midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the category “meaning”

Choose It or Lose It

…[E]verything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision…

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

…[F]or all practical purposes, we choose everything we do, including the misery we feel. Other people can neither make us miserable nor make us happy…[W]e choose all our actions and thoughts and, indirectly, almost all our feelings and much of our physiology. As bad as you may feel, much of what goes on in your body when you are in pain or sick is the indirect result of the actions and thoughts you choose or have chosen every day of your life…[W]e are much more in control of our lives than we realize. Unfortunately, much of that control is not effective…Taking more effective control means making better choices…

William Glasser, MD, A New Psychology of Personal Freedom

In the 1990s, I attended the Landmark Forum, a three-day workshop designed to bring about transformative changes in the quality of one’s life through an examination of, and shifts in one’s beliefs, thoughts, behaviors, patterns, commitments and actions.

A Forum anecdote that I remember 20 years later is “Flat tire. Choose.” The premise is simple: Your car gets a flat tire on an inconvenient stretch of road. The choices are more complicated: bash the steering wheel; kick the tire; Frisbee the hubcap; bang the hood; yell and scream; drop some F-bombs; curse the gods and your perpetual bad luck; cry; sit on the side of the road in misery or bewilderment. Or, choose to accept reality and make decisions to address the problem. It’s your choice: Choose…

I have no choice. How many times have you heard that grievance? Is it ever really true?

We all have choices, all the time. Even when it seems like we don’t have any. Even when it seems we have no good choices, when choices are constrained, we still have choices,Choices_Sartre the free will to choose. We can choose our attitude, our perspective, our response, our outlook, our meaning. We can choose not to choose, and still make a choice.

We can even choose our feelings, contends the founder of reality therapy and choice theory, William Glasser, MD, who would say that an individual is “depressing,” or “saddening,” indicating that they are consciously choosing their mood state and have the power to make a different choice.

According to Glasser’s choice theory, all human behavior is intentional, not aimless, and choices are based on “here-and-now” motivations. Choices are made to generate feedback from the outer world and satisfy what Glasser defined as the five basic human needs: survival, love/belonging, power, freedom/independence and fun. Choices also are made to send a message to the outer world, and to specific individuals with whom one has a relationship; for example, that one is confident or  self-doubting, happy or angry, trusting or distrustful, constructive or self-destructive, hungry for success or resigned to failure.

Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, a World War II Holocaust survivor who spent years in a Nazi concentration camp, described the realization that he had choices – his belief in his own self-dignity, and what he could think, envision and hope, for example — despite the brutal and horrific conditions he endured as a captive as a main reason for his survival. Recognizing the freedom to choose was a prime factor that separated those who maintained a sense of meaning in their lives and hope for the future, and those who became deadened to life, devoid of faith and more likely to succumb to death, Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning.

I have observed as a mental health counselor that the execution of choice in people’s lives – the willingness to use it proactively and the effectiveness with which it is used – is perhaps the greatest determiner of an individual’s mental and emotional health, the condition of their relationships and their ability to create meaning and purpose in their lives.

Husbands and wives decline to choose to change behaviors or actions that affect their relationships, or to choose to change their relationship status though they confess to being dissatisfied and unhappy. They are making choices nonetheless, and in so doing, locking patterns in place and cementing bonds that contribute to distress. I’ve seen other couples willing to examine behaviors, accept individual responsibility and choose to make changes, who report an increase in satisfaction and happiness almost immediately.

I have heard individuals describe that they choose not to pursue things they want by creating reasons why their desires may not be practical or possible; choose not to make certain changes because they believe they’re just trapped in circumstances; choose to continue ineffective or destructive beliefs, behaviors and actions, despite evidence of poor results, simply because they’ve always chosen that path; choose to deny reality; choose to be taken advantage of or victimized; choose to rationalize addictions; and choose to blame others for how they feel and what they do.

I have also witnessed individuals, even as young as middle schoolers, choose to battle heroically against the hand they were dealt in life, including horrendous abuse, to reclaim their true selves and create their own futures; choose to make meaning out of devastating circumstances, including incurable illness; and choose to take full responsibility for the direction of their lives and their own happiness.

During the upheaval of midlife, I’ve considered and made many choices that have had major consequences in my life – whether and how to commit to furthering my education; pursue a career change; empower my kids; fight back against an unfair employer; rebound from divorce; enter new romantic relationships; re-evaluate and restructure current relationships; live on less; relocate to a new area;  start over; and deal with loneliness among them.

