Wondering how to transition from a blog whose subject no longer thrills you? Looking for a career change or a way to recharge? Joe Yonan understands the positive power of change and has accomplished many shifts in his career.
The award-winning Food and Travel editor of The Washington Post spent 2012 in North Berwick, Maine, on leave from the Post to learn about growing food and homesteading from his sister and brother-in-law.
Earlier, he started the Post’s Weeknight Vegetarian column. There was a big to do, since people assume newspaper food writers are omnivores. Now he’s writing about growing food on his 150-square-foot urban front yard, in addition to managing the food and travel sections of the paper.
And happily, speaking of more change, his two cookbooks, Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One, and Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook are a little less relevant now, since he’s in a relationship.
I heard Joe speak on change while at the International Food Blogger Conference (IFBC), and I wanted to follow up. So many of us become experts in a subject and then want to expand or move in another direction, but worrying about the consequences keeps us treading water:
Q. How do you know when it’s time for a change?
A. For the homesteading in Maine, I had this feeling that something had to change, more of a primal sense of necessity. My dog had just died and I couldn’t stand to be at home. My community garden closed. The newsroom had been through financial difficulties and I was out of fresh ideas for how to do more with less.
A way to look at things differently just hit me. I’d gone to my sister and brother-in-law’s place for years. It was always a source of inspiration for me, it just seemed like I had to do it.
When I asked the Post if I could have the year off, they could tell if they said no I was going to quit.
Q. How hard is it to follow your intuition?
A. It gets easier as you get older. I’m 49. Experience reinforces intuition, so the more times you regret you’ve not listened to it, then the more open you are to listening the next time around. It’s a matter of trusting yourself.
Q. When you announced your year off, did your colleagues support you? How important was that to you?
A. My supervisor guaranteed my job when I came back. My colleagues were jealous. I was walking away from my salary for a year, so that was courageous. Other journalists were awestruck and couldn’t believe that I asked and that The Post granted me a year. They thought ‘I wish I could do something like that.’ I think people can! You just have to figure out how to set it up.
Q. Let’s talk about the vegetarian column. Were there road signs that it was time to change?
A. My cooking and diet shifted. I realized I wasn’t cooking meat. I kept buying this beautiful humanely raised meat and then waiting for a dinner party to cook it. My first cookbook was two-thirds vegetarian.
My Cooking for One column became vegetarian and my colleagues noticed, but I was afraid to pull the trigger (to change the title). I was afraid of the reaction, that people were going to dismiss me as a serious food journalist because I admitted that I wasn’t eating meat anymore.
Then I started shifting in my restaurant meals too. That was the last thing to go. I knew my next cookbook was going to be vegetarian, but I was still not telling anyone I was a vegetarian. I forecasted it in 12 consecutive columns, using words like ‘mostly not eating meat.’
When I came out as a vegetarian, friends were surprised. People just didn’t want to believe it was a real shift.
Q. Having taken these career risks, what is the upside?
A. The big upside is my energy and creativity were re-animated. I also had a clearer focus, and a lot came from the year in Maine and not multitasking with social media and email all the time. Instead, I spent a good part of every day on single-minded gardening tasks like shoveling manure and breaking up mineral dust.
To be in your body and not in your head was important to me for a while. Not that there aren’t complexities, but to concentrate on covering tomatoes with manure instead of ‘Does this restaurant deserve this feature story?’ was refreshing. It helped me be clear and more efficient when I got back, gave me new ways to look at stories, and gave me new creativity around agricultural issues.
Q. Do you feel that you would have kept growing and learning if you didn’t make this changes and still stayed at your job?
A. In some ways, yes. I wasn’t so stagnated that nothing was happening at all. Since I came back, the Jeff Bezos acquisition was happening and there was new energy and resources. I was primed for it and was able to ride into the wave of better morale and energy.
Then I bought a townhouse with a small front yard, where I built six raised beds. It has been a source of such joy for me since I came back, that and writing the column on urban gardening. I’m thinking of taking a class on master gardening this winter. Who knows what that will lead to? It involves a lot of community service work and I’ve been feeling a pull towards that.
Q. Let’s talk about why people don’t change. Do you think people become complacent because they have worked so hard to get where they are?
A. Yes, that’s definitely part of it. I was working at the Boston Globe on the night copy desk. I had a flash of inspiration that my true passion was food. I went to culinary school during the day, an intensive year-long program. There was a voice in my head saying ‘you’ve paid your dues in journalism, why are you making this change?’ I didn’t want to waste all that. I had thought about opening a bakery.
But none of it was a waste. I decided to turn my journalism to food. Everything in my life up to that point informed my next decision.
It’s so easy to keep doing whatever you’re doing, because you know how each day is going to go. The hardest thing is to make a change, especially if the change is just making yourself happy. You don’t know whether people are going to accept you.
Ultimately, you have to be true to yourself and not make any apologies and excuses about it. So if you’ve been writing for 10 years about vegan slow cooking and your doctor says you’re low on iron, and you start craving meat, then you should do what you need to do. You have to articulate the shift in a way that seems authentic to people. The ex-wife of Morgan Spurlock, Alex Jamison, stopped being vegan and caught a lot of flack for it. But I’m sure she’s happy eating what she wants to eat.
Q. What advice would you give people who are afraid to make a change?
A. When I was having this career crisis and I felt stuck, I got What Color is My Parachute? I read the exercises about a series of visualizations: Imagine yourself working. Imagine yourself happy. Imagine yourself working and happy. Then identify what other things are in that vision and what that clues you into.
I got ready to do the first visualization, and closed my eyes, and I went ‘Oh it’s food.’ It was like a lightening bolt! All I wanted to talk about was food. Then I had to decide what it means, and I had to get a culinary education.
I just allowed myself to open up and pay attention to possibilities.
For others not in a crisis, try to think about experiences you’ve had that are particularly meaningful, that satisfy a passion, that feel important, where you’ve felt really fired up, passionate and engaged. What does it mean? Work backwards from that into how it would translate into a change.
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I’d love to hear from you. Are you wondering about changing your focus, but not sure how you’ll get there? Do you find it hard to stick with one subject when you have other interests?