| Thinking About Tomorrow |
By Susan Crandell
Genre: Inspirational & Self-Help
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Work That Works for You
THE FIRST GENERATION to go to college en masse, we baby boomers had an unprecedented opportunity to choose rewarding work. So it may seem surprising that at midlife so many of us are dumping career number one and moving on to career number two. Of course, some of this migration can be credited to restlessness: Even in a fulfilling profession, twenty years on the job can ignite a craving for something new. But many of the career changers I’ve spoken with tell me that their first profession simply never thrilled them.
Problem was, back in our twenties when we were starting out, a lot of us just didn’t know how to find work that works for us. I’m a prime example. Like many of my college buddies, I drifted into a profession almost at random. I adored college, but was no student. Thrilled to find myself living on my own for the first time, in a dorm filled with smart, funny women, I majored in friendship, with a minor in jug wine. Remember Almaden? I loved the lazy afternoons when half a dozen of us would gather in someone’s room and talk for hours. Or the all-nighters we’d pull, not studying but playing hearts. I knew that when college ended, I would go to work, but somehow I never formed anything remotely resembling a plan. I majored in history, for no reason except that there were some terrific professors in the department.
What Should I Do with My Life?
My senior year, the reality hit—Ohmigod, I need a job, maybe even a career. My first impulse was a delaying tactic. I applied to law school. This was less about law—I had only the dimmest idea of what an attorney did all day—than about extending the pleasurable lifestyle that was school. I would have made a terrible lawyer. I aced the English portion of the LSATs and failed miserably at reasoning out the sample legal cases the test presented. This fact, along with my middling GPA—let’s say I did a lot worse than Bill Clinton, a little better than George Bush—underwhelmed the three law schools to which I’d applied. I can’t say I was crushed; in my heart of hearts I knew law school was a holding action, not a life plan.
A job was inevitable. But which job? On what possible basis would I choose? Like the thousands of other liberal arts majors graduating that year, I had no professional training, nothing that would point me in any direction. My roommate’s father said the one thing that gave my search a point of view. Robin’s dad was one of the most accomplished people I knew, a senior VP at a big textile manufacturing firm in the South. We were having dinner at their country club one evening after graduation while Robin and I were holed up at her family home in North Carolina, postponing the inevitable. The conversation turned to careers, in a desperate attempt by Robin’s parents to jump-start our lives. When her father remarked that his job was routine, I was stunned. The daughter of a small-business owner and a schoolteacher, I had always figured that anybody who had an important, high-paying position like his must rush off to work every morning filled with enthusiasm for the fascinating things he would do that day. But he said that one week was largely like another, his work a matter of making the same kinds of decisions over and over again.
Learn to meditate. Science shows that meditation can boost the immune system and even ward off stress-related illnesses such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and depression. You can find a class at a local yoga school, or try the book Meditation Made Easy by Lorin Roche, who has been teaching meditation for three decades.
After that conversation, I had one goal: Don’t be bored. I’d been told by my professors that I had some talent for writing, and I knew I loved to read. So I set my sights on a job in magazine publishing, figuring it couldn’t become repetitive since there’d be a new issue along every month. And that’s largely how it turned out. Every time I edited an article, I learned something new. For me, the creative work never stopped being satisfying. Until I was fifty-two, I never considered any job but magazine editor, and I still haven’t considered any industry but publishing.
The Career Ice Age: Before Counselors Walked the Earth
I got lucky with my career choice, but it was really a fluke. When we boomers were in college, nobody was giving us much advice. At my college, career counseling was conducted out of a single office in a building I visited exactly once. Many of us just stumbled into the next phase of our lives. After graduation, a lot of my friends moved to Boston—the next best thing to college is a big college town—and got jobs, whatever was available (one of them, who’d scored 740 on the law boards, handed out pirate garb and gorilla masks at a costume store) and would pay the rent. Nobody was giving us Myers-Briggs personality tests that would reveal what kind of job would play to our strengths. There were no life coaches or self-help books to point the way. We just flailed around. The fortunate few happened upon something they were good at and enjoyed.
Whether we loved our job or hated it, time marched on. Our lives got busy and complicated, rich and full. We married, had babies, and the spotlight shined on our families. We were preoccupied with our relationships, or with bringing up our kids. For many of us, work took a backseat; if it wasn’t perfect, the dissatisfaction was relegated to background static that we lived with. Then one morning, we’d wake up and think, Wait a minute, there’s got to be more. The trigger might be a raise or promotion denied, a landmark birthday or the realization that this life isn’t eternal, so we’d better optimize our activities while we’re here.
Over the years, the size of the shadow work casts across our lives can make a merely humdrum job seem intolerable. Our generation spends more time working than doing just about anything else. Hours at our desks easily eclipse family time, and unless we’re champion sleepers, we probably log more hours at the office—and getting there—than we do in bed. Work occupies a majority share of our days, and yet a surprising number of us are not enchanted with our jobs. When we did a survey at More magazine, I was stunned to find that nearly three-quarters of the forty- and fiftysomething women in our upscale, educated audience weren’t crazy about what they did for a living. These were people with options, people who’d had the benefit of college and even graduate school, along with a fair share of authority and flexibility in their chosen work. I expected them to be thriving. But the majority were just doing it for the dough. A study by a division of Ajilon Professional Staffing, in Saddle Brook, New Jersey, came to a slightly brighter conclusion, finding that 40 percent of the men and women they surveyed loved their jobs—which still leaves the majority less than enamored.
What’s going on? Why isn’t work working for us? We were the generation with the education, the opportunity. Did we all choose the wrong profession, or are there other issues at play?
Brave New Idea: Work Should Be Fun
It’s a relatively recent concept that work should be fulfilling. In centuries past, most children moved into their parents’ profession, whether it was farming, blacksmithing, or running the general store. Children born into work that engaged and satisfied them were lucky indeed. The freedom to choose a career is largely a twentieth-century development, and the thought that work should be rewarding, even fun, is still newer. The idea got traction in 1980 with the publication of the book Work Redesign, in which authors Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham maintained that to do a job well, people need to find their work meaningful.
Sometimes it isn’t the work itself that disappoints, but the working conditions. Maybe that fourteen-year-old boy wasn’t wrong when he dreamed of becoming an architect, but three decades later he finds his workday isn’t spent solving design problems and sketching soaring skyscrapers, as he’d imagined. No, his commissions more often run to cookie-cutter-design Chinese restaurants in malls, and he puts in many hours dealing with staffing and budget issues, responding to clients’ unrealistic expectations, and juggling an overload of work.
In the past two decades, technology has upped the ante on time pressure, creating what I call instant-itis. Remember the old Federal Express slogan, “When it absolutely, positively has to get there overnight”? These days, that would be the slow-boat service. Now that we have instant modes of communication, everything must be done instantly. Suddenly, even a fax becomes snail service; you’ve got to e-mail it, and you’ve got to e-mail it right now.
