midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the category “quitter”

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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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

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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.]

Guitar Hero

Guitar-MusicStand (2)At neighborhood events, I often see my former guitar teacher, my neighbor who has a guitar studio within walking distance where I once took lessons. And then, inevitably, a wave of regret and guilt washes over me.

I feel compelled to tell him every time that though it seems like I quit, that I really haven’t. No, not me, no quit in this mule. I haven’t given up, at least not in my mind. I’m just on a long, long hiatus. He humors me and listens, probably thinking, “Yeah, sure, I’ve heard that line before.” But I’m serious.

I’d love to be able to play guitar well. I surf YouTube videos of guitar performances and marvel at the seeming ease with which the musicians strum and pick, no need for sheet music. What a thrill it would be, I imagine, to play some kick-ass rock song before an audience with both hands working instinctively to reach the right notes and chords.

But that’s skipping right over those pesky factors of study, practice and work, the disciplines required to develop a skill, no matter if one is highly or modestly talented. Author Malcolm Gladwell promotes the “10,000 Hour Rule,” stating that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is required even by the most talented to become truly masterful at a craft or skill. At the one studio recital sponsored by my teacher in which I performed, I verged on Choke City, getting through my piece shakily.

My original inspiration to pick up the guitar goes back 25 years. I had a friend who took guitar lessons. It struck me that I was missing out by not being able to play a musical instrument. I regretted quitting the clarinet as a kid after playing through 6th grade. Music is one of those things that’s easier to learn as a child than as an adult. I remember playing in the Holiday concert and feeling like I had the songs mastered.

I quit playing in school mostly because I didn’t like having to carry the instrument back and forth. Lame excuse, but my parents didn’t force me to continue.

A decade after my friend introduced me to the idea, a colleague’s husband donated guitar lessons for a fundraiser auction. I bid and won the lessons, and stayed on as a student for several months. But then the usual excuses intervened — work, time constraints, two young kids, a 30-minute trip to the teacher’s house — and I stopped. Not quit. Stopped temporarily. Someday, I vowed, I would pick it up again.

Flash forward eight more years. When we discovered we lived in a guitar teacher’s neighborhood, we signed up my 12-year-old son Daniel for lessons. Aha, a chance for redemption! Soon after, I signed up as well.

It was clear Daniel had more aptitude than me, and/or his youth enabled him to develop skills faster. He performed at several recitals, and skillfully played more complex pieces than I could master. As it turns out, college freshman Daniel is strong in math and computer science, disciplines that emphasize patterns, sequences and intervals, and have correlations to music. But he lacked passion and commitment. He didn’t want to practice, and though I encouraged him, I didn’t force him.

About 18 months into his lessons, he announced he wanted to quit. As much as I tried to convince him about his high talent level, and the opportunities he could have if he continued progressing, it didn’t change his mind. It was like having a conversation with the young me, determined to quit the clarinet because I couldn’t envision the benefits. I hope Daniel returns to guitar some day on his own desire. The talent is there.

I continued with the semi-monthly lessons until the night nearly five years ago when I broke my leg in a soccer game. I had become proficient enough to play a book of 20 Easy Pop Melodies by bands such as the Beatles, Rod Stewart and Kansas, just for fun. But I discontinued lessons during my recovery, and lost motivation to practice as a situational depression set in. I never got back to it. I had just started my 5 1/2 year run in a graduate program, and, you know…the usual excuses.

I still have my guitar — actually, Daniel’s guitar — and the lesson and song books. I took the guitar to the beach last summer for my seasonal gig teaching tennis, vowing to pick it up again. But the guitar stayed in its case.

Practicing an instrument is something like exercising. The hardest thing about running for me is stepping out the door. With guitar, it’s putting the music sheet on the stand and taking the guitar out of the case.

April 26, 2017 marks the five-year anniversary of my broken leg and surgery, which signaled the end of my guitar progress. It would be a good day to take the guitar out of its case again. I haven’t quit. I’m just waiting for the right time — any time except the 12th of Never.

 

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