Be Happy at Work: 100 Women Who Love Their Jobs, and Why

Be Happy at Work: 100 Women Who Love Their Jobs, and Why

by Joanne Gordon

Meet Leslie, a gallery owner in New York City; Donna, a pharmaceutical sales manager in Texas; Lynne, an animal trainer in Utah; and Betsy, a CEO in California. These women and ninety-six others are members of The Happy 100, a diverse group of women who love their jobs unequivocally. While many workers across America feel bored, unrecognized, and unchallenged, these…  See more details below


Meet Leslie, a gallery owner in New York City; Donna, a pharmaceutical sales manager in Texas; Lynne, an animal trainer in Utah; and Betsy, a CEO in California. These women and ninety-six others are members of The Happy 100, a diverse group of women who love their jobs unequivocally. While many workers across America feel bored, unrecognized, and unchallenged, these women greet each new workday with pleasure and a sense of anticipation.

What’s their secret? There are concrete connections between each woman’s job and her unique combination of skills, character, and personality, and Be Happy at Work highlights them through candid snapshots of their working lives and career journeys. Author Joanne Gordon has identified three universal themes and ten categories of happy working women, demonstrating the core reasons of their fulfillment. There are The Lovers, women whose work champions a personal passion; The Thinkers, who thrive on intellectual challenge; The Surviving Artists, who make a sustainable living from a creative endeavor; The Determinators, who feed a need for control and influence; The Heroines, who work to change the world; and The Builders, who enjoy building a company, a team, or a product from the ground up.

Each of Gordon’s interviewees fits into one of these groups–everyone from actress Stockard Channing, broadcast journalist Lesley Stahl, and songwriter Diane Warren to everyday women who work as a screwdriver manufacturer, a truck driver, and a hospital clown. Gordon tells each their stories and reveals why each woman is happy with her choice–and how readers can achieve the same happiness in their own working lives.

Here are the inspiring stories of a chef at the South Pole, a scientist, a judge, a forest ranger, an investment banker, and a Manhattan doorperson, among others. The Happy 100 are all real women whose career stories will help you find yourself in their company. Be Happy at Work proves that loving one’s job is not a luxury for the lucky–it’s a real, attainable possibility for every woman, everywhere.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
This book features real-life stories of women from all walks of life who have found personal fulfillment in their chosen careers. Gordon (contributing editor, Forbes) has compiled an absorbing book about well-known and unknown women who enjoy their work. The famous range from Lesley Stahl to Stockard Channing. Jobs of all kinds surface, from acupuncturist to greeting-card designer to academic dean, to homemaker and full-time mother. Those profiled "prove that loving work is not a luxury reserved for the healthy or the wealthy, the brilliant or the beautiful, the married or the well connected." Each profile includes a first-person account written by the subject plus a narrative by Gordon. Profile categories such as "Thinkers," "Determinators," "Builders," and "Counselors" help to organize the book. Gordon offers basic advice for women in the work force, including knowing what you want and exuding confidence. This fantastic read is highly recommended for career collections in public and academic libraries and to career counselors at colleges and universities.-Lucy Heckman, St. John's Univ. Lib., Jamaica, NY Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Lovers

Movie music supervisor, tour guide and nude model, librarian, airplane mechanic, day camp director, ergonomist, pet magazine founder and editor, animal trainer, boutique owner, songwriter, and NASCAR travel coordinator.

The most common career advice, “follow your passion,” is dramatically overused and often misapplied. What if you don’t know what your passion is? And if you do, not all passions translate obviously into jobs, which is one reason many women relegate their passion—their joy, their interest, their love—to the status of a hobby. This first group of Happy 100 women, the Lovers, can help you answer those two questions for yourself because each woman has identified her own passion and built a working life around it.

Specifically, Lovers are women who love some thing—airplanes, art, animals, music—and who have found a way to channel that love into a paying venture. Rarely are Lovers’ jobs the most obvious manifestation of that passion. The lover of airplanes, for example, is not a pilot. The lover of animals is not a veterinarian. Two lovers of music are not musicians. As for the lover of art, she’s not an artist. In fact, her job may shock you.