To compound the stress, there’s no downtime anymore. In a world of beepers and BlackBerries, an increasing number of us are on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Even doctors, the classic example of “on all the time,” unplug when a colleague is covering. In a recent poll of New Year’s resolutions, several executives mentioned stepping away from their 24/7 addiction to BlackBerries and Treos. Many of us are asking ourselves: When did we sign up to be available to the office all the time? Wasn’t that the deal we struck when we decided to become parents? Why is work suddenly oozing into our family time?
As I talked with boomers who’ve launched their own businesses, I realized that a big motivation to remake their careers was laying claim to their own time. Some found themselves working longer hours than they had in a corporate job, particularly during their fledgling firm’s launch. But it was maximum hours with minimum stress because they approached their tasks with a new mind-set: They were in control, and they could decide when to knock off.
The New York Times reported that Americans now work an additional 172 hours a year, on average, than we did the year I graduated from college, 1973. In a survey by the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit research group based in New York City, 37 percent of boomers said that they are chronically overworked, almost a third more than other age groups. Experts point to the high-level—and high-stress—jobs boomers are more likely to hold, as well as lifestyle issues we uniquely face, including caring for elderly parents and hosting boomerang kids who have moved back home as adults. Toss a Gen-X boss into the mix, and you’ve got Excedrin headache number 9-2-5—the overwork special.
What happened to those innocent grammar school dreams, when we couldn’t wait to be a firefighter or a nurse or an astronaut? How did work turn into an obligation rather than a joy?
Staging a Second Act That Shines
That question has led an unprecedented number of boomers to remake their work life. Some are launching businesses, some are telecommuting to tame the time crunch, others are boldly moving into new industries, still others are downshifting to part time. Traditionally, your forties and fifties are the decades when you’ve earned the right to coast a bit, to cut back on your work hours, let the younger go-getters carry the bulk of the load. I remember the early days of my career when the more senior you were, the earlier you left the office at the end of the day. But downsizing and increased productivity demands have canceled all that. Now many boomers are working harder at fifty-six than they did at twenty-six.
There’s another factor that makes midlife an ideal time to initiate a big change. With more years of saving behind them, boomers have more resources to cushion a risky career move. Furthermore, with a lightening of day-to-day family responsibilities, they have more time to consider a new direction.
Volunteer as a firefighter. Learn a new skill, make new pals, help your community. Need I say more?
Ironically, that very same time-served/money-in-the-bank phenomenon can make it harder to summon the courage to reinvent a career. At this stage, with two or three decades invested in a chosen field, there’s a lot at stake. When you’re young, it’s relatively easy to opt for a big switch. In the 1990s, when the dot-com craze was exploding, I lost several talented young editors to Internet jobs. As one of them said to me, “I may be crazy, but how can I not take this chance at twenty-five, when I’m single and have no family responsibilities? I have no one to answer to but me.” For her, the risk didn’t feel that big; if she needed to make a U-turn back to magazines, there were a lot of jobs at her level. But for someone in a senior position, the kind you work decades to get, it’s a much bigger deal to throw it all over in pursuit of a dream.
Nevertheless, more and more boomers are doing just that, seeking work that really speaks to their soul. In talking with people for this book, over and over I heard them say, “I needed to find something that felt right for me, at the deepest level.” For some, discovering work that resonates was possible only now: It had taken them forty or fifty years to truly know themselves. They gloried in their strengths, understood their limitations, had logged enough life experiences to know what would be satisfying.
You Can Go Your Own Way
“My boss is an asshole, but I can work with him because I know him so well.” That’s the self-deprecating joke Portland, Oregon, native Steve Weiner cracks, describing his feelings about becoming his own boss after twenty-two years of corporate life. But he’s utterly serious about the satisfaction of being a small-business owner. The freedom and control are intoxicating, he says; he could never, ever go back.
Steve speaks for a big share of our generation. For us, the urge to launch a business and call our own shots is a powerful motivator. An AARP study found that men and women over age fifty make up 25 percent of the total workforce, but a whopping 40 percent of the self-employed. Among the self-employed one out of three took the plunge after turning fifty. It stands to reason that the urge to be our own bosses should sharpen as we mature and grow accustomed to holding the reins, whether it’s bringing up children or taking on more authority at a corporate job. We’ve tested our ability as decision makers. At midlife, we approach a solo venture with a heightened degree of confidence. Most of us have ridden our share of rough road, and our judgment has been honed by our failures as well as our successes.
Some, like me, may be surprised to find themselves thriving as captain of their own ship. I vowed I would never own a small business, having watched my dad run a company that sold travel trailers and camping supplies with reasonable success but no real joy. By his late fifties, he was so burned out, he retired happily to a series of what he called “nothing jobs”—working on the loading dock of a newspaper company or in the parts department of an automobile dealership—relieved to finally shed the stress of running Crandell Sales.
As a child, seeing him struggle with the anxieties and pressure of business ownership, I knew I wasn’t cut out to be an entrepreneur. As an adult, I was grateful for the paycheck that arrived every other week, whether business was good or bad, and I appreciated the corporate health plan and the 401(k) with company-matched contributions. If you had asked me when I was in my thirties whether I’d ever work for myself, I would have said “Hell, no.” Then at fifty-two, I became the sole proprietor of another Crandell Sales, with just one product to market—me. Two qualities I share with many of my boomer peers made this improbable shift possible: personal growth and a sizable network of contacts. By my early fifties, I had worked at half a dozen magazines and knew lots of editors to whom I could pitch article ideas. By the same token, I was confident that as a freelance writer, I understood what editors want, having sat so long on the other side of the desk assigning articles.
The intersection of those two priceless commodities—contacts and seasoning—can be a boon to midlifers who are launching businesses in the same arena. Becoming a consultant in your industry is a lot easier than making the leap to a completely different line of work. Even if you’re entering a new field, your background can be important. Louisiana resident George Oldenburg is one of the Life Entrepreneurs profiled in this chapter. At first blush, his transition from bank executive to zoo owner at forty-five seems about as radical as a career change can get. But George credits his financial background with helping him manage the annual budget for a highly cyclical business, when the lion’s share of revenues flow in during just a few high-season months.
So we come at new occupations with special qualities that help us succeed. Often midlife is the first time we have the wherewithal to start a business, whether it’s from an inheritance, a severance package, or a plump 401(k) we’re willing to bust. Of course, we’re gambling with our futures, and the stakes are higher because we can see the potential infirmities of old age ahead. The new-business owners I’ve talked with don’t deny the risks, but they don’t dwell on them either. Like Steve Weiner, they’re too busy glorying in being the boss.
Calling a Time-Out
Sometimes job burnout hits so hard, there’s nothing to do but remove yourself from the workforce for a while. Once regarded as career suicide, this is now an increasingly common strategy for catching your breath. Some people use their time-out to explore a new path, while others rediscover a passion for their job. The lucky ones work for a company like Nike or Intel that offers paid sabbaticals, or a firm such as Procter & Gamble, which grants the time unpaid. According to a 2005 study from the Society for Human Resource Management, 17 percent of all US companies were offering some kind of extended leave.
