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Simplify Your Life

Toss the Trappings and Look for New Career

November 08, 1998|ELAINE ST. JAMES

Dear Elaine: I have your book "Simplify Your Life," and need some help deciding how much to simplify. I'm a widow, 57 years old, with minimal resources and a need to seek employment. I have a master of arts degree, multiple educational certificates, and teaching credentials in language, history, ESL and microcomputers.

Wanting to be prepared, I have collected a great deal of material over the years. I'm feeling heavy-burdened, overwhelmed by all this stuff, and without any sense of direction or purpose vocationally.

I don't like the school environment anymore, but that's where I have my training and experience and where I can earn the best income. If I didn't return to full-time teaching, I could get rid of four-fifths of the stuff I've acquired. But I feel I have to hold on to everything until I know what I'm going to do.

Any advice you could give me would be appreciated.



Dear Milwaukee: It's true that once you decide what you want to do, it'll be much easier to decide what to get rid of.

However, I would ask you to consider, even if you did stay in education, would you still need to hold on to all those materials or are they merely a security blanket? Could you just as easily retrieve that information through your local or university libraries, recently published books and journals, or the Internet? Is the information even current?

Because, as we all do, you've probably collected many things you don't really need, could you sort through it ruthlessly, and hold on to only what you actually need? Could you hire a professional organizer to help you? What would be the worst thing that would happen if you didn't have access to any of it?

Because you don't want to go back to teaching, could getting rid of all or most of it free you up to decide on an entirely new direction? Could holding on to this stuff be holding you back from exploring other options you might really like to pursue?

Don't fall into the trap of thinking that just because your background is in education/languages/computers you have to stay with that. Use this opportunity to figure out what you'd really like to do. Life is too short to spend time doing things that don't bring us joy. And if you don't make a change now, when would you do it? Do you really want to be stuck in a field you don't like for the remainder of your working life?

I know how challenging and even terrifying it can be to simply walk away from everything you've worked for, especially at this stage, but sometimes it can be the best thing for us. I spent many years building a career in a field I disliked until I reached a point where I simply couldn't do it anymore.

I quit, and forced myself to take some time off to tap into my inner voice. Sometimes we know what it is we want to do, but we're afraid to take the leap, and we keep our lives busy and full of stuff so we don't have to think about it. Burning my bridges forced me to find a new and, what has turned out to be, very satisfying career. There's never been a better time to explore new work options, and that's a major part of what the movement toward simplicity is all about.

You could get some career counseling, but if you do, don't lose touch with your own inner sense of what you want to do. Could you find a temporary job that would give you the money you need until you figure out what it is you truly want to do?

In the meantime, are there other areas of your life you could simplify so you're free to explore this career question? Are there activities you could drop and relationships you could free yourself from that are keeping you from what you really want to do?

I know what I'm suggesting takes courage, but isn't calling on your courage preferable to burning all your energy staying in a career you're not happy with? My advice? Get rid of most of that stuff, figure out a new direction, and go for it. Let me know how you do.

Elaine St. James is the author of "Simplify Your Life" and "Simplify Your Life With Kids." For questions or comments, write to her in care of Universal Press Syndicate, 4520 Main St., Kansas City, MO 64111, or e-mail her at

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