Not long ago it occurred to me that I might make a damn good dog trainer. It would be my third career change, each one accompanied by a different bit of strategic patter to defend my decision—to others and myself.
The dog-trainer idea came to me last winter while I was sick, laid up on the sofa and fairly enthralled by a Dog Whisperer marathon (it may have been the medication). As Cesar soothed one troubled dog after another, I began thinking, "I could do that." And then thinking, "No, seriously, I could do that." At the time, it seemed like a defensible next step after my current job as a school counselor.
See, the hurdle in these situations isn't finances, education, or whether you'll actually like "working with your hands" or "giving back." It's certainly not about any satisfaction you might get from transforming snarling pit bulls into happy lapdogs. It's about the justification. It's about explaining yourself to your current boss, to that ambitious couple you just met at a party, or, hardest of all, to your spouse. And it's about feeling comfortable with yourself as you step on the elevator with your last paycheck and that box of stuff from your desk.
When I've made career changes—from newspaper editor to freelance illustrator and then to head of a middle school counseling department—I've always felt obliged to gird myself with proof points and rationalizations. See, historically, career shifts have often suggested to others that you lacked conviction or that you were a little bit nutty. People imagined your house stacked with yellowing periodicals and too many cats.
Of course lots of people thought about changing careers—they fantasized about working for themselves in slippers all day, spending more time with the kids, or offering nonprofit assistance to people they've seen in National Geographic magazines or Shelby Lee Adams photos. But they didn't want to look like idiots and really do it.
But things are different these days. Now it's acceptable, trendy even, to change jobs. Look at ads for insurance, dental hygiene, and constipation relief—all full of beaming people living their dreams and starting hydroponic farms and bike shops. This is a good thing, right? All these self-fulfilled people doing what they love, helping others, and providing us with healthy food and well-tuned bikes.
But it also worries me just a bit. What if Johns Hopkins surgeons (some of whom have operated, fortunately, on me) decide to become furniture makers? What if some key State Department operative, in the midst of negotiating with an informant about a dangerous sleeper cell, realizes she'd rather be writing porn? What if infectious disease investigators go off and teach seventh-grade science instead?
Wait, maybe there is a career change in my future—advocating for the new stick-to-itiveness. There might even be a book deal. I could work from home. In my slippers...