In her midforties, Mary Lou Quinlan took a five-week sabbatical from her job running one of the top advertising agencies in New York, and ended up leaving her high-powered position to launch her own boutique ad agency, Just Ask a Woman. She wrote about what she called “my walkabout” for us at More, published a book on the subject of sabbaticals, Time Off for Good Behavior, and appears as a judge on the reality show American Inventor. Another article we published, “Leaving at the Top,” profiled powerful women who’d become disenchanted enough to quit. Some of them walked away from the workplace, but most simply took some contemplative time to figure out their next career move. Ann Fudge famously left a top post at Kraft Foods, then two years later returned to the fray as CEO of Young & Rubicam Brands.
For one of the couples I interviewed, Kirk and Colleen Kvetko of Naples, Florida, one sabbatical led to another. Kirk was the first to bail out of a job, leaving a twenty-three-year career at FedEx, worn out from being on call 24/7. He wanted to climb a mountain, compete in triathlons, and play lots and lots of golf. It was four years before someone offered him a position enticing enough to draw him back into the workforce. No sooner was he behind a desk again than Colleen called her own time-out, quitting a big-deal bank job to clear her mind and discover a new path. When she started her sabbatical, her husband wrote Colleen a letter telling her to “Smell the roses, listen to the birds, relax and do what you enjoy.”
Not everybody can afford a long stretch without pay, and many may find the risk of job hunting without a current job too high a price to pay. But sometimes a valued employee can negotiate some unpaid time away, even at a company without a formal policy. It’s worth looking into if you crave a break in the routine but can’t afford to jeopardize your job.
The Myth of the Omega Job
When I was in my early forties, I used to talk about the Omega Job. I thought of the working world as an oversize game of musical chairs: When the music stopped, you’d better be sure you had somewhere to sit. As far as I was concerned, the music stopped at fifty. At that point, I needed to be in a position I wouldn’t age out of, a job I could keep until I was ready to retire, because by then I’d be too old to find a new one.
When I did turn fifty, I was perched on what seemed like the perfect seat. In a notoriously ageist industry, I had landed at one of the few magazines in America that wasn’t youth-obsessed. As the standard-bearer for More, I was the perfect age. Unless I screwed up, I could probably keep that job right through my fifties.
When I resigned two years later, I had already begun revising my theory of the Omega Job. The world had changed, and I no longer felt that UNEMPLOYABLE was tattooed across my back. As the leading edge of the boomer generation turned sixty, I could see the rules beginning to bend. Age discrimination hasn’t gone away—ask anybody over fifty who’s hunted for a new job—but a new way of thinking is starting to emerge. In some industries, we boomers are actually moving into a buyer’s market. In 2008, the oldest boomers will be eligible for early Social Security benefits (that is, if Congress doesn’t redo the math and raise the age at which you qualify), and a growing number of companies are worried enough about this potential brain drain that they’re offering surprising incentives to attract and keep experienced employees. For example, Fortune reports that Charles Stark Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is wooing its senior scientists with up to six months a year off, or flexible workdays. And Home Depot touts “snowbird special” jobs, working winters in Florida and summers in Maine.
Home Depot was one of the original thirteen “featured employers” on a growing list AARP has posted on its Web site since February 2005—companies that are friendly to older workers. Others included MetLife, Pitney Bowes, Borders, Principal Financial, and Walgreens. More than seventy-one thousand people checked out the listings in the first month of the program. Increasingly, companies are recognizing that we have job skills and work ethics that can make us the top pick for many positions. We’re healthy and able—and unlike our parents, we don’t dream of disappearing to an Arizona retirement village.
The New American Success Story: Balancing the Life-Work Equation
When I was forty-six, I interviewed for a job at Ladies’ Home Journal. Over goat cheese salads at a Manhattan restaurant, I told the editor in chief, Myrna Blyth, that there was one problem with hiring me: I wasn’t hungry for her job. If she brought me on staff as her number two, she wouldn’t be ensuring an orderly succession. In fact, I told her, I was a born executive editor who thrived on running the staff and putting together a vital, engaging magazine. I had no interest in hammering out budgets, playing politics within the parent company to secure resources for the magazine, working such long hours that my family spent more time with Katie Couric than me, or handling all the other administrative and lobbying functions that take an editor in chief far from the work he or she joined magazine publishing to do. Fair enough, she said, and offered me the job.
Six years later, we’d launched More, and now Myrna was retiring. She called me into her office and said, “Congratulations, you’re editor in chief.” Neither of us mentioned the no-promotion ultimatum I’d delivered so long ago. I knew that if I didn’t take the big job, I’d get a new boss, and then I’d be out. The arriving editor in chief would want a handpicked number two to carry out her vision for the magazine. That’s the way it works.
Swap iPods. Trade with a friend for a week, and listen to his or her playlist, not yours. Expand your horizons beyond the Beatles and the Stones.
And I can’t say I’m sorry I said yes. I had the chance to run a national magazine at a critical stage in its life. It was gratifying to be the chief visionary of a publication that inspired enormous devotion among its readers. But the best thing about nabbing the number one job was that it inspired me to quit. If I’d never been pushed out of the cozy nest as Myrna’s second in command into a job about which I had ambivalent feelings, I’d probably still be there. I’d have missed the chance to remake my work life, returning to reporting and writing, which I love, and quitting a punishing commute that I can no longer believe I once made every day.
Over the years, I seldom confided my lack of ambition, even to my friends. My generation of women had fought so hard to be considered for the top positions that not to want one seemed like a character flaw. I thought I was an anomaly, an oddball. Shouldn’t I be grateful to be offered the big-cheese job? Once again, I belatedly discovered that my ambivalent feelings reflected a generational trend among both women and men. A Burson-Marsteller survey reported in Business Week in March 2005 found that an increasing number of executives don’t want the CEO job—the “thanks but no thanks” crowd grew from 27 percent in 2001 to 60 percent in 2004. Other workplace observers confirm a “the promotion’s not worth it” wave. Since the make-your-life-count wake-up call of 9/11, people eager to strike the right work-home balance are willing to sacrifice money and status. They’d rather be the sales associate who doesn’t miss any of the kids’ soccer games than the office manager who can’t leave work.
It’s Not the Money, Honey
When we’re young, salary figures high among our work-world concerns, often trumping our title or even our job description. We need money to launch ourselves in life—to buy a car, purchase a house, and pay for a growing family. How much we earn influences how good we feel about ourselves. By midlife, the picture has changed. Money has paled as a motivator among the men and women I interviewed; we no longer define our worth by our tax bracket, and we’ve had plenty of years of hard labor to prove that an enviable salary won’t buy you happiness at work. Not a single person I talked to mentioned financial success as a reason to remake his or her career. These second choices came from the heart. Job 2.0 had to satisfy at a much deeper level than the number of digits on a W-4. Some people are working longer hours in their reinvented job, but it doesn’t matter, because they love their work. Others have finally found the confidence to lay down the terms of their new employment. Some, like Ellen and Michael Albertson, made significant financial sacrifices to bankroll a transition to more rewarding work. This Boston-based duo quit a lucrative gig writing books and making media appearances together as The Cooking Couple, and are living on Ellen’s income as a personal trainer while Michael launches a stand-up comedy career. Every one of the career changers I talked to felt the timing of their sea change was no accident. It wasn’t until midlife that they had all the psychological tools and attitude to succeed at the new venture—and the confidence to make a big change. Helen Hand, a psychotherapist who took over as president of the university her brother had founded, told me that when she was younger, “I didn’t see myself as a leader.”
