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  • Writer's pictureLiya Khaimova

The Honest Truth About Changing Careers in Your Late 20s and Early 30s?

Changing careers is always scary, no matter what anyone tells you. I made a pretty big pivot in January of 2020, but it was a long-time coming.

If you’re new here, then you might not know I am a trained opera singer. I have my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in vocal performance and for the better part of 4 years after graduating from USC--where I got my master’s--I was gung-ho about making opera my full-time career.

However, after 4 years of auditions, applying to Young Artist Programs, and grueling travel, I decided this career really wasn’t the one for me.

First, what I loved about opera as a potential career

  • Making music:

Oh man, this is the best part! I’m a super creative person and have always loved performing, so getting to make music full-time is the ultimate dream!

  • Getting to know the most interesting people:

I swear you meet the most amazing people in this career. The arts are all connected, so the personalities you encounter are so diverse and thrilling.

  • Being able to travel:

The countries you see are incredible, and if you love traveling then this career would be perfect! Or so I thought…

  • Being creative a majority of the time:

A creative career calls for full-time creativity, right? That’s what my thought was heading into the career full-force.

  • The buzz and excitement of telling people what it is I do for a living/my career:

There’s no better feeling than seeing someone’s face light up when you say, “I’m an opera singer!” They think it’s the coolest thing, even if it’s so normalized for you.

  • Being part of a really great network:

The longer you stay in the biz, the more familiar you are with a large chunk of the people that are in the opera biz. This rings true with a lot of other careers, but because the opera and performing arts world has a lot of people fall off--myself included--you get to see who the long-haulers are pretty quickly. And it’s a pretty cool sphere because you start to have connections all over the world.

Now, why did I decide to change/transition careers in my late 20s?

This was a really tough thing for me to do. I didn’t choose this lightly. And, to be honest, it was in the making long before I even realized that I was going down the path of changing careers.

Performing-wise, I was a big fish in a small pond in high school. Then, getting to my undergrad program I became a medium fish in a medium pond. When I entered my grad program--which was a small, elite bunch--I was a pretty small fish in a very large pond, lake, even ocean…

This was a hard pill for me to swallow, at first. But then something switched in me and I realized I liked working with people a lot and doing some of the production work behind the scenes. I liked the collaborative effort that went into creating a show, like directing and writing.

Yes, you’re collaborative when you’re an opera singer, but not in the same sense. At the end of the day, it’s you and yourself and the focus has to be on how well you can sing, move, act.

In my head, I really thought the opera singer’s life was for me. My only perspective was that of a student. I didn’t actually know what it was like out there in the real world... I knew how to act on stage and sing with good technique. But I didn’t know all the other things that come along with being a freelance artist trying to make an imprint in a very competitive boxing ring.

It was a lonely career

I made so many friends along the way but lost touch with most because none of us ever stayed in the same place.

I moved out of my parent’s place when I was 18 and never lived anywhere longer than 4 years. So, all those friends in undergrad? I don’t live near any of them anymore. All my friends from grad school? They’re strewn across the country. I’m 30 (well, in three days, but who’s counting) and I still don’t feel like I have a solidified friend group here in St. Louis (where I am now based and have called home for almost 4 years). Yes, I am building that friend group slowly, but it’s harder to make friends the older you get!

The financial burden of pursuing an opera career really took a toll

Oh man, this is my biggest qualm about opera/performing. No one told me the financial debt that can accrue from pursuing this career. It’s soooo incredibly expensive. It’s not taught how to manage our finances as freelance artists. The closest I ever got to a financial lesson was at a summer program in Bavaria in 2015 with the musical theatre dance instructor talking to us while we all sat on the stage in our sweaty leggings, sports bras, and character shoes.

He said something along the lines of,

“Open a Roth IRA account. That’s one of the most important things you can do as an artist. Oh, and you’ll be living in squalor for quite some time if you really want to pursue this career seriously. You’ll be working odd jobs to make ends meet.”

Not ever do I recall people saying,

Don’t spend more than you earn.

Pay off your credit card statements in full every month!

Save at least 8-10% of every paycheck towards taxes that you’ll HAVE to pay because you’re a freelance artist!

None of this was ever taught to us. We were let out into the big, bad world with an incredible knowledge of “how to find our light” and “proper rehearsal etiquette” and “the best and most efficient ways to practice, emote, cry on demand, etc.” But none of that went to any use if we all just dug ourselves into these massive holes of debt that prevented us from ever getting on a stage.

