February 2, 2006
Midlife Reinvention Not So Uncommon
John F. Kennedy once said, "When written in Chinese, the word 'crisis' is composed of two characters. One represents danger, and the other represents opportunity."
Life is full of change -- in fact, one of the only things we can predict and count on in life is that things won't stay the same. For many of us, this is exemplified in our work. Indeed, statistics suggest that most adults will experience five to 12 careers or job changes in a lifetime.
An actor may suddenly be seen as "too old." A mother faces an empty nest and decides to start a new career. A downsize, an illness, an unexpected inheritance, a change of heart about one's goals -- the causes and types of transition are varied. Some are positive, anticipated and exciting; others are sudden, unwanted and the cause of a major crisis.
Jerry Rogoway was a 50-year-old president of a very successful national chain of retail stores. He loved his work and had done great things for the company. But a leveraged buy-out during the recession of the early 1980s led to Rogoway suddenly finding himself out of work.
"I was scared and depressed," Rogoway recalled. "I didn't know what to do. Where do you go for work, as an ex- president of a company? I answered ads but everyone said, 'You're too qualified.' They were probably right. But that's not what you want to hear when you're desperately looking for work."
Rogoway would certainly have agreed at the time that he was in a crisis. But, ultimately, after much personal work, career counseling and moral support, he came to see losing his job as a true opportunity, and a chance to reinvent himself.
Most people in transition have experienced some sense of loss. And the loss of a job can impact a person's financial stability, routines and contacts, self-esteem or self-identity.
"We define ourselves by our work," said Claudia Finkel, chief operating officer of Jewish Vocational Service (JVS). "If you no longer have that identity and bond, how do you define yourself? You no longer have a sense of self."
Sylvia Marks-Barnett, now 67, left a successful career as an attorney to become an arbitrator in her late 50s. There were several motivating factors.
"I stopped enjoying the stress of the work; it just got intolerable," she said. "Also, my son died of cancer, and maybe I was just starting to acquire some wisdom."
Marks-Barnett says what surprised her when she stopped practicing law was an experience of grief.
"I was grieving the loss of who I was -- a lawyer. Part of my self-image was tied up in that," she said. "I found myself pining for the courthouse and missing all the activities of a law practice, and the rush of being able to accomplish something."
Finkel suggests that most people, when faced with a crisis, don't take the time to mourn what is gone.
"We're in too big a hurry to move on," she said. "But there's more to moving through a career transition -- reinventing oneself -- than just landing a new job."
The grief, the loss of identity and the chaos of a career transition often can be eased by professional help.
Rogoway's desperation brought him to JVS, and last May the now-72-year-old Rogoway was honored as the agency's Employee of the Year, an award that recognizes the accomplishments of local workers who were placed in employment through JVS.
"In career counseling with Bobbie Yanke, she stressed my worth and knowledge and skills," Rogoway said. "She was more creative than I was, because I was focused on self pity instead of thinking, 'Now what do I do?' She encouraged me to make contacts and network with people I knew and who knew what I was about. That led to my next job."
The loss of what's familiar and solid in one's life can leave a gaping hole. It can feel scary and dark. But the emptiness can actually be the opportunity to fill that hole with something new -- something unexpected, or a hope never before realized.
Life coaching is another increasingly popular resource for moving through transitions.
In his 50s, Neil Levy made his own transition to doing life-coaching work in Reseda.
"I see my role as helping with the predictable roller-coaster ride through the transition, and then helping the person turn what appears to be a negative into a positive, and turn an 'ending' into a beginning," he said. "I assist my clients in exploring the possibilities that this seemingly bad situation has created, and then take the steps to create something extraordinary that would never have been possible had life gone on as usual."
Indeed, sometimes a crisis is exactly what it takes to inspire outside-the-box thinking and finding one's niche.
Vincent Yanniello had worked for 10 years as a stagehand for theater and television when some scenery fell on him, causing a major back injury. Yanniello went to see his family physician.
"I asked him to give me a shot to manage the pain, so I could get back to work. He looked at me and said, 'You're not going back to that job -- ever.' Then he said, 'They're having law school admission tests next week. You should go to law school. You were born to argue; you argue with me all the time about your health care. You'd make a great lawyer.'"
Three months later, Yanniello started law studies at Loyola. He has spent the last 14 years working as a trial attorney, and still loves it.
"I would never have thought of becoming an attorney. It took someone objectively looking at my skills and talents to direct me into the career that I was truly born to be in," Yanniello said.
For information on Jewish Vocational Service, call (323) 761-8888.
Ellie Kahn is an oral historian, founder of Living Legacies, at www.livinglegaciesfamilyhistories.com, and president of the nonprofit Living Legacies Historical Foundation. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.