Incognito: In my early 40s and on career number 5: how I started over and over again

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This month’s everywomanIncognito columnist began a glittering career in criminal law. But following an international move, her qualifications no longer recognised, she found herself at a ‘bar’ of a different kind – waiting on tables. But her story isn’t one of demotion or failure – rather, it’s an important lesson in our ability to go back to square one as many times as we need to, in the pursuit of passion and purpose.


Growing up in South America, the little girl dream was to be a ballerina. I continued dancing through school, but Dad was adamant I go to University to have a back-up. I was academic, but had no idea what to study. Then one day, our town’s prosecutor came to school. He was charming, charismatic and when I saw him in court, I was swept away with the theatre of it. The gowns and the drama appealed to the performer in me, so I applied to law school.


I graduated first in my class and secured an internship at the Prosecution office. That’s where I really fell in love with the law. It’s beautiful, this idea that everyone in society has an equal chance of getting justice. There was huge satisfaction in seeing the bad guys sent to prison – domestic abusers, rapists, people who’d been violent to children.


Internship complete, I was taken on as junior barrister by a local firm. In my country, there’s huge status attached to the legal profession; an ancient imperial law decrees us ‘Doctors’; we even get different colour ID cards to distinguish us. I felt clever, important, like I mattered in society.


As well as a good starting salary, I received a serviced apartment; my car was paid for; every day there’d be lunches with clients in high-end restaurants, and after work we’d be invited to fashion shows, steak houses and cocktail bars. Like any twenty-something, I enjoyed the glamour, but I loved the work too. I had my chance to wear a gown in court, and the real grafting – pouring through case files and creating defense strategies – was equally satisfying. Pretty soon though, I began to see another, darker side to law.


Early in my role, my boss called me to his office to discuss a client, a businessman who ran a tyre factory. It had burned down – I was told he’d started the fire to claim insurance, and he wanted to ensure the police didn’t start poking around. I was given an envelope containing $10,000: I was to take $7,000 to the chief of police, the rest was mine. I blurted out, ‘What about justice?’ Nobody got hurt, but what about those people who lost their jobs? My boss found someone else to deliver the cash, and made it clear I wasn’t going to get very far if I couldn’t roll with the punches. Every week I witnessed figures in authority taking bribes to prevent justice. It broke my heart.


An opportunity came along to live in the UK, which I seized. I knew my qualifications wouldn’t be recognised – a conversion course would be long, costly and involve studying mostly what I’d just learned. But I saw other opportunities; as soon as my English was up to scratch, I’d begin a Masters in Human Rights. I had hopes of working at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.


Six months later, funds dried up, so studying went on hold while I jobbed as a waitress. But during this break, the college shelved my course. The irony wasn’t lost on me that the bar I worked at was right behind London’s Royal Courts of Justice. Everyone who walked through the door was a barrister, solicitor or judge. I’d see them dressed up, debating over long lunches, and feel I’d wasted years of study. One customer offered me a paralegal role. But I couldn’t see how it would lead anywhere. I’d come to the end of my law journey and needed to start over.


My option there and then was to be the best waitress I could be. Mum had always said that whether I grew up to be a doctor, a cleaner, or a dog walker, I should work to be the best possible version of it. That attitude stuck and saw me quickly promoted first to restaurant manager, later to general manager across the group.


Working until 2am and putting in 18-hour shifts was fine while I was in my twenties, but when I hit 30, I needed to rediscover my passion and forge out a career in a field that would enable me to have the family I knew I wanted. Looking back, I saw that dancing was when I felt truly alive. I was realistic – I couldn’t exactly knock on the Royal Opera House and ask for a job. But I loved exercise and sport and decided to qualify as a personal trainer. With that under my belt, I found a job with a major gym chain. Once again, I was back in the most junior position – selling memberships and cleaning gym equipment, but I saw opportunity ahead, and again marked myself out by striving to top the monthly sales leader-board. Before long, I’d opened my own Pilates studio too, and grew it quickly. Customers were always asking for more classes, and one was inspired by my teaching to qualify as a personal trainer. That was hugely satisfying.


Then my children came along in quick succession, and following the birth of my second, my career unexpectedly hit another brick wall. Just when I was planning to return to work, I was diagnosed with a rare spine condition. Following surgery, I couldn’t do Pilates, let alone teach it.


Square one was a familiar place, but as a new Mum, options felt particularly limited. I put out feelers in hospitality, but struggled to make the hours fit with home life. So here I was at 40, wondering what new career awaited. One day a friend invited me on a nail art course. I’d always been a perfectionist with my own nails, so I bought a ticket thinking it would be a fun afternoon out, nothing more. While I was there, I decided on the spur of the moment that my next move would be to launch a nail tech business. Within a month I’d trained up, created a website, bought the kit and was marketing my new enterprise everywhere I could think.


True to style, I’m applying my ‘be the best’ attitude to my latest venture. I’m booked onto every development course there is, and I’ve found a new passion in reading about the chemistry of nail technology. I want to know why acrylics stick to nails; why that chemical bonds with the nail bed; why that substance hardens up. I intend to become known locally as the go-to nail technician.


Some people might see my professional life as ‘stop/start’, but career journeys don’t always follow an obvious path. I don’t feel any less successful now than when I was gowned-up in court. Real job satisfaction doesn’t come from how others perceive you, but in how true you’re being to yourself.