midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the category “career changer”

Career Change at 50 ‘Can Be a Perilous Thing’

Altering a career course at fifty can be a perilous thing, and many people, if not most, do not traipse merrily down that path. The luckiest among us find their work fulfilling, and cannot imagine why they would leave. Others would follow their passions if they could, but college tuition, the mortgage, and the care of parents or children or both buckle them into their present work…Still others are simply scared – with good reason, because the job market does not necessarily embrace mid-career transitions.

— Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Life Reimagined

I embarked on a path to a new career at 48. It was more like entering a maze – I couldn’t see what was around the next corner, let alone envision arriving at the destination. I had doubts about whether I would have the fortitude to finish, and whether I actually even wanted to make a dramatic change and start over so late in my professional life.

I had established several decades of skills and experience as a journalist and public relations professional – fields that wouldn’t earn me a cup of coffee in the new career I was pursuing. I wasn’t just transferring and adjusting skills, as I did when I made the leap from journalism to PR. I was doing a total makeover, learning a new way of being.

“The brain likes its habits…and hates change,” Bradley Hagerty quotes a Harvard Medical School professor. “The brain despises conflict: It reasons that I may be happier over there, CareerChange_TwoPathsbut I am earning a good paycheck here, and in general it resolves this cognitive dissonance in favor of the familiar. At the bottom of every dilemma is fear.”

To make the change I sought – becoming a mental health counselor/therapist – I had no choice but to return to school for a marathon master’s degree venture, and ultimately confront the fear of the unfamiliar and the insecurity of the lower earnings commensurate with starting anew.

At first, I merely dipped my toe in the water by applying to a program and enrolling in the first of 22 required courses. I nearly dropped out after breaking my leg before completing my first course and losing motivation, feeling overwhelmed by the long road ahead. I overcame ambivalence and registered for a second course a few days before the next semester began. From there, it was a step-by-step progression that would have registered in the hundreds on a Fitbit.

After 5 ½ years of classes and internships and another five months of bureaucratic license- application process, I have been hired for my first professional job as a licensed counselor at age 54. As Bradley Hagerty writes in her book about midlife, it has not been a merry traipse, though it has been rewarding nonetheless – the sense of striving and accomplishment, the satisfaction of learning and growing, the excitement of pursuing something new and meaningful that will contribute toward others.

“The role of people in their second half of life is not to build up for themselves, but to begin to give away their time, energy and talents,” Bradley Hagerty writes.

There have been costs accompanying the benefits. I left my job two years ago, largely because it was incompatible with the latter stages of the master’s degree program, where I had to serve internships for four semesters. That plunged me from making a comfortable living to pay for a mortgage, two college tuitions and care of children – just as Bradley Hagerty identified – to an itinerant work life in the Gig Economy, working lower-paying temporary, part-time and seasonal jobs. Breaking even on the monthly household budget, much less saving for retirement, went out the window.

Psychologically and emotionally, I felt unmoored. After all, what kind of responsible, mature man in his 50s would be working the same summer job alongside college students as a tennis teacher? Wasn’t I supposed to be at the peak of my earning power – indeed, the job I left provided me the highest salary I had ever made – instead of making the same hourly wages I earned in my 20s? All this so I could enter a new career at the bottom rung in a profession where beginning pay is notoriously low. Just to drive home the point that I’m a rookie, my license for my first two years identifies me as “Licensed Professional Counselor-Intern.”

Was I scared, as Bradley Hagerty suggests many midlife career deliberators rightly are, “because the job market does not necessarily embrace mid-career transitions?”

No…at least not so much to be deterred. I was more scared about looking back in a decade still with a yearning to try something new and realizing with regret that I missed my window. Once midlife careens on the backside toward older age, it becomes even harder to reinvent the self.

I also was entering a job market where there is a growing need, where men are relatively scarce and therefore actually valued for their gender perspective and traits, and where the accumulation of life experience and wisdom that comes with age is an advantage in helping other people with their problems – unlike some other professions, where older workers become dinosaurs because they can’t keep up with technology, trends, new methods and the requisite energy to stay on top. Or they are paid at the high end of the salary range, making them expendable in favor of hungry and more footloose up-and-comers.

Altering a career course at 50 certainly can be a perilous thing. There’s no guarantee the job market will unfurl a welcome mat for a midlife career changer or that the changer will be successful, however success is measured. I’ve managed to get through the front door; now I’ll find out for myself whether the new house I’m entering truly is my dream home.

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Do the Limbo. Or, How to Be ‘Comfortable with Ambiguity’

I am in limbo. Complete and utter limbo.

