Starting Over at 30: Guilt, Endurance, and Self-discovery

2021-12-02 | BY Vanessa Nguyen | IN Job Search Starter Kit, Job Seekers, Work Life

Starting Over at 30: Guilt, Endurance, and Self-discovery

My experience isn’t unique. 

After graduating college, I took an exciting, fast-paced job in an industry I loved – only to find out five years later that it was soul-crushing, exhausting work, that despite all its benefits, wasn’t worth my mental health. I spent years prioritizing my job, which meant missing holidays with my family and sacrificing relationships. After five years I was burnt out and bitter. However, according to society I was on my way to a happy life. I was in my mid-20s, making six figures, working in a competitive field. It sounded completely right, but it felt hollow. 

Now as a recruiter (my new career!) I see so many people trapped in the same situation thinking it’s too late to start over.  

I get it. That’s how I felt for so many years because I feared disappointing my peers, my family, and myself. I didn’t want to quit my job and fall behind, especially when I saw my friends thriving. The pressure was suffocating. 

That’s why I’m sharing what worked for me, so you can avoid all the nasty, anxiety-provoking, devastating parts and skip right to the bit where you pivot your skills to launch a fulfilling career. 

The shame of starting over

Starting over feels like admitting a mistake. You tried something, failed, and now you need to pivot even though everyone else has it all figured out. You see your friends settling down in secure careers, having already established themselves in their industries, and you feel…frustrated. So you keep doing what you’ve been doing, unwilling to admit defeat, but that only makes you more aware of how unhappy you’ve become.  And in the end, what’s the point of it all if you are chronically unhappy?

Eventually I realized the real shame was in continuing down the path I was going. It was a shame to waste my energy on something that was making me into a person I didn’t like. I was joyless, short-tempered, and continuously stressed.  And that’s a real shame.

Hello, ideal self

Cue the “finding yourself” montage where I travelled for eight months reflecting on what I wanted and who I was, speaking with friends, family, and mentors, before honing in on the real problem – me. 

My job was so enmeshed with my identity that even the idea of doing something else was unimaginable. Who would I be? What would be my value? What would other people think of me?

The key was figuring out who I wanted to be without work. I started with self-discovery, asking myself – if I met my “ideal me,” how would that person spend their time? Where would they live? Who would be in their life? 

By imagining this ‘ideal self’ as someone else, someone I admired, I could take a step back and get an objective view of what was actually important to me. And it wasn’t anything fancy or noble. I discovered that I wanted to be a normal 20-something year old with a social life, time to see my family, freedom to determine my own work life balance, and eventually the means to financially support my parents. 

Try it out! If you had to imagine your ideal self, what would they be like? Where would they live? When would they retire? Who would they hang out with? How would they fill their days? How would they rank their priorities? Once you can answer these questions, you’ll be equipped to jump to the next step – going from looking inward to looking outward. 

Helping others = helping yourself

After much reflection, I concluded that having a job that directly helps people is my priority. In my past job – managing restaurants – I loved brightening someone’s day with a meal. I truly believe good food and good hospitality can make a difference to a person’s mood. That altruistic feeling guided my search. 

The more I spoke with my network, the more I realized that helping others is a pretty common motivator. People feel fulfilled when they can see their impact on the world. That’s why I often find myself counseling candidates who are unsatisfied in their job, or feel like they’re in a rut, to reflect on their impact – whether they can see it, whether they really know how they’re changing someone’s life. If that’s lacking in your life, it’s likely you’ll feel unsatisfied at work.

The money quandary

Let’s talk salary. To ignore its influence is…impossible. We might try to make career decisions based solely on impact, passion, interest, etc. – but in the end, money rules the world. If you’re not making adequate income, you won’t be happy. 

On the other hand – what’s the point of money if you don’t have the time and freedom to enjoy it? If you’re working unreasonable hours, running yourself thin, coming home exhausted every night, sabotaging all your personal relationships…then what are you really working toward? Unless you have a short-term saving goal and intend to quit in the near future, this kind of lifestyle is not only unsustainable – it’s inhumane. 

Like everything, it comes down to balance and tradeoffs. Figuring out what salary threshold will leave you happy, without overwhelming your personal time, is key. In my case, I learned to accept a lower salary in exchange for my mental health – but that’s not to say that money wasn’t still a major consideration. 

Breaking into something new

Time for the good stuff! After much trial and error, I uncovered the best tool for breaking into a new industry…and you probably won’t like it.

It’s networking. 

No matter the job, the industry, the company, your best bet is to secure a personal reference. How do you get that? You talk with everyone. I spent months booking coffee dates with anyone who would meet with me – from my friends’ friends/significant others’ coworkers/parents’ acquaintances/siblings’ old school pals, to the random person I spoke with on the train, to whoever would respond to me on LinkedIn. I wanted to learn about their career, their company, all while mining their experience for helpful tidbits. My network expanded exponentially as a result all while exposing myself to different perspectives and backgrounds.

While I did revamp my resume to showcase my most versatile skills, the resume was never the driving force behind my job search. I rarely even sent my resume to people. Instead, I got people on the phone and learned about their lives – a discussion most were open to, because everyone loves sharing about themselves. 

If networking makes you queasy, never fear! I have some tips for that:

  1. We have a networking guide here and here to make your life easier, written by our very own expert networker Megan Walker
  2. Know this: absolutely no one knows what they’re doing. Everyone is just figuring things out – so you don’t have to be intimidated by people (even if they appear to have it all together)
  3. I’m happy to offer tips from my networking experience – you can email me at!

You should also consider these two main strategies for networking, depending on your goals:

  1. The listener: This strategy involves letting someone talk, listening to what interests them, and asking probative questions to learn more/draw out their experience. Best used for growing your network and figuring out, in the preliminary stages, what you want to do in this next stage of your career. 
  2. The helper: This strategy involves proactively offering ideas and presenting how you might be able to help execute on them. Best used once you’ve already identified a company and have the hiring manager on the phone. It’s the more direct sell. 

Now daunting as it might sound, networking is actually a perfectly natural process. You don’t need to push a specific agenda or anything – just get to know your fellow humans, learn about their lives, and help them out in return if/when the time comes. 

Plus, if you are brave enough to take the leap into a new career – to overcome the discomfort of changing paths – then you are more than equipped to reach out to your wider network. Trust me, it’s a lot less scary than you think. Like you, everyone is just figuring things out as they go. 

Yet for some people networking feels impossible. If you fall into this category, you can actually outsource your networking to recruiters! Recruiters will help you figure out next steps by outlining your options and helping to compare/contrast different career paths in terms of comp, growth, etc. They then get in touch with their own network to help match you with a position. Just make sure you research a recruiting agency that specializes in what you’re looking to do, rather than reaching out blindly. Proven Recruiting, for example, specializes exclusively in Finance, Accounting, Technology, and Life Sciences – so we wouldn’t be helpful if you wanted to get into, say, marketing. Finding the firm that matches your interests and communication style makes a huge difference in your ultimate outcomes.

If your story sounds anything like mine, I’d love to hear it. Whether you’re just starting to consider alternate careers, or you’re already deep into your “finding yourself” stage, I’m happy to offer any advice I can – both as a recruiter and as a person who has gone through the same thing. Reach out!

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