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Center for Professional Development
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Alumni Stories: Allison Moir-Smith '89

Let Your Life Be Your Guide by Lisa Birzen '03

Allison Moir-Smith learned life’s lessons the hard way: through her own experiences.

Since graduating from Dartmouth College in 1989, she has tried her hand in several different industries, endured demeaning entry-level job responsibilities, withstood criticism of her ability in her area of greatest interest and faced the challenges of refusing to go along with her family’s career projections for her.

Ultimately, however, Moir-Smith finds herself exactly where she wants to be and not because she tailored herself to available industry options but because saw a void in the market and chose to fill it herself.

She created a niche for herself which best utilizes her many skills, draws from all of her various past working experiences and allows her to simultaneously pursue several interests in one job.

The journey to this eventual outcome was far from being short and straight. And Moir-Smith certainly didn’t take any shortcuts.

Although her trip from home to college may have seemed short – from Lyme Road, in Hanover, NH to campus – the decision to attend Dartmouth would take her great distances in defining herself amidst criticism, in pursuing her literary aspirations and in ultimately achieving her career goals.

Moir-Smith decided early on to pursue a degree in English.  “Once I got to Dartmouth, I liked reading; I liked writing. While I was at Dartmouth, stories came alive for me," she says.

This choice, however, did not come without a struggle.  Because of the proximity to her parents, “My Dartmouth career was really unfortunately shaped by their desires of what they wanted for me," she recalls.

Their hope was for Moir-Smith to go into sales after graduation, similarly to other family members.  “When I found out that my job would’ve been fighting over shelf-space in the grocery store, I knew that was just wrong."

Even with a lack of support, Moir-Smith persisted with her “lofty ideas of literature," as others called it, encountering further disappointments along the way.

“I was told by professors that I wasn’t a great writer.  I’d see people who were real writers at Dartmouth and I wasn’t of that ilk, by any means."

Creative Writing professor, Darrell Mensel, however, saw her with great potential as an editor and recommended she enroll in the Radcliffe Publishing Course in Massachusetts after graduation, to learn more about the business of the literary world of books and the one of magazines.

“I went in there thinking I was going to be a book editor and came out of that six-week course wanting to go into magazines…a world far more captivating, fast-moving and suited to my personality."

Upon completion, she landed a job assisting "professional, powerful" freelance writer, Gail Sheehy, in her biography of Mikhail Gorbachev, then president of the Soviet Union.

“There were times when it was thrilling as a 22 year-old Dartmouth grad to be interviewing Soviet officials, setting up interviews in Moscow, dealing with very high-level people."

But, as she learned first hand, publishing "is one of those industries where you climb up through the ranks," and this being her first job, she was also expected to regularly take Sheehy’s dogs to be groomed and get their toenails clipped.

“I went to Dartmouth; I’m taking your dogs to get their toenails clipped; I shouldn’t be doing this," she thought at the time.  After 18 "very long months" of an "emotional roller coaster," Moir-Smith’s introduction to the harshness of the publishing world ended the day that Sheehy submitted her book manuscript.

Her next job, as Editorial Assistant to Christopher Buckley at Forbes FYI was initially only a slight upgrade from her previous responsibilities.  She still spent some of her time getting coffee and making travel and lunch reservations.

One day, however, she had had enough.  “I initiated; I said, ‘I’m bored. I want to start writing.’"  Her first 100-word articles soon developed into full-length features, including one on women and fly fishing, which was later included in a book on the same topic.

During this time she also worked with Joseph Heller, Paul Theroux and C. Gordon Liddy.

At this point, "I was living the literary life I had always wanted to live already my second job out."

To top things off, at age 27, she became the youngest person at a New York City magazine to be promoted to managing editor.  In this role, “my job was to run the day-to-day operations of the magazine, i.e. setting deadlines, managing writers and editors and art directors, and getting the magazine to press on time and on budget," she explains.

