By Marcus Buckingham
February 22, 2010
Personal strength expert Marcus Buckingham answers questions on finding happiness, pursuing your passion in your 50s, changing careers and more. Ask Marcus your career question
Q: I had a child when I was 18, and after many struggles and travesties, I made it! My son is alive and 24 years old, so the child-raising is done for me. I started college at age 38 and just received my MBA. I always wanted Oprah to do a show about single parents that actually made it through and are now trying to figure out what to do in middle age.
That is where Marcus comes in. Marcus, help! I am 43; just earned an MBA, and I can't find a job. I have been unemployed since May. I have such a long blue-collar work history with no management experience, but I have a brand new MBA—yet the phone is not ringing. I guess it's partially because I don't have experience, so they are reluctant, yet could it be that I got my MBA from the University of Phoenix? And that doesn't have the weight a traditional college would?
Part of the problem is me as well. When they don't believe in me, I start to feel like I can't do the job. I am applying for everything from entry-level (although I don't know how I'll pay off student loans at minimum wage) to director positions that I know I can do—but the phone is not ringing. I am 43 with no kids and so hardworking, loyal and ready to give my all to a company. What gives?
— Colleen, age 43
A: Colleen, let's start by focusing on what you do have, rather than what you don't. You have worked hard to earn your MBA, and you need to take time to celebrate your accomplishment. There can be no excellence without celebration—this applies to work, kids, relationships—and it certainly applies to your success in finishing your MBA.
When it comes to the job search, the simplest advice I can give is to focus on what you can control, and not on what you can't. You can't control whether a hiring manager will only hire MBAs from Harvard or whether someone considers blue-collar experience irrelevant. But what you can do is show them, in how you present yourself in your résumés and interviews, not only that you have an MBA, but why your MBA and other experience gives you strengths that will make you the right hire for the job. Consciously focus on your strengths in your applications and interviews. Be as specific as you can about what you love to do and what you excel at doing. Let your enthusiasm show through.
Your MBA is more than a piece of paper; it represents the work that you did to attain it and the knowledge that you gained. You may not have managerial experience, but you do have work experience, combined with your MBA. It's your job to show potential employers how that combination relates to the position you want.
One last thing: I know that it can be tough when you're unemployed and you begin to think any job will do, but I think you're wasting your time looking for minimum-wage jobs. Hiring managers will wonder why someone of your qualifications is settling, and you probably won't be happy unless you're doing something that presents you with challenging tasks that you love to do.
Key steps to finding the right career for youQ: I opened my retail store in 1989 when my second daughter, Emily, was a year old. She turns 21 on December 28, as I celebrate my business's 20th anniversary. Ups and downs to be sure, an extremely supportive spouse along the entire journey. I find myself struggling through menopause. Depression, second-guessing myself, unwilling to take risks, becoming a hermit—all not in my usual character. I'm trying to find the passion and creativity I need to survive, prosper and continue my life. It's extremely stressful owning/running your own business. Lately, I think it's taken a toll on me. I could sleep a week straight.
I could sell my commercial property/business. But then, what would I do? What can I do so I live my best life? I look at life pretty much as black-and-white with a little gray thrown in. I need options and someone to help me figure it out. I know I can with guidance.
— Debra, age 54
A: Debra, first take time to really appreciate your own accomplishment. You have raised a daughter to adulthood, your business is marking its 20th anniversary, and you have a wonderful spouse to share everything with. These are no small feats. Be proud of them.
You say that you look at life as "pretty much black-and-white," and allow me to say that you've shared an example of your tendency. You're looking at your business and the enormous effort involved in keeping at going, and you ask, "Should I sell?" But the first question I would ask you in return is this: Is it necessary to sell your business to find your best life? Or is there a middle, "gray" ground that would allow you to keep the business you've built but find some help in relieving some of the stress you feel?
So many business owners feel the need to take on every task personally, to make sure that every detail is just right. And your business may require you to do that. But what if it doesn't? Take the time to break down how you feel about all the tasks you do every day, week and month. You may find that 25 percent of the tasks are causing you 90 percent of your stress. What if you could hire someone to take on that 25 percent? Would that make the business feel more worthwhile and allow you to focus on the strengths that helped you build it in the first place? If the answer is no, you simply can't find someone to help with the tasks that keep you up at night, or you can't separate the stress of the business from simply owning it, then maybe your answer is black-and-white, and it's time to sell. In that case, you seem to be in a good position to move on to the next phase of your life. Use the self-knowledge you've gained from deeply examining the tasks you currently do to guide you toward your next challenge. Focus on those tasks that made you feel most intrigued, most invigorated, most alive. Then figure out what job—whether it’s a new business you start, volunteer work or working for someone else—will help you to do more of what you love.
