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From PalmPilot to Pokémon

Lauren Auerbach outlines her radical reinvention — from journalist, to consultant, to elementary-school teacher.

Lauren Auerbach negotiates with the big boys. With her MBA from Stanford, her MA in journalism from Northwestern, and her BA from Georgetown, she’s well-equipped to face down the big players. And it’s a good thing: You can’t find players more formidable than third- and fourth-grade boys, Auerbach’s students at San Francisco’s Town School for Boys. Auerbach is an anomaly. As her peers raced for the riches in today’s gold-rush economy, she gladly gave up her generous consultant’s salary, expense-account lunches, and hyperachieving colleagues for an 80% pay cut and 23 fidgeting boys in an elementary-school classroom. “My friends envy how happy I am teaching and say they wished they could do the same,” she says. While she readily concedes that a radical reinvention isn’t for everyone, Auerbach believes most people cling to excuses that boil down to fear. “The sacrifices in radical career changes — salary cuts and re-proving yourself each time — aren’t easy, but change makes life so much more fascinating.” Auerbach shared her story with Fast Company and discussed the sacrifices — and invaluable rewards — involved in an extreme career jump.

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Radical Reinvention

Auerbach, 30, graduated with a BA in English from Georgetown University in 1992, and spent one year as a ski instructor in Aspen, Colorado before heading to Chicago for graduate school. Her first gig at Chicago Magazine represented a great opportunity for Auerbach, who found her work in the marketing department rewarding — for a time. “After two years with Chicago Magazine, I wanted more variety in the challenges I faced on a daily basis,” she recalls. Her roommate at the time was planning to take the GMATS, and out of curiosity and boredom, Auerbach decided to do the same. Although she had no serious intention of attending business school at that point, she did well on the tests and decided to apply to a few MBA programs — just to see what would happen.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

When she received an acceptance letter from Stanford, Auerbach struggled with the decision to leave Chicago Magazine, and, ostensibly, the world of journalism. Not knowing whether desire or boredom was driving her toward business, she turned to her family for advice. “Everyone in my life was vehemently in favor of my going to school,” she says. “They saw how bored and unfulfilled I was at work and knew I was ready for the next step. They convinced me that it was a good move, and I went.” After graduating from Stanford, Auerbach took a job with the Mitchell Madison Group in San Francisco, working in strategic management consulting. She describes that experience as one of the most difficult times of her life. “I couldn’t find a meaningful definition for who I was,” she says. ” As a consultant, I couldn’t recognize any way in which I added any value to the world at all. I wasn’t proud to be a consultant, and I was never passionate about it.” Instead, she felt a sudden and intense interest in teaching, something she felt was a necessary pendulum swing in the opposite direction. It took a year of misery in consulting for her to pursue positions in that field. Her first step was explaining to colleagues and family that the sort of gratification she thirsted for didn’t exist in the world of business. Once, Auerbach’s salary allowed her the freedom to shop with abandon and enjoy pricey dinners out. Now she walks to work, spends $2 a day for a school lunch, and eats peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches at home before meeting friends for an after-dinner cocktail or two. Aside from the financial step down, she finds herself missing very few aspects of her former life. “It would be nice to have a sense of what’s fashionable outside of Gap kids,” she jokes. “My life is difficult at times, but overall it has naturally simplified,” Auerbach says. “I don’t need to buy myself things to feel better, and I don’t need to take cabs downtown or to buy $15 lunches. Occasionally, I miss my former colleagues and acquaintances, but thankfully many of my friends feel they are helping the world by treating a teacher to the occasional night out.” In addition, Auerbach finds that, socially, people treat her very differently as a teacher than they did when she was a consultant. “Somehow,” she says, “they seem to assume that I am not very bright because I’m a teacher. It is incredible to see the change in their reaction when they find out that I attended Stanford Business School.” She laments, “It really reflects poorly on our society that we have that mind-set about teachers.”

From PalmPilot to Pokémon

Despite the sacrifices she’s made, Auerbach says she’s happier than she’s ever been. Describing the fulfillment she feels on a daily basis, Auerbach says, “People ask me if I’m bored by this work after getting an MBA from Stanford and after consulting, and I tell them honestly that I have never been so challenged in my life. Never.” “I have to negotiate 23 distinct personalities — people who are just learning the art of being political,” she continues. “If I let two minutes slide, the class becomes completely chaotic, and productivity can be ruined for the entire day. How many managers could account for every minute of their day? I can’t imagine how sitting in front of a spreadsheet could be more challenging than teaching 23 fourth-grade boys.”

Advice for the Road

The road to reinvention, as with any major change, is full of bumps and jolts, but Auerbach says, “I firmly believe there is no one grand design for our lives. We grow and change throughout our lives, and our passions change as we learn new things. We naturally have different passions at 20 than we do at 40. People should allow their careers to grow and change with them. It’s wonderful to have goals, but it’s destructive to shackle yourself to them.” Contact Lauren Auerbach via email ( auerbach_lauren@hotmail.com )