Many of the choices have been stressful and excruciatingly difficult; however, I appreciate my ability and freedom to make choices. Usually I have chosen to do something instead of nothing, chosen to take an action rather than punt. I also have had opportunities to choose my feelings, which can range broadly along a spectrum: optimism vs. pessimism; hopefulness vs. sadness; confidence vs. fearfulness; contentedness vs. dissatisfaction; trust vs. doubt; vitality vs. loneliness. Those choices affect my emotions and happiness with my life every day, and thus my effectiveness, productivity and image I present to the world.

Choice is a muscle; without effective and contemplative use, it atrophies, becoming a mechanism to promote misery rather than a tool to amplify freedom. Choose it or lose it: The choice is yours, always and forever.

Speaking of choice, here’s a quote about choice from a favorite movie, The Family Man, in which Jack continually faces choices involving love vs. detachment; family vs. career; personal ego gratification vs. egoless contribution; hedonism vs. temperance; taking vs. giving:

Kate: When you got on that plane, I was sure it was over. I left the airport afraid I’d never see you again. And then you showed up the very next day. That was a good surprise. You know, I think about the decision you made… maybe I was being naive, but I believed that we would grow old together in this house. That we’d spend holidays here and have our grandchildren come visit us here. I had this image of us, all grey and wrinkly, and me working in the garden and you re-painting the deck. But things change. If you need this, Jack, if you really need this, I will take these kids from a life they love and I’ll take myself from the only home we’ve ever shared together and I’ll move wherever you need to go. I’ll do that because I love you. I love you, and that’s more important to me than our address. I choose us.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n0ZGibTDo9A

 

 

 

 

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Minimalism: More Freedom, Less Crap – Material and Otherwise

Minimalism is a tool that can assist you in finding freedom. Freedom from fear. Freedom from worry. Freedom from overwhelm. Freedom from guilt. Freedom from depression. Freedom from the trappings of the consumer culture we’ve built our lives around… Minimalists search for happiness not through things, but through life itself.

— The Minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus

In a medical office waiting room, I stumbled across a reference to a book that piqued my interest, Everything That Remains, a memoir by two Dayton, Ohio young men with working class upbringings and early adulthood, ladder-climbing, wealth-accumulating ambitions, about their gravitation from the timeworn path toward an illusory standard of The American Dream to something more introspective and streamlined called Minimalism.

I found it at the library and read it. You might think the rest of this essay will be a screed about the evils and vacuousness of materialism and consumerism, and the beauty and simplicity of deprivation and Idealism, and a door-to-door-Bible-salesman-like proselytization aimed at convincing you to chuck the former’s wanderings through a vast commercial wasteland in favor of a holier life spent in the latter’s pure Garden of Eden. Breathe a sigh of relief; it won’t be.

The book did put a name to the broad ideas about how I’d prefer to live, though. And I believe I’m largely putting those ideas into practice.

When people hear the term “Minimalism” applied to a lifestyle, it does seem to conjure the image of someone just barely better off than Fed Ex plane crash survivor Tom Hanks’ character stranded on an uninhabited island in Castaway, fashioning shoes from palm fronds, feverishly twirling a stick on a rock to start a fire, and squeezing meager marine nourishment out of a shellfish speared with a homespun, sharpened bamboo pole. They think Minimalism means living a Spartan, monk-like, stripped-down existence: doing without, possessing no things, having no fun, staring at four bare walls from a lonely chair, living in a quixotic commune, scraping by on the minimum, spending no money – hell, making no money! It doesn’t.

What Minimalism means to me, as The Minimalists describe it, is eliminating the clutterFightClub_2 from my life – figuratively and literally – so that all I have left and all that I focus my attention and physical, mental and emotional energy upon are things that add value and meaning to my life. The Minimalists love the book/movie Fight Club, about an underground, subversive group of men breaking free from the soul-numbing shackles imposed by societal, cultural and corporate expectations, citing this quote from Fight Club’s charismatic leader Tyler Durden: “The things you own end up owning you.”

Eliminating oppressive, useless clutter that bogs you down applies to relationships, careers, meaningless pursuits and time-consuming obligations – real or imagined – as well as physical objects. That’s the freedom to which The Minimalists refer.

Minimalism is about breaking free from corporate and cultural influences that tell you who you should be, how you should act, what you should believe and how you should define success. It’s about the freedom to define your own path toward happiness and fulfillment, regardless of the disapproval and negativity you may receive from friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances. It’s about the freedom to take risks, the freedom to make choices, the freedom to make mistakes and fail, and the freedom to take full responsibility for all of that in service of living a more courageous, authentic, satisfying and inspiring life.