How to dive into a new careerQ: Dear Marcus, I saw you on The Oprah Show and was fascinated with the joy that these women started to live with after you helped them define who and what they were meant to do or be. I really need your help. After some deep reflection of my life, I realized that I have been living on autopilot for the past four years. I am leaning toward the healthcare field, but I am so undecided on whether I am moving in the right direction or if this a safe move. I want to be fully living, and the only way to do that is to know my purpose. Every day I have been asking, "What is my purpose?" and I have been grappling with the answers. I have so many interests, which makes matters worse. I took your test and my role is advisor, which is on the mark—at work or with family I am always sought after for advice. My supporting role is creative. I would like to do something creative, but I always get close to it and not quite there because I just wasn't giving the opportunity in the past. In four years, I will be 40 and I am still moved to tears that I don't know the answer to the question. Please help me.
— Maria, age 36
A: Maria, advisors can make excellent healthcare professionals because they tend to be good at things that patients need: Advisors ask lots of questions; they love being able to provide expertise; they are demanding and never settle for "good enough" but always look to improve things; and they are confident and decisive when they are asked for guidance. So, you're looking for purpose, and your sights are set on the healthcare field. Since purpose is so important to you (as it is to all of us, really), the first question to ask is: "Does the purpose of healthcare fulfill me?" It may seem like a silly question: What could be a nobler purpose than helping people to get well and stay well? The truth is, though, that there are plenty of people who simply aren't invigorated by that purpose. That's not cold, or heartless, or wrong. It's just the way things are. So—does the purpose of the healthcare field really speak to you, or is the attraction simply that healthcare has such a well-defined purpose, whether it appeals to you or not? There's a big difference there.
Beyond that question, you'll only really know whether healthcare is the right field for you when you figure out whether the tasks you'll be performing continually are tasks that you love to do. If you love advising people but can't stand the sight of blood, for instance, then being a surgeon or a phlebotomist is probably not for you. You haven't specified what field you're currently working in, but I also suspect that, although you have been on autopilot, you didn't land in that field entirely by accident. There were some elements of the work that drew you in. Which things still manage to get your attention a little more fully, even though you may be bored overall? Which things can you simply not stand? Can you envision parallels in the healthcare field to those activities you love doing now? Examining what you have done and what you're currently doing is always the best clue as to what you should do in the future.
Q: I wonder if I am happy. I didn't even give it a serious thought until I saw the question. Now writing this, I'm close to tears. What is keeping me from happiness? I'm a married mother of four. I love my kids so very much, but cannot give them most of the things I know they need. Is that the problem? My marriage is so terrible and yet I know I love my husband. Could that be the problem? I wish I had finished college. Is that it? My friends love me and I them, I enjoy people's company, but I feel a sadness very deep inside and I know that nobody knows about it. In my mind I feel something great is in my future, not sure what it is, but I feel it. So what is holding me back?
— Rhonda, age 42
A: Rhonda, I think that what's holding you back may be a simple three-letter word: "but." If you count its sneaky double "and yet," that word appears four times in your short paragraph. It seems to attach itself to every positive thought you have. The problem with "but" is that it’s an obstacle. What would happen if you replaced all the "buts" in your thoughts with "ands"? Where "but" is an impediment, an invitation to stop acting on your own behalf, "and" is "what else am I going to do?" What would happen if you could shift your focus so that you can say, "I love my kids AND... I want to spend more time with them"; "I love my husband AND... we are going to work on reminding each other why we fell in love in the first place"; "I enjoy people's company AND... I am going to find a way to truly relax with my friends this holiday season?" You might be surprised at the results you can get from a simple shift in perspective.
