CHANGING CAREERS / SEP. 14, 2014
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Is It Too Late for a New Career? Lessons from 'The Good Wife' on Starting Over

Do a search online for "Am I too old to (fill in career choice here)" and you’ll find a host of articles, blog posts, and forum comments addressing the fear that there is some cut-off date for trying a new career. With society’s never-ending focus on youth, many people worry that if they haven’t made their dreams come true in their twenties, then somehow it just wasn’t meant to be. TV shows like "The Good Wife" help to inspire those fearful of regret, by illustrating both the realities and possibilities of starting a career later in life.

The main character on "The Good Wife," Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), is a politician’s wife who has spent a large part of her life supporting her husband and raising their children. While the legal work she’s returning to is familiar to her, the extended time off means she’s starting over from scratch, competing for a permanent position at a law firm with much younger, recent graduate lawyers.

Whether you’re starting a brand new career or rekindling an old one, this competition with younger people creates a kind of hostile work environment you will have to learn to deal with. On "The Good Wife," Alicia endures patronizing comments from her young coworkers, and feels embarrassed having to be the "new kid" with something to prove, without the cushioning excuse of actually being a kid. Fans of the show love the cool demeanor Alicia adopts. We can see this transition isn’t easy, but she plows ahead anyway, refusing to dwell on the criticisms and little indignities, determined to achieve her goals.

"It turns out that beginning a new career in midlife requires you to take yourself seriously enough that your confidence won’t be shattered if other people don’t." So says late-blooming author Robin Black. Black points out that this is one of the benefits of starting a career when you’re older. Like Alicia discovers, "other people’s opinions have less power over us than they once did." There’s a certain smugness you’ll feel when you realize that your belief in yourself far outweighs the misgivings of people whose opinions you have no reason to value.

What "The Good Wife" also shows is that collaboration is helpful as you start your new career. While there may be some initial friction with younger coworkers, don’t alienate yourself from them. Alicia and her young competitor Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry) begin on fairly hostile terms, but when they both make an effort to understand each other, they eventually become allies, friends, and eventual business partners. Your maturity and experience can often work wonders with the enthusiasm and adventurous natures of your younger colleagues. Conversely, don’t overlook the benefits of wisdom from those with even more life experience than you.

Another motivational aspect of "The Good Wife" is its presentation of a career as a journey, not a destination. Alicia finds success as a lawyer, then a partner in the firm, then she goes on to start her own firm. Her husband Peter (Chris Noth) returns to political life after a scandal, but doesn’t stop at that first triumphant job. He aspires to greater heights, never stopping to think "Is it too late? Have I gone as far as I can?"

An important attitude for starting a new career is rolling with the punches, just as you would if you were twenty-two. Career issues tend to have more weight when you’re older, when you have a mortgage to pay and a family to support. Setbacks feel more momentous, but you have to consider them as just another step in the process. Alicia’s boss, Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), loses a coveted position as judge, something she’s aspired to for years. While it’s a hurtful blow to her dreams, she regroups and gets back to work. As she plows ahead, instead of falling back, other opportunities present themselves.

One could dismiss this as mere fiction, but it’s not tough to find real-life examples, too. Joy Behar, longtime talk show host of popular daytime show "The View," began her career as a high school teacher and only transitioned to comedy and acting around the age of 40. Now, at age 70, she’s left her day job--not to retire, but to pursue other interests. "I have so many other things to do!" she explains. "I want to write, do stand-up, maybe do Broadway, do acting roles and live my life without this daily regimen."

So, the ultimate question as one goes for that second, or third, or twelfth career, is not "Am I too old?" One needs to ask instead, "What do I want to do?" And then plunge right in, always moving forward, only looking back for lessons learned and knowledge gained, not for regret.

 

Photo by: Christoph Lehmann, Flickr

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