I'd rather be..

Which of us hasn't wondered what might have been if only we'd turned down that easy graduate job offer and followed a more creative path instead? Helen Kirwan-Taylor talks to three mid-life career changers and finds that it's never too late to reinvent yourself.

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Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Who doesn't sometimes sit - in cubicle or corner office - wondering how rosy life would be if they had pursued their original goal of being a writer, a musician or a racing driver? A career move not taken, a talent wasted or a risk avoided is a mid-life crisis waiting to happen. We hear Decombe's words in Henry James's short story, The Middle Years: 'A second chance - that's the delusion. There never was to be but one.'

But according to the biggest-ever research project looking into our middle years at the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation in Chicago, what we believe and what is actually happening are worlds apart. Joint research editor Ron Kessler, professor of healthcare policy at Harvard, found anything but 'crisis' at the age of 50. In fact, he calls the mid-life years (aged 30 to 70) a time of 'middle calm'.

It's not that career decisions weren't questioned, he says, but that maturity prevailed and allowed us to reframe our original goals. 'We found that mid-lifers who give up the impossible dream often feel a sense of relief,' he adds. He also found, contrary to popular belief, that the lowest rate of depression occurs in mid-life. 'For mid-life mental illness, the graph looks like a smiley face,' he says.

A key finding of the research is that mid-lifers, feeling the effects of long-term prosperity and continuing good health, no longer see the middle years as the beginning of the end. Indeed, this is when they are most likely to shift their goals - women in particular. What psychologists like Brendan Burchell at the University of Cambridge noted is that the dreams and interests put aside in youth - the hiking boots, the piano and the design books - are retrieved in this period. Female entrepreneurs have jumped on the boom in mid-life interest to start companies aimed at their peers.

One successful example is Curves International, a woman-only gym franchise based in Texas but now operating all over the world. Aimed at over-35s, Curves has become the fastest-growing franchise in history, with 95% of the owners being women. There are now even 'adventure coaches' who specialise in taking middle-aged women on middle-earth adven tures. This period - even if it involves divorce and redund- ancy - is not so much a time of crisis as a time of challenge.

Men are less likely to take up yoga or Buddhism but are just as likely to re-evaluate their original goals. Economists call this trend 'voluntary downshifting', but for many it means moving from an established career, such as banking, law or IT, to a more meaningful or creative job in the arts or education. Says Burchell: 'A common change is from high-paid, low-satisfaction jobs to ones with more meaning or intrinsic satisfaction - for instance, from IT worker to teacher.'

Orville Brim, director of the Florida-based MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Midlife Development, noted that what mid-lifers seek most is to 'live a life of manageable difficulty'. The consensus is that 12-hour days are no longer desirable. 'It slowly dawns on us that we'll never write that rock-opera sequel to Tommy, or maybe be a father,' Brim said in an interview. 'Our big boyhood dreams have been precious, and it's easy to feel like a failure once it's clear they're dead.' At this point, one can either fall into despair or come up with a new angle.

In 'life' transitions, stage one is about loss - of a job, status or youth, or a relationship - attended by feelings of shock and surrender. Then comes a letting go of the trappings of success, the title or the company car - involving anxiety, guilt and self-doubt. Finally, a clear direction occurs. This 'resolution and integration' is followed by enjoyment and even gratitude.

According to Win Sheffield, a former banker turned career coach in New York, each phase must be endured, though some get through it faster than others. A typical career transition is from the financial sector onwards. 'Often, the first job people are offered after university is in the financial sector,' he explains. 'Many people who call themselves recovering lawyers feel they went into this career because it was there, on offer.' At a certain point, they decide they want something different and this is where Sheffield comes in handy, helping prepare them for job interviews by teaching them how to use the skills learned in their previous job.

The natural fear of failure subsides when the client explores the basis on which they formed their self-esteem. 'I say: "Let's talk about your successes in the past", and I ask for specifics, like a deal that went particularly well. Sometimes people step away and think: "Wow, I was really patient and shrewd about the monetary aspects of the business." It doesn't matter whether it was 10 years ago or not,' he adds. 'If you were once an organiser, you will always be a competent organiser.'

After exploration, comes the setting of the goal and finally the job search. In many cases, Harvard's Kessler finds, the fear of change is far greater than the actual transition. This is because three of the greatest benefits of mid-life are experience, confidence and a willingness to break from the pack. This time is no longer about disappearing into the void.

Mid-lifers who feel life is meaningless, says Kessler, are those whose expectations were out of sync with reality. Far from being about doom and gloom, these years are about 'doing what I want to do'. He adds: 'A woman might become a new mother at mid-life or she may start a new career. Life patterns are much more diversified today.'

Elliott Jacques, the Canadian psychoanalyst who coined the expression 'mid-life crisis', described that phase as 'when people find themselves beset with misgivings, agonising enquiries and loss of zest'. The reality is vastly different today. Motorcycle sales are up 34% in the US among mid-lifers.

In the past, argues Mark Gerzon, author of Coming Into our Own, the only alternative was to be stuck in a rut or to have a mid-life crisis. Today, it's about recovery, or what he calls 'mid-life healing'.

