“Why stay in college? Why go to night school? Gonna be different this time”

I felt suckered.  Or at least a little misled.  I’ve moved past it now, and realize my problem is mostly one of bad timing.

For a very, very long time I’ve struggled trying to connect with the right occupation.  While I’ve seen other people simply glide into work they seem satisfied with, it has been a major challenge for me most of my adult life.  I’ll allow that my problem might be due to a somewhat romantic belief in the existence of vocations; that there really are good matches of work to a person’s skills, temperaments, and talents.  I have also allowed that I might just be mistaken in my belief, and also that I might be wrong that a person should expect to not hate — and hopefully enjoy — the work they dedicate their time to performing.

I have been fortunate to have drifted into work situations which were both enjoyable, personally fulfilling, and excellent fits for my talents.  The years I spent at Borders were especially good.  Managing a Hot Topic was pretty close too.  Unfortunately, losing the job there was surprisingly traumatic, and shifted me into a new period of searching and evaluation.  Truth is, I still deal with this, but my mindset has changed to where I don’t agonize over it quite as much.  And there was a period recently when I thought I’d found the answer, and stopped worrying about it completely.

After a couple of years of daily evaluation, seriously stressing over the options, asking myself over and over what I wanted to do with my life, it came to me, suddenly.  I remember vividly the phone call to my dad where I excitedly told him about my epiphany:  I was going to be a paralegal!

Paralegal was one of the occupations on a short list I made a few years back (the others?  OTR truck driver and private investigator), so I had considered it a good bit.  I even picked up a book a few years ago, long before ever REALLY giving it a shot.  At this particular point, though, it seemed to make a load of sense.  I saw list after list of growing occupations and best fields to go into which ranked paralegal as one of the top options.  Demand for paralegals and legal assistants was projected to continue growing in the next several years.  I researched and found out what starting and average salaried for paralegals were, including in Charlotte, and they were perfect for my standards.  The paralegal role and duties — writing, researching, evaluating, communicating — were a great match for the skills I had developed and which were recognized by previous employers as my strengths.  And as boring as the job may sound to some people, to me it was exciting work, something I could imagine inspiring me to go to work every day for a long time.  And, conveniently,  there were at least 3 reputable college programs in my city designed for working people like myself to gain the necessary education to get a start in the field.  It seemed that with a small investment in money and a doable amount of effort, I could achieve a real change in profession and be on the way to financial fitness and, more importantly, a purposeful, fulfilling job.

Looking back, I can see where I should have been more critical — and it was uncharacteristic of me not to be — of the promises made by the school promoters.  Okay, they didn’t promise so much as reassure, but there was a very casual confidence expressed regarding what could be expected by completing the program, including entering the legal world as an employee.  I was so sure of my decision, and so focused on my goal that there was a very real momentum carrying me quickly forward, and in a hurry to reach my goal, I overlooked some of the real possibilities that might lay ahead.  Besides, I was incredibly dedicated; I was certain I would achieve my goal.

Part of the reason I was convinced being a paralegal was the right call was due to a recent career exploration and educational experience. In a not-as-brilliant or quite as thoughtfully planned (but with interesting parallels) realization, I had decided getting a real estate license would be a good move.  Again, I had evaluated several options, and it appeared to be a good means to great income with minimal investment.  The real estate course was just over $300 and would last only a few weeks, with classes a few days a week.  when it was over, I figured I would be licensed and could either enter the high-rolling world of real estate sales, or move on to something like property appraisal.  In the end I didn’t pass the licensing exam (I wasn’t able to study properly due to outside issues), and, coincidentally, the market was just starting to turn downward.  I wound up deciding I wasn’t really interested in being a RE agent.  But through the classes I did discover something exciting:  I really liked completing the HUD-1 forms, and enjoyed the challenges of working through different contracts.  So you can probably see here where the connection to the paralegal path was made.

I made sacrifices to attend the paralegal classes.  The hardest was leaving the band I was in.  I also took on several thousand dollars more debt (the opposite of what I wanted, as I was trying to eliminate debt, that being my other main source of stress — but if I finished the program and got a good job…) in order to afford the program and books.  I gave up free time and replaced it with hours spent studying and working on class projects.  And I had to take a job not really paying enough for my expenses because it fit the schedule I needed.  No complaints from me, though, because I could see the end goal, and knew it would all be worth it in short time.

It was the second time in my life when I thoroughly believed I knew EXACTLY what I should be doing with my life.  And it was the second time things didn’t work out.

I earned my bachelor’s degree (and an associates degree!) in preparation for the ministry.  In high school I felt a true calling to the ministry, and spent the next several years moving toward serving in the church, never, EVER giving it a second thought or moment’s doubt.  Until I did wind up working in a church.  The experience was so bad — and, granted, other things were happening to change my life at the time (to be written about in greater detail elsewhere) — I felt little choice but to abandon that position.  Maybe that’s why I’ve had so much difficulty finding a real purpose or satisfying job?  Maybe I’ve been a little like Jonah, running away from my real calling?  I really don’t think so.  Still, since then I have never felt so sure of a direction.  Except maybe pursuing the paralegal role.

Which brings me back:  I did great in the classes, if I have to say so myself (this being my blog, I guess I do have to).  There were a couple of challenges getting work completed on time, trying to work it all around a busy schedule at my job and other commitments, but overall I seemed to be making impressive grades and excelling at the material.  I put tremendous effort into perfecting the written assignments, analyzing cases, and researching legal topics.  I listened and got the message throughout the program that finding a good legal job depended greatly on networking.  No problem.  I can’t really say whether being in the band improved my performance skills, but it certainly improved my networking abilities.  I understood, and was prepared to do whatever it took.  First in my class to join the local and regional paralegal associations.  Unlike some of my classmates, I saw the mock interview exercise as one of the program’s greatest values, and took all the guidance to heart.  I rewrote and revised my resume a number of times, spending days on it, literally, until it appeared to be perfect.

None of that made much of a difference when it came to actually landing a job.  Because the most important thing an employer looks for when hiring a paralegal is the one thing I did not have, and could not easily get:  experience working as a paralegal.  We’re probably all familiar with these Catch-22’s.  For a good while I truly thought I could spin the experience I DO have as transferable skills, and I believed my good classwork and connections I’d made would also speak well of my abilities.  It took me a year to conclude that wasn’t so.

There are things I could have worked on harder, especially with the networking.  But the demands of the job I have already been working weren’t making that easy.  I did consider the internship option, but my financial situation does not make that actually feasible.  I’m not sure how many positions I applied for, but of the dozens I did, I never heard back from anyone.  Not once.  Even the legal temp agencies didn’t respond.

Of course, while I have been trying to find work as a paralegal, the downturn in the economy and the associated layoffs have meant there are a multitude of experienced paralegals and even attorneys out there applying for the same jobs.  I’m not one to easily make excuses, but I’m also a little too old to be irrationally stubborn on a point like this.  After just over two year’s work trying to get to my goal, the smarter and more sensible thing to do might be to revise the goal.  So I happily move on.

With help from friends, family, and some pretty good books, I’m actually feeling a lot better these days about not having it all figured out.  It would certainly be nice to have all the answers, and the means to get to them, but I don’t stress over finding meaning in a job anymore.  And as much as I don’t want to sound cheesey, I have learned, I think, that the answers for me, at my age, aren’t in classes or school, but inside myself.  I definitely see the value in continued learning, and I am learning A LOT these days, but at this point in my life, I think I can do something meaningful with the skills and knowledge I already have, being the person I already am.

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