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Changing careers means tolerating risk and doubt

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JESSICA MINTZ
June 8, 2011
— We all have those moments: The alarm goes off, and we think, "Do I really have to go to work today?"

Most of the time, reason and routine win. We dismiss the thought, hop out of bed, hit the shower, have a coffee and merge into the morning commute.


Sometimes, though, we stop and really consider the question. Maybe we're burned out or unhappy with the job. Maybe we had abandoned a childhood dream or found a new passion along the way. And thanks to luck, financial planning and the support of loved ones — or maybe just a high tolerance for risk — we realize: Quitting is an option.


When I tell people I quit my job as a technology reporter for The Associated Press to become a veterinarian — that I am taking the first of a zillion pre-vet science classes in a plan that now extends into the year 2020 — many say they wish they could take that plunge.


I think the reason so many don't is that it's painful to admit we made a mistake. And quitting, well, isn't that just another word for failing?


In my case, my experience with animals was limited to childhood pets: a goldfish, two small lizards and a hermit crab. Recently, however, I adopted a mutt from the shelter and started volunteering there. When she was hurt in an accident, I spent a lot of time talking to surgeons and rehab specialists. That's when the idea of ditching the career I had pursued for more than a decade took hold.


I found countless reasons to doubt my motives. Was I reacting to the kindness and control shown by my own vets? Was I mistaking the pleasure of a new hobby for a calling? Would I be trading the petty complaints about one job for similar gripes about another? Couldn't I just find a way to be happy with a journalism job that everybody else seemed to think was a great gig?


Changing careers is not uncommon, as it turns out; Americans typically do it five to seven times in their lives, and increasingly, they are seeking more meaningful work, said Kimberly Key, president of the National Employment Counseling Association.


"You didn't see this 25 to 50 years ago. People weren't trying to have meaningful careers, they were trying to focus on family, survive, and take care of the next generations," Key said. "As we evolved as a society, in our thirst for work, to survive, to grow, to be the best, to compete in the world, we lost something."


There also is an ongoing shift in the type of jobs available, from full-time positions to contract ones. Jobs that offer lifelong security and benefits are becoming endangered, Key said.


Rather than see this as a negative, though, she thinks that accepting it can remove the stress and shame of changing careers.


"There is no big mistake, no big one-time career," she said.


Often, switching might mean giving up a steady paycheck for a while, or opting for a smaller one. That can be hard to come to terms with.


Take AnneMette Lavery, who after 12 unhappy years as a healthcare analyst joined the Foreign Service and was posted to Beijing, only to realize it made her miserable. What she eventually found she loved was teaching yoga, and she formed a new plan to become an instructor and certified life coach.


To pursue her calling, she had to give up something she always valued: financial independence. Thanks to support from her husband, she now teaches yoga part-time in Pinehurst, N.C., and plans to move to a larger city where she can expand her business soon.


"This job is the only job I have ever had in my life that I actually like, not to mention love," said Lavery, 44. "I feel that I am actually able to give people something they can use."


Todd Threlkeld also relied on his wife and family for financial support when he quit his job teaching high school in Auburn, Wash., in 2007. He spent the next four years figuring out what to do next.


"I spent a while in limbo with no definite ideas," he said. "I was really discouraged."


A do-it-yourself type, he eventually enrolled at the Wood Construction Center at South Seattle Community College to learn woodworking.


"It felt like I was pulling on a well-made pair of shoes," Threlkeld said. In April, he started renting workshop space and is beginning to market himself as a custom furniture maker.


If he could do it over, he said, he would try to find a new job before giving up his old, paying one. But sometimes, securing a dream job doesn't work out as planned.


Pamela Bleisch always imagined spending her working years as a tenured professor at a university. But when she landed in a tenure-track job in Boston University's classics department, she found herself feeling isolated, drowning under the pressure to publish and longing to spend more time with her two young kids.


"I realized at a certain point, OK, I can lock myself in an attic somewhere and generate this book, or I can be a parent to my children," Bleisch said.


Her husband, an academic library administrator, urged her to consider library work instead. She talked to other librarians about their jobs and her own desire for more work-life balance.


"They said, 'First of all, that's an entirely reasonable thing to want.' Which is not something I had been hearing," she said. "I almost cried when someone first said that to me."


Bleisch got a graduate degree in library sciences, and worked for a while at a research library. But since her husband took a new job recently in San Luis Obispo, Calif., she is back looking for work. She's anxious enough to make money that she's considering both teaching and library work.


She doesn't regret her mid-career switch, but at the same time, she isn't totally at peace: "It's hard to rewrite the story about how I wanted something different. This isn't a story about how this is a failure, a source for bitterness," she said. But if you're not where you want to be in the new career, "it's very difficult to feel content with the choice that you made."


Her advice for others contemplating a big leap?


Bleisch wishes she had taken a personality test earlier in her career. She took one at a time when she already wasn't happy teaching and learned that as an introvert, she needed more time alone than she was getting. Knowing that might have helped her stay in teaching longer, she thinks, because she might have set different expectations for herself and planned for more time alone.



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