Dust myself off? Okay, how?
January 10, 2014 1:24 PM   Subscribe

At the age of 50-something, it appears that I've seriously failed at life. Some years ago, I left a stable and well-paid career for one that I thought would be more interesting. It did not work out.

I cannot return to my old career. It's significantly changed and the few jobs there are go to new graduates. I am currently self-employed and can barely pay my bills. I am constantly anxious about money and am afraid I will end up homeless. I have practical ideas about how I might change things for the better, but I see myself as an unreliable loser who cannot be counted on, so I feel no enthusiasm about my plans. I am horrified at the mess I have made of my life and reflect on it constantly. I don't know anyone else in similar circumstances. Has anyone here been in a similar situation? How did you move forward? How did you convince yourself that you could turn things around? (I already take antidepressants, and they make a huge difference.)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (21 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
You seem to be falling into a trap of thinking that your career/job has to be one thing or the other. Rather than making this a two-option question, why not start exploring other options?

What do you need, financially, to sustain yourself?
Can this be assisted by moving somewhere less expensive?
Can you stopgap your financial predicament by taking in roommates?
By selling your car?
By taking a second job?
Can you use the skills you have in another field, even if that means taking several part-time gigs?

By moving from an all-or-nothing mindset, you can break down your problem into actionable chunks, rather than looking at your whole life as this one problem.
posted by xingcat at 1:33 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I see myself as an unreliable loser who cannot be counted on

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy will totally help you with this.

I tried it and it made a huge difference. My situation was different to yours, but the clouded thinking I was engaging in made the situation much worse and prevented me from getting the help I needed. Once I figured out that I was actually capable of doing things, and that my telling myself that I wasn't was both a symptom and somewhat a cause of the situation, I managed to make things better much more quickly.

Talk to the person who prescribes you the antidepressants about it. Or have a look into one of the many online CBT programmes. The book Feeling Good is also recommended here on the Green with much frequency, and for good reason. Have a look through this list of cognitive distortions and see if you recognise any of them.
posted by Solomon at 1:33 PM on January 10, 2014

I am so sorry you are going through this. You are most certainly not a loser and you have not failed at life. This thinking pattern is actively causing yourself pain, so I'm just going to reiterate my advice here in terms of ways to start putting the brakes on it -- especially to say that you are a human being deserving of dignity and respect, doing the best you can under historically difficult circumstances. Remind yourself of this -- kindly and lovingly -- multiple times a day. It's the truth and you deserve to know it.

My best to you.
posted by scody at 1:39 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

You cannot return to your old career, you say, but can you write about it? Writing isn't easy; it's more than words on a page. In the current self promotion style climate, it seems that you've got to find a hook or angle on which to spread your expertise, put together a few outlines, and start writing, even if it's just blog entries you expand into a book.

Get out there on twitter and FB and promote the pants off of it.

Book writing seems to be the new blog; a few hours of writing a week about it at least gives you something to do, even if after spending some time self promoting through the "pay when it prints" book services out there you don't get a huge return for a while.
posted by tilde at 1:43 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I felt similar to you about my personal life in my mid-twenties. Whether it was reasonable or not to me to think this, I did feel like I had fucked up my life beyond a recoverable point, so I think some of my approach could still help you.

1. Just like having a partner is not the only thing in life, neither is having a big-C career you can point to. Take a look at the other aspect of your lives, and value what's going well. If nothing else, if you do not have a debilitating disease, that's a big plus.

2. Realize that all you can do with your life is to make the best choices you can with the information you have. At the time you chose to leave your old career, it is highly unlikely that you had enough information to predict that your new career would end badly. In fact, you don't even know that your old career would have also ended badly. Don't kick yourself for bad fortune.

3. Building on 2, you can't make perfect choices. So, it's OK that you don't feel enthusiasm for your plan. All that matters is that you make choices, see how they turn out, and learn what you can from them. Focus on the learning, not on the success.

4. Reward yourself for effort, not for results, which you may or may not control. If you apply for five jobs in a day, fuck whether or not they turn up a lead. You did them, you get to sit down and play video games for an evening, or make some food you like, or watch some shows or what have you.

5. Get out of your head by doing things like exercising, walking, woodcarving, painting, or anything else with a physical component.

