My Favorite Book of 2021 (so far).
I’ve long been a fan of Financial Times writer Lucy Kellaway’s work with her sharp British wit and unvarnished insight.
Then, a few years ago as I was starting to write my last book "Wisdom@Work," I heard she was leaving her prestigious journalism job after what she calls an "interminably unimaginative 32 years" to become a math teacher in a gritty school where the majority of kids come from economically disadvantaged homes. I made a mental note that this is a woman I want to meet someday.
Recently, Lucy’s new book was published in the U.K. It’s called "Re-educated: How I Changed My Job, My Home, My Husband and My Hair" and is a personal memoir that doubles as an MEA manifesto. Having read both the book and The Guardian story by Lucy entitled "Leaving Burnout Behind: The Pain and Pleasure of Starting a New Career in My 50s," I no longer just want to meet this heroine; I want her to teach a one-week workshop in Baja!
Here’s why this is so resonant with our growing MEA community. She had what seemed like the perfect life from the outside: a loving husband, four children, a beautiful home in the suburbs, a successful career with all kinds of status and access, a professional identity that fed her ego, financial security, etc. And, yet, it took the passing of her mother when Lucy was 46 to have her first "midlife crisis," which ultimately started the ball rolling on discovering her "midlife calling."
But, as much as she was intrigued with her mother’s career as a teacher when she went to websites focused on recruiting new London-area teachers, all she saw was the smiling faces of 22-year-old trainees. She shelved the idea because she felt too old to try something new. It took her father passing away a decade later for her to get the courage up to start making some change in her life. As the subtitle of the book suggests, she changed everything. She had what author Bruce Feiler would call a "lifequake."
Soon, this reputable journalist, at age 58, was being mentored by a 24-year-old as she learned what it was like to teach in an inner-city school. She feared failure and didn’t love being a beginner as it brought her face-to-face with her imposter’s syndrome, but using a growth mindset, she started to see improvement. And, she fell in love with teaching for a variety of reasons: she loved the kids and felt a sense of meaning in their progress, she was less focused on her ego or climbing some reputational ladder, she no longer felt the need to prove herself, and while she felt exhausted from time to time, she no longer felt stress from her work.
Lucy’s mid-career malaise and burnout were replaced with a rekindled curiosity that lit up her fellow teachers. One of them asked her, "Don’t you wish you’d become a teacher earlier?" Lucy continues,
"What I think she was saying was: given your age (I am the oldest person in my school by two decades), you won’t be able to go on for much longer. I put the question back to her and asked how many more years she thought she’d teach for. ‘Not sure,’ she said. ‘Maybe another five. Then I want to do something less exhausting.’ Well, in that case, I replied, I’d be at it for much longer, as I plan to teach until I’m 75. She looked at me skeptically. Partly it was my bravado talking, though if my health holds out, I don’t see why I shouldn’t.
I don’t wish I had switched careers earlier. But what I do wish is that someone had told me long ago that my working life would probably last at least 50 years, and I would need to have multiple careers. I wish the government and employers were thinking about this, too, and helping us along. I wish that everyone was taught at the outset that it was normal for their income to rise and fall precipitously over their working lives and to plan for that. I wish that my story was so commonplace that there would be no point in my writing it."
"Re-educated" is full of humor and humanity, grit and grace with the fineness of detail that you might expect from a career journalist. It’s not often you get a Brit to be as vulnerable as Lucy serves it up here. She’s also proving that you can do a start from scratch career shift at just about any age because you bring all of your accumulated wisdom along with you. Furthermore, she’s co-created an organization, Now Teach, dedicated to helping train U.K. professionals to go back into the schools and teach. So, this story isn’t just about Lucy, it’s about the legacy she leaves far after she leaves the classroom.