It so happens that my recent movement toward Minimalism – a transition to a new career in mental health counseling from public relations, a move to a smaller area with a simpler lifestyle – has coincided with a more Spartan lifestyle, more out of necessity than by design. I have moved from a 3-bedroom, 4-bathroom townhouse to a 1-bed, 1-bath apartment. I am earning a salary that is less than half of my last full-time job salary, the result of the career change and starting on a bottom rung in a region with lower wages. I am not “livin’ large” – I’m driving a 15-year-old economy car; watching the smallest-possible, decade-old flat-screen TV, donated to me by a friend, on a no-frills cable TV package; and sleeping on a real bed only after weeks on a constantly-deflating air mattress, because I had no bed to take on my move – but I’m livin’ free and livin’ well.

I have no debt, save for my mortgage, the house I moved from but still own, and which still adds value to my life. I feel a greater sense of meaning and purpose in my new career than my former, so much so that retirement holds no allure for me at age 54, which I consider a good thing. I am pursuing activities and relationships that enhance my life.

I am a proponent of Minimalism, not because I want to latch on to the latest fad or lifestyle trend that may be featured on the Today show or in chic lifestyle magazines, but because my  re-evaluation of the course of my life during the reflective midlife phase was pointing me in the direction of Minimalism before I realized the philosophy had been assigned a pithy label. I am striving to be a Minimalist – not impoverished, deprived, lonely, isolated, rigid, overly austere, Utopian, cultist, weird, eccentric, anti-social, anti-consumerist, or anti-technologist (think Unabomber) – but free to embrace and fully pursue the things I value.

This quote from Minimalism’s emblematic movie, Fight Club, captures the undercurrent stimulating the Ohio natives’ cum Montana entrepreneurs’ lifestyle movement:

Man, I see in Fight Club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. Goddammit, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables—slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man: No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war; our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.

Striving for ‘A Big Agenda’ Instead of ‘A Small Life’

In 2014, just after turning 50, I pursued a dream – for the second time – of running for political office, this time for Maryland state delegate. In 2016, I published a nonfiction book recounting the rollicking, 10-candidate free-for-all campaign that some observers called a “circus,” and taking a look at the dog-eat-dog, mucky, incestuous, narcissistic business of politics from the trenches. Don’t Knock, He’s Dead: a Longshot Candidate Gets Schooled in the Unseemly Underbelly of American Campaign Politics, would “amuse FrontCover_FINAL_6283732some and infuriate others,” wrote a local political blogger and campaign strategy consultant who reviewed the book.

Here is the story of how I came to enter this exhilarating yet disillusioning political world, and an excerpt from Don’t Knock, He’s Dead describing my final push over the precipice of reservation and into the tangle of the state race.

A Midlife Wham-Bam Combo: Job Loss and Divorce

I was 42 years old, and midlife was slamming me hard, hurricane-force winds compelling me to grip a light pole tight lest my legs blow out from under me and hurtle me adrift. For the second time within two years, I had been laid off from a public relations job with a nonprofit organization because of budget cuts amid a post-9/11 World Trade Center terrorist attack economic slump.

Following the second layoff, I entered the Baltimore City Teacher Residency program, seeking a new challenge to do something more meaningful at midlife, an opportunity to make lemonade with the lemons I was accumulating. I taught elementary school in low-income communities. I struggled to survive the torrent of urban education: The needs were great; the resources and support meager; the kids lagging woefully behind and a handful to manage. I met with the principal, who emphasized if I didn’t commit to the task with every ounce of energy, I would drown. I contemplated for a night, and accepted reality: Mentally and emotionally, I was half in, half out. The next day, I submitted my resignation, jumping ship from my fledgling teaching career with no life preserver.

Only four months earlier, I had separated from my wife, headed for divorce, with two young kids. I was both free and free-falling.

When I quit my teaching job, it was just short of a year before the next election, and the dormant thought of running for political office surfaced. It was one of those bucket-list things, something I didn’t want to go six-feet-under without having attempted.

As a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, I covered a largely rural county’s political delegation to Maryland’s state legislature. It was my first glimpse of citizen legislators up close. The part-time lawmakers were provincial men, long-established and well-respected in their tight-knit, small-town communities—a tire shop owner, a gentleman dairy farmer and banker, a pharmacist, a Realtor, a stock broker. Covering them alerted me it was possible for regular folk to ascend to political office and become bedrock representatives. I wondered if I could do what they did. Anyway, it was a moot point as a journalist; the two endeavors couldn’t be intermixed.