You can get through this. Mostly, you just have to keep going. Keep grinding, keep crediting yourself for grinding.
posted by ignignokt at 1:46 PM on January 10, 2014 [6 favorites]

I think that many of us are very familiar with a part of what's happening to you here, which is that you have a collection of pretty significant things to solve that have glommed together into one thing that is SO HUGE that you don't know where to start.

For me, it usually helps to start to break it down. All these problems are aggravating each other, but they're a little different. You need to figure out how to stay safe and fed and sheltered, for instance, but that on its own doesn't require you to instantly work through all your feelings about your disappointment about the direction things have taken. If you're reasonably secure for right now, think about how you can be secure for longer.

The really angry feelings you have at yourself are a different problem, and I echo that talking to somebody might help.

And yes, at some point, you'll want to figure out what you want to do with the next phase of your work life, but (1) that doesn't have to mean the rest of your work life, and (2) you don't have to do all this at the same time.

Break it down. Much as you can. Chip off a piece at a time. If you think of it as "How will I fix all this huge mess I've made?", it will be too intimidating. If you think of it as "How can I address all these negative feelings?", that's a more manageable thing. And so is "How can I find a solution to make sure I have a place to live?" Don't get me wrong -- none of these things are easy, and they're imposing and hard. But they're much less imposing than "Everything is a mess; how will I approach it all?"

One thing at a time. Do one thing, and then do another thing, and try really hard not to punish and dump on yourself for risks you've taken that didn't pay off. That doesn't actually mean they weren't the right thing to do; if it did, that would mean all risk was wrong. The entire point of a smart risk is that it doesn't always work. Maybe that's your tale and maybe not, but there's only one way to go, and that's forward. I'm not saying that as a "Smile! Look on the bright side!" thing, but to say that moving forward is happening with or without stuff getting fixed; all there really is to do is tackle one thing at a time.

Do one thing. That's my advice, is do one thing.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 1:47 PM on January 10, 2014 [8 favorites]

I don't know. I think it's more admirable to strike out on your own and fail than to sit bored at a desk all day for decades in order to stay financially safe. If you hadn't tried it, you would always wonder if it had been possible [and think of yourself as a loser for not trying it?].
posted by goethean at 1:51 PM on January 10, 2014 [5 favorites]

I see taking a risk and it not working out as way more admirable than punching a clock every day and going through the motions. And at 50-something, you've got 30ish years of work experience to build on. Figure out what makes you excited to get up in the morning and come up with a way to get paid to do it. Don't sit around waiting for somebody to hire you - do your own thing if you have to.

Start tomorrow. Not Sunday, not next week, tomorrow.
posted by COD at 2:06 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hi Anonymous
I can relate to a lot of what you are saying. Memail me if you would like to talk through some more detailed stuff.
posted by Kerasia at 3:04 PM on January 10, 2014

You have got to survive. Failure is not an option. Seek help from a professional who can refer you to the best kind of help (hard to say if CBT or "therapy" will work, because we are not mental healthcare professionals).

But you have got to do what you can to survive. And the first rule is to not give up. You're that guy in Touching the Void. You've fallen in a crevasse, and you have got to pull yourself to safety no matter what.

This could mean working a second job, or significantly downsizing, in order to reach stability.

Seeking stability, and help, is the second rule of survival.

Once you have that stability, plan your next steps. But right now you have got to focus on surviving.

Don't give up.

I've been there.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:34 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I know a lot of people in my field who end up in this situation, and I want to be helpful, but I find it hard to give any concrete suggestions without knowing your expertise/field. This sort of thing is so dependent on the trajectory of the field.
posted by Miko at 6:22 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

You haven't failed. You tried something, and just because it didn't work out doesn't mean it wasn't worthwhile to try. Meanwhile I am reinventing MYself at 55 and I have a gleam in my eye again.

Don't let depression or worry overwhelm you. Age is just a number, don't let that aspect of things drag you down needlessly while you seek to better yourself.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:56 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

In somewhat similar situation as you, am approaching 50, left "safe" and well-paid job in IT, and now struggling to start a small business.

Check fiverr.com and etsy.com, to see what other people do. May recognize something you'd be happy to do.

