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Still don't know what I want to be when I grow up ... at 39
July 24, 2014 6:47 AM   Subscribe

Trying to figure out how to begin a career change at 39, when I don’t even know what I want to do next. Feeling really adrift and stuck right now – how do I start making a move?

I’ve been working as an instructional designer and project lead at a large consulting firm for over a decade now. I hate the corporate environment, I'm so done with all the needless stress, I’m frustrated at how much of my life I’m spending on things that feel like they REALLY don’t matter, and I think if I could do anything in the world I would end up doing something with kids.

Back in the mid-2000s, I tried to “escape” my corporate instructional design/project management work by going to grad school in linguistics in the hopes of launching a new career in academics, but while I was competent enough, enjoyed my classes (if I could be a student forever, that’d be swell), and mostly liked teaching undergrads for my assistantship, ultimately I had to face the fact that I just wasn’t passionate enough about the field to make it through my dissertation, the job search, or the publish-or-perish approach to a long and steady career. I collected my MS as my fabulous parting prize (so now I've got MS degrees in instructional design AND linguistics ... wooh.) and returned to my old corporate company with the intent of just doing it for a few years while I figured out what I wanted to do next. That was two years ago and I don't see an end in sight.

Once I admitted to myself that I didn’t want to be a linguistics professor I sought guidance at my university’s career center, but they seemed bemused at working with a graduate student rather than an undergrad just trying to pick a major – they directed me to the US Government Big Book o’ Jobs and washed their hands of me. I’ve also tried taking a “Choosing a career path” course at a community college, but that mainly consisted of taking a number of personality tests that told me that in general, I’d do well in a teaching, counseling, or writing field. I don’t disagree with that, but I don’t know how to explore my options here – right now I feel like all I have are very basic, kindergarten-level ideas of what jobs are available. If I were honest with myself, I’m not even sure if I want to change fields completely or just try to find a different instructional design job – I don’t HATE instructional design work, but right now it’s so tangled up with all of the things I do hate about my job that I’d love to get away from all of it.

After sort of jumping into things with that linguistics jaunt, I'm feeling a little gun-shy of making another move without being pretty darned sure, but I haven't the foggiest idea how the heck one becomes sure. So now I’m feeling stuck and frustrated – I know what I’m doing now is making me miserable, but I don’t know how to start figuring out what to do next. I hear about people all the time making drastic career changes for fields that suit them better, and I want that to be me – but how the heck do you DO that? What would YOU do as your first step? There's GOT to be a way out of where I am right now ... right?
posted by DingoMutt to Work & Money (20 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
I’m frustrated at how much of my life I’m spending on things that feel like they REALLY don’t matter

Allow me to humbly suggest that you can find meaning in places other than your job.

Volunteer. Take up painting. Adopt an animal. You are not your job.

Also, what specifically about your job makes you miserable? Can you move to a position in your existing firm that you'd find more fulfilling?
posted by leotrotsky at 7:00 AM on July 24 [2 favorites]


It sounds like you're less concerned with "what type of work would suit me" and more with "what jobs are out there." So I prescribe to you: networking. Set up informational interviews with as many people as you can who have interesting-sounding jobs, in different settings if possible (large and small companies, schools, universities, nonprofits, government, etc.). At these meetings, explain that your goal is to explore what jobs might be out there for you. Ask if they know anybody you could talk to. If you can go to some kind of networking event or conference that interests you, that's also a good place to chat up a lot of people about what they do.
posted by chickenmagazine at 7:01 AM on July 24


Universities employ a lot of instructional designers, curricula designers and learning technologists if you want to stay in the field but lose the corporate stress. You may even be lucky enough to pick up a role working with your preferred department, linguistics, as IDs are usually attached to a faculty or two (at least in speaking to the IDs I know). From a university you could transition into something else if you wanted to change fields.
posted by wingless_angel at 7:12 AM on July 24 [4 favorites]


Have you talked to a career counselor not affiliated with a university? There are plenty of therapists out there who are also trained in career counseling.
posted by megancita at 7:22 AM on July 24


Sit down with a piece of paper, and plot out what your ideal work day would look like. Seriously, imagine a full day, from the moment you wake up until your head hits the pillow again that night. (Ex. - You mention working with children, what does that look like in your mind's eye? Is it one-on-one, are you instructing a group, what are their ages? Are you in a classroom setting or herding a bunch of little kids along a nature trail while you talk about ____?) Be as descriptive as possible, but if you get hung up just move on to the next part of your day.

