I’m Deb Knobelman, I’m a mom of two kids and from a career perspective, I’ve had multiple transitions. I come from a family focused in medicine and science. So, after college I went straight to graduate school and earned a PhD in Neuroscience. I made that choice mostly because I wasn’t aware of all the options out there.
After earning my PhD, I realized that academic science was not the right fit for me. That was my first big transition. I finished my graduate program and moved to Wall Street, where I was an equity research analyst; basically a stock picker for biotech and pharma companies. It was the first time I used my background in one area as a stepping stone to something else.
After many years on Wall Street, I used my cumulative background as another stepping stone and started working within companies. I worked at Pfizer. I’ve worked at some public and private startup biotech companies. And that has been the focus of my career ever since.
My most recent evolution came in the past year when I started writing. That has been the most interesting transition in that it wasn’t just stepping stone but a complete shift. I’ve always loved writing. I’ve loved words. I’ve loved books. And I started writing due to more of a mindset shift than a career evolution. I thought, let me just give this a try. Why the heck not? It’s been amazing.
What would you say has been the biggest shift in your life since turning 40?
After turning 40, I started to care more about how I feel about doing something rather than how I look doing it.
I’ve always been very focused on the external motivation of “getting the A”, at school and in my career. I think the biggest shift is that I care less about the A and I care more about if what I’m doing is fulfilling. Now I think about whether I’m creating a sense of connection and if what I’m doing is connected to my “why”. That’s been my biggest shift. It came from my kids really [Deb’s kids were 11 and 8 at the time of our interview], because they have a variety of learning differences. So, I had to completely realign what I valued. An A isn’t relevant to the value, the hard work, or the ultimate abilities of a dyslexic kid.
The whole shift happened right after 40, as I learned all of this about them and then I realized things about myself.
When do you feel you are most powerful?
I guess there are two parts of it. I’ve realized that when I feel like I’m contributing and making a difference, whether it’s with my kids or in my career, that’s when I feel really powerful. And I also feel powerful when I am doing something that’s important to me even if nobody else cares about it. That second part is something I’ve started thinking about more recently.
What are the top three most important things to you right now?
Number 1 and number 2 are definitely my family and my career. But I feel like this has been my other evolution, because for many years I didn’t have a top 3; I only had one thing at a time. I was extremely career focused. Then, my kids really took up a lot of my bandwidth for a long time. I was working, but it wasn’t the same. Now that they’re 11 and 8, I think it’s really important for me to carve out who and what I want to be, for myself. Separate from them, and separate from my career. That’s the interesting thing about midlife, for many of us, it’s sort of like you’re starting from a complete blank slate. I could take anything. I could walk dogs all day if I wanted. Is that what I want? Is that what lights me on fire? I don’t know. I have to figure that out.
Which means that my a third important thing is finding balance. Some people are jugglers and some people are serial monogamists, I guess you could say. I definitely tend more toward serial monogamy in how I focus on things in my life. But how do I balance all of it together? I’m trying to add pieces back one at a time and see when I get some kind of equilibrium.
How do you make sure your actions are aligned with what’s most important to you?
I tend to get caught up a lot in what I “should” do and what looks good. For example, my writing connected with people and has been more successful than I would’ve expected because I really, was just doing it for myself. So I have to check in with myself and ask, “Do I still enjoy this?” Even if I have some level of success or whatever, does that matter to me? Do I still like doing it? Do I still want to do it? Instead of telling myself, “You have to move forward because you committed.”
Just not caring what it looks like or what I’m supposed to do and reminding myself why I’m doing it, and seeing if it’s still right.
What seeds are you planting today for the future?
I think I’m planting… the seeds for what this phase of my life will look like, in terms of that balance that we talked about. I know my kids will be just as important to me in this next phase but I also know that they are finally in the right school for them and that they are supported. I don’t have to spend as much mental energy on their unique needs. And that opens up lots of possibilities for my day to day. So, I’m planting the seeds for what I want my life to look like after the age of 46.
What advice would you give someone who is interested in redesigning midlife?
Some people get scared when you say, “Be open to anything.” That feels so big and overwhelming. But I’d say, be open to anything that you’ve secretly been thinking about for a long time and told yourself, “I’m too old.” Or, “That’s stupid.” Anything that you’ve always wanted to do or wanted to do since you were eight years-old… like writing. I’ve always loved writing. Always. But I told myself for years, “That’s an idiotic thing for a math and science person to do.” I had that in my head. But who cares? Nobody cares, other than me.
Just be open to whatever your interests are — what you’re curious about — and don’t judge yourself.