It wasn’t until I transitioned into public relations eight years later that the light bulb came on. As community affairs director for a social services agency, I organized political forums for state candidates. Observing the forums, I thought that I could perform as well as many of the inexperienced, run-of-the-mill candidates. The seeds were planted; they didn’t germinate for another few years, until I was left blowing in the wind, unemployed and on the path to divorce.

Maybe I would have time to campaign while I looked for a job, I thought after bailing out of the Baltimore City classroom without a parachute. I didn’t know if it was a life raft to cling to or a bold dream to fulfill, or both. Meanwhile, I obtained a communications position at a health insurance giant—far from a dream job, but a consistent paycheck. Instead of waning, however, the idea of running for council fortified, even with that new lifeline.

I knew the Democratic county council member from my suburban Baltimore district had fallen out of favor. I gathered my courage and filed as a candidate to challenge him. Soon after, the incumbent announced he was resigning before completing his term – a sign from God? I thought. Maybe the idea wasn’t so quixotic after all. A county Democratic Committee would interview applicants and make an appointment to complete the term.

It was almost a great break—except that the one other officially registered candidate had run and lost against the departing councilman in the previous election and since had become a connected political insider. The insider with a track record was selected.

One and Done?

In that 2006 Democratic county council primary, I ran a bare-bones campaign against the newly appointed councilman with party backing. I lost, garnering 34 percent of the vote—respectable for a late-arriving political no-name who couldn’t check the prerequisite boxes as stepping stones. I had not “paid my dues” or built my political network.

I received compliments during the campaign from insiders about my potential and encouragement to stay involved and build upon my effort. I didn’t. Life intervened: an aggravating divorce, a new girlfriend, young kids, aging parents, a stressful job. I figured the newly elected council member would become entrenched, and he did, ultimately serving the maximum three terms. The desire didn’t burn intensely enough, and I faded from the political scene.

I was satisfied to have given electoral politics one shot in midlife, so I wouldn’t spend the rest of my life wondering whether I had the courage to run and what it would be like to put myself into the court of public opinion, to expose myself for all to judge and render a verdict. I had closed that chapter and had no plans to return. I’d sworn it off, closed the door—but left it unlocked. I was occasionally reminded by friends about my run and was asked if I was going to run again, as if I really was a dyed-in-the-wool politician. My answer was no…followed by the caveat that allowed for a sliver of possibility: But I never say never.

Seven years later, the perfect storm conspired to compel me to open the door again, when all three Maryland state delegates representing my district announced they were retiring from office, an unprecedented exodus leaving a gaping hole in a business where participants typically solidify their vise grip on power like the Jaws of Life tearing the roof off a car.

A Dream II Takes Shape (Excerpt from Don’t Knock, He’s Dead: a Longshot Candidate Gets Schooled in the Unseemly Underbelly of American Campaign Politics)

The momentum toward registering as an official candidate was growing in my own mind, yet I still hadn’t talked to anybody about my intentions…I knew the time had come for a Come-to-Jesus moment with my wife Amy.

“I’m thinking of running for state delegate,” I blurted over dinner, and braced for a catapult of mashed potatoes.

 “What? Are you serious? Where did that come from? When did you decide that?”

 “I’m just thinking about it, checking it out. I haven’t decided.”

 “When were you going to tell me?”

 “Tonight. I just did.”

 “I’ve supported you in a lot of things before, when you quit your teaching job and when you ran for council and when you went back to school. I don’t know if I can support this.”

My proposition had landed like a Biggest Loser contestant’s balance beam dismount.

“How will you have the time?” Amy asked. “You complain about not having enough time to do things you want to do now.”

“I’ll just use whatever time I have. Maybe it won’t be enough time, just some time.”

She had a good point, but I didn’t care about such logic or practicality. The idea had taken root, and it had grown hardy, and I couldn’t prevent its development. Like a cocaine addict, I knew I was too far gone to stop.

My council run in 2006 was an easier sell. Since our relationship was new, I had decided I was going to run for county council no matter Amy’s opinion, and Amy would have to adapt—or leave if she really didn’t like it. It was an early test of our relationship, whether we could support each other’s goals. Seven years later, it was harder to take such an uncompromising position since we were married. I didn’t feel I could be as cavalier—and maybe self-centered—anymore. There’s no ‘I’ in ‘Team’ mister, Amy would rib me cornily when I was all about me, which was often.

Still, I countered Amy’s reflexive dismay at the idea by expressing concern about being controlled and giving up dreams for my life. Amy and I were fundamentally different. She valued safety, security and predictability. I felt restless and stifled without risk, ambition, challenging goals and freedom.