Once you have that blueprint, it will be easier to see the job categories your interests fall under, and how you might be able to leverage your degrees and industry experience and contacts to craft the kind of professional life you want. If you shared your findings here, you may receive more detailed answers ('that afternoon portion sounds exactly like what my brother-in-law does, he works as a ___'). Also, it's an opportunity to fold in whatever you find positive about your current job, since it's sort of a fantasy world-building exercise not mired in your day-to-day unhappiness with your work. You'll see the skills you already have that can transfer.

(side note re: leotrotsky's post about finding meaning outside your job -- have you considered mentoring? Whether in a professional capacity, informally, or as a Big Sister, you have an awful lot to offer.)

On preview -- yeah, some university departments just go through the motions. Paying for advice, even one session with someone with a radically different perspective, might be worth your while.
posted by Iris Gambol at 7:41 AM on July 24 [2 favorites]


I don't know much about your specific field, but as someone who also returned to a previous job after opting out of academia and felt stuck, I would suggest you try to put that experience in perspective and not allow it to make you so gun-shy. In my experience, many other kinds of professional changes aren't as all-encompassing as the academic track can be, and you may find you could transition more easily than you think.

Since you said you're not even sure you want to change fields, I would take that impulse seriously and start applying for other positions in your field now even as you reflect on and explore a more drastic shift. Some people find that the particular environment can have an even larger impact on how they feel about work and life than the specific work they do. You can decide about whether or not something might be a good fit if you actually get an offer, and in the process you may gain some insights about what you really want as you are forced to define yourself in applying and interviewing.

Also, once you get in the groove of job hunting, you may learn about and find yourself more inclined to start pursuing positions in other fields that intrigue you. I think making the commitment to leaving your current firm and actively pursuing an alternative could be a great step to take while you wrestle with the bigger questions.
posted by futonrevolutionist at 7:45 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]


if I could be a student forever, that’d be swell ... I’d love to get away from all of it

This sounds like escapism. Like maybe some of the things you'd love to get away from are endemic to adult life? Or maybe you just need a vacation? Or maybe there are some specific situations at work that you want to avoid, while if you dealt with them directly and assertively you might feel some relief?

I think if I could do anything in the world I would end up doing something with kids

If I thought this, I would start volunteering with kids. Volunteer Match or your local United Way can help you find a volunteer position that would be a good fit for you.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 7:56 AM on July 24


There's no simple answer to your question, but here are a few books that might get you thinking. Most importantly, you have to go out and TALK to those who are doing the things you want to do, and really figure out the lifestyle and tasks that entails, the values that they serve, and the kind of people that you'd work with -- and see if you want that deeply.

Po Bronson's What Should I Do with My Life? interviews a wide spectrum of people looking for their passion and reports on how and what they did...

Herminia Ibarra's Working Identity is a little more academic look at the same topic, examining how professional shift careers.
posted by shivohum at 8:04 AM on July 24 [2 favorites]


Thanks for the suggestions so far. I've tried to tell myself for over a decade that I'm not my job and I can find fulfillment in other areas of my life, but even with therapy, taking classes, and trying to volunteer this does not do it for me - I just don't seem to have the character traits necessary to stomach spending most of my waking life working for results that feel utterly meaningless to me. If I felt like the end product I was creating did SOMETHING useful for someone, it might be worth the physically sickening stress levels, but for my specific job that is unfortunately not the case. I've tried the "you're not your job" approach for so long and it doesn't work for me, as much as I wish it did - that's why I think I need to try something else now.