However, the bar is not set low and I am not trying to shimmy under. The bar is high and I am aspiring to clear it like a Fosbury Flop.LimboDance

It’s not supposed to be like this as a 54-year-old, according to societal expectations. I’m supposed to be settled, stable, predictable, a rock, boring in my steadiness. I chose another path, paved with uncertainty. It’s come with a loss of income, stability and predictability. But I expect the payoff will come in the form of greater life and career satisfaction, and income growth ultimately will follow as I hopefully find passion in my work.

My limbo status is largely of my own design and in small part due to the bugaboo of bureaucracy.

I have 11 days left until my second summer teaching tennis at the Sea Colony resort in Bethany Beach, DE runs out on Labor Day and I return home, jobless and anxious but optimistic. I have spent nearly two years in the Gig Economy, ever since a non-amicable parting with a former employer allowed me to place more focus on a master’s degree program in clinical mental health counseling and the two years of internships required to complete it, as part of a midlife career transition from public relations to counseling. I have been scrambling to piece together part-time, temporary and contractual jobs since I dropped out of the routine 9-to-5 world.

I graduated in May 2017, and expected that tennis teaching for 3 ½ months would provide the perfect bridge to the new career, allowing enough time for me to obtain the state license I need to be eligible to practice, get hired and begin work. But bureaucracy has brought that plan to a grinding halt, possibly leading me to the unemployment office rather than a counseling office, at least temporarily.

A long waiting period to get access to my “official verified” National Counselor Exam report has left my state license applications – and thus job prospects – in limbo, even though I have already been notified that I passed the exam. The blood pressure ticked a little higher each day over the last six weeks as I awaited an email notification from the national counselor certification body that my school transcript met all requirements, along with my exam score, for certification.

One former boss wrote in my annual performance review that I needed to be “comfortable with ambiguity.” That was corporate speak for an organization refusing to accept accountability for its disorganization, poor leadership and incoherent, vacillating strategy. Ironically, now that I’ve left that organization, the advice applies.

My immediate future is ambiguous. I don’t know where I’ll be working as a counselor, or when. I don’t know how long it will take state licensing boards to review my applications and grant a license. I don’t even know what state I will be living in, as I have applied for license in Maryland and South Carolina.

So, what have I learned about being “comfortable with ambiguity?”

  • Take things one day at a time, as cliché as that may sound. Thinking too much about unknowns in the future produces excessive worry but no solutions.
  • Pursue aggressive actions whenever possible to address things over which you do have control, such as making networking contacts, applying to jobs and following up on leads. Taking action tends to boost motivation, confidence and attitude.
  • Detach from the cell phone and computer for periods of time. It’s tempting when living with job and income uncertainty to obsessively check for email and phone contacts, which increases anxiety each time none have come through.
  • Have faith that putting what you want to attract into the universe ultimately will materialize for you, with persistence, patience and a positive outlook.
  • Continue doing things you like to do (that are free or low-cost) to keep your spirits high and take your mind off worries.
  • Squirrel away your nuts (money). Live cheaply (the Minimalist lifestyle) while dealing with ambiguity, to reduce financial pressures.

Limbo is not a comfortable place to be when you have financial and family obligations, when you feel like you should be occupying a certain status and you’re not, and when you like to plan and predict your life with a high degree of certainty. But for me, my current state of limbo is a necessary part of the process of getting where I want to be, just another stage of the journey, another bar to traverse.

Sweating it out to the End

I was sitting in the sauna after a swim, trying to meditate (and lose a pound), when the thought hit me (a welcome thought, nevertheless showing I don’t know how to meditate): the only thing separating me from graduation with a clinical mental health counseling master’s degree was one more paper, the fourth chapter of a final project.

In the heat, I felt a surge of accomplishment, the dripping sweat an appropriate metaphor for the 5 ½-year graduate school and internship marathon. I reflected on all that had happened during that time – a broken leg requiring surgery and a year of

DSC00056 (2)

These grads, including my son Daniel (left), are younger than me, but I’ll be celebrating the same experience soon.

recovery; turning 50; my mother dying; leaving a seven-year job under contentious and demoralizing circumstances; both of my kids leaving for college – and felt amazed I had arrived at this moment. I had nearly dropped out after the first of my 22 classes and three internships, the path seemed so complicated and daunting.

 

So other than giving myself a pat on the back for perseverance, what can my experience say about sweating it out for a goal at midlife that perhaps could resonate with others?

