“Is this the age,” I asked my boss on Friday, “when people have a midlife crisis?”

She is 43 and very smart, but she didn’t know.

I was talking to her because I’ve been feeling uneasy lately about my work life. I don’t dislike what I do to pay the bills. I work for the same little non-profit I’ve been at for seven years, dealing almost exclusively with the creative work that drew me to my job in the first place, and not at all, any more, with the administrative stuff that I always hated. I’m as pleased as I’ve ever been with the way the organization is run, and delighted with the aforementioned awesome boss. And I have a couple of clients who call me pretty regularly for a little extra writing and design work.

This is all what I was shooting for when I left grad school and decided to try to find a job working with words in a non-profit setting. And I’m happy with it.

But what I want to be, in the recent words of someone who’s full of audacious goals these days, is Happy. And I started thinking that meant setting some new career goals, making a new five-year plan. I like what I’m doing now. But I don’t think I want to still be doing it five years from now, and going with the status quo isn’t going to take me anywhere except exactly where I am.

So I met on Friday with a career advisor who I hoped would ask me lots of thought-provoking questions to help me figure out what I want to do next. Instead, he … God, I don’t know what he did, but he had the biggest eyebrows I’ve ever seen, one swept up and the other down almost to the bottom of his eye, and he seemed at a loss for what to say during our hour-long meeting (which I’d paid for) and ended up spending most of it pulling books down from the shelves and directing me to write down the page numbers of the chapters he found interesting.

He also gave me a worksheet entitled “Transitional Spiral” with a diagram showing a career path: plateau, trigger point, reaction period, decision making, and Go for it! The illustration was a thick black line looping up along the page, with jagged arrows showing the direction of travel. It looked like a coil of barbed wire.

I couldn’t quite communicate to the guy (nor can I here, really, I guess) what I was after. “What’s unsatisfying about your current job?” he prompted. I couldn’t and can’t think of anything. I just find myself wondering what’s next. There’s a lot I like about what I do, but it seems like there should be more. Maybe Happy is just a few little adjustments away.

And then I think maybe this is Happy, for me, as far as paid work goes. I got some good poetry news last week—a small but big-to-me honor and a poem accepted for publication—and each of those things was about three hundred times more exciting than anything that’s happened in my work life, ever. And I did sort of decide, when I left academia, that I wanted my paid work to take up less of my identity and energy. But then, I’m going to need to work more in the years to come, if we want these two little smarties to be able to go to college, and on top of that our ability to move west (where and whether is a whole other discussion) might very well depend on my ability and willingness to get a job that brings home a lot more bacon, and probably good health insurance as well. If my work is going to get so big, I want to love it. But I don’t want it to take away from the poems, the writing that I really think is my vocation.

Anyone out there looking to hire a poet?

I’m not going back to the guy with the eyebrows, but I’m going to keep working on this, figuring out what comes next. Do you make career plans? How?


5 thoughts on “Itch

  1. These are the questions I’m always just terrified to ask myself, so I’m probably not much help. But I’m conflicted all the time too – I really like what I’m doing now, but it’s just taking too much of my energy, and it’s not even full-time. So, sorry for the utter lack of helpfulness, but I’m always up for a little commiseration at least. And at least whatever lies ahead does not involve diapers! You’ve probably read this or something similar, but I thought this was interesting today: –especially the last article. In the religious circles I run in, the jargon we use is “being in a time of discernment”. It’s generally considered good to share the fact that you’re in an itchy place like that, and that you could use prayer and insight, perhaps even more formally, like meeting with the deacons. Which is just to say, you’re kind of doing that sot of thing here, and there are a zillion ways of going about it, but naming it and asking people to share that journey with you is probably helpful and healthy, even if they don’t (like me) have too many answers right away.

  2. I have terrible inertia about work – I’ve been at the same place for more than 13 years. And every once in a while I hear about a job, and then I don’t do anything about it…good luck with your search, even if you end up in the same place (which actually sounds quite nice).

  3. I saw a career adviser once, when I was very unhappy at a job. While I didn’t end up following the plan we came up with (I went on a 4 month trip around the Pacific, and then came back and got pregnant, instead, and found that some of my priorities had shifted), I did find the experience useful. I still refer back to some of the materials. It sounds like you got a dud of a career adviser.

    One thing my adviser had me do that was hugely useful was write a “career story”, where I wrote a summary of what I did at each job I’ve had since I started on my current career. I also wrote what I found most rewarding about each job.

    Another useful thing was a “job values” exercise, where I rated each value on a list of potential things about a job (e.g., “working in a team”, “working on hard problems”, “feeling like my work makes a difference in the world”…) in terms of importance to me.

    These two things together helped me articulate what I need in a job to be happy at work. And THAT has guided every career decision I’ve taken since.

  4. I don’t know… For the first time ever, I feel like I’m not striving for the next promotion or lateral move towards something better. Obviously it could be that I’m about to GIVE BIRTH, but I recently told my boss that I wanted to stay an individual contributor. I don’t want the hassle of managing people. I like being responsible for content, rather than project management, I’m paid fairly, and I leave at 5:00 on the dot every day. I don’t think I’ll ever find my passion in a job, so my main goal is to have semi-interesting work that gives me the time and money I need for my family. But I’ve only been in this job 1.5 years… so what happens 2, 3, 5, 10 years from now? I don’t know.

  5. Emmie – Thanks for the jargon … “in a time of discernment” sounds so much more noble than “having a fucking midlife crisis already.”

    Cloud – Thanks for the ideas. In your next career move, maybe you could consider being a career advisor, or at least volunteer to train in Mr. Eyebrows! Really, that’s the sort of question I was hoping the guy would ask me. But no. He did suggest I “do some journalling” about it, but then I was too busy gagging about journal-as-verb to be very open to enlightenment.

    Cat – Yeah, these questions would NOT be top of mind for me if I were as pregnant as you, or for, say, two years or so thereafter. A big reason I’m thinking this way is because the energy is available again, after lots of years of hunkering down and staying where I am for just the practical reasons you’re talking about. It just feels like a change of season. Good luck to you, getting through the weekend intact!

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