Conquering a Career Change (a Little) Later in Life
As a previous college academic advisor, I encouraged students to discover their passions and choose a major and career that would fulfill those passions; instead, a college student’s first inclination is to Google “highest-paying jobs.” Money can buy some happiness, but it tends not to sustain personal fulfillment.
In my own journey, money was never the primary motivator. I spent the first half of my work life making a moderate income by finding clever ways to turn the customer’s head toward a product or service. For a good span of 20 years, I was a marketing and communications writer/strategist in the not-for-profit sector, and I enjoyed the work.
In just a few months, however, I will become a licensed professional counselor, or as it is more commonly known, a “therapist.” Licensure is a rather lengthy, arduous, and financially-stretching process, requiring a master’s degree followed by 1200 direct contact hours sitting across from the counselee and 1800 non-direct hours – both of which can be gained in no less than two years. For the past three years (actually for the last 30, but I’ll explain that in a bit) I have been working toward this major switch, which is termed by experts as a “double career” move.
“A double career change is the hardest of all. It may really feel like starting over in life. It happens when a person changes both their career and industry. This is when someone decides to quit being a dentist and become a ballet dancer.”
While trading a marketing plan for a treatment plan isn’t quite as extreme as trading a dental drill for ballet slippers, it is, indeed, like starting over in life. My inklings for this major change began in my young 30s; I am now 59. While I have many regrets about opportunities missed due to fear, lack of self-awareness, pride, and low grit (okay, enough of the inner critic), I have plenty of hard-earned wisdom from walking this circuitous route. I love sharing it with others – some of whom are my own clients. Thank you, Heather and Jodi, for thinking I had some value to add to Friendsville Square.
A well-intentioned beginning
As a single woman at 31, I had spent the previous 10 years growing in my personal faith and becoming involved in my church’s discipleship ministry. While I enjoyed my full-time work as a marketing copywriter, I felt a deeper passion and personal fulfillment in helping people, so I set my sights on becoming either a pastoral counselor or licensed therapist. The learning in graduate school was wonderful; the application afterward, not so much. After graduation, I began working as a pastoral counselor, seeing 15 to 20 people a week. The experience was overwhelming, and I felt ill-equipped as a young single woman to meet the challenges of a wide variety of hurting people in various stages of life.
And so I punted. And got married. Given our financial situation and my career disillusionment, I gave up the 1,300 hours I had accrued toward licensure (wince) and I went back to a better, more reliable salary in marketing and communications for the next 12 years, all the while with a nagging sense that I was “missing it.” I became a “striver” (see below) consumed with making a paycheck so that we could fix up our outdated ranch home and have a family. Nothing wrong with all of that, but I was neglecting my deeper passion.
Lessons from my failure to launch a “double career” change
Follow your passion but know where it will lead you. I’m rather proud that as a single woman with no partner to support me that I took a leap of faith to follow my passion. Unfortunately, I didn’t adequately consider what it would look like on the other side of the degree. And a major life event such as marriage diluted my focus.
When contemplating a major career change (especially a double career change like mine), begin with the end in mind. Conduct informational interviews of people who are doing what you believe you want to do. Explore the daily life of such a career – the positives and the negatives. While your intended career may match your passion and values, it may not match your temperament or personality.
LinkedIn is the consummate communications tool to help you find your next job or to launch a new career. This resource allows you to advertise your mission and your experience and then connect with others in the industry or field that interests you. It also offers tips and tutorials for how to make those connections.
Recognize if you are striving or thriving in your current career. In his book From Strength to Strength, best-selling author and social scientist Arthur Brooks refers to the “striver’s curse.” The striver is one who works diligently to be the best at what he does, often propelled by an underlying insecurity and burdensome belief of “I’ll never be good enough.”
Himself a recovering “striver,” Brooks recognized that he was being stripped of the joy of a truly meaningful life. Brooks proposes that we all undergo a curve of innovation and excellence that tends to peak 20 years after career inception. Many people keep doing what they are doing, unhappily, because they don’t take the time for self-inventory.
Self-inventories require a commitment to practice self-awareness, and self-awareness is fostered through mindfulness, the practice of being intentional to observe our thoughts and feelings in the present moment – without judgment. Dan Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and executive director of the Mindsight Institute, developed the Wheel of Awareness, an innovative approach to daily self-awareness.
Whether you use Siegel’s wheel, journaling prompts, or focused breathing for a few minutes, make self-awareness a daily part of your life. In the same way that physical exercise helps us maintain good physical health, the mental exercise of mindfulness and meditation will foster good mental health which will enable wise decisions.
Seek a therapist, career counselor, or life coach. Do not stay in your head trying to figure out a major career move on your own. I was a counseling grad who didn’t avail herself of a counselor when she most needed one (another wince). Nor did I even return to my own counseling professors to help me wrestle with my angst and disillusionment (double wince). While you can practice self-awareness in the ways mentioned above, it is difficult to see yourself clearly without having a mirror (therapist) that attunes with you and helps you process your thoughts.
A career counselor can offer an array of personality tests, interest inventories, and skills and value assessments that will help you explore and confirm your direction. Sometimes, a college’s career services (this can include resume writing, interview skills as well as career exploration) are free to college alumni – this could be a good place to start, as changing careers can be costly to the pocketbook.
In reviewing my own failed launch long ago, I would have benefitted by recognizing the disparate nature of marketing and counseling. Always strong in writing skills throughout my academic journey, I was a perfectionist introvert who was accustomed to completing tasks and meeting deadlines. While writing is a creative endeavor, it offers some structure and rules to follow. I felt gratification when I saw the finished product of a marketing campaign, and I could point to the fruits of my labor. I also won a few awards because of my efforts which made me feel proud, and I received a regular two-week paycheck that allowed for planned budgeting.
