Hands down one of the best changes I’ve made since my Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis is changing careers. While I still work in the same organization, I work in a completely different field. Still, I draw upon skills and knowledge I’ve gained from every job and experience I’ve had in my life.
My career path has in no way been anything a career counselor would have designed to get to the job I have today. In college, I never would have believed that I would have my current job and love it. I also never would have imagined that at age 38 I would get diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and realize with hindsight that I’d had MS since my early 20s.
The career I had previously was great for me. I was good at it, and it pushed me daily to grow and learn. I was rewarded with promotions, pay and increased responsibility. I liked that I contributed to my community in a way that helped people through complicated requirements and paperwork. I liked being an expert in the field and making suggestions that would allow them to do their projects with the least hassle. That job also required nonstop interaction with people in stressful situations, and it took a lot of energy physically. I would cram my weekend with rest to recharge enough to take on the next week. Sometimes it worked, but more often it didn’t.
When I look at my employment path since the age of 16, I see that I consistently looked at what was available and with each choice made the best next turn. I’ve been in industries with no perceived connection to each other. They include food service, retail, skilled labor, government, business, and office. I’ve worked for myself and for others. I've worked at restaurants, a ski resort, a woodshop, a real estate office, an art gallery, in a building and planning permitting office, and a financial office.
A few years ago, someone approached me to assume their job when they retired. I hadn't even known that person was watching my work! The job had never occurred to me as remotely possible for me, but now I have it and love it. It took a lot of effort to make the transition, but the payoff was huge for my quality of life and the pay cut worth every penny.
In my new position, I still learn and grow every day, I contribute to my community, and I help people. I also have a job with a mix of tasks that allow me to engage with people as well as have focused project work without interruption. The mix helps me accommodate my fatigue issues immensely.
There are no guarantees for anyone for what tomorrow will look like. An accident or unknown health condition can take anyone out of the workforce at any time. I know my condition will progress, and someday I will need to change my employment or even stop working all together before I’m ready to retire. My job now works for me today, and I hope it works for me for some time.
While having MS can make me feel vulnerable with my employment possibilities, I find I’m happier when I don’t prematurely limit myself. When I come from a place of confidence in my abilities, I have hope and feel I can achieve anything I really want.
Career advice I would give myself and others is the same for starting a career as I think it is for winding one down.
1. Build relationships. Sometimes the people we work with see something in us that would be good for a job we never considered.
2. Learn whenever possible. Pursue things that interest you even if they don’t seem related to your job at the time. I've found in my career that no time spent learning has been wasted even when I changed fields. Everyone brings a different set of skills, knowledge and background to every job. It all adds value even if the fields seem unrelated.
3. Know your strengths, and build on them. Understand you have a weakness as a consequence of that strength.
4. Know your weaknesses, and get so good at coping skills or accommodations that they don’t hold you back.
5. Be open to opportunities that surprise you and haven’t occurred to you.
6. Do a good job wherever you are on whatever you’re doing.
7. Be someone that people like working with and want to have around. I’m a firm believer that we’re all replaceable in our employment. If we die tonight, someone else will eventually fill the job. People help and look out for others they like and respect.
8. Never burn a bridge. People you thought you’d never see again sometimes boomerang into your life again. Forgive them and don’t hold a grudge for poor behavior, but don’t forget it either since they’ve shown you who they are. (I’ve had people treat me poorly given they didn’t respect my position, and later I was their boss or someone they really needed to work with. Seeing them suddenly treat me much better is off-putting.)
9. Know when a job isn’t right for you anymore. Focus on making the choice that feels right for you each point along the way. If you change later, it won't be failure. It'll just be a redirect.
10. Be wary of making decisions from a place of fear. It'll stifle your potential and happiness.
I’ll never willingly leave a job without having my next life chapter ready to start. As my body declines with age and illness, being the best me at each point will undoubtedly lead me to see the best next turn.