Possibly a small, trivial step, but can be a gentle push forward. Small steps, will lead to quicker accomplishments, and be a booster for bigger steps. Believe in yourself, and be persistent.
posted by element930 at 7:12 PM on January 10, 2014

I myself was at a crossroad once and this has been something that has changed my life. Don't usually like to go around telling this but you should try it.
posted by ladoo at 7:17 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hmmm... my mom, maybe. At 48 she was a SAHM in the middle of a nasty divorce (mostly her being nasty, but still - not easy, exhausting, etc.). I left for college, and then my brother moved in with dad, so in six months it went from a household of 5 to a household of 2 (her and my sister, who was 12 at the time). She hadn't worked in 20 years and suddenly needed to. She'd been doing a lot of volunteer sewing for my high school theatre department, so she started volunteering for odd jobs (paid). Then she got a job at the community college as a seamstress. Eventually she went back for her Master's degree and finished a few years ago. She's an ABA therapist and LOVES her job (she's 61). It doesn't pay heaps, and she likes to sew - so she still takes odd sewing jobs on the side. During this time she also started unabashedly doing stuff SHE likes to do... watching Doris Day movies and going square dancing and going to church. She also quit doing other things she didn't like... like cooking.

Baby steps. Like, ridiculously tiny small baby steps.

Also, I'm sure her life didn't look like she expected it to - but that's probably true for most people. And it's okay.

Another question today by someone feeling very alone had someone suggesting AA meetings as a free source of support (they said most people there were there for similar reasons - and the majority had nothing to do with alcohol). Can you find something like that? Or church? Even if it's "church" like a Center for Positive Living or AA or Unitarian or...?? Having a support group will help.
posted by jrobin276 at 8:00 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your life isn't a failure at all - you've experienced things you never would have if you'd taken a different path, and there's absolutely no guarantee that that other path would have been an improvement over what you've experienced on this one.

Find another path, cut back on your "needs" until they're your "wants" and don't fret so much about the future. I worked for 31 years full time, sometimes two jobs, then got hit with Parkinson's Disease at the age of 48, just when I'd found what I considered a great career, one I'd retire from in 20 years. It wasn't to be. But it HAS been another 20 years, amazingly enough, and I'm living on Social Security, which was not my plan ever, and getting by just fine. In fact, I'm very much aware of how fortunate I am to still be here and still be with it enough to contribute (or annoy) MetaFilter and others.

There are safety nets out there, but many of them are hard to find. My advice would be to cut your losses if your business is truly not going to make it, look for help for people who have lost their businesses - there may be some resources through one or another government office for exactly that type of crisis, cut back on your expenses - be harsh about it, and put yourself into gear to find something new to do to earn enough to live on. You may have to move to a new area where there's more work - then just do it. Think of it as an adventure - that's the only way of looking at things that has kept me sane over the years.

There's no way we can predict whether our plans will be successful because there are too many outside factors involved. Think of all the people who worked the same job for the same company for 45-50 years, contributing to their pension fund and thinking they had done the right thing, only to lose their entire pensions as a result of Bernie Madoff or one of his cohorts. Or think of those who do everything right and then drop dead right before they retire. You just can't set things up to work with any guarantee no matter how hard you try.

So you take what you're given and make the best you can of it - you adapt, then adapt some more, and then even more. You've done something I always wanted to try - to run my own small business. That took courage and persistence to keep working at it for many years. You still have that courage - you'll be fine.
posted by aryma at 9:57 PM on January 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

People here on mefi ask this question in their 20's, for crissakes. I think it's evidence that we all have questions about the quality of our decisions. Some cocky SOBs don't, but it may be more that they are sociopaths than well adjusted, or at least as plausible.

It IS possible you are an irretrievable fuck up, useless and hopeless. That would be very rare.

There are many post-50's stories about people reinventing themselves and succeeding. Changing careers is de rigeur these days. Sometimes it works. Other times, it trains one how to do it.

Management is decision making in the face of uncertainty. So is life. Uncertainty, insufficient information, risk, external factors, actively oppositional agents, unknown unknowns, random chance, location issues, a billion constraints.... all involved. Also, you could be possessed of limited useful resources or ones whose market value has declined. Comes with aging. Many have sung this tune before. We could start an orchestra.

Hang in and try something diff. If you want to shed the disguise, I am sure many above would pen-pal you via email. I certainly would. Feel free to reach out and if you don't, then by all means do so where you are.

