Illustration by Justin Tran
Illustration by Justin Tran

Passion economy

My pandemic pivot: How crisis inspired millions to chase meaning in their work


Published on August 31, 2021

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Leslie Danford was the consummate corporate executive. She earned her bachelor’s in economics from the University of Chicago and her MBA from Harvard Business School. Jobs in finance beckoned: M&A analyst at Commerzbank, private equity associate at Winona, and principal at Bain & Company.

The roles were demanding and challenging. She learned a lot and grew professionally. But all the while, something nagged at the back of her mind.

“I didn’t feel like I fully owned the work,” Danford says. “Bureaucracy and red tape prevented me from having the impact I knew I could have.”

In an effort to get closer to owning something of her own, she left the consulting world and joined OYO Hotels in 2019. The hotel chain was only six years old at this point but it had just raised a new round of capital and was pushing into the U.S. for the first time. It felt like an opportunity for Danford to put her stamp on something.

As general manager for the American Midwest, she built the regional business almost from scratch. Properties increased from just two to 35 in her first year. New teams sprouted under her watch. Existing teams ballooned. Bookings skyrocketed and revenue spiked.

But once again, something felt wrong. She wanted meaning beyond dollars, cents, and occupancy rates. She wanted a professional purpose that aligned with her personal passions.

“I’m a mom of three (soon to be four) and I’m passionate about children's nutrition,” she says, reflecting on her journey.

Danford often thought about resigning from OYO to start a business that tapped into that passion. But she didn’t leave. She stuck with the hotel chain for a full year, all the while knowing that it wasn’t right for her.

In the end, it would take a seismic event to shake her from her comfort zone. 

Four walls, family, and a job

For many months, the pandemic tore away much of what we expected from life. Musicians delayed concerts, theaters nixed stage shows, and sports leagues canceled games. Restaurants shut and offices closed. Our lives contracted to the bare essentials: work, family, and friends. 

In that period of enforced reflection, people contemplated their professions.

One-third decided their career had stalled. (The figure doubles for younger workers.) More than 40% said they felt unmotivated and one-fifth reported feeling dissatisfied with their quality of life at work. Many, like Danford, felt they were working for the sake of working, not because they were passionate about something.

Locked inside our homes with nothing to do but think, those pressures built. Asked about their plans, 41% of workers said they were thinking about quitting. When the economic crisis stabilized in early 2021, we saw that those claims weren’t hot air. In April 2021, four million Americans quit their jobs.

Rebecca Danko was one of those people.

For years, she’d climbed the marketing ladder: social media intern to specialist to senior specialist. She hoped each hop would bring her fulfillment and happiness. But when the buzz of each honeymoon period faded, her roles felt flat and uninspiring. Bereft of ideas, she sidestepped into a new discipline—digital advertising. It buoyed her spirits for a few months but unhappiness soon returned. The pandemic forced Danko to face this pattern.

“It made me reassess my whole life,” Danko says. “I realized I want to work for myself and set rules and deadlines on my own.”

In the end, it would take a seismic event to shake her from her comfort zone. 

There was just one problem. Although she knew she wanted to run her own business, she had no idea what it should be. Faced with a world of opportunity, she thought less about her past roles and more about herself and her passions.

“I always loved writing,” she says. “Starting a blog would enable me to do what I love while applying all the knowledge and experience from my previous jobs in digital marketing.”

She set up a simple website called Rebi Simple Living and began writing. Ostensibly, her blog focused on simplicity and minimalism, but her newfound freedom allowed diversions into other topics like personal finance, wellness, and beauty.

In her previous roles, devising social media campaigns felt like a chore. But tapping into her passions has transformed what work is. Words flow from her keyboard. Articles feel rewarding. Even long, exhausting days left her feeling rejuvenated: “I’m at the beginning phase of growth, but I work every day following a set strategy and I am sure that in the near future I will succeed.”

Finding meaning in work

Many people unintentionally fall into their jobs. As career coach J.T. O'Donnell once explained, people rarely have the right information to choose a career path.

“Think about it,” she wrote. “How many of us are truly equipped with enough life experience, self-knowledge, and information about suitable careers in our teens? In our twenties? Or, even in our thirties?”

Vast swathes of people spend four years in college only to land roles in a completely unrelated field. Just one-quarter of college graduates work in jobs “directly related” to their major.

The happenstance nature of our career paths means many people end up in unfulfilling positions. Their roles are devoid of meaning or at least unaligned with what they personally hold as important. And meaning is essential. Seven in 10 people value meaningful work. Yet, across the board, employees say their work "is about half as meaningful as it could be.”

To illustrate how important purpose is, one survey asked participants how much they’d be willing to sacrifice for work that was always meaningful. The response? Twenty-three percent of all future lifetime earnings—around $21,100 a year.

In normal circumstances, a dearth of meaning is easy to ignore. An indulgent meal or impulse purchase does a lot to smooth over the gap. But the pandemic removed all distractions and forced our roles under the spotlight. Some people didn’t like what they saw.

For a decade, Erin Cooper worked as a recruiting manager for a boutique firm. She was good at her job and earned “more money than she ever thought possible.” During the lull of the pandemic, she had time to listen to motivational speakers like Les Brown and Brendon Bouchard. With their daily provocations and the focus of quarantine, Cooper re-assessed her professional identity. 

In normal circumstances, a dearth of meaning is easy to ignore. But the pandemic removed all distractions and forced our roles under the spotlight. 

“I realized that I wasn't living up to my full potential, and that I had sold out for a salary,” she says now. “Let's face it: being an entrepreneur is hard and uncertain, but a salary and a job isn't.”

She realized she had traded stability for meaning, cash for purpose. Things had to change. During the pandemic, Cooper dove into her passion: health and wellness. She got certified as a wellness coach and incorporated her company Hungry Fit Foodie. She took a significant pay cut to make it happen, but now she’s living out her dreams.

A worldwide moment of reflection

Before the pandemic, most of the workforce had lived and worked through at least one economic crisis: the Great Recession in 2008, the Dot-com bubble in 2000, the Asian financial crisis of 1997. We were used to wild market fluctuations, rising unemployment, and unstable job security. But the pandemic presented a novel experience and challenge.

Life shut down. Whole industries disappeared overnight. The world froze. For several months, billions of people sheltered in their homes, their lives reduced to a handful of rooms and a garden, if they were lucky. It was a collective moment of reflection the likes of which we have never seen before.

Tens of millions of people used the crisis as inspiration or motivation. Rebecca Danko traded her staid work at a marketing agency for her own writing project. Erin Cooper swapped recruitment for well-being. And what about Leslie Danford, the corporate executive in search of something to call her own? In the end, the pandemic made her choice for her.

With hospitality in turmoil, Danford lost her job. Instead of returning to consulting or chasing another corporate position, she decided to chase meaning. Danford says the process was nerve-wracking. It took her months to muster up the courage to take the initial steps and share her company, Vitaminis, with her broader network. While the journey has been harder than she anticipated, it’s been as fulfilling and rewarding as she hoped.

“Without the pandemic, there’s no way I would be pursuing building my own business right now, even though I’d always thought about doing it,” she says. “While the past year has been highly disruptive and painful at times, I’m so thankful for the path it’s put me on.”