 I Want The Real Life

At 50 years old, I wanted the freedom to live life my way, like Sinatra crooned, the freedom to make my own choices and to live with the consequences of success or failure. A midlife crisis? No. I didn’t give a crap about a red Porsche or Botox injections. But I did feel the clock ticking on the time I had to do meaningful things with my life. What was I going to wait around for? A heart attack? Dementia? Retirement? I don’t even play golf. I had the nagging sense, as John Cougar Mellencamp sang in The Real Life, that opportunities to grab the “gold ring”—hell, even bronze—would be continually dwindling:

My whole life
I’ve done what I’m supposed to do
Now I’d like to maybe do something for myself…

I guess it boils down to what we did with our lives
And how we deal with our own destinies
But something happens
When you reach a certain age
Particularly to those ones that are young at heart
It’s a lonely proposition when you realize
That’s there’s less days in front of the horse
Than riding in the back of this cart

YOLO

As I pondered launching a campaign, my sense of urgency about life heightened. A month after my 50th birthday at my daughter Rebecca’s high school graduation, the student commencement speakers referenced the new buzzword “YOLO” —You Only Live Once. They were right, of course, but what can a teenager realistically know about YOLO? It’s not until we’ve had dreams dashed, experienced bad luck and bad timing, suffered life’s tragedies, disappointments, cruelties and failures, come to terms with our own limitations, and battled against becoming stultified or buried in mediocrity and tedium that some of us truly embrace the YOLO creed. Much more than failure, I feared regret. I subscribed wholeheartedly to the saying that you will not regret the things you did; you will regret the things you didn’t do…

Courage

Some people told me about the courage it takes to run for public office. It might take a certain kind of courage to expose oneself to public scrutiny and judgement, step into the spotlight and put reputation and ego on the line. But I never thought of running for public office as something that requires real courage. To me, real courage defines people who put their lives on the line, military members who defend our country and liberate other people, or police officers, firefighters and other rescuers. Or teachers who face the toughest challenges in the roughest school districts. Or people who take a stand despite risks and public condemnation, whistleblowers and civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela and Harvey Milk. Or people who are unflappable and unstoppable in the face of abuse, tragedy, disease or disability.

A Hat over the Wall

112 - CopyFor me, entering a political race was more like throwing a hat over the wall. “Throwing a hat over the wall” was the metaphor used by President John Kennedy, referring to America’s determination to explore space and land a man on the moon. Kennedy appropriated the expression from Irish author Frank O’Connor, who wrote a parable about two adventurous boys who were halted in their journey by an imposing stone wall—until one threw his hat over the top, inspiring them both to scale the barrier to retrieve it. For me, it was crossing the line from consideration to commitment—throwing my hat over the wall…

I drove to a nondescript, red-brick State Board of Elections office in Annapolis, threw my hat through the third-floor window and, for a $50 fee, filed my official registration papers as a candidate…

A Big Agenda

I had told my 17-year-old daughter Rebecca, who had just started college, about my plans the day before registering. She was supportive. The same day I talked to my 15-year-old son and budding computer scientist Daniel about being my “Chief Technology Officer” —a cool title that wasn’t to be found on the state registration forms. Daniel already knew about my potential candidacy; he had helped me shoot a video promoting a single-payer health care system.

I knew I couldn’t rely on either of my teen-agers to be big-time volunteers, with one in college and each with big academic loads and teen social lives. More importantly, I hoped I could serve as a model for striving for something meaningful, accepting a challenge, and being bold in life—maybe even a little courageous. They had seen me run for county council as 10- and 8-year-olds and had enthusiastically passed out literature to voters on primary election day. Now they had more maturity and wisdom to understand what being a political candidate meant and what it entailed. Still, they were baffled by why I would want to do such a thing, viewing it as another one of dad’s quirky “adventures,” like when I pulled them on a sled through two feet of snow and over snow banks a mile-and-a-half to Blockbuster, or when I suggested going to a remote, mountainous West Texas national park for Christmas. Regardless their involvement and the outcome, I wanted them to know and remember that I had a dream and wasn’t afraid to pursue it, that I strived for a Big Agenda instead of settling for a Small Life even though success was a longshot.

 

 

Randomness (Finding My Religion)

As a new resident of South Carolina’s Charleston region, I am trying to find “community” and connect with people. That gave me the impetus to dial up religion.

I found an historic Reform Jewish congregation in Charleston to meet fellow Jews. As a by-product, perhaps I would also rediscover my religion.

