It’s Never Too Late to Follow Your Dreams

At 56, I quit my dead-end job to be a writer

Lee G. Hornbrook
Apr 30, 2020 · 11 min read
Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

At 21 years old, I changed my major to English and announced to my family that I wanted to be a writer. My parents made jokes about my choice. “Practice saying this,” my dad said. “ ‘Do you want fries with that?’ ” My sister balked at my decision. “That’s my field,” she said. She had dropped out of college years before, but she continued to write poetry and give coffee shop readings.

I’ve had nay-sayers all my life. But that hasn’t stopped me.

In my 40s and 50s, I’ve changed careers twice, gotten over motion sickness, and conquered a life-long fear of heights.

These are uncertain times, but I’ve never been more certain about this: Life is short. Live your dreams. If I can do it, you can too.

From Writer to Teacher to Writer Again

I gave up my dead-end teaching job to become a writer.

Within two months of my transition from teacher to writer, I sold my first article. I’m 56 years old and remaking my life.

This was not a straight-forward path. My youthful writing career was short-lived. I caught the teaching bug and never looked back. I loved teaching and pursued a career in higher education as a professor.

The world is filled with ups and downs. During grad school, I faced divorce, remarriage, step-fatherhood, a slew of mental illnesses, and suicide within my family. Through all of it, I abandoned my Ph.D. to dedicate myself more to family and pursued a career in educational technology.

I taught myself HTML and CSS at the start of the worldwide web revolution and fueled a 17-year career as an expert in web design and development. Another divorce and the total breakdown of my nuclear family left me broke and alone.

I kept my hand in teaching part-time until the recession dried up my web career. Then I pursued teaching full-time as an adjunct professor. Over six years, I amassed multiple in-person and online course assignments, stacks and stacks of papers to grade, no time off, little pay, and no end in sight. My time seemed like my own, but I really had no time for myself at all except to sleep. I didn’t own my life. I had no 401K and no job security.

Then the bottom dropped out of my teaching career. The for-profit online college I worked for was sued for fraud by the state of California. Before that, I was denied teaching assignments for failing too many students. I don’t think expecting students to write a single literate sentence in five weeks is too much to ask. That’s what happens when a fraudulent online university has no admittance requirements so they can take advantage of students for their financial aid. I didn’t want to be a part of that problem anyway.

The community college where I worked suffered variable enrollment issues as students were migrating to online classes, and thus, I lost assignments and income. Thus, in two weeks during the summer of 2017, I lost 3/4 of my income.

I was in my 50s, with no cash reserves, with a 30+ year career in higher education, and it took me six months to find a Starbucks job. This was in 2018. There’s nothing wrong with working at Starbucks, but it’s not exactly the career path my experience prepared me for. I parlayed that job quickly into a grocery store job at a busy deli counter for more money.

Then I moved from San Diego, California to New Haven, Connecticut. I secured teaching jobs in Connecticut to tide me over for the first year. Grading, student apathy, and lack of institutional support for serious discipline problems buckled my knees.

Finally, after 25 years of teaching as an adjunct English professor, living a hand-to-mouth existence, I quit teaching. No more. That’s enough. I got a full-time temp job in which I didn’t have to bring home grading and could instead focus on reading and writing.

I’ve learned a lot about writing in more than 33 years in higher education. I also learned how to learn. I knew I could write, but I didn’t know the first thing about the writing profession. So I started reading and studying.

Within two months of my transition from teacher to writer, I sold my first article. I’m 56 years old and remaking my life.

It’s not the first time I have set my mind on a goal and conquered it.

Motion Sickness Cured: Mind Over Matter

I suffered from life-long seasickness. But I worked through it. That led to a life of sailing and living aboard an ocean-going sailboat.

I willed myself not to get motion sick, and it worked.

When I was 16, I sailed to Hawaii from Southern California. This isn’t that remarkable until you know that I suffered from motion sickness my entire life. In my family, I was called “King of the Barfers” for ruining every car my family ever owned.

