Maximize my mid-life opportunity: Open-ended, few restrictions.
October 17, 2014 12:58 PM   Subscribe

I find myself in my early 40's with two careers under my belt and an itch to do something entirely different. I have no kids or spouse and no debt. What in the world shall I do? It's an embarrassment of riches and I am paralyzed.

I realize how fortunate I am and I give thanks every day that my "problem" involves finding something interesting to do somewhere in the world.

I've been on MF since 2005 and I am continually impressed and charmed by the initiative, drive, intelligence, and creativity of MeFites. So many of you have done such interesting and incredible things - I feel guilty considering myself one of your number. But that makes you the best people to ask about such a wide-open situation.

My stats: F, early 40's. Ph.D. in biomedical/psychology field. Short stint as professor, followed by 10-year career building a biomedical company that was sold last year. Had a year off work entirely afterward - I needed this time to heal from an abusive marriage and subsequent divorce that occurred just prior to sale of company. I was really a mess for the first time in my life and have lost confidence in myself because I "broke down" and I have not experienced that before. I'm in therapy and getting medical treatment.

I have always, always wanted to live abroad and travel the world. I've done the regular traveling - going abroad on trips once or twice a year and a tiny bit of international business travel, but I have never lived ex-US. I'm twitching to sell my worldly goods and go to Thailand or something. Anything.

I want to contribute to the world, but not in the sackcloth-and-ashes way - I want to use my passions to be my absolute authentic self and contribute that way, while sating my wanderlust. I know people have done this. I just don't know what my passions are after so many years being what others want. Does that ring true with anyone else? Who am I when you subtract the degrees and the paycheck? I'm everything and nothing. I don't know.

Peace corps? I'm a green smoker so not sure I'd qualify. Teaching English? I'm sure I'd love it. I love teaching and was good at it. Global nonprofit? I really like the job ads in the Economist but am never quite what they seek. Should I just go somewhere and bum around until I find "it?"

I do need income eventually. I have a small passive income stream that would support me in maybe Thailand but I can't go gallivanting around without making some money.

I hated, hated corporate life. But I've never worked with non-banker, non-corporate types, so this characterization may be unfair to those in the tech sector or otherwise. I am abysmal at corporate politics. But I'm a good, hard worker. Just not savvy at the bullshit, if you will. I tend to be really honest, transparent, and can't rah-rah if I don't believe it. So I'm more academic, for sure.

I'm sure I have left out important information, so I've created a gmail: It is based on a book I loved as a child, The Trumpet of the Swan.

What should I do? Would YOU hire me? I'm not even sure what I'm asking. I know I'd be valuable, much more valuable than any paycheck, in a situation I felt strongly about. I'm smart. I'm strategic. I see patterns and the big picture really easily. I get along with everyone. I'm easy and very go with the flow. I can work in any setting and don't need the accoutrements of success (corner office, company car, etc.) I love people.

I'm great at research and pulling things together. Great at scientific writing. It has been suggested to me I'd be good at a law firm doing sciencey research, maybe patent law type stuff. I've done some freelance writing but it is a big bag of suck, really, unless you are good and savvy (I think user Wolfster has mastered this area). I'm not good at self-promotion or "social networking" or FB or Linkedin.

Any ideas? Direction? Exercises? I'm wide open.

My thanks to all of you. I've benefited from reading your advice and insights to others on Ask MeFi for years and I hope this is a fun exercise for those of you who like to advise others!

Hmmm...other relevant stats: Originally Southern, spiritual/Buddhist, meditator, animal lover, not materialistic, introvert who does well at extroverted things (though they exhaust me), reads voraciously, marathon runner, struggles with alcohol, dances with depression but medicated/therapied, lived all over US, thinks Sweden is a utopia based on news about policies, a few, very strong long-term friends who are like family; no relationship with mentally ill mother and sister, good relationship with father (all family local).

Again, for whatever I've left out: serenitytrumpeter at gmail dot com.

Thanks for any ideas, comments, direction, bossiness, criticism, inspiration, or anything else.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (14 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
No one can say what you "should" do. What do you want to do? What have you always wanted to do? This is what bucket lists are for. Go out there and do it!

It sounds like you want to live abroad. Did you see this Ask about retiring in Europe? There are lots of other questions about working abroad too.

Peace corps? I'm a green smoker so not sure I'd qualify
That's just laughable. I've only known a few who did PC, but they were all pot heads. It's targeted at hippies.

Good luck finding your bliss.
posted by I am the Walrus at 1:23 PM on October 17, 2014

Teaching English abroad: I did this for a year in Japan after college. At least in the 90s, it was a great way to see a new part of the world and required very little experience. Admittedly after one year I'd had my fill of teaching basic English but had made enough connections to spend a second year working at various other jobs before moving on. But I know many people who stayed, and found jobs doing everything from acting to running a bar to moving up the ladder in the teaching world. More recently, a disillusioned journalist I used to work with went to Thailand planning to sit on a beach and clear his mind for a while and ended up staying and opening a bakery. So just getting yourself to an interesting place will open doors. And it's worth noting that while I was in my mid 20s when I taught in Japan, I met lots of people who were your age, and were at various inflection points in their lives, and had decided to do something different for myriad reasons. Given your circumstances, my vote would be to just go.
posted by bassomatic at 1:50 PM on October 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

I don't know if these resources would be helpful or not, because I'm not sure which things you are prioritizing (ie, Do you want to still work doing stuff related to your academic field? Or is traveling the priority?)

