One of my favorite quotes, by George Eliot, is “It’s never too late to be who you might have been.” I was reminded of it recently during a conversation I had with my father regarding work. He said something that caused my stomach to sink, even as it stirred up my rebellious side. He told me, when I mentioned that I was sick of the nine to five life and would love to start some kind of business or a new career with more flexibility, that “it’s too late.”
Since I can remember my father drilled it into my head that I should work for state government. That’s what he did before retiring, and what his mother did before him. He lauded the benefits, such as health insurance for life and a retirement pension. Thus, I was raised on a steady dose of go to college, get a secure government job, stay there until you retire, and then reap the benefits of your years of public service.
It should come as no surprise that I have a government job. And yes, the benefits are amazing.
I didn’t set out to work in state government. I went to college to become a high school English teacher (I am well aware this in government, but on the local level). It was during my field observations that I realized I didn’t have the patience to deal with students’ shenanigans or the restraints of the system. I was about to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in English and saw an opening at the university I attended. The job entailed working with high school students as a college preparation advisor, which seemed more up my alley than teaching. I applied and got the job.
That’s how I fell into a career in public higher education nearly 17 years ago, at age 30. Prior to this I worked in the restaurant business, mostly as a waitress, but there was a stint as a bartender and assistant manager. For a long time I loved this work. In just three nights per week, I made enough cash to live well. It enabled me to have plenty of time at home and to go to college. It was fast-paced and physical and allowed me to meet new people all the time. But I didn’t want to do it forever.
Eventually I landed a job in higher education that I loved. It was working in the admissions office of a local community college. Like the restaurant, it was fast-paced and physical. I was constantly hopping up and down, visiting high schools, attending college fairs, giving campus tours, and helping walk-in applicants get admitted. Even better was that it was part-time with full benefits, which gave me time to tend to my home and family. Occasionally I was bumped up to full-time hours, but even then I didn’t mind because my schedule was flexible and the nature of the work aligned perfectly with my personality and my commute was five minutes.
I worked there for six years before leaving to take a full-time position at a public university, mainly because my husband was having serious job issues and I needed to earn more money. On paper, the job sounded great. What I hadn’t anticipated was how challenging I would find the nine-to-five life and its lack of flexibility, the long commute, and being held up in a small office all day. Worse are the ever-increasing demands of those “other related duties” that have slowly taken over the main job I thought I was hired to do.
Over the years, I’ve applied for other positions within higher ed. I thought if I could just switch back to work that let me move around and meet new people regularly, I’d be happier. Yet I’ve had no offers of employment, and now I’m worried that I’m reeking of desperation in my interviews.
I’m also in that sketchy place of being qualified, and in some instances over-qualified, yet without the appropriate job title to go along with my skills set. Six years in the same position with increasing responsibility, but no promotion, can limit a person professionally. In higher ed, it’s rare for someone to be brought on as a director if they’ve never been an assistant director, even if they’re doing that level of work.
Back to my father. In the course of our conversation, he confessed that he’d always hated working, which is why he retired at the young age of 55. He said the only way he was able to stand it was that his job in emergency management kept him on the road most of the time. He suggested that I find a state job that would get me out of the office regularly so that I could stand it until I retire.
Not the worst advice – it’s something I’ve thought of myself — but I remain bothered by his assertion that it’s too late for me to start a business or make a career change. I thought of people I either knew or knew of who had career revivals in their 40s and even 50s.
There’s my mother, who after years of working as a hospital unit secretary, and a try at real estate, decided to go to nursing school in her mid-40s. She is going on 20 years as a nurse case manager for an insurance company. She earns six figures, gets seven weeks of paid vacation each year, and best of all works from home. More important, she likes her job.
A friend of my mother has a sister who was studying to be a marriage and family therapist in her mid-forties, when a vacation to Europe changed the course of her life. While there, she happened upon Polish pottery, asked the shopkeeper where she could find it in the United States, and was told nowhere, that no one distributed it there. Within a few years she became a millionaire selling Polish pottery on the home shopping network.
My second cousin’s wife self-published a novel on Amazon while in her mid-50s, after being rejected by mainstream publishers. Multiple novels later she is a best-selling author on Amazon, and Walmart just picked up her books. Her daughter, who has a college degree in marketing, is her publicist.
These examples prove mid-life career change is possible, yet my father’s assertion, that it’s too late, stills plays in my mind. His advice, to find a state job that gets me out and about, makes some sense, except that I’ve been trying and trying to do this for several years to no avail. Not to mention the very thought does nothing to excite me.
When do I finally give up, surrender, and accept it’s just not happening? That my only way out may very well be a complete career 180?
It’s time. I know it. I can’t wait anymore. I don’t want to stick it out until an early retirement. I want to work at something I love until I drop dead. Barring any unexpected opportunities in higher education that light my fire and that I am actually hired for, I think it’s going to take me moving outside of the field, outside of my comfort zone, in an attempt to find work that I feel excited, even passionate, about.
Now I just need to figure out what to do and how to do it. Stay tuned…