As you will see, each Lover fashioned a happy working life in one of two ways. Some identified an existing company or industry associated with her interest and then found a specific job in an organization or field that matched her skills. Other Lovers struck off on their own, creating a product or company from scratch and, in turn, inventing their own role. Because Lovers champion some thing, they tend to be motivated more by purpose than process, yet each is still highly skilled at whatever activities she is called upon to perform: negotiate, teach, sell, write, or lead.

While you probably won’t follow the exact path of any one Lover or adopt her specific career as your own, you may glean ideas about how to spin your own passion into a happy working life.

Which song does she wake up humming?

Many women love music—whether singing or listening to it—but rarely can they transform that love into a career. This was not the case for self-described “rocker” Lia Vollack, president of worldwide music for Sony’s Columbia Pictures. Lia oversees big-budget film sound tracks—the music at the beginning of a movie; the background melody that sets a mood during a scene; and the songs that play as the final credits roll. Her films include The Usual Suspects (1995), Charlie’s Angels (2000), Spider-Man (2002), Adaptation (2002), and Big Fish (2003). Among the musicians Lia has worked with: Jennifer Lopez, Aerosmith, Destiny’s Child, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, and Dave Matthews.

Lia must come up with music that not only frames and helps promote a film but will also top the music charts. On one particularly hectic Thursday morning during the spring of 2004, Lia was in the mad throes of choosing the single for the upcoming movie Spider-Man 2, and she talked about the unique challenges of crafting songs for film. Articulating to musicians the idea and feelings a song should convey is only half her battle. Knowing a hit when she hears one is the other.

Right now I have several different bands writing potential songs for Spider-Man 2, including some big, multi-platinum artists. It’s not exactly a bake-off, though, because I must put together an entire album, so if a particular song doesn’t end up being the movie’s single, it can still be included in the film. I’m really looking for a rock artist rather than a pop or hip-hop singer, someone who can sing an anthem, but not in a Queen, “We will rock you,” sort of way. Just someone who can have emotional lift and soar.

Not all songs are one-listen hits. Some songs must be heard several times before you wake up and hear it play in your head. That’s the process I’m going through right now: “Which song did I wake up humming? Which one did I sing in the shower?” Sometimes a slight musical change can improve it, so I might suggest that an artist lengthen the bridge or add a pre-chorus before the chorus to give it the right kind of build and flow.

Lyrics are very important, and I have a lot more purview to discuss lyrical content with songwriters, especially if it’s a movie’s title song and one the studio will use for advertising. Often it’s just a matter of saying to a band, “I love this, but can we get something into the lyrics about how he feels about her, not just how she feels about him?” If a musician can’t see the movie before she writes a song, I tell her about the story, the emotional touch points, and universal themes.

Right now there are some potential Spider-Man songs that I feel are magical, and others I know are magical, but I have to convince the bands to do it because they’re so busy. Dealing with bands is what makes doing music for film uniquely challenging because musicians see movies as a side thing to do, unlike actors and directors, for whom movies are their primary business. It’s also hard for a lot of artists to make that leap from writing a song that comes entirely from within themselves to something that is specific to another person’s art. A lot of times someone writes a song that is so on the nose, it almost makes you cringe because it too blatantly tells a story, like, “She walks across the room, she really loves him . . .” Or, on the flip side, a song can be so oblique that it doesn’t have the proper relationship to the movie or fails to tell the film’s story.

The most stressful part of this job is having so much at stake, especially with a huge franchise movie like Spider-Man. But I’m comfortable with ultimate responsibility. A lifetime of experiences brought me to this current place. This job is who I am.

Or rather, it’s who Lia has become.

Her story begins in Colorado, where Lia played piano and saxophone in high school and developed a penchant for musicians. But Lia was no groupie. “Hanging out with bands was not about the fame, but being with a group of people like me,” she says. (Plus, boys in the band were cute.) At the end of the day, Lia simply wanted to make music. She graduated from high school two years early and spent several months studying music in college before realizing that becoming a musician was not practical. “I knew that if I chose to be a musician, I’d be an unsuccessful one,” she laughs.

Lia’s story shows that passion can rarely be forged into a career without a dose of practicality, and the place Lovers end up is often not where they expected.

