Like Rev. Oler, many men in their middle years are discovering that their desire for a new challenge can best be met by shifting the direction of their work, rather than making a total career change. Thus a man might transfer his special skills from the business world to government; or turn from research to teaching; or switch his focus from products to people; or move from administrative tasks to training and counseling; or broaden his influence by writing and lecturing. Though less dramatic than second careers, such shifts may be a more realistic option for the man who wants more stimulation but doesn’t want to discard his expertise. The man who makes a mid-life shift is often motivated by a desire for more independence and autonomy. He wants the freedom to express his own evolving beliefs, the freedom to do things his way—a need that may require his breaking away from a particular person, or from an organization, Once again, however, as the following two case histories show, he may feel forced to leave a confining situation even before he has fully clarified where he is heading, or why.
Sometimes the pain prodding a man to make this break is an abrasive relationship with a colleague, partner, or boss. Leo W. was forty-three when he quit his job as the manager of a music and entertainment agency, and then set up his own shop. He did so primarily because the animosity between him and his boss had become insufferable. Leo W.’s decision evolved slowly, as he explains:
I worked for a medium-sized agency that specialized in club-date entertainment. We booked and assembled the orchestras, set the shows, and engaged the entertainers. Before I resigned I had been there about thirteen years, and I was really running the place. The guy who owned it had given me more and more responsibility, and I knew all the ins and outs of the business.
It’s very difficult to explain what happened with this man. I guess it was a combination of the two of us growing older and changing, and gradually becoming more incompatible. A close business relationship is sort of like a marriage, and we were together constantly. You do the business in the day, and then at night you go out and play.
Also he was having family problems, and part of that rubbed off on me. It was a case of constant harassment and constant intimidation. He would castigate me in front of people for real or imagined affronts. Things sort of built up for a couple of years until there was a really terrible personality clash.
And I began to feel that gradually I was losing some part of myself. I began to feel I was losing part of my manhood and my human dignity—the phrase I lit on at the time which, whether I’ll admit it or not, is very important.
It began to seep over into my home life, and I became periodically morose and upset. Usually when I’m upset it’s inside, and I’m able to cover it, for good or for worse. By nature I’m a very placid person and I rarely become angry. But I suddenly realized I had cracked twice under the pressure of the situation. I blew up at him. I lost my temper. I was irrational. I cried, literally. We had a screaming match—and when I tell you it was the first time since 1945 when I was in the Army that this had happened to me, consider the magnitude of it in my own mind!
As it became harder and harder to come home and change into what I was ordinarily, I finally realized it couldn’t go anywhere but further down. I felt I had to do something. And the final decision was made in total disregard of security and money and status. It was based purely on what was happening to me personally and emotionally.
I fooled around with the possibility of buying a small club, but I didn’t feel I knew enough to get into that And I didn’t want to go back to teaching, which I had once done. So setting up my own shop seemed the logical step. I was pretty well established in the trade. I had some financial backing, and I got some key people to make the move with me. I really wanted to continue in the same business because that’s where all my contacts and friends were, and I had worked at it for many years and gotten all my degrees in music.
Despite making his change primarily to get out of a destructive situation, Leo W. soon found that the joy of working independently was intoxicating. Though going it alone has been tough, he is determined not to give up:
When I quit the itch for independence wasn’t strong, but now I realize how much it means to me. When you are in business for yourself there is nothing like it. Nothing can match it. Even when you do it wrong the whole thing is your baby! It’s a very important thing for a man and I feel it very strongly.
And that’s one of the reasons I haven’t given this up, even though it’s not in good shape financially. Somebody else would take a quick look at the books and say, “Throw that out!” But you have this tremendous satisfaction, and you are loath to give it up. I’m still optimistic it will go ahead, and I really don’t want to work for anyone else. One of the things I’ve thought about often is that I never worked for anyone I either admired or respected—and that’s a tough realization to come to in your forties.
It may sound cornball, but you’re talking about the same independence the farmers have when they till the soil. It’s your mad thing, it’s your baby, and you don’t want to see it die!
