When Betsy Lee McCarthy was five years old, her grandmothers taught her to knit. Five decades later, McCarthy walked away from a more than 20-year career as a sought-after health care administrator so she could devote more time to knitting.
McCarthy, then 57, wasn't having a nervous breakdown. No reputation-sullying skeletons were about to pop out of her closet, nor was she going to be fired. It was just the opposite: McCarthy had been offered a promotion and a significant raise.
"Knitting relaxes me," she says, reflecting on the decision she made 10 years ago. "I wanted to learn more about knitting and become a better knitter, and working the way I was didn't leave me with any extra time or energy." About her Seattle employer's attempts to keep her, McCarthy explains, "I just thought, nope, this is it. It's time to go. I've been working since I was 16, and I'm ready to be myself rather than the person who does my job."
After announcing her plans to leave the company, McCarthy says, "The chief financial officer came up to me, and in a tone that sounded as if he felt embarrassed or sorry for me, said, 'I understand that you are planning to…knit.'"
Too often, says McCarthy, knitters aren't given the respect they're due. "There's a stereotype that knitting is about little old ladies making doilies and baby afghans," observes McCarthy, who focuses her knitting on making socks, a skill she honed while traveling for business. (Sewing and quilting were earlier interests, but knitting socks is a more portable pursuit.) "Most people don't see that knitting is artistically and intellectually challenging," she says. "There's a lot of math and technical skill involved, and it's very creative." (Watch the video at top of Jane Pauley's "Your Life Calling" interview with McCarthy to see the knitter at work.)
When McCarthy's last day as a corporate executive came, her husband, Terry, asked, "How does it feel to have earned your last paycheck?"
"He wasn't being unsupportive," McCarthy, now 67, explains. "I think he was being protective of me, and he was worried. But I wasn't. Some people aren't comfortable going into that 'gray zone,' of not knowing exactly what they're moving toward. But at that point in my life, I had learned that if you're open to something, you can find it."
McCarthy found that something, and then some. Soon after leaving the executive suite in 2000, she took a part-time job at a yarn shop near her home. "I went from making a six-figure income to earning a little more than minimum wage," she says. "But I've always found that any time I do something new, I learn something new, and for me working at a yarn shop was almost like being in a graduate program for knitters."
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