  • Personal growth and development keeps life interesting. I feel more alive and engaged with new challenges and goals to pursue, and restless when I feel stagnated and mired in routine.
  • It’s never too late to learn new things or set new goals. Changing careers is another matter entirely that involves issues of practicality, responsibility, risk and sacrifice. But those complexities shouldn’t preclude exploration.
  • Moving forward on faith can work out, and could be a necessity for progress. Sometimes pushing through doubts is the only way forward. I still don’t know how my whole counseling endeavor ultimately will work out, but I have faith that it will. Needing a guarantee on an outcome may preclude the journey.
  • Find a way. Don’t let something that seems too hard stop you, if you can creatively discover ways to make it work, even just one step at a time, especially if you believe you might live with regret for giving up on a goal or dream too easily. I feared living with regret, which helped propel me to continue grinding ahead. Sometimes “a way” may seem impossible, but perhaps as likely self-imposed limits make it seem so.
  • Pursuing something new, whether a hobby, pastime, education or career, can bring you into contact with a new community that can enrich your life. The people I’ve met through my graduate program have provided community, enhancing my life and helping me learn.

I’m sure hoping this new counseling gig works out. I entered the Loyola University-Maryland Pastoral Counseling program at age 48. Back then, I couldn’t imagine getting to the end, which has now arrived at age 54. I’m excited to see where it leads. At the least, it will open up a whole new range of opportunities and a greater chance to self-direct my career – possibly in the form of my own business and other entrepreneurial endeavors – as I head into its latter stages. I’m feeling now all the sweat I’ve poured into it has been worthwhile.

[In a serendipitous coincidence, my graduation is the same day as my daughter Rebecca’s graduation from the University of Maryland. Read about my decision of whose big day to attend.]

15 Principles for Surviving and Executing a Career Transition

In two months I will complete a graduate degree in clinical mental health counseling that will have taken 5½ years to finish, enabling me to take final steps to executing a fairly drastic midlife career change from public relations. I had made a career change before, from journalism to public relations. Though still jarring, that transition was significantly more seamless than this one, requiring no additional education and using many of the same skills.

I have been seeking to derive more meaning and satisfaction from my career, as well as tCareerImagehe opportunity to self-direct my future, embrace an entrepreneurial spirit, contribute value to society and work flexibly, creatively, collaboratively and independently. I explored life-coaching, completing a series of training courses, but ultimately didn’t pursue it. But the idea of helping people with psychological, emotional and life challenges stuck with me.

It took me about three years of mulling the idea to apply to graduate school for counseling and another year after acceptance to enroll in my first class. Twenty-one classes and three internships later, I’m on the precipice of a career transition.

It hasn’t been easy. As I started my internships, I ran into a buzz saw at my PR job. It was miserable, and at the same time the best thing that could have happened. I couldn’t have done both well simultaneously, along with graduate classes. I would have burned out. I left my job, and the security blanket of a biweekly paycheck. That was 18 months ago. Since then, I’ve lived a much more itinerant, unpredictable and frugal existence, cobbling together temporary, seasonal and part-time jobs, and unpaid or low-paid internships.

In brief, these are 15 principles I’ve learned about making a significant career change, concepts that are valuable to consider while mulling a change or while bulldozing through the trenches:

  1. Long-Term Vision – A career transition won’t happen if you can’t envision a different future, if you are too overwhelmed by the daily grind and stressors to dream about a new life.
  2. Delay Gratification/Patience – Depending on how drastic the change and the amount of education and training required, the transition could be a long haul rather than a quick fix.
  3. Risk (Tolerance/Acceptance) – You will be giving up something known for something new, with no guarantee of breaking in, or even being proficient at or liking the new endeavor.
  4. Self-Knowledge – Become clear on what is most important to you, your values, how much risk you can tolerate, and how hard you are willing to work to make a change happen.
  5. Courage – You’ll have to be brave enough to take risks and step out of your comfort zone.
  6. Confidence/Self-Assuredness – Consider how you will handle other people in your life, including those closest to you and colleagues in your current occupation, questioning or casting aspersions on your decisions. How much would a wave of skepticism and criticism deter you or affect your thinking and beliefs?
  7. Identity – Leaving a profession, especially one you’ve worked at for years and in which you’ve achieved a certain level of expertise, status and success, can significantly alter how you identify yourself. Can your ego withstand such an identity loss, while building a new and different piece of your identity?
  8. Research/Network – It will be important to determine the costs and requirements (and barriers) to entry into a new profession, as well as occupational outlook, such as job growth and salary projections. Soak up all the information you can about your prospective new career while considering a transition and in the transitional phase by interviewing people in the field, networking with fellow career changers and professors, taking classes, attending conferences and reading industry journals.
  9. Commitment/Persistence – A half-hearted or uncertain effort will likely fail to result in lasting change, like my foray into coaching. The urge to give up may hit, especially early in the process. You’ll have to constantly re-evaluate your commitment, revisit why you embarked on the effort in the first place and resist inevitable doubts.
  10. Embrace Uncertainty/Unpredictability – Become comfortable with not knowing and embracing the journey as an adventure. View unpredictability as making life more exciting, stimulating and challenging. Here’s where faith and spirituality can come into play.
  11. Sacrifice – Be prepared to pay costs in terms of money, time, effort, perceived security and status (you may go from being expert to novice).
  12. Hustle/Scramble/Diversify – A career transition may not be seamless, moving directly from a job in one career to a job in another. There may be an intermediary period involving education, training, internships and the like. You may have to jump off the cliff during this period – leaving security behind – but with a parachute. You just won’t be able to be sure where you may drift or land along the way. You may have to be aggressive in patching together a living from various jobs that aren’t career jobs, but serve as a means to your end. You may have to call on skills you weren’t using in your current career, or adapt your skills to different positions that work within your new goals. For me, that meant working summers as a tennis teacher and applying writing and teaching skills as a university writing tutor.
  13. Flexibility – A flexible frame of mind complements the principles of identity and hustle. If you are not rigid in your identity, you can explore varied employment opportunities, living arrangements and lifestyles that can help you manage the transition. If you are open to a wide range of income-producing opportunities, you can minimize your reluctance to try new things – perhaps jobs you would have once considered beneath you — and ramp up your hustle to get them.
  14. Financial House – Your transition will be easier and less stressful if there is Order in the House, the Financial House. As much and as far ahead as possible, craft a financial plan for the transition. Build savings cushions and tuition accounts, if education is necessary. Consider becoming a minimalist in your lifestyle choices, to some degree. A transition likely will come with some financial pain, including possibly a precipitous income drop from your previous career once you start in a new occupation, but planning and frugality can mitigate the potential pitfalls.
  15. Negotiation – If you’re lucky, you’ll have a current employer who respects, or maybe even encourages and supports, your career-change endeavor (I wasn’t). If so, see how you can negotiate to get what you need – time, a flexible schedule, tuition assistance, remote work arrangement – while continuing to fulfill your employer’s needs. You may be able to hold onto your job and income much longer (I couldn’t), helping to bridge the transition.

 

 

Daddy-Daughter Day

adam-reb_foyeweddingWhat are the odds that a father and a daughter would graduate from different universities on the same day?

Infinitesimal. But that is what’s destined to take place for me and my daughter Rebecca on May 20, 2017, barring unforeseen circumstances.

We’re each about to start our final semesters. I’ll be graduating from the clinical mental health counseling master’s program at Loyola University-Maryland after a five-and-a-half-year marathon, while Rebecca will be graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Maryland.

It will be a proud day for the Sachs family. Unfortunately, though, I’ll have to make a choice, because the graduation ceremonies conflict. The choice is really no choice at all. As much as I would like to participate in my graduation to savor my accomplishment and sacrifice – and it really has been that, involving a career change, job loss, precipitous drop in income, scrambling to patch together part-time, temporary and seasonal employment, large tuition bills, attending evening classes after work, securing and working at two internships that have tested me, and a long-term commitment to finish rather than quit when feeling overwhelmed – the obvious choice is to attend my daughter’s graduation.

It’s not that I’m selfless. I’m not. I think a lot about myself. I’m all about me, a lot of the time. I’m not a huge giver. I might not give you the shirt off my back. But May 20 will be Rebecca’s time. It will be enough for me to know what I accomplished and that I persevered through obstacles, as much as I would like to share that moment with grad school colleagues who have done the same.

It will be more important to me that Rebecca knows and remembers that I was there, and to celebrate her achievement. I have tried to do that throughout her 21 years. There’s a quote you might know, often attributed to director Woody Allen, that “90 percent of life is showing up.” But apparently what Allen really said was, “80 percent of success is showing up.” So if I multiply a .90 show-up rate by a .80 success rate, I have a 72 percent chance of success by showing up at Rebecca’s graduation. I’ll take those odds.

Showing up always been a high priority for me as a parent, and a college graduation is no time to slack off. That simple feat – being present — was made more challenging over the years since I separated from Rebecca’s mother when she was only 9, but it was never an excuse.

