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Big-Screen Worthy Career Changes: Inside Real-Life “Second Acts”

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Changing your professional direction isn’t easy, but for some of us, it’s unavoidable. We find ourselves suffering a psychic itch that can’t be scratched unless something changes.

Call it what you will – blowing up your career, changing your mind, a different direction – just know that it’s a change not to be taken lightly. Doing a career one-eighty can begin with a mental shift, maybe even a passing thought, or take years figuring out what you really want to do. It’s complicated, scary and often difficult to explain. You’re leaving to do what?

hInspired by the new film Second Act starring Jennifer Lopez, Glassdoor profiles three individuals who made drastic changes in their career trajectories. Each had a particular reason for the change and went about it in different ways, but there is an undercurrent of commonality. Each of these individuals had to extricate themselves from the familiar to follow their passion into the unknown.

Stretching Into Something New

When Quinn Shuff announced to her friends and family that after three successful years she was leaving her financial analyst job at Intel, they thought she’d lost her mind. Her parents were alarmed, counseling against quitting without first having another job. Why leave Intel, where at 25, she made good money managing millions of dollars and enjoying a picture-perfect millennial lifestyle? Most of her friends didn’t get it either.

quinn2“I’m good at deciding what I want to do and then being the best at it, says Shuff. “I decided to be in finance. I decided to get a great job. I decided to live in Portland.”

But it wasn’t enough.

“I got what I wanted but not what I needed,” says the thirty-year-old, now living in Los Angeles.

Her childhood in small-town Texas was idyllic. She graduated second in her high school class, went to the University of Texas McCombs School of Business where she was first in the finance section. That’s not to mention — at 5 foot 11 inches with Everest cheekbones and shampoo commercial hair — she is often mistaken for the quintessential LA hyphenate: model-actress.

No matter what it looked like, Shuff was unhappy. Restless and frustrated by corporate culture, she was trying to figure out what to do – how to find her purpose. Shuff knew to first get her monetary ducks in a row. She gave notice only after the yearly bonuses were paid, saved enough money to live in Portland for a year without working and didn’t have any debt.

She did have a plan, but it wasn’t the usual list of to-dos. “I didn’t take a gap year to run away. I knew when I quit Intel that I wasn’t going to travel. I quit to stay and figure out my life. To get out of my own way and find a different way of being.”

That year was harder than she thought it would be. “I would get nervous that I wasn’t productive,” says Shuff who’s had a job since she was 15 years old. “I wasn’t working or earning. How would I know I was successful?” At one point, in a panic, she applied for a job at a juice store, but she had an anxiety attack on the way to the interview. Shuff realized then, that she needed to settle down and “just be, and not distract myself with a trivial job.”

Alone without the comradery of the office, Shuff blogged regularly and sought out different friends. One was a guy who wasn’t working either. They regularly ambled around the neighborhood “like two old retired people.” She continued her lifelong Pilates practice.

It was at a yoga/Pilates studio that one of her teachers offhandedly suggested she look into teacher training. Without knowing why, exactly, Shuff applied to a program in Portland.

“I wrote to the owners of the studio and told them that I didn’t even know who I was, or what I wanted, but would like to learn about the course.” Because the studio was founded by two corporate dropouts, they understood what she was going through.

Looking back, Shuff says, “At our first meeting, one of the owners saw something in me that I couldn’t see in myself.”

QuinnThat casual suggestion became the turning point in Shuff’s life. “I found yoga — a place to plug into. I loved the philosophy, the physicality, the spirituality.” She quickly built a community of her classmates around the principles of yoga. “If I had tried to talk to my old friends about these ideas, they would have laughed.” She broke up with a guy – “a science type” – because he dismissed her beliefs as “unprovable.”

Students began to take her classes at Open Awareness Yoga, then she was asked to collaborate with other teachers and artists. The year “off” turned into her life. “I didn’t set out to be a yoga teacher. It came to me because I kept saying yes.”

