After 35 years in the healthcare industry, Maren decided it was time for her to quit the rat race and reinvent in some way. She eventually pursued her passion for writing, has recently published her first novel, and is hard at work on her second.
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up as the middle child of three in a small town in Minnesota. But I had scads of cousins who were always in town to visit my grandparents. It was a more innocent time and my friends and I spent hours riding bikes, climbing the undercarriage of a river bridge, and “stealing” apples from friendly townspeople.
I left town for University of Minnesota and culture shock—trading the intimacy of a small town for the anonymity provided by a campus of 50,000. I thrived in this stimulating environment, graduated with honors, and never looked back. Two degrees later, my career as a health care executive became my focus for the next three decades. During that period, I led organizations through every iteration of health care chaos thrown out by the market, insurance companies, or the government—all designed to improve a system that we all depend upon for our lives.
Heady stuff. I didn’t have much time to evaluate other pathways during those years. As the CEO of a large hospital system, every minute was scheduled. As the mother of two great kids, I was a master multi-tasker and enjoyed all of it. Until I didn’t. That treadmill is intoxicating and can carry you along if you allow it.
When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?
When my days got to be repetitive, and when the challenges started to tire me as opposed to get my adrenaline pumping, I started to grow restless. So, when there was a natural moment to re-think, I used that time to evaluate. What do I want to do with the rest of my life?
A natural break in the rhythm of my work allowed for a pause to think about me as a person, as opposed to me as a CEO. After leading a huge and successful change effort, I could catch my breath and look to the future, and I realized I could re-invent myself for my next chapter. At age 59, I retired.
What is your next act?
I am pursuing my passion for writing with the publication of my first novel, A Better Next, just released on May 28, 2019. It is the character-driven story of a female protagonist caught trying to protect her marriage from the chaos of a corporate merger where she and her husband are involved on opposite sides. Dual-career marriages are so common now that this premise is realistic. The unraveling of her marriage and her slow recovery to find her footing until she discovers her own sweet spot makes the story relevant today.
No, it was never on my bucket list to be a published author. It came about during the self-discovery phase I allowed myself. Always an avid reader, I was curious about how fiction writers do such amazing things. I started taking classes at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and was transfixed. It’s not easy to remain anonymous in a Loft class, so eventually I needed to write, and in sharing with other students and teachers, I learned that I enjoyed the creative process.
I’m now hard at work on my second novel and can honestly say that when my head is at work on my writing, I am clearly in my zone—and time flies by.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
There were a lot of opinions expressed about my plunge. Naysayers outweighed the supporters. Many expressed disbelief that I would turn my back on a successful career without cashing in on the lucrative track I was on. I remember one guy telling me “so, maybe you need a vacation or a sabbatical, but not an exit—don’t be stupid!”
The hardest part was leaving the best executive team I could have asked for— a well-tuned team that was very high-functioning, with each person individually valuable to the organization. Preparing for my departure was personal on many levels, including with each of them, and with the organization.
Not everyone is blessed with the opportunity to leave the working world and try new things, and I never forget that each day is a gift. As I left the corporate health care world, I took some time to clean my closets, inventory my to-do lists, and prepare myself to discover new ways to spend my time and explore new ideas.
How supportive were your family and friends?
My close friends and family were very supportive. While they respected my decision-making process and allowed me the space to weigh my options, they were openly joyous when I decided to leave the grinding schedule behind. It helped that my financial obligations to my family were met, and I could spend meaningful time with my mother before she passed away.
What challenges are you encountering?
Balance remains elusive for me. I remain active in my field of health care and serve on non-profit boards for organizations that are meaningful to me and which I feel make a major contribution to my community. There’s a tension in me between “doing good works” and taking time for myself. My self-talk is: “It is not indulgent to develop your creative self.”
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
Evidently, I still take on too much and need to constantly review my calendar…
I try to live my life with no regrets and have never shied away from hard decisions. I celebrate my courage on this decision, and don’t look back.
My own inner critic kept telling me that if I left my CEO position, I was letting other women down. Role models are important for showing others how to break down barriers. But I dealt with that by making sure I continued my long practice of mentoring women in the field and always preaching that the corner office is reachable for all women. In my own board and community work, I continue to champion women for leadership positions and other positions of influence in their endeavors.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Think hard about what you want to do. Take some time to sort out who you are now. Your midlife self has traveled some miles, seen some life, and is quite different from your 18-year-old self who had to make decisions about school or a first job. If you’ve had children, husband, and family responsibilities, you probably haven’t had much time to consider your own desires of late. But when you do find that time, don’t waste it. And if you don’t have the luxury of that time, find it.
The self-discovery process can be isolating. Look for other seekers and get support for that journey. Sharing ideas and helping filter your thoughts with someone else in that space can help tremendously. Risk-taking is scary and company is helpful.
Don’t forget about money. Once you have a vision, put your skills to work in designing your own strategic plan and determine how much investment it will take, then sort out how to finance yourself.
What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing the writing life?
Don’t be shy! Join the writers and aspiring writers in your midst. Yes, at first you will feel like an imposter and may hesitate to state that you are a writer—or aspire to be a writer. Just remember that they all started sometime. Let it be you, and your time!
Not everyone is lucky enough to be close to a literary center like the Loft or in a metropolitan area praised for its literary presses and community, but there is a wealth of opportunities on-line that are available to anyone with internet connectivity.
I took classes in person at the Loft, but also on-line. Mary Carroll Moore has a great series for new writers. Her blog is one of many that you should read for inspiration and helpful tips.
Writers must first be readers. Join a book club, start a writer’s circle, be your own cheerleader.
Hang around bookstores. Explore your neighborhood indie bookstore to find out about literary events, reading and writing groups. They know things…
Be patient with yourself. Malcolm Gladwell tells us it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. Don’t expect to be an overnight success. Put in the time to learn.
What resources do you recommend for would-be authors?
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
Your Book Starts Here: Create, Craft, and Sell Your First Novel, Memoir, or Nonfiction Book by Mary Carroll Moore
Green-Light Your Book: How Writers Can Succeed in the New Era of Publishing by Brooke Warner
What’s next for you?
Who knows? I keep myself open to new interests. However, right now, my passion and intellect intersect well in my writing and I’m a happy woman.
Connect with Maren Cooper
Contact form: https://marencooper.com/contact/
Book: A Better Next