Transition Is Inevitable, But It Doesn’t Have to Be Difficult

I didn’t discover that I wanted to be a teacher until I was halfway through college. I changed my major after two years of nursing school. Since the transition, I’ve never done anything else, and I love it. Finding a career and sticking to it seems to be a rare thing today, though. According to Forbes, the average person will change jobs seven times in a lifetime. Baby Boomers whose Depression-era parents were lucky to find any work are shocked that most modern young people actually plan to leave a job three to five years from starting it. Instead of choosing a career because it makes them happy, some young people take jobs they hate, knowing they can always quit. It’s no big deal; they’ll just get another one.

A problem with this shortsightedness is the lack of long-term job satisfaction, which can be partially solved by introducing career education sooner. Modern kids aren’t shown the myriad of opportunities out there in the modern world. What is presented to them as available career fields is very limited, usually in the form of a career fair in high school to which the same four or five careers are perfunctorily represented. Talk about old school.

Career education should start in middle school. Kids should take an aptitude and personality test at around age 12 that defines not only aptitude but also what gives them personal gratification. Then they should be encouraged to explore careers related to the test results. If a student shows a natural proclivity for building with wood, for instance, he should be guided in research of all available careers related to that skill, and during high school have the opportunity to job shadow at construction sites, woodworking shops, and even Lowe’s or Home Depot to get a good idea of the careers available in that area. That kid’s time in school should be focused on nurturing his talent, not squandered on classes he will never use.

Too many of the public school years are wasted educating our kids for a somewhat defunct skill set instead of training them for a future career. In “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” Sir Ken Robinson, a leader in education theory, says: “You were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid, things you liked, on the grounds you would never get a job doing that. ‘Don’t do music, you’re not going to be a musician; don’t do art, you won’t be an artist.’ Benign advice—now, profoundly mistaken.” He says our schools still function in the way they were designed: for jobs in the industrial age, when foundations in basic math and language skills were the vehicles for getting a job in a factory. The advent of technology is forcing menial labor jobs, which schools were invented to support, into a decline as fields that feature creative expression, individuality, and artistic vision move to the forefront. These careers have job satisfaction built into them. We have no idea what careers will exist in the future, yet we continue to educate kids the way they did 250 years ago. No wonder people have doubts about their choices.

When I was in school, a kid was expected to get a diploma, then go to college, get a degree, and start a career. If a kid didn’t know what she wanted to do, she could take a year or so “undeclared” until she figured it out. This is way too late, not to mention expensive. Modern public schools should focus on what kids have an aptitude for, then nurture that skill into a career goal which may or may not include a college degree. A kid should not be talked out of doing something she likes because she won’t make any money doing it. She should be encouraged to consider a career based on personal satisfaction, aptitude, and talent. She may not become famous and make piles of money, but she will be happy, and the money will fall into place if she is resourceful. And she will avoid the pitfalls of having to transition into a second career when she’s 50.

Many people my age are stuck in jobs they dislike, and they may feel like it’s too late to make a change because it’s easier to stay put instead of go back to school only to compete with younger, faster, cheaper twenty-somethings. Experience in a separate field may or may not help, and with an additional degree, although deserving of a higher salary, an older person may be passed over because he is overqualified. Old, overqualified, and saddled with more student debt? Not a happy picture for someone 15 years from retirement.

Take for example my friend Brian. Brian is a talented musician. In high school, he played the trumpet in the all-city honor band and orchestra, and he received a few full-ride music scholarships to local colleges. He taught himself to sing and play guitar and started his own band. Maybe it was advice, or maybe it was the culture, but instead of capitalizing on the free tuition and following his passion, he eschewed a free music degree in lieu of paying his own way to a Bachelor’s Degree in Architectural Design. He’s spent the last 25 years working as a Building Contractor. He enjoys building things, so there is some satisfaction in his work, but his real love is still music. Brian’s concern is that he’s burnt out on the customer-service part of his job, and it’s no longer gratifying. Now he’s stuck because although he wants to do something else, possibly involving music or marketing (another talent he’s discovered), he is at an impasse: does he go back to school, or does he stay the course until retirement? It’s not an easy decision.

There’s a lot to be said about finding a gratifying career. Research shows that those who are satisfied in their careers live longer, healthier lives, even if the job is stressful or demanding. Changing careers, even later in life, can slow the aging process if the second career is a better spiritual fit. Finding what fits is essential to mental and emotional health in the long-term. Transition is inevitable, but it might be easier if it is better understood.

Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art, says it boils down to Resistance. We know something [such as changing careers] may be difficult to do, and that’s Resistance pushing us back and keeping us from doing what we want. When the pain of not doing it becomes greater than the pain of doing it, that’s when we push past Resistance and make a change. He also says, “Put your ass where your heart wants to be.” Want to be a singer? Then sing. Don’t wait for a record contract. Do what brings you joy. My friend Steve Hostetler did it: he chucked his boring-but-stable insurance job to do what he loves—he became a photographer.

The key to avoiding the mid-life career change may be a shift in the overall paradigm about work. Instead of diploma-degree-job, it should be job-diploma-degree (if needed). Early training, with happiness rather than salary as the goal, might prevent a mid-life crisis.