Even the idea of networking/informational interviews sounds a little overwhelming right now because I don't know what I even want to investigate, but that does sound like a great step once I figure that out - and I'll definitely check out that 'What Should I Do with My Life?' book, shivohum, so thanks for that. I would also be up for trying a career counselor; does anybody have advice as to how to pick a useful one? I'd searched briefly for one a few days ago but was put off by all of the very corporate-looking, suits-and-buzzwords websites I found for counselors in my area (Pittsburgh, PA).
posted by DingoMutt at 8:34 AM on July 24


There are alternative pathway to teaching certification courses that one can get done within a fairly short time. If you think you'd be good with teaching and want to work with kids, that is one obvious option. But I very much agree with the idea to volunteer working with kids first to make sure you enjoy it.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:37 AM on July 24 [2 favorites]


Re: overwhelmed by networking -- one way to start is to talk to colleagues and ask them about their career trajectory so far, and what they would consider doing if they ever wanted to leave. (This may get you answers that are more related to your current field than you want, but people's past experience is often pretty varied.) And then you can get a sense of what drives them, and see whether you have similar drivers/interests.

Like you, I had a career I didn't find particularly meaningful (software development). I tried to look for meaning through volunteering and civic engagement, which I enjoyed, but I still didn't want to spend so many hours doing something I didn't care that much about. After several years of analyzing what I did and did not like about my previous jobs and what traits I would want in my ideal job, I talked to people, read "What Color Is My Parachute," etc. until I narrowed it down to a few fields I thought I might be interested in. Then I learned as much as I could about those fields, mostly by talking to people and reading articles and blogs by people in those fields. (Blogs are great, because they give you an idea of the day-to-day experience, even though there's also stuff about people's dogs or whatever.) And I figured out what my ROI would be on switching careers, which involved a big investment for me because I went to law school. Looking back, I have no regrets, although I do think that I could have been less miserable in my previous industry by finding a role that worked better for me and developing the skills to fit that role.

As a first step, though, think about just getting a new job at a different place, and see how you feel.
posted by chickenmagazine at 9:02 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]


Career counselors are very largely garbage unless you already have a field narrowed down and are looking very specifically in it; then the right person may be able to help you finetune your search. Otherwise most counselors put you through a battery of generic vocational tests and then give you generic advice and charge you lots of money for that. Maybe there are a couple of exceptions here and there but I haven't found them.

If you want a counselor, I'd recommend finding an excellent psychodynamic psychotherapist instead, as they are more likely to help you understand your desires, which are anyway the real issue.

Otherwise read books and do the legwork yourself; it is harder but it is the only way.
posted by shivohum at 9:19 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]


You want to work with kids, and you're currently working in instructional design? Can you reach out to anyone you know who works for or with your local schools? Public, private, specialized (homeschooling, schools for kids with disabilities or alternative school programs, etc.), wherever you have a connection. Even if you don't want to be a teacher or work directly for a school or school system, it could be a good place to start your networking/informational interview process.
posted by MadamM at 9:20 AM on July 24 [2 favorites]


I'm feeling a little gun-shy of making another move without being pretty darned sure, but I haven't the foggiest idea how the heck one becomes sure. So now I’m feeling stuck and frustrated – I know what I’m doing now is making me miserable, but I don’t know how to start figuring out what to do next. I hear about people all the time making drastic career changes for fields that suit them better, and I want that to be me – but how the heck do you DO that? What would YOU do as your first step?

I will give this a stab because I think I went through this exact same thing (career change in my 30s, concerned about making the wrong choice, etc.) and its all here in ask metafilter.

So this might help to know that other people went through the same thing, or I will give you the steps that I went through if it helps.

So this was me, I hated my job.

I can articulate the steps now, but at the time, it was painful until I got out of that job and into new positions.

Step 1 was brainstorming, everything from that ask metafilter to reading books. I read a "Outside the Ivory Tower" for people in the sciences who wanted to change careers - I can give you the book title if you want, but my guess is that you would need a book or books speaking to your academic background. The books helped because they described the daily work life of people so I could read descriptions and say 'sounds interesting' to 'never.'

