Many of us can remember the doubts we had early on in our careers – the feeling we might be pursuing the path of stability at the expense of following our passion. Dr Kelly McNelis was lucky. She decided to forgo the safe and well-worn path while she was still young enough to enjoy the rewards that come with doing something you love. After just a little more than a decade in her first career, the 32-year-old chose to ignore her inner fears and follow her gut — giving up a lucrative government research position to go out on her own as a wellness coach… and, to her own great surprise, also, something of an internet star.
The Pittsburgh native’s determination is a key asset in her road to success. “I was one of those kids who always knew what they wanted to do. I’ve wanted to be a psychologist for such a long time, at least from middle school when I really understood what a career was. I still have a paper about my career plans I wrote in 9th grade honors English,” McNelis recalls.
With a degree in Psychology from Penn State University, McNelis went to grad school at the University of Rochester, where she studied for free by committing to the PhD program up front. She graduated early with a PhD in social-personality psychology which studies the average functioning person and tries to understand why people do the things they do. “It fascinated me because I was learning about everyone I knew. I combined my studies with my passion for exercise and healthy living. I tried to understand what motivates people to exercise, why they make New Years’ resolutions about getting fit and what keeps them going past the end of January!”
Looking to return to Pittsburgh, she found a research job at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) working on a team with other social scientists. Much of the worked centered around the study of underground coal miners and how to keep them safe and healthy. McNelis did a lot of lab work and conducted on-site research.
McNelis worked at NIOSH for three years, but frankly it was a slog. “It was not my thing, despite loving psychology, I wasn’t doing work that I was passionate about. Basically, it was a trade-off. I stayed there because it was a really flexible job: I could work from home, it was stable, and paid well. But I kept asking myself, ‘Why did I devote nine years to studying in order to end up working in a career that I didn’t love?’ I realized I was too young to give up. I felt like a ‘sell out’.”
Having her second daughter cemented the decision to leave. “I was trading all these hours away from my children, spending them on something I didn’t like. I wanted to continue working but I needed to feel the passion.”
And so McNelis decided not to return to NIOSH after maternity leave. When she called to inform her manager about her decision, he shared one last bit of info that tempted her to stay. “I was originally hired as a Fellow. When I broke the news he offered me a long-term position and a promotion to permanent staff with a salary increase. My head said yes but my heart said no.”
Very nervous as she hung up the phone, McNelis thought she was making a huge mistake. But her family and friends stood by her decision. “My husband was great. He knew something would turn up, and we honestly believed it was a good time for a transition.”
While contemplating if teaching would be an option, McNelis found herself fascinated by an article her mother-in-law had sent with a note “thought of you”. It featured a woman who had started a business as a wellness coach. “I always I thought I would start my own business, but that it would be later in life when I had more experience and was older and wiser. But at that moment, I really felt ‘now is the time.’”
McNelis enrolled in 12-week certification with WellCoaches®, with the goal of opening her own coaching business for the average person desiring better habits. “Maybe they want to just eat better, exercise or lose weight, or even get the confidence to start a business like me. It would be an opportunity to combine my psych background with my passion for health and I immediately decided to target new moms who could use the advice of someone at the same stage in life but with a PhD in psychology!”
She started building New Leaf Wellness gradually. “My husband made a fabulous site for the business,” said McNelis (yes, she really appreciates her beau). She hired someone else to create a logo, and her uncle, a lawyer, helped her file as an LLC within a matter of months. She leaned heavily on social media to drive interest in her business and wrote a blog for new moms to drive traffic to her site. “The blog, advice and all the easy recipes I was offering were really a free way to support the women I wanted to coach.”
McNelis admits she was a bit naïve about the number of clients she expected to see coming through the door. But while the coaching side was slow to shift, other parts of the business started taking off in unexpected ways. “My blog gained traction and I started writing e-cookbooks. One article I wrote to promote my cookbook, 15-Minute Freezer Recipes went viral…it just blew up!” With 150K page views in one day and thousands of cookbook sales, this was all the reassurance McNelis needed to know she was headed in the right direction. “All my hard work was paying off. I had spent a year-and-a-half writing my blog and months paying my babysitter more than what I was making,” she laughs.
Where did the recipes come from? “I made them up! When I was pregnant, I would have loved some recipes to stock my freezer before the baby came. There’s a couple of breakfasts, lunches, cookies…I made them over and over again until I thought they were perfect.”
It’s been six months and another baby since McNelis’ post went viral. She has since published her third cookbook on crockpot recipes and continues to make a steady income blogging about recipes and wellness. And she couldn’t be happier, “I share my passions for food and healthy living with other moms. I’m able to be home with my daughters and devote my time working to a career that I love. I am living my best life now. This is it. My best day is today.”
Tips from Dr Kelly McNelis
- You cannot create demand. I might think every mom needs to work with a wellness coach, but it doesn’t matter what I think. You can only try to identify the demand and then try to figure out how to fill it.
- Don’t let your fears hold you back. Think of fear as a signal that something is important to you. Embrace the fear that you feel about making a career change or building your business and know that your passion for it will help you to be successful in the long run.
- Stop living your life for tomorrow. Don’t spend all of your time thinking about the future or what you’re doing to do with it. Start living for today. Enjoy the here and now. Celebrate how far you’ve come and finish each day happy and grateful for where you are.
Questions for Kelly? Write in the Comments section and we’ll be sure you get a reply.