An everyday habit fuels a midlife career change

Christine Daves - Think Organized
Professional organizer Christine Daves unexpectedly found a new career path by noticing her “wacky drive” for organizing her son’s toys, books and clothes.

Maybe our vocational calling is hiding in plain sight.

We all have unconscious habits. But like fish in water, we’re often oblivious to the talents that are lurking in the things we’re unconsciously drawn to do all the time. I’m specifically talking about habits that give us pleasure.

Minneapolis entrepreneur Christine Daves noticed that she got satisfaction from her habit of organizing her son’s toys, books and clothes. It was an everyday activity where she’d lose all sense of time. This past year, she decided to start a professional organizing business around that habit called Think Organized.

Christine’s plunge into entrepreneurship was significant. She quit her job of 12 years running the career services office at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD). For over a decade she’d enjoyed the security of a steady pay check and good benefits. Now she was stepping into the unknown.

I first met Christine when she was still at MCAD. I’d reached out to her because I was interested in her work advising arts students on their careers. Five minutes into our informational interview, she revealed her plans to start a business. Instead of discussing the nuances of career counseling at an arts college, we talked through her decision to take this unexpected entrepreneurial leap.

Months later, I took a leap of my own by embarking on a three month career break to Brazil. As I prepared for that adventure, I hired Christine to help pack my things into long-term storage. We spent several sweltering July afternoons in my unairconditioned apartment, sorting papers and throwing out expired bottles of Ibuprofen.

Afterwards, I asked Christine if I could interview her. I wanted to know how she was experiencing her new career now that she was actually doing it. What follows is an edited version of our July 2013 conversation.

Q: When we first met, you shared with me that were about to make a big career transition. Could you could tell me how you came to the decision to quit your job and start your own business?

Christine: I was the director of career services at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) and it was a really great job. I’d been there for 12 years, but I got to the point where I thought, ‘If I stay another 12 years I’ll be doing the same thing.’ I also felt like my stress level was coming from dealing with administrators and figuring out how to get at the right tables and connect with the right people. Then I came up with this proposal of where I wanted to take the career services office. The proposal went to the president. He said, ‘This is great, but we have immediate needs in other areas.’ The school cared about career services but as an art school it wasn’t their top priority. And so after that interaction–which was very friendly–I decided to move on.

Q: What did you do next?

Christine: I’d been looking at jobs but I didn’t see anything that jumped out at me. Also anytime I saw something I would think, ‘I’m going to have the exact same challenges there.’ So one day as I was color coordinating my son’s wardrobe for the millionth time and organizing his books by height, it kind of dawned on me — I have a wacky drive to organize things. It doesn’t mean that I’m a perfectly organized person but I get pleasure out of organizing. Especially visual organizing. It’s very sculptural. And it still involves some counseling.

Q: It sounds like you were thinking about what you were going to do next and it’s almost like you had an epiphany while you were organizing your son’s things. Was it really a eureka moment or were there other factors that contributed this new insight?

Christine: I think that the eureka moment was when I realized — wait there’s a career doing this.

Q: How did you figure that out?

Christine: I think I was actually in bed when I said to my husband, ‘Honey! This is what I’m going to do.’ And he was a little nervous but very supportive. Then I did some research. I got a book on how to start your own professional organizing business. I didn’t give notice for a couple of months. I think you were the first professional person I told.

Q: You could have had that same eureka moment and then not left your job. Where did you get your courage?

Christine: I’m not a patient person. I’ve never been a patient person. I’m 39 years old. My first thought was ‘I’m going to do this by the time I’m 40.’ I was excited to leave my job. And I was excited for this new opportunity. And so I pretty much decided that was what I was going to do. I was in a workshop on building a business plan probably within two weeks. And I joined NAPO–the National Association of Professional Organizers. I really dove into things. I went to their annual conference in New Orleans in April. And just doing that—

Q: –made it more real.

Christine: I was like if I’m going to do this, I need training, I need to be connected with people in the industry. I need to know what’s out there.

Christine Daves portrait
Christine Daves at home in Minneapolis inside her son’s wardrobe closet.

Q: I don’t have kids but I know friends who do can feel like the freedom to take risks shrinks because there’s more at stake. What about this moment made you feel like now was a good time to go in an altogether different direction?

Christine: Probably the biggest thing is that I have some money in the bank. It’s not going to last me forever by any means but I’m fortunate that I feel that I have enough to get me through the first 12 months. I can give my business some time to grow. And if nothing’s happening within two years, we’re not going to be out on the street. If nothing’s happening within 18 months, then I’ll start job hunting. Another thing is that my son is seven years old and for all intents and purposes, it looks like he’s going to be our only son and I only have him now. And being stressed out from work wasn’t helping. I like the fact that he gets to see his mom trying this new thing. Also he’s not in daycare and he’s not in college. Both of those are times in life that cost a fortune. But I think it really just comes down to the fact that I wanted to do it.

Q: You told me that when you worked at MCAD, people responded to you and your job with a kind of awe-like admiration. And you’ve gotten a different response when you introduce as a professional organizer. Can you talk about what that’s been like and what those differences are?

Christine: I think I told you this story of a woman who said, ‘That was a good job’ when I told her what I had done.

Q: And it didn’t make sense to her that you would have quit.

Christine: Right like why would you leave a good job? And when I was opening my business banking account the woman said, ‘How long have you been unemployed?’ Just assuming I was doing this because I was unemployed. When I was at MCAD there was some respect. And when you tell somebody, ‘I’m a professional organizer’ and they’re like ‘Oh. That’s interesting. Okay, whatever.’ But that doesn’t matter to me that much. And at times it has. Whereas now what I value is independence. And so if somebody thinks it was crazy to leave a decent job to go out on my own, I can understand where they’re coming from. I do miss that paycheck. I do miss vacation days and sick time. But it’s worth it to me. It’s worth it for the independence and for where I’ll hopefully be in five years.

Q: And where do you hope that is?

Christine: I want to be somebody that’s established. I want to be known for what I do. This is what pays my bills and pays my health insurance. This is my lucrative business. I’m not expecting to be a millionaire but I’d like to get back to where I was at MCAD.

Q: In terms of your income.

Christine: Yeah. I’d like to start making retirement contributions again someday. But I think all of that will come with time. I’m more relaxed now. I’m happy. And that’s more important than whether somebody thinks that what I do is a joke or not.

Postscript: I received an email from Christine over the December holidays with an update on her life and business. She wrote: “Business has been good – I exceeded my goals and had more clients than I expected. My clients have ranged from hoarders to people you would never expect to work with organizers. I miss the regular pay check, but otherwise, have not looked back once. I am such a happier person than I was. I feel like this first year was a lot of learning – almost like an internship – and a lot of networking, and I hope to focus on financial goals in 2014. All in all though, things have been going really well…I am still learning so much, but really enjoying things.”

Christine Daves runs Think Organized, a professional organizing services business based in Minneapolis. You can check out her professional organizing blog here.

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