RICHARD ATHERTON - From management consultancy to comedy...

Atherton, 30, worked as a management consultant for Arthur Andersen, then at Deloitte, for nearly seven years. 'It was what you did straight from university,' he says. He began receiving bonuses and was well thought of, yet he often felt himself to be an impostor.

On a business trip to Edinburgh, he would sneak off to comedy shows until the early hours, only to face a 9am meeting the next day. One day, his boss said: 'If you want to become a senior manager, you will have to make a decision to commit or to leave.'

Atherton took this as a signal that it was time to change. He rented out his flat and split up with his girlfriend, who had, he says, 'started dating a successful management consultant and ended up dating a penniless comedian/promoter'. He'd produced comedy shows at university but never committed to it properly. He eventually hooked up with Melanie Dias to start Bonobo Presents, now a critically acclaimed variety club that once a month showcases the country's best comedians alongside magicians, poets and dancers, at the Grill Room in London's Cafe Royal.

He is not earning anything like his former salary, but he's thankful for the business experience. 'My previous career taught me how to communicate and work with teams. Being up there in front of the board gives you courage to take on people and situations. And I have a lot of rich friends coming to my show.'

He admits that he worried about failure, but after spending months reading self-help books (Anyone Can Do It, by Sahar and Bobby Hashemi was his favourite), he found the motivation to think positively. 'They all say you have to set goals and burn bridges. I now aim to be a highly successful entertainer and producer. However, I consider it almost a handicap to have had a well-paid career first, because there's always a temptation to retreat to the safety blanket of your former life.'

The most valuable lesson he learned was: 'Don't try and get it all worked out before you leave the day job. Just take that first step.'

NIA MORRIS - From lawyer to interior designer...

Morris left Oxford in 1981 with a PPE degree and moved to merchant bank HSBC. After a year, she decided that banking was not for her, and enrolled at law school. 'I guess I thought law would be more intellectual than banking.'

She started her legal career at Linklaters, working in the banking and structured-finance division, and became a partner in 1992. In 1995, she left to join a large US firm, Weil Gotshal & Manges. By then she was married and had two children. When the third arrived and began suffering health difficulties, Morris resigned from her job. She spent six years at home and assumed that she would return to the law when her daughter recuperated. 'I was 35 and had invested 15 to 20 years in law. Technically, I was still on maternity leave.'

Morris went back to work as a strategist at New York law firm Cadwalader, but left after six months. 'I didn't want to be in this environment any more,' she says. 'I thought I should be able to come up with a better idea than this.' After exploring several routes, including arts management, Morris enrolled at KLC School of Design in Chelsea. Before the end of the course, she'd landed her first job.

She founded Studio OHM, a high-end residential interior-design business, with partners Louise Holt (a former banker) and Emma Oldham (who previously ran a design business, Space Boudoir). The transition was smooth. 'Being a lawyer has helped me enormously,' she says. 'Actually, the jobs are quite similar. It's a client-based service job; it's about managing projects and managing relationships. The only difference now is that the subject is more creative.'

In hindsight, she would have embarked on a creative path earlier. 'My advice to students would be to do what you love, not what necessarily pays better. The problem is that there are no opportunities presented to you on a plate in the arts. But I don't think there are jobs for life any more. Law firms no longer offer tenure and this has been quite liberating. It gives you a reason to try something else.'

PHILIP NIXON - From brokering to Chelsea Flower Show gold medallist...

Nixon, 43, graduated from Newcastle University and went to a work for a large oil company before moving into bond sales at various banks. But after 12 years he decided it wasn't for him. 'I had originally wanted to be an architect, but I could see no future. It was the booming '80s and it seemed that if you didn't get in now, it would be gone.'

He would have stayed longer at UBS if his team had not been poached by a Japanese bank, which left him with a sizeable chunk of money. The markets had changed and, in his own words, 'it was smarter to stop trading'.

He volunteered to work at the Chelsea Physic Garden in his free time and soon found his former interests rekindled. 'It reminded me of my original interests in architecture and design.' He enrolled at the Inchbald School of Design in 2003 to do a masters in landscape and garden design, but not without doing the footwork. 'I did a lot of research first by speaking to as many people in the business as I could, and second, reading profiles of major designers. I didn't go into it blind. I saw there were opportunities to be taken.'

He entered the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2004; by 2005 he had the first of two Chelsea Gold medals, and last year won a Silver Gilt. He now runs a four-strong practice, with jobs spread out from London, Moscow, Geneva and Sweden.

He considers his previous employment essential. 'It helped me hugely. One, it gave me a level of maturity; and second, it gave me the ability to deal with demanding clients. There is an element of unprofessionalism to this business and many think it's only about gardening and not running a business. For this reason, I think clients take me more seriously.'

In retrospect, he would encourage people to take a creative leap. What stops them is often a lack of imagination or unrealistic expectations as to earnings. He has financially caught up with his previous income (in the '90s), though, he says, one should expect a cut in salary, at least initially.

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