This is not to imply that you can solve all your problems by ignoring them. But (that pesky word again) remember that change follows the direction of your focus. If you keep focusing on the negatives and asking what's wrong, you will get more of what’s wrong. Instead, difficult though it may be at times, try to concentrate and focus on what "right" looks like, because that is a far more effective way to solve problems. Focus on what’s right, and ask yourself how you can get more of it into your life. Q:Dear Marcus, Where do I start? I'm 28 and I have hit a wall. Like a million other people in this economy, I don't know what to do with my career. I lost a good job in 2008, which I am not ashamed of. I took a job at a local behavior disorder school to make ends meet, since I'm not afraid to work and believe you have to keep moving forward. I have my Bachelors in Computer Science/Graphic Design, but I can't find any relevant jobs. If I have to go back to school I don't even know what to go back for. I know I don't want a job where I sit on my butt all day. I can't go back to that. But with debt from my school loans, I'm kind of scared to go back. I need a career. I was on a plane ride from Denver just after Thanksgiving, sitting next to an older lady and she said you have to find your passion. And I've known that, I just get need to get there. I would love to work from my home. I have done graphic design on the side for years and I have tried to go further with it but nothing worked. I feel that I'm not a happy person most of the time because of that. My job right now is mentally draining and I'm very blessed I have a job and good work ethic, but I'm burned out.
— Lauren, age 28
A: Lauren, your confusion about where to turn is palpable. You seem more certain about what you don't want to do—sit at a desk all day, go back to school, stay at your current job longer than necessary—than about what you love to do.
Reading more closely, though, I wonder if the answer to finding your passion isn't right in front of you. You describe your previous job (I'm assuming it was related to your degree) as a "good job." You don’t know what else you would study if you went back to school. You have pursued work in your field by doing graphic design on the side. Is it possible that the reason you can’t find your passion is that you already have found your passion? The sure way to find out if that’s true is to examine how you felt about what you studied in college, and the work you did before losing your job. Did you often lose yourself in your work? Spend more time than you might have needed to on a project, to take it to that next level of perfection, just for your own satisfaction? If you can recall a lot of such moments, then what you have already done is the clue to what you should do in the future.
Without a doubt, it can be discouraging to have to take a job you don’t love in order to make ends meet, but don't let temporary economic realities distract you from your truth. If, on the other hand, my inference is wrong and you don't really feel any connection to what you did in the past, then you have to consider other clues to find your strengths. Were there subjects in college or even earlier that intrigued you but didn't seem practical? What tasks or hobbies make you most focused and absorbed in what you're doing? Pay attention to the little details of your week, both at work and at home, and try to notice even the smallest activity that intrigues, motivates or inspires you. Those activities are what you need to build on to find what you will love to do. Q: I feel like I've been searching and yearning to do something bigger my whole life. I have a lot of ideas, but never seem to follow through on them. I am too busy most of the time and am a poor planner, so I know I bring stress on myself. I have big ideas: I want to write a book, want to be a professional speaker, want to be super organized and have a super clean house. Why do I sabotage myself from going forward with these dreams?
— Lauren Kirkpatrick, age 44
A: It's interesting how often the word dream comes up in our society when we talk about our hopes for the future. We talk about our dream jobs and about living the American dream, and we all think we understand what the word means. But different people mean vastly different things when they talk about dreams. For some people, the word dream is synonymous with goal—it's something they are working actively to achieve. For others, dreams remain mere fantasies, things they don't believe they can achieve, and so they don't even try. For such people, the appeal of having a dream is that it skips ahead to the accomplishment, rather than bogging down in the difficult details of the process.
We dream of having a clean house—but who dreams of actually doing the cleaning? We don't have to dream about doing the work, because doing the work is always within our grasp; the dream, in this sense, is to attain the goal without the work. And for that kind of dream, there is simply no solution except either to abandon it, or to turn it into a true goal. The only way to do that is to start doing what's necessary to achieve it. Of course, it can be difficult to take that first step, and we can get bogged down in our weaknesses—in your case, not being organized and being a poor planner. But if you're energized by your ideas and can't find a way to channel that energy, that's when you have to rely on your friends and colleagues and family members. Often, if you're having difficulty starting a project, it can be easier to collaborate or brainstorm with others to get the ball rolling. If you know someone with a knack for planning and organizing, ask if she'd mind sitting down with you to talk about some of your ideas. Involving others can also give you someone to be accountable to for making progress. Once you're started down a path, ultimately it's up to you to sustain the momentum. Q: I believe that fear of being laughed at, low self-esteem and being a failure in life is part of my problem. Now that I am 41, the fear is not there so much, but I feel like it's too late for me now to do the creative things I always wanted to do.