My parents were surprised that I wanted to take this trip. It was a great adventure, but I was terribly seasick for most of it. I rarely went on the water after that.

Many years later, for a 10th-year anniversary present, I booked a 15-day cruise for me and my wife. On a large luxury liner, I figured I could handle the seasickness. But in late February and early March, the seas can be rough in the western Pacific. Most of the passengers got sick.

I sat in the bathtub, the water sloshing around due to the motion of the ship when I started getting seasick. Who gets seasick in a bathtub? But I stopped myself. I would not let seasickness ruin this voyage. And I didn’t.

I willed myself not to get motion sick, and it worked. I didn’t get sick for the rest of the trip.

Now, even seasoned sailors will tell you that most sailors will experience seasickness one time or another. I still take seasickness meds, and I’ll get queasy once in a while. But I have never let my fear of seasickness stop me from sailing again.

I’m on a Boat!

After the trip, I signed up for sailing lessons at our local aquatic center in San Diego. I loved it so much that I announced my decision to buy a boat.

Sailing has eased my stress, renewed my self-confidence, given me a goal, and even helped me overcome a life-long fear of heights.

The nay-sayers spoke up again. The other students in the class guffawed and so did some of the instructors. They said, “Most of the people who take these classes say they are going to buy a boat but nothing comes of it.”

At the time, my wife and I were DINKs (Double Income, No Kids), with decently-paying university career jobs, so we had some disposable income. My wife and I shopped for a small boat and decided upon a 30-foot Hunter single mast sailboat with diesel engine, much larger than the 24 -footer without engine we were learning on. Two weeks later, we owned Serendipity, our first sailboat.

We spent weekends hanging out at the marina, working on the boat and sailing. It was a beautiful life. I had never had stress disappear so quickly as it did when sailing. I would drive straight to the marina after work, stressed from the day, hop in Serendipity and motor out to the middle of the bay, turn off the engine and put the sails up, and just float, letting the water slap against the side of the hull, hearing the tackle jingle and the metal shrouds whistle in the wind. My stress would instantly melt.

Sailing has eased my stress, renewed my self-confidence, given me a goal, and even helped me overcome a life-long fear of heights.

Renewed Self-confidence

I gained self-confidence living the boater’s life.

Lending a helping hand was more important than thinking about my intense dislike of cold water.

Something about the marina community changed me. I used to be rather shy and tentative. Even as a teacher, I could be soft-spoken and withdrawn. It would take me a while to warm up to people. But now, at the marina, being part of the sailing community, I would go up to complete strangers or dock neighbors, shake them by the hand, introduce myself, and invite them to stop on by our slip and say hello.

One day, a small sailboat had some trouble coming into the marina and was heading for the rocks. I jumped into the water to help hold it off the rocks. I had never liked cold water, and it was cold. Lending a helping hand was more important than thinking about my intense dislike of cold water.

Nay-sayers come in unexpected packages. My wife jealously regarded my new-found self-confidence. “What’s come over you?” she said. “Who are you?” I thought she’d be pleased with the transformation. I liked my new self. This was my first sign of the trouble to come.

Heights Be Damned: I Climbed the Mast

I had an intense fear of heights my entire life. But I faced my fear one day.

From the top of the mast, I could see the entire San Diego Bay, over the silver strand to the Pacific Ocean where the waves washed up on beautiful Coronado beach.

One day, while going through all the gear that came with the boat, I discovered a bosun’s chair, a small cloth-covered wooden seat used to hoist one’s self up the mast to check the lines and halyards. I looked up. What a looooong way up and then a loooong way down! Yikes!

Photo by F S on Unsplash

I hooked up the bosun’s chair and slowly raised myself above the boom, about five feet above the deck. I had no fear at all. It was so easy. I strapped myself tightly into the chair and secured myself to the halyard as a backup in case anything misfortunate should happen. Slowly, I raised myself up until I was at the very top of the mast. The sight was beautiful. From the top of the mast, I could see the entire San Diego Bay, over the silver strand to the Pacific Ocean where the waves washed up on beautiful Coronado beach.

