…attaining any worthwhile goal is really a matter of taking one small step at a time.
GEOFF GAMBLE, former interim provost at Washington State University and now president of Montana State University, once told me studies show that most people will have three different careers in their lifetimes. During that conversation, he revealed that he was on career number two, since he’d worked in insurance before becoming an academic.
According to a variety of sources, people may change careers as many as seven times during their working life. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports 67 percent of American workers don’t like their jobs, and 41 percent of them are not employed in the field they studied in school. During the prosperous 90s, the percentage of “job leavers” rose from 9.9 in June 1996 to 13.3 in 1999 when, at the same time, unemployment was at a 30-year low. Finally, in every occupational category, says BLS, employed persons with higher educational attainment have the highest job search rates.
Gamble’s words stuck with me when, two years ago, after more than 13 years of employment, I quit my job at WSU Libraries and began my own career transition. While I’d been happy at WSU, the last year or so of my employment felt as though I was merely going through the motions. I needed a change but wasn’t clear on what it should be. Eventually, I put my indecision “out there” and hoped the right cue would appear. Faith is as faith does, and the cue entered stage right when some friends told me they’d moved to Port Townsend, a place I was already interested in moving to due to its supportive environment for writers.
I trusted my decision to join my friends, because it came from the heart: I wanted to navigate my life instead of live at the mercy of it. Just the same, I used a therapist to check myself because, as one friend put it, even Olympic champions have coaches.
My method of leaving home and sailing into uncharted waters is by no means right for everyone; others should act according to their own risk threshold. If changing careers seems overwhelming, like sailing around the world solo, remember that attaining any worthwhile goal is really a matter of taking one small step at a time. After you’ve identified what you hope to become, start the transformation process incrementally. Take part-time classes, do volunteer work, and develop contacts with people in the field you’ve chosen. Keep up with current trends by reading trade journals. Know that not knowing—i.e., having “beginner’s mind”—isn’t a “bad” thing. Don’t let fear be a determining factor.
I made my move not knowing at all how it would turn out. I didn’t have work—and along came a tip for a great telecommuting job from a friend I’d made in an Internet writer’s group. I didn’t have a place to live in Port Townsend, nor had I sold my house in Pullman. But I was open to all possibilities and was keeping my expectations to the absolute minimum. As it happened, I got the telecommuting job, I rented my Pullman house, and I moved into a wonderful sunlit cottage with oak floors and a loft, which complements my desire for simplified living.
But after the novelty wore off and day-today reality set in, I realized working alone at home wasn’t for me after all. I’m a social animal spoiled by my former colleagues at WSU Libraries, and I missed having co-workers to laugh, joke, and eat lunch with. Again circumstance pulled me along, and I found myself working for a poetry publisher, first as a volunteer, then as a paid employee, a job which afforded many pleasures, including a private hour with author Margaret Atwood. Later, another timely opportunity presented itself, and I’m now happily settled at a medical software company, using copyediting and project management skills along with my Internet experience. I never thought I’d have anything to do with health sciences, so I have realized my skills can cut a swath across more areas than just the one I’ve worked in for eons.
A lot has been written on how to make a career change, but not much about what happens when the change involves a move to another town. Although I grew up in Bremerton, relocating to Washington’s west side was like moving away from home rather than back to it. For what seemed like too long, I felt as though I had an emotional stone in my shoe. Last winter, I thought media coverage of the UW Rose Bowl trip was excessive. I still wait for hot weather that never comes, and I grieve for burgers from Pullman’s Cougar Country Drive-In. But I knew I’d successfully tacked through the waters of newcomer angst when I wrote my first letter to the editor of the local paper. Now when I stand on the beach just a few yards from a bald eagle perched on an offshore boulder, I have no regrets.
Geoff Gamble tells me his plans for career number three—owning an antique store with his wife, Patricia—are on hold now that he’s taken the presidency at Montana State. As for me, it’s not clear whether bartending during my 20s really counts as a “career,” so I figure I’m somewhere between numbers two and three. I don’t know what’s next, but when it’s time for another change I’ll happily go forward, sometimes letting the current determine my course and sometimes deliberately catching the wind.
Boldt, Laurence G. Zen and the Art of Making a Living: A Practical Guide to Career Design. Revised and expanded ed. New York: Penguin, 1999.
Bridges, William. JobShift: How to Prosper in a Workplace Without Jobs. New York: Perseus Publishing, 1995.
On a clear day, Kathie Meyer ’92 can see Mount Baker and Mount Rainier at the same time. She welcomes e-mail from WSU friends and classmates at firstname.lastname@example.org.