Leaving one of the “best places to work” in the world like Google is a really tough choice, but that’s exactly what former Google marketer Colby Chilcote chose to do when she left to become marketing director at Huron Pines, a nonprofit organization in northern Michigan. In this episode of Career Relaunch, we’ll talk about finding meaning outside of work, coming to terms with difficult decisions, and trusting yourself especially when you’re making seemingly unconventional career moves. I also share some thoughts on how my sources of validation have evolved over time.
During this episode’s Mental Fuel segment, I challenged you to think about where you seek validation from. How much of your own sense of validation comes from within? How much it comes from others? And are you happy with this blend? Take a moment and jot down what makes you feel good about the choices you’re making in your career and life.
Decide if those sources of validation feel right. If they are, use them as a guide whenever you’re wondering if you’re really on the right track. If they’re not right, make a choice right now to adjust them.
Colby Chilcote is Marketing Director at Huron Pines, a nonprofit organization that protects the health of the Great Lakes through the conservation and restoration of Michigan’s natural resources. Colby started her career at Google where she worked for a decade in marketing and online advertising, helping small businesses and nonprofits build an online presence. Colby holds a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Notre Dame. She lives and works in Northern Michigan where she enjoys exploring the woods and freshwater with her husband and two sons.
She’s also been involved with Huron Pines opening its first nature preserve in 2019, on an 80-acre piece of property donated to the organization in 2018. The environmental nonprofit has been raising funds to support everything from trail maintenance to community programming at the preserve. The core of the Huron Pines mission is to connect people to nature in order to build vibrant and sustainable communities throughout Northern Michigan. The Hubbard Lake Nature Preserve will help achieve this goal. You can help support environmental education and learn more about the Hubbard Lake Nature Preserve or Huron Pines.
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Teaser (first ~15s): I was really defined by my job. I spent a lot of time trying to think more about ‘what are my other interests outside of my job’ and ‘how can I feel validated without my work being the thing that gives me that validation.’
Joseph: Hello, Colby. Welcome to Career Relaunch. It is great to have you on the show.
Colby: Thank you for having me.
Joseph: I would like to talk with you about a few different topics today, including your decision to move on from a very reputable company, moving from the for-profit to non-profit world. Also, I want to touch on how much salary fills satisfaction. I was hoping you could just start us off by sharing a snapshot of what’s keeping you busy right now in your career and your life.
Colby: Our annual report just hit mail boxes this week. That’s been a huge project that just wrapped up.
Now, I am deep in event planning and getting things ready to open our first nature preserve this June and updating a bunch of communication materials ahead of our field season, which will start in the spring and the summer.
Joseph: For those people who are not familiar with your organization, which is called Huron Pines, can you just give a snapshot of exactly what Huron Pines does and your role there?
Colby: Huron Pines is an environmental conservation non-profit. We’re based in Northeast Michigan, so protecting the great lakes is a huge part of what we do. We do that through a lot of on-the-ground restoration initiatives, like connecting rivers by removing dams, getting rid of invasive species, supporting native habitat, all of those things. Another huge part of our work is connecting people to nature through environmental education and outreach events, those kinds of things.
Essentially, the more that we can get people out loving nature, the more that we can hopefully protect all the natural resources that we have here and then protect the long-term sustainability of the great lakes.
Joseph: I know you haven’t always been the marketing director there at Huron Pines, and I was hoping we could go back in time a little bit, Colby, and go all the way back to the roughly 10-year chapter of your career at Google and in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Can you tell us about what you were doing at Google during those years? You don’t need to go all the details of every single role you had there. Maybe just give a glimpse into what you were doing in your most recent roles there, and then we can move forward from there.
Colby: I had basically two chapters of jobs at Google. I started there right out of grad school. I was a liberal arts person, so I was really happy to get a job wherever anyone would take me. I was very, very lucky that Google was who took me.
I started doing online advertising sales. I did that for about four years, and then I transitioned into marketing for the next five years or so. I worked in small business marketing, specifically trying to help small businesses get an online presence, like thinking about kind of local mom-and-pop shop kind of businesses, getting them to be comfortable with using the internet to help grow their businesses. That was what I spent a lot of my marketing focus on.
Joseph: Aside from your functional marketing role there in your projects, can you paint a quick picture of what it’s really like to work at one of Google’s offices? Because I know that there’s always this intrigue about what it’s like to work at Google. We had people on the show before who have worked at the head office but not somebody who’s worked at a satellite office.
Colby: It was a pretty nice gig. The office moved after I’ve been there for probably about eight years. We were, for a long time, right in the middle of Downtown Ann Arbor, which is really great. Then we moved to a bigger campus basically after we grew. Just the facility to work in is great.
