Posted on 19 May 2010
By Mark Miller
Second verse – not the same as the first.
Journalist Kerry Hannon remixed that old pop hit in the column she wrote for U.S. News and World Report, “Second Acts.” A specialist in careers, retirement and personal finance, Hannon has traveled the country interviewing people who’ve made successful career transitions at midlife–often into very colorful and happy new lives.
Now, Hannon has crafted her research on career transition into an important new book, What’s Next: Follow Your Passion and Find Your Dream Job (Chronicle Books, 2010). It’s an indispensable guide to anyone hoping to pull off a midlife reinvention, and an excellent companion to another key book on this subject, Marc Freedman’s, Encore: Finding Work that Matters in the Second Half of Life (Public Affairs, 2008).
Hannon tells the stories of 16 career-switchers who’ve turned dream careers into reality. They include a cop who became a Nashville music agent, an East Coast TV producer who moved to the Pacific Northwest to launch his own winery, and a former corporate executive who now runs Rhode Island’s largest non-profit serving the homeless.
Hannon also includes a useful Q&A with each career switcher, probing what motivated them to change and the lessons they learned along the way. She also asks her subjects to offer their advice to others considering a major career leap.
I talked with Hannon about the book recently; here’s an edited Q&A.
Q: What motivates people to change careers at midlife?
A: Almost everyone I spoke to was spurred to make a change by a crisis that reminded them how fleeting life can be. For many, it was 9/11. For others, it was the death of someone close to them that made them stop and pause. But the real success stories were folks who had planned–they didn’t act impulsively.
Q: What are some of the common elements you found among all these folks?
A: The most important thing that struck me is that these people were all supremely confident in what they were doing. They never second-guessed themselves, even when things got difficult. They always had a clear sense that they were doing the right thing. They are all working longer hours than before but it doesn’t seem to matter to them.
Q: What kind of preparation are people doing before they make a major career change?
A: Most did a lot of research on whatever field they wanted to move into. Many did volunteer work to get a foot in the door. Tim Sheerer, who left a six-figure Wall Street career to open his own Italian restaurant, started out by volunteering in the kitchen of a restaurant to see if it really was for him. I think volunteering is a really important way to test the waters. Steve Brooks wanted to get out of the TV news business and start his own winery. So he moved to the Pacific Northwest and volunteered at harvest time for winemakers.
Q: Is money a motivator for midlife career changers?
A: Almost never. Even for people who needed the income, career change is about doing something they love and that can have an impact on their lives and others. These are people who want to give back–the reward isn’t financial. But the people who make successful career switches did take the time to get their finances in order. Income never comes in as quickly or at the level that you expect, so you need to plan in some time for some failure.
Cliff Stevenson went from being a mortgage banker to teaching social studies–and that kind of move isn’t unusual. He took a huge pay cut, but first he sat down with his wife and got his family on board. They downsized their home and took the time to see where they could cut back.
Q: So, are these transitions only for people of means, and who are in control of their finances?
A: When I started this book, I was looking at disenchanted baby boomers who were ready to do something different. As time went on, it turned to include people whose jobs no longer existed and needed to reinvent themselves. The lessons here apply to anyone. But people who have a severance package or a partner to provide financial ballast certainly have an easier time doing this.