After music school, Lia went on the road with punk bands, operating soundboards backstage at concerts and in recording studios. The technically savvy music lover was finding her niche. “Doing sound engineering was a way to be part of the musician lifestyle,” says Lia. “Creative people need structured people around them, and I’m sort of a blend.” She began a theatrical design degree at the University of Colorado but, anxious to get on with her career, left school to move to New York City, where she would hone her craft in the real world. Again she toured with bands, from the Ramones to the Rolling Stones, and occasionally Lia made extra money working not-so-glamorous venues, such as corporate events. During the early eighties, Lia was also one of the few women “mixing music” and, over the course of six years, was a sound designer for 150 shows. Recalls Lia, “I was the first woman to design sound for Broadway, which is actually what I’m most proud of in my career.”

As often happens with Lovers, Lia’s career transitioned unexpectedly when a director she knew asked her to supervise music selection for a film called Longtime Companion (1990). Lia accepted, and when the movie was done, the director asked her to work on another film, Prelude to a Kiss (1992), starring Meg Ryan and Alec Baldwin.

The head of music at Twentieth Century Fox didn’t want me to do Prelude to a Kiss because he didn’t want to hire “a girl who had only done one movie.” My technical and theater background didn’t count in Hollywood, but eventually the movie’s director just forced them to hire me. That was my first studio feature, and when I realized I loved working in film. So I moved to L.A.

It was very difficult to get work here, and I went from being at the top of my game on the East Coast to being someone no one had ever heard of on the West Coast. I didn’t know many people in L.A., and I definitely didn’t know a lot about supervising music for movies. One person told me I might as well forget it. But I didn’t. Instead, I shifted my focus. You know how your mother tells you to have something to fall back on if “the creative thing” doesn’t work out? Well, there was a time I didn’t want to follow her advice because I thought it would keep me from pursuing my dream. But my mother was right, and once I got to Hollywood I fell back on my technical proficiency. Instead of being a music supervisor right away, I became a music editor, the person who synchronizes all of the songs and the score into the film.

I couldn’t have made a better decision. Editing taught me about film production and gave me the training I needed to be a supervisor and do the job I have today. Much of my current job involves translating what a director wants. When a director says, “I need the music to be more yellow,” my hands-on, technical background helps me know what he means. Making a film is a collaborative art. You just can’t create for yourself. There are a lot of people I have to please, from the filmmakers and the studio to the record company and the marketing department. I’m able to see how all the pieces fit together.

Just because I’m passionate about my job doesn’t mean there aren’t days when my head hurts and my body aches and nights when I can’t sleep. You have to have a thick skin in this business. Plus, Hollywood is very competitive, and working in entertainment is not a nine-to-five job. We’re in meetings or on the phone all day, and at night I go to dinner meetings and movie screenings. This job is my life—it’s both brutal and amazing.

Most people don’t even know a job such as Lia’s exists, yet in every field there are hundreds of such nuanced, behind-the-scenes positions that require uniquely skilled individuals. For Lia, the technical expertise her job requires is at the core of why she loves her job—not the glamor of making Hollywood movies or the “adrenaline rush” she gets from being in charge. This music Lover says one of her favorite on-the-job tasks is attending to a song’s technical details, like working with an artist in a studio or sitting in on a scoring session with a composer. Such hands-on activities take Lia back to her sound-engineering roots—and help soothe those occasional aches and pains.

She got goose bumps.

Perched on the hills above California’s Pacific Coast Highway is the fabled Hearst Castle at San Simeon—a 165-bedroom mansion built in the 1920s by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. For many visitors, one of the most memorable aspects of touring the mansion is not the gilded Roman pool or the picturesque views of the sea, but a very animated tour guide named Mary Kocher. Mary, her red hair tucked into a safari-style hat, does not just spew facts and answer visitor questions. Instead, Mary tells stories. Every anecdote—be it about Hearst’s lavish parties or a 2,000-year-old vase in his art collection—unfolds as if Mary is sharing it for the first time among friends.

What’s so surprising, though, is just how long Mary’s been a “historical interpreter” at the castle: For eleven years she’s conducted some 5,000 tours. Talk about monotony. You have to wonder how anyone can repeat the same information, day after day, and stave off boredom, let alone love her job. But here’s Mary’s secret: She loves art and art history. Mary loves to be surrounded by it and to talk about it. What’s more, she’s constantly updating her knowledge.

