Along with choosing what kind of long-distance phone service to use, picking a career may be one of life's most confusing choices.
Partly it's confusing because such a decision is usually made at an age when you haven't a clue about who you are or what you want to do or what you're suited to doing.
And partly it's confusing because such a choice carries the burden of seeming to be an unchangeable, lifelong commitment. Once you've decided to become a lawyer, computer programmer or nurse, the theory goes, there's no turning back.
It's an assumption that strikes terror into the hearts of college students -- particularly as they approach graduation -- and accounts for the dazed-looking faces you see on the nation's campuses this time of year. It's a look that says: I'm scared and I don't know which is the right path to follow.
To which I reply: There is no right path and the sooner we all learn this, the better off we'll be. There are many different paths by which we may arrive at our desired destination -- and while a straight line may be the fastest route, who's to say it's the most interesting or productive road?
Actually, I think the concept of going through life -- professionally speaking -- in a lock step, linear march toward the top of the career pyramid has a lot in common with being locked onto a six-lane interstate highway with no exits between the beginning and end. Not only is it boring but it deprives you of the opportunity to explore all the interesting geography that is hidden from those who travel only the main roads.
My own job resume, for instance, reads like a poorly thought-out itinerary to no particular destination. But despite that, I think I've managed to get, more or less, to where I've wanted to go. And enjoyed getting there.
It's an attitude which my friends with incredibly well-constructed resumes tell me is risky. And it is. On the other hand, it's beyond my scope to imagine taking a job you have no interest in solely because it will advance you toward your goal.
A word of warning, however, about traveling this way: It takes longer. And the risk of failure is greater. Greater, that is, if you define failure as being willing to stop doing something -- even if you've been doing it well -- to do something new and unfamiliar.
Still, this willingness to take a risk on something new can work out quite well.
Take, for example, the case of writer Tom Clancy, whose novels have all been best-selling blockbusters. Although making a very successful living as an insurance agent, Clancy felt, in his words, "stuck in a boring job." So he took a detour -- decided he could always get back on the main road if things didn't work out. Of course, in his case -- as anyone who's read "The Hunt for Red October" or "Red Storm Rising" knows -- things worked out pretty well.
And one of my favorite examples of someone who came late to her profession and persevered in pursuing what she once called the "second act" of her life was actress Ruth Gordon. She was in her middle 40s when she started in films and won her first Academy Award (best supporting actress for "Rosemary's Baby") at the age of 72.
I often think of her acceptance speech when I talk to people who express a feeling of being washed up professionally at age 50. Or derailed at age 30. Or passed over by their company at age 40.
"I can't tell you," said Ruth Gordon to the wildly cheering Hollywood audience, "how encouraging it is to win this."
On the other hand, we have no less than F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose writing career plummeted from brilliant beginning to failed ending, warning us: "There are no second acts in American lives."
I suppose such a judgment might be borne out nowadays in the failed comeback attempts of such aging athletes as Jim Palmer, George Foreman, Bjorn Borg and Mark Spitz. But second acts, in my opinion, should not be confused with second chances and the wish to return to what you once were.
Second acts are not about going back; they're about going forward. They're about finding something new in yourself as you grow older.
Of course, it's hard to convince a young person that the career choice he or she initially makes is not a fatal -- or final -- decision. But part of maturing is learning that life is confusing and inconsistent. On the other hand -- and to life's great credit -- it is seldom unchangeable.
So I say: Bring on the second act. And let it be full of surprises.