Ask 50 people about jobs they held during their 30s and you'll likely get 50 unique stories. While some workers spend that decade progressing in a field they entered in their 20s, others change career paths altogether or modify their employment to better align with their personal life. Here, individuals reflect on how their jobs during that stage differed from jobs they held when they were younger and how these jobs influenced the rest of their lives.
Balancing career and family
During her 20s, Margaret Miller of El Paso, Texas taught English at private high schools in New England. But when she became a mom at 30, she decided to pursue a different path.
"In my 30s, I was a stay-at-home mom and wrote articles about parenting and education to help pay the bills," Miller says. "This was ideal since I could work from my house and be there with my kids when they were young."
Now that her kids have grown up and are out of the house, Miller has opted to blend her previous experiences. "I have gone back to teaching at a local community college. I still freelance and find that I like the flexibility of being able to write from home at night and on the weekends to make deadlines, and having part of my day free when I'm not teaching. If you don't like sitting at a desk from 9 to 5, this is a great way to make a living."
Discovering new talents
As a computer specialist back in his 20s, Dan Nainan would never have envisioned himself performing at the Democratic National Convention. All of that changed when a job in his 30s led him to take a comedy class.
"I was a senior engineer with Intel Corp.," Nainan says. "My job was to travel the world with the chairman doing technical demonstrations onstage at events. I was incredibly nervous about speaking onstage, so I took a comedy class to get over the fear . . . It changed my life. My third show ever, I was asked to perform for 2,500 people at an Intel sales convention. Many employees who didn't know me thought I had been hired as a professional comedian for the event."
Nainan decided at age 40 to leave the company he loved to make comedy a career. A decade later, he says he doesn't regret the decision and continues to perform at events all over the world.
Finding your passion
After dropping out of medical school in her 20s, Lisa Niver Rajna of Los Angeles traveled for almost seven years on the high seas. "In my 30s, I worked on a cruise ship like Julie McCoy [on the TV series "The Love Boat"] and also worked for two seasons at Club Med. My family said I ran away and joined the circus."
While some people worried that she might be "wasting her potential," Niver Rajna discovered that she really enjoyed both traveling and working with the kids' programs on the cruises. These experiences, plus her educational background, led her to become a science teacher and travel blogger in her 40s.
"I have no regrets about taking this other path," Niver Rajna says. "Once I decided that leaving medicine was the right choice for me, everything else fell into place. When I am teaching or traveling, I know I am in the right place doing what I am meant to be doing."
"In my 20s, I did the analyst program at a top investment bank on Wall Street, went back for my MBA and then went to corporate America to do brand management at Procter & Gamble," says Paige Arnof-Fenn of Cambridge, Mass. "I see my 20s as my apprenticeship years, working for well-known companies that were known for training and developing their people."
By contrast, she says her 30s were for "getting out of my comfort zone and exploring new opportunities." An interest in dot-com businesses led her to marketing roles at several successful startups. She also took a three-year contract job with the Treasury Department. "I never thought I'd be working for the government, but it was an amazing experience and growth opportunity for me both personally and professionally."
Now in her 40s, Arnof-Fenn is the owner of global marketing company Mavens & Moguls. She says that her life nowadays is "more about balance and personal growth, not just focused on career success."
As these stories show, career paths in one's 30s can be straight, curved, detoured or even rerouted in a direction never considered. And while these roads may change in the years ahead, it's a good bet that the jobs held during this time of life will influence that journey.
Beth Braccio Hering researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues for CareerBuilder.