We had hoped our graduations would be on different days on the same weekend. How cool would it be to attend each other’s graduations on successive days? I would like Rebecca to see a palpable example that learning, growth, striving and change can happen throughout a lifetime, by observing me graduate. But it wasn’t to be.

So I will do what I know in my gut is right and what all good parents should do – no awards or kudos needed – and put my child first.

No More ‘Working for The Man’ Just for Health Insurance

pic_0123On the eve of the first Obamacare (Affordable Care Act) mano-a-mano showdown in Congress – well, at least the participants were in the same boxing ring – I re-emphasize my position that after all the overinflated chatter is aired and convoluted schemes are floated, the only real, efficient, cost-effective and sustainable solution is a single-payer health care system (Medicare for All, universal health care coverage).

I’ll give the Republicans a chance, with their Repeal and Replace initiative (or Repeal and Posture, or Repeal and Delay, or Repeal and High-Five) and monitor the trends and see where we are a few years after implementation. As I advocated on my sister blog site Sirenian Publishing, the Democrats should not participate in crafting an Obamacare Replacement, so it will be a pristinely GOP invention without Democratic fingerprints and can be evaluated as such.

Why discuss Obamacare in a midlife blog? Because I’m one step away from needing health insurance through a system like Obamacare, and I may need that program or something similar in the future as I grapple with transition and living authentically in midlife.

In my transition to a new career as a mental health counselor, I eventually had to leave full-time employment to meet my graduate program’s internship and class requirements. And with that move went my health insurance. I was lucky I have a wife with an employer-sponsored plan that I could join. But we all know how tenuous are jobs – and the potluck health insurance that may come with them – in today’s economy.

I’ve written about joining the Gig Economy since my transition, working multiple part-time, temporary, or entrepreneurial jobs with no health insurance or other benefits to cobble together an income. While I may sometime again have a full-time job with health insurance benefits, I plan to stay a member of the Gig Economy for the rest of my career by establishing an independent counseling practice. And I abhor the thought of health insurance posing a major barrier to venturing out on my own. A single-payer health care system, or perhaps an Obamacare-like system, could remove that impediment for me and many others with an entrepreneurial bent who no longer want to be obligated to ‘working for The Man’ just so they can have health insurance.

I wrote extensively about the merits of a nonprofit single-payer system and the tribulations of Obamacare in my political memoir about my campaign for Maryland delegate, Don’t Knock, He’s Dead: A Longshot Candidate Get Schooled in the Unseemly Underbelly of American Campaign Politics, as advocating for a more equitable, less costly health care system was a cornerstone of my campaign.

Read more about the looming health care battle below…

Sirenian Publishing Blog Post: No Democratic Lifeline for ‘Repeal and Replace’

New Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said if congressional Republicans, in conjunction with President-elect Donald Trump’s exhortations, vote to repeal Obamacare, Democrats won’t participate in crafting a so-called “replacement.”

“If they repeal without a replacement, they will own it,” Schumer told The Washington Post. “Democrats will not then step up to the plate and come up with a half-baked solution that we will partially own. It’s all theirs.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Schumer’s approach and urge Democrats to stick to that plan, instead of capitulating to the Republicans and trying to modify or soften whatever plan the GOP hatches once health care coverage is thrown into uncertainty, or worse, chaos, and millions potentially suffer.

To do so would be akin to the Democrats turning over ownership of a marginally inhabitable building to the Republicans, who level it with a wrecking ball and wander aimlessly through the rubble, only to have the Democrats return with hard hats and shovels and mortar to salvage the wreckage, with the promise, “We’ll help you rebuild from these ruins, but we gotta warn ya, dollars to donuts, this building will be condemned.”

As I advised Democrats previously, Do The Opposite, like Seinfeld’s George Costanza. The GOP will expect Democrats to come running to save the day for people who may be losers in the Obamacare tug-of-war. Then they will become complicit in whatever is enacted. Then they can be blamed for screwing up whatever plan Republicans wanted to enact in the first place, which of course will be the reason said GOP plan isn’t working as effectively as touted. Don’t do it. Let the GOP plan ride; measure the results.

I argued in my political memoir detailing my campaign for Maryland state political office, Don’t Knock, He’s Dead: A Longshot Candidate Gets Schooled in the Unseemly Underbelly of American Campaign Politics, that Obamacare is largely a piece of legislative manure that leaves the foxes – the health insurance industry – guarding the henhouse, but that it’s certainly an improvement and does a number of good things for people who need health insurance.

