Ask Polly: Can I Start Over in a New Career?

By
Photo: PongsakornJun/Getty Images

Get ask polly delivered every week.

Dear Polly,

I'm being laid off from a job I disliked, a dead end in a career I bumbled into in my 20s and was never a fit for me. In many ways it feels more like a beginning than an ending, and I think this change might be a gift from the universe. Am I crazy?  

The reason why I feel like this might be a gift is that I work in a nonprofit field that I hate. I know the work is overall cushy, and I know people think I'm lucky to be doing what I do. Polly, I feel so guilty. I feel like hating it is the same thing as hating kittens or rainbows. I feel like I have a terrible, dirty secret. 

Except it always comes out eventually. I've been let go from almost every job I've had because, at some point, I just can't fake it anymore. Everyone tells me I'm intelligent but have bad people skills. I think the issue is that I'm an introvert who, by virtue of the type of work and schedule required in this field, never gets enough time to recharge.  

What I want to do is take this opportunity to change careers. For the first time in my life, I'm identifying what I want to do, and taking steps toward doing it. I don't know if I will succeed, but I feel like this is long overdue. I'm volunteering and studying, and I feel like I'm working toward something that represents who I am.  

Don't get me wrong — I'm nervous about things like paying for rent and health insurance, but am trying to take a different approach than I would have in the past. (Previously I would have just rushed into another job in my field — likely in another state because it's kind of a specialized field — and start the cycle anew.)

The rub is that I come from a family where stability is prized above all else. My mother, whose advice I wish I could seek, died many years ago. My father is brilliant, talented, and managed to achieve both stability and credibility in a notoriously difficult creative field. What he is not is supportive.

Because he is the parent I have, his outlook is the one I receive. He views me as lazy, undisciplined, and unrealistic; a whiner who throws away good opportunities and can't manage to behave like an adult. A failure. I don't think he understands that not everyone can achieve at his level. I also don't think he knows as much about me as he thinks. We only see each other once or twice a year, and we never really talk about anything personal. When I say I feel like pursuing this career has cost me immensely in my personal life, he doesn't agree that it's important. At the same time, this is the person who has been in my life the longest. 

What I have in my head is the idea that being laid off is a gift, which I believe in my heart, and my father's deeply critical voice that says the opposite. What do I do with them? Is there a balance I should look for? With this "gift" narrative, am I loving myself to the exclusion of caring for myself? 

Sincerely, 

Unsure

Dear Unsure,

Cushy work that you hate is not actually cushy. In fact, it's worse than bad because you hate it AND you feel guilty for hating it. Throw in your father's negative voice in your head and you've got a recipe for open-ended torture. Not only are you more or less wasting eight hours a day on something that feels wrong, but you're also unlikely to succeed in a field you don't believe in or enjoy.

I understand why that feels like hating kittens or rainbows. Everyone else seems to agree that you have a dream job! Everyone else seems to think that you're a curmudgeon who can't appreciate what she has! But nothing will make you hate everything – including actual kittens and rainbows – quite like feeling stuck in the wrong job and blaming YOURSELF for somehow not being "good enough" to overcome those feelings. Your father thinks you’re lazy and undisciplined; you've adopted his view and can’t stop replaying it in your head to keep yourself in line. No wonder you've got a bad attitude! When you tell him clearly that you dislike what you do for a living, he tells you, essentially, "That's true because you're not good enough." According to his view, then, your preferences, who you are, and what you want are ALL not good enough. How easy is it to move forward courageously with this point of view clouding your perspective?

In my first few years out of college, I also felt like a shiftless, wishy-washy jackass. I felt like everyone around me could smell the total lack of ambition and focus on me wherever I went. And whenever I tried to confront the question of WHAT I WANTED TO DO FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE, I got anxious and depressed and wanted to do anything else but think about it. Instead of seeing gifts and opportunities, all I could see was a long slog through a series of dissatisfying jobs, surrounded by people who probably assumed I was just one of those drips with a bad attitude who would never amount to shit.

