Kristin Hannah: How to make the right career decisions

Kristin Hannah in Florid
 [Author Kristin Hannah at the DPJCC in Davie]

After the success of her 2015 book, Nightingale, best-selling author Kristin Hannah began writing a romantic thriller with an unreliable narrator. But two years in, she saw an abundance of similar  novels flooding the market.  (The Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, etc) By her own admission, Hannah said her thriller wasn’t good. 

The Great AloneAt a crossroad, Hannah made a bold choice to strive for something better, rather than stick with the book in which she already had invested time. Her new novel, The Great Alone, an instant bestseller, shows she made the right choice in going in a new direction 

I recently went to a fireside chat at the David Posnack Jewish Community Center  in Davie, Florida, where Kristin Hannah was the featured speaker. Listening to her life story, I realized that Hannah, a master of the page turner, has made some tough career decisions that seemed risky at the time —but paid off.  It made me think about how the rest of us can use her lessons in our own lives  to make tough choices or career decisions when we’re confronted with them — and recognize when a different direction can make us happier or better off.

Sometimes a career pivot happens naturally. 

Hannah had been a practicing lawyer. When she became pregnant and the doctor put her on bedrest, she began writing a novel that she had started years earlier at the side of her mother’s sickbed. After giving birth, she decided not to go back to law, and instead continued writing as a stay-at-home mother. Her son was two when she sold her first book. She since has published 20 novels. 

We need different things at various life stages.

When faced with a decision, the path we choose may depend on what we need in our life at that point in time. Hannah said when her son was young, she needed her books to have happy endings. I can relate. When my children were young, I needed a job that allowed me flexibility. I made tradeoffs to get it.  As we get older, our choices might be guided more by the people around us. For example, Hannah said by the time her son was 13, she was spending more time with her girlfriends, valuing those relationships, getting her friends’ input and weaving more complicated relationships and outcomes into her plots. Now, as an empty nester, Hannah chooses to write books that tell women’s stories because “it feels like a calling” and because she has to be enamored enough to spend two years with the characters. “I’m looking for an idea I feel obsessed about.” Her desired to be obsessed with her work is something to consider when making career choices. If you are going in a direction because you think you should rather than because you find it alluring, you might want to reconsider.

Others’ lessons can guide our career decisions

When making tough choices, it helps to look at those who forged the path before us and how they fared. Hannah based one of the main characters in Nightingale on a 19-year-old Belgian woman Nightingale by Kristin Hannahwho created an escape route out of Nazi-occupied France. Hannah’s books includes a lot of historical perspective and she describes them as more character than plot driven. Are there people in your company, your industry or your life who have taken the path you are considering? How can you learn from them and use their successes or mistakes to guide your choices?

Do your research  

Hannah spends a lot of time researching a topic before she jumps into writing. It pays off for her in the detail she captures in her books. With The Great Alone, her descriptions of the Alaska landscape are vivid. When making a tough career choice, doing research is key. Ask questions and listen to the answers.  Chances are someone else has confronted the decision you are about to make. Use facts and gut instinct to guide your choices.

Don’t fear risk

Hannah looks to television for inspiration. She said in good television today, writers are willing to put characters in high risk situations to test them. Seeing how it’s being done has influenced her. “When I consider which high-risk situation to choose from, I choose them all,” she said. In her recent books, Nightingale and The Great Alone, her characters risk a son’s life to help a stranger, put themselves in the wilderness to try to make a marriage work and confront a volatile former Vietnam POW to protect others from harm. Faced with choices such as whether to take a promotion, give up a client who has become abusive, or transfer to another department to get away from a toxic boss, you may need to become okay with the risk involved and “just do it.”

Find your own voice

Over two decades as a writer, Hannah has learned a voice is a powerful thing. She spends about six hours a day writing, and works hard to ensure her protagonists are well developed with strong voices. Her other books, Firefly Lane and Winter Garden also are proof of that a strong voice is critical. In our careers, we too, need to find our voice and use it to be true to ourselves. That voice should be heard at meetings, guide us in negotiations and we should listen to it when making tough decisions. 


See your decision through.

Not everyone will switch career paths like Hannah, but all of us want to like our jobs. Hannah said she sees a pattern in successful novelists: “What I’ve learned is that the ones who make it keep writing no matter what. When life is tough, they write; when the kids are sick, they write; when rejections pile up, they write. That’s really what this career is ultimately about. Showing up at your computer day after day to hone your craft.” 

In other words, making a tough career decision may seem hard, but what’s really important is giving your best once it has been made to make it a good one. 

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