“Obamacare is a Rubik’s Cube—lots of turning, spinning, head-scratching, reverses, glitches, bad moves and confusion,” I wrote in Don’t Knock, He’s Dead. “Historic and groundbreaking yet torturously overwrought, the law certainly does some good, but adds yet another layer of preposterous bureaucracy and complexity and supposed ‘consumer choice,’ which really is massive consumer overload and confusion, onto a preexisting byzantine miscreation, and will become another cement-hardened convention impossible to undo.”

My campaign for Maryland state delegate in 2014 was largely based on advocating for accessible, affordable health care for all – universal health care, single-payer health care, Medicare for All – whatever you want to label it. My call was for a system that covered everyone, regardless of employment status or personal wealth, one that constituted a right rather than a privilege, and that reduced the corporate profit motive. It was for a more humane system that would put Maryland – and ideally, ultimately, the rest of the nation – in line with the rest of the democratic, industrialized nations that provide all their citizens basic health care at about half the cost or less per person than the U.S., and achieve better health outcomes on many common measures.

Numerous grassroots and health care organizations continue advocating for such a system, and several state legislatures have made attempts to establish one. But entrenched, opposing, big-money interests are strong – hence, Obamacare was the best we could get.

Wendell Potter, a health insurance public relations executive turned industry critic, nailed the dynamic in his insider tell-all book Deadly Spin, as I quoted in Don’t Knock, He’s Dead. “The health insurance industry is dominated by a cartel of large, for-profit corporations…[T]he top priority…is to ‘enhance shareholder value.’ When that’s your top priority, you are motivated more by the obligation to meet Wall Street’s relentless profit expectations than by the obligation to meet the medical needs of your policyholders.”

I still believe a single-payer system is the only real, equitable, sustainable solution to the ongoing health care mess. Perhaps a failed “replacement plan” full of tired old ideas like Medical Savings Accounts and insurance sold across state lines and free market competition that can be laid squarely at the feet of Republicans could stoke a revival of a single-payer revolution.

Of course, that will bring out the critics and naysayers who will charge that single-payer is an un-American, “socialist” system, an asinine argument. What is Medicare? What is Medicaid? What is Social Security? Socialistic! For that matter, what are our police forces and fire departments and public schools and state universities? Socialistic! We all contribute toward them because these systems and institutions are deemed to be beneficial to society collectively. American rugged individualism is a great concept. But in some aspects, like outstanding health care and the overall health of our citizenry, we are all in this together, and will be stronger as a nation for that.

So, as Schumer said, no lifeline. There could be regression and pain in the short-term, but maybe it could turn the tide for the long-term.

Is the Grass Greener?

I typically believe the grass is greener on the other side, just over the next hill. It may be self-delusional or wishful thinking, but it’s my nature, however torturous it can be, to believe there’s something better.

Such thinking can be the curse of people who are never satisfied with life and what they grassfield_greenerhave, always seeking, never arriving. Or it can be the motivation that leads to risk-taking, improvement and growth.

I have been seeking greener grass in my career through a marathon five-year journey, and now that I’m on the brink of making a transition from public relations to mental health counseling after what will be 22 graduate courses and two years of internships — and one collapsed full-time job along with its reliable income under all that weight — I am pretty confident that the fescue indeed will be brighter.

I also have been thinking that as I launch my new career in 2017 – which will include, ideally and ultimately, my own independent practice – that a new geographic location may offer greener pastures than the Baltimore-Washington megalopolis where I have been stationed for 28 years, business-, lifestyle-, scenery- and culture-wise.

My thinking is that the time to make a geographic change would coincide with my career transition, or at least relatively early in my new career, before becoming established in one place.

I also will be 54, far into midlife, by the time I graduate the counseling program. If I go somewhere else, I want to be young enough to become engaged in the fabric of the new community occupationally, socially, civically, recreationally and other ways, not just to live out retirement (which I don’t know if I will ever want to reach anyway).

I have already had people advise me against moving, telling me essentially that the grass is not greener, that the desire for something fresh and new is merely a cover for a compulsion to escape.

The idea of moving is complicated by several factors, primarily family concerns. Some factors I believe are manageable: I don’t have a big fear of change; the move wouldn’t necessarily be irreversible if it didn’t work out; I believe I could make new friends and keep old ones with some effort; I am confident I can earn a living and be successful starting a business, though research is needed.

But family, that is the hardest one to gauge. I’m a new empty-nester. Both of my kids are attending Maryland colleges. My daughter will graduate the same weekend I will in 2017. She may go to France to teach English; she may follow her boyfriend to an engineering job in Texas or beyond; or she may stay in Maryland. My son will have at least two years left. My extended family is small and scattered.