My father's death, when I was 25 years old, made me realize that life is too short to shuffle along punching the clock forever. I think you're facing a similar moment of reckoning. There is enormous promise in the fact that you can see this layoff as a gift. That kind of feeling really doesn't come along all that often. You've been looking for a reason to redirect, to trust your instincts, to feel hopeful about an alternative path, and now you have one! And you quite accurately recognize the dangers of simply looking for another job in the same field. That's exactly how I felt in the wake of my dad's death. I couldn't stand the idea that I might go back to living the unhappy, unfulfilling life I'd been living. I wanted to make sure that when I returned to my regular life, I wouldn't return to watching the clock and living for the weekends. My weekends weren't good enough to make that worth it. Nothing was. I needed to seize the opportunity afforded by my life crisis and commit to living a life that wouldn't feel like 80 years of watching a clock run down.

So here you are, exactly where you want to be! This is a reason to celebrate.

To be clear, I don't think that every single person alive should quit their perfectly good jobs to follow their dreams. People who are very successful at something they don't necessarily adore often find it pretty hard to bail on their great salaries and healthy ego-feedings, and for good reason, really. But if you're not even flourishing at a job you hate, WHAT IS THE POINT?

Here's an important question, though: Why is your father's opinion looming so large? If you only see him twice a year, why are you so concerned with how he'll view your choice to do something new? Are you asking him for financial support while you sort out your new path? Is he supporting you right now?

If your dad is supporting you, I would make it a priority to wean yourself from that support. Every single human being I know who's fallen into an extended period of being supported by his or her parents feels the cumulative weight of that. It's very difficult to get motivated when you're being propped up by someone else. It's like you're not really making choices that honor you, because you have to honor the person who's funding it all first and foremost. Getting your dad out of your head is going to be extremely tough until you're no longer getting his checks in the mail.

If he's not supporting you at all and you only see him twice a year, then you have to address the ways his views of you resonate with you. Maybe his negative voice echoes through your mind because you've been hearing it since you were small. Maybe you have a complicated relationship with him that colors all of your other relationships. And maybe there's a grain of truth to what he says, at least in your mind. Because you've been working in a field you don't like, you've underperformed and suffered from your own bad attitude. Part of you is worried that this is just who you are. Part of you is worried that he sees you more clearly than you can see yourself.

Remember, though, that when you haven't succeeded at anything yet, it's incredibly hard not to define yourself as a failure. Everyone feels that way when they're still figuring out what they really want to do with their lives. Everyone is haunted by the idea that it might not work out, that they might fail specifically because of some major flaw in their character. Hell, most people are haunted by this idea even AFTER they succeed at their careers! If pretty much anyone I've known for a long time told me, "Well, you're a successful writer, sure, but you're still the same wishy-washy jackass you always were," part of me would believe every word.

That's true in part because every writer is at least 5 percent wishy-washy jackass. It's in our nature. But it's also true that most people are highly suggestible, identity-wise, no matter how empowered and centered and balanced we might be. If a flying hamburger appeared to me and told me that I was the worst person alive, part of me would believe that. And then if a rat in a speedboat appeared and told me that I am changing the whole world with my incredible spirit and my incomparable work ethic and my shiny, brilliant soul, I would believe that, too. It's hard not to believe what other people tell you, at any age, no matter how bitter or optimistic or utterly imaginary they are. It's challenging to look deep within, at your own heart, to find your own answers. It's tough to trust those answers even when you do find them.

This is your moment to look deep within and trust yourself. This moment IS a gift. I would not hesitate. I would throw yourself into your brand-new path, with all of your energy. There's no need to balance your father's voice against your own. You're an adult and you know what you're doing.

Why not trust yourself more than anyone else? Who lives inside of you? Who knows your sorrows and your struggles and your joys better than you? Who reaps the benefits and pays the costs of your choices? YOU are the decider! Make a commitment to yourself right now. Resolve to listen to your heart and trust yourself from this moment forward. Go get a bucket of gold paint and paint it across the wall of your living room: I AM THE BOSS OF ME.

Polly

Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column appears here every Wednesday.

Get ask polly delivered every week.