Basically all the things that you hear about are true. All the food is free. We had a chef in a cafeteria. There was a barista. There was a massage therapist on site. All of those things exist in their great perks.
Joseph: Was there anything that surprised you most about working there?
Colby: You start and it’s like so unbelievable that that’s a work environment, and then you, overtime, get really used to it. Then you take for granted all the things that are great about it. Now that I don’t have access to all of that, I appreciate that and realize how crazy it was that some of those trainings, there’s an Authors at Google program, where people would just come in that had written books and talk about them. Some of those kinds of things, like the fact that that was happening on a daily basis, now, is a little more mind-blowing than it was when I was there, because like I said, you just get used to all the crazy stuff that goes on there.
Joseph: Before we talk about your transition out of Google, was there anything in particular that you found challenging about working at a place like Google, in spite of the fact that it sounds like there were such amazing perks and it sounds like a wonderful environment to work in?
Colby: It kind of is a double-edged sword, because what is great about it is that the people that work there are really great and really self-motivated. It’s part of what makes it work and makes it successful. On the other side, there’s this culture of over-achievement and continued progress, which can be really good, but I think it facilitates burn out a little bit.
It also has you constantly questioning whether you’re doing enough or whether your project is big enough to keep moving you forward in your career trajectory. It can be a really stressful place to work also. I think the mix of that stress with all the perks that come with it can be really hard to wrap your mind around both of those things. You start to question what you’re doing in your everyday job, and you’re not sure if you love it. Then you look at all these great things that you have offered to you and you think, ‘Why am I questioning this job? There’s so many great things here. Of course, I should be happy.’
I think all of that mental stuff can make it a difficult place to work.
Joseph: That’s a nice segue, Colby, into what I was hoping to spend a little bit of time talking with you about now, which is your transition. Specifically, I know you eventually decided to move on from Google. Could you take me back to the moment you made your decision to leave Google? I’d be interested in hearing what was going on for you exactly at that time, both at work and also personally.
Colby: Two huge life events happened that really set everything in motion. The first was that my life-long best friend passed away from cancer. Then about two weeks later, I found out that I was pregnant with my first child. There’s a lot of personal change and a lot of emotional upheaval going on that made me really start to think about what it was that was important to me, what I wanted to be spending my time on, what I wanted to see my life become.
I think all of that was the catalyst for what ended up being a slow process of change that got me to where I am now but certainly made me question everything in a way that felt like, ‘Okay, I’m ready to stop wasting time on things that I don’t want to be doing, and I’m ready to start actually making changes to get where I want to be.’
Joseph: Just taking those one at a time—you mentioned your best friend passing away—was there anything in particular that you came to the realization that you feel you really can’t come to unless you had something that tragic happen in your life?
Colby: One of the things that came along with it is it was unexpected but then also kind of a slow process of going through hospice and all these other things. While that was happening, I was still working. At that point, I was happy with the project that I was working on. I felt challenged in my job. I was in a good place at my job, but I still had a little bit of resentment toward it, because I kept thinking like all of these stuff is happening to me personally, and yet this job still goes on whether I’m there or not or whether these other things that matter more are happening or not.
I think that that subtle shift is what changed everything else, because I think, then, when I started to be unhappy with my job, I just kept thinking I’m spending so many hours of my week on this thing that is my work. If this isn’t something I want to be doing, I can’t justify putting the time into this.
I think you can come to that conclusion from a lot of different directions, but I think it certainly helped me see it more clearly. Just the idea of not wanting to waste time was driven home so much more severely than maybe it would be for somebody else, but I don’t think that that’s necessary to come to those conclusions.
Joseph: How did becoming pregnant start to feed into what you wanted more of or less of in your career at that moment?
Colby: I realized that I was really defined by my job, and I was a little bit worried that—because Google has an incredible maternity leave, which is great. You have six months off. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself.’ I get it that I’m going to have a baby, and I don’t know what that’s like, because I haven’t had one before. I’m not sure how I’m going to feel without having a job to kind of justify my energy and time through.
In anticipation of knowing that that was coming, I spent a lot of time trying to think more about what are my other interests outside of my job and how can I feel validated without my work being the thing that gives me that validation. That was part of, I think, what allowed me to slowly step away from being so enmeshed in what I have been doing in Google for so long.
The other piece of it was that my husband and I had a great set up. We liked our house. We had a lot of friends. We were in a great place, but we still both grew up in more rural places. We grew up where we could be outside on our own and play in the woods. We did start to talk about like, ‘Is this where we want to be long-term? Do we want to be in a metropolitan area? Is this where we want to raise kids?’ Those things definitely came together to start us thinking about making bigger life changes.
