, Pennsylvania. Within three years, he expanded to five retail stores, growing sales by 40 percent. He now typically works Monday through Friday at Charter Machine Company as director of sales and in the evenings and weekends at his winery. "I didn't imagine that my hobby would grow so rapidly," he said. "You need to be willing to work hard, or you won't excel. It takes passion."
He said similar paths can certainly be followed by others. "If you are not happy in your day job, then start researching," Boyd said. "Try some new things and see what you like, but more importantly, stop sitting around and doing nothing all weekend."
Laker said it's important to be aware of opportunities that will allow you to capitalize on your interests. "We don't always have to start over, but we have to be aware of how our skills and abilities can be applied in a different way," he said, adding that it is critical to emphasize professional development. "If you aren't preparing for the future, you are becoming obsolete."
Luckily for Peri, many of the skills she developed were transferable. "There are no limits with the skills I gained from getting my law and business degrees," she said. "As a lawyer I learned how to be an effective communicator and the meaning of hard work. These are skills that I apply to my business every day."
It's essential to think of other ways to utilize skill sets—similar to how Peri was able to use her artistic talents to build a career and apply her skills from law school into her day-to-day business. Or how Boyd started making wine as a hobby, which eventually grew to a business.
Laker said this concept is known as "layering" and is a great way to see if you can build your own career from something that interests you. "It will take a lot of work to plant the seed," he said. "But if you put time and effort into it, you will eventually have another tree to support you."
Photo Caption: Mechanical engineering graduate Chris Boyd '90 works in sales for a machine company and nights and weekends at his business, Cardinal Hollow winery.