So during Hanukkah, I went to my newly selected synagogue and attended the post-services social event. It was a challenge to meet people, as almost all congregants were KahalKadoshSynagogueengaged with family and friends. I loaded up on desserts and stuffed myself first – even if I didn’t meet anyone with whom to connect, I’d at least leave satiated, I figured. I roamed the room without finding an unattached person. Then I positioned next to an official-looking woman with a name tag hoping to squeeze in an introduction, but she never broke from her conversation.

Finally, as the crowd began to dwindle, I randomly approached a table of four who were lingering, retirees older than me, sat down uninvited and introduced myself. I got lucky. Two of the congregants lived in Summerville, where I live, about 25 miles from the downtown Charleston congregation and likely where few other congregants live. And one of those whom I met made it her mission to welcome me to the area and serve as my de-facto tour guide and social planner. She refers to herself as a Southern Jew, having grown up in Augusta, GA.

The next day, she invited me to join her at the Summerville Farmer’s Market, and for a tour of the historic downtown Summerville and the local history museum. Along the way, she introduced me to every market merchant, business owner and museum volunteer she knew.

She linked me to the loosely affiliated Jewish community in Summerville that she helps to organize and connected me with a Jewish teacher who I will soon meet. The next weekend, she invited me to join a weekly liberal political gathering at a coffee house/roastery and musical performances at a couple of funky breweries.

And she is rescuing me from a lonely Christmas by inviting me to join other local Jews, Buddhists and agnostics for the traditional Chinese restaurant Christmas Day meal.

I’m not so much of a lapsed Jew as an ambivalent Jew, at least when it comes to practicing my religion as an integral component of my life. I identify with my Jewish heritage, ancestry and culture; I haven’t with ritual, dogma, tradition and weekly devotion. I’ve interspersed my occasional efforts at integration with Jewishness with other attempts at a more faith-based life with other denominations, seeking connections, a sense of community and a deepened spirituality more than any particular religiousity.

I’ve done stints at a Unitarian congregation, which made sense during my interfaith marriage, and a progressive-minded non-denominational Christian congregation, largely because of its Men’s Fraternity, upbeat atmosphere and focus on modern-day relevance.  But each time I drifted away, from the Jewish congregation because I felt strangely detached as a “non-observant Jew,” from the Unitarian group when having young children diverted attention, and from the Christian church because I couldn’t overcome my discomfort with its emphasis on Jesus.

I’ve circled back for another as yet fledgling venture at Judaism, my natural place in the religious world. Ironically, perhaps coming to the Deep South, where Jewish congregations are scarce compared to my previous home in the Northeast, will help me find my religion and faith community.

If that does happen, my random encounter with my new Southern Jewish friend likely will be a big reason. Even if I don’t, she already has made me feel more welcome in my new community and continues to make suggestions for connections based on my interests (and even non-interests, including Carolina Shag dance classes).

Some believe nothing is random; others that everything is random. Each has merit. If nothing is random, everything has meaning. And if everything is random, it stands to reason that meaning is inherent in randomness, unless one believes that the only meaning is that there is no meaning.

Damn those philosophical brain-twisters that cause cerebral logic-center headaches! All I know is that I’ll take random good fortune any time it comes my way, and my random meeting was one of those times.

Good Money

When I would tell people I got a new job to start a new career in another state and would be moving, one of the first questions they’d inevitably ask was, “How much will you be making?” Or, so as to be less crass, “Will you be making good money?”PileOfMoney

In our competitive, capitalist, consumerist society, it is only natural that money is the first thing that comes to mind when someone accepts a new position. To be sure, why would anyone choose to move more than 500 miles and three states away for a job if not to make good money?

I had three answers for that question, and all had validity:

  1. Yes, of course I would be making good money, because there’s no such thing as bad money.
  2. No, I wouldn’t be making good money, compared to the much better money I had made in previous jobs.
  3. None of your friggin’ business what kind of money!

The answer is not simple. My job as a therapist under a two-year provisional license pays considerably less than my previous positions in public relations. I am at the entry level in the mental health field, where salaries and pay, though variable depending upon many factors, are relatively low compared to many other professions.

However, my job pays considerably more annually than the series of Gig Economy counseling internships and part-time and temporary jobs I had pieced together for the final two years of my counseling master’s degree program after leaving my full-time job. So viewed from that perspective, my new job does pay good money, and I’m grateful for that.

In midlife, we evaluate what we’ve already done and what we’d like to do with our remaining years, which no longer seem infinite. Priorities change, as we shift from the achievement-oriented, ladder-climbing, self-focused goals of younger adulthood to an increased desire to make a contribution to others, pursue meaningful activities and leave a legacy. My change to a career in counseling reflects the internal re-evaluations of the midlife transitional period.

