What I Learned By Leaving My Stressful Job as a CEO to Achieve Success on my Own Terms
Alisha Fernandez Miranda was a successful CEO, mother of 8-year-old-twins, and on the brink of her 40th birthday when she decided something needed to change. She was at the peak of personal and professional success, but she also felt overworked and exhausted all the time—worried that the price she was paying for that success was too high.
So, she decided to make a change. She took a sabbatical from her stressful job and decided to take a series of internships (yes, internships!) with the goal of trying out a handful of the careers she dreamed of doing as a young girl.
Miranda called it her “what if” year, and it inspired her to intern at a Broadway theater, a London art gallery, a fitness studio, and a luxury hotel in Scotland.
So, what did she learn?
The Sunday Paper sat down with Miranda to find out.
A CONVERSATION WITH ALISHA FERNANDEZ MIRANDA
What was the moment you realized you needed to leave your job as a CEO? Was there a catalyst?
It was 2019 and I was living in London, married with two kids, and the CEO of my own consulting firm. I’d ticked off so many of the things on my to-do list for life. And for some reason, I was getting up every day feeling listless and not really enjoying my job. And I felt guilty about that because I couldn’t figure out why.
I remember being at the World Economic Forum in the beginning of 2019, surrounded by world leaders and social impact leaders, thinking, Is this it? Is this what I’ve been working toward? I felt a little bit empty.
So, you decided to make a big change by taking a series of internships. What was behind that big, unexpected leap?
The idea to intern came from a lifelong love of musical theater. I grew up in Miami; my dad was a Cuban immigrant who loved musicals. I was always in love with musical theater.
I went to a performance of “Kiss Me Kate” in London and walked out saying to my husband, “I would do anything to be a part of that! I’d fold playbills, scrape gum from under the seats—anything to be part of a production!”
Soon after, I spent the weekend with two of my best girlfriends from college. Over a few martinis, we started talking about our dreams. I told them about how I’d give anything to work in musical theater for a bit. My friend Rebecca said, “You could be an intern at a theater!”
I couldn’t get the idea out of my head, and it snowballed from there. I eventually did four internships during 2020.
I’d love to hear about some high points—and low points—during your internships.
There are so many high points. My first internship involved shadowing two productions in New York City—one on Broadway and one off-Broadway. On my first day, I wanted to impress everyone and was moving quickly. I was looking at my phone while walking and bumped into an older man. It was Stephen Sondheim! I know it sounds crazy that almost knocking down Stephen Sondheim was a high point, but it was incredible to meet him! Every single moment of interning on those shows was like living this dream I’d always had of working in musical theater.
As for the low points? Well, getting the news that the Covid-19 pandemic would prompt the theater to go dark was a low. Also, my final internship was at a hotel on the Isle of Skye in Scotland where I worked everywhere from the front desk to the restaurant, and I was so bad at all of it! There was a real lesson in that, because I’d spent my life trying to be the best at everything I put my mind to. But I didn’t get any better at any of that work at the hotel. I checked someone into the wrong room. I spilled food on restaurant guests. I almost set myself on fire! All of this stuff was physically taxing, and I was so bad at it.
What were some of your biggest ah-ha moments and lessons learned from your "what if" year?
The big thing that came out of my "what if" year was thinking about how I could bring the spirit of being an intern into my everyday life.
For me, this means pushing myself out of my comfort zone and not being afraid to fail. I’ve always been such an achiever. But when I started failing at things, I realized not only is failure not as scary as I thought, but I learned and grew the most when I was really terrible at something. Now, I try to do things where there’s a decent possibility of failure.
I also try to bring joy into every day. Some days that happens in my job; other days it’s when I’m standup paddleboarding, a new skill I’m terrible at but that brings me a lot of joy. These days, I try to prioritize doing things I love versus doing things I think are going to get me somewhere.
Do you think you stepping away from life as you knew it was crucial to learn these lessons?
You know, I think it’s possible to micro-dose on your what ifs. I don’t think it has to be a year, or an internship, or even as drastic as leaving your job. There are lots of ways to take the principles I learned in my "what if" year and bring them into everyday practice. Take an online class; try a sport you’ve never done. Those are the things that create what-if moments, which can be just as transformative as a "what if" year.
What’s your best advice for others who are inspired by your journey and want to do something similar?
We tend to create all these reasons we can’t do something, especially if it’s uncomfortable or we haven’t tried it before. A lot of these reasons are practical. But there are other stories we tell ourselves that create barriers to doing what we really want to do—barriers that don’t actually have to be there. For example, I used to tell myself “I’m not artsy, so I could never work in an art gallery.” Then I interned at an art gallery, which helped me see the self-imposed barrier I’d put up before.
So, I’d suggest really thinking about what’s stopping you from doing what you want to do. Then, try to differentiate between the real and imaginary barriers in your way of doing that thing. The real barriers can be faced with a practical plan. The imaginary ones? Those may take more time to get over.
Overall, I hope my "what if" year proves to anyone who’s ever felt stuck in a rut that it’s never too late to say yes to second chances and explore the roads untraveled throughout your life.
A respected authority on women's empowerment, social impact, and sustainability, Alisha Fernandez Miranda serves as Chair and former CEO of I.G. Advisors, an award-winning social impact intelligence agency that consults with the world's biggest non-profits, foundations, and corporations on their philanthropy and social initiatives. Her clients include The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Ford Foundation, and UN Women. At the beginning of 2020, Alisha paused her high-powered career to pursue a series of internships on Broadway, with contemporary art dealer Blain, fitness studio Retroglow, and in the kitchen of the Kinloch Lodge. Alisha is the daughter of a Cuban immigrant and hails from Miami.
Question from the Editor: If you could leave life as you know it right now, what would you do? Where in the world would you go, and how would you spend your time?