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Midlife Career Changes

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Barbara PentoneyBarbara Pentoney packed in a desk job, packed up a Miata and cast her future into a stream at Mammoth Lakes last summer.

The 35-year-old full-time paralegal at a downtown San Diego law firm was taking a big chance when she decided to become a full-time fly fishing instructor instead. She had no idea whether it would work out. She still doesn’t. But she’s willing to find out. She’s in the middle of changing careers.

“I thought maybe I’d take a few months off to see if this worked out,” Pentoney says. “But now I’m committed to making a full-time go of it.”

Jesse Johnson crouches next to a desk in his classroom at Lemon Grove Middle School, eye-level with a student trying to figure out the meaning of an Egyptian drawing. With his white brush-cut hair and smiling blue eyes, he looks like a man who’s spent a lifetime patiently pushing and prodding young people into adulthood. But at 52, Johnson has only been teaching for 10 years, after 20 years as a nondenominational minister.

“One of my big fears was that I was going to pull up to a stop sign one day and wonder what on earth I was doing—why did I think the grass was greener on the other side of the fence,” Johnson says. “I never have.”

His commitment and enthusiasm about his midlife career change led to his being named teacher of the year in his district last year and a finalist for San Diego County teacher of the year.

Bonnie Wright can relate to pulling off a rewarding change of life. She, too, dumped one career to do something else nearly 12 years ago. The Point Loma native went back to college at UCSD, graduated with a music degree, worked on a master’s degree in literature and now pursues her love of music and art through San Diego’s nonprofit Spruce Street Forum, a critically successful venue for experimental music and art, which she started on her own.

After nearly 25 years in sales of Levi’s and then real estate, Wright knows the grass is greener where she is today. “It was hard,” she says. “But I put one foot in front of the other, and I knew I wanted to do this with all my heart. Music was my passion, and I knew I no longer just wanted to be a member of the audience.”

If the experiences of these San Diegans sound familiar, you’re among an ever-growing number of people in their 30s, 40s and 50s who are exploring and often finding new careers—by choice or by necessity. There is no question the downsizing and layoffs of the new recession have hit a lot of midlife professionals hard. They have often had to make tough, sometimes ego-deflating decisions about what’s next in their working lives.

Wright, Johnson and Pentoney made their decisions voluntarily, but the lessons they learned apply to anyone who’s trying to decide what to do with the rest of his or her life. While career coaches, books, videos and Web sites abound with advice on how to make a switch, at least one psychologist says all the self-help books in the world won’t help you if you don’t know who you are.

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