MAXWELL: Making the choice to change

8/7/1994 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

To all baby boomers who, like me, are fast approaching geezerhood and who want to change jobs, I say, GO FOR IT. I don’t claim to be a career adviser or a social scientist. But I am one thing: I’m a boomer who not only changed jobs, but also changed careers and relocated from the landlocked woods of North Central Florida to Coquina Key, a tiny island off St. Petersburg.

In short, I transformed my life radically. I gave up my cushy position as a tenured instructor at a state college to become a full-time editorial writer for the St. Petersburg Times, where the only real job security is the writer’s ability to consistently produce decent copy _ by deadline. As an instructor, my routine consisted of teaching two to four hours, meeting with students in my office and reading in the library. I had a great retirement plan, at least three weeks off for Christmas, two months off in the summer, a few shorter breaks and a wonderful boss who never hassled me.

It was a sweet life. Why, then, did I give it up for a 9-5 regimen in the private sector, where I’m slave to a video display terminal and a keyboard?

Was it because I was burned out on teaching? Somewhat, but certainly not enough to quit. Did I want to make more money? Yes, but that wasn’t my sole motivation. Did I need a change of scenery? Absolutely not.

I loved my little house and my five acres of sandhill, blackjack oak, pine and cedar. I loved my horse, the snakes, gopher tortoises, crows, blue jays, woodpeckers and butterflies. I loved feeding the foxes every evening and sitting around fires in my backyard. For sure, I loved the quietude of having no neighbors within hollering distance. And, God knows, I loved my rusty 1973 Chevy pickup. So, why did I change my life?

I did so because I was compelled to fulfill my childhood dream of writing commentary for a living. Over the years, I’ve had many opportunities to write full time, but I never had the nerve to give up teaching _ my opiate, my crutch, my excuse for not risking potential upset in a comfortable existence.

Most of my colleagues refused to advise me because they didn’t want to get involved in what might yet turn out to be a dumb decision. As the urge to fulfill my dream grew stronger and after the editorial page editor of the Times telephoned me in April of 1993 asking if I’d ever considered writing full time, I began noticing the large number of people around me who were dissatisfied with their lives _ some angry with themselves for not having acted on their dreams, for having left so many things undone and untried.

A 68-year-old acquaintance, for example, regretted that he’d spent most of his adult life on a job he disliked. Why had he stayed on? “Security,” he said. “I was too much of a sissy to change. I always wanted to be a semi-truck driver and see the country. But I worked in a steel mill in Indiana for 38 years. Now I’m too damned old to drive a semi.”

His story was typical of many, but at the college where I taught, I saw dozens of older people determined to change their lives. They were my inspiration. I was particularly impressed with several women whose husbands had died, who had voluntarily surrendered their own ambitions to help their men’s careers, but who were now blossoming with a new zest for life. One 65-year-old grandmother, a student in the displaced homemakers program and a member of one of my classes, was fulfilling her dream of becoming a freelance writer.

Why hadn’t she struck out on her own before now? “I was addicted to being taken care of by my husband,” she said. “I should’ve started writing years ago. But, of course, you’re never too old to change.” Her unadorned words moved me. Why not act now? I asked myself over and over.

A former colleague who edited my copy also encouraged me to follow my dream. But the fear remained, an albatross about my neck. Sure, I’d changed jobs before, several times. But I’d simply gone from one teaching post to another. I’d also been a reporter, but I taught at the same time.

Now, however, I was contemplating changing careers and adopting a different way of life. I wouldn’t teach at all. Conflicting thoughts raced through my mind. Can I do it? Am I running from something? Do I have the commitment? Do the benefits outweigh the liabilities? Deep down I knew that, by asking such questions, I was trying to talk myself out of acting.

Then came the ultimate question: Was I changing jobs to change myself? I didn’t have a good answer. But my former boss did. “It’s not uncommon for people of the 1960s generation to move and to change,” she said recently after listening to me explain how I was adjusting to my new situation. “You don’t change jobs to change yourself. You always take yourself with you.”

Her words were comforting. And she’s right. My new job hasn’t changed the essential me. Even in the city, I’m a loner, a library dweller. I brought my friends _ my thousands of books _ with me. The difference between the old me and the new me is that I have added a dimension to my life. I’m fulfilling my dream, not just thinking about it.

I have relearned a lesson, this time empirically, that I learned intellectually many years ago while reading Albert Camus, an existentialist who said that humankind is condemned to despair: To be human is to act, to boldly make choices.

People who refuse to act, who refuse to choose are dead. We owe ourselves, no matter how old, at least one sincere effort to be what we want to be. I may fail in my new career. But I never would have known if I hadn’t tried.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer for the Times.


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