As a kid, I operated with a simple career plan: If I wanted to learn how to do something, I got a job doing that. That’s how I became a skier…starting as a ski rental technician, becoming a ski patroller, and then a ski instructor. I got a job at a marina so I could learn sailing and windsurfing. And I had lots of flexible restaurant jobs which allowed me to eat well while I pursued my adventures.
As a young adult, marriage and motherhood imposed a more complex approach to my career. I had others to consider, and my career decisions impacted my family. With a deeper sense of responsibility, I chose to become a restaurant manager. The work was rewarding and the benefits justified the long hours. But the career came with a steep cost. I was a mom all day, went to work at 4 pm and didn’t sleep more than a few hours a night for years.
I hardly saw my husband. He had a growing business of his own. He and his best friend started a plumbing company. It was all they could do to stay afloat, though I was too busy to notice. Until my husband’s partner died suddenly at age 33. He worked himself into a heath crisis and died. Damn.
So, I quit my real job and went to work with my husband. I told myself – and him – that I was giving up my career so that I could “help” him. Funny thing about being a martyr. The person you are giving up everything for rarely wants it or appreciates it. This career phase was marked by anger and frustration. It took me a while to piece it together but the key issue was simple: we weren’t making any money. Without my salary and without his partner’s production, we were sinking fast. Money buys options and we were running out. The resulting stress was taking a toll on our marriage.
In the pages of a plumbing magazine, I found a mentor. A columnist had written an article that hit me right between the eyes. He wrote that the problem with most plumbing businesses is that the owners don’t know their asset from their elbow. I wrote him a letter and begged him to help me learn business basics. Thankfully, he did. He taught me how to keep track of the money and how to make more of it. I learned marketing basics, like if our plumbers showed up clean, sober, on-time and dressed right we could charge a profitable selling price. We turned our business around and got out of debt. We stock piled some money and started breathing a little easier. I liked making money and started to add up the profits we could add with more trucks and more employees.
The next major career shakeup came when I presented this plan my husband. My world rocked when he answered, “I like working all by myself. I don’t want to grow this business. I want to shrink it. I just want to work with a few customers on projects that are interesting.”
That left me out of it. It was his business and I wasn’t happy working with him. Still, I was devastated that I wasn’t needed or wanted.
We decided to sell the business and pursue our own career paths. What a relief it was to not work together, and find that we wanted to stay together. I left my husband alone and allowed him to make his own career choices.
We both blossomed when we allowed each other to do what we wanted to do. His new business took off, and I started my own business, helping other mom-pop shops get profitable. I took the simple systems I had learned in our plumbing business and started helping others get make more money and get out of debt. It was incredibly rewarding and confidence building.
In my forties, I started to notice that time was moving faster. Every time I looked at our son, he seemed an inch taller. A new career move appeared when I was approached by a venture capitalist who enticed me to sign on as president of a fledgling franchise company. I could feel an underlying ambition growing, and wanted to see if I had the chops to play a bigger game. Still, I insisted on working from my home-based office. I traveled every week and tried to make it home for basketball games and keep in the loop with homework. We grew the company to $40 million in profitable sales in under two years. And, my son graduated high school with honors, with our family relationship intact. Again, I didn’t sleep a lot.
When my next corporate career step was presented it was attached to a commitment to move to company headquarters. Damn. I thought I would suffocate if I had to go into the office every day. I decided to leave that prestigious job, with its hefty salary, to restart my own consulting business.
Now I am 52 years old. I just don’t get my underwear in a bunch like I used to. I am confident in what I have to offer, and what I am capable of delivering. Every moment of struggle has led to some worthwhile next phase or valuable lesson learned. All my experiences have stitched together, and created a quilt of business knowledge and understanding. I count on my waitressing experience when I need to use both hands and multitask. I use my sailing experience when I have to be strategic. I use my family business experience when I counsel a long-suffering client, “You can pursue your own dreams and everyone else will be just fine. You’ll probably still get invited to Thanksgiving dinner.” The worst thing can become the best thing. Really, there are no worst things, just best things in camouflage.
One of the best things that I’ve learned is how to make money. It’s not a burden to have to “bring home the bacon.” It’s part of a full and fulfilling life. It develops character. It delivers freedom. When you sell something for more than it costs to produce it, you create money out of nothing. Of all the career moves I’ve made, I am happiest building my own business and helping others build theirs.
I’m carving out my next career steps. These days, I like to put a plan together and then be open to serendipitous events that could take me in a new and interesting direction. I have a sweet awareness that life is lived in series, not in parallel. You don’t have to do it all at once. You do get to do what you want to do. The result can be a unique, lucrative, adventurous, scrapped-together career.
Now, in my fifties, the nuance is that I get to do what I like…and I know what that is. What a lovely time to create yet another career arc. This next step will be scaling my business and creating opportunities for our team members.
So, if I could tell my younger self something, well, I wouldn’t because she wouldn’t listen. It wouldn’t matter either. When it comes to your career, there is no end to it or wrong in it. It just expands and morphs as you stitch it together.
My husband just announced that he’s thinking of retiring. Good for him. Me, I’m just getting started.
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