Mary’s appreciation for artistic beauty sparked at age six, but it took almost forty years—and countless nonartistic, uninspiring, and low-paying jobs—before she indulged it as a career.

I remember standing in front of a painting when I was six, and my mother leaning down to say, “That’s a real El Greco, Mary.” I got goose bumps! In grade school, if I was not talking to my neighbor, I was drawing, and in high school I decided I wanted to be a Renaissance woman and know a little bit about everything, from ancient Greece to the Middle Ages to the present day. I didn’t want to be a teacher—that seemed too structured—so I didn’t know what I’d do with all the knowledge.

Two and a half years into college, at eighteen, I got pregnant, got married, and left school. I had my second child by the time I was twenty-four, and my husband and I lived in remote towns in Washington State and California to escape society. We were in survival mode and had no choice but to take whatever jobs we could get. I held a bunch of minimum-wage jobs: I was a sheriff’s dispatcher, a mail carrier, a secretary, a ballet store clerk, a personal trainer, an aerobics instructor at a gym . . . anything just to pay the bills while I raised my kids.

Twice a year I would drag out a canvas and paint.

Finally, at forty-one, after I was divorced, I woke up and realized I couldn’t keep doing dinky jobs I didn’t enjoy. I’d always loved art, and I decided I wanted to work around beautiful things, even if it only paid minimum wage. I happened to live near Hearst Castle, and when I applied to be a tour guide all I knew was that the man who built the mansion was really rich. I wasn’t qualified for the job—a lot of tour guides had master’s degrees—and I had to convince the State of California, which operates the Castle, to count my aerobics instruction toward the mandatory number of speaking hours required of Castle guides. Once I started the job, I received about 120 hours of basic training, but I did my own independent study about history, art, and the famous people who were Hearst’s guests, like Winston Churchill. That way I could say something interesting about Churchill instead of just name-dropping. A good tour guide can’t just give facts. We have to get people interested by putting Hearst’s life and home into a larger context. If I want to talk about Hearst’s upbringing, I tell people he was thirteen when Custer was defeated in the Battle of Little Bighorn. Instead of just pointing out a beautifully carved piece of furniture, I talk about what was happening in the world when the chair was made.

Every tour group is different, and I start reading groups the moment they step off the tour bus. Older people know all the old movie stars, but younger people aren’t the least bit impressed that Cary Grant visited the mansion forty times. Some visitors want to know how Hearst made his money, others are curious about the scandals swirling around Hearst’s wife and his famous mistress, and still others want to know about the antiques. My goal is to get each group asking questions, and I base every tour off their questions. When I find myself getting bored, I just read a new book. When I learn a new fact, I place it between facts I already know. My memory has improved so much since I started working at the Castle. Even if I didn’t work here, I’d still learn all this stuff. I’d just have nobody to share it with.

But wait. There’s more. Mary has a second job that also indulges her love of art: She is a model who poses nude for artists and art students. Apparently, Mary first wanted to be an artist’s model when her grandmother took her to a sculpture class. “The live model was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen, and just so comfortable with her body,” recalls Mary, who was brought up to feel comfortable with her own nudity. Unfortunately, her first husband refused to let Mary model in the buff, and it wasn’t until after her divorce that Mary finally started posing. Now her lithe, statuesque body is in high demand.

I’ve been told I sit well. A lot of models can’t hold a pose, and that is a must because modeling classes last about three hours. I’ll usually warm up with two-minute poses, then ten minutes, then twenty-five. It can be very painful to sit the same way for a while, fighting gravity, but I swear I get into the deepest, most meditative state. I try to conceptualize what I look like from the different angles the artists are viewing me. I’m a gangly five feet, nine inches tall and weigh about 135 pounds, but it doesn’t matter what shape you’re in—you could be 300 pounds and be an artist’s model—as long as you understand that it’s an artistic endeavor. I’ve studied so many art books that a lot of times I strike a famous pose, and it takes a while, but one of the artists eventually exclaims, “Hey, you’re Michelangelo’s David,” or “You’re one of Degas’s little dancers!” It was a struggle to learn how to model for artists, but it was worth it. Being involved in art—being the object of beauty—is the whole purpose.