Anyway, since our academic backgrounds overlap, many years I posted a "What are alternative careers for a biologist with a PhD?" and I did go with one of the careers someone suggested and I am still inspired by the many things that people did (ie, clinical trials, research for the EPA, game designer, etc.). So if working in your field is desired, check it out. You could also ask those people about their careers if anything sounds interesting. Along that same though process, if you want to have it be related to science, I found the book "Alternative Careers in Science" very helpful. I described many people's day-to-day life at various jobs related to the sciences, so you could skim and say no, or investigate this, etc.

You suggest going into patent law as a possibility in your post. I don't know how much research you have done yet, but I have had a few colleagues/friends go that way. They loved people who had a master to PhD in the sciences, trained them for a few months, and then they were set to work. A friend started in the federal gov but he later got a job at a law firm. Most places (in NYC, can't speak for the country) offered to pay for a law degree, too, should a person desire to it. To be honest, I don't think my friend enjoys it nor is it a good fit for him (it is corporate, he is a bit more creative), but it is a field that will pick up people with a background in science.If you are interested (and one doesn't show up in this thread), let me know and you could email get the contact info for this friend and email him if you want to discuss what it is like for him.

One thing that comes out loud and clear in your post is your desire to travel and work overseas.

If I were in your shoes, I would not disclose the green smoking, but I think it would be highly likely the Peace Corps would hire you if you so desired. I was a volunteer in West Africa many years ago, and this was straight out of undergrad. I will say that it opened my eyes in terms of another culture in many many ways, and it is one of the few things that I would do again if I relived this life. I was also told by the Peace Corps at the time that a science degree was what made some volunteers desirable for placement, so my guess is that you would quality. You might look into volunteering for the UN, too - at the time, they wanted what seemed to be a more professional background (ie, graduate degree, a few years in a field, fluency in another language) - I think you would qualify for that too. Just as a heads up, though, although you might have idealistic thoughts/beliefs, you might get a lot out of it, but I'm not sure about the reverse (that was my experience).

As an aside, my experience with Peace Corps and Peace Corps friends was not consistent with Walrus' experience, but one's mileage may vary.

Also, I've seen postings for teaching university in other countries. I have not looked in a while, but Chronicles for Higher Education sometimes runs those ads. Why not check some out? I've known a few people who did these and they had great experiences. I believe that you would have a lot to offer someone at this point - not only do you know your field, already taught at the university level in that area, but you can speak to what you can do with the degree/and have that experience.

Good luck.
posted by Wolfster at 2:20 PM on October 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

What a great position to be in! What comes out most strongly in your post is that you want to go abroad. So do it! Just buy a plane ticket and get an AirBNB and try it out. It's cheaper than staying home and you can explore a lot of places. Buy a ticket for Thailand for next week and go. If you don't like it, buy a ticket from there to Sweden. And so on. You don't have to sell anything, make any lifelong decisions, or change who you are. You just have to buy a plane ticket.

While there, you can do all the same research you can do here. (The internet is everywhere.) Read blogs of Peace Corps volunteers. Look at graduate programs. (Maybe in another country? Sweden? Australia?) Look at law firm jobs. You can do all of that from abroad. You can also investigate local opportunities like NGOs, university jobs, business advising, etc. in each place. You have an extremely valuable skill set that a lot of organizations would want.

If you're not happy, you can always come home. But why not go? NOW.
posted by 3491again at 2:20 PM on October 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't really know exactly what to recommend for you, but I'll tell you a dream of mine that's in the same vein as what you're describing.

I would also like to travel around the world and spend time in places for more than just a week on vacation or so. I'd like to actually live in places, at least for a while. Well, we live in a very connected world. With the proper cellular data setup, a good laptop, and a way to make a living where you don't have to be in an office, you could do that job just about anywhere in the world. I'm an engineer, and I'm fairly sure I could do my job, using all the online resources that are available to me, from a cafe in Paris or a chalet in the Alps or a coffee shop in Tokyo or whatever. As long as you have an internet connection and can properly handle the time difference to communicate with your customers on THEIR time, you could do a whole lot of productive, paying things while being just about anywhere. You don't have to have a job in a country to work from there.

You seem to have a lot of education and experience, so maybe you could find a consulting niche in your biological or psychology fields. Maybe you could learn web design; I don't think you need an office to do that. Any business you could run from your house is probably open. I don't know; it's really up to you. I just think that the centralized office is a thing that can't die soon enough now that there are so many ways to communicate across the globe. Maybe you can be a trailblazer for that concept; you sound like a good candidate for it.

Let us know what you decide on anything; I'd be very interested to hear about it.
posted by KinoAndHermes at 3:29 PM on October 17, 2014

I'm 53 and currently travel full time. I established my business in 2007 and left the US a couple of years later. I lived for awhile in one country, and then I sold everything again and hit the road. I recently ate my way through Asia and am heading for Europe.

