Dear Dr. Civitelli,
I am a middle-aged accounting professional who was just laid off from my Fortune 100 job. I don’t miss my job because I hated it, but now I have to decide what to do.
The main benefit of my lucrative job was that it helped me pay for art school. My true love is theater crafting. Throughout my career, I’ve alternated between working in finance to pay the bills, and making sculptural items for costumes: accessories, masks, armor, hats, bags, shoes, fantasy character heads, etc. Theater is my true love in life. While it can be very stressful and deadline-driven, theater delights me and lets me focus on and use the skills I most enjoy. I love color, texture, form, and bringing someone’s vision to reality.
All of the job counselors I’ve consulted say that because of my age and how well I am paid as an accountant, I should continue in it. This, to me, feels like both an expected response and a death sentence. I am NOT a detail-oriented or linear person by nature. I’m holistic. Conceptual thinking is what I know I excel at – and doing quantitative work has always meant putting in extra effort just to turn myself into someone I am not – someone who does tedious bean counting – every day. I should really get an Oscar – I’ve been faking it really well for years. But it’s starting to take a toll on my mental health. I even went to a psychologist for advice, and she diagnosed that I was getting to where it might be considered medical depression. This terrified me. I’ve only ever been a person who was in the wrong career, not a sick person!
My question is: Do I go on with this craziness? How long does one do this “quiet desperation” thing? Yet how else can I financially stay afloat? I feel like I have no answers. My husband and I are childless, so we are pretty much able to replant where necessary now that my job has ended (my job pays better than his). My friends from my art career all live in Seattle, where I would like to return. So I am looking in a B-level city, not an A-level city like San Francisco or New York. Do I go with an A-level city and live without my close friends for another 10 years? Will I survive that kind of isolation?
Ideas? I’m stuck. I’ve looked at what other areas I might be good at that might utilize my skills, but it seems they all require a related Master’s degree – I have a BFA. I feel certain that I’m a good writer, for example, but have no credentials – that sort of thing. I can’t even teach art! I can’t afford to go back to school, and it doesn’t seem to make sense at my age. Advice?
Dear Quietly Desperate,
When I read your question, I immediately thought of my friend and colleague, Ken Mattsson, because he works so frequently with creative clients. I sent him your question and here is his response:
My first thought upon reading your letter was the quote, “What happens to a dream deferred?” It certainly seems that you are very clear that you have been heading down a path that has definitely had a mental (if not physical and relationship) toll on your life. One of the things that I tend to say to any client I’ve had who has been laid off is “Congratulations!” Nine times out of ten, the response I get is, “I know, I feel the same way.”
Yours is quite a complex matter, but here are some initial thoughts:
1. You need to take care of your health first. If you know that this is absolutely the wrong place for you and makes you just crazy, then you don’t need to keep doing it. I’m reminded of the joke, “What’s the best part of hitting your head against the wall?” Answer: “It feels so good when you stop.” It sounds like your better judgment (and you’ve known this for a long time) is that this job and working environment are not what serves you. Listen to your inner wisdom.
2. Given that you need to look at other options, you need to have a hard look at what role your employment plays in your life. While you’ve been well compensated in the past for your work, you probably won’t be in the same position in whatever role you take, at least not in the short-term. You were in the rarefied air of a very financially lucrative industry. Now that you’re in a different mental place and are realizing your values, you need to find a place that is more in line with those values. This will require some deep conversations with your spouse about quality of life and what is really important to you. If you want to go to Seattle, check out the reality of the costs of living there and how much you might downsize if that works for you.
3. The big question is: So what do I do for a job? When I work with clients, it can take a while to figure this one out. Your career is usually a combination of the environment in which you work, and the particular tasks (and job title connected to those tasks). I recommend that you first think about the environments/industries where you’d feel comfortable and then look to see what needs are there that you could fill. Most people do this in the opposite order, and it only gets them into trouble. I would also look at some of the skill sets that you like to use and see what other positions utilize the same skills. A lot of artistic people think all you can do is teach art, but there are other options for doing things that are creative – it just takes research to find these options.
When choosing a career, most people do what I call “The Foxhole Method of Career Development,” where people fall into a position (foxhole) and they feel relieved at first that they don’t have to look anymore. But, sooner or later, the foxhole feels cold, dark, and damp, so they jump into a new foxhole without assessing the goodness of fit and after a while, that position feels awful, too.
What I recommend instead is a three part career development process where you ask these questions:
– Where am I?
– Where do I want to go?
– How do I get from where I am to where I want to go?
Dr. Civitelli and I believe that people often give up on changing careers when the reality is that small steps can add up to big changes. We live in a time now when someone can become an expert in something just because they started a blog about it, independent of formal education. People earn a living selling all sorts of things online. Many customers/clients have more money than time and will happily pay others to organize, teach, facilitate, and manage. If you love “bringing someone’s vision to reality,” there should be ways to build a career around that.
4. Rather than struggle alone, I recommend that you work with a career consultant who has your best interests in mind and listens to what you think of as success. While you might have been a success in the financial field, it certainly sounds like it wasn’t successful for your life. Career consultants help clients to align their work and life. What feels overwhelming and impossible in isolation becomes much more attainable when you have professional support and structure.
I hope this helps. Keep the faith.
Career Consultant and Educator Ken Mattsson offers free 15 minute consultations to assess whether hiring him would be helpful. Please visit Resonare Consulting for more information.