It is never too late to be what you might have been

Reflections on my evolution from international tax lawyer to environmental data scientist

My earliest recollection of any career aspiration was that I wanted to become a scientist and an explorer. In my six-year old mind, I fantasised about a Darwin-like odyssey, journeying into unknown places, and accumulating specimens and experiences that would collectively help me to uncover the secrets of life on earth. A year later, I went on my first camping trip in the mountains, and that was the beginning of a life-long adventure of discovery and awe of the natural environment.

You can guess what happened when I grew up. I majored in law … and worked in finance for twenty years!

Well, it wasn’t really as straightforward (or as dull) as that sounds. Despite being raised by remarkable parents who taught me that I could be anything I wanted to, several traumatic events when I started university colluded to crush my self-esteem and reinforce the negative beliefs I had about myself as a young adult. I was broken and lost for a while.

What saved me was my shadow life as an explorer, fuelled by my curiosity. I travelled frequently, hiking through mountains, writing stories about my experiences, and taking photographs wherever I went. I spoke at environmental conferences, and spent my evenings reading books on ecology, maths, geology, physics and astronomy. I even mentored science students on how to pursue rewarding careers.

The psychology of shadow lives is complex. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron (writing about shadow artists) says the following: “Most of the time when we are blocked in an area of our life, it is because we feel safer that way. We may not be happy, but at least we know what we are — unhappy.”

In my case, I was restless. I can’t say I was unhappy — I had a steady stream of enviable opportunities, and I worked for some of the most awesome organisations, with progressively greater success and achievement in my work life as an international tax lawyer. And yet, something didn’t quite gel.

Remember the movie The Devil Wears Prada? Andy (an idealistic young journalist) starts working for Miranda (a cut-throat narcissist). When Andy has to change to fit in to the industry, she asks her boss, ‘But what if this isn’t what I want? I mean what if I don’t want to live the way you live?’ ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Miranda says incredulously, ‘Everybody wants this, everybody wants to be us.’ Andy has to choose whether to stay in a job that ‘most girls would kill for’ or to stay true to herself and walk away.

There were several times in my journey when I found myself at similar crossroads — it wasn’t easy to make the decision to walk away. As the years passed by, there were always excuses as to why I couldn’t give up law and finance to continue with my science career: I had a student loan to pay off; I had invested too much time and resources into qualifying as a lawyer; I was a single parent to two young children and had to prioritise providing for them ….

Whenever ideas of doing something drastically different invaded my thoughts, my critical inner voice asked, “Do you know how old you’ll be by the time you learn everything you need to know to start a new career?”

“Yes … the same age you will be if you don’t,” Julia Cameron points out.

And George Eliot famously said, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

As another milestone birthday passed me by, I started thinking about all those wasted years. My children were older and didn’t need my constant attention. I had remarried and my life was more settled. I decided it was time to take the plunge and start postgraduate studies in environmental science. I was more energised than ever, even with twelve courses to complete as well as my research. In the years that followed, I felt confident enough to leave my corporate job, venture into consulting, and even pursue my doctorate.

Of course, the universe tends to find a way to remind you that life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. Two days before the oral defence of my doctoral proposal, my father (who had been my role model and mentor) passed away. My life spiralled into darkness and confusion as I tried to make sense of my purpose after the loss of the one person from whom I had derived so much of my identity. I ended up critically ill in hospital, and it took a few years for me — and my family — to recover. But we did recover.

By the time I completed my PhD, the landscape of research and how it was conducted had transformed. In particular, data had grown exponentially and exploded into ‘big data’. As a scientist, it was no longer enough to be able to use a computer programme for statistical analysis; you had to learn programming languages like R and Python. The world was obsessed with artificial intelligence, neural networks and machine learning.

As I delved deeper and deeper into data science, it felt like falling down a rabbit hole and hurtling towards Wonderland … and instead of being deterred, I found myself becoming curiouser and curiouser.

My journey certainly isn’t over yet, but it feels much like my first camping trip as a little girl in the Drakensberg. I may be small and somewhat insignificant in the greater scheme of life and the universe, but I have a contribution to make and I am where I belong.

I am not collecting and working with biological specimens every day, just data — lots and lots of data! Perhaps that might eventually help uncover the secrets of life on earth.

I guess you could say it’s a twenty-first century version of the Beagle!

Writer, explorer and lifelong learner

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