In her quieter moments, when she isn’t rushing to fill an order or gushing over the small children of regular coffee drinkers, Shawna Lewis is tempted to think about the past — the eight-hour days of a cushy office job, time off at the spa with a friend, long vacations, bonuses and a paycheck.
Mrs. Lewis, 30, worked in corporate sales at Unum Group, and if you didn’t ask her too many questions, you would have thought she had it all. You never would have known she was having a thrisis, a crisis that hits thirtysomethings.
“(My life) just wasn’t going anywhere,” she said. “The corporate life was not for me.”
So regardless of conventional wisdom and her mother’s warnings, Mrs. Lewis traded that job to be the overworked owner of a corner coffee shop, Main and Mocha, in her Southside Chattanooga neighborhood. It was a lot to turn her back on. Without her salary, she and husband, Karl, had to sell their car, cut cable, give up vacations, rely on family for help and live with the possibility of failure.
But for the first time in nine years she was happy.
Staff Photo by Gillian Bolsover -- Shawna Lewis answers the phone at Main and Mocha on Tuesday. Mrs. Lewis quit her job at Unum two years ago to open the coffee shop.
By the time they reach their 30s, many career professionals have gotten everything they were told they needed to be satisfied with life: the smart and attractive spouse, the comfortable house near the good schools, the trim physique from hours logged at the gym and the power position in the office.
However, more and more of these young, corporate Hercules are unfulfilled and having a crisis of conscience and considering career suicide, local psychologists said.
“It is almost like they got sold a package really early in life that told them what they needed to be happy,” said Gail Carson-Webb, a clinical psychologist in Chattanooga. “What they end up finding out is that the package they got sold was flawed. It was bogus.”
Dr. Carson-Webb, who specializes in life-cycle dilemmas, said nearly 20 percent of her clients are facing a thirtysomething crisis, or thrisis, suffering from anxiety, depression and burnout. These young attorneys, bankers, entrepreneurs, real estate agents and other types of corporate climbers are selling off their companies, leaving jobs, sabotaging their work, changing relationships and adopting hobbies, she said.
Larry Wentworth, a licensed clinical social worker who has his own psychotherapy practice in Chattanooga, said a thrisis is very different than a mid-life crisis. Rather than looking back on their lives and acting out with affairs, new sports cars and toupees, disenchanted thirtysomethings are looking ahead and worried about what will happen with the rest of their life.
Bill Braasch, 35, left a high-powered position as a stock broker in the Chicago Board of Trade to open up a business in downtown Chattanooga, renting Segways — the two-wheeled, personal vehicles — for downtown tours.
His job offered plenty of money and great hours, but stress pushed him to re-examine his options, he said. Like many individuals unsatisfied in their 30s, he realized that it was not too late to change things.
“If I am going to try something out, now is the time to do it,” he said.
Though it is occurring more frequently, the thrisis is not necessarily a new psychological phenomenon, said David Solovey, a psychologist at the Relationship Therapy Center in Chattanooga. The illustriousness of the 1980s supported a large group of young and well-off career junkies who later became disillusioned with their success, he said.
Difficult times with a faltering economy and job insecurity also can trigger a thirtysomething crisis, he said. “There are still those fearful possibilities and next steps and stages,” he said.
Many thirtysomethings experiencing a crisis have been moving at full speed since adolescence, said Dr. Carson-Webb. Someone noticed their abilities at an early age and pushed to make the most of their talents, she said.
“By the time they come in (to see me), they have been so driven so long that they have taken little time for themselves,” she said. “There is a blurring between the personal and the professional.”
Even their spare-time activities are goal-oriented. They volunteer and serve on organizational boards. Social interaction is considered as networking. They count their heart rate and chart every mile they run, she said.
And with all their accomplishments and business sense, there is still a naiveté about what really makes them tick, she said.
“Very sadly we still have the myth that the richer you are the happier you are, the more successful you are the happier you are,” said Dr. Carson-Webb.
The most difficult part of a thrisis is getting the people around you to understand why you aren’t satisfied with a seemingly perfect life, Dr. Carson-Webb said.
“There is a judgmental attitude about these folks,” she said. “They are whiny or ungrateful. We buy into the same stereotypes that they did, that if you have the house and the job you will be happy.”
Sandra Pell was initially scared when her daughter, Mrs. Lewis, said she was leaving her secure job at Unum to start a coffee shop in an up-and-coming part of town.
“When you get to be my age, I guess you’re even more security conscious, but then she hit me with, ‘You’re going to retire and help me,’ so I was kind of thinking, ‘It’s a good job,’ but you know how mamas are,” Ms. Pell said.
It was difficult to accept that her daughter wanted to step out of the cubicle world and break out on her own, but for Mrs. Lewis her thrisis was a point of salvation.
“I would be lying if I said it wasn’t tough, but I don’t regret it. I thought, ‘I can do this. (Life) can mean something to me,’” Mrs. Lewis said. “I couldn’t handle not being in charge of my own destiny.”
Video: Early career changeRather than continue on their initial career path, many are experiencing a thirties something crisis, or “thrisis,” leading them to select new careers and directions. Shawna Lewis describes her transition from working at Unum to opening her own coffee bar in downtown Chattanooga.
Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...