Often the conflict that causes men to change direction relates to a fundamental shift in values. In the process of maturing, a man finds that his beliefs have changed so dramatically they no longer mesh with the work commitment he made long ago. He will then experience discord between his evolving “self” and his old “structure”—which can prompt him to move on. The more self-awareness he has, and the more consciously he recognizes new forces stirring within him, the easier his decision will be. But since this recognition often comes slowly, some men may have to act out their discontent in disruptive ways before truly understanding what caused it.
A forty-two-ycar-old lawyer, Bob S. only recently acquired a strong sense of what he stands for. Barely conscious of the internal changes that were influencing his actions, he actually provoked a senior partner into firing him before he recognized the depth of his own opposition to his law firm’s values. With the wisdom of hindsight, he describes his evolution:
I first went to work for a large law firm that hand-fed very wealthy corporations. Some of the causes we fought for were not particularly noble and I didn’t really believe in them. But I was making a good living and working in a reputable field, and I let myself be persuaded I had a chance to be a partner. By 1962, however, the place had become overcrowded with candidates. So I found myself looking for a job.
We had two kids then and were in a financial vise, so I moved to a smaller firm of the same kind—without any serious reconsideration of the milieu in which I would be working.
Several years later my wife decided to go to social work school, and I followed her career with great interest. This was also a period of increased social unrest in the country, and I became more and more attuned to that—and at the same time more unhappy with my partners, with whom I had nothing in common politically. I also went with my wife to a sensitivity training group, which was quite an eye-opening experience. It made the normal commercial world look pretty tough, and seemed to be quite a contrast to the way our firm was being run.
I began to realize I had been working contrary to my basic political beliefs ever since I came to Wall Street. I was brought up by a father who began as a dirt farmer and never had any sympathies for business. And I suppose I came to Wall Street to spite him, but I really don’t know. I just gradually grew more conscious that what I was doing wasn’t what I believed in.
Without really understanding why at the time, I began to find the firm absolutely intolerable—and it showed. I was handling my interpersonal relations with those guys very badly. Several times I got so angry I went up In flames, and even told one partner what I really thought of him right to his face. Finally they threw me out—”invited” me to resign—and I had to stand on my own feet.
That’s when I decided to take a personal sabbatical, which led eventually to my changing directions.
Forced to re-evaluate his situation, Bob S. gradually clarified the values he endorses and wants to represent Now In-no longer labors for the nation’s largest financial and industrial interests, but works instead for the city government in the field of low-income housing. He feels his transformation is just beginning:
My wife had been working with tenant groups, and doing volunteer work for them. I had always been interested in housing anyway because we had renovated two homes—so that’s how I decided to specialize in low-income housing. I did some reading and studying for a while, and then I decided to take this job with the city government—at about half of what I was making. I’m not deluding myself I’ll accomplish very much, but I will learn the trade. And then after a few years I would like to do something that means working for social change, although I don’t know what yet.
My social beliefs are such that I honestly could not in good conscience continue to work for the commercial interests of this country. I just couldn’t. But I also have the feeling I got sick and tired of bringing in forty thousand dollars a year and having everybody standing around waiting for it. I recognized the extent to which the average male in this society is expected to bring home the bacon. My wife and I had been talking about sharing the load, and about both of us enjoying our home and our kids—and so now we’ve put some sanity into things and we’re doing itl
There was no one I really talked to about making any of these decisions except my wife. And I think I made a mistake in not going into therapy. I talked about it, but I didn’t do it. I wish I had, and I may yet. I’ve always had difficulty in exposing myself—either by expressing my emotions, or else by exposing myself to criticism.
Now I’m very conscious of being calmer and stronger, but I feel I have quite a way to go to mature. Maybe I’ve started to mature. I’m being very candid with you about what happened to me. It was very clear to me that I had to grow up, grab the bull by the horns, and do something—push a little bit to set my own direction. I still have a long way to go to develop a gyroscope inside me. But I view what I’ve done as just taking the first step in a new direction.