Kate Gunn on the mid-life career pivot
I haven’t had a linear career path. But then, does anyone these days?
My road has been more transitory, a game of snakes and ladders – played according to my different life stages. I went from corporate to backpacking, back to corporate, then on to kids. But once they arrived my whole world, along with my priorities shifted. I didn’t want to climb the ladders anymore. I didn’t want to sit with important people in closed meetings waiting for my turn to speak. All I wanted was to tap my high heels and be whisked away to the one place I felt I really belonged, whispering to myself “There’s no place like home.”
At that time I was the main earner, so my dream of becoming Dorothy was little more than a fairytale. But over the next few years I did manage to negotiate a 4-day week, and then a 3-day week, before leaving entirely to become a stay-at-home mum in my early thirties. A roll of the dice I was only too delighted to make.
I handed over the household earning power and we tightened the purse strings. As the babies grew I began dabbling in writing – freelance and blogging until, almost accidentally, I found myself in a new and exciting world. I worked part-time from home and developed my digital marketing skills. From there I leapfrogged into a new job and felt incredibly lucky to be back earning a wage when I most needed it, going through a divorce.
But slowly, after many years in the industry, something began to feel off. I knew I wasn’t in the right lane anymore, but I no longer knew what the right lane was – and if I didn’t know that, then how could I move forward? By now I was in my late 40s, feeling burned out and unfulfilled, rocked by a new Covid-filled world, and wondering how much longer I could hang on.
I spent longer that I should have ruminating about how to get unstuck.
I applied for jobs that I knew I didn’t want, just because I could tick off the lists of skills that were given in the job description.
I did interviews knowing that I wouldn’t get the role, and then when my self-fulfilling prophecy came true, I felt my already drained confidence ebbing away a little bit more.
I scrolled LinkedIn looking for inspiration but feeling depressed by the waves of posts declaring “New job!”, “Promotion!” “I’m so honoured to announce…”
I work in social media, I know the score. LinkedIn, like any other platform is the highlights reel – we don’t see the bad stuff. But even knowing this, it still hit hard. It seemed like everyone was progressing while I stayed stagnant and unhappy.
And then a twist of fate. The house that my ex-husband and I had owned was sold and the very small profit was divided between us. “Why don’t you just leave your job and take the summer off?” he said to me, knowing how long I had been unhappy.
I was aghast. I couldn’t just spend the much needed money like that! Could I? Wasn’t that just a waste?
“I can’t think of a better way to spend it than changing your life.” He said, shrugging his shoulders and walking off.
I discussed it with my partner who thought it was a great idea and fully supported the decision. I drew up lists of pros and cons, the pros outweighing the cons tenfold. The only thing holding me back was my own fear, but even that couldn’t block out the glow of three months off.
I handed in my notice days later and counted down the weeks to freedom.
I took the full summer off to write, breathe, and reset. I would start worrying about next steps when the kids went back to school. And what a joy that was. As soon as I logged out of my work accounts, I felt immediate relief and a surge of happiness. But what came next was almost more important. Over that summer I lost the cynicism that had recently taken hold of me. I reconnected with friends and family, spent quality time with my elderly mother whose door I had been racing in and out of for months, travelled to London to visit my sister, went on a family holiday, swam, read, walked and reconnected with contentment and a love of life.
In short – I was given the gift of time to come back to myself.
And then September arrived and I realised I needed to find work. But where to start? I went back to LinkedIn and job sites. I met with adult career guidance experts and took all the help that was going from my local welfare office. I re-did my CV and learned how to answer competency-based interview questions – something I never had to engage with before. I learned that securing a job takes time and is a whole new skillset in itself.
But there was still something missing. I still didn’t believe in my own worth.
As luck would have it, fate intervened again. I’m fairly sure that this could only happen because there was now the space in my life to allow it in.
When a friend had talked to me about a course she had done in UCDs Innovation Academy I thought it sounded intriguing. It would be three intensive months to complete a Level 9 in Creativity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and the course cost would be covered by Springboard. But could I afford another three months not working?
I decided that I would apply, and if I got accepted I would do it. And if I didn’t then so what? No big loss.
I started the course the very next month, and within the first week, I was lying on the cold grass in my garden in a floral dress with flowers scattered over me, directing an unamused teen to take photos of me as I recreated a famous painting to send in to the class.
I had not been expecting this.
My class was made up of just over thirty unique and interesting people – each with one thing in common – we were at a junction in our lives and we were looking for direction. There were young professionals who had fled the war in the Ukraine, there were tech-y start up founders, there were film directors and medical professionals. Every industry, age and personality represented in a wonderful mix of diversity and humanity.
Over the next three months we threw ourselves into the challenge, opened ourselves up, and bonded into a formidable tribe. We learned by doing. Design thinking, leadership, teamwork, business – so much packed into sometimes wonderful, sometimes frustrating, but always inspirational days.
I grew in confidence, learning that I had valuable skills to offer. I wasn’t trapped anymore. If I couldn’t find a job I wanted, then I could create one. The power of entrepreneurship.
From that moment, I applied only for roles that I knew were aligned with my core values and loves.
When I got an interview for a Writer in Residence position at a prestigious university I thought this was it. This was the one I had been waiting for. I spent all weekend prepping for it. I reached out to other people who worked there to get information about the interview process. I talked to other people with the same role in different universities to get a feel for the position. I wrote out and recited answers to every conceivable question I could think of. I did practice interviews with myself on Zoom and then with one of my classmates. I was ready for this.
The interview went well and I crossed my fingers and toes, checking email updates multiple times daily. And then it came. We’re sorry, you were not successful.
The feelings of not being good enough crept in. It hurt. I licked my wounds for the rest of the day, came to terms with it, and by the next morning had put it behind me. There were lots of positives to take from the experience. Not least how willing people had been to help me.
Hot on the heels of this news came two more job applications. The first for a non-profit with a fantastic remit and a job description that fit like a glove. The second – a contract with the biggest publisher on the planet. I threw my hat in the ring for both and got two interviews.
The preparation this time round was easier. I knew the ropes. Again, I gathered help where I needed it – a valuable lesson that I had learned was that I didn’t have to do everything alone. And again – everyone I reached out to couldn’t have been more supportive.
A second interview for one and a job offer for the other quickly followed. Suddenly I had options. Not only were two jobs potentially on the table – I had my own business idea formed from my course and ready to progress.
I thought and talked and walked and wondered, and then accepted the offer that was on the table. It wasn’t forever, but this 6-month contract would give me new skills, open doors and feed my soul.
Over the past months the fear of the future had magically dissipated, and my decision felt right.
I start as Publicity Manager with the publisher in January.
I’m moving forward again, and whatever this may bring, I am ready for my next chapter.
Career junctions can be scary, but in midlife especially so. However, our skills and experience are hard-earned and we have so much to offer. We just need to believe in ourselves more.
As one of our guest lecturers told us – “Always dream one size bigger”.
That’s one lesson I will not forget.