After the brain storming, I made a list of a few things that I absolutely wanted in a job and 1 or 2 deal breakers. This was by reviewing all the jobs that I had in my life and asking what I liked/didn't like and/or wanted/didn't want. I suspect some of the things that were on my list might overlap with what will be on your list (ie, I did not want to go back to school, I wanted to make a certain income, live in a certain geographic location if I wanted, etc.).Then I looked at the list again and asked what looked like the closest fit for a potential job.

I ended up with science and/or medical writing (this won't probably be what you do, but I am just giving you the example). So from here, I went crazy with info interviews. One of the reasons for those interviews, which I suspect you also need, is to confirm: IS this for me and will it meet my list? So I asked questions including salary range, daily work life, etc. For me, I think this approach was more helpful because in the past I just applied for a new job based on a vague description and tried it, which is essentially rolling the dice. This time I tried to figure out what would be on the other side.

I DID NOT want to go to school all over again, or start again as a beginner, so both the info interviews and ask meta helped again. One of the answers was spot on in terms of what I had to do to get a job (ie, take a writing test with potential employers) - that was the main criteria...

I will have to say that it was not the end of my job search because I also realized that one reason I was unhappy with most jobs was that someone else decides what you do, when you do it, puts you in a cube, puts you in 100000 meetings, etc. It was a few more years to become self employed, but in the end - I did make a career change and I have been doing this longer than any of my other careers.

You mention being overwhelmed by the idea of having to do info interviews. I don't know if this helps or will help but 1) I hated my former job and did not want to do that- so that helped motivate me. 2)When I requested info interviews, all of it was limited - 30 minutes on the phone max, or in person an hour max, etc. - make it easy for the person that you are interviewing and yourself. But a limited time made it seem easier. 3) I was organized (wrote a set of questions - so I had things for people to answer, and did not need to chit chat/shake 100 hands, etc. 4) There are also shortcuts or things that are less draining. Emailed worked to talk to some people.Or to find people to talk to someimes I would post on a forum for people with that background, etc. At the end of the day, it was probably an info interview or two a week and I did this for a month.So it was perhaps 1 hour out of a week? In the end, that is nothing compared to the amount of time that you will need to work for the rest of your life.

In the end, even though it was more work than just filling out an application and applying for a job, I do feel that I acquired the skills that I would need to find another career/another project/etc. if I needed to - and I do not think that I had the skills in the past.

By the way, you don't say why you like linguistics, which might help with your brain storming. I have known a few people who became speech therapists - they work with young people, and I think they make a big impact on the lives of the people that they work with - but it might meet your criteria. Or is it learning about different languages? My guess would be that you have or know the tools to create teaching material, and that can be a fun way to explore and interest and hopefully make money,too. Just some ideas. Good luck.
posted by Wolfster at 10:51 AM on July 24 [10 favorites]


I think Wofster gave a really great description of how one can tackle this. No bones about it, it's *work* to figure these things out. I'm going through something very similar to you (everyday I contemplate my own Ask question) and I think what I'm learning is that it is a process and you have to be willing to put some time and effort into getting out of your head and building up your knowledge of what's out there. I can very much relate your feelings of having a kindergartener's idea of what's out there, but I know it's a big, big world. The trick is to carve out some time to explore both what interests you and then doing the networking outside research. Right now I'm working through Barbara Sher's I could Do anything if I only knew what it was, I don't agree with everything in her philosophy, but it's thought provoking. And this summer they offered an online book club to work through, which has been well worth the $, being accountable every week to do the exercises. Another resource I think has a lot to offer is Passion Catalyst. It's been a few years since I was on his website, but in his book he had a lot of ways to explore what motivates & drives you and then how to brainstorm the possible career. Good luck!
posted by snowymorninblues at 11:47 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]


If you're inclined to thinky things, straight-up teaching in primary or secondary schools might be challenging, given the importance of classroom management (which is most of the job, according to teacher friends), which requires a certain amount of physical and emotional stamina. I agree with Wolfster -- SLP might also give you a sense of direct reward, maybe a bit more breathing room in terms of scheduling, and somewhat more of an opportunity to flex your analytic muscles. I guess it's possible to also move onto research and teaching (e.g. CPD) later on, if you've got the stomach for more hoop-jumping after that. (Any kind of front-line service work will involve frustration with paperwork and/or systems, though, and expose you to risk for burnout. But if you hate the corporate environment, it's got to be an improvement.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:54 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]


This is orthogonal, but, if you can, consider working in the same job - but less .