Whether object, student, or teacher, Mary has finally surrounded herself with art and escaped the career doldrums of her twenties and thirties. Her salaries also beat working for minimum wage: Hearst pays about eighteen dollars an hour, and Mary charges up to fifteen dollars an hour to model. Her advice to other women stuck in unfulfilling minimum-wage jobs: “Find an area you’re interested in and get an entry-level job where you can work your way up. Even when you’re not making much, at least it’s in a field you like.”

In her own words

Karrie Fisher-LaMay, 43

School Librarian, Roycemore School

Evanston, Illinois

While recovering from cancer, Karrie had an epiphany that led her to pursue a master’s degree in library science. Today, the mother of two is the librarian and media center director at a private preparatory school outside Chicago. While it appears as if Karrie stumbled across her profession serendipitously, it was, as you shall see, in the cards.

This is not a boring bun-in-the-hair profession, and my colleagues are not the stodgy “shushers” people assume they are. We’re wild when we’re outside the library. We play poker at night and have been known to dance on tables. And library science is an especially great profession for younger people, because soon a slew of older librarians will be retiring.

I first got interested in this profession when I was doing transcription work. I had started a transcription service while I was going through chemotherapy for cancer because it was a way to make money and work out of the house. I’d simply listen to tapes and type out the content, word for word. One day I was transcribing a speech that a librarian gave at Columbia University, and the way she described her job—to be able to help people find information on a day-to-day basis—just knocked my socks off! In the middle of transcribing her talk I came down from my office to the living room and blurted to my husband, “I have to go back to grad school and become a librarian.” He jumped on it—and even signed me up for the GRE.

My first step was to contact the librarian I heard speak on tape and ask her about the profession. She steered me toward Rutgers University’s program in library and information science. My first misstep occurred on the first day of grad school, when I had to choose a track: Did I want to be a generalist or a children’s librarian? Since I wanted to work with kids but had no library experience, I assumed I should be a generalist. Bad move. I soon learned that children’s librarianship requires specific educational training, and once I started I was not allowed to switch tracks. In retrospect I should have asked the department chairman to help me make my decision, but I was always a little intimidated by professors and never approached them. So I was stuck being a generalist.

After grad school I worked in the young adult section of a public library from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., but of course kids never came into the library during my hours. If I wanted to work in a public school library I had to get a teaching certificate. I was not able to leave work early for night classes, so I began looking for another job that gave me the flexibility to attend school. A coworker told me a local private day school needed a new librarian, which was perfect because private schools don’t always require teaching certificates. I actually got offers from two private schools, but I chose the less cushy of the two, Roycemore, located in a hundred-year-old building which had a lot of character.

When I arrived at Roycemore five years ago the library had been neglected and had become a huge lounge for students; the collection was also outdated, and the card catalog was maybe 40 percent accurate. I took the job because the place really needed me, and I felt I could make a difference. The library would be my little kingdom. I would bring it into the twenty-first century and make it a place that could influence every student and teacher.

It wasn’t easy. One of the biggest challenges was getting the students to change their behavior and stop treating the library like a noisy lounge. They ignored me for the first semester, and it came down to a battle of wills. Eventually I called a meeting with all the problem kids and made them sign a contract. They had to follow my new rules if they wanted to be in the library. They balked at first, but it worked, and from then on they at least attempted to be quiet. I even have a nice relationship with many of them.

As for the library itself, I had to weed out about 2,500 books (one book hadn’t been checked out since 1938). The school’s library budget was tiny, and so I applied for an $18,000 grant to help pay for a new book-tracking system. I had an electronic library-card system installed and created a collection and policy-development programs. It really is my little kingdom. And now that the library is in better shape, I can branch out and focus on my true love: helping kids develop lifelong reading habits and skills. Last year I challenged the kids to read a total of 1,000 books. They read 1,067! We celebrated with pizza.