“The big goal in publishing is to be editor-in-chief, obviously," she explains, and “I looked ahead at what my next career moves were and they were absolutely to leave this magazine because Christopher Buckley wasn’t going anywhere."

Faced with the possibility of starting her own magazine, Moir-Smith opted instead to leave the magazine world entirely with the hopes of finding “something with more reality, weight, and soulfulness."

At 30 years old, Moir-Smith turned to career counseling to help her find the next outlet for her skills.  The results of various career tests indicated that she’d be a good writer, minister and therapist.  Already having worked as the first suggestion and after church shopping for a year, Moir-Smith eventually decided to pursue a career in counseling.

Once again, she was on her own in that choice.  “My family probably wouldn’t support a career like that. It was a hard decision to make but I did it anyway."

With many good graduate school options in NYC, Moir-Smith surprised even herself by going instead to Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, California.

Pacifica’s unique offering of depth psychology, a field combining literature and counseling, immediately appealed to Moir-Smith.

For the next two years, she flew out to California once a month for three days of classes, leaving herself with some, but not much, time to simultaneously write commissioned biographies of the Premier and Governor of Bermuda, Sir David Gibbons and Sir Peter Ramsbotham.

Writing three books and now traveling between New York, California, London and Bermuda, she also took on the role of Vice President of Content at classmate Ted Henderson’s start-up Internet company in Boston, Massachusetts.  Those eight months tested and challenged Moir-Smith with deadlines, tight schedules and an overload of responsibility.

In spring 2001, she graduated with a Master’s degree in counseling psychology and proceeded to quit her job in Boston.  “I realized that the business world really didn’t suit me."

Soon thereafter she moved to Vancouver, Canada with her boyfriend and together they ran a successful series of dream interpretation workshops, called Your Soul’s Work.

After relocating back to Boston, Moir-Smith “started to turn my personal life into my work," a decision that would provide her with the career outlet that she had unknowingly been searching for.

The period after she and her boyfriend got engaged was “a very challenging, emotional experience," leaving her “very isolated, alone and confused," she remembers.

Surprised that she was feeling all these emotions at age thirty-five, she thought, “If I was this old and had that much training and I was going through it then it must be pretty universal."

Her suspicion proved correct and three years later, Emotionally Engaged, her counseling service for couples and brides, receives over 3000 hits a month on its website and has been featured in Cosmopolitan, Glamour magazines and publicized on The Today Show, among others.

“You’re supposed to go through this difficult emotional grieving process of leaving your single life," she explains.  “You have to make that transition and I help people walk through that transition."

Currently, Moir-Smith is incorporating all of her counseling expertise into a book, Emotionally Engaged: A Bride’s Guide to Surviving the Ups and Downs of Getting Married, due out in February 2006 by Hudson Street Press, an imprint of Penguin.

“Now I can see in perfect 20-20 hindsight that in all of those little humiliating jobs I had, I was learning and absorbing so much information and so many skills that have contributed to what I do today."

She warns recent graduates that many industries have to be scaled from the bottom up and the lowest rung of the ladder only promises trying times ahead.  “After being at Dartmouth, where you’re told you are some of the smartest people in the country, to go to clipping dogs’ toenails, was such a huge comedown."

But in the end, Moir-Smith’s experience revealed, “It’s impossible to make a mistake in your first job out of Dartmouth. Anything you do will be a major learning experience about yourself and the industry."

“When you get out of Dartmouth, and realize what it means  being an adult, you realize that everyone’s making it up.  No one really knows what they are doing; they are all just doing their best."

Throughout her career thus far, Moir-Smith has done her best to rise through the ranks and to quell others’ doubts about her chosen career aspirations. 

Her transition from school to career was marked by learning experiences, a willingness to experiment with various careers and the commitment to finding her place in the world.  In the end, she has created for herself a fulfilling job helping others effectively confront transitions in their own lives.

If you hold a similar kind of outlook and determination, you too can follow your life exactly to where you need to be.

Last Updated: 6/21/12