My wife’s family and her roots are in Maryland. She doesn’t want to leave. I understand. Many would argue that factor alone should kibosh the whole idea. And perhaps it will. Or perhaps there could be room for compromise and negotiation as events unfold and more is discovered.

There’s no doubt that the belief that the grass could be greener can complicate life and cause angst. But it’s also a belief that gives those prone to seeking an excitement about the unknown, about a new experience, about what could be around that next corner, over that next hill. Will it be emerald green, or drought-baked brown?

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes: The Midlife Transition

At midlife, I’m in transition…constantly.

Over the last year, in my early 50s, I’ve faced more challenging transitions than any other year of my life. It keeps me always somewhat on edge.

My life has been like a David Bowie song, minus the stutter:Changes_DavidBowie

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

Turn and face the strain…

As my kids reached the ages of 20 and 18 and I pursued a second career change, I have:

Left a full-time job in public relations after seven years, been unemployed and learned to live without a steady paycheck

Become a full-time graduate student

Scrambled to find part-time work, even trying out as a “coach” for a company that teaches soccer and educational skills to pre-school kids, something out of my element

Completed an internship in a new field, mental health counseling (therapy)

Adopted, to some degree, the minimalism approach to life

Switched from graduate school and the counseling internship to a six-day-per-week job as a tennis instructor for the late spring and summer months for a much-needed cash infusion

Moved from the D.C.-Baltimore suburbs to a Delaware beach town to work as a seasonal tennis instructor

Transitioned from married and family life to bachelorhood, living with two single roommates for my summer hiatus at the tennis resort

Adapted to an empty nest, with one child in college and another entering this fall

Acknowledged that my 20-year-old daughter really has become an independent adult, observing her navigate a semester abroad in France and travel around Europe

It’s been a lot of change for one year; most of it was of my own volition and some of it was thrust upon me. Overall, encountering transitions has been positive, though sometimes admittedly nerve-racking. It has kept me motivated, challenged and stimulated. One thing’s for sure: I have never been bored or complacent during this transitory period.

The transitions have required me to look within and summon my confidence and belief in myself, which has been something I’ve often struggled with. I’ve had to do this on a daily basis in both my counseling internship and tennis teaching job, working in environments that were completely unfamiliar and in positions where I’ve had to try to project confidence immediately with strangers.

The transitions will keep unfolding. I expect to graduate with the counseling degree in May 2017, and then embark on the new career for real, but in what capacity, I’m not sure. My son will move out for good to his campus dorm in August. I’m even thinking of moving from the area I’ve lived for the past 28 years to a smaller locale in the South, as I transition to the new career and seek a warmer, slower-paced, more gracious lifestyle more befitting of the minimalist philosophy.

Transitions have been healthy for me. At a time of midlife when many may be stagnating and biding time until a retirement of unknown purpose and activity, I feel optimistic and excited about my future and the opportunities and meaning transitions will bring.

For anyone contemplating a meaningful transition in midlife, I recommend taking the risk, or you may regret missing your window down the road.

Living on the Cheap

Since I left my full-time, public relations job last October to focus on my unpaid counseling internship and a full-time course load as a master’s degree candidate in pastoral counseling, I’ve adapted to living on the cheap.

I can’t say I’m living a deprived life or even struggling. I have everything I need and much more. I can’t say I have any idea what it’s like to live day-to-day, hand-to-mouth, wondering where the next meal will come from or worrying about losing my shelter. Comparatively, I’m well-off, not one of the “1 percenters” but probably closer to that than the bottom 75 percent.

But I am more aware of, and closely monitoring, my discretionary spending, much morePennies_cheap than when I knew my bank account would be replenished with an equal amount every two weeks. I am subscribing to minimalism, at least to some extent, as described in the book, Everything That Remains by The Minimalists.

Still, just as I’m transitioning careers in midlife, I’ve hit a time of financial stress and challenges. In addition to my own graduate school tuition, I’ll have two children in college in the fall. Three simultaneous higher educations will blast a cannonball-sized hole in any family budget. I am not so many years away from typical retirement age – though with my new career, I plan to work as long as I want and don’t ever envision really retiring. And if the theory holds true that you will need $1 million in retirement to last, I have a long way to go. And I have an aging parent who could need financial help in the future.

Despite my income needs, I reached a point where I knew I couldn’t adeptly handle a full-time job, a part-time internship and graduate school classes, and perform any of them well and with full focus, without suffering from stress, exhaustion and dissatisfaction. Trying to handle them all might have doomed completion of the counseling master’s degree after a four-year investment.