Joseph: How did you ultimately come to your decision to leave Google and then move out to Grayling, Michigan?
Colby: It was slow in that, from the time that I first found out I was pregnant to the time we moved here, was about two years. I think things really shifted after I came back to work from that first maternity leave. I wasn’t very happy in the role that I was in. There was a honeymoon period of like, ‘Oh, this is great. I’m excited to be back. I’m not at home with the baby, which is great, a nice relief. I can have a coffee,’ but I just wasn’t really happy in the role that I was in.
I’ve been on the same team, working with people that I really liked, but the actual project that we were working on we’ve been working on for almost four years or something. It was very clear that I had kind of ran out of my ability to keep growing and that what was going to be expected of me was that I did keep growing in order to have good performance reviews and get promoted and all that stuff, but I couldn’t really see a path where I was going to have enough responsibility.
I was pretty miserable, but I didn’t realize it. My husband was the one who would say to me like, ‘You’re not very happy,’ when I would come home from work. I would say, ‘No, no, no. It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s not so bad.’ It probably took six or nine months for me to really wrap my own head around how unhappy I was and that something needed to change. I eventually came to the conclusion that, regardless of what happened with the rest of our life, I was going to have to find a different job.
That was the first huge step, because we had talked about moving. We had talked about other things, but it was always, ‘Well, I don’t know if I could leave Google.’ It just basically got to the point where there weren’t going to be opportunities where I was, like in our office. I couldn’t keep going the way that I was going.
As soon as I mentally flipped that switch, a bunch of other opportunities came up. I feel like from there, everything happened like a set of dominoes fell probably within a year from that point. We had moved, and I had started a new job.
Joseph: It sounds like you ultimately decided to move and leave Google. At the same time, I’m imagining that it’s probably hard to walk away from such a reputable company that also offers so many benefits. What was the hardest part for you about leaving a place like Google behind?
Colby: The idea of it was the hardest. I think once I finally made the decision, it wasn’t as hard. Getting to that point was really difficult, because we used to joke about it. Everybody that works at Google talks about the golden handcuffs and how you literally, at least when I was working there, Google was voted the best place to work for many years when I worked there.
It’s like a weird mental game where you feel like, ‘If I don’t love this job and it’s literally the best place you can work, how am I going to find another job that I really love?’ I felt like I had to do something super different or something that was so much better in order to justify leaving. I just, for so long, couldn’t put my finger on what that next thing would be or what possibly would be better.
That was the hardest part. I think it’s just coming to terms with the fact that just because everybody else on the outside may have thought that it was the perfect place to be didn’t mean that it was the perfect place for me to be.
Joseph: Just shifting gears, Colby, to your time then when you moved on to Huron Pines and also when you decided to move from Ann Arbor to Grayling, what was that transition like for you? I’m specifically interested in some of the things you realized that you gave up and how you thought through that, which I know you eluded to earlier, letting go some of those great benefits at a place like Google.
Colby: My husband and I had hundreds of discussions over the course of a couple of years about whether or not we could really make this move and whether or not it was what we wanted to do. I think because we planned really well and talked through every worst case scenario, we felt pretty comfortable with our decision before we even fully made it.
For example, we lived in a city where you could walk to a gourmet grocery store. It was a few blocks from our house, and there are places to eat and things to do. We would talked about all these thing are great, but is this important to us or is it more important that we have a yard and that our kids can go to the lake and that we can do things outside?
At some point, we sat down and made a list of what are the five things that we would want. Where would we want to live? What would we want to do if we won the lottery? That was also one of the pieces that helped put some this stuff into play, because we realized that what we wanted wasn’t actually like that unobtainable. One of the things was we really wanted to live on the water. We never would have been able to do that in a metro area because it’s just way too expensive.
We started thinking, how do we make these things happen? Are they feasible for us? It didn’t seem like were making a big sacrifice, because we were sort of trading one life for another. It’s more what it felt like. We decided that we liked the option behind door number two better. We were very committed to having a different kind of life. That life was more built around natural resources. It was built around being closer to our families and having kids and jobs where we felt like we were making more of an impact.
Those are all things that are important to us, and so when things started to fall into place that we could make those things happen, leaving behind the money and the perks and the restaurants and all that kind of stuff, it just didn’t feel like we are making a big sacrifice.