When you realign priorities and make a significant change, there will be sacrifices. For me, one of those was money – good money. I knew that consequence of my decision from the start, when I embarked on the graduate program nearly six years before actually entering the counseling field. But I ignored that inescapable fact at the time.

Now that my new level of pay is a reality, I’m adjusting my life and budget to match. I may not yet qualify as a full-fledged Minimalist, but I’ve moved closer to that end of the scale in my spending, decision-making and thinking.

I don’t want to minimize the importance of making money – good money – or pretend I don’t care. It certainly helps in many ways and I always endeavored to make good money – at least the best I could in any given circumstance. I’d certainly rather be well-off and feel secure than poor and living anxiously paycheck to paycheck. Wouldn’t everyone? Fortunately, I have some financial cushion, enough to allow me to overcome the financial anxieties of making a career change, but far below some golden threshold to claim money doesn’t really matter.

But making ever more good money – however one defines it — isn’t the end-all be-all path to an ever more glorious Shangri-La, as a 2010 Princeton University study concluded. The Princeton researchers found that no matter how much more than $75,000 per year that a person earned, their “degree of happiness,” or emotional well-being did not increase. It also found that, though earning less than $75,000 in and of itself did not cause people to feel more unhappy, it did magnify and intensify negative feelings from life problems they had.

Beyond the practical realities of how I spend and the reduced margin of discretionary money available to save or burn compared to my previous work life, I’ve had to make a humbling mental adjustment: Here I am, in my 50s, peak earning years, with two graduate degrees, making less than half of what I made at my last full-time job, and less than or equivalent to many workers with much less education or years of experience than I have. Yet, I would still contend I am making good money, not bad money.

I gain fulfillment and a sense of purpose and contribution from counseling people and helping them improve their lives. Work is stimulating, rewarding and challenging, which I couldn’t always claim before. I look forward to my future in this new profession, and its many opportunities for learning, growth and entrepreneurship.

For those reasons, I know I can take this to the bank: I am making good money, with the promise of better money to come. When you truly enjoy what you are doing for a living and apply yourself with a passion because of that, the money naturally tends to follow. Good money.

Man in the Mirror: ‘Compare In, Not Out’

In the substance abuse therapy group I co-led as an intern, the group leader would tell members to “compare in, not out” when he detected a member analyzing whose addiction was worse than another’s, assessing who among members engaged in more risky or reckless behaviors or seeking salacious details about others’ misfortunes and misadventures.

The leader’s message to the addicts was as clear as the typical pre-school teacher’s emphasizing individual responsibility and self-control to easily distracted and influenced children focused on others: “Worry about yourself.”

It’s a simple message, but one that takes discipline and introspection to implement, whether for the purpose of changing addictive behaviors or many other goals or pursuits in life in which the temptation is to compare ourselves to the status, abilities, fortune and accomplishments of others. The era of social media has compounded the phenomenon of “comparing out” through the instantaneous access we have into the windows of others’ lives – their new jobs, kids’ achievements, lively social gatherings, adventurous vacations and other things of which to be envious.

We would be more satisfied with our lives if we would “compare in, not out.” To me, “comparing in” means evaluating myself according to my assessment of my own Man in Mirror 2potential, my ability to strive for and attain goals I believe are worth pursuing, being happy with what I have at any given time rather than desiring what I don’t, and living life in a way that makes me feel positive about my actions, conduct and treatment of others, even though it will be far from perfect.

Still, living life without “comparing out” is a challenge for me, as I imagine it is for nearly everyone who hasn’t mastered some form of meditation or inner peace.

Right now, I am struggling against “comparing out” as I begin my second summer as a seasonal tennis instructor at a large beach resort tennis club, a “gig economy” interlude as I make a career transition to counseling.

Among the instructors, several of whom are year-round employees, it is apparent that I am ranked lower in the pecking order, understandably and justifiably as a seasonal staff member, similar to last summer. I know what I have to do to be successful is to conduct each clinic and private lesson to the best of my ability, stay upbeat and high-energy, engage clients in a friendly, interested and courteous manner, and work cooperatively with the staff as part of a team. But I still find it hard to resist comparing the assignments and the number of on-court teaching hours I get – which determines income — to others. Such “comparing out,” and the ruminations it causes, only makes me feel worse; on the other hand, “comparing in” when I give my all for a lesson or clinic, or assist a fellow instructor when needed, makes me feel positive.

