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It's OK to Be a Late Bloomer at Work

I switched careers later than planned. It felt awkward at first but was totally worth it.

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The Sisters Staff
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I don’t really feel my age, 39, until I go on press trips where writers are expected to interact with social media influencers and others. My most recent trip was for the release of a new motorcycle. I got a list of the people who were invited and, of course, I knew not one person on that list. And I wondered if they were all younger than I was. When this happens, I usually call one of my daughters.

“You need to look these people up on Instagram, mom,” my 21-year-old told me after I shared the names. “I really don’t think I can tell you much in a few minutes.” I paused, and she spoke again: “You do know what Instagram is, right?”

Of course, I knew Instagram — I often used it to do research before these trips. But I didn’t always have such excitement around my work. I started my writing career at 26 by developing instructional guides for things like installing car parts. I eventually started teaching college writing courses after grad school. But I felt a pull for something bigger.

Still, I didn’t make any major changes for a couple of years, until I started spending time with a woman named Christine, a woman I’d met via grad school. When we started spending time together again in 2016, she was 72 and had begun working on her doctorate.

“You can’t just let your life slip away without knowing what greatness you could have,” she said, when I asked why she’d gone back to school later in life — twice. “Don’t wait another 20 years like I did.”

By then I was 35, and I’d begun to dabble as an entertainment writer and film critic. I was starting out in a new field while my peers were on track to managerial and tenured positions. But after talking to Christine, I decided to go all in on my new career. Which is how I recently ended up on a press trip at age 39, in Eugene, Oregon, surrounded by young millennials and people from Generation Z. It was different.

Of course, I know I’m not the only Gen Xer in a new field. Many people have the dream to pivot to another field or jump into a new one. For instance, a 2019 survey of 1,000 women by In Her Sight, a research company on women in the workplace, found 73 percent of women want to change careers. The reasons include money (30 percent) and the desire to work in a field or for a mission they can believe in (16 percent).

Even though making a switch late can be stressful financially, and even socially, that stress was worth it to me when I got to work in the career of my dreams. And if I do mess up at work now, it just becomes a great story.

For instance, on the first day of the press trip I mentioned earlier, I saw an attendee who looked like an intern. She was wearing two short pigtails in her hair and glittery stickers on her face. She was small-framed and wore bright colors, which along with the hair and stickers made her look about 12. A few times that first day, I asked her about our shared itinerary. Once I even complimented her on her hair, as I thought the ponytails were a brave decision. The intern was nice, but quiet. I didn’t think much of her until later that night at a meet-and-greet dinner.

The event was lively when I got there, and an internationally known DJ was in charge of the music. She was killing it, too, with songs that even I knew. After getting seated, I finally got a good look at the music master. The talented DJ who had the whole room entranced was that little intern with pigtails and glitter stickers. I tried to remember our interactions, hoping they weren’t too awful. Did I actually call her hair brave or did I just think it? I still don’t know.

Despite the occasional missteps for people like me who switch careers, I believe that answering the call is always worth it. When I switched over, I had to build an appearance of a life that would make readers want to know more about me — a brand. I did it, eventually, by joining a Facebook group for journalists, getting beauty advice from stylists I met and befriending experienced journalists who were willing to indulge my questions. But there was still a learning curve. These days, when I show up to events wearing a blazer over my usual T-shirt, complete with stretchy yoga pants, I don’t exactly fit in with the people around me. But I feel like I am making a difference. And I’m having the time of my life.

If you’re contemplating a career change, don’t let your age get in the way of your decision. Find your support system, even if it’s an internet friend. And consult with the veterans in your field or a person you trust (like Christine) to help. Sure, you may feel older than usual when surrounded by people who look like kids, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If anything, you’ll get some great icebreaker stories out of it.