At midlife, we have context, perspective, and a longer view. When we bump up against an obstacle, we know that there’s smoother road ahead—if we take the proper turnoff. And if we make a false step, we’re better at not only recognizing the mistake, but also correcting it.
Perhaps the best payoff of all for remaking our work life is the message it sends to our kids. When we refuse to settle for a humdrum job or trade dollars for satisfaction, we’re showing the next generation what it means to have fulfilling work. George Oldenburg’s son has watched his father put in long hours at the Zoo of Acadiana, coming home at night dirty, exhausted—and happier than he’s ever been. One day, his son hopes to run the zoo himself.
The Life Entrepreneurs
At forty-five, Louisiana native George Oldenburg quit a banking career to buy a small-town zoo.
George’s Lesson: Owning a business can mean longer hours than you’d ever imagined working, but suddenly that’s more than okay. There’s a new calculus when you’re doing something you love.
GEORGE OLDENBURG ALWAYS said that the best job he ever had was working at a pet shop while he was in high school. Little did he know that three decades later, his career would come full circle when he purchased a pet shop extraordinaire—a small-town zoo near Lafayette, Louisiana. At forty-five, he became the proud father of Willie the lion, Henrietta the pygmy hippopotamus, and Humphrey the camel, just a few of the star attractions among the more than three hundred animals at the forty-two-acre Zoo of Acadiana.
Today, with three years of zoo ownership behind him, George’s voice is still colored with the enthusiasm of a new venture as he describes his plans to develop the thirteen-year-old zoo into a don’t-miss for tourists and a gathering place for Louisiana locals.
Nothing in George’s life suggested such an unconventional career step. Growing up in Lafayette in a family of five kids, his pets were plentiful but pedestrian: dogs and cats, hamsters and gerbils, a turtle and an aquarium full of fish. After earning a degree in horticulture at the University of Louisiana, he got a job working for the USDA, making loans to farmers. A few years later when he had a chance to move into banking, he grabbed it. “I had just gotten married, and felt it would be a more secure position,” George remembers. He was good at the new job and enjoyed the work. His family thrived, and so did his career. He moved up through the ranks, supervising the bank’s various branches, overseeing consumer loans and credit card business. It was a full life, including a board presidency at the school his boys attended and rewarding work on a chamber of commerce project to revive downtown Lafayette. But after twenty years, it wasn’t enough. “I put a lot of people into business who were very successful and happy,” George says. “Whenever I’d make a loan, I’d think, Boy, it’d be nice to work for myself.”
When the zoo was put up for sale five years ago, George considered making an offer, but felt that with a young family, the time wasn’t right. Two years later, when the opportunity came again, he didn’t hesitate. “I called my wife and told her I wanted to buy the zoo.” She was enthusiastic, and their three boys—then ten, twelve, and fourteen—were so excited they could hardly keep the secret until the deal had closed. George’s parents were a harder sell. “We took my mom and dad out for a dinner of boiled crawfish to make the big announcement,” he recalls. “They thought I was insane.”
George admits that beyond the rosy glow of the dream lay a few dark doubts. “At the start, I did a lot of worrying about buying a business where your assets can die,” he says. “And I had to resign from the bank before I could even make an offer, so there’d be no conflict of interest. It was risky to quit my job, then apply for a loan.” After thirty days of unemployment, his $1.2 million purchase price was accepted and the bank loan approved. The die was cast; George was a zookeeper.
Since then, he’s busier than ever—and happier, too. Working at the zoo is never dull, and George relishes pitching in on almost any job. “I can do electrical work or plumbing, build fences, work with animals, or plan a wedding reception.” If a driver calls in sick, he runs the zoo train.
But the best part has been learning about the animals. “I can walk through the zoo now and immediately spot something that’s not right.” He’s equally delighted that the animals recognize him. “If a particular tiger spots me, she’ll walk up to the fence and make a chuffing noise.”
Doing PR for the zoo, occasionally he’s gotten to know the animals a little too well. “On a local morning show, I was talking away to the host and had no idea that the parrot sitting on my shoulder was eating my microphone. After the segment, the producer said, ‘Thanks for coming, and you owe us four hundred dollars.’” On another TV appearance, an eight-foot Burmese python worked its way up into his pants. One day he took an important new acquisition, a baby white tiger, to do a school presentation. “There I was, in front of the class, when Jolie decided to take a bite out of my leg. It hurt bad, but I didn’t want to let on in front of the kids.”
Cat nips aside, George says he’s never been healthier. “Since I bought the zoo, I’ve lost weight, and I haven’t taken a single sick day. My wife says I’ve had a personality change; I come home a lot dirtier, but a lot happier.” It’s seeing the big smiles on guests’ faces that makes all the hard work worthwhile. One of George’s new attendance boosters is a Snore ’n’ Roar program that brings scouting groups to the zoo. They take a twilight tour of the exhibits, camp out overnight, and in the morning enjoy a backstage peek at the daily vet clinic and kitchen. One enraptured young boy told George, “This is the best day of my life.”
October 3, 2002, was not the best day of George’s life. Three years later, he still remembers the dread. “When Hurricane Lili headed our way, I knew it could wipe me out.” He and his staff moved animals, boarded up exhibits, and hoped for the best. George even brought home a favorite goat from the petting zoo and some snakes and birds. After the storm, the zoo was littered with broken tree limbs—“It looked horrible,” George says—but all the animals were alive. It only took George’s team three days to get the place in order and open again, but it took months for people in Lafayette to rebuild their houses. Until then, they weren’t even thinking about going to the zoo. “The storm took a big chunk out of our business that year,” George says.
Despite this setback, George’s new programs have revitalized the zoo, which turned a profit in 2004. He still doesn’t draw a salary, preferring to reinvest the money in the property. His family lives on his wife Marleen’s earnings as a registered nurse plus income from some rental properties they own. “I couldn’t have done this without my banking background,” George says. In spring, when attendance peaks, there’s a lot of money coming in. “I could go crazy buying animals and building exhibits. But come August when school starts, we’re pretty slow, and I have to plan for that.”
Running the zoo has become a family affair. “My boys are learning what hard work is,” he notes. George’s oldest son dreams of taking over the zoo one day. This, of course, delights his dad.
“I could have stayed at the bank another twenty years,” George says. “But I’m building just as much equity in the zoo as I’d have in my 401(k).” At times, George brings work home. “We got a six-week-old white tiger last year, and she required bottle-feeding every four hours.” For three months, she went home with George every night, and he and Marleen would take turns getting up. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
When pressed, George admits he’s working more than ever before, and seldom takes a vacation day. But it doesn’t matter when work feels like fun. “At the bank, I was starting to count the hours; now it’s more like a hobby than a job.”
