Friday, January 20, 2006

Changing Your Major

College students do it all the time. One day their lives are headed this way, and the next they change their major and take off down an entirely different career path. A life-changing decision. BOOM, done.

But what about 38-year-olds, who aren't in college. Can they do the same thing? Can you invest in education, interviewing, job experience... have kids, accumulate mortgages, find your rut, and then just decide to switch paths?

I'm not talking about the waitress, who becomes an actress. She was always an actress just waiting tables. I mean the accountant who decides to pursue a passion or a dream and becomes a fireman or a river guide.

Can it be done? Is it really possible? What about the money? the security? the funny looks?

And what does it take? Just guts? More education? Winning the lottery? or a spiritual conversion?

I think I know of a couple of folks who became missionaries, but that doesn't seem to be nearly as simple as many might think. And what if that's not your bent?

Bruce Wilkinson, who's pretty well known for writing NY Times bestseller, The Prayer of Jabez, also wrote another book called The Dream Giver. It's a parable of sorts and addresses this topic to some satisfaction. His book describes many of the obstacles one encounters when they determine to pursue their dream. This includes what he calls "Border Bullies" (naysayers or folks who have something to lose if you make the move to change your life and try to stop or dissuade you), the wasteland, and giants.

This aspect of his book rings true to me. And some of his characters fall by the wayside and never make it. But in the end, his protagonist makes it. And here's where I'm not so sure.

In the Realm, you can be anything you want. But in real life, does it quickly become too late?

What do you think?

And don't give me platitudes or defeatism (depending on whether you're a glass half-full/empty-type of person) or anecdotes about your friend's neighbor's dog's cousin. I need some real first-hand successes.


Rich said...

I stopped working at the bank after seven years, and now I'm fulfilling my lifelong dream as a Contracts Administrator.

I mean, seriously, what kind of kid doesn't want to be a Contracts Administrator when he grows up?

Count that as Success Story # 1.

codepoke said...

I grew wanting to be a middle linebacker. Period.

Eventually I noticed that I was not growing up, so I had to come up with a backup plan. I was an ace student, and pretty anal when I wanted to be, so being a physicist seemed like a slam dunk. Physics was the first class that I could NOT get an A in, so it was irresistable to me.

Anyway, I got to college, and things went to pot. I was averaging 125% in my physics class, but I was ultra close to suicide. I don't know how I survived those days. I dropped out at the beginning of my sophomore year.

I decided to become a diesel mechanic. The trucks were pretty, and the job would be secure. The problem was that I was a total - TOTAL - nerd. I had no idea how to lift a wrench without hurting myself. I was scared of almost everything macho, and diesel mechanicking is a man's world. So, I did nothing.

After a couple years of fast food (which might be my favorite job ever), a friend of mine came back from boot camp. We talked about it a bit, and shot the breeze. A month later I said to myself, "I wonder if I could survive boot camp?" That was it. There was no decision. I was gone.

Besides, they would teach me to be a mechanic.

I did my 4 years. They helped me a LOT.

When I got out, I applied for a job, and was hired on the strength of my service. I was ignorant as all get out, but they took me.

I was now a proud member of a company that was the sweat shop of the diesel world. Fleet work. I worked from 7 PM to 8 AM. After a year of that, I applied at a Caterpillar truck engine shop. They gave me a written test, which was like shooting ducks in a barrel. [yeah, that was an accident, but the picture is so funny in my mind, I am going to leave it.]

I spent the next 9 years rising to the top of the diesel trade. It was a heck of a set of switches, but I made it.

In 1998, though, I left to become a profession programmer. There's a whole story there, and it is much more amazing that the diesel one.

Gotta run, though. Cool question.

codepoke said...

I'm back.

I've reread my first comment, and it sounds like it was written by someone as arrogant as I am in real life, and edited by a 5th grader. Charming.

Anyway, I would like to affirm that being a mechanic did become a dream to me, being a soldier for 4 years was a great experience, and that finally making it as a mechanic was a huge leap and a thing of which I am still immensely proud. I am still more likely to describe myself as a mechanic than a programmer by personality.