A: Portia, you probably know the story of Anna Mary Robertson Moses (aka Grandma Moses), who gained fame as a painter only in her late 70s and went on to become one of the more celebrated American artists of her time. So let's put a stop to the notion that it's ever too late to explore your creative impulses. More importantly, you cannot ever let fear prevent you from pursuing what you love to do. Most of the stories of great artists are stories of perseverance. The rejection letters accumulated by literature's most famous authors would stretch to the moon. James Joyce's first book, Dubliners, was rejected 22 times and sold fewer than 400 copies (120 of those to Joyce himself) in its first year. Many now consider him the greatest novelist of the 20th century. The first Chicken Soup manuscript was turned down by 33 publishers, but the series went on to sell more than 80 million copies.
When it comes to exploring your creative side, it's very easy to think of all the reasons you can't do it—you don't have the time, you don't have the money, etc.—but if you are truly passionate about expressing yourself, you can find a way. When you feel as though you can't do something, the simple antidote is action: Begin doing it. Start the process, even if it's just a simple step, and don't stop at the beginning. Take the next step and the next until what you've dreamed about begins to become reality. Don't worry about how your work will be received; don't worry about rejection or laughter. Create for yourself first. There will be time enough to share your work with an audience, but first you must produce something. Q:Twenty years ago, I moved to Australia to "leave my past behind and start a new life." I was a single parent at the time, serving in the U.S. Army and had just returned to the United States after a three-year tour in Italy. Two children (ages 16 and 18) and a divorce later, my oldest son (the one whom I parented on my own since his birth until my marriage to the Australian man) died in an accident (December 2007). One of gifts of this loss (there are always gifts) is my family asking me if I'd like to come home (back to the United States). So I am temporarily leaving my public service job (secure and well paid) in Australia to spend a year back in the United States (a year at least initially). I will bring my 18-year-old son with me, and my daughter will remain in Australia at boarding school (with her father two hours away). While couched in security (going home, a job to come back to, living with my family, etc.), it feels like a bold move and I recognize I have a rare opportunity to really think about living my life differently. How do I make use of this year? This opportunity? What is the journey I can commence that will help to find joy and fulfillment? I want to reconcile my past, my present and my future. I want to integrate my experiences. I want to take meaning and purpose from the loss of my son. I want the courage to live differently and create my life—not keep doing what I've done because it is safe and familiar. I took the Strong Life Test for Women, and I am a creator. It is a good fit. Thanks!
— Suzanne, age 49
A: Suzanne, first let me say how much I admire the spirit you show in looking for the gifts and opportunities in your situation. You're right to view this time as an opportunity. I love your thought about reconciling your past, present and future. The best way I know to do that is to pay serious attention to all three of them. Dive into your past and understand what drove you, what made you passionate, what made you feel strong. Look for those same currents in your present situation. What have been the constant strengths that have stayed with you throughout your life? Although we do change and grow and develop new abilities and knowledge throughout our lives, our strengths and our core personalities remain remarkably consistent from a very young age. Once you have a good sense of what your strengths are, you know what to build on. Take the time to learn about what you want to do. Can you read books or articles related to your strengths? Can you take courses and learn new skills to help further them? As a creator, you most likely love to read and take stock of your own mind and record the insights that come to you. Take full advantage of those traits to help yourself build the future you want.
One last thing: You mention so many people in your family and clearly have a wonderful network to support you. Make sure to include that network in your deliberations. Involving family, friends and colleagues in the attempt to think things through is often beneficial for creators because it can keep them from going around and around in circles in their own minds.
Q: I've been employed by the same company for the past 15 years. Recently, I graduated with my bachelor's degree in business management. I'm looking to make a career transition and do not know how to do this. I feel I've lost myself. I have to be honest. I like the flexibility with my job. I'm okay with the salary, but would enjoy making more. I have to find my calling. I'm not interested in my job anymore. It's not challenging. What should I do?
