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Robert Neubecker

How a forced career change taught me to embrace new opportunities

"Can’t stop loving you … " My 3-year-old son was singing along with Phil Collins from his car seat. We were on our commute, spending a few hours of quality time in Dutch rush-hour traffic. But I was not in the mood to sing along. My manager at the biotech company where I had been working for a bit more than a year had just told me that, in spite of my excellent performance, he did not foresee giving me more responsibilities in the near future. I was working part time so that I could spend more time with my young children, and he believed the career growth I sought required a full-time employee. The message hit me hard. But it precipitated a change that, in the end, taught me the power of embracing opportunities, no matter where they come from.

My manager’s decision planted a seed of self-doubt. Was he right? Was I asking for too much? But I reminded myself that I had already proved I could be an effective scientist on a part-time schedule. During my 7 years as a university researcher working part time—a common choice among working mothers in the Netherlands—my career had flourished. With rigorous time management and organization, I got at least as much good work done in 4 days a week as others did on full-time schedules.

When I left my university post for the biotech company, spurred by the desire for my work to reach patients, I expected that I would be able to grow professionally and advance my career there. I had the impression that the company valued performance and ambition. But now I was being told that I should be happy in my current role as a troubleshooter, rather than the project leader I aspired to be.

A friend suggested that I reach out to senior managers about opportunities in other departments. At first, I resolutely rejected that idea. Didn’t he understand? I wanted to work on antibodies and nothing but antibodies! That was what I knew, where I felt I could add the most value. And yet, I did not want to leave this cool company just because of one unsupportive manager.

With little expectation that it would lead anywhere, I approached the three senior managers. One did not respond. One had nothing to offer. The third invited me to chat. He patiently listened to my story, asked what I was looking for, and then—in the blink of an eye—told me that I was welcome to join him in building a vaccine research unit. I stuttered that I knew nothing about vaccines. He waved nonchalantly and said, “You will learn. You are smart and willing to work hard. You will make it.”

The reassurance was exactly what I had been looking for, but I was still shaken by my manager’s lack of confidence in me. Could I really handle a high-responsibility role in a completely new field?

When I step out of my comfort zone, I find my most creative, productive self.

A few sleepless nights later, I decided that taking a chance on the unknown was better than staying in a position that made me miserable. The worst thing that could happen was that I would fail. But I already felt like a failure, so why not try it?

I soon discovered a new passion. My career path within the company opened up. I took on more responsibilities, developed new skills, expanded my scientific horizons, worked with great people, and led fantastic projects—all because of a change that had felt forced on me. It had pushed me further than I was willing to go, further than I thought I could cope with, and taught me that when I step out of my comfort zone, I find my most creative, productive self.

More than 10 years later, antibodies—my scientific “first love”—crossed my path again in the form of an exciting, challenging position that demanded a major life change, complicated by my recent divorce. I would have to leave my home and community, start again in another country, and find a way to co-parent across borders. After many discussions, I asked my son whether he would go abroad with me. Without lifting his eyes from his Minecraft game, he responded, “Pourquoi pas?” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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