His career reinvention had to be a midlife event. “I wouldn’t have bought the zoo at thirty-five. My children were small, and I didn’t feel that secure in my abilities,” he says. “At forty-five, I was looking for a change. My brother-in-law was killed in a plane crash the year before I bought the zoo, and it made me think: I could die tomorrow and miss out on something I really wanted to do.” That’s all George has time to say; he’s off to check on the spider monkeys.
The Pause That Refreshes
At forty-five, Kirk Kvetko jumped ship from a twenty-three-year career at FedEx to climb South America’s highest peak. Four years later, he’s back at work, and his wife, Colleen, has called her own time-out from a high-flying banking career.
Kirk and Colleen’s Lesson: Saying sayonara to an excellent job can be the smartest career move of all. A sabbatical is a nourishing recess period when you take time to develop a clear picture of what kind of work you want to do.
AT FIFTY, COLLEEN Kvetko turned her back on a supersuccessful thirty-four-year career (yes, she’d been working in banking since she was sixteen), quit her job, and accepted a retirement package without the slightest intention of retiring. “I’m taking some time to reinvent myself, asking myself these questions: What skills do I have? Do I want to go back into banking or do I want to put my energy somewhere else?” she says, clearly enjoying the fact that no holds are barred, the sky’s the limit.
Her husband, Kirk, wasn’t a bit surprised when Colleen announced her decision one evening when they were taking a walk near their Naples, Florida, home. Five years earlier, he had retired from a two-decade career at FedEx.
So are they spending golden afternoons together, sipping iced tea on their lanai? Not a chance. Kirk is back at work, running operations for a company that sells financial services to seniors. And he says of Colleen, “She’s got more hustle. She won’t last as long as I did. I give her six months.” But neither of them would trade their sabbaticals for anything.
“I have to have passion for what I do,” Colleen says. “I hit fifty, and I said to myself, Let’s step back and rethink it. I’m in that muddy water right now.”
Listening to the calm and humor in her voice, it’s hard to imagine the tortured six months that preceded her decision. Hers was not an easy job to leave. President of the Fifth Third Bank for thirteen years, she’d been named the fifth most powerful woman in banking by US Banker magazine. “My bank agreed to buy another bank last summer, and I knew my role would change,” Colleen says. “I promised myself if I didn’t love coming to work every day, I was out of there.” But following through on that promise was tough. “I’d wake up in the middle of the night. I did more crying in that six months than in our entire twenty-seven years of marriage.” She was haunted by the thought of abandoning the two hundred people who worked for her. “I was on the fence: Give up that big salary, that title, that position, the career I had since I was sixteen? Was I letting down all the women in the bank world to whom I was a role model?”
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Those considerations were all too familiar to Kirk. “The day it hit me, I was at a national sales event in Nashville, where I was to give a presentation to thousands of FedEx employees.” He had been passed over for a promotion, but, more than that, he was weary from twenty-three years of being on call day and night. “I went up to my room, had a cigar on the balcony, and thought, I’m not enjoying this. It’s time to check out.” He delegated his presentation to a colleague and caught a flight home. That night he wrote his letter of resignation.
“FedEx is a fabulous company, but twenty-three years there is like forty years somewhere else. I did everything—ran call centers, business service centers, the drop box network. It’s a 24/7 business. Many nights I slept in the office,” he says. “I wanted to enter triathlons, bike across America, climb a mountain.”
During their early years together, Kirk and Colleen had a single financial goal: to get to the point where either one of them could say, “I quit.” “When Kirk and I got married,” Colleen recalls, “we decided that no matter what, we would live on one paycheck and bank the other.” Through those lean years, Colleen moonlighted at a card store at night, and Kirk mowed lawns. Month after month, paycheck by paycheck, their savings mounted. “I drove a Corvair with a rotten floorboard,” Kirk recalls. “We bought handyman-special houses and fixed them up. We sold the first one for a sixty-thousand-dollar profit, I’ll never forget that.”
When Kirk walked away from his job, he didn’t have to worry about making ends meet, even if he never worked again. “Money isn’t everything,” he says, “but it certainly dictates what you can do.” Without his job, he wasn’t bored for a minute. He threw himself into running the house. “I told Colleen, ‘You just work, I’ll take care of everything else.’ My brother-in-law bought me a shirt that said CABANA BOY.” He paid the bills, ironed Colleen’s blouses, sent out birthday cards.
Kirk had a few other things on his to-do list, most notably climbing Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America, with a reputation for brutally changeable weather. “We lost our cook, a very experienced climber in his early twenties, who got hypoxia and literally walked off the mountain,” Kirk says. There were nineteen people in the party; only three made it to the 22,841-foot summit. Kirk turned back just twelve hundred feet below, amid seventy-mile-an-hour wind gusts and a snowstorm blowing in. “I could see the flag; that’s how close I was. It’s a lonely feeling, after all that training, but you have to do the smart thing.” The real victory was the $330,000 the group raised for two charities.
Last year, when Kirk was offered the job he now holds, he approached the decision employing a new methodology born of lessons he’d learned on his sabbatical. “If I went back, I was going to do it on my terms.” He asked to shadow the CEO who was courting him. For nine weeks he traveled with him, attending meetings and meeting the staff before accepting the job. “I bought all the air tickets, the hotel rooms; I didn’t want any obligation.” Then Kirk put off the start date for two months while he and Colleen took a Mediterranean cruise and he went fly fishing in Montana. Back in the office, he now works smart, not hard. “I have raised productivity way past the goals we set, but I check out every day by four.”
The day Colleen retired, Kirk advised her to reclaim her life. In her banking days, Colleen was out at business dinners every night. “The new rule should be, if someone calls and you don’t want to do it, you don’t,” he says.
“The next six months are going to be one part planning, one part serendipity,” Colleen adds. “I’m very goal-oriented; I like to feel productive. But that might be adding value to my body, by working out with a trainer every day.” She’s also overseeing the design of a smaller house, so they can simply lock the door and head off on trips. Over the next few months, Colleen plans a visit to her family in Ohio and a niece in LA, girlfriend trips to Yosemite and a South Carolina spa, an Alaska cruise and an African safari with Kirk.
She hasn’t lost any time getting a new career on track; even before she left the bank, she was studying for a real estate license. “That way, I’ll have something to jump into right away if I start getting bored,” she says. “I know the community, the mortgage market, the legal side.” Her friends are horrified, seeing this as a road right back to fourteen-hour workdays. “They know how I am,” she laughs. “But I’m going to try to avoid that this time.” She may sell houses, or become a mortgage broker. Or then again, she may not. At this point, she’s preparing for everything, committing to nothing. “When the time comes, I’ll know what the right thing is.
“I’m a risk taker in pretty much everything I do,” she says. “When I’m on the golf course, and I’ve got a 160-yard second shot over a big lagoon, I’m not going to lay up, I’m going to go for it.” She’s eager to see how the next chapter of her life turns out. However the plot line proceeds, it will include a very powerful marriage. “I’m so lucky,” Colleen says. “We’re best friends and we have so much fun together. Twenty-seven years later, I’m still as much in love with Kirk as the day I married him.”