Luckily, I have a wife with stable employment (though with a company known for frequent layoffs and restructurings) that has provided a financial anchor while I scramble to produce more erratic income from various sources.

That’s what brought me to the Sea Colony Tennis resort in Bethany Beach, DE to work as a seasonal tennis instructor for the summer. Though it required me to be away from home, it provided the greatest earning potential for the short period between internships and semesters.

I found the cheapest place I could rent, no easy feat along the shore, and am living with two roommates. One roommate is another tennis instructor who is living similarly frugally. He turned me on to the Dollar Store, where we’ve bought a lot of our food, toiletries, medications and household items at half the cost of the grocery store. We found the Atlantic Community Thrift Store, where I got a cool Old Navy bathing suit for $2 and he found a Pinehurst Golf jacket for pennies on the dollar and a desk chair for $3. My roommate has found a way to play several holes of golf for free by walking onto a course near our house after regular hours.

I’ve been here for 15 days, and have gone out for a meal only once, my first night. It’s tempting, with all the restaurants, seafood and pizza joints and junk food establishments at the beach, but I’ve held off so far. I question each expense to determine if it’s necessary, while still allowing certain indulgences like Dollar Store sale-priced Doritos and ice cream bars.

The tennis teaching season has started relatively slow, while school is still in session and most tennis-player vacations are planned for July and August. That’s when I’ll make my money and the investment to live away from home pay off. I’m conscious that going out for a beer and appetizer plus tip can wipe out the earnings of a one-hour tennis clinic, and what would be the point of that?

My one other indulgence was the clunky, antique, heavy-as-hell cash register I bought on a whim on my way to move to the beach at a roadside antique and junk shop. Even then, I bargained the proprietor down from $50 to $20. I have no idea its worth and it needs some refurbishing, but it looks retro-stylish. I think the guy just wanted to get rid of it, an indication it’s not worth much in its worn condition.

Living cheaply means living more simply. I like it. As long as I have enough income to meet my needs and preferably a few wants, I’m happy. It’s less stressful than trying to make more money so I can live bigger, have more and maintain more. Living cheaply, I can focus on the things that matter – relationships, pursuing fulfilling work, helping others and doing things I enjoy with my time, which will be more possible when my income needs are less.

Living on the cheap was brought about for me largely by necessity. But it is a lifestyle choice that I embrace.

The Rewarding Work of Helping People Change Their Lives

Until you work in a mental health setting, you never realize the prevalence of depression, anxiety, mood and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders, trauma, substance abuse, paranoia, anger issues, family dysfunction and other mental health problems in our society.

In the midst of a career transition from public relations to counseling, I just completed the first year of my internship at an outpatient mental health clinic that served Medicaid recipients for my counseling degree program. I counseled people with all those issues. All took medications as part of their treatment. Therapy was the other half of their recovery and managing their symptoms.

Gaining better awareness of ourselves and understanding our current behaviors and how the past may have affected them can be a lifelong and complex process. At the risk of oversimplification, recovery and a more healthy and satisfying life for people suffering from mental health issues (excluding those without severe mental illness or psychosis) comes down to several key factors:

  • Desire and readiness to change

  • Commitment to take actions

  • Ability to implement new ideas or behaviors

  • Willingness to accept reality

  • Fortitude to replace negative or destructive thoughts with more positive ones

I found clients were able to change their thinking and behaviors, and as a result, their feelings and emotions, to varying degrees and on different timetables. One client reported she had consciously changed a negative pattern of thinking to a more positive one within a few weeks, and as a result had significantly reduced stress and anxiety and slept better. Her entire presentation changed from forlorn and dragging to bright and eager. That told me clients had the ability to make rapid and meaningful changes. When you observe someone change like that, it’s a beautiful thing.

Others struggled with the same issues of anxiety, anger or dependency for months with small improvements and back slides. They had walls that were harder to penetrate, built over lifetimes of learned behaviors, ingrained messages and adaptations to survive circumstances.

Overall, the internship provided a fascinating window into the human experience and human behavior through my adult and child clients and their families. It was a privilege to get to know them, and difficult to tell them I had to leave when my internship ended.

The internship also taught me how little I know about mental health disorders and strategies to help people who suffer from them. There’s so much to learn about the science and art of mental health and therapy. And about how to be comfortable just being with people, showing authentic caring, developing a connection and earning their trust. But I’m learning, and excited about expanding my knowledge, getting better at being helpful and more courageous about challenging people to dive deeper below the surface to confront the roots of their problems. All signs indicate it will be a rewarding new career. I’m glad I took that gamble.

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