I conquered my fear of heights that day.

We Bought a Bigger Boat

I loved sailing so much that I made a 5-year plan to sail away into the sunset.

After gaining more sailing experience, we would sail for the South Pacific and points beyond, our retirement sail into the sunset.

My graduate student life and teaching career didn’t lead to a very big retirement nest egg. Now in our mid-40s, we were headed for rocky times financially. But I developed a plan to cruise into our retirement years. We could live comfortably pursuing an ocean-cruising life. I set the plan in motion.

We signed up with the San Diego Sail and Power Squadron to take classes and get involved. Soon, we set our sights on a live-aboard ocean-going cruising vessel, a beautiful 1979, 38 ft Hans Christian Mark II with teak decks completely outfitted for ocean sailing. We named her Pegasus.

Photo: Author’s personal photo

We moved from our tiny apartment we shared with our Australian Shepherd, Moby-Dawg, and onto this special boat. The 5-year plan would allow us to save money and learn all we could about sailing. After gaining more sailing experience, we would sail for the South Pacific and points beyond, our retirement sail into the sunset.

I checked in with my sailing friends in the community to see if our plan was not just a pipe-dream. They loved the idea and agreed it was do-able. In fact, several of them have since set off on multi-year retirement sailing voyages of their own.

But the nay-sayers reared their ugly head again.

Family deaths, a disastrous recession, and divorce squashed those plans.

My wife had been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder 5 years earlier, but neither her counselor nor her psychiatrist ever told either of us. Imagine a doctor not telling you that you had a serious illness for 5 years, keeping that information to themselves. When I learned that, I was enraged.

So it was a surprise to me, but not to them, that one day, she flipped like a switch — I love you, I hate you. Fifteen years, entirely rewritten in her head. In less than a year, we were divorced.

Divorce, recession, job loss — I had to sell the beautiful boat and put my sailing plans on hold.

My Dreams Will Continue

I’m a landlubber right now who dreams of the sea. I know that I can achieve whatever I set my mind to. Someday I will get back to a boat.

I’ve conquered cold water, seasickness, fear of heights. I’ve owned a boat and been forced to sell a boat. But nobody can force me to sell my dreams.

I’ve been a writer, a teacher, and now I’m a writer again. I’ve overcome a dead-end job to pursue my dream of the writer’s life. It’s been a long road with many pitfalls along the way. But now I have much to write about, much to say.

Live in the Now. Follow Your Dreams.

These are uncertain times. Pandemics, fractured economies, and societies, fractured families, social distancing — there isn’t anything called normal. But then there never was. Normal is an illusion. There wasn’t a “normal”. There won’t be a “new normal.”

There is only what was and what is. Living in the now is so much more than just an expression. It really is all that you can do.

You can plan for the future. But in no future I ever envisioned six months ago did I see myself sequestered in my home, wearing face masks in public, and practicing social distancing during a pandemic. Did you see it coming?

Take advantage of this time to ask yourself — what do you really want to do with your life? It’s time to do it. There is, truly, no time like the present.

My job was canceled due to the pandemic, so I’ve taken that opportunity to write.

I still don’t have a pension, very little reserves, face job uncertainty in this tumultuous world. I don’t know what life will be like in two months, let alone next year. But I’m happier today than I’ve ever been because I’m living my dream.

It’s never too late to follow your dreams.

These days, I get up rather early, make some coffee, look out my window, sit down at my desk, and write. I dream of my next boat.

I’m a writer now. For me, that’s what is. And that’s what will be. Nay-sayers be damned.

Connect with me on Twitter @awordpleaseblog or on my personal blog.

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Thanks to Adrian Drew

Lee G. Hornbrook

Written by

Writer, Editor. Vegan, Sailor, Non-conformist. Former college writing teacher. **I Write. Mostly Words. Every Day.** https://awordplease.blog

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Lee G. Hornbrook

Written by

Writer, Editor. Vegan, Sailor, Non-conformist. Former college writing teacher. **I Write. Mostly Words. Every Day.** https://awordplease.blog

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

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