Colleen drives an aqua Thunderbird convertible, and she’s just changed the license to GO plus her initials, slightly disappointed that her first choice, GO GIRL, was taken. When she was working at the bank, she couldn’t put the top down. “I was always driving to an appointment so my hair couldn’t be messed up.” Now, she reports, the top has not been up since she called time out. At last, Colleen can feel the wind in her hair.
Going Back to College—As President
After her brother was killed, psychotherapist Helen Hand found solace and satisfaction running the university he founded.
Helen’s Lesson: If you’re considering a new direction, don’t be shy: Think big. Intending to simply jazz up her job, Helen was bowled over by the rewards of making the complete career change that fate presented to her.
WHEN HELEN HAND got the phone call, she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Her older brother, John, had been murdered the previous night, attacked at random by a young woman wielding a knife. “I was in total disbelief,” she says. “It was the most devastating thing that had ever happened to me.” It was a particularly horrible blow because Helen had always been close to her only sibling. “He was the big brother, the guy who blazed the trail for me,” she remembers. As she mourned his death, she could never have predicted that this tragedy would set her own life on a completely different course.
When they were teens, Helen followed John to Duke University. When they graduated, brother and sister both returned to Denver, Helen to graduate school in psychology, John to seek a profession. John was a searcher, a visionary, Helen says. He got a real estate license, became a leader of an ashram, and worked as a program director for Denver Free University in the 1970s. A decade later, John started his own adult education university. “He was the sort of guy who didn’t wait until he had the credentials to do something,” Helen says. “He’d cast his line way out there, and then pull himself toward it.” Colorado Free University, which he founded in 1987, prospered to become one of the biggest adult education schools in the country, offering four hundred courses to more than twenty-five thousand students.
Meantime Helen won a fellowship to earn her doctorate at the University of Denver. In short order, she married a lawyer, opened a psychotherapy practice, and had the first of their three children. She loved her work, feeling she was made for the role. “Growing up, I was the one in the family who tried to figure everybody else out, the peacemaker who always wanted to understand all points of view.” Her client list grew, and she practiced happily for twenty-five years.
Then, in her early fifties, she became restless, yearning for a new challenge. A month before John’s death, she attended a Boston conference on running psychotherapy workshops. “I was looking to jazz my job up,” she says, “maybe starting a women’s institute to run weekend workshops where people could reconnect with parts of themselves they’d lost.” While she was retooling her profession, a new career presented itself.
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“A month after John died, I was talking to his number two at Colorado Free University, who was struggling to hold everything together,” Helen recalls. “She said an extraordinary thing to me: ‘Why don’t you take John’s place and run the school?’” Helen was flabbergasted. “My first reaction was, ‘I could no more do that than fly to the moon.’” A couple of weeks later, the business trustee for the school mentioned it again. “That time it clicked,” Helen says. “Partly it was a sense that my life was already utterly changed. My brother had been my touchstone, my soul buddy. Now the world was upside down and inside out. It felt like a tsunami taking me somewhere, and that I should go with it.” She liked the idea of staying connected to John by continuing his work. Still, it wasn’t an easy decision to make. Her brother’s salary was much less than Helen made, and she felt a strong sense of responsibility to her long-term patients. Helen and her husband talked it over and agreed that she’d take the job, but instead of closing her practice, she’d cut back her hours to ten a week.
At Colorado Free University, she inherited a shell-shocked staff, still grieving their boss’s death. Though people were welcoming, the transition was tough. “I had to run the school my way, not John’s,” Helen says, “and I met some resistance when I changed people’s duties and the structure of the staff.” One employee left. To make matters worse, when Helen took the reins in 2004, the school had hit a rough patch. Revenue was dropping 2 percent a year, and the balance sheet hovered at the profit-loss line. “It was really challenging,” Helen says. In his will, John had left a broad-strokes mission statement for the school, but as the architect of CFU’s future she was largely on her own. “A lot of the time I was flying by the seat of my pants, making it up as I went along.” It was scary, but exhilarating, too. “It’s been amazing to feel my own creativity popping.”
Helen’s new role answered her restlessness on many levels. Accustomed to doing things on her own, whether it was billing patients or dealing with their insurance companies, she now found herself a consensus builder. “I went back to my roots as the peacemaker,” she says. And she learned how productive collaboration can be. “Whenever I interview a new teacher, I come up with a bunch of ideas for courses.”
In her first year at the helm, not all of Helen’s initiatives have taken wing, but she’s learning whether to revamp or discard the ones that don’t fly. It’s all part of the challenge, part of the fun. “I’ve been delighted to find out how much energy I have,” Helen says. “I can feel parts of my brain waking up. I’m discovering all kinds of dormant knowledge, things I’ve picked up through life experience. We all have this stuff stored away, but we don’t realize it until we use it. As a psychologist, I know that different parts of ourselves come forward when we interact with different people—our spouses, our co-workers, our friends. When we take on new challenges, a similar thing happens: Different dimensions of ourselves step forward. Feeling a new skill set awakening gave me courage to believe in myself.
“Being fifty-three is a great help,” she continues. “I don’t think I could have done this in my thirties. Back then, I didn’t see myself as a leader.” Now, Helen says, she’s drawing on her life experiences and coming into her own. “The challenges of a blended family with stepkids from my husband’s first marriage prepared me. We had to invent things as we went along.” She also credits her psychology practice with providing the knowledge and confidence she needs. “There are moments with clients when you think, Oh heavens, I don’t know how to deal with this. There’s an old joke among psychologists that you’ll sit there with a patient saying to yourself, Boy, you need professional help, and then you realize you are the professional help. Life-and-death issues, suicide risks—the buck stops here.”
Helen’s family has given her great support. “All my kids adored my brother, and they can see that I’m into the new job.” Even the friends who were concerned that she might be doing it for the wrong reasons, out of grief or a misplaced sense of responsibility, have been won over by her excitement. “Most days, I’m having a blast,” Helen says. “I hope to be doing this a long, long time.”
Giving Up Glamour, Rolling the Dice
Michael and Ellen Albertson found fame and fortune as The Cooking Couple, but they abandoned their lucrative gig to pursue separate dreams. Michael’s now doing stand-up comedy; Ellen’s a personal trainer.
Michael and Ellen’s Lesson: One of the pieces of wisdom that midlife brings is realizing that being successful isn’t the same thing as being happy. A career that sounds perfect on paper may not feel that way. Sometimes you have to gamble on happiness.
MICHAEL AND ELLEN Albertson had a career many people dream of. Authors of a successful cookbook, they hosted their own syndicated radio show and traveled around the country giving speeches and appearing on TV. It was glamorous, it was exciting, there was plenty of money coming in. Then one day they turned their back on the limousines and the cameras. In the most grown-up decision they’d ever made, they set their lives on a risky new course.
