Holbrook: Radical change in midlife (column)
June 8, 2016
"Sail forth – steer for the deep water only,
Reckless, O soul, exploring. I with thee, and thou with me,
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
And we will risk the ship, ourselves, and all." – Walt Whitman, Passage to India
"Were you ever just really freaked out?" I asked Rob about his decision to leave a successful law practice of 22 years and move with his wife to Summit County. Rob, an "escaped Texan," had lived the life of a highly-paid litigator. "Nice cars, nice house. But after nearly 25 years, I realized … I was pretty damn unhappy."
Relocating to the mountains was a dream for Rob. However, finding decent-paying work was not easy. For a time, he worked as a janitor at Whole Foods.
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Our conversation was quite upbeat. However, Rob paused at my question. When he replied, his voice was more serious: "There were times when I did have self doubt, when I wondered: Really? Is this the plan? I said to my wife, 'Maybe we should say — 'Mountain, you win' and call it quits.'"
My personal transition began around 2012, when I went through a divorce, business failure and was completely unsure of how to move forward. All I knew was that I did not want to be doing what I had been doing up to that point — in work, in relationships, in life. In 2013, my father, who'd been a voice of encouragement in difficult times, died of cancer. Since those bleak days, I've been on a personal and professional journey that has led me, step by step, to a much brighter, happier life here in the mountains.
I was curious about others in Summit who might also have arrived at that place in life so famously referred to in Dante's Inferno: "In the middle of the journey of our life, I found myself astray in a dark woods where the straight road had been lost sight of." What had caused them to shift gears, often leaving behind a life that had been quite successful up to that point? How did they make their way through that "dark woods" of uncertainty?
Jolina, a personal development teacher and coach in Summit, remarked during our conversation: "In our mid-life period, all the parts of ourselves that we gave up in order to be who we think we are supposed to be start pushing forward for recognition and integration into our conscious personality. And it's not easy. These are parts of ourselves that we have put a lot of time and energy into trying NOT to be."
Everyone I spoke with talked about the difficult experience of recognizing that they had spent a good portion of their lives as the person they felt they "should be."
"I kind of let my life happen instead of making myself happen," said Holly, who changed all that, taking off on a 5-week solo road trip and later volunteering in Uganda as an antidote to career burnout. And so the question becomes: Who is the person I am now or am becoming?
Karen had a love of design work as a young college graduate 25 years ago. But a career in design didn't seem practical, so she opted for various positions in sales. Ultimately, it took divorce and a friend's death from cancer at a young age to propel her to leave behind a lucrative sales career. At 45, she launched her own business doing home remodels and interior design with her current husband. "Frankly" she said, "I realized life is too short to be doing something you don't love."
A professional skating coach, Sue, at one time ran a real estate magazine in Austin, Texas. In mid-career, she realized she wanted to be in the mountains. She sold everything and moved to Summit, working at various office jobs and ultimately starting a power skating company.
This choice has not been without its challenges. Like many of us who have made significant transitions, Sue has had to deal with financial uncertainty as well as questions from others about unorthodox career choices: "Its been wonderful to test my limits, to discover what does or doesn't make me tick," but also "people don't really understand. They'll ask how could you go from an executive position to a skating coach?" Commented Jolina: "These transitions are made hard by the fact that we don't have very many good roadmaps."
What keeps us going during a radical shift? Kevin, now in his 50s, left a career as an actuary in Kansas City to move to Summit and become a rafting guide. "The first year was fearful, especially training with young people rafting," he admitted. "But Kodi rafting gave me a shot. Today I am part of the river guide family, and we are really tight." Kevin emphasized the importance of community in periods of transition — a sentiment echoed by everyone else I spoke with. The Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce gave Karen support, while Holly found a sense of community among close friends and family. Rob and his wife became active volunteers in the community. Still, Sue noted wistfully that she wished there was more support for those who are "bucking what our culture considers to be appropriate."
In Summit County, "your over-qualifications will impress exactly nobody," Rob countered with a laugh when I groused about the career challenges I had faced when I first moved to Breckenridge. Rob ultimately started a child-care referral agency, left his position as a janitor and was hired by Breckenridge Grand Vacations as culture and service trainer. His thoughts on making a big shift in mid-life: "Don't let your ego become your prison. Don't stay in an unsatisfying job, relationship or lifestyle because your ego tells you that's what you 'should' be doing. Have the courage to make a radical change in your life."
Christina Holbrook lives in Breckenridge. She writes each month about acclimating to mountain life.
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