“Be bold. Do what the ordinary fear.”— Anonymous
A few years ago, I made a bold career move. I had been working in the biotechnology industry for almost ten years. And not only that. I led several high-profile projects, which increased my visibility within the company. It looked like I would move on to a position with greater responsibilities sooner or later.
Instead, to the surprise of many colleagues, I moved on to do a Ph.D.
“You aren’t serious, are you?” they said. My decision made no sense to them. But, it had been my dream for a long time.
Little did my colleagues know that my three-year Ph.D. would be one of my best career pivots. Without a doubt, I consider this research experience to be one of the best periods of my work life.
I loved it.
I enjoyed every single bit of it.
Yes, it was hard. It was a lot of work. And yet, I was passionate about it.
The years went by without noticing it.
My Ph.D. experience set me up for a fast career ascension. Our department head promoted me before I finished my Ph.D. to a manager position in technology innovation. Simply put, I was still a student but already earning a 6-figure income. “I might have been the best-paid Ph.D.,” I was joking.
I accepted the offer under one condition.
“Do you guarantee me sufficient time during my work hours to finish writing my Ph.D. thesis?” I said to my boss.
He replied: “Of course!”
Are you having a blast in your job?
Do you enjoy doing what you’re doing?
Have you moved up the career ladder, and your boss gave you a substantial degree of responsibility?
If you asked me these questions, I would answer everyone with a big “YES.” I have never enjoyed working at my job that much any time before.
My three years as a technology innovation manager in the biotech industry were terrific. The experience as a leader of talented scientists was phenomenal.
In that role, I learned a lot.
I grew more mature and secure.
What an exciting role I had.
“Be brave enough to live the life of your dreams according to your vision and purpose instead of the expectations and opinions of others.”— Roy Bennett
A higher salary opened the door to what later would give me the opportunity of my lifetime. Nonetheless, I did not have the slightest clue at that time what would be going to happen.
I was convinced well-trained people would have a better future.
As a manager, I earned more. And yet I decided to keep my lifestyle because of my dream to give every Cambodian child a high-quality education.
With my left-overs every month I thus accumulated, I was able to co-initiate an education program in Cambodia. Since 2016 we have been sponsoring kids in Siem Reap who can attend an excellent school.
“Taking a leap of faith is better than taking a leap of doubt.”— Matshona Dhliwayo
Little did I know that this project would be such a success. As of today, 25 students are enrolled.
I received the opportunity to take the lead in the future development of the education program. This offer put me in front of a tough call — shall I decide to leave my fantastic job? The career progression looked promising.
But I decided to move on.
Why, in the first place, did wonder whether I should move on, leaving the stable corporate world?
My decision did not only imply going to a different job in another company. That would have been too easy. I decided to say no to many securities and to move out of my comfort zone.
“Being different and thinking different makes a person unforgettable. History does not remember the forgettable.”— Suzy Kassem
It’s a change that requires me to move to a different area. I moved from science to education — not as a teacher but as a leader taking care of the program’s expansion.
It’s a change that requires leaving behind things dear to my heart.
I had to say no to science. It may be for 2–3 years — it may be for longer, or even forever. I don’t know now.
It meant to say no to a great team.
I said no to great career perspectives.
I had to leave a lovely flat in the beautiful Lake Geneva area of Switzerland.
It meant leaving behind my family and friends.
Why am I taking such a risk? Isn’t that a bit scary and not very responsible? What are you going to live from?
I agree many risks are involved.
“I feel the reason we are all here, our purpose of being, is to help others find their little piece of happiness and heaven right here on earth.”— Ken Poirot
But, I know that we must expand our education program in Siem Reap Cambodia so that hundreds — and perhaps even thousands — of young Cambodians get access to high-quality education.
We started this program with three students, sending them to an excellent private school. What we saw after the one-year pilot was stunning. The students flourished, their personalities changed and showed a hunger to learn.
In the last three years, we have not changed the formula. The sponsorship program finances the tuition and school supplies of the now 25 students. They attend excellent schools in the city and in their off time involved in ministries of the church and small tasks.
And that’s why I left my 6-figure job, taking the untravelled route.
