At 56 I want an art history degree

I hit the wall in my dead-end job, I'm sleeping on a friend's floor, but I have a dream!

Published July 7, 2008 10:10AM (EDT)

Dear Cary:

I suppose you get this kind of letter often, but here goes:

I am a 56-year-old guy who feels trapped in the workforce. After 30 years of working in the audiovisual/Web industry, I am frankly tired of it -- it's gotten too technical and too software driven (which is not my strong suit). I want to start over, but because of some illness last year, I am unemployed and living on a very tolerant friend's floor. I'm getting some help from my brother, but it's barely enough to cover my basic expenses (car, phone, insurance, etc.). I am looking for a job in my field, but that seems to be going nowhere. I have come very close to committing suicide a couple of times in the past few months, and only some potential job offers (that in the end didn't pan out) have kept me on this side of the edge.

What I would really like to do is go back to school. I never graduated from college and have been winging it for over 35 years, playing the autodidact game and being very successful at it. I even wrote a book in the mid-1990s that I'm very proud of. But going back to school has challenges that are so large that I'm not even sure where to start. I do know that if I go back to school, it won't be for a "career." It's a little too late to start over as an architect or in another professional field. What I would really like to do is study art history and conservation -- one of the few fields where it seems that age is an advantage. I've had a lifelong interest in the field and have devoted most of my vacations to pursuing my appreciation of art and architecture.

This is the first time in years that I've been excited by the thought of doing anything. But because of my financial situation it all seems like a huge wall that needs to be scaled. I'm at my wits' end and not sure where to start. I'm having problems sorting out my priorities. What do you think?


Dear Mike,

Actually, this sort of letter does not come very often. So it is a pleasure to undertake an answer. Basically, I say go for it!

It's amazing what we can do when we can find the energy and organize our approach. I have no doubt that you could get a degree in art history and conservation. Besides, in the afterglow of the Fourth of July weekend, I'd say it's also the patriotic thing to do! This is the land of opportunity, is it not? So how would you begin? What would you do first?

This general overview may be a good place to start.

Then you might begin looking at specific programs.

Now, some people might say that before you start in on something like this, you ought to get the basics together first -- find a job, place to live, etc. But I think it's the other way around. I think the way to get the basics together is to have a dream, a reason for living, a reason to get up in the morning. Without a dream to motivate you, it's going to be hard to deal with mundane issues. A dream can motivate you. It can also motivate people to help you. It can act as the vision toward which you move; if you have a big, motivating vision, it can dwarf the other problems in your life that might otherwise occupy all your time.

People might tell you to be sensible. But what is sensible about choosing a path that bores and depresses you? You are human. You're not going to work hard at something you detest. You're not going to succeed at it. You're only going to succeed at something you are motivated to do. So not only is this the smart choice, it is, in a sense, your only choice.

Illness and job loss can undermine your confidence and self-worth. Having a goal that you believe in can act to restore that self-worth. So work on this dream. It will motivate you and it will motivate others. And it sells.

That is, you are going to need to sell yourself. It is easier to sell people on a big idea than a small idea. Say you went around to your friends, or you went to city agencies and the like, and said, "Hey, I'm a 56-year-old guy with no college degree and, uh, I got sick and hit a stretch of bad luck and lost my job, and I'm living on a friend's floor and I need help." That indicates that you need help but it does not contain a dream. It isn't motivating. It doesn't sell. But if you say, "Hey, I'm a guy who has taken some knocks but I've got a dream -- I want to get a college degree in art history and conservation -- and I know it's a little unusual but that's my dream and I'm going for it," then you are a story. Newspapers run stories about people with dreams, unusual people who have the courage to start fresh in life. It's something that makes us smile. So I suggest you concentrate on this and work toward it.

This is the kind of thing I'm thinking about. And this. Or how about "How I Got Into Law School at 47"? And here's somebody who went back to college late in life for a degree in art history.

So it can be done. You will need help. You will need emotional support and encouragement. You will feel some days that it's not worth it, or that it is impossible. You will need a nudge now and then to keep going. But you can do it. Stick with people who will encourage you and keep you moving.

It's going to take a lot of work, but if it's something worth working for, you will find the energy to do it.

I salute you! I wish you luck! Now get going!

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