My childhood dream was to be a fashion designer. I’ll always love fashion, but priorities and circumstances change as children become adults. By my early 20’s, I’d settled into a string of secretarial jobs to pay the bills. My dream was deferred and soon faded.
For several years, I worked as a secretary in the Center for Psychological Services and Development (CPSD) at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). I knew I was destined for more, but I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I knew I wanted a career, not just a job. The question was, “How do I get there from here?”
As I answered phones, typed medical reports and tracked insurance payments at CPSD, I realized I needed a creative challenge. I did not have a college degree, and I knew that I would have to learn new skills to change careers.
But this job was actually a blessing in disguise – the first step in finding my true path. I began the first of several career changes and learned how to successfully reinvent myself – from a secretary to a journalist to filmmaker to media educator. Here’s how I did it:
At CPSD, I completed two helpful career assessment tools, The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and the Strong Campbell Interest Inventory. These helped me to identify areas of interest, even if I didn’t have the skills and experience yet. I also read books on changing careers.
As a full-time employee at VCU, I took advantage of the college’s tuition waiver program and explored career fields to learn what kinds of topics really interested me. I took courses in English, music, journalism, history and even karate.
A news-writing course is what changed my life. My professor, Bill Wasson – a quirky man with a great sense of humor – was a full-time writer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, one of Virginia’s largest daily newspapers. Bill noticed my talent for storytelling and helped me get my first freelance assignment. He later recommended me for a full-time opening at the paper.
I interviewed and landed the job. That’s when the fear emerged. “I’m a secretary,” I told myself. “What if I don’t have what it takes to be a journalist?” I discussed my fears with my parents. Both said to “Step out on Faith.” Their wise advice became my mantra.
The first few months at the newspaper were grueling. I was shy, but I soon learned I needed to be a social butterfly to interview people, ask questions and get information on deadline. My editor was a stickler for detail and made sure I checked my facts and spelling at least three times before publication. There were days I didn’t feel I could cut it as a journalist, but I’m not one to give up. I became more determined to succeed. And I did.
After becoming an award-winning writer and working nearly a decade at the newspaper, I decided to go back to college. Once again it was time for a career change. I completed my Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing at VCU when I was 40, followed by a Master of Fine Arts in Film Production from Howard University when I was 46. The plan was to reinvent myself from a writer to a documentary filmmaker and to use my storytelling skills to educate.
After graduate school, I was blessed to be chosen as a Media Teaching Artist for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. I traveled around the country teaching documentary film to middle school students and teachers during a six-month educational tour. This was a truly rewarding experience.
Even though my career goals were on target, sometimes plans get interrupted by life. While on tour, my mother died suddenly, only four weeks after my father was diagnosed with cancer. Naturally, I was devastated. When my tour ended a few weeks later, I paused my career to support my family and deal with life and to grieve.
A few months later, I took a career detour into the first job I could find: an educational nonprofit. It was an organization with good intentions, but plagued by a high turnover rate due to employee burnout exacerbated by long hours and constant management changes. I knew this was not a career destination, but I needed an income and to stay busy so that I would not be overcome by my grief.
I was soon approaching 50, and in a job that was demanding, but not rewarding. I knew it was time to make a change, but career changes can be trickier later in life with mortgages, personal and family issues and a rocky economy.
But career changes at 50 are not impossible!
I again took another leap of faith: I left my job voluntarily. I expected to find a rewarding full-time position within six months, but it took much longer. I devoted endless hours to combing through online job sites trying to find jobs that I could “fit” into. I started to lose sight of my career goals, and became more and more anxious after numerous online applications and few interviews.
I got stuck in my job search, so I looked for workshops that could help me move forward. I learned that networking is key to a successful career changes. At a resume writing workshop, I met a friend who introduced me to contracting, and I was fortunate enough to land temporary contracting jobs as a technical writer and editor.
While job hunting, I also met Edythe Richards, a career counselor who specializes in the MBTI, a personality inventory used in career counseling. Edythe believed I had too much potential to be unemployed. She suggested I retake the MBTI to learn how my personality type impacts my career choices and job search strategy. I had long since lost the results of the first career assessments taken nearly 30 years ago at VCU. Becoming reacquainted with my personality type and revisiting my interests again at 50 were good ways to get started on the next career change.
My personality type is ENTJ. Like most ENTJs, I am outgoing, innovative, analytical, forward-thinking, determined, rational, and communicative, with a propensity for leadership roles. I guess that explains my interest in storytelling and communications, and my career choices. Knowing more about my personality helped me understand my career goals and how I see myself, and how others may see me.
Changing careers has not been easy, but I have no regrets. The journey has made my life richer and more fulfilling. When I am not working as a technical writer and editor, I am still pursuing my work as a filmmaker. I recently produced my first full-length documentary film for a small production company. I am also starting my own video production and graphic design business to continue my documentary film and storytelling pursuits.
I have friends who say I am an inspiration, and who are currently changing careers later in life. They have shared their fears, and I encouraged them by sharing my story. Here are a few of my “lessons learned” that I hope will inspire you too:
- Career changes do not come without some fear of failure, risk and anxiety. That is part of the journey. But preparation, persistence and faith can prevent failure.
- Changing careers may seem like a monumental task, but staying in a job that is no longer fulfilling is like wearing shoes that are too small. You may make it to your destination, but each step will be more painful.
- A key to changing careers is getting to know yourself by learning your interests and your strengths and weaknesses.
If you are unemployed or underemployed, what do you have to lose by changing careers? My parents’ advice – “Step out on Faith” – worked for me, and I know it can work for you too.