Why I Left My Dream Job For Life Anew
The sun is up, morning has broken, and I have nowhere to go. Nowhere to be. My calendar is empty for the first time in decades. The B-track whirrrrr of obligations, demands, responsibilities to others, and devotion to a mission I treated as my noblest calling, is echo-y silent. I’m not sure how I feel, but I do know this moment marks a categorically different phase of my life. Yesterday, after nearly twenty-one years of some of the most demanding producing work in television—the historic farewell season of The Oprah Winfrey Show, the stressful OWN turnaround, and the bittersweet closing of Harpo Studios in Chicago—I stood before the OWN staff and spoke for the last time as copresident.
“Today I am leaving OWN to make a dream I have had for a long time come true—to open a company of my own. What lights me up is storytelling, producing; that is where my heart is. Oprah, you put the world at my feet and opened the door to a spiritual life that makes this moment possible. Being with you day in, day out, these years, has been one big SuperSoul session. And to all of you, my colleagues from the beginning and those newer to the staff, thank you for being part of my wonderful life.”
Our Los Angeles staff had gathered in my favorite space at OWN, the “magical café,” full of light, pine, and potted trees, while the New York and Chicago staff joined in by videoconference. Oprah and I had shared my news with senior staff thirty minutes earlier. This speech was the final step before my departure. I felt calm and certain and centered. I had already shed my tears the night before while putting my parting words on paper. What a ride, what a journey, and now it was over. It was time to move on and tend to the whispers wafting in and around me that were getting louder and beginning to scream that my life needed serious tending to.
Yes, I was about to follow a new professional dream, as I told the gathered staff that day. But the truth is, that was only a small part of what was on my mind. Work has always driven the narrative of my life, so that piece was a no-brainer. It was a big bucket of personal life mess that was really calling my name. I am a true-blue, loyal-to- the- bone
kind of person, and usually, it would take nothing short of a devastating betrayal to drive me away from someone or something to whom I have pledged my heartfelt devotion. And I had been devoted to my job for a very, very long time. But on a soul level, this transition felt ordained, as if the Universe was requiring my full and complete attention ASAP and there wasn’t a second to lose.
I could see from the podium that my news caught people by surprise. When I finished, I soaked up the goodbyes, just for a few moments. Then Oprah and I headed to the elevator up to the offices one last time. Upstairs, I supervised some final packing, waved farewell, picked up my purse, and headed to my car.
No one would disagree that I’ve had the career of most people’s Dreams. Executive-producing the last five years of The Oprah Winfrey Show was creative, demanding, fulfilling, and flat-out fun. I’ve also had the great good fortune to be part of a large, loving extended family and to have loyal friends whom I adore. Still, I haven’t created magic all the way around for myself. Not even close. A few big dreams are yet to come true.
For my entire adult life, my career has been my everything. I don’t blame my work for a moment, because it really was exactly what I wanted to do—it just so happened that for me, doing it well required a single-minded focus that left little time for anything else. Plus, there was so much to do I had the perfect excuse not to deal with any area of my life that didn’t come quite so easily to me. From the moment I grasped that bottom rung of the ladder as a lowly promo producer to the day I said farewell as copresident of the company, my double-decade stint working for Oprah was all-consuming. Still, I believe that even if I’d taken a different path, like gotten married, raised a family, and built a career, I’d be circling these same questions. Why do I default to making others’ needs more important than my own? Why is my own well-being all too often the caboose on the train?
Fifty-six. When I say it out loud, it sounds older than I picture myself in my mind. A lot older. And it looks different on everyone, I notice. I’m not talking about gray hairs or wrinkles. When I glance around at women in my age range, I can see so clearly how we are each telling such different stories about what’s possible for ourselves. Some of us have clearly subscribed to the messages floating around in the ether, telling us that it’s time to start winding the party down. In our culture, once women hit fifty-four years old and a day, nobody cares at all about what we think. The media industry actually stops tracking our opinions, viewing habits, and spending behavior. The twenty-five to fifty-four demographic, as it’s known in the industry, is considered the advertising “sweet spot,” which means anything outside that range is not worth targeting. Even though we fifty-five-plus people may finally have some money to spend or time to watch TV, they don’t care. We’re no longer relevant. At fifty-five years old, I ran a television network that, from a business perspective, could not have cared less about me. It’s not just advertisers. All around us, the message is the same: you’re done.
As I focus in on my new day, I find myself asking the same questions I know millions of other women are asking: Am I done now? Is what I have right now in my life all I get?
Here’s the thing: I don’t feel done. And here’s some other breaking food for thought: the average life expectancy for the modern American woman is close to eighty. Who knows how far and how fast advances in medicine and technology may push the upper limits of our lives in the next few years? In this day and age, if you start taking care of yourself, it’s not unreasonable to think that the fifties might truly be halfway up the mountain. This may be the middle of your life, not the beginning of the long goodbye. The actual middle of your life (not “midlife” as a kind euphemism for “old”). Once you take that in, really feel the expanse of time that offers you, maybe you’ll start to feel a renewed energy. Maybe it’s time to rethink everything about what is possible. Maybe it’s time to dust off your dreams and give yourself permission to ask the “what about” question: What about the life I always wanted? But by our fifties, dreaming feels fraught with uncomfortable emotions. We attempt to throw our imagination upstream but find ourselves swept back by the eddies of the past—the why-nots and what-ifs and WTFs. Our unfinished business seems to taunt us when we get too close to truth.
It takes courage to choose to dream rather than simply to continue down the same path. For many of us middle-of- lifers, we have thought and behaved our way into such big ruts that we don’t even know we are stuck in them. We can’t see how routinized our expectations have become. Or maybe we don’t have the energy anymore to care about magic and potential and transformation. Creating a new vision of your life while you are smack dab in the middle of it is a bold choice. Gathering up the courage to step out and think up new possibilities, having lived through decades of life, is very different from the wide-eyed dreams of a kid who hopes someday to become someone and do some big something. On top of all that, there are generational beliefs that will challenge this wild idea that you get to have more of what you wanted for your life, now, in this middle time.
We may indeed be in the middle of life and have more decades ahead than we’ve allowed ourselves to imagine. But it’s equally true that every day could be our last, and therefore the life we’ve lived up until this moment is it. That’s a bracing thought. As I let myself hold both these truths simultaneously—that I have so much more life to live and that this could be my last day on earth—I feel energized and also a little scared.
As I lift my eyes to the big, beautiful, expansive second half of life that is yet to be formed, I summon up the courage to take a good look at what I have created so far. It is time for a reckoning.
From the book THE BEAUTIFUL NO by Sheri Salata. Copyright © 2019 by Sheri Salata. Published on June 4, 2019 by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.
This excerpt was featured in the July 21st edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.