Their story begins, appropriately enough, with a romantic encounter over food. “Michael picked me up in a grocery store,” Ellen says, laughing. When they married in 1993, Michael, a former chef, was staging concerts and corporate events for a Boston company, and Ellen worked as a hospital dietitian. One night, Ellen mentioned that she’d like to write a cookbook. She knew nutrition; Michael knew media and marketing. “So we just did it,” Michael says. “Remember the old Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney movies—‘Hey kids, let’s put on a show’? That was us.” They came up with a great title—Food as Foreplay—and wrote a lighthearted book backed by serious science, celebrating the crossroads of cuisine and romance. They published the book themselves, contracting with a distributor and filling orders from a sea of cartons in the basement of their suburban Boston home. “To our shock, the book was a big success,” Michael says. In the first year, Food as Foreplay sold a hundred thousand copies, sparking three hundred radio interviews and dozens of TV appearances. Ellen and Michael quit their jobs to launch a joint career, billing themselves as The Cooking Couple. “It wasn’t scary at all,” Ellen remembers, “because I could feel the universe pulling us in this very exciting direction.” They started a Boston radio show, which multiplied among Massachusetts stations, then went national.
When the media blitz struck, Ellen was pregnant with their first child, and her swelling belly became part of the schtick. “See,” Michael would say when they appeared on TV. “Food as foreplay: It works.” Several major publishers took notice of all the excitement, and the Albertsons signed a six-figure deal for a second book. It would be a crash project to produce the book in time for Valentine’s Day 2002. Once again, amid all the hubbub, Ellen and Michael decided to have a child. After giving birth to their son, Ellen took four days off, then returned to a punishing schedule creating the book. “I was breast-feeding, writing, breast-feeding, writing,” she says. “The entire summer was a blur.”
If the timing was ideal for Food as Foreplay, it couldn’t have been worse for Temptations: Igniting the Pleasure and Power of Aphrodisiacs. Between spring 2001 when they signed the deal and the following February when Temptations was released, al-Qaeda attacked the United States and the stock market bottomed out. “It changed the whole mood of the country,” Michael says. “People were no longer asking ‘What’s going to happen to my orgasm?’ They were asking ‘What’s going to happen to my life?’” Temptations fell short of sales goals, and the publisher didn’t renew their contract.
The Cooking Couple were far from washed up. “Our radio show was going gangbusters in over a hundred markets,” Michael says, and they were picking up lucrative product endorsements, from companies as diverse as CorningWare, Glen Ellen wines, and Dunkin’ Donuts. They’d had overtures from production companies to create a TV series starring The Cooking Couple. But signing a deal meant giving up ownership of the trademark. “Ellen was forty, I was older than that, and we’re no fools,” Michael says. “I always felt the agenda was to make us executive producers and hire some blonde and a hot young stud to go on air.”
The golden life was beginning to lose its luster. Ellen and Michael were always on the go, crisscrossing the country to appear at product promotions and wedding shows. The turning point came on the return from a ten-day trip. When Ellen reached down to pick up her baby son, he crawled backward into the nanny’s lap. “It was heartbreaking,” Ellen says. “I thought, What are we doing, leaving our kids with strangers, and my son is scared of me?” Michael adds, “That’s when we both knew we had to get off the bicycle we’d been madly pedaling for eight years.
“Would we have quit The Cooking Couple at thirty-two? Absolutely not,” he continues. “It takes the experience of another decade to ask yourself whether this is the roller coaster you want to be on. When you’re thirty-two, any roller coaster is a good one. But we had become windup toys; everybody wanted The Cooking Couple schtick. We didn’t want to be telling people how to gum their aphrodisiacs twenty years from now.”
Ellen and Michael shut down the radio show, cut way back on their appearances, and began to envision the next chapter of their lives. “We spent a lot of time visualizing where we wanted to be in five years and then backing up into how we’d get there,” Ellen recalls. Michael had always wanted to accomplish two things: write a novel and do stand-up comedy. Ellen didn’t want to work as a dietitian anymore. One day she got a postcard in the mail advertising a home-study course to become a personal trainer. “It was just a little three-by-five card, but it changed my life,” she says. “I’d always been a jock. I ran competitively in high school, and in college I was a dancer.” Ellen got accredited as a trainer, figuring she’d have the extra thunder of advising her clients on nutrition. It proved to be a winning combination, and soon her calendar was filled with appointments. The work is fulfilling. “I’m training a forty-year-old schizophrenic who’s lost thirty-five pounds and doesn’t suffer from sleep apnea anymore. It’s turned his life around.”
Her clients appreciate not just the depth of her knowledge but the maturity of her outlook as well. “Baby boomers want someone who’s educated and can talk about a variety of subjects—museums, books, raising kids. And they like my philosophy: feeding your body to be healthy, not denying it to lose weight.”
A year ago, Ellen added the title of Reiki Master to her credentials. “It’s a form of energy healing. When you touch someone, you’re a funnel for universal life force energy. It’s my spiritual practice; I tune myself up every day with Reiki.”
Right now, Ellen’s earnings pay the bills, and they live frugally while Michael builds his future. Most mornings, he gets up at 5 AM and heads down to the basement, which is no longer packed with cartons of Food as Foreplay, to work on a completely different kind of book. He’s writing a romantic spy thriller about a down-and-out rock star who’s trying to resurrect his career. Rock Spy has been two years in the making. The manuscript will go to his agent in two months. Sure, there are dark days when the work isn’t going well. “After I finished the first draft, I bought a book on how to write a best-selling novel. When I realized how many problems my manuscript had, that was a black day. A black week,” he says. “Then you realize the only way out of the blues is to set the alarm, make a pot of coffee, go down to the office, and get to work.”
When he isn’t plotting Rock Spy’s future, he’s plotting his own. For six months, Michael has been polishing his stand-up routine at Boston comedy clubs, putting together material for larger sets he can take to New York. “So far, the response has been excellent,” Michael says. “My angle is ‘bad dad’ humor. My audience is people like me, boomer dads.” The common wisdom may call comedy a young man’s game, but Michael sees virtue in his seniority. “The club owners look down on the kids with their baseball caps on backward, doing dick jokes and gay bashing. I’m a professional. I show up on time, make their clubs look good, and attract a better class of customer.
“Why am I trying something only one in a million people succeed at? I don’t know. But my new hero is Rodney Dangerfield. He started doing stand-up at forty-eight, and became one of the biggest stars in comedy,” says Michael, who’s now forty-seven. “Even as a child, I always believed that whatever I do, I’m going to succeed.” Some of his humor draws on his mixed-race heritage. His mother was half black and worked as a bookkeeper. His father was Jewish and a union organizer in New York. “The FBI would camp outside our door, and our house was firebombed when I was eight. My father went to work in a bulletproof vest. Maybe I’m so confident because I survived that stuff.”
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It was tough at times, straddling two races, but the sense of humor that would fuel Michael’s stand-up career was already serving him well. “My freshman year of high school, the black kids were beating me up. When they walked up, I’d say, ‘Why don’t I just stuff myself in my locker and save you the trouble.’ I’d start to do it and they’d laugh.” Within a year, the guys on the football team had become friends and protectors.
