Second Acts

While it’s a scary time to lose a job or leave a job, it could be the perfect opportunity to reinvent yourself and do what you love for the rest of your life.



Mortgage manager to baker: Christoper Williams went from managing dough to making dough.

Photo by Martha Rial

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There are two ways to remove a Band-Aid: a quick tug, a jolt of pain and then it’s off—the skin free to breathe. The other way is to peel it off by lifting a corner, little by little, uncovering the wound with tentative tenacity.

Some folks feel that jolt when sideswiped by a job loss trigged by layoff, reorganization or outright firing. Such a life-altering experience can be humiliating, frustrating and panic-inducing.

I wouldn’t wish these feelings on anyone, but there is a silver lining. When I lost an executive position, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Not realizing that at first, I mourned during my last few weeks at the job while I handed over projects.

My first job-free day was the first day of the month. With a resolution to “leave my baggage back in the month of January,” I dived into my new life. I’d long wanted to be home with my three daughters. And my freelance writing came to a halt because of my executive demands.

Within a week, I was doing yoga for the first time. I signed up for everything I could at my daughters’ school. I secured some writing assignments and blew the dust off of a novel. Our family hasn’t been this happy and organized in years. I acknowledge that, financially, we had to make adjustments, but it’s worth every penny.

Although it seemed like my Band-Aid was ripped off, I now realize I had been peeling it back for months. I knew I wasn’t happy and dreamed of a change, but I was chicken.

Movies, newspapers, columns and countless blogs around the world have covered the issue of job change and unemployment. Many are tinged with panic or depression—at best, gallows humor.

During the December 2010 Second City performance of In the End We All Die in Chicago, there was an improvisational piece that illustrated a wildly uncomfortable scene between a woman being fired and the man tasked with relaying the news. To avoid confrontation, he employed ironic euphemisms for “You’re fired”—“transitioning” or “reorganization”—that are an unfortunate addition to modern cultural vernacular.

The not-so-absurd performance clearly hit a nerve; the audience knowingly howled. The mere fact that one of the country’s most famous theaters would include a skit about the dry world of human resources is a sign of the times.

But you also can act as your own HR person by shucking entire professions and starting over. Maybe you gaze out your office window wishing you could sew instead of attending meetings. Perhaps you don’t know what you want to do, but you surely know you don’t want to do “this” any more. You’re not alone.

Patrick Ferraro, employer-relations coordinator for the Career Development Center (CDC) of Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JF&CS) of Pittsburgh, says that “the average American adult will have three to five careers in his or her lifetime.” That’s a long way from generations of steel workers or life-long employees who clocked in and out of, say, Nabisco for 30 years before retiring with a pension and gold watch.

Of the newly employed adults in our country, nearly 33 percent did not land in the same profession they left. Maybe it’s because they saw the writing on the wall and proactively jumped ship. For some, a layoff was the kick in the pants they needed to pursue another dream.

“There’s no real consistency regarding who’s switching: men, women, younger, older,” says Ferraro. “People are switching careers across the board. People switching careers essentially aren’t challenged anymore. Sometimes it’s that their career is consuming their life. Work-life balance is a major consideration as people look at their values and other factors.”

Search “job change” on the Internet, and you’ll find generations of disciples of Dick Bolles’s What Color Is Your Parachute?. The career-changers guide has been the bestseller in its genre for more than three decades, according to Amazon.com.

For those of you who have read it, you know that it’s the perfect place to start dreaming of something new. In 2011, it appears that the book’s dreamer quality of What if … has morphed into When ... .

Once I launched my second act, I set out to find other Pittsburghers who lost or quit jobs to start entirely new careers. It turns out that there are legions of us who either made lemons into lemonade or leapt out of careers with faith in our parachutes.

If I could make the change from nonprofit executive to writer, then surely anyone could land on his or her much-happier feet. Meet some who did just that. Hopefully you’ll be inspired to turn your situation into the life change you need.

Every time Christopher Williams, 44, pulls a perfect cake out of the oven, he feels a sense of accomplishment that he never felt when he was a mortgage broker. A mother of two young sons, Devon George, 46, invited her family members to her nursing-school graduation this year after making the jump from marketer to nurse. Both professionals took control of their vocational turn of events, taking job loss as a sign that they needed to pursue their dreams.

On the flip side are Frederick Thieman, 59, and Julie Lynn Lizotte, 35, who willingly left careers that weren’t as satisfying as they knew work could be. They’ve never looked back.

When these Pittsburghers lost their jobs or chose to leave their desks for new challenges, they all had a nervous tickle in their gut. But it’s their boldness to handle the bumps of transition with focus and determination that makes them noteworthy examples of what can be done when people take control of their destinies.
 

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