Although my budget is still too small and I still get into battles with kids, what keeps me going is the knowledge that I make a difference in their lives. The most satisfying part of the job is helping a student find a piece of information, helping her make some kind of connection. I appreciate little things, like when I can e-mail a student the database archive she’s looking for, or when she learns a new way to conduct research on the Internet. Not all kids grasp basic stuff. That’s why I truly love being a librarian: I can open their eyes and help prepare them for college. If I didn’t, most of them would flip out when they got to their university library. Even if all I teach them is how to find books electronically, or that it’s okay to ask someone for help, then they’ll go further. (It’s ironic, of course, considering how I failed to ask a teacher for help when I returned to school.)

Here’s the crazy part of my story: Several years ago I was helping my mother move and clearing out my childhood possessions when I found a box filled with my old Nancy Drew books. As I leafed through the pages, I noticed that as a kid I’d pasted paper pockets and mock checkout cards on the inside front covers. As I sat there in my mother’s house, a chill went down my back. Amazing. I’d completely forgotten that when I was young, I pretended to work in a library. Apparently, a part of me never forgot.

I do think there’s some sort of destiny for all of us. We may go about finding it in a roundabout way, but if we really listen to our inner selves, we end up where we’re supposed to be.

She never wanted to fly.

Like latent librarian Karrie Fisher-LaMay, many women’s working passions are born in childhood. The trick is how—indeed, whether—we nurture them as adults. For Mary Ann Eiff, a lover of airplanes, the solution was leapfrogging from one aviation-related job to the next. Her current position has made her the happiest yet.

Mary Ann grew up in the midwestern farmlands, where she spent weekends building and flying model airplanes with friends. A tom- boy, Mary Ann was the only girl among a gaggle of male playmates. One day, while they were romping through the fields flying their rickety, homemade models, Mary Ann stumbled across a man restoring real airplanes in a large garage. Fascinated, she asked to assist him. The little girl was hooked, and, for the next seven years, Mary Ann and her buddies spent almost every Saturday helping the mechanic restore old planes. “It’s funny,” says Mary Ann today. “I never really wanted to fly the planes, I just loved restoring them.” It turns out Mary Ann was also prone to airsickness.

Her career path seemed obvious: This lover of airplanes—how they functioned and flew—should build a career in aviation maintenance. But it wasn’t that easy in the 1960s, a time when young Midwestern women were far from encouraged to study engineering. Rather than fight the status quo, Mary Ann took another path and, instead, majored in Bible studies and mathematics, graduating with a degree in Christian education.

Apparently, God didn’t want me to be a director of Christian education. After college I had trouble getting a job because employers always asked if I planned on having a family. “Not for a while,” I always said, but doors still slammed in my face. [Laughs.] Meanwhile, my husband and I took some of our savings and bought our own little plane, a 1946 Taylorcraft.

Mary Ann and her husband eventually had two children. Since she still had to work to help support her family, she flocked to a variety of aviation-related jobs. She was a mechanic’s apprentice. She kept books for an aviation company. For five years she even managed inventory at a small recording studio that produced background music for public venues, including airports! To an outsider, the jobs were completely random, but Mary Ann was circling the industry, looking for her landing.

Meanwhile, at night, Mary Ann and her husband toiled away in an aviation electronics shop they opened in 1972. The company, Cen- tral Illinois Avionics, specialized in electrical wiring and repair for aircraft. The business thrived until, one winter, thirty-foot-high snowdrifts blocked the shop door, preventing planes—and customers—from moving in or out of the shop. Compounding the problem, the 1970s oil embargo forced many small planes to stay grounded. With no planes to fix, Central Illinois Avionics was forced out of business, and Mary Ann and her husband had to find higher-paying day jobs. Landing jobs that corresponded with her passion was not easy, and Mary Ann faced nonstop turbulence.

Our shop wasn’t making money, so we closed it. My husband found a job teaching aviation electronics at Southern Illinois University. As for me, I decided to finally get my airplane mechanics license, which despite years of fixing planes I still did not have. In 1981, I finally got it, and for six months I worked for Air Illinois, a local commuter airline that flew small planes around the state. It was a really bad experience because the industry was less regulated back then, and I was forced to sign off on questionable planes. Finally I said, “I can’t do this! I want to go to bed and not worry at night!” So I told Air Illinois to take their job and shove it. The airline closed down about a year later.