We want to expand the program to accept 1000+ students in Siem Reap. We will be thinking about how to best respond to local needs. And once we’ll have a sustainable system empowering Cambodians, we plan to replicate it in various parts of the country.
I leave a 6-figure job because I want to live for a purpose greater than myself.
My job was great, and it was the perfect place for a season.
Now this season has come to an end.
“It is more blessed to give than to receive.”— Jesus Christ
My job was a preparation for what is coming.
I felt my next step was to increase the serving part.
I due have to sacrifice many things, moving to Cambodia. On the other hand, I will learn a lot.
I will not forget what my former boss said at the good-bye toast when leaving my company. I like his perspective and must admit that I had not seen my move from that perspective. He told my colleagues and me that my step is intelligent as I’ll be spending much time with the most curious people on the planet — children. He thinks I will learn many things from them and come back even better trained.
That’s a great perspective. Yes, indeed, spending time with people who are better at something will rub off. We’ll become more like them.
If you want to become successful, stop spending time with your friends who are not. Spend more time with people who already have what you’re aspiring for.
I’m sure I will learn a great deal serving people in a new culture and learning a new language.
As we aim to develop a sustainable education program, my role will involve researching the real causes of the lack of education. Unless we understand what the roadblocks are their underlying mechanisms, we cannot come up with a sustainable answer. We must get the full picture.
I will learn how other people think, what is essential to Cambodians — a culture that is still foreign to me. It will be a challenge to translate Western systems and principles that have been working for many decades into the local context.
This undertaking will require much understanding and wisdom to separate the universal laws — that work in any setting, in any culture and no matter what people — and the local — or simply put — the cultural specifics.
That learning will be priceless and largely justifies a salary cut. My move is “a service” but I can look at it as “an investment.” Training is always a worthwhile investment.
“Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.”— Samuel Johnson
During my last visit to Cambodia as a tourist, the people’s openness impressed me.
I find it exciting to discover a new culture, meet new people, and learn how other people think.
During a field trip at one of the two schools we are working with, the principal invited us to his office. Wearing a nice suit, he smiled and showed us that we were welcome. We took a selfie as it’s the custom in many Asian countries.
At one point in the conversation, he said: “David, what advice can you give us?” I did not expect this question. “We want to improve the quality of our classes,” he continued.
I was a bit hesitant to answer his question. I am a scientist with an engineering background. I did have some teaching assignments at a technical university in Switzerland and taught English at a local school in Ecuador. That was about it.
I don’t have formal teacher training, and hence all the concepts of pedagogy are foreign to me.
I did answer, though, telling him what I had noticed during our short visit. The limited number of books in the library shocked me. “I suggest that you build more lectures of books into your curriculum,” I said.
He was listening and writing what he heard using his laptop. He was open. He wondered if we could organize science labs and contests to expose the students to that critical matter.
That meeting with the principle played an essential role in my decision-making process. This experience convinced me that we were on the right track.
We are not just pushing a Western idea into Cambodia.
“When you give everything, you have nothing to lose.”― Kate McGahan
I am foolish to believe that we may change an entire nation — one step at a time.
I’m dreaming of a transformed nation. I believe that one day, excellent scientists, designers, IT guys, and engineers will not exclusively come from Europe, North America, Japan, and Korea, but from Southeast Asia as well.
The kids already played the first brick. They are curious. They want to become better. All it takes now are the tools and resources.
That vision drives me.
It puts my former six-figure salary into perspective.
Is money everything in life? Not at all.
There’s much more.
I do want to stress that working at a great company can be great too. There are seasons in our lives. There are seasons when we learn more when stability is the right thing. I enjoyed my season in the corporate world and would not want to miss any of the essential learnings I made and the great people I met.
Nonetheless, if that season comes to an end, you need the courage and the willingness to move on.
You could stay in your comfort zone. But you will stop growing.
And it could mean that you will not find your sweet spot.
No matter where you are, ask yourself if you’re still at the right place or if you’re holding on to something that you should let go.
Are you holding on to it because of fear? Or because of an unwillingness to put the work in to get better?
You might be one step away from the life you’ve ever dreamed about. Are you ready to make a bold move?