Elizabeth Marcus: “Do not waste time worrying that you have wasted too much time in the wrong career”

Do not waste time worrying that you have wasted too much time in the wrong career. Life is short, and we spend the majority of our waking hours engaged in our work — doing it and thinking about it. The quality of our lives depends to a large extent on the sense of satisfaction and pleasure we […]

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Do not waste time worrying that you have wasted too much time in the wrong career. Life is short, and we spend the majority of our waking hours engaged in our work — doing it and thinking about it. The quality of our lives depends to a large extent on the sense of satisfaction and pleasure we derive from our work. It is never, ever too late to choose the possibility for joy.


Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50’s.

How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?

In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Elizabeth Roper Marcus.

Elizabeth ran her own boutique architectural office for twenty years before closing it to become a writer, in order to pursue her many questions about her life as a wife and mother and its connection to the wider world. Her essays on diverse topics have appeared in the New York Times and the Boston Globe, in online magazines and in essay anthologies. She is the author of a comic-serious memoir, Don’t Say a Word!: A Daughter’s Two Cents. She blogs on Psychology Today.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up in Manhattan the only child of a dynamic, often tyrannical professional couple and was raised by a wonderful live-in nanny. Although NY is a gigantic city, I lived, like most New Yorkers, in my neighborhood: I could walk to school, to friends’ houses, to the park, to local museums. In our apartment I had no freedom at all, but outside of it I could roam and explore.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“There are only two kinds of people in the world: those who are insecure and those who are dangerously insecure.”

I was very intimidated by my hypercritical parents, so it was empowering to come to realize that under their apparent self-confidence lurked the same anxieties we all have. My mother, in particular, was a frightening figure, so I’d put her in the dangerously insecure group. For example, a person who is secure in her appearance and social acceptability does not rage abouther child’s tidiness or her cook’s use of the wrong serving spoon. The more explosive and hard to please someone is, the more insecure, underneath it all. But of course, I didn’t come to understand this until I was an adult — and a rather old one at that!

How would your best friend describe you?

I’m very curious; I want to get to the bottom of everything. I’m compulsively honest; I wear my neuroses on my sleeve. I can’t do anything in an off-hand way. I tend to see humor in personal trials, even in disasters. I take friendship seriously: I give a lot, but I ask a lot, too.

You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much?

  1. I bring a lot of energy to anything that interests me.
  2. I see everything as a problem to be solved, and I feel I have to solve it. I don’t give up.
  3. I am basically optimistic and recover from disappointments.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?

I started to get clients very soon after architecture school, and the office just grew. We mostly did residential projects, which is what appealed to me. But there were aspects of the work that never interested me. I loved the initial planning, conceiving the solution, and translating the clients’ desire into physical space, but the details bored me. Worse, I struggled with the conflict between the clients’ aesthetic and my own. They were going to live in the house, so I believed it should reflect them, but it was also my work, my self-expression. I had trouble with that.

And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?

Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?

We got the ideal project — a gorgeous site, an unlimited budget, a client willing to do something bold — and it was a misery. The clash of egos: the clients’, mine, the staff’s, the engineer’s! I thought, “if I can’t feel good about this project, what project will I feel good about?” I saw that I was just not cut out for that kind of work.

What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?

I left architecture with no idea of what I would do next. I had several entrepreneurial ideas that I explored, but none excited me enough to seem worth the tremendous effort to get them going. Meanwhile, I remembered how much I loved being a college student: researching an interesting question, coming up with a theory, writing it up. So I signed up for a course called “writing for publication,” at Radcliffe Seminars, an advanced studies program attached to Harvard, and it turned out to be the most exciting, intellectual experience of my life. I was elated, galvanized, by that class. I was also very, very lucky to have other part-time work that made enough money to give me the freedom to pursue something that was not going to be remunerative for a long time, if ever. The class went on for several years, and I wrote and wrote and continued to love it. Getting published was very difficult — though I did have some success fairly early on — but the writing was a satisfaction in itself.

How are things going with this new initiative?