Good luck.
posted by FauxScot at 11:48 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm so sorry you feel bad. And I think you're being too hard on yourself. You're working, you're on anti-depressants, and you have practical ideas to improve your situation: you don't sound like a loser to me.

I feel like maybe you're underestimating how common your situation is. It's something people hardly ever talk about, but just based on random friends-of-friends, it looks to me like your situation is really, really normal.

Some examples off the top of my head: A friend of mine, at 50, quit his job unexpectedly and flailed for more than five years before getting a position teaching at the local community college. A good friend in his mid-forties quit a well-paying IT job to reinvent himself in a creative field. Today he's doing the work he wanted, but is making about a third of what used to -- I'm not sure whether he considers it a success. A mid-forties guy I know made a career jump that didn't pan out: after about three years he clawed his way back into his old field at a less-good title and presumably less-good pay. A friend's father was forced into early retirement from middle management in his mid-fifties and ended up building a small business doing the books for local restaurants. And a woman I know quit her corporate HR job at 50 to start a catering company, and ten years later she's doing PR.

I am guessing all those people spent a lot of time worrying. I am guessing too that to pay the bills, lots took shitty jobs they never told their friends about. They all seem fine today.

I don't know if those stories will make you feel better or worse. What I take away from them is that our ideas about careers are just wrong and simplistic. I don't think anybody's work is a straight line, from Junior X to X to Senior X, or whatever. We flounder, we go in weird directions, we dither, we recover. I wish we did a better job of telling each other the truth about it -- I think it'd relieve a ton of people's anxiety.

Good luck to you.
posted by Susan PG at 11:57 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Like others said, it's best to start small. Maybe you could start a list of things you can do about your financial situation such as:

1. Donate plasma for money if you live in the U.S.
2. Get a part time job -- it might not be doing something you like, but it's a little income. I worked with three people who were self-employed when I did retail most recently.
3. Substitute teach at a high school (depends on you area, but sometimes all you need is a high school diploma and there isn't much "teaching" involved)
4. Look at ways you can get your taxes reduced or some government assistance. (I just found out we could get a discount on my council tax because I am a full time student.) No need to be too proud to apply.
5. Get rid of all unnecessary bills or talk to said companies about cheaper rates. Say you're having a hard time or that you found a cheaper rate elsewhere.
6. Write to your fav. companies about customer service you have experienced recently. They'll send you coupons or vouchers.
7. Go to your local library and get the book The Tightwad Gazette or The Complete Tightwad Gazette. It's a little old, but not completely dated.

Would you be willing to get training for a year or two at a local community college to start a new career? Nursing Assistants were very popular when I worked in the US although the pay varies a lot. X-ray tech is highly paid in parts of the US.

For reading, I'd suggest the Art of Happiness.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 9:40 AM on January 11, 2014

It seems like this is two separate questions - one is psychological and the other is practical. You're getting a lot of good advice in this thread about how to deal with the psychological. I recommend that you spend your next-week's question telling us what exactly those two jobs have been, with some detail about the kind of work you did in those fields. I bet you will get a ton of advice about different jobs that you could try to apply for, given the work you've already done. Folks here on Mefi have an amazing way to see things in a completely different way than you yourself see them.

Best of luck. We're rooting for you.
posted by CathyG at 2:36 PM on January 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Presumably, you chose your first field (where you were successful) and later you chose your second field (which you thought would make you happy or you would excel at). What do the two jobs / fields have in common? There must be something, or they both wouldn't have interested you - even if the thing-in-common is vague, like "creativity," or "being your own boss" or "comfy clothes", or whatever it was in you that made them both you-magnets. Someplace at that intersection could be your new job. It could even be guiding others who are thinking of following the same path.

First you have to take steps to feel better about yourself, as others have said. But instead of thinking of yourself as a loser, try to refocus on what you actually are: an expert in two fields. Even if your expertise in the second is "what I shouldn't have done" or "what doesn't work" - that is valuable information that you earned the hard way, and you're entitled to claim it as a positive.

Without knowing the fields in question it's hard to give specific advice, but I think there's a Venn Diagram you can make from them that can help guide you to the next path when you're ready to trust yourself to take it.

Good luck.
posted by Mchelly at 8:08 PM on January 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

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