After nearly 30 years of work, I'm definitely not where I thought I'd be.
Five months ago I walked into my boss’s office and quit my job. After long talks with my husband, I’d gathered the courage to walk away from my job as a commercial litigator at an international law firm to become a full-time writer. At a cocktail party a few weeks later, I told a new acquaintance that I had traded my steady paycheck for the uncertainty of the writing life. “That’s an ... interesting choice,” she said in the voice you reserve for slightly unstable people who accost you in supermarket parking lots. I think what she wanted to say was, “Who in their right mind leaves a job with benefits? Do you have any idea what the job market is like?” They’re both fair questions, and ones I had considered, but at the end of the day, concerns about doing something risky were far outweighed by my need to find a professional identity that didn’t involve surgically attaching a smartphone to my hip. I was ready to reinvent myself and it wouldn’t be the first time.
I have been working since I was 12, which means I’ve been employed in some way for nearly 30 years. I started out with babysitting and slowly moved to part-time jobs. I’ve done my time at Arby’s, the Gap, local delis, summer camps, gyms and children’s theaters. I have been unable to wash the smell of French fries out of my hair and I know how to zhuzh. In my senior year of college, I was eager to abandon the instability of minimum wage for a real job. No longer would I shuttle between studying and serving sandwiches. I was going to put on my big-girl panties and get a J.O.B. I was ready to take the first step toward a career.
Like many who came before and after me, I thought that there was “a way people do these things.” I would get my diploma and then an entry-level position in a field that would lead me down a particular path. My role models were doctors, teachers, lawyers, architects, nurses and businessmen. They got degrees, then jobs, and they worked at those jobs until they retired. They were handed gold watches and fancy plaques representing decades of service.
I will not be one of those people. Things did not turn out exactly as I had planned.
My senior year of college, I applied for one job — Teach for America. I did not get it. Having never been turned down for much of anything before, this was a shock. I moved back home. I was mortified. This was in the ‘90s, long before there were New York Times articles on a generation of students moving back in with their parents. Both my father and I understood this would be a temporary thing and I worked for a year at another part-time job while waiting to be accepted into graduate school. I intended to become a professor, though as it turned out, I was underwhelmed at the prospect of writing a dissertation that maybe three people in the world would read. Still, I got my degree and took a position with the federal government as a policy analyst. I liked it well enough, but it wasn’t my dream job. I wanted to go to law school, but I was 28 at the time and thought starting over again was out of the question. I resolved to tough it out.
I told one of my former advisers that I was too old to go changing careers because by the time I finished law school, I’d be 30. She laughed and told me I’d be 30 no matter what I did, so I'd better get to it. I filled out my applications the next week. And at the ripe old age of 41, here I am again, reinventing myself for the third (fourth?) time, leaving behind everything I know for something new. After eight years of racing for billable hours, meeting intense deadlines and doing work that I found less interesting than the blog posts I would write at midnight, I was exhausted and burned out and ready to go.
I am simultaneously terrified and exhilarated. For the first time in my professional life there is no safety net — no degree to acquire, no steady paycheck, no benefits plan, no end-of-the-year reviews. This is the riskiest move I’ve ever made, and the most thrilling.
I’m not where I thought I would be 25 years ago. I can’t claim a career as it’s commonly defined — “an occupation or profession, especially one requiring special training, followed as one’s lifework.” When one has a career, one does not flit about from occupation to occupation. The conventional wisdom suggests you choose a path and stick to it. I am not very good, it seems, at the sticking part. I’m more of a serial careerist. The only constant has been my search for jobs that encourage my curiosity, that give me an outlet to read and write, and that make me feel like I’m doing some good in the world. (Go ahead, get the lawyer jokes out of your system now.)
Career has a secondary definition, though, and one I like more. To career is “to run or move rapidly along; go at full speed.” To career is to barrel, blast, blaze, buzz, cannonball, careen, hurry, chase, dash, drive, fly, hasten, hotfoot, hurtle, hustle, motor, race, run, rush, scoot, scurry, scuttle, shoot, speed, tear, travel, whirl, whisk, zip, and zoom. If you career you do not sit still. You do not watch the world pass you by. You move through it headlong with abandon and energy. You engage. You make sudden turns and risk flying off the track. You experiment. You may crash, but you are unlikely to get stuck.
If treat your career like a verb, it may look a lot more like mine than your grandparents’. You won’t stay with one company or employer for your entire working life. You’ll transition more often than generations before and bootstrap skills from one job to the next. You’ll learn to see change not as failure, but as opportunity and you won’t apologize for a resume that exceeds a single page. (Although, if you’re like me, you may have to deal with an arrogant S.O.B during a job interview who mocks your eclectic background and questions your choices. Stick up for yourself. He may laugh, but he’ll offer you the job. True story.) Your challenge will be to determine what’s important to you and find ways to use the skills you acquire at one job to propel you into another. It will be scary, but if you do that, you can pursue what you love, not just a paycheck. Though let me be clear that long-term couch surfing is not a viable option. If you have to choose between paying your rent and chasing your passion, please choose solvency.
I can’t claim that all of my job changes were the result of kinetic and energetic choices. Some were luck. Others were convenient. Still others, like this one, are experiments. I’m able to make my current choice because I have a supportive husband who isn’t afraid of risk, but there are no guarantees this will work out. I’ve had miserable jobs and jobs I never wanted to leave. I don’t have all the answers. I’ve gone from social scientist to policy analyst to judicial clerk to commercial litigator to blogger and writer. I’ve been privileged to have the choice to try new things, and I hope you are too. I’m not a poster child for perfect but I can tell you this: I haven't had a traditional career, and my life turned out OK. Yours will too.