Second Acts: From Eye Surgeon to Business Advisor, She’s Still Helping People See
Valencia Ray, M.D., always knew her purpose was to help people with their vision. For years, she did so as an ophthalmologist. But after 22 years in medicine—and a personal triumph over her own negative mindset—Ray sold her private practice and started a new career. Today, she writes, speaks and coaches people to retrain their brains so they can “see” life differently.
"For years I literally restored vision,” said Ray. She chose the specialty of ophthalmology for its intellectual challenges. “Ophthalmologists are like clinical neuroscientists. We focus on the brain and nervous system. You have to know the brain in order to deal with the symptoms people bring in—like headaches. It’s a lot more than giving people glasses.”
After medical school and an entry-level job with an HMO, Ray opened her own ophthalmology practice in 1991. She enjoyed serving patients, and her practice thrived. So did her personal life. Soon she and her husband had two children, and she became a busy working mom. Because she was a self-employed specialist, Ray had the flexibility to balance work and family the way she wanted. “I set my own hours, and we didn’t have a lot of emergencies,” she said. “I could even bring my kids and sitter to the office if I wanted to.”
The rhythm was good for a while. Then, as her kids started school, something changed.
“I felt short on time,” said Ray. “At work, I had adopted some command-and-control leadership tactics, and I was micro-managing my team. It didn’t feel good to me.”
She recognized the feeling. Since childhood, Ray had been striving—and stressing—to achieve. Now, even with a successful medical practice and a happy family, her mind was still full of negative voices—including her own.
“For years, people told me I wouldn’t succeed because I was a woman or because I came from the Chicago public schools, even though I was an honor student. I let those ideas get to me. Somehow I didn’t feel good enough. I got defensive and overwhelmed, and I needed to find my way,” said Ray.
So in 1998 she sold the practice to a colleague. Ray stayed on staff but worked just a few hours a week, freeing her time to focus on herself. She was determined to find a new mindset, to teach her brain new habits. But how?
For starters, she took up meditation.
“I wanted to slow my brain down, and meditating helped me focus better,” she said. It also let her see her thoughts as separate from her self-worth. “I am not my thoughts” became a useful mantra.
In turn, Ray was able to concentrate on the internal dialogue that was sabotaging her performance. She consciously changed the script, replacing negative ideas with positive ones. If her inner voice said, “You’re such a fake,” Ray would shift focus by thinking, “I earned my way.”
She learned that gratitude automatically put her in a positive place. "Being positive was my intention, so that’s where I focused my attention,” she said. “Once I focused on retraining my thoughts, it was like I took back the steering wheel of my mind.”
Feeling more confident and true to herself, Ray purchased her mentor’s business and re-entered full-time practice in 2002.
“Right away, the staff noticed I had changed,” she said. “I felt it, too. I’ll never forget the day I was standing in my waiting room full of patients. I thought, ‘I’m so happy I got this practice back. I’m so busy, but I don’t feel overwhelmed.’”
Ray was on to something. “With my staff, as I translated what I had learned about retraining my brain, I watched them collaborate and cooperate and perform better. We won customer service awards. They also used the same skills in their personal lives to lose weight and improve relationships. The skills transferred outside of work.”
Blending these personal experiences with her background in brain science, Ray was formulating what she now calls “the art and science of neuro-reinvention”—and she was creating a new career for herself in the process.
“I was realizing that I could teach people to optimally operate their brains, and I was excited about it,” she said. “So when another doctor expressed interest in buying my practice, I sold it to him and started a new career: coaching, speaking and writing about how you can literally retrain your brain.”
That was in 2007. Since then, Ray has gained the trust of individuals, executive teams and whole organizations that are hungry for ways to improve performance. She speaks at conferences, recently published her second book and has a growing list of clients who depend on her guidance.
“I have a particular interest in leadership development because you can touch so many people that way,” she said. “We can help people perform at their best, adapt to change and shift their mindset in a productive, positive way.”
Because her principles stem from scientific knowledge and life lessons, Ray can appeal to people who trust their intellect and those who favor intuition.
Having navigated a significant career shift herself, she is also a resource for people considering a career change. Her recommendation? A slow, thoughtful approach.
“Instead of charging ahead to make things happen, take time for self-reflection,” she said. “Slow down. Meditate. Be positive. Think in terms of gratitude.”
And be aware of what you’re thinking, especially if you have a tendency for negative self-talk. “You are creating your autobiography,” said Ray. “It’s a story, and you can change it. You have the power to rewrite your lines.”
This post is the third in a four-part series on women who have changed their lives through unexpected career moves. Previously: