How to Find Your Dream Job Later in LifeBy Nina Malkin
"What do you want to be when you grow up?" As a kid, you probably answered, "ballerina, astronaut, first female president!" Then you grew up, and the need to care for your family and earn a living set you on a different path, one that's satisfying in its own way. But if your childhood dream still has a place in your heart, there are ways to make it happen. The women here are doing what they love-and you can't buy that kind of happiness. Photos by: David A. Land; hair & makeup by Stephanie Harrison and Katie Cotton for Zenobia Agency; center photo courtesy of Ken Bohn/San Diego Zoo
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'I'm singing my heart out'
Shai Littlejohn, 38
Both of Shai's parents were attorneys and expected her to follow suit. So she went to law school, got a job at a prestigious firm in Washington, DC, and worked as a lawyer for a decade. But her heart was never in it. "I had a big salary but no personal satisfaction," she says.
Shai found solace in the same thing that had brought her joy since joining the church choir at age 12. "Singing always felt like communicating something real on a spiritual and emotional level," says Shai. Yet she never considered it a career option. "That seemed like something people did in fairy tales."
It was her mom's diagnosis of brain cancer in 2009 that made Shai realize she had to write her own happily-ever-after. "Work was insane, my mother was sick and I was flying back and forth from DC to Houston to see her," Shai says. "I finally said, 'Enough!' and quit."
While caring for her mom, Shai hatched a plan: She would take her savings and study music for a year, then open a part-time law practice so she could pursue her passion. Before her mother passed away two years later, she encouraged Shai to follow her dream.
In 2012, Shai moved to Nashville to try singing and songwriting. A decade presenting cases in court gave her the confidence to sing for a crowd. "At 20, I would have been too insecure to perform," says Shai. Her song "Live This Life" is inspired by her mom (you can hear it at ShaiLittlejohn.com), and her dad comes to hear her perform at clubs (she also sings at weddings and special events).
"Doing music is so freeing," Shai says. "There's no pressure to be a star. Success, to me, isn't a dollar amount or a record deal; it's doing what I love."
Shai's secret: Give yourself permission to fail
"I'm trying something new, so I don't expect to do it perfectly," says Shai. "I'm learning, and mistakes are a natural part of learning."
Related: Learn how to raise a confident woman.
'I published a book at 55'
Kate Porter, 56
At age 15, Kate knew she wanted to be a writer, but "my grandparents, who raised me, were old-fashioned," says Kate, a child of divorce who penned fiction and poetry to vent her confusion and pain. "They told me to stop pipe-dreaming, that it was a waste of time and money to send a girl to college."
Not that there was money for college. Kate went straight to work after high school, jumping from job to job-waitress, line cook, even sewing in a bra factory. She also had a brief marriage followed by a series of bumpy relationships. Through it all, "I'd write story ideas on scraps of paper, then put them in a box," Kate says. "Or start a novel only to give up, telling myself, Who am I kidding?"
Kate's confidence might have continued to plummet had she not met a man on a blind date in 1989 who would turn out to be very important in her life. "Don became my greatest inspiration and source of support," she says. Soon after their wedding the following year, Kate wrote a passionate poem about the Gulf War, and Don urged her to send it to the newspaper. "I said, 'Why bother?'" she recalls. Kate had felt so rejected-by her parents and men-that she was afraid it would happen again. But Don believed in her. "He said, 'Please-do it for me.'" A few weeks later it was published. "He took me out to dinner that night and cut the poem out of the newspaper to tape to his mirror at the barbershop where he worked," she says.
When Don passed away in January 2003 from lung cancer, Kate was so devastated, she could barely write. She had to channel Don's encouraging voice to pick up a pen again. "When I started to doubt myself, I would hear Don telling me how proud he was of me." Finally, she poured her grief into a novel about a young widow, but she couldn't find a publisher. Once again, she felt like giving up.
That's when her best friend Anna stepped in, paying her tuition for a college writing course as a combination birthday and Christmas gift in 2009. "I'd talked about it but could never afford it," Kate says. "She said, 'God wouldn't want you to live this way, as a hermit, as someone who didn't follow your dreams,'" she recalls. "Anna told me, 'If you miss one class I'm going to kick your butt!'"
In 2012, she finished a second novel, Secrets in Bethlehem, and Amazon agreed to publish the e-book and paperback. "I wanted to crow from the rooftops, 'I'm a real writer!'" Kate says. Her third book is due out this year, and she has her friend to thank. Anna's emotional support was critical to her success. "If she believed in me, I could believe in me," Kate says.
Kate's secret: Go public with your goals
"If you keep your dream a secret, it will be unattainable," Kate says. "I was terrified to tell people about my writing, but what did I have to lose?"
Related: Check out 9 bad habits that are actually good for you.
'I became a zookeeper'
Kathy Hawk, 55
Kathy always knew that her true calling lay where the wild things are. "A world without animals would be empty to me," Kathy says. So after college in 1986, Kathy applied to the San Diego Zoo. She didn't realize what a long shot becoming a zookeeper was-very few of these prestigious positions exist and people tend to stay in them until they retire. What's more, zookeeping is a fiercely male-dominated field.
So Kathy grabbed the only thing she could: a part-time groundskeeper's job-cleaning toilets and picking up litter and manure-and clerked in a grocery store. "I put in 70-hour weeks," Kathy says. "But at least I could be near animals." Eventually, she did short-term fill-in jobs at the zoo, and learned how to tolerate male coworkers, some of whom were hard on female colleagues. "You didn't dare make a mistake," she says. The hardest part was having to leave the animals when the jobs were over, but Kathy focused on the triumphs. Once, as she picked up litter near the lion exhibit, her favorite cat actually strolled over to say hi. "In my lowest moments, those interactions with the animals gave me clarity, strength and motivation," says Kathy. "I couldn't be discouraged. I took every fill-in position gratefully and worked even harder."
Kathy's perseverance paid off: She is now senior mammal keeper at the San Diego Zoo. "There have been so many rewards, such as a child saying she wants to be a zookeeper and help save an endangered species," says Kathy. "This is what I live for!"
Kathy's secret: Be patient
The grunt work, she says, "allowed me to chat with the keepers. They saw how dedicated I was, and kept me in the loop when positions came up."
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How to Find Your Dream Job Later in LifeBy Nina Malkin