I was almost 15 years old when Dead Poet’s Society came out. It was a movie that spoke to me. I was deep into my persona as a thespian: on my way to playing Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Simultaneously I was moments away from diving into AP Chemistry and Biology. There was nothing I couldn’t do. The world was pure possibility. I would make my life extraordinary just like Robin Williams character demanded of his students.
A month ago I turned 43. For the past few years I’ve found myself desiring change. Not little change, like a new shampoo, but big fundamental change: a new house, a writing career, or at the very least a new office at work. Being a responsible adult married to a super-duper-risk-adverse responsible adult meant the change has been slow coming, but incrementally it’s come. First, I decreased my work schedule to 32 hours a week, so I had a day to focus on my writing. That has been going well. I submit my first completed short story to a journal this past Thursday, and have another short story in the works. Meanwhile, the first draft of my novel is slowly becoming a second draft.
Tomorrow the next phase begins. I’m starting graduate school at a local university with a college that’s dedicated to working adults. My degree program is in Geographic Information Systems (GIS). For the lay person that’s a degree in making maps using computer software. The college I’m going to has a master’s in creative writing, and while that’s intriguing, it doesn’t help me with my day job, and my day job is the one that allows me the ability to both pay for my degree through tuition reimbursement and write one day a week. (Also, don’t tell anyone this part, but I have a non-fiction work I want to write that’s very dependent on me honing my GIS skills.) So I’m starting with a practical degree to see if that quiets my need for change.
My mom went back to school later in life. Interestingly, as she and I were chatting I realized that she started her undergraduate degree program at 42. Isn’t that weird? That we’d start such a big change at the same time in our lives a generation apart?
No. It’s not weird. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and the truth of the matter is, our American middle-class lives are built around 20ish year cycles. Your first 20 years you are educated. If you only graduate high school you are done in 18. If you do post-graduate work, it might take you 28 years. But in general, you complete the education phase of your life around 22-24 years old. Then you start the work phase.
I graduated college at 23. Now, 20 years later I’ve done the working thing and understand how to succeed in the workforce. I also know what would be required of me to become a high level manager or director. With that knowledge comes a complete lack of interest. For me, the rewards do not balance the required sacrifices of time and family. My next phase of life will not be a slog toward executive. On the other hand, while I like my current job, I can’t imagine doing what I do now until retirement without new opportunities to grow and change. I’m wondering what the next 20 years holds.
Of course, I’m not the only one to get antsy when my early 40s show up. The words mid-life crisis exist for a reason. My need for change makes me empathize with the stereotypical 40-year-old male of my parent’s generation. If I was the sole breadwinner with a house full of kids I might have purchased a sports car or had an affair with my secretary to force a change from the inevitability of 20 more years of sameness. My own desire for something different felt like a crisis a year ago. But then a wise woman (our family therapist) told me that now was the time to make a change. While my daughter wasn’t a teenager. While my husband’s depression was stable. Because, she said, you never know when life is going to throw you a curveball and you won’t have the opportunity to make your life better. I know now that she told me that while facing her own cancer diagnosis. She died earlier this week.
Her legacy to me was allowing myself to enter an experimentation phase of my life. Will I make it as a writer? Will I get a break and be a novelist for my next 20 years? Probably not, since few people make it as a writer, but I don’t want to close that door before I try to open it. Will I be a geospatial data expert and solve the world’s future transportation problems using maps and visualizations? That’s a direction I can see pivoting my current career. Maybe I’ll make amazing connections at my university and become an adjunct professor in addition to my current job. When I graduated with my bachelor’s degree 20 years ago I was voted “most likely to become a professor” so maybe my classmates knew something I didn’t.
I’m so thankful I live in an enlightened time and work for an enlightened company so I can take the heartfelt advice of a trusted advisor. What will I be when I grow up? A writer? A professor? A map maker? All of the above? In some ways I feel like my decision will be a tribute to a woman who guided me through the hardest times of my life. I want to do right by her last words to me. I do not want the second half of my life to be a story of quiet desperation. I want to accomplish another iota of what I am capable. I want another opportunity to strive for extraordinary.
Quotes from Dead Poets Society (1989) and screenshots taken from IMDB – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097165/quotes.