In the film industry where I worked for 20 years, being 50 is not a plus. It’s a business that rewards youth, on screen and behind the scenes. When I lost my job at that age, I anticipated challenges but had no idea how brutal the road ahead would be. I was at a professional high point then, with the respect of my peers and an enviable network to draw on. Yet no one would hire me.
I’d cast everything into my work life. It was who I was, and how I felt valued. Suddenly, that was thrown into question. Greeting new people at social events became awkward. When they would ask, “what do you do?” I paused, fumbling for an answer. It was easier to avoid these types of gatherings, and retreat into the safety of a small group of old friends. My world, along with my identity, began to shrink.
I continued to apply for jobs, but the despair was deepening. Out of the blue one day, I was invited to attend a meeting for a new social justice initiative that was being launched in the neighborhood. At the time, my political activism was mostly passive, just venting from the sidelines. I was reluctant to participate, leaving the task to others. But with only time on my hands, I forced myself out of a cocoon. That one meeting morphed into a study group, which became a coalition that eventually changed a policy benefiting millions of hard-working families. Along the way, I testified at the State Assembly, lobbied Members of Congress, joined the Los Angeles Mayor’s task force, and proudly took part in a bill signing ceremony with the Governor of California. I didn’t get paid a dime for my efforts, but it remains the most impactful accomplishment of my life. With a new buoyancy and a story to tell, I reemerged into a world of purpose.
The career wilderness is a lonely place to be. When I struggled to find my way out, I felt despair and shame, both of which can be debilitating. During this gloomy passage, I longed for someone to guide me who understood the experience of aging out of a profession and could shed a light on the journey. More than anything, I needed hope.
A light finally arrived one spring afternoon. I was having lunch with a friend at an Italian restaurant near the beach. As my friend casually described a new coaching training he’d just enrolled in, I had an epiphany. In that moment eating pasta primavera, I suddenly knew how to steer my professional life. I’d become a Career Coach guiding people their own mid-life work transitions. That hard-earned revelation would require becoming a student again and going back to school. During my training, I was one of the oldest among my cohorts, and also the very first to complete the necessary hours to receive my accreditation as a Professional Coach. Once finding the path, I was unstoppable.
I’m grateful every day to be successful at work again. It took me awhile, but the circuitous route enriched my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I learned that a person’s value isn’t about how we get paid. It’s how we give back.