Not to mention, the incredible amount of student debt that so many artists have because they pursued their passion!

My family was generous to help me out in so many situations. But at some point, I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t stand taking money from my mother and grandmother knowing they pulled from their retirements so I could pursue the audition season. After everything my parents went through to get to this country, the thought of my mother and father giving up the little amount of retirement they had to help me pursue my dream ate me alive.

This brings me to my anxiety.

I never suffered from anxiety, but the last audition season did something to me that I never imagined it would. I started having panic attacks and for the first time in my life, I dreaded going into audition rooms, no matter how much I used to love auditioning.

I had an audition in Chicago for Utah Opera’s Young Artist Program, and I was happy with how I sang. But the entire time I really didn’t want to be there.

What was causing this anxiety and dread?

Well, it no longer lined up with my core values

I realized that I didn’t want to be traveling all the time, staying in hotels, and living out of a suitcase. I liked coming home to my two cuddly cats and wonderful partner, making dinner, and finishing the night off with a good book.

I didn’t like the late hours of rehearsal. I relish the mornings, and being a performer means quite a few late nights and funky schedules.

I missed out on a lot of family events

And that started to gnaw on me once health problems started to arise with my father.

I missed all the births of my nephews and nieces when everyone else was able to be there. Weddings, holidays, all taken away. Mainly because I couldn’t afford to go home, but also because that’s what the career does. I had to work most holidays just to make the “decent” money that holiday gigs pay. Those were paychecks that were stupid to pass up. That’s how desperate artists are to make money.

The pay wasn’t great

So I had to work 3+ jobs a lot of the time that allowed me to request unpaid days off so I could take an audition that would last, what, 15 minutes maximum?

I barely got to sing. But the thought of what the career *could* be is what had me holding on.

It wasn’t until I realized, “oh, this is what the career is like… This is it. At least for a very, very long time.”

I gave up so many of the things that I loved and meant something to me for an idea of what the career could be. I stopped pursuing the life I wanted for a career I might not ever have.

That was my turning point. That one audition in Chicago on a cold winter day when I cried my eyes out to my parents and told them I genuinely wasn’t happy in pursuing the opera career anymore.

They cried with me, but not to mourn my flourishing opera career, but to see the hurt in me they had no idea was there.

So, I did some thinking and decided to put the word out that I was looking for a full-time job.

And something fell into my lap as if it were waiting for me to say the words. As if it was hanging over my head, waiting for my hand to reach up and grab it.

Remember I talked about how we as artists aren’t taught how to actually manage our finances as freelancers?

Well, I now work full-time at an investment firm and am working towards getting my CFP™ certification (Certified Financial Planner). Never ever in my life did I see myself somewhere like the company I’m currently at.

I mocked and made fun of the corporate world because that’s what artists do. But, wow, does this fit with the life I was so longing to have.

I wanted:

  • Stable hours

  • A steady paycheck so I could actually budget my life

  • A consistent community so I could start building a foundation somewhere

  • The ability to see my family without having to sacrifice my income--this brought tears to my eyes when I took my first PTO trip.

It’s been just over a year and I consistently thank my lucky stars I’m where I’m at.

I don’t regret getting those degrees and having the experiences I had. I met the best friends of my life, even if we aren’t living anywhere near each other.

I met the love of my life because of my pursuit of this former career. My public speaking skills are awesome because of performing! There are so many things to thank because of the years of hard work I put into a performing career and all that I learned.

Now, I sing with so much joy because I have the freedom that comes with a stable paycheck. I feel as if my creativity blossomed when I adjusted to my current job! I feel a lot more grounded than I ever have before.

Who knows, though, I may hate the finance world in a few year’s time. But for now, I’m going to ride this wave and see what island I get washed-up on.

So, things to when considering a career change in your late 20s and early 30s (and any time, really):

  • Does your career line up with your core values?

    • What are your core values?

  • Why are you in the career you’re currently in?

  • What is it you want out of life and does the career serve you/cater to your goals in life?

  • Are you doing this for yourself, or because others think you should?

These are the questions I asked myself when it was time to really think about why I wanted to sing opera.

Yes, it was cathartic to sing a glorious high note, but that couldn’t be the only reason.

Those bullet points above are such important questions to ask yourself when considering a career change.

No matter what, there are challenges in every career at multiple points. I’m not denying that.

But when a career stops serving you, it’s time to look inside and figure out what does.


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