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Terry Nicholetti learned the importance of this process the hard way. After graduating from high school, she decided to become a Roman Catholic nun. For the next five years she lived her vows while getting her bachelor’s degree and teaching at Catholic schools in Connecticut. Then she decided sisterhood wasn’t for her and she left. After that she worked as a theater director, a sales manager, a book author, and a seminar host. Each of these jobs was giving her a hint of her real objective. “I was moving in the direction of performing and artistic expression,” she says. “But I didn’t realize it.” She had to take time to really analyze her life, her values, and her goals before she could realize her dream. Today Nicholetti, 63, stages business-skills workshops for companies and does one-woman shows and standup comedy. “I am living my heart’s desire.” she says.

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Sometimes people need guidance in finding out what they really want to do. Henry Stewart, 59, ran a successful PR firm in Fort Worth, Texas, but he’d grown tired of the business and had been in career counseling for two years to “discover where my true passion for work lay.” Stewart had dabbled for years with the idea of becoming a chef. “I bought cookbooks, watched cooking shows, and put together elaborate meals for family and friends.” When his brother died from liver cancer in 2004, he decided that life is short and change is good. With the blessing of his wife, Randi, he took the leap. Stewart enrolled at the Culinary Institute Alain & Marie LeNôtre in Houston, earned an internship at a premier restaurant in Alsace, France, and eventually landed a position as a chef at a fine-dining restaurant in Fort Worth. “I’m having the time of my life,” he declares.

Career counselors can help you in a number of ways. They can make you aware of alternative job opportunities and aid you in learning more about yourself. “A good counselor focuses your time and energy much more efficiently,” says Helen Harkness, president of Career Design Associates in Garland, Texas.

The professional career adviser is especially useful to an older individual who is thinking about changing careers. Here’s why: The counselor can aid you in sorting through the overwhelming number of career possibilities and options. In addition, a counselor can identify personal issues that may be holding you back.

The process of career counseling usually follows a fairly predictable arc. The first step is an interview and evaluation process. The counselor might then decide to administer an aptitude test—one of the oldest and most trusted methods for identifying personal interests and how they fit in with career possibilities. “When testing is combined with someone who has expertise in administering a test,” says David P. Campbell, a leading expert on career development in Colorado Springs, “it can provide plenty of useful information.” If the test is done right, a career counselor should send you away with a clearer idea of your skills, interests, and aptitudes and a solid career-development plan.

Smarten Up

It’s very likely you’ll need a skills upgrade to land your dream job. That means heading back to school. Not to worry. You’ll be joining a growing crowd: as more and more boomers and other older Americans pursue new careers, the look and feel of the classroom is changing. No longer is it an oddity to see 50- or 60-year-olds attending a trade school, a community college, or a four-year university.

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