By Michael Melcher
Partner, Next Step Partners
Award-winning Journalist and NPR Host Ailsa Chang joins Michael Melcher on his Career Stewardship podcast
Ailsa Chang had graduated from Stanford Law School with distinction, clerked for Judge John T. Noonan Jr. on the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco and ended up working at a prestigious San Francisco law firm.
She was in her early 30s, established in a fancy office with gleaming windows that looked out on the San Francisco Bay. She had worked hard for years to get there. And she was miserable. She realized that she didn’t want to be a lawyer.
In Episode 33 of my Career Stewardship podcast, Ailsa Chang shares how she figured out what she really wanted to do and transitioned into a new career as a journalist. Her path to becoming a host of NPR’s All Things Considered has lessons for everyone who wants a career of purpose, joy and meaning.
Following are a few key excerpts from our conversation (that have been edited for clarity and brevity). Listen to the full interview here: Ailsa Chang shares how she got to be a NPR host.
Michael Melcher: How did you evaluate the likelihood of being successful in the field when you first went after it?
Ailsa Chang: I was so unhappy as a lawyer that when I first went over it in my head I thought, “I need to figure out something new with some feeling of joy, purpose, meaning.” I wasn’t even lurching for success. I was lurching for something different, something that spoke more honestly to me.
I remember telling my mom that, health permitting, I hope to be working into my 80s. I’m just now in my early 30s. Why would I go through the next five decades mildly bored or miserable just because I spent the past few years invested as a lawyer?
I spent most of my life as a successful student, always reaching for the next brass ring. It was very different to pause on that track and ask myself, “Wait, what will make you happy. What brings you purpose? What kind of work environment do you want?” I never asked myself those questions when I was aspiring as a high school student, as a college student, as a law student.
And then all that great pedigreed education spits you out into the world and it’s up to you to make sense of what’s out there and to figure out what you want to grab from all those options to make yourself happy. I never did that.
For me, what I wanted in my early 30s when I left law was to feel happier inside when I go to work. We spend so many hours even on a regular 8 hour a day job — that’s a lot of hours of your life. If you’re even just complacent, just meh about your job, that’s a long time to be meh in your life. You owe it to yourself to want more.
Michael Melcher: I think the truth that you had latched onto in your early 30s was you were looking forward not just looking at the sunk costs. We often think “Well I had this interest, or pursued this education or spent this amount of money or built up this level of experience. And it’s already been 3 years, 5 years, 8 years, 10 year. So therefore in year 11, I need to keep moving on this trajectory.
Because I agree with you. I plan to work well into my 80s. I’m going to be like RBG. So you could either think I’m in year 11 of my career or you could say I’m in year one of the next 35. If you look at it that way. Where do I want to be 10 years or 20 or 30 into that 35? And It really shifts the way you think about what’s possible but also what are you willing to invest and even suffer a little bit? And part of the suffering is not knowing what’s going to happen.
Ailsa Chang: I didn’t ask the deeper questions: what do I want to add to the world. Ok, I want to be a lawyer, who do I want to help? A lot of young people want to plan things decades out, but haven’t answered the basic questions about who they are. I didn’t recognize that until my mid-30s.
What I figured out about journalism is that it was a profession that pushed me, demanded of me to develop qualities that I just wanted as a person. What do I mean by that?
As a journalist, you have to be curious. It’s very hard to succeed as a journalist if you aren’t an inherently curious person. You have to be empathetic.You have to be able to see the world from many, many different viewpoints. If you truly want to approach a story with a modicum of impartiality, you have to be able to recognize your own biases, check them and really interrogate them. And then go out of your way to learn about another viewpoint that didn’t come naturally to you.That’s inherent to journalism.
It teaches you, it demands of you, it requires of you an open-mindedness about the world. Those are qualities I want to have and want to grow in myself. I feel so lucky I found this profession that makes me more of the person I want to be anyway: a good listener.
Michael Melcher: I got a little goose-bumpy just now. I had never really thought before about choosing a career based on the idea that this career will help mold me into the kind of person I want to be.
I have heard about people going into the military because they want the military to make them into a stronger, more capable, more reliable person. Religion and teaching also come to mind.
I think that would be a fascinating exercise for people to do. Let’s look at these different careers and how they appear to mold people and do I want to be molded that way. So rather than fighting it you’re swimming along with the current.
Over the course of our 30-minute conversation, Ailsa and I discuss how more details about her path and career transition, including:
This 5-star podcast from career expert, Michael Melcher, will help you figure out what to do to advance your career.
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As one of the partners at Next Step Partners, Michael is a seasoned expert on developing leaders, building inclusive work environments, and helping senior professionals make career transitions. A former lawyer, foreign service officer and startup CEO, he has navigated several career transitions himself.
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Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Chang is a former Planet Money correspondent, where she got to geek out on the law while covering the underground asylum industry in the largest Chinatown in America, privacy rights in the cell phone age, the government’s doomed fight to stop racist trademarks, and the money laundering case federal agents built against one of President Trump’s top campaign advisers .
Previously, she was a congressional correspondent with NPR’s Washington Desk. She covered battles over healthcare, immigration, gun control, executive branch appointments, and the federal budget.
Chang started out as a radio reporter in 2009, and has since earned a string of national awards for her work.