These days, neither Ellen nor Michael is afraid to dream big—really big. “My goal is to be one of the best trainers and holistic health counselors in the country, the Jack La Lanne for the new millennium,” Ellen says. “I want to write books and have a large enough media presence to reach a lot of people. Michael joked that I should try out for Survivor, and I’m going to.” Michael’s dream for stand-up is eight thousand people at Carnegie Hall, or a slot on Letterman; if Rock Spy finds a readership, it will become a series, maybe a movie. Meanwhile, Ellen and Michael don’t mind living the simple life. “People who aren’t satisfied fill their lives with stuff,” Ellen says. “Struggling to be happy, they get into this standard of living where they need a bigger house, a second van.” Ellen and Michael’s idea of a hot date is a home-cooked dinner and a DVD. They’re working their schedules so that they don’t need a nanny; one of them is always available to take care of the kids, who are now eight and four. They are confident that their financial future will work out, and that if either of them hits it big, the kids will be older and it’ll be okay to climb back on the media merry-go-round. As Ellen puts it, “You throw your kids out of the nest, then you jump out yourself.”
In the Driver’s Seat
Getting downsized at forty-eight after twenty-two years as a TV cameraman turned out to be a lucky break for Steve Weiner. Now he runs a business building Porsche race cars.
Steve’s Lesson: Don’t be afraid to launch yourself out of the comfort zone of a salaried job if you dream of running your own show. There is life after corporate America.
STEVE WEINER HAD worked at the NBC affiliate in Portland, Oregon, for more than two decades, and he loved his job. As a cameraman and sound engineer, he didn’t just film traffic accidents and house fires. When a national story broke anywhere in the Northwest or California, he’d cover the action in the station’s satellite truck. “The big earthquake in San Francisco—I was there. When the Unabomber was found in Montana—I was there. When the Olympic Torch went around the country, we chased it,” he says. “For a guy like me who’s really interested in news, it was the catbird seat.”
So it came as a shock the day Steve’s manager called him in and told him they were reducing staff. Steve, the second most senior person in his department, was out of work. “After twenty-two years, I got two weeks’ severance,” he says. “No parachute whatsoever.” It was a body blow to his family’s finances. His wife was on disability after a work-related illness, and Steve bartended nights to make ends meet.
There were two obvious directions Steve could take: look for another job in television, or ramp up the sideline business he’d run for twenty years, tuning and repairing race cars. He chose to hedge his bets by pursuing both options, but he was a middle-aged man looking for work in a shrinking job market. “Here I was almost fifty, and TV stations were shedding staff,” he says. He sent out forty résumés to TV stations and related businesses. “I spent nine months answering ads, and got one interview.” At that point, Steve says, the utter futility of trying to buck age discrimination sank in.
At the same time, Steve was moving ahead full throttle to build his little moonlighting business into a big enough operation to support his wife and him. “I loved working on Porsche race cars and high-performance street cars.” Fueling the growth would require a substantial outlay of capital for equipment. Steve needed a partner. Luckily, he already knew the perfect person, a technician at an independent repair shop. “He’s an immensely gifted mechanic,” Steve says. “He, too, had been talking about wanting to go off on his own. When I got laid off, we both said, ‘Let’s do it together.’” They found a piece of property, signed a lease, and hired a couple of mechanics. For the kind of operation they planned, they’d have to attract a nationwide clientele of Porsche enthusiasts who would ship their cars to Portland, FedEx the engine or transmission to be overhauled, or order parts. One of the most critical, and most frustrating, early tasks was building a Web site that could form the backbone of the mail-order business. “People of my generation do not grasp computers very easily,” Steve jokes. “But I knew if I didn’t learn, we were screwed.” He taught himself to build pages and put them on the Web.
Rennsport Systems grew slowly at first. “Some weeks, I’d pay the property lease and the employees’ salaries, make my house payment, and realize there was nothing left over for groceries,” Steve recalls. “I’d be a terrible liar if I said I didn’t second-guess myself a few times.” Eventually, he realized that nearly everyone who launches a business lives under this pressure, and even experiences moments of panic. “It was three years before the business was solid enough that I didn’t worry about paying the bills.”
There was no question that Steve was well suited to the work itself. He’d been a car nut since the age of thirteen when one of his older brother’s friends turned him on to hot rods. “I helped work on his cars, and by the time I got to high school, I knew a fair amount,” he says. His folks took a dim view of grease monkeys, so Steve kept a lid on his activities, renting a garage from an elderly lady in the neighborhood where he stashed his cars and tools. All the money he earned working at a local gas station and bagging at a grocery store was poured into his hot rods. He usually had two tucked away in the secret garage—one he was working on, plus a parts car. “My parents didn’t have a clue,” he says. “Toward the end of high school, when they finally figured out what I was doing, they weren’t happy. When you grow up in a middle-class Jewish household, building race cars is not acceptable.”
After high school, Steve started racing sports cars while working at a British car dealer as an apprentice mechanic. “I bought a little Bugeye Austin-Healey Sprite, got my SCCA competition license, and raced it for a year.” He sold the Sprite and purchased a ’67 Mini Cooper, which he rebuilt for the track and raced until he got called up to Vietnam as an air force pilot. Back home after a year, flying two-seat O-1s on dangerous low-level missions over Laos and Cambodia, he started working on Porsches. He and a buddy went pro, entering Trans-Am races, a series for highly modified pure race-car versions of Mustangs, Camaros, Jaguars, and the like. “Guys like us with minimal experience out there on the track—these days, they’d never let you do it,” Steve says. “When I think about it, it’s a wonder we survived.” The prize money wasn’t great, but Steve learned something priceless—that he loved working on Porsches.
While Steve was honing his racing skills, he was also building a career as a sound- and cameraman. After his tour in Vietnam, he landed a job at a Portland radio station. A few years later, when an opportunity came to move to TV, he took it. “It was more money, more glamour, a chance to meet interesting people,” he says. At the same time, he was working on cars for a growing number of racer friends.
Today Rennsport Systems is one of the country’s most highly regarded builders of extremely powerful modified Porsche 911s. Steve enjoys the role of guru, and is well known among Porsche fans not only for the supercars he builds, but also for the advice he freely gives to enthusiasts. After almost a decade running his own show, Steve says he’s unfit to return to corporate life. “Being your own boss, you get an attitude. You don’t suffer fools anymore. Now, if I had to work for somebody else, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, which means I’d be back on the street.”
Nine years after the fateful day that upended his TV career, Steve says flatly, “Getting fired was the best thing that ever happened to me.” It pushed him to make a decision he admits he never would have reached on his own. “You sit in that comfort zone where you get a paycheck, you have health insurance, vacation. Life is good; you don’t have to think. But another word for ‘comfort zone’ is rut. I’ll gladly trade income for freedom.”
There is one downside to owning Rennsport: virtually no time off. “You have to be around to answer the phone, handle your customers’ needs, put out fires. I’m like a shark that will drown if it doesn’t keep swimming. Going at it six to seven days a week is tough.” Steve hasn’t taken a vacation since he launched Rennsport, and he fantasizes about spending a few weeks in Europe with his wife. Still, he’s content doing what he loves. “It’s a lot more fun than the TV business. Corny as it sounds, I’d advise people to follow a passion, whether it’s tuning race cars or mixing concrete. If you don’t go to work every day with a big smile on your face, it’s time to look in the mirror and ask yourself, What does really melt my butter?”
Excerpted from Thinking About Tomorrow , by Susan Crandell . Copyright (c) 2007 by Susan Crandell . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top