Writing is deeply satisfying to me in a way that architecture never was. I do not have to compromise. I am free to say exactly what I think. And I love every aspect of it, even down to finding just the right word or considering the implication of a punctuation mark. The book I wrote, Don’t Say A Word!, was a project I began years ago, and finally publishing it has been a source of great joy. Even learning about publicity, using social media, doing podcasts have all been interesting and gratifying. Take this interview, for example. You are asking questions that get me to take the long view, to reconsider the why’s and how’s of what I am doing. By the end of this interview, some thoughts will likely have crystallized in a new way. In time, these thoughts may lead me to notice something I see happening with my children or that I read in the newspaper and may end up in an essay.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Gail Pool, who taught my writing class, opened the door I might never otherwise have walked through. The class took 17 students who could submit a piece of writing each week, which was copied and distributed around. The submissions of the previous week were discussed in class, and you went home with 17 critiqued versions of your writing plus two pages of commentary by Gail. You learned by watching the struggle of others as well as by the critique of your own work. Gail was the teacher we all dream of, one who shows the way gently and with utter clarity of thought. She eventually left the class to concentrate on her own writing. The three wonderful books she’s written so far are all completely different in subject but share the original thinking, crystal-clear expression, and subtle humor that made her class so transformative.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?

My parents tended to correct my speech, rather than to listen to what I said: my letters from camp came back to me with the misspellings underlined in red. So being heard became extremely important to me. My husband, although he loves me, is also not a good listener. And I felt compromised by the clash of opinions in the architecture process. Recently, it’s dawned on me that readers only read what you write because they genuinely want to hear what you think. I’ve just started writing a blog for Psychology Today. You write it; it’s published; the reader reads it. It’s immediate — and a very pure form of listening. What could be more perfect for me?

Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?

In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?

Gail’s class turned into a writers’ group. which morphed over time as people left and others joined. Writers almost always have a partner or group, because you cannot tell if you are communicating what you intend without readers. Generally, group members are encouraging and supportive even as they critique — particular if they are women!

Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?

Because I almost always write from personal experience, I have to use the word ’I’ a lot. In the beginning, the ‘I’s on the page looked aggressive, as though they were demanding attention, as though I had typed them in bold or in a larger size than the other words on the page. “Who do you think you are to assert anything?” they seemed to say. I had waves of anxiety seeing the ‘I’s popping out of the text, stamping their feet and calling attention to themselves. Eventually, I got over it.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? [ I assume you want me to share stories about what I did not know about changing careers, so I will answer that.]

  1. Do not waste time worrying that you have wasted too much time in the wrong career. Life is short, and we spend the majority of our waking hours engaged in our work — doing it and thinking about it. The quality of our lives depends to a large extent on the sense of satisfaction and pleasure we derive from our work. It is never, ever too late to choose the possibility for joy.
  2. If you have felt dissatisfied with your work to date, do not assume that the problem is you rather than the work. If you are unhappy in your marriage, the odds are good that you married the wrong person, not that you do not have the capacity for marital happiness. It really may be that you are not constructed to enjoy selling online advertising but can love working as a chef.
  3. If you did not feel fully committed to the work you have been doing, do not assume that you will take that lack of enthusiasm with you into the next career. When you are doing what you love, the source of energy from which you draw may be completely different, as though you have been filling your diesel car with regular gas. I am astonished at the energy and focus I bring to writing. I can work for hours with no sense of time passing at all.
  4. If you don’t love what you are doing and don’t know what to do instead, think back to what you loved to do as a child or an adolescent or a young adult. What thrilled you? Was it working with others on a team, organizing a big project, solving a problem with one other person? Helping someone in distress, nurturing a child, working with animals? Building something? At that time you may not have been able to image how the activity could become a career, or perhaps it was something your parents didn’t support, that didn’t fit the future they imagined for you. It’s your life, your choice now. Go back in your mind to what you most loved to do in the past and reconsider your options from there.
  5. Do not focus on the success you would like to have. Many people run after success and may even attain it, without any love for what they are doing. That is not a path to happiness. Generally, if you love an activity, you probably have a gift for it, but most professions do not have much room at the top. Few actors are going to be movie stars; few doctors are going to be heads of departments; few chefs are going to own award-winning restaurants. If you choose a career because you love the work, Opportunities will come. At the least, you will find yourself in a community of people who share your passion and are likely to welcome you. You will have found your way home.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

What do you want to be remembered for the most?

How can our readers further follow your work online?

They can read my essays on www.elizwrites.com or follow me on social media.

instagram: elizabethmarcus5503

twitter: @eLizMarcus

FaceBook: facebook.com/ElizRMarcus

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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