You said you wanted success stories. I don't know whether that qualifies, but it was a pretty terrifying leap to me.

I did it again in 1998. In some ways it was easier to become a programmer, and in others it was harder. Programming was more "up my alley", so I found it easier to believe in myself for that year of rejection. As a college dropout with 10 years of mechanicking experience, though, it was much harder for me to convince prospective employers of my talent.

It was three years before I was out of the woods in making that switch. I finally did establish myself as a reputable programmer, just before the dotcom bust put so many of us out of work. The Lord had opened some wonderful doors for me, and I was spared from the executioners axe several times.

I labor heavily under the lack of a college education. Of course, I will always deal with a glass ceiling, but I really regret not having the education itself. I don't know how many times I could have benefited from some serious education.

P&S said...

I would definitely count that as a success story.

I am curious as to what you lead you to make these changes, what you found to be your greatest asset when making these changes and what (if it's not too personal) the sacrifices were.

Obviously, you found it to be worthwhile at the time, but have you now finally arrived, are you at peace and fulfilled? Who/what stood in your way?

Rich said...

Were you talking to me?


P&S said...

What if I was? Do you have any serious answers?

And remember you're under oath.

codepoke said...

I will look forward to Rich's answers, but in the meantime...

I will call the change from student to soldier to mechanic, change 1, and the change from mechanic to programmer, change 2.

I am curious as to what you lead you to make these changes

Change 1: I am a broken, defective man. I was worse off in '83, so it is hard to be sure. My stated reason was a desire to become a minister of the gospel who had not been sullied by taking money, nor by denominational/ pharisaical/ hyper-intellectual seminary. I mention that with shame, but it is true. At this late date, I'm not sure whether I am ashamed because I failed, or because I was a fool.

My real reason for making the change was fear. At the time, "depressed" was a happy state I wished I could get back to. I was well past depressed, and afraid of trying to finish school. I had no idea how to pay for it, and fear of money is a big part of who I am. This was back in the days before schools helped kids like me who had no idea how to navigate the financial aid maze, and my fear pushed away the few admins who made their obligatory attempts to help.

I was also afraid of the macho world of mechanicking. It was the world of my father (he was a past master of all things practical) and I could never hope to compare to him. I grew up as a nerd watching my father do things I could not begin to do. I could understand them, but I could never do them.

So, I surrendered to fear 1 by embracing fear 2.

Change 2 came when I finally realized that I had "won" over fear 2, and now needed to go back and fight fear 1. Besides, programming was much more fun than crawling under a 220 degree engine with the oil pan removed, and oil still dripping, while trying to beat an 8 hour flat-rate on a lower-end rebuild.

what you found to be your greatest asset when making these changes


I was too scared to ask for a job as a mechanic anywhere, but I was not too scared to join the army. I signed up as a mechanic, and most of the hard work was done for me. They put my foot in the door. All the mechanic shops really would have laughed me out the door before the army put mechanic on my resume.

I taught myself to program, and had plenty of confidence in my skills. Looking back, that was pure hubris, but that is one of the 3 great virtues of a programmer, so..... Anyway, I applied to 15 or so classifieds, and networked all I could. (If you knew me, you would know that meant nothing. I cannot network.) I got one phone interview, and I actually ended up teaching my interviewer about his subject. (People skills! Dang it!) None of it mattered. Nobody was going to hire a mechanic with no college. Not going to happen.

But, I convinced my current employer that I was as good as gone. They created a low-ish paying position as their sole IT guy, and I never looked back. I leveraged that position until they wanted to hire someone less skilled, and used it on my resume to relocate to a better job. I impressed employer #2 enough to survive the bust, and I am still there.

Both solutions were less than my ideal of how I wanted to do it, but they worked.

and what (if it's not too personal) the sacrifices were.

I can't think of any. I mean, I sacrificed mountains of dollars by dropping out of college, but I never feel that pain. I'm happy with what I have. I worked hours and hours teaching myself these new skills on my own time, but I enjoyed all of them. Frustration might be my favorite emotion. I seem to invite it into my life at every turn.

