Hitting 'reset' on your career

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 8, 2012 - 9:20 AM

Many adults in their 40s and 50s find passion in radically different professions.

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After Rick Emerson had two heart attacks during open-heart surgery shortly after his 43rd birthday, he decided to focus on his passions. He left his market-research career to open an indoor golf center, Inside Edge Golf, near his home in Eden Prairie.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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The revelation came on a treadmill. Sharon Billings had tired of IT and human resources work and quit her job. A subsequent workout changed her life.

"I have always been an animal lover. My cat was sick and I took her to the vet, and the care and compassion I saw there really got me thinking," Billings said. "Then one day I was on a treadmill at the gym and saw a commercial for vet tech school. I thought, 'I could do that.'"

And she did, becoming a certified veterinary technician in her early 50s. Now 59, Billings manages cases for the pet poison help line at SafetyCall International in Bloomington -- and "I love love love what I do every day."

Amid a turbulent economy and in a rapidly changing workforce, many people are taking to heart the phrase "chosen career" by pursuing a passion in a profoundly different profession. The jobs may not be as lucrative, but the emotional payoff can make up for the difference, they say. Such moves are particularly prevalent among people in their 40s and early 50s, but don't automatically attach the catchphrase "midlife crisis" to them.

"It's more a reset than a crisis," said career adviser Gaye Lindfors. "In that age group, people frequently want to reset their career goals and their life goals. They're asking, 'Does my life really matter?' And if it feels like there should be something more, 'What am I going to do differently?'

"And then they frame it around their job. Chances are it's more than the job."

But often it is the job.

Jim Anderson spent years as an attorney for a private trucking company "and never really enjoyed the work," he said. When the company went out of business 12 years ago, rather than pursue a similar job, he took a career aptitude test.

"And it turned out that [the tests showed] I should be teaching," said Anderson, of Afton. "It was actually what I had wanted to do back in the 1970s."

So he spent two years getting a master's in education and has been teaching middle-schoolers in Mahtomedi for a dozen years.

"When I was a lawyer, it got to where I hated going in on Monday," he said. "I was even physically feeling the effects of not enjoying work. Since I started teaching, I can honestly say I haven't had a day where I didn't look forward to going to work."

Added his wife, Karen: "I don't think he knew quite how unhappy he was. He was kind of a zombie."

Karen Anderson was so impressed by her husband's transformation that she followed suit, giving up her dental hygienist career to become an artist. At her Over the Edge studio, she focuses on wood work (clocks, lazy Susans, wall plaques) and stained-glass mosaics. Her latest project: "a line of eco-friendly dresses from previously worn and loved T-shirts."

Hopping off the treadmill

These changes tend to unfold more often in mid-career rather than early on for several reasons, according to two local industrial/organizational psychologists.

"Once people get to that point in their life, it's almost like they've kind of figured out who they are and what their strengths are," said Carol Lynn Courtney of Courtney Consulting. "And when people get to their 50s, the kids often have left home and it's allowing them to look at their life or their work and even start things that they might do in a different way."

Many people in their 40s and 50s also are growing tired, emotionally if not physically, of their career grindstone.

"People can pretty much put the pedal to the metal until they're 40 and do anything," said Dick Olson of the Olson Consulting Group. "You get to your mid-40s, putting the pedal to the metal doesn't give you the satisfaction in your career."

Olson counsels clients to assess what they really want in life -- and to make sure that they have "not only interest but the aptitude" for a new endeavor. Rather than ditching a career to become a photographer, he said, they might be better off changing their work focus to free up more time for pursuing photography "as a hobby, not a living."

That would be following an example set by younger workers. "Generation Y has more interest in having life balance," Courtney said, "and not having work be so much the center of their focus."

Younger workers also tend to be satisfied just having a job, especially in the 21st-century economy, she said, and they typically haven't yet faced the kind of crises that prompt reassessments.

Finding link(s)

Rick Emerson's "what am I doing with my life?" moment came under the most harrowing of circumstances: after open-heart surgery, during which he suffered two heart attacks. He had just turned 43.

A career market researcher who had spent 13 years at Best Buy and then started his own company, Emerson took stock of not only his options but also his passions.

He laned on golf.

"I already was exploring the idea of putting a simulator into my home," he said. Then he noticed several open retail spaces near his Eden Prairie home and "putting those thoughts together and knowing that I had many friends and acquaintances who shared my frustration with the short [golf] season here, I began formulating the idea to open an indoor golf center."

Inside Edge Golf was born, where customers can play any number of simulated games during Minnesota's (heretofore) long winter months.

But while Emerson's timing was great for him personally -- "it kind of energized me again," he said -- opening in 2011 was not fortuitous, business-wise, given "the winter that wasn't this year," Emerson said. "The challenge now is to look for ways to up our revenue over the 'outdoor' season."

'By the seat of our pants'

Like Jim Anderson, Emerson was blessed with a supportive wife. But it's natural in these cases to have friends and family members wonder 'what the heck are you thinking?' Emerson said those close to him had a mix of "excitement and trepidation, like 'Are you sure? In this economy?'"

Anderson said he had some close friends who were very supportive -- "they had gone through me not being real happy" -- but that his and Karen's families had been "neutral" during their transitions.

"Her parents might have had the hardest time because they were of an era where you worked somewhere 40 years and stayed there and then retired."

Having at least a measure of security on the financial front is important, as well. Karen Anderson said they had done Jim's changeover "by the seat of our pants. I would advise people looking at doing this to have a financial plan to go along with it. It's been a struggle."

The road might be bumpy at times, but for those who go down it, there's probably no looking back. If they've made the right choice, they end up like Billings, whose daily regimen has changed mightily in the 41 years she's been in the workforce.

Then: "You get up every morning and make sure your shoes and purse and outfit are all coordinated and head to the office, where you work hard but are sitting down."

Now: "I put on scrubs every day, and as long as I'm fully clothed and clean, I'm good to go. I'm running around all day and wrestling with dogs but also getting kissed by dogs. It's something I can be happy doing until I really do want to retire."

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643

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