"The Biggest Wake-Up Call of My Life"

After the attack, a shift in plans

Just minutes after the first tower collapsed, Maurice Matsumori was crouching in a pitch-black, dust-smothered lobby just yards from the World Trade Center, unable to erase from his mind the horror he'd just seen: guys his age, dressed in suits and ties--guys who had probably just finished their morning coffee, like he had--falling from windows 100 stories high. He wondered if they died doing the jobs they loved.

If he had been in the building that day, Matsumori knew his answer to that question would have been no. Sure, he still felt like a high roller every time he got a direct deposit on his nearly $75,000 salary--double what his buddies in his native Salt Lake City make. But now, he walks to work through a war zone and smells death all day long. In contrast to the groaning hell of Ground Zero visible out his window, his job as a quality-control specialist at AIG--where he helps the bottom line more than people--has lost much of its pre-Sept. 11 meaning. He used to flirt with the idea of becoming a college professor. Now, he's made the commitment, enrolling in school to get a PhD in education--small salary be damned. Says Matsumori, "This was the biggest wake-up call of my life."

It's a call being heard beyond Wall Street. Across the U.S., white-collar workers are firing up their PowerPoint presentations and piping into conference calls, only to realize that what was bearable before September 11 has become intolerable since. Watching firefighters, police officers, and politicians do work that seems so vital, these disaffecteds are shredding their play-it-safe plans and considering doing what they've always dreamed of but were too scared to try.

"Pants, jeans--it's just not it for me," says Marcy Scott Lynn, 29, who two weeks after the attacks quit her job as a corporate-communications manager for Levi Strauss & Co. in San Francisco, even though she had only had it for five months. Growing up, she watched her mom become bronze-handcuffed to a dental company job she loathed. Lynn is now seeking a public affairs job while she figures out a way to build a career teaching kids how to be savvy connoisseurs of the news and analyzers of current events. "I don't want to die wishing I had done something that meant more," she says.

DAUNTING OBSTACLES. As noble as such moves sound, career experts caution against making impetuous changes during emotionally charged times--unless, like Lynn, you're young, single, and mortgage-less. For one thing, people who walk away from secure positions to pursue idealistic dreams without the requisite bankroll often find the financial insecurity so psychologically uncomfortable that it consumes them, leaving little time for creative pursuits.

They also face daunting obstacles: a rapidly declining economy, badly battered stock portfolios, and an ever-worsening job market. Even in war, people still have to eat and pay the mortgage. Dissatisfied workers also run the risk of glamorizing alternatives that--without careful homework and planning--could be as disillusioning as the jobs they leave. "Panicked business decisions usually don't work out very well," says Kenneth Lloyd, an Encino (Calif.)-based management consultant and career counselor.

If you're contemplating a major shift, it helps to have a job lined up--if only a temporary one--before you tell your current employer you're quitting. Short of that, you should have at least a year's worth of living expenses set aside so you can think through your next move and put a plan in place, says Marti Smye, management consultant and author of Is It Too Late to Run Away and Join the Circus? (Key Porter, $14.95).

Jeffrey Henning figures that by dipping into his savings and stopping the accelerated payments on his mortgage, he and his family can live for a year while he tries to build a new software company from home. Henning, 33, waited three weeks after the terrorist attacks before he told his partner that he wanted out as chief operating officer of Perseus Development, the Braintree (Mass.)-based software maker they founded nine years ago. He could no longer tolerate the 60-hour weeks in pursuit of the now-evaporated dream that someone would buy them out for millions. "I missed way too many of my kid's school recitals," he says.

MODEST MOVES. For those who don't have the savings to take such radical steps, experts advise more modest moves, ones many are already taking. Candidates who were in the job recruitment pipeline before the disaster, for example, are now refusing jobs that require long commutes, include a lot of flying, or have offices in skyscrapers. You may be able to make changes in your current job, such as arranging to work from home or part-time--leaving you more time for the work you really love.

Whatever changes you're considering, it helps to have a sounding board. Career experts advise building a personal "board of directors" comprising family members, friends, those working in the industries you're interested in, and trusted business associates. Run your ideas past them to gain fresh, unvarnished input.

You should also do research before plunging into any new situation. Career coaches have a battery of psychological tests, such as Meyers-Briggs, that can sort out what skills you'd be most happy using. They also advise giving new careers a road test by volunteering in the field first. At a minimum, talk to people who already hold the kinds of jobs you want. How do you know who they are? Notice whom you envy.

That's why 34-year-old Nico Taborga, a financial analyst for Cohen Financial in San Francisco, has been talking to a lot of firefighters lately. After the attacks, he sat in his bland, windowless cube, unable to muster any enthusiasm for the property substitution deal he was working on. He felt more of a sense of community in the line to give blood than he did in his macho, me-first office. An iron man who loves being on teams, he found himself wanting to join with the firemen as he watched them on TV. "It just hit me so strongly, right in the chest," he says.

Taborga realizes he may never end up becoming a firefighter, but he's leaving his job anyway in a quest to find more meaningful work. "At least I'll be trying to find and pursue my dream," he says. Recently, he and a friend were talking about their tombstones. "Financial analyst" is one thing Taborga wouldn't want engraved on his.

By Michelle Conlin

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