I meet a lot of single expat women in their 40s and 50s, and the main concern I have about them is that they're not making enough money. They teach English or work for non-profits or do clerical-type work that requires English, and they barely make enough to pay the rent on their tiny apartments. They worry about retirement and medical bills. It's an adventure, yes, but they're in a vulnerable position.

So my main recommendation is to not search for your one true passion but to look more coldly at your income possibilities. What would make you the most money with the least suffering, anywhere in the world? Focus on that. You don't have to be wildly in love with it. It just has to be interesting and satisfying enough that you're happy to do it in order to get the freedom you want. And it has to pay decently so you have the freedom to leave a country if you no longer like it, afford decent medical care, and live in a comfortable place.

Of the income possibilities you listed, the one that stuck out for me is legal research. There are definitely lawyers supporting themselves by working online around the world; search "legal nomads" to find one of them and probably links to others. I could be wrong, but I suspect that legal work pays more than many of the other ideas you listed.

I'd suggest you start doing the work now, while you're still in familiar surroundings and in the time zone that most of your clients are probably in. Once you're pretty sure it will work, you can hit the road and introduce all the complications of Skype calls, virtual post office boxes, visas, expat taxes, etc.

I got the impression that you're viewing this from the perspective of a prospective employee rather than an entrepreneur. You'd be much more secure and portable with multiple clients rather than one employer. This means you'd have to be willing to market your business. It's not ugly "self-promotion." You'd be providing a valuable service that others need, and they'd be better off if they knew about it.

My customers are corporations. They're much easier to deal with as customers than as employers. They (usually) pay on time and treat me professionally. Non-profits and small businesses are harder to work with.

Finally, you mentioned troubles with alcohol. Unhappy expats drink. Most of the expats I've met in Latin America and Asia drink, and their social lives takes place in bars or alcohol-fueled parties. To avoid getting sucked into that crowd, I'd recommend (again) having a decent income so you're comfortable and aren't tempted to join bitter expats in their drink-and-complain sessions. Plus I strongly recommend going to places where you speak or are willing to learn the local language so expats aren't your only social group.

Good luck!
posted by ceiba at 4:46 PM on October 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

You should apply for a job in Antarctica! The landscape is stunning, the people are unique, and you'll have stories to tell for years, plus you're helping valuable science get done. I've known a lot of people who did six months work/six months travel; since you don't have any living expenses while you're down there, you can save up your salary for adventures.

Here's a list of jobs you could apply for. (The downside is that the season runs August to February, so you couldn't start until next year.)
posted by fermion at 8:41 PM on October 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I spent my non-US years working at a university, and in many ways, it was great. Your skills would be perfect for one of the many non-US based, English speaking universities, particularly the science and technology programs that so many countries are investing heavily in. Qatar Foundation, KAUST, NUS, HKUST, and I'm sure many more that I've never heard of.

If you want to stick with biology, there are frequently research positions available at various levels, but when I was looking at your list, I was thinking that you may be perfect for a tech transfer office, collaborative research office, or the groups that help turn academic ideas into businesses (all of these tend to have different names in different places). Your combination of science qualifications and business experience would be appreciated. It can be exciting work and you can make a difference. Or it can be frustrating, bureaucratic and make you feel far from home.

Benefits usually include good pay, perks like housing allowances, not paying US taxes, and generous amounts of leave (8 weeks+).
posted by oryelle at 8:59 PM on October 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

As a returned Peace Corps volunteer, Walrus is overstating things a bit - I never smoked as a volunteer, and to my knowledge most of my colleagues would say the same. But certainly not all of them could, and of those I know who smoked up, none were kicked out (at least not directly for that). Your real hurdle there is that you are still I'm therapy, I think. Having been in therapy for anxiety or depression is not automatically disqualifying, but requiring ongoing therapy might be, because that may not be something they can assure you would receive in country.

With a background of running a medical business, I'd look into MSF; they need more than just doctors!
posted by solotoro at 3:35 AM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Came back to say that some of the most adventurous people that I've met have been the teachers (primary and secondary) at international schools. There are English language schools all over the world and apparently, once you've taught at one, it's relatively easy to move around. I knew people that moved every three or four years from Laos to Peru to Hungry to Dubai, etc etc. If you've ever had any interest in being a high school science teacher, I might look into it.
posted by oryelle at 5:04 AM on October 18, 2014

Hey, Solotoro - thank you. What is MSF?
posted by Punctual at 4:39 PM on October 18, 2014

And I am a doctor!
posted by Punctual at 4:40 PM on October 18, 2014

Medicins Sans Frontieres, which translates to Doctors Without Borders.
posted by Athanassiel at 6:59 PM on October 18, 2014

Oh, yeah, sorry - in the development world, abbreviations like that are super common (people call them acronyms, which drives me right up the wall, but whatever). Athanassel is absolutely right, Doctors without Borders are who I was referring to.
posted by solotoro at 2:14 PM on October 19, 2014

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