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Victorians’ career U-turns make some dreams come true

From the outside, it looks like a radical move — changing careers in mid-life. Some people just walk away from a stable and secure job to pursue a dream or passion. But career coach Michele Waters says it’s both a natural and common occurrence.

From the outside, it looks like a radical move — changing careers in mid-life. Some people just walk away from a stable and secure job to pursue a dream or passion.

But career coach Michele Waters says it’s both a natural and common occurrence.

“I see it happening at all ages but certainly in the 40s and 50s, it’s very common. Developmentally, it’s natural that people are evaluating the second half of their life: what do they want to have and what have they missed out on? And often they are just sick and tired of what they are doing,” said Waters, who has more than 30 years of experience in counselling people making career changes.

By the time people come to her, they know they are stuck in a rut, but have “come to realize that they have the right to be happy and they can do something about it,” Waters said.

For some, it’s chasing a dream or taking advantage of a part of themselves that has been dormant, she said.

“Sometimes it’s tapping into the very creative side of themselves or the adventurous side of themselves, sensing there is more to life,” she said.

“There’s often a sense the grass is greener and they are running out of time and they want to make the most of the short life they have.”

•  •  •

For Matt Barlee, 45, making a decision to follow his dream came down to not seeing himself wearing a suit for the rest of his life.

After a 24-year military career patrolling in Aurora aircraft and on the sea as an oceanographer, Barlee had a stable job doing business development and working to bring a U.S. franchise model into Canada.

It was a job that would have proved lucrative and likely easy for the personable Barlee, but there was an itch that the competitive cyclist within him needed to scratch.

As a result, Barlee recently walked away from the shirt and tie, and bought high-end bike touring company Magic Places, which takes clients around the world on two wheels and treats them to an experience few could imagine.

“Honestly, the decision was incredibly simple. It was right there and I knew it. When I first heard about the opportunity [to buy the business] over a year ago, it affected me, gripped me unlike anything I’ve ever considered — and I’ve chased submarines,” he said with a laugh. “This just grabbed me and it affected me at such a deep level emotionally. I’ve never had that reaction in my career in 30 years of working.”

Initially, Barlee admits fear had him looking for excuses not to make the move, like missing his two children while on tour.

But as he considered his future in the business development job, one he believes would have become just a means to a paycheque while “wearing a suit and taking people out to dinner,” he realized it was more important to be true to himself for the good of his family.

That’s when he wrote a cheque.

“I realized I’d be making a living supporting my family doing something I am passionate about and get to wake up every morning not being able to wait to go to work,” he said. “This allows me to be who I want to be, a guy who is passionate, energetic, engaged, happy and fulfilled.

“I’m going to build a company that I am incredibly passionate about and follow a career path that I would rather do than literally anything else in the world.”

•  •  •

According to career coach Michele Waters, that kind of story is the norm.

She estimates as many as 85 per cent of workers are dissatisfied with their work but feel trapped.

“That’s far too high,” she said, noting all of them could do with even one visit to a career coach to get some direction and help find a way out. “If they have those beliefs [that they are trapped], they will continue to live it out that way.”

Kari McLay knew she had to make a change, and the irony of her switch isn’t lost on her.

She left a job as a hospital social worker to open a retail store as a way of trying to make a difference and find some meaning in her career.

McLay, 53, said that decision made 10 years ago did just that for her and for the clients who have since walked through the doors of Tulipe Noire in Oak Bay.

As she looks back now, she said the move was philosophically driven to both challenge herself and take a risk while trying to make an impact.

“This was never about being an entrepreneur or getting rich. I opened this store as a result of having been turned onto yoga as a means of getting rid of stress from my former job, and it got me focused on how I wanted to live the rest of my life and make a difference in other people’s lives,” she said.

That wasn’t happening at the hospital, where the bureaucracy and regulation choked out creativity and continually frustrated her.

“I didn’t feel fulfilled or that I was making a difference,” she said. “I was reminded every time you move outside the box just who you work for and how highly institutionalized you were,” she said. “I loved working in the hospital and I would have stayed, but I don’t have five lives.”

When the store first opened, it was a yoga-lifestyle store geared for middle-aged women getting into yoga and fitness, but unable to find the kind of clothing that suited them at places like Lululemon.

McLay rode the yoga boom and eventually changed focus into a mainstream fashion outlet, but she was always careful to “cater to and provide a welcoming environment for all women.”

She said there is still a degree of social work and therapy — both retail and through conversation — that happens in her aisles as her clients face challenges in their lives. McLay said being able to be there for whatever her clients need reminds her why she made the move.

“I am very happy,” she said.

And though she said making the decision mid-life to switch careers was ultimately an easy one, it came with plenty of risk and no guaranteed paycheque.

•  •  •

Jim Swanson knew he was taking a risk when he decided to make a radical change at the age of 45.

Swanson, the new general manager of the Victoria HarbourCats baseball club, calls it a “pretty hard left turn,” but like Barlee and McLay, he said deciding to follow his dream was pretty simple.

Swanson had been working for Telus in Prince George. He loved the job and, with the stable gig, good benefits and pension, he could have easily seen himself retiring in the position.

But when the opportunity came to get back to his first love, baseball, he jumped.

“It did scare the hell out of me. It’s tough to make a career change in the mid 40s, but on the other end, if you don’t do it now when will you? Does the opportunity come again when you’re 50, 51, 55? I don’t think so,” said Swanson, who has bled baseball since he was a kid.

With a nod to author and former major league pitcher Jim Bouton, Swanson said when the love of the game starts, you grip the baseball, but in the end, the relationship is reversed — the ball grips you.

Throughout his life, he has played, coached and managed at various levels, including working in professional baseball in a minor league in the U.S., and that seemed to be the extent of it, until the HarbourCats opportunity.

“I knew there would be regret, if we didn’t jump at this,” he said of moving his wife and two kids to Victoria. “Yes, there was a cut in pay, a difference in benefits and pension, but at the end of the day, it was a passion job for me and then there’s this place [Victoria].”

•  •  •

Antoine Foukal may be a bit younger than many who decide to take that hard turn away from a career choice, but even at 30, he’s experienced the same kind of restlessness that motivates older workers to make a bold move.

In his late 20s, Foukal had established himself as a day trader, and while fairly lucrative, it left plenty to be desired.

“I didn’t feel like I was building anything except for a bank account,” he said. “It was always a stressful job and one I found was rewarding in only a financial sense — you’re more or less sitting at a computer and finding ways in the markets to make money. And when your success is tied directly to whether you make money or not, I found it hard to find satisfaction.”

But when Foukal cracked his first beer from Hoyne Brewing, he quenched his thirst and found a calling — craft beer.

After leaving his gig as a trader, Foukal tried several times to break into the craft-beer industry in Victoria. Eventually, he landed a volunteer job with Hoyne, and months later was taken on staff.

Gone is the big money that helped Foukal buy a home and get established, replaced with a $16-an-hour job delivering beer and doing whatever needs doing around the brewery.

For Foukal, it’s about the love of beer and finding a path that resonates within.

He has been with Hoyne for just over eight months and it’s yet to feel like work.

“In general, I’m more energetic, I’m happier and the days fly by and I enjoy every minute of it. It doesn’t feel like work,” he said.

And while watching his pennies has taken some getting used to, Foukal said there’s both job satisfaction in being in an industry he is passionate about and the understanding that his work now is an investment.

“I see a future in this. I’m hoping this turns out to be an education,” he said, adding he hopes to grow with the company, or perhaps move to another brewery and maybe one day “do something on my own.”

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