You spent your 20s working toward building your dream career, but now that you’re in your 30s, what do you do when you’ve, well, changed your mind? Or maybe you never quite figured it out, and you’re now ready to commit to something you’re passionate about, whether it’s a job, a city, or just a new way of life? To celebrate the career changes that can come at any age, we’re debuting a new series called Second Life. Each week, we’ll hear from women who got over their doubts and fears and made the biggest changes of their lives.
By the age of 24, Catherine Lo had earned a bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley and a law degree from UCLA. Though she could have easily stayed on track to become a successful lawyer, she opted out of the conventional route and decided to follow her creative side: fashion design. But a decade later, after opening and closing her own custom wedding dress boutique, she was feeling lost and uninspired. After a few years of searching, she started a new career in real estate. But the story doesn’t end there. Lo, who now lives in Berkeley with her husband and two young children, recently started over again, this time in interior design. Here’s her story.
MYDOMAINE: Tell us about your first career path.
CATHERINE LO: I didn’t quite exactly know what I wanted to do after college. Law school sounded interesting. I didn’t think I’d actually be a lawyer, but they always say you can do anything with a law degree. Law school is not a place to go to find yourself. It’s a place to go be a lawyer. I was 21 when I started; the [next] three years [felt like] being somewhere I didn’t really belong. I figured I’d just finish and move on to the next thing.
After graduating, I moved to New York because I wanted to study fashion design, which is something I wanted to do since I was 13. I felt like I had successfully accomplished my academic pursuits, so now I could focus on something creative. But when I tried to get jobs that weren’t law related, people would ask, Why do you want this job if you have a law degree?
My parents didn’t give me any money, just my dad’s old 1993 Acura. I sold it after six months of being in New York. That’s when I stopped working for two months to study for the bar exam. Then I took a year to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology full-time. I was living off credit cards. My credit card debt was ridiculous. That was the awakening point. Like, how am I surviving living in NYC without a job? So I went back and started working in litigation for a big law firm. I did my job well, but my heart wasn’t in it. I was doing it to pay off my credit card, which I did after a year. Ultimately, I ended up practicing law for three years while I was in New York.
MD: How did you go about making the transition out of law and into fashion design?
CL: The fashion design thing was always in my brain. It was always a waiting game. When I felt secure enough financially, then I could do my fashion design stuff. When my husband and I decided to stay in the Bay Area, I knew it was time. And I eventually started my own boutique wedding dress company, creating custom gowns for individual clients.
While I was finally doing what I had always dreamed of—running my own bridal gown studio—I also found that it was really hard doing everything myself. I had to do the sales and all the bookkeeping and the designing. But I didn’t know how to get a partner. I kept going along, thinking, I can do this. I’m not a person who asks for help. Now, I feel like it would have been nice to have a team of 10 designers to collaborate with. After I had my first child, I decided to stop. Did I become Vera Wang? No. But I learned from it, and I moved on.
MD: What came after that?
CL: I had a second child, and then two years ago, when my kids were 3 and 4, I decided to apply for my real estate license. I worked as a realtor for two years, and while I enjoyed it, I felt tethered to my phone and at any moment, something could happen to make the deal fall through. A few months ago, I started craving more creativity in my work and decided it was time for a change.
MD: What have been the biggest challenges in your many careers and why?
CL: I struggled over not taking a straight path. Why did I keep changing every three years? Why was I never content in a job? I finally realized that it’s totally fine. My path is not straight. It’s a winding path, but I’m still moving forward. I didn’t get the kind of success I wanted, or even with the law thing, I could’ve achieved more, but at least I’m still doing stuff. I work, and I work hard at what I’m doing and when I realize I’m not happy, I try another route. Maybe one day one of these things will stick.
It does help that I’m married to someone very stable, who’s very content with his job and makes enough money so our family can live comfortably. But would I be different if I were not married? No. I think I’d still be switching around. I’d be more conservative, knowing I was going to go back to school, but I probably still wouldn’t stick to one job.
MD: What triggered your need to change this time around?
CL: Prince and David Bowie’s deaths reminded me how I missed being creative. These guys were my idols; they were my heroes. I had lost that kind of inspiration. So everything was pointing me towards this. I took an interior design class and I really liked it. Also, I just turned 40, and it’s like, I can’t waste time now. I felt I had all the time in the world before, but now I feel like I need to be efficient and make things happen. I realized women come into their prime in their 40s and 50s. That’s when they are finally at their peak. In our 20s, we can start out as administrative assistants, but in our 40s and 50s, we’re heads of companies and really accomplishing things. As opposed to feeling past my prime and focusing on all these kids becoming CEOs, I started paying attention to people who were older, like writers or artists who had done their greatest work in their later years of life. So now I’ve enrolled in a certificate program in interior design and architecture.
MD: Why is your current path suitable for your personality?
CL: What I liked about real estate wasn’t the sales aspect. My law skills helped with the contracts and negotiating—it felt very natural, and I wasn’t scared of it. What I liked about real estate is looking at homes. But more so, I liked looking at spaces and reimagining them. When I was designing gowns, I’d see clothes in everything I was looking at. Everything was translated into some form on a body. When I walked into a space, I’d reimagine it. Would I knock down a wall here or put in a window there? I could totally see how I’d want a room to feel.
MD: What's the most important thing you have learned in making a big change in your career life?
CL: It’s okay to change. You’re not stepping backward, you’re moving forward. I’d be like, Am I ditching something again? Why can’t I commit? Now, I feel fine about the change. I don’t feel guilty or like I’m taking a step backward. Now I’m excited that I’m starting something new.
MD: What’s your best advice for someone who wants to start over or make a big jump in their career?
CL: Trust yourself. Trust your instinct. If you think this is not right and you want to make a change, you’ve got to go with it.
Ready to muster up the courage to make your own career change? Dust off your creativity with this book below.