My career transition from public relations to counseling is another area where I have to fight the lure of “comparing out” and instead “compare in,” basing my assessment on what I deem is fulfilling and achieves a sense of purpose. Though there is potential for income growth with the establishment of an independent counseling practice in the future, my first job in the profession likely will pay about half of what I was making in the public relations position I left. Eyeing the reality of my pending job search, it is challenging to avoid “comparing out” to other professionals in my age group who may be at the height of their earning potential and aren’t worried about scraping by. That’s when it’s important to “compare in” and realize I chose this path for a reason and I am fully responsible for my decision and the outcome.

“Comparing in” is difficult because it puts the onus squarely on us for our own successes and failures, our current condition in life, our decisions and behaviors, and, perhaps most importantly, the way we feel about ourselves and our own satisfaction and happiness. When we compare ourselves only to our own standards, goals, morals, ethics and beliefs, we strip away self-delusions and rationalizations and are forced to see only the “Man in the Mirror,” our only true compass.

‘Play the Whole Tape:’ The Struggle of Addiction

Alcoholic_AAMtgThe lanky young man with the tattoos took a break from his intricately-detailed pencil-sketching to look up from his art and turned to face me after I introduced myself to the group.

“Have you ever been addicted to drugs?” he asked.

“No,” I responded.

“Ever been addicted to alcohol?”

“No,” I said again.

“What can you know?” he mumbled with disgust and turned back to focus on his artwork.

It was my first day as a co-leader of a substance abuse therapy group, an internship for my clinical mental health counseling master’s degree as I make a career transition from public relations to counseling. The group leader smoothed the edges by telling the group members they can learn different things from counselors who had addiction problems and those who haven’t. The leaders with whom I have worked had substance abuse histories and can talk the language of the streets and drug culture; I can’t.

When a member glorifies the days of using, as those in substance abuse recovery are wont to do, one leader admonishes: “Play the whole tape,” meaning remember the misery that accompanied the action, the “ripping and running.”

Later in the session, the young man apologized to me and the group for his abrasiveness, saying he had discovered just before the session that a good friend from childhood had died by drug overdose. That type of emotional volatility and chaotic, unpredictable life is common among members.

In my two months co-leading and leading this three-hour-long group session, I have learned from members and have become more comfortable guiding and interacting with them. The members provide a fascinating window on life’s struggles and many life themes: redemption, commitment, determination, acceptance, grace, hope, resilience, courage, meaning, generosity, self-centeredness, self-destruction, temptation and despair.

Group members represent a microcosm of society: male and female; fathers and mothers; black, white and Hispanic; teenagers to seniors; those from childhoods of abuse, neglect and deprivation and others from relatively stable, caring families; workers and jobless; people doggedly seeking change and others going through the motions.

Some have been homeless, shunned by family members. Many have been imprisoned, and some still are dealing with charges that could result in jail time with any transgression. Some have risked their lives to get drugs, running dangerous streets at all hours, banging on doors of drug dealers. They have lost children, jobs, health, relationships, dignity, trust and respect over their addictions. Many have been through rehab before, but reverted to previous habits, some as soon as they exited. Their emotional lives have been engulfed with fear, shame, guilt, resentment, anger and damaged self-worth.

I don’t have any particular unique or profound insight into the scourge of addictive behavior and those who come under the influence of alcohol and drugs. I only have impressions as a person and professional new and fairly oblivious to this world. My biggest takeaway is that these individuals are not addicts, but people with addictions. In our society, we tend to apply labels to people that come with proscribed traits and characteristics, effectively straight-jacketing people into circumscribed boxes.

The experience has reinforced for me that addiction does not define the group members, a lesson I also learned first-hand when a roommate suffered a relapse. In fact, addiction is not at the core of their being at all. They are so much more than “addicts.” I appreciate the regular group members I have gotten to know for their sense of humor, loyalty, caring, openness, friendliness, raw honesty, suffering and commitment.

One woman exemplified the power of passion, hope and resilience – and the difference between those who truly accept and want to beat addiction and others who may be biding time – in an activity I led challenging the members to identify their strengths. Some struggled to come up with more than two; a few others declined to offer even one when called upon to share. But this woman, for whom the phrase “to hell and back” would apply, rattled off about a dozen assets. She appears to want recovery bad; her emotional pain is palpable. She has a medical condition that might keep others away, but she refuses to miss or give up. She’s a good person who got some raw deals in life and made some regrettable choices that sent her into a downward spiral, like many of the members, and she’s developing the courage to own it all. She is recognizing her worth as a human. She expresses faith.

I’m pulling and praying for her and the others to beat their addictions and find serenity and contentment, and hope I can be a positive influence, however small, on their recovery.

 

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.

 

 

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.

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