If I could do it again, would I?

That is the first question that moves me to tears.

I was so broken, and so alone in '83. If I went back, I could do everything so much better. No, I wouldn't do it again. I could talk myself out of dropping out. If I went back, and if I could guide myself, I might never make any of those mistakes. Mostly, I would have something to say to myself about my crippling need to marry, but I have no idea whether I could keep myself from my mistakes in that area.

Will I do it again in the future?

This is the second question that moves me to tears. Yeah. I probably will. I don't know what that says about me, but I had a goal when I quit college. That goal is still alive in me, and there's no telling what I might do when my other responsibilities are dismissed.

P&S said...

Thanks for sharing codepoke. I hope all the folks reading this will use your story for inspiration, I know I will.

I'd like to hear about some more successes. Wouldn't you??

Rich said...

I'll second, Ken. Thanks for sharing. wow.

Harry said...

I have been enjoying reading the posts on this site for some time without commenting. This one hit close enough to home that I think I will. I am not the writer you guys or your commenter's are, so please be gentle.

I think the answer to the question "is it possible" has been proven. The other questions about education, security, money, etc. are important questions and the right questions. I believe the answers depend a lot on how much risk you are willing to take. Unfortunately as we get older, the risks go up as well as the difficulty of making such a change. But I think that because it is possible, ultimately the question is, how bad do you want it.

As I stated before, this post hit close to home, and since I am still here doing what I have done for the last 15 years, I guess I do not want it bad enough.

Rich said...


I think you're exactly right on risk, and every individual that thinks of making such a change has to weigh that.

As you inferred, circumstance has so much to do with it. I may have a much better shot of becoming a published writer that can one day afford to support my family by my writing if I abandon my current job and stay home to write. However, I'm 38, with a wife, three kids, and a mortgage, and our current existence is dependent upon both my wife and me working. If I was a bachelor with fewer strings attached to my quitting one career to pursue an alternate, it might make my decision a bit simpler -- but I still don't think it's that easy.

Selfish, selflessness, and sacrifice play factors as well -- and so does family harmony with whatever dreams a person may have. I could say heck with it, I'm doing what I think I am supposed to do - I think God made me to be a writer - and my family can just bear it. But I don't think my marriage would last all of two more days. Then, what's more important?

As far as the "is it possible" having been proven, I think you're right. However, personally I feel that although sometimes it's been proven successfully, just as many times it's been proven with a wake of destruction lying in one's rearview. To me, it all boils down to how much wisdom one uses when deciding just how to make that change.

[Side note: Ken mentioned missionaries, and I sort of feel like having a God-calling, although no less sacrificial and really no doubt more, is a little different than the changing of careers (even if the career change is radically different). Then, and I could be wrong, I think sooner or later God's going to be telling both spouses in some way or another what they need to do. I'm probably presupposing way too much here - especially with a bad history of old-time and even current evangelists basically abandoning their families for God. Nonetheless my long-winded point on this side note is that I think going into the mission field is vastly different than deciding to make a change from being a Contracts Administrator to pursuing my dream of being a wide receiver for the Miami Dolphins and just showing up to training camp next year.]

BTW, that was an excellent and well-written comment, and as anyone can see, you put it in a lot fewer words than my verbose response (a no-no in writing). Well done.

P&S said...

That's right, you guys. Your kind of attitude is what made this country what it is today.

It's the same "can-do" mentality and spirit that GĂ©rard Depardieu had when discovered America and Mel Gibson had when he single-handedly defeated the British.

Seriously, I agree with what you guys are saying, but where does that leave us?

Do we suck it up and continue along the row we've already hoed?

Your pierce me with the God-aspect in all this, Rich. I don't how I would look myself in the mirror if I did nothing to "change my major" or did whatever I thought necessary and left a trail of carnage behind me like the old-time "men of faith" did.

Isn't God supposed to make a way? Particularly if he created us with these passions and dreams.