A: It seems to me that your difficulty actually lies in the ease of your current position. There is no specific irritant—no workplace annoyance, no financial hardship, no long-held dream—spurring you to commit to any particular action. You may feel as though your current life offers no clues to what your calling is, but you certainly have a recent example of stretching outside your comfort zone: You studied and earned your degree. What drew you to study business management? Were there particular aspects of the field that intrigued you? Did any of the courses you took challenge you in the way that you want to be challenged? Within your coursework, did you find some assignments more interesting and rewarding than others? What did you get the biggest kick out of researching? Did you actually hate doing research but love helping fellow students or debating with your professors? The list of questions could go on, but I hope you see the point: You will find your passion by considering the particular details of what you have done and what you are doing, in the moment. The specific activities you love doing will lead you to the career you should pursue. It's easier to pursue a new career when you are passionate about what you're going to be doing.
One thing to consider about career transitions: Although you feel as though you've stagnated in your current role, that doesn't necessarily mean your current company is not the answer. If you can find a different role within your company that would play to the strengths you discover in yourself, it can sometimes be easier to take advantage of the connections you have and the trust you've built over those 15 years to gain some leeway as you move into a new field.
Going Back to Work
Q: I formerly worked as a social worker and have three children. I chose to stay home with my children after my second son was born. I enjoyed staying home and felt it was the right choice for my family. As my children got older, I was active as a volunteer in the community and with PTA. Now my youngest son is 11, and I'm ready to go back to work, but I am unsure of what to do. I don't think I want to return to social work—it is very stressful and it's a job that is never done. I really don't know how to find my strengths and then also find a job that matches those strengths. I have become depressed and lonely staying home and really want to figure this out. How do I find a new career after staying home with kids for 14 years?
— Nicola, age 43
A: Nicola, start with a simple definition of what your strengths are: Your strengths are activities that make you feel strong. Easy, right? The challenge is to make sure that you pay attention to how it makes you feel to do various activities. You can make a point of paying close attention as you go through your normal day: Keep a notepad nearby at all times, and make an entry any time you find yourself feeling inquisitive, focused, invigorated by what you're doing.
You can also play archeologist with your own past. Think back to those times when you truly felt a sense of accomplishment, when you actually felt eager to tackle an item on your to-do list or when you were hungry to learn more about what you were doing. These activities are the starting point. It certainly sounds as though you have a wide range of experience to draw from, and while your future occupation may not be exactly what you have done in the past, you will probably find that some of the things you've done in the past are things you want to do more of in the future. If you feel that what you want to do may lie in a completely different direction, that's fine too. But you can't stop in defeat at the thought that you don't have the experience or education to do what you love. If you truly love doing something, then you have to act to make it a reality. Unemployed and Uncertain
Q: How can we live our strongest life while unemployed? I went to college earned a bachelor's degree in education, then returned to get a law degree. I graduated with honors and have been unemployed for over a year and a half. It's my fault; I quit my job and moved to another state all in the name of love. When that fell through, I was off to find employment and return to my life...then this recession hit. I can't get a job and I have $80,000 in defaulted student loans. I'm embarrassed and ashamed; I cry every day. I recently met someone wonderful and I can't be happy because I feel like a loser. I'm 37 and I've worked since I was 16. My dad stressed education and independence, and today it feels like I have neither.
— Shannon, age 37
A: Let's state this in no uncertain terms: You are not a loser. You say it feels like you have neither your education nor your independence, but in this case, you're better advised to listen to your dad than to your feelings. You do have your education and independence, and nobody can take them away from you. You've had some setbacks, and they can seem permanent, but I promise you that they're not.
Now is the time to rally around your certainties. You seem certain about your chosen career path, and you have already worked to make it a reality. Don't be discouraged. Keep moving. Keep looking for situations that play to your strengths and qualifications. Consider volunteering at nonprofits to build your skills and experience and to renew your sense of accomplishment. Finding people who you can help is often the best way to help yourself. Focus on the strong-moments that are possible in your life right now and celebrate them—not by simply patting yourself on the back or clapping and cheering, but by giving them your full attention. Find ways to build on them. It's not pleasant to find yourself on the outside looking in during a down economy, but times like these also throw our strengths into strong relief. If you feel at your lowest but can still find those moments or activities that keep you going, make you feel a sense of accomplishment and give you energy, you will know that those strong-moments will serve you through your entire life.
