Changing Careers in Later Life

You’ve paid your dues. You’ve worked for years in a job that paid well and it may have even offered much personal satisfaction. But you want more. You need a new challenge. Maybe you’ve always wanted to be self-employed but you never before had the courage to try it until now.

Actually, the concept of a ‘job’ is only a few centuries old. Before that, itinerant journeymen went from town to town in order to perform work that needed to be done. When their work was done they went somewhere else. They had no job security, no pensions, no employee assistance programs no real home base even – none of the perks of a modern job. Specialized trades were rare if non-existent.

It was only during the mid-twentieth century that factories with fixed jobs, and perks, became a permanent part of the American scene. Since then we have produced generations of specialists whose worst fears are confirmed when they want to leave those highly specialized (and often boring) jobs only to discover that they don’t know how to do anything else.

Yet a growing number of people are opting to pursue a new career late in life, and they are making a go of it in spite of such fears.

No question about it, today’s successful ‘retreads’ must have useful problem-solving abilities and they must know themselves well. They must know what they do best, what niche fits them, and they must know what skills are in demand around them. They also must keep up with new advances in their chosen fields in order to be competitive and to be able to market themselves well.

In other words, they have to learn how to turn themselves into mobile, smart problem solvers who can produce order out of chaos.

I know this sounds difficult. And if you lack self-confidence it might even sound impossible. But perception is everything in life. You can do what you want to do if you want to do it badly enough. And the best place to start is with something that you love doing to begin with.

How do you suppose corporations get started anyway? Someone, somewhere, sees a need and they move in to fill that need. The more successful entrepreneurs made a go of it from the start and they gradually take on more and more employees while they go looking for investors to help them grow.

More and more baby boomers, including myself, are opting for a more purposeful life – a life with more balance – over making a living by working for someone else. This requires a determined effort to live with fewer ‘things’ that serve only to drag us down anyway. Don’t be like my lawyer friend, Frank, for example, who could only afford to have lunch ‘out’ once a month because of a huge mortgage that ate up all his available reserves. He thought he was investing wisely, I am sure.

It takes some time to transition to self-employment. I know – I gave myself five years to move gradually from an outpatient practice to full-time professional photojournalism pursuits. And I admit it wasn’t always easy to do. Having a paycheck is so much less anxiety provoking than working for yourself, where money only comes in for work you have completed, and invoiced.

I became self-employed because I was driven to be more creative in my life. I found the lack of creativity to be stifling. I yearned for the artistic life where I could spend precious hours molding my visions into some kind of concrete reality. I wanted to write and to think big thoughts, and to explore the world as a conservationist, with camera in hand. Among other things.

And here I am. I might die poorer than some but I certainly will die well.

I am my own boss, I do what I most love to do in life, and I do it knowing that I am in control of what happens to me. Was it worth it to give up a full-time job elsewhere? I thought it was riskier to look back on my life 20 or 30 or 40 years from now only to wish that I had done things differently.

I couldn’t let myself do that.

Passion, not practicality, must guide your choice. The stakes are high, requiring a willingness to risk failure and disappointment and to sacrifice financial stability. But the rewards can be great, and lasting. Work becomes a calling that, when pursued, feels like falling in love all over again. If you really have a passion for what you are pursuing – and the discipline to develop it – you will find yourself so much more present in the world.

I love that part. I teach psychology on the side, I travel the world in search of interesting things to photograph, and I make new friends everywhere I look. Lonely I am not.

Do I have my doubts? Certainly. At times it feels crushing to be at the bottom of the heap, particularly when others around me are raking in economic stability from boring jobs that consume so much less time than mine.

But I am doing something that I truly like, and mine is a more soulful life.

I had a good model in my father who was also self-employed. I remember him opting to go fishing when he might well have worked, telling me as he packed up his fishing gear and a tasty lunch that life was short.

“You have to take life by the tail”, he said. And out he went.

This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. © 2010 Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph. All rights reserved.

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