I thought I would teach at the university where my husband worked, but the school wouldn’t hire me because I didn’t have a master’s in education. They wouldn’t even let me fix the planes the school used to teach students flying until I had a certain number of “points,” so I had to work for five years as a university secretary to earn all the points required to be a mechanic. Finally, in 1986, I got a job as a mechanic and inspector for the university’s training planes. But by that time, years of using screwdrivers and other tools had completely destroyed my wrists. I had carpal tunnel syndrome and could not do much maintenance work.

Although devastated that her hands had given out, Mary Ann did not give up her passion. Teaching, she decided, was another option. So she set out to earn a teaching degree, only to face a discriminatory job market upon graduation. There were not many female maintenance instructors in the 1980s. But Mary Ann persevered and went out of her way to attend university job fairs, which is how she eventually got a teaching position at Purdue University in Indiana.

I taught college for seven years, but teaching mommas’ babies how to fix airplanes became a big problem. They were good kids, just frustrating. A student would have a 2,000-degree welding torch in his hands and be swinging it around the shop floor because he was hung over from partying the night before! After I had a seventy-year-old man in my class, I realized that I needed to teach adults, not seventeen-year-olds. I thought, Why not teach in a maintenance environment where people are working on airplanes, where they know what they need to learn and appreciate education a lot more? So that’s what I do now.

At age fifty-nine, I’m an aircraft maintenance instructor at ATA Airlines in Indianapolis. I teach ATA’s thousand mechanics (only about fifty are women) required courses, like how to fill out a logbook; airline policies and procedures; how to enter critical data into our computers, or pull up an airplane’s history and figure out who we bought certain parts from. There are classes on safety, management, wiring, and how to troubleshoot. What do I like best? Seeing people I teach go out and do a good job and apply what they learned. If they don’t follow the rules they could not only lose their mechanic’s license and their livelihood, but someone else could lose a life. ATA has never—knock wood—had a major accident in thirty years. There’s no room for error in an airline mechanic’s work. We’re a different breed, all dedicated to safety or else we’d go off and be car mechanics. Unlike cars, planes just can’t pull off the road when their engines break down, so airline mechanics must go the extra mile. Take a look in an airplane mechanic’s toolbox sometime. The mechanic knows where every single tool is, and each tool is always in the same place to make sure not a single one is left in an airplane. Have you ever seen a car mechanic’s toolbox? It’s just a jumble of tools.

Forty years after airplanes captured a young Mary Ann’s imagination, she was still determined to keep aviation in her working life. Some jobs along her career path were more enjoyable than others, but all kept her close to what she loved. And at critical junctures, Mary Ann fine-tuned whatever was broken: When unethical business practices disturbed her, she quit. When she needed more education to become a teacher, she went back to school. And when teaching college students became unrewarding, she switched to training adults. Like an effective mechanic—and creative job jumper—Mary Ann consistently isolated the problem, fixed it, and moved forward, never completely abandoning her craft.

A camper for the rest of her life

Most women don’t find a job they love overnight. Indeed, finding work that makes you happy often requires embracing one not-so-perfect job at a time. Job by job, layer by layer, you discover who you are and gain skills and experience.

In Chicago, Joanie Henson is a woman who knows exactly what job she wants but has yet to attain it. That does not mean, however, that Joanie is not happy. In fact, her story is proof that a woman can be happy with a job even when it’s not her final destination.

Quite simply, Joanie wants to own and run her own overnight camp. The thirty-three-year-old has been a camp fan from the first summer she spent eight weeks at Camp Birch Trail in the remote woods of Wisconsin. Everything about camp life enthralled her. Swimming and singing. Cabin life and campfires. Organized activities and kitchen raids. She also loved that “success” at camp was not about grades or building a résumé, but about being a true friend, being silly, being positive, and being creative. At age nine, Joanie won a camper contest to be the camp’s director for a day, and as a teenager she returned to Birch Trail as a counselor and later as a program director. Joanie was drawn not necessarily by the prospect of playing with kids every day, but by the opportunity to help create and manage the camp experience for kids. (Bonus: Joanie also met her husband at Camp Birch Trail; he was a member of the staff when she was a counselor.)

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