A final word about job searches: Emphasize your strengths on your résumé, in your cover letters and in your interviews. It may sound obvious, but you'd be surprised how many people simply list everything they've ever done. Convey your passion and link your strengths to measurable results. Employers and interviewers love concrete data. No Time for Happiness
Q: I am taking care of both of my parents. I have two daughters, one in college and one a senior in high school. I feel like I am always waiting for the other shoe to drop. I often make plans only to have them dissolve due to my caretaking responsibilities. I would love to be able to travel and have a part-time job, let alone have some time to do quilting and relax. I find that I can't shut my mind off when I lay down to sleep. I constantly wake up thinking about all the day-to-day stuff. I would love to find peace and serenity and happiness! The other concern I have is the lack of energy I have for my husband. I often fall into bed exhausted. I would love to find my roadblocks, and I look for any way to find pure joy and happiness!
— Eileen, age 53
A: Eileen, you are doing noble work in taking care of so many who depend on you. It's one of the most important things that any of us can do. And it may seem to you that devoting yourself to your family has caused you to do too much. But I would argue that you're actually doing too little. Too little, that is, of what gives you strength. You drop some hints about what your strengthening activities may be—traveling, quilting, working at a part-time job. Take the time to really examine what you love to do and what gives you energy. When you know what your strong-moments are, then you can start planning how to experience more of them.
Of course, when you have so many responsibilities, it can be hard to make time for yourself. But know that if you don't make that time, if you don't have portions of every day and every week that invigorate you and give you energy, you are going to end up shortchanging the very people you're dedicated to helping. Because when you are depleted, exhausted and drained, you can't give the best of yourself to anyone. Be willing to ask for help and to get creative in how you use your time. You mention needing more time with your husband. Having him help you care for your parents might give you that time together even as you meet your responsibilities. Or, since your daughters are grown, enlisting their help for even an hour or two would give you time to pursue other interests while allowing them to become closer to their grandparents. However you approach your situation, know that you simply have to make time for doing what you love. That's not selfish; it's giving yourself the strength you need to continue helping those to whom you're most dedicated. Holding Out for Retirement
Q: All my working life I have defaulted to office work, which I am good at. Unfortunately, I do not like it. But in any case, I will be retiring in a couple of years and would like to do what I would enjoy. I know what I do not want or like, but haven't quite caught on to what my strengths are. I catch glimpses of what I think I would like and then dismiss them. I can't quite get the whole picture in my mind to work toward.
— Laurelee, age 58
A: Laurelee, my advice for you as you look forward to your retirement is to look backward. Reflect again on those "glimpses" you refer to and don't dismiss them this time. Instead, reflect as deeply as you possibly can on whatever those subjects or activities were, and try to remember any relevant details about what really sparked your passion for them. It’s true that you won't be able to get the whole picture of what you're working toward in your mind right away, but that picture will never present itself to you fully formed. You have to paint it yourself, brushstroke by brushstroke.
Retirement will obviously give you more time to paint that picture for yourself, but that doesn’t mean you have to wait until you retire. Every area of your past and present is fair game for exploring what makes you feel strong. You may remember a childhood interest that has remained dormant but still excites you, or you may find that paying close attention to what you’re doing every day—even when you don't love your job as a whole—provides key clues about what your strengths are. If you find even one aspect of your current job that fulfills or invigorates you, consider whether there are endeavors that call upon that strength more significantly. Wherever you find the clues to what your strengths are, the important thing is not to stop at recognizing potential. Once you've identified a promising area for exploration, you actually have to explore. Research the field or subject that sparks your interest; find out if there are ways you can volunteer in that field; write down and organize your thoughts about the subject. Passion isn't something that lives way up in the sky, in abstract dreams and hopes. It lives at ground level, in the specific details of what you're actually doing every day. How to Help a Loved One
Q: I am actually writing to ask you about my husband. He is a physician (anesthesiologist) and really wants to be a writer. He would never tell anyone this, but I know that this is his passion! He became a doctor because he felt that it was "God's work." He is terribly stressed out day and night about the possibility of hurting someone. He stashes loads of money away each month for early retirement and we live in extreme frugality. No one would ever guess that he made a doctor's salary (the cars we drive, the home we live in, the furniture, our clothing). I try to help him ease his anxieties in every way possible. I know that he would be a happier person teaching creative writing at a university. He is my soul mate and his happiness is my concern, not the money. Please help me to help him become a more fulfilled person.
