Sunday, February 03, 2008

What I want to be when I grow up

I don't know about you all, but I thought I'd have my life figured out by the time I reached middle age. At least I hoped that would be the case. But I've learned that, for me at least, life is an ongoing experiment of mixing, matching and adapting to whatever fate or the gods throw at me. Right now I'm trying to figure out what kind of work to do. The writing is on the wall; I need to leave my day job sometime in the next year.

But what to do next? I have so many ideas, but, like Goldilocks, I'm having a hard time finding the work option that is just right. After working for 30 years, I'm pretty sure of what I don't want--but less clear about what I do.

My last column for Bay Windows, pasted in below, highlights my dilemma. Can anyone relate??

Growing Up

Judah Leblang/2008

When I was in my twenties, I held the naïve assumption that folks naturally grew wiser as they got older. I believed that the answers to life’s big questions naturally came to people as they spent more time on the planet; it was a trade off for losing one’s hair and making bad fashion choices, like wearing plaid.

But once I reached the age of thirty, and then forty, I realized that adding years doesn’t necessarily bring answers – or that the solutions change as time goes by. I’d heard other myths about aging, which didn’t necessarily come true either. At some point, my metabolism was supposed to slow down, and I would get a middle-aged paunch like my father had thirty years earlier. Today, at fifty, I’m still waiting for it to happen. Meanwhile, I actually struggle to put on weight, to avoid being skinny, to stay in lean or slender territory.

I’m fine with being thin, but not so fine with my confusion about one of my major dilemmas: What should I be when I grow up? Even though I used to be a career counselor, (I was quite good at helping other folks figure out what they wanted to be and do), I’m facing a career crisis of my own. My work history is somewhat checkered, or eclectic, as I like to say. I’ve done everything from managing a department of an ashram kitchen (overseeing daily vegetable preparation for 700), to teaching deaf children, working as a sign language interpreter, stacking books in a college library, and serving as an aide in a group home for developmentally-disabled adults.

After stints ranging from a few months to five years, I’ve moved on to something new, searching for something I couldn’t quite define. Now, after toiling in my current department at a local college for almost eight years -- a world record of staying power for me -- I’m itching to move on again.

I’m looking for balance, an elusive concept in my life. In the past, I’ve had jobs for which I was truly passionate – teacher of the deaf, sign language interpreter – and which sucked me dry, mentally and emotionally. I’ve had other jobs that were dull and boring, like my library work and my current position as a “program evaluator.”

Basically, I look at how grant-funded projects are being run, and write annual reports, examining their progress. A more detailed description invariably leads to yawns, eye-rolls, and attacks of narcolepsy on the part of my listeners. Therefore, at a party or when making small talk, I simply say that I’m a writer with a “day job.”

The truth is that I’m passionate about my writing, and about doing creative work in the world. My job enables me to do the other things that give my life meaning. For the past eight years, that was a compromise I was willing to make. Lately, though, I’ve hit the proverbial wall. And so I’m left feeling a bit like Little Red Riding Hood (if she were a middle-aged man), trying to find a job that’s “just right;” not too stressful, not too dull.

When I was 28 and considering my first career change, I spent almost a year plodding through “What Color is Your Parachute?” and doing informational interviews with airline ticket agents, public relations writers and other professionals, until I finally settled on working as a college staff person. I moved to Boston, earned a graduate degree from Northeastern University, and began working as a career counselor at Boston University.

Fast-forward twenty years. I’ve had two or three career changes since 1992, when I left BU. Once again, I’m facing a time of change; once again, I’m in transition. Today, I don’t have the time or energy to spend a year working through a career-planning handbook. Instead, I’m conducting my own self-inventory, outlining what I want – interesting work that involves direct contact with people, and what I don’t – lots of time sitting in a windowless office, staring at a computer screen.

Going through this process, I’m reminded that I have accumulated some wisdom over the past two decades. I have a better sense of myself than I did in my twenties – a better sense of my skills, interests and values. Like a medieval alchemist, (but hopefully with better odds of finding the right formula), I work to find the right mix of challenge, interest and flow, in my job and in my life.

Maybe, on reflection, age and experience do bring wisdom. This wisdom doesn’t bring easy answers, at least for me. Instead it allows me to seek a balanced life, and to know that, ultimately, what I do for work is not really who I am. Ultimately, I’m not a program evaluator, a teacher, or a counselor. Instead, I’m a complex human being who is simply trying to find his authentic place in the world.

And that – creating an authentic life -- feels like enough for now.


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