Joseph: From your career journey, Colby, I’d be really interested in getting your honest, non-candy-coated perspective on a few things because you just mentioned money. I was wondering, can we just talk for a moment about salary, because I know you had a change to your salary? I’m just wondering if you could explain what impact, if any, that had on both your life and also your overall satisfaction.
Colby: On the one hand, yes, I had a significant pay cut to switch jobs. On the other hand—maybe this is not good to say—but I think that Google’s salary was also pretty inflated. From where I stared to where I ended up, I was promoted a couple of times. At some points through the course of those 10 years, Google decided to give every employee a 10% pay bump, like a lot of weird things like that happened.
When I left, I think that the salary was inflated for the Midwest for sure. I worked for a company that was a tech company based in California. I know they pay different amounts based on where your office is, but still I think even in Ann Arbor, Detroit area, I would have probably been hard-pressed to find a job where I was making an equivalent salary.
I think I let go of that idea of salary equivalency when I decided I don’t want to be at Google anymore. That was one of the first things that had to go out the window. I figured I wasn’t going to find it. I also figured if I could let that piece go, it’d probably be a lot easier for me to find something else.
I also had always had some interest in non-profit work. I did some technology training for non-profits with Google Tools for a couple of years when I was at Google. I had always had in the back of my mind that a non-profit transition might be a good fit for me.
When we started talking about making the move and changing career paths, I had also thought it was likely that not only would I be moving to Northern Michigan where the salaries in general were just going to be lower because the cost of living was lower, but that I might be going into an industry that was just going to, in general, have lower salaries.
We did a lot of planning for it. We made sure that we paid off student loans, that we didn’t have car payments, anything that we had to get rid of to get rid of overhead so that we could still have a comfortable life without having to worry about how much we are bringing in. That was how we handled it, and then the salary thing became less of an issue.
Joseph: It sounds like you’ve made some lifestyle tradeoffs that allowed you to then tolerate the salary change.
Joseph: What about benefits? Some listeners out there maybe have some cushy benefits and perks in their current roles as you did at Google. I guess I just want to ask, do you miss the benefits at all? If so, what do you miss? If not, why do you not miss them?
Colby: That is a piece that I definitely miss. I think in some cases, it was like a bit of ‘ignorance is bliss,’ because Google was my first real job. It was the first time I had benefits. I also didn’t realize how good they were. By the time we left, right after I had my second son, and that was also planned, I decided I want to have at least two kids, and I want to have them while I still work at Google, because I want to be able to have all the healthcare and all the maternity leave and everything built in.
That was planned, but on the other hand, because we just had two new, small children, I didn’t really anticipate the healthcare needs of having kids because that was new to our whole life experience. I think that maybe if we had waited longer, I might have been really nervous about giving up that benefit piece, knowing that it wasn’t just about my husband and me staying healthy. You just don’t know what’s going to happen with kids and what they’re going to need.
Luckily, we were a little bit like, ‘It’ll be fine.’ We definitely talked about it. We were worried about it, but I think, again, we were just like, ‘Well, this is how much we anticipated it would potentially cost if we have to pay for benefits. We’ll just figure that out,’ which we’ve been able to do, but certainly it’s more expensive, and it’s also the coverage is just not as good. Google has very, very good benefits.
On the other hand, with Huron Pines now, we’ve had conversations about this. Now, we’re looking into other insurance options and trying to figure out how to bring better healthcare benefits to the staff. Part of it is finding a place to land where you can also try to either affect some change or feel like you have some security still.
Joseph: One last question about this before we talk about some of the thing you’ve learned having now spent some time in that non-profit world that seems very much cause-based. Have you found that it has provided you with that kind of meaning in your career that you were seeking when you made the move?
Colby: I’m much more intrinsically motivated, which is also part of why the salary and all that stuff is nice. Ultimately, I just want to feel like I’m doing a good job. I want to be a hardworking person that can show something for the work that I’ve done. It’s really nice to know that even if I’m having a month where I’m really busy and I feel stressed out and I’m working extra hours, that I’m doing that for a bigger cause than just my own benefit or something like marketing deadline.
I think that really helps justify the time that I’m putting in, because I think I always have that mentality regardless of what the job was. Once I get involved in something, I get really involved. I was aware enough of that to know that whatever the next job I had, I was going to need to really care about it, or else I was going to fall into that trap of spending all my time on something and then walking away and thinking like, ‘In 10 years, is anyone going to care about this?’
I feel like in 10 years, people are going to care that we have protected forests and places for people to have recreational access. Those things actually really do matter, so it justifies the amount of time and effort that I put into it, which does feel a lot more satisfying.
Joseph: Before we wrap up, I’d also like to talk about some of the things that you’ve learned along the way of your career journey.