— Jessica, age 33
A: Jessica, although your husband has the noblest motivation, taking on "God's work" won't help him or anyone else in the long run unless what he's doing is truly his own work in his heart. There's a fable I recount in my book. A woman is swimming across a lake. She's holding a rock. As she swims, she tires. The rock is pulling her down. People on the shore urge her to drop the rock. She swims on, tiring as she swims. The people shout louder. She can barely keep her head above the water. "Why won't you drop it?" they shout. As she sinks beneath the surface, she cries out one last time, "Because it's mine!"
I imagine you feel like those people on the shore, watching helplessly. But you're not helpless, and neither is your husband. He doesn't have to cling to the life he's built simply because he's built it. There are steps he can take to make the transition to a career that's less stressful and more fulfilling.
First, he should examine whether he truly needs to make a wholesale career change. One of the details you give stands out to me: "He is terribly stressed out day and night about the possibility of hurting someone." If that fear is driving his stress, it may be that the right step is to invest his time and resources in pursuing a different medical specialty that touches less directly on matters of life and death.
If that wouldn't solve the issue, then it's time to move on by building a bridge to the life he wants to have. Often, people feel financially unprepared to make a big career transition, but it sounds as though your husband has been preparing for a long time. In that case, what he needs to do is take concrete action toward change. If he knows that being a writer or a writing instructor will truly bring him fulfillment, what can he do to start down that path? Can he capitalize on his professional experience by writing about it? What courses can he take at a local college? Is it time to enroll full-time in a writing program? If he truly knows the direction in which he wants to move, then the only thing left to do is start moving. Love or Money?
Q: I turned 40 this past August and work in a dead-end job, doing billing for a major insurance company. I just started college for the first time this summer. I am currently enrolled in an associate's paralegal program. However, I am having second thoughts. I chose this area after researching and finding that this is a well-paid profession, yet I really never had any interest in law. My true passion lies with animals. I have contemplated going for a vet technician; unfortunately, the projected salary for this position is less than what I make now—so much so I could not survive on it. I am torn. Do I choose something for the money or for the love of doing it, even though it pays incredibly low? What are the chances of me succeeding in an area that I do not have a passion for? I am 40 years old and still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. I better hurry up before it is too late. Can you help?
— Jennifer, age 40
A: Jennifer, "should I choose love or money?" is such an insistent and urgent question that I think we have to be careful that we haven't painted ourselves into a corner by asking it. It may be that you do have to choose between doing what you truly love and maintaining your standard of living; but it may also turn out to be a false choice that you don't have to make. The best way to find out is to explore what you love.
You are clearly confident when you say, "my true passion lies with animals." But do you have any passion about being a vet technician specifically, or is that just what comes to mind when you picture working with animals? Since that field seems too financially limiting to you, you should consider whether there are other ways to pursue your passion. If what you really love is knowing that you have helped an animal who needs it, you may be able to find fulfillment in the legal realm by focusing on animal rights or working for groups that do. If what you love, however, is working with animals hands-on, ask yourself: is veterinary medicine important to you, or could you be invigorated by pursuing work in another field, such as training animals?
The more specific detail you discover about what, precisely, makes you feel strong, the better prepared you will be to weigh your options. If you haven't done so already, I would encourage you to volunteer at an animal shelter or something similar so that you can learn what specific activities do or do not strengthen you.
If, in the end, you do find that it is impossible to reconcile doing what you love with your standard of living, I can't really tell you what to choose. All I can say is that, after spending my entire career talking to people about what they do and how they feel about it, I've found it incredibly rare for someone to be truly happy doing what she doesn't love. Pursuing a New Career in Your 50s
Q: At the age of 58, I have been downsized after working in banking for 19.5 years as a manager, six years as a training manager and three and a half as a human resources manager. I am now trying to find what I want/can do with my background. I am now at a loss for myself, trying to find my passion/my gift. I took the test twice, and each time it said I was a Teacher. I would like to have a job that I look forward to each day and at the end of the day I feel good about myself.
At this age, I thought I would have a successful career and feel good about myself. I have to wonder what is it I didn't do. If you can provide me with direction of how to find and use my gift, I would greatly appreciate it.
A: Emma, the good news is that few of us pick an entirely unsuitable path for our strengths, and from the details you give, it seems that you're no exception. Your Strong Life Test has revealed that your lead role is that of a Teacher, and you describe almost 30 years of managing—which, by definition, means mentoring others. It seems that you may be feeling a bit lost right now (understandably, after the blow of being downsized), but one of the wonderful qualities of most Teachers is that they never give up on anybody and believe that each person is capable of learning and growing. Take this same generous attitude that you offer to others and apply it to yourself.
