Saturday, July 23, 2005

The Courage to Change

In every company there are those people who have worked in the same position for decades. They started in their teens or twenties, and they'll work there until they retire. The "Lifers."

I come from a family of Lifers. Both my parents have been at their jobs for over 30 years. But these days, Lifers are a dying breed. Or maybe things are just different for college educated people. I don't really know. My sister and I were the first in our family to go to college, so I have no basis for comparison.

Either way, it seems most people stay at a job for a few years, then move on to new departments or new companies. Short of a big promotion (that never seems to come), it's the best way to increase your salary. Make yourself more marketable. From what I've heard, Lifers continue on with their cost-of-living raises and never go anywhere.

I was dubbed a Lifer by a coworker less than a year after I started.

He was right. Once I'm comfortable, I like to settle in and enjoy coasting for a while. That's how I've been, here, for the past four years. Coasting along and enjoying the ride.

The thing is, I like my job. It's rare and unpopular to say, but true. I enjoy the work I do. I'm challenged, but not overly stressed. The people are nice, with exception of the occasional character, but you'd find that anywhere. And the money is decent. Sure, I'd love to make more, but it's "enough" for now. We can afford our house, most of the stuff we want, and still manage to save a little bit for the bigger stuff.

Everybody seems to have somewhere else they want to be. Now, or in a year, five, ten. They want to move into management. Work their way up to vice president. Start their own business. But me, I'm just fine with the status quo.

I know I'm not management material. I hate confrontation, and I'd never want to be responsible for firing people. I want - almost need - to have everyone around me like me. To be a good manager, you need to be the bad guy once in a while. I know I'm never going to follow that career path. So that leaves me with the Lifer path. I can be fine with that. Except...

There is one little thing I've been thinking about for a few years. The actuarial field.

(For those of you who don't know what an actuary is, just know that they usually work in insurance and use lots of math. And, from what I've heard, make tons of money.)

I didn't always consider the field. When I was in high school, we had career day as part of math week. When I was in the math club. (I mentioned I was a total geek, right?) I remember very clearly the actuary getting up there and speaking. As I stared blankly at him, droning on about taking tests for years and working in insurance and death probability analysis, I said to myself, "I will NEVER do that." I could imagine myself being the first person to actually die of boredom.

All the way through college, that man stayed with me. When I finally graduated with a math degree, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I knew only that I didn't want to teach and I never never NEVER wanted to be an actuary.

And here I am. Eight years later. Thinking about being an actuary.

I guess I've grown up (sort of), and I know that this man is not representative of every actuary out there. I know that jobs aren't always what they appear to be to an outsider. I still love math. And I'd love to make more money. Isn't it worth trying?

The first step to becoming an actuary is taking the tests. I've been toying with taking that first test for years now. A friend from work has been hounding me to do it, too. She hates math, and can't understand why someone who likes, and is good in, math wouldn't go for the highest paying career out there. Every few weeks she'll ask if I signed up for the tests yet. No, not yet. I'll get around to it.

This Thursday, she got frustrated. "What are you waiting for! Just do it!"

"I know, but then I'll have to do all that studying. It's a lot of work."

"So what! Can you imagine the change in your life if you did this? Jete could quit his job and stay home with the kids. No more paying babysitters half your salary to watch the kids! You could get a bigger house!"

"I know. But that's not for years, and I'd have to pass all those tests first. It's a lot of stress."

"It isn't a lot of stress. You're smart, it won't be a problem for you. JUST DO IT."

Finally, to shut her up, I told her if she researched the testing dates and sent me the application, I'd apply for the first test.

A minute later I got an email from her containing just a link to the test information. Damn. She meant it this time.

I started reading the website. As I read I got a second email from her:

"9/22/05 deadline! for November test!!! Lots of time to study..."

I looked again. She was wrong. The deadline she was talking about was for the fourth test. I needed to take the first one. I scrolled around to find more information. The deadline for the first one was....

...Friday 7/22. Tomorrow. Ohhhhh.

She came over to my desk with a printout. "Here's the application. Fill it out now!" I told her that she was looking at the wrong test. I showed her on the screen. The test I need to take is offered in September. The deadline was 24 hours away, and the application could not be submitted online. It had to be mailed. "The deadline is tomorrow." She got even more hyped up.

"It's a sign! If we had checked tomorrow, you would have lost your chance for months. You HAVE to do this! We'll overnight the letter. I'll bring it to the post office myself. Fill it out. JUST DO IT."

Jeesh. She was starting to turn into a Nike commercial.

I looked at her for a minute. This was crazy. I'll only have two months to study! I have to relearn an entire semester's worth of math in two months? With two babies, a full time job and other distractions?

Is it even worth it? I'm happy with my job. The money thing doesn't impress me. I could live with this salary and my raises and bonuses every year. What's wrong with being a Lifer?

But I knew that wasn't the full story. Is my satisfaction at being a Lifer the real reason I didn't want to do it? Or am I really just afraid? Afraid of change. Afraid of the work. Afraid... that I will fail. Fail the tests. Fail at the job. Not measure up to what everyone else seems to think I am capable of.

I know it's a little bit of both things holding me back. But suddenly, I was caught up in her enthusiasm. I knew if I didn't do this now, I'd never do it. I'm 30 years old. Most people taking this test are just graduating from college. I know it is never too late to change. But I also know there will come a point when my moment will have passed, where my life is so settled that I won't want to disrupt it. And I will never get the courage to try again.

I filled out the form and handed it to her. "Okay. It's in your hands now. You've got to get it there overnight." She grabbed her purse and left for the post office.

She came back a little later with the tracking slip. "It will be there by noon tomorrow. This is it! Now get the books to study!"

Whoa. All afternoon and evening I thought about what I did. I was terrified, but a little excited too. Friday I kept checking the post office site to see if it was delivered. Maybe the post office would lose it, and I would miss the cut off. Then it wouldn't be my fault.

Finally, a little after lunchtime, the tracking was updated. It was delivered at 10:31 AM. It was official. I was registered.

I have no choice but to try now. I hope I can do it. I figure, the test is $175 dollars, non-refundable. If that isn't motivation enough to study, I don't know what would be.

Just by going through this process, I think I'll have proven something to myself. That I can try. It's never too late. That I have the power to live another kind of life, if I don't let fear hold me back.

Hell, even if I fail the test, I'm bound to learn a lesson somewhere in all of this. And isn't learning what life is really all about?


M&Co. said...

Good luck! Change is exciting.

Mete said...

Thanks! Although change is usually roller coaster kind of exciting.

And I HATE roller coasters.