How to Switch Career Paths and Succeed Without A Roadmap

The average person may change jobs several times during the course of a career, but many of us don’t make the leap to completely different industries. Tara-Nicholle Nelson is the exception.

A mom at just 16, she graduated high school early, got a master’s in psychology and a law degree, and has taken five different career paths since then. Now she runs her own marketing and research consulting firm, working with start-ups and Fortune 500 companies. How did Nelson do all that by 41?

Here she takes us through her journey.

Your new book is about teaching businesses how to help people live healthier lives. How did you become interested in health?

Several of my family members died from lifestyle diseases, like diabetes and high blood pressure. It was so alarming to me and I was determined that I didn’t have to meet the same fate. I wanted to have an active role in helping people.

Did you worry that your pregnancy would derail your goals?

I was about six months pregnant when I met my college mentor. In the first conversation we had, she said, “I can already tell you’ll be going to grad school.” I have a lot of people in my life that I consider “pivot people”—those who created a shift in what I knew to be possible for myself. She was one.

After college, you interned at the FBI. What led you there?

I went to the FBI Academy between undergrad and getting my master’s in psychology. Silence of the Lambs had been out relatively recently and I remember being fascinated that you could solve criminal issues with psychology.

Then you went to law school. Why the switch?

I met so many people at the FBI with law degrees and became interested in that path. There’s a theme with me: I really enjoy being in a position where I’m a trusted adviser giving counsel to whoever needs it.

How did law propel you into real estate?

I had represented a number of real estate brokers who were bad apples and it disturbed me. I remember being frustrated because people had to make a lot of offers to get a house that they liked and they were overpaying. I got my real estate broker’s license and started selling property in the Bay Area at the top of the market in 2005. I designed a curriculum, a flow chart of the ideal real estate transaction, plus what to expect from an emotional perspective. Once my clients started using it, they went from making eight offers to get the house they wanted to making two to three offers.

Where did you end up next?

I turned the curriculum into a seminar, which I turned into a self-published book. Someone from HGTV saw the book, and hired me as a digital content marketing consultant to convert my tips into hundreds of Web articles and webisodes. The real estate site Trulia recruited me away from HGTV, and then MyFitnessPal called and I came on board and helped it grow from 45 million to 100 million users.

In each job, you seem to create the role for yourself.

One, I have a high level of tolerance for uncertainty. Two, I have a very deep religious faith. So many ambitious people try to learn skills, but I think they would do well to develop a sense of what their purpose is and what matters most. It all comes back to helping people unlock levels of possibility for better living.

This feature originally appeared in the May 2017 Issue of ESSENCE Magazine.