One piece of advice that I give to Teachers is to make the time to continue your own learning. You have the opportunity to do this now, in two important ways:
1. Gain new skills and knowledge. You seem concerned, as so many experienced career women are, that the skills you've already built won't be enough for your future. First, know that you have wisdom, experience and strengths that younger applicants can only dream of. Practice framing your experience as an advantage. But, beyond that, take the opportunity to add to your skills and knowledge by taking courses—any courses that interest you. Learning new things will invigorate the Teacher in you and will also help you to address any concern you think a potential employer may have that you're not willing to adapt and keep up-to-date.
2. Learn about yourself. You're feeling a loss of direction, but the clues to which path you should follow lie in paying attention to your own strong-moments. Reflect on your experiences over the years and consider which activities left you feeling most rewarded and invigorated. Those feelings are signs of the types of things you should be looking to do in your future career.
Fear of Change and Finding Opportunity
Q: I've known for seven or eight years now that a change in my path would be a good thing. However, I've been through two lay-offs during difficult job markets and have been unable to make a complete transition. I want to make sure that I'm comfortable with my decision on my new path, and I am also preparing to return to school. Knowing what you want is one thing, but finding the right opportunity to do it is another. Do you also have suggestions for making the dream a reality and getting the right break?
— Danielle, age 38
A: Danielle, normally I would advise anyone looking to change paths to make sure that you really do want to go in a different direction. If you've known for seven or eight years that you need to make a change, however, it sounds like you've given it more than enough thought. It can sometimes seem like there is a daunting gap between the desire to change and acting on that desire. The first step is to stop thinking of it as a gap. Change is not a chasm we fall into with one step; it's a path. Take the first step along that path by committing to at least one action each week that will move you toward the life you want. That action can include building your financial security so that you have the cushion to be bolder. But every action you take should move you further toward your goal.
How can you overcome the very normal fear of change that almost all of us feel? There are two ways you can beat it: first, get excited. Visualize and concentrate on how excited you are by the new role you want to be in. Picture how energized and satisfied you will be when you are doing things that you truly love to do. Second, get specific. Specificity is the antidote to anxiety. If you plot out the specific steps that you need to take to achieve your goal and anticipate the specific details of your dream job, your anxiety will give way to impatience to get started on the path you've chosen. Pursuing a Dream Vs. Paying the Bills
Q: A wife and mother of two, I immigrated to the United States from Portugal at a young age. Our culture didn't encourage women's education, and I easily used that excuse not to attend college. I did well in the workplace and was always liked by my employers. However, at 44 years of age, I've never earned more than $20,000 a year. I've since enrolled in college and am a semester away from earning an associate's degree in executive administration. This semester has proven very difficult, as I feel so displaced and unsure about my goals, needs and dreams. Initially, I wanted to earn more money, but now I just want a good job and normalcy. I go back and forth about this, money or predictability or an energetic career I'm good at? I am anxious and disappointed in where I am in my life and am waiting to be miraculously enlightened. What should I be doing to move forward?
— Teresa, age 44
A: Teresa, aside from the obvious fact that we all need enough money to live, the choice between money and passion should be an obvious one: go where your passion leads you. The simple truth, as trite as it may sound, is that all the money in the world won't make you happy if, every day of your life, you have to spend most of your time doing something you hate.
It would be nice if miraculous enlightenment showed us all a brightly illuminated path to our best futures, but unfortunately things aren't quite that simple. Like everything worth having, illumination requires hard work. In this case, the work you have to do is to examine your life and pay attention to what you really love. You imply that you were drawn to studying executive administration as a means to earning a higher salary, but what drew you to that particular field as opposed to any other? Are there administrative tasks and activities that you enjoy doing? Or are there activities from your past jobs that left you with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction? What kinds of things have you looked forward to doing in the past? As you complete your studies, are there particular areas that get you more jazzed than others? Take the time to really pay attention to how you feel as you're engaged in your daily activities, and make sure to note those times when you particularly love or hate what you're doing. Examining how you feel about what you're doing is the key to knowing what you will love. Once you know what you love to do, be honest with yourself about what it will take to orient your life toward doing it, and commit to taking specific, concrete actions that will lead to the life you want to live.