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Your Career Ain't Over Till It's Over

Posted: 12/13/2013 5:40 pm

Sixteen years ago, at this very time of day, I was probably stimulating a rat. No, not in that way.

In 1997, I was in university studying neuroscience, and when I didn't have class I volunteered in a lab. The prof I worked with was studying epilepsy. My job was to go and pick up rats from their cages in the animal lab, put them in little travel cages on a cart, and wheel them down to the professor's lab. They had all had prior surgeries to implant a kind of screwcap on their heads that connected internally to highly specific parts of their brains. When I reached the lab, I would remove the rats from their cages, attach the screwcap to a stimulator machine, give them each a little jolt of electricity, and then write down what their resultant seizures looked like. Good ol' PA17 always had a particularly good one, repeatedly bouncing off the lid of the containment chamber.

It wasn't as fun as it sounds.

The research was necessary, though -- there are still many humans who can't be treated with epilepsy medication, and this professor was a leader in helping these people. I admired the work he was doing, but soon I decided I wouldn't be able to spend a career doing it. Sure, I could have pursued a different research area, but I also didn't love the science classes I was taking, even though I was able to pass them. I threw some English classes into the mix, and graduated with a double major in English and Neuroscience.

Besides watching the Discovery Channel with a keen eye, I haven't used the science part of my degree since.

Stick with me a bit longer, I'm coming around to my point.

When I finished school I was excited to get paid, so I took the first serious job offered to me and became a report writer in telecommunications. When the glamour of telecom wore off I quit and went back to school for a Master's in Education, starting a business teaching English to immigrant businesspeople, also teaching business communications to college students. When the poverty lost its excitement (poverty is an exaggeration, but fear of struggle was not) I returned to telecom, but I quit once again, this time to raise my kids -- by far the best job I've ever had (although the pay is shit).

Why the resume, you're wondering? Because I want to share with you the place my thoughts go on a dark day, when I feel like I have a career commitment problem. I seem to have spent a lot of money and many years learning about what I don't like doing, and as I look around and see surgeons and CEOs and concert pianists who are younger than I am, I wonder if I've flittered away the time it takes to become really good at something. Jack of all trades, master of none.

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When I visit my pediatrician, I'm slightly jealous, but not because I care about medicine. He's doing his thing. Sometimes I fantasize that the CBC wants to talk to me about something or other. I watch people retire with 30 years somewhere and am in awe.

But then a better day comes along, and I tell myself that it's not that I'm unwilling to commit, it's that I haven't found my career true love yet. I am unwilling to settle. I'm making progress, improving and learning with each step I take, getting stronger at understanding what I love and what I won't grit my teeth through anymore. I'm proud that I'm good at learning something new, and that I've been good at many things. And I'm not finished yet.

Here are a few of my role models -- people who made a major change later in life, and seemed to do all right by it.

Julia Child started out as a CIA intelligence officer. She hadn't tasted creative food until she was 36. She wrote her first book at 49 and was 51 when she first went on TV.

Andrea Bocelli, the world famous tenor, was a lawyer until he was 34 when he quit to pursue music full-time.

Vera Wang was a world class figure skater when she was young, and then became an editor at Vogue. She was passed over for the Editor-in-chief position, though, and so designed her first wedding dress when she was 40.

Colonel Sanders started out as a fireman, and didn't create KFC until he was 65. And in other fast food news, Ray Kroc was a mixer salesman until he became the driver behind the McDonald's franchise at 52.

Martha Stewart started university studying chemistry, but later switched to art and history. She was a model until her daughter was born, and then later became a stockbroker. She published her first book at the age of 41.

These six people are only a few famous ones of the many who have shown that changing things up later in the game might sometimes be for the best. And let's look even closer for other takeaways (shout out to Sanders and Kroc). Vera Wang always had a love of fashion. Bocelli loved music from a young age, even though it took time (courage?) for him to make it into a day job. Martha Stewart always had a head for business. We may already know what we're good at, and what we love, but we might not be listening. Some of us might need extra time and money and experience and safety and courage to get to where we need to be. Writing this article is an example of how I'm finally listening to what I love to do.

And don't worry, I'm not ready to kiss my previous lives goodbye yet. Who knows? Maybe I'll write a kid's book about an epileptic rat phone technician with an accent, who has always wanted to learn to swim (Did I mention I was also a lifeguard?).

By Ann Moore

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