Changing Careers at 31

Last year, at the age of 30, I decided to follow my dream and switch careers into advertising. After many years of analyzing commercials for fun, and quoting lines from What Women Want, I beat my chest and enrolled in the account planning boot camp with The Portfolio Center at Miami Ad School in Atlanta.

During that first weekend, when it was my turn to introduce myself to our instructors, I began to rattle off a list of education, jobs, and activities spanning 12 years. I cut that intro short when I saw one instructor with his head in his hands, pulling at his own face.

“You’ve just done so much!” he exclaimed, overwhelmed. “And it’s a very, very good thing. People with the most life experience make the best planners.”

They say that becoming a great planner requires life experiences that you just can’t get in college, so I’m officially testing the adage. I came into this profession lugging experience from 39 jobs and social roles, big and small. Thirty-nine is not hyperbole – believe me, I’ve counted.

I’ve been an airline ticket agent, a HuffPost blogger, a Southern pageant queen, an initiated African priestess (which I still am), a personal chef, a university lecturer, an international NGO journalist, a motivational speaker, and a sales associate at Nordstrom – to name just a few. I’ve worked for a cutting-edge Silicon Valley A.I. startup and a flailing nonprofit. I earned my MBA and used to moonlight as an open-mic singer. I’m an avid dog mom and community facilitator. I have treated my life as a lab and myself as the test specimen. I’ve explored the world and her people through work and change, and finally felt at home when I learned that there was a word for endlessly curious and critical people like me: planners.

But despite career experiences that could fill an almanac, for now, it all mostly remains latent resource. I’m in a humbling phase in my career, taking into account new learning curves and trying to figure out where and how all the best parts of me fit. The truth is that it’s nearly impossible to activate a decade of experience within a new industry when you’re only six months in. I’ve slowly accepted the fact that no one has created this expectation for me but myself. Then comes the added grace that, in fact, I’m six months into an entirely new life.

I relocated for this role. New career. New company. New city. New apartment. New furniture. New hairstylist. New commute. New climate. New doctors. But while I moved to Texas, my heart snuck out from behind my ribs and planted its flag in Atlanta, Georgia, remaining instead with my partner and our goofball of a dog. How does one exist with the body and heart 800 miles apart? With Facebook Messenger video and flight sales. Want to know to keep your relationship spicy from so far away? Words with Friends, hands down.

Crafting a new foundation while standing in the middle of it requires inviolable patience. So while I dream of dropping the mic at the end of a winning new business pitch, I first have to master writing briefs and new client jargon. The Richards Group is a mighty ship, grand and well-oiled. The good fortune we’ve built follows the tried-and-true formula of building wealth: consistency + time. I must mold this model into my likeness, taking the time that I need to build new rigor, making conscious, intentional, and well-informed decisions. We overestimate what we can do in one year but often underestimate what we can do in ten.

I accept that, at times, an intern may have more industry knowledge than I do. I accept help from an experienced planner who also happens to be seven years my junior. I’m willing to breathe and take a walk when I struggle to focus, because at age 31, this is my first dedicated office job. I wave at Stan (and he always waves back) and promise to “go have fun.” I bribe new colleagues with coffee in exchange for their life story and professional insights. I appreciate my boss for helping me integrate the best of my foreign skills within this new environment. I contribute in any way that presents itself, by way of random research or hugs (because I’m still a mixture of Southern auntie and hippie).

And I acknowledge that I’m not the first person to switch paths and pursue something new. As one planning group head (and former successful lawyer) told me, “It’s incredibly humbling to change careers at the top of your game and feel new all over again. But most certainly, one day your experiences will catch up with you, and you will grow exponentially.”

I’ve got Miracle-Gro in my shoes, y’all. And I’m not going anywhere but up.

Categories: Advertising, Industry, Jobs, LinkedIn, Research

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