One of the things that we spoke about before doing this recording was you mentioned a sense of relief when you chose to finally move from Google out to your current world there in Huron Pines and also from Ann Arbor to a more rural setting.
Can you just explain what that relief was about or what you meant by that?
Colby: For so long, it just seemed like I’m in the best job that exists, so how can I be unhappy here? I kept feeling like it was my fault. I’ve got to just be more gracious and appreciate this job more or something, because ‘why am I not liking this?’
When we finally made the move and I started at Huron Pines and I was really excited about the work that I was doing and I had more responsibility and I had more autonomy, it just all really clicked like, ‘No. That was just the wrong fit for me. This is a job that I want to be doing, and that made all the difference in the world. That, I think, was the biggest lesson of the whole thing is like I should have trusted my gut sooner, and that it’s okay to walk away from something, even if everybody else thinks you’re crazy. You have to do what is the right thing for you.
As soon as I did that, the relief was like everything didn’t come crashing down around me. I was actually much more satisfied and much happier, and that felt amazing.
Joseph: Having made this move from for-profit to non-profit, is there something you now know about making this transition that you wished you had known before?
Colby: I think what I wish I had known was that it was okay to take a risk. If you are trusting your gut in thinking things through and making informed decisions, you’re going to end up in an okay place.
I think I was afraid for so long like, ‘What if I leave, and I’m just thinking the grass is greener on the other side, and I get a different job, and I realize I’ve made a horrible mistake?’ I think, for a long time, that kept me from leaving.
I don’t know what someone could have said to me, but I wish I had had a crystal ball and could see, just because this a nice set up doesn’t mean it’s the end-all-be-all of jobs and that you should trust that what feels right for you is going to make you happier in the end.
Joseph: That makes a lot of sense. I think it’s so hard to trust your gut when everything on paper seems like you should be happy with what you have. I think you’re making such an important point here that you, sometimes, just have to trust your intuition in spite of the fact that everyone else might think, and even you might think that, ‘Wow, this is probably as good as it’s going to get.’
Finally, what have you learned about yourself, having moved from Ann Arbor to Grayling, going from a more urban environment to a more rural environment?
Colby: The good thing is that I think it validated a lot of things that I suspected, that having autonomy in my work, making an impact, spending more time with the people that I love, with my family, with my friends, that that’s way more valuable to me than money could ever be.
I always assumed that, but it was hard. I never tested it. It was easy for me to think I don’t really care about all this extra stuff that I’m getting, because I work at Google. What I want are to have a job that I feel good about when I come home and to be able spend time with my family and have a life that I feel happy about outside of work.
Now that I’ve kind of put my money where my mouth is, it’s been a good thing that the experiment worked out in my favor. I think that is the biggest thing I learned. It’s that what I suspected was true, and I’m a lot happier for it. It doesn’t really make any difference to me. My ego isn’t fueled by how much money I’m making. It’s really more about what I am spending my time on. I feel better about what I’m spending all my time on now.
Joseph: Great. Before we go, I can’t let you go without talking a little bit about some of your work there at Huron Pines. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about one of your initiatives there, which is the Hubbard Lake Nature Preserve opening this summer.
Colby: We were extremely lucky at the end of last summer. We had a couple donate a property to us on Hubbard Lake, which is on the Northeast side of Michigan. That’s not too far Lake Huron. It’s an 80-acre property. It’s got two miles of trails. It’s got a couple buildings on the property that we hope to use for classrooms and community programming. It will be our first nature preserve.
This summer, we’re going to start opening to the public for a daily recreational use, so people can come out and hike and bird watch and do that kind of stuff out there.
We’re also launching an event series. Once a month, we will have different things from environmental and nature walks for families to workshops on how get rid of invasive species. We’re going to do a run and a yoga class out there. We’re going to do an art class. We got a ton of stuff going on.
I’m super excited about that, because it’s just like a whole new opportunity for Huron Pines and for people to get out and experience nature. We’re all really excited for people to start using it this summer.
Joseph: Very cool. If people want to support environmental education or learn more about the nature preserve, where can they go?
Colby: Our website is HuronPines.org. If you’re interested specifically in the nature preserve, it’s just HuronPines.org/hubbard-lake. Just to learn more about what we do, you can just go to our website.
Joseph: Thank you so much, Colby, for telling us more about your career choices and how you thought through prioritizing what mattered the most to you and most importantly trusting your gut when making these kinds of really important professional decisions.
Best of luck with your role there at Huron Pines, your life in Grayling, and the Hubbard Lake Nature Preserve.
Colby: Thank you. Thanks for having me.