I'm at the point in my career now where changing jobs, any job, would necessitate a huge backwards step in my salary. I make great money now so we are talking like half or two thirds. Massive reduction.

What this means, however, is that working less will actually keep me further ahead than a career switch and like you I don't hate my job, just parts of it and the stress.

I'm in a new role now so can't, but something I am seriously planning when my contract is renewed is to drop down to three or four days a week.

I'll still have plenty of money for my fairly modest needs, why should only newish mothers get this option? Lol. I have also noticed that the corporate world, here at least, is getting more on board with alternative work arrangements. Likewise consider contracts. My current role is only a twelve month contract, but I took it in part cause if it suck it's only a year.

Dunno if this will help but food for thought if you are able to do it.
posted by smoke at 3:08 PM on July 24 [1 favorite]


Career counselors are very largely garbage unless you already have a field narrowed down and are looking very specifically in it; then the right person may be able to help you finetune your search. Otherwise most counselors put you through a battery of generic vocational tests and then give you generic advice and charge you lots of money for that. Maybe there are a couple of exceptions here and there but I haven't found them.

Just wanted to second this. They really can't tell you what you want for you, hence all the generic tests. Don't waste your money on counseling until you already have a goal in mind.

I’m not even sure if I want to change fields completely or just try to find a different instructional design job – I don’t HATE instructional design work, but right now it’s so tangled up with all of the things I do hate about my job that I’d love to get away from all of it.

Well, why don't you start with trying to find a different instructional design job first, and see if that improves the situation? (Sounds like the easiest way to start to me.) If you become clear that industrial design is definitely Not It For You, then start reading up on different fields that are related.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:01 PM on July 24


I don't think the problem is your field, I think it is your employer. There are a lot of places doing work that matters that need instructional designers. Sometimes that work is caring for kids with cancer, and sometimes that work is just making really good software, or just making something that people really like. But not every employer that employs instructional designers is like the one you work for, and the field of instructional design is becoming more and more valued and understood.

I actually hired someone like you about a year ago. I was looking for an instructional designer to focus on e-learning design in an academic medical center (i.e., a hospital affiliated with a university). He was an instructional designer with good tech skills burning out in a soulless corporate job.

I have since left the organization, but I got an email from him last week thanking me for bringing him into his current role. He has a supportive atmosphere, meaningful work (creating training for nurses, doctors, and other care providers to provide better care for patients), and a sane work-life balance.

You don't need to start from scratch. You just need to find a better place to work.
posted by jeoc at 6:13 PM on July 24 [3 favorites]


Thank you, everyone, for your insightful and compassionate advice - I was feeling seriously twisted up in several knots of stuckitude last week, and it's been so helpful to hear from a variety of perspectives in terms of both how to get unstuck AND what other people have done in similar situations. It is truly like a good deep breath of air to realize that I'm not as stuck as I thought I was.

Too bad that career counselors really aren't all that useful to someone in my position, but I'm glad to hear that now before I spent the money and time barking up that tree. I'm going to check out some of the books recommended here, start taking inventory of what I do/don't want in a job, and begin figuring out what other options might appeal and who I can talk to about them (Wolfster and cotton dress sock, I'd certainly never considered speech therapy before, but from what I've read over the past few days it's something I at least want to learn more about! Perhaps that'll be my next askme) ... and in the meantime, I'm going to give up on my idea that I have to be SURE before I start making a move, and am going to start applying for (preferably non-corporate) instructional design jobs in my area. It'd be great to find out that I'd be happy doing this line of work in a different field, but even if that doesn't work out at least it will have been SOME change while I continue figuring things out ...

Anyway, thanks again, all of you ... for the first time in a long while, I'm actually a little bit excited at the prospect of a real change here, even if it takes a while.
posted by DingoMutt at 10:46 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


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