Not so with the counseling field, which is open-ended, people-centric versus task-centric, provides little structure and predictability, offers no tangible “fruit” and little recognition (unless you’re Brene Brown), and often an irregular paycheck (especially if you have your own practice and depend on clients to show up).
The people-centric work that I had enjoyed in my spare time with my church felt different in a full-time capacity. Why then, did I return to this career? A combination of time, personal maturation, life events, therapy – and that initial passion constantly tapping on my shoulder – helped me slowly migrate toward jobs that used my counseling knowledge.
Ask wise friends to be your accountability partner. After a springtime walk, my friend Susan and I made a pinky promise to investigate the next leg of counseling training. Both of us thought our respective goals were too lofty and too expensive. Due to this mutual encouragement and accountability, Susan just completed her first training in September toward chaplaincy and has next year’s week-long training already booked. Mine will have to wait until our son graduates, but I have Susan to hold me accountable. Good friends can motivate us to stay on track and reach the next finish line.
Schedule “rock days.” In addition to daily mindfulness, plan for occasional stretches of getaway time so that you can survey your satisfaction in work and personal life. You must remove yourself from the day-to-day routine to accomplish this.
Dr. Alan Wohlfelt, director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition accomplishes this by establishing regular “rock days.” Wohlfelt climbs to a large rock, located a few hundred feet above his center located in the beautiful foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and ponders three vital questions:
What is an activity in my life that I really want to stop, that I don’t find joy in any longer?
What is an activity in my life that I want to start or do more of, that increases my joy?
What changes are needed so that I might experience this greater joy and personal fulfillment?
If you don’t live at the foothills of the Rockies, then plan a contemplative vacation. Instead of feeling obligated to give the kids more Disney memories, investigate family retreats or camps where kids can have their own fun while you find time to steal away, relax, and reflect. Or ask your spouse if he or she would be willing to allow you time at a local retreat center. I have taken advantage of the Mercy Conference and Retreat Center here in St. Louis for that very purpose. These centers, like Wohlfelt’s in the Rockies, have programs to help you toward self-discovery and are usually reasonable in cost.
How I circled back to fulfill my passion
At 47, I (we) adopted a four-year-old. Choosing to adopt in your late 40s tends to cause a seismic shift in one’s life. And whether it was the downhill slide into my 50s, or my son causing me to rethink my life, I wanted to use that master’s degree I had sacrificed so much for – and I wanted to stop that damned tapping.
So, I returned to my previous employer, a local community college where I had previously served in a marketing role, to become a part-time instructor, then a part-time academic advisor, and eventually a full-time academic advisor. It was a great fit for a season; it allowed me to work with students in a limited scope, help them define academic and career goals, and coach them toward the finish line (graduation). For the most part, the tapping ceased.
I would likely still be in that same roIe if I hadn’t found the decisions of academic leaders untenable. Rash reorganizations, ineffective management, poor internal communication, and a lack of recognition and advancement for good employees were just a few of the reasons that I and many others jumped ship. This seems to reflect the research conducted by Flexjobs on the top five reasons employees leave their jobs:
toxic company culture (62%)
low salary (59%)
poor management (56%)
lack of healthy work-life boundaries (49%)
not allowing remote work (43%).
When I jumped ship, unbeknownst to me, I was jumping onto the Titanic. I accepted a newly created position as an academic advisor for a local university; the position was dissolved within a few months. After the shock wore off, I recognized my joblessness was actually serendipitous: it was time to get licensed as a therapist and work for myself. I was able to draw unemployment compensation for the first time in my life, which provided us with added financial support as I updated requirements needed for licensure. I am now enjoying much autonomy while living out my passion.
Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it can afford you freedom to change your career
Generally, if you follow your passion over and above following financial compensation, you will find satisfaction in your work life. However, the almighty dollar is mighty important in allowing for flexibility in our lives. To that end, I feel compelled to share a life principle that my husband and I have lived by since we tied the knot – live under your means and seek financial freedom, no matter your salary.
If we had mortgaged our life away and not had discretionary savings for rainy days (i.e., my job migrations and my job loss three years ago), I would have been stuck in positions that were unsatisfying, just so that we could pay the bills. Instead, I had the freedom to explore and experiment – to migrate from marketing to counseling-related jobs, to work part-time while our son was young, to update an academic degree earned 30 years prior, and to begin to build a clientele.
In the last chapter of From Strength to Strength, Brooks sums up his book’s message in seven words, a life philosophy that has nurtured my own personal fulfillment:
Worship the divine
By applying this hierarchy of directives, Brooks restored his own personal peace through attuning to his greater purpose. His intended message:
Don’t get caught up in the material world. Enjoy it, use it, but don’t make that your end goal.
Instead, focus on how you can love and help others, possibly by “using things” to bless them, but more importantly, by paying your gifts and talents forward to the world through your career.
Third, maintain a steady focus on the eternal – which will remind you that you are not. This will help keep you a humble mortal and attuned to yourself and your purpose.
May the sharing of my own journey help your own. Of course, if you need additional help, I know a fairly good therapist with A LOT of life experience.
Pamela Warren, MA, PLPC, is a former marketing and public relations writer turned mental health therapist who is happy to share her thoughts on navigating career change. You can find her at Generations Counseling in Cottleville, Mo.