Listening To One’s Inner Voice

Alan Stern is a serial pivotor. It’s not that he can’t make up his mind, exactly, and he’s not a dilettante by any means. By the time he was in high school it was apparent that he was equally talented in both math and English. Mentally, he was ambidextrous. But despite his intellectual prowess, he didn’t grow up to be a wonk, toiling away in academia or in the back rooms of Wall Street. He owes his mother’s influence for that.

Stern’s mother didn’t change her schedule just because she was pregnant with him. She continued traveling weekly from the family home to the NYC theatre district for Wednesday afternoon matinees. Stern’s father jokes that Alan was listening from his in-utero perch and that’s how he came to love the theater. He did exhibit a penchant for the dramatic at an early age. He refused, at three years old, to go to his grandmother’s house unless he could take along the cast album of My Fair Lady.

You would expect, with his infantile exposure and continuing love of the theater throughout high school, where he collaborated on plays and scripts, that Stern would tread the boards one way or another. You would be mistaken.

When it came time to choose a college, he went for “the safe choice.” He entered Brown University on his uncle’s recommendation, majoring in math and minoring in English.

“I had a fantasy about writing for the theater when I was a kid,” says Stern. “But I didn’t have the courage to take that route. Even in college, math took precedence over English because I figured I could get a more stable job.”

After Brown, the twenty-two-year-old wasn’t ready to go to graduate school. Instead Stern took a job in NYC at an insurance company. The job was boring, but the city was on fire in the late 1970s. “If you were looking to get into trouble during those years,” says Stern, “you could easily find some.”

Stern had applied to, and been accepted by, a number of MBA programs during his senior year at Brown. All of which he deferred. After a year in insurance, he chose Harvard because his uncle advised him, “You get in there, you go.”

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“I wasn’t that interested in business, but figured I’d grow to like it,” says Stern, once again making what he thought was a safer bet for his future.

He found the first year at Harvard frustrating but the second year was more to his liking. The second year was more to his liking. After graduating, he joined a consulting firm in NYC, but his true passion had never dimmed. All the years he had been working and studying, Stern continued to go to the theater and movies as much as possible. He took classes in movie criticism and began to write.

Despite his powerhouse degree, Stern never did get excited about business. However, a chance encounter altered his direction. Just before he left Boston for a consulting gig in NYC, he met a writer, who encouraged him to pursue his genuine love. Eventually, he quit his well-paying-job-with-a-future and moved to Boston to become a freelance writer with very little chance of making a decent living. He’d found the courage of his passion.

Looking back, Stern says, “I wasn’t ready psychologically to be a writer when I graduated from high school and college. But after grad school and a year of working, I was ready to face that challenge. I think it’s one of the most important elements of this kind of big life change. Are you equipped emotionally for what it may entail?”

He got a part-time job reviewing movies at the Boston Phoenix, a legendary alt-publication. Despite being the second-string reviewer, it was a great first job. Then luck struck again. A random phone call came into the Phoenix offices from an editor at the Los Angeles Times. They’d just bought the Denver Post and wanted to energize the cultural reporting there. They were looking for a theater critic.

“Anyone interested?”

“It all happened very fast,” Stern says. He moved to Denver, during the ‘80s when Denver was being touted as the place to live.
“I’ve never been happier,” he says. “It was exciting, fun and new. I enjoyed the theater there and the community.” Stern gained a local and national reputation as a critic, but after seven years he found himself reviewing what seemed like the same plays over and over.

“I lost my passion,” he says regretfully. “I realized I could stay, but I’d be doing the same thing for the next 30 years.” He began thinking about what he would do next. One possibility was law. “I thought it sounded intriguing and maybe I could be an entertainment lawyer.” Without telling anyone, he took the LSATS. Another pivot was on the horizon

He was accepted to Stanford, among other schools. Again he was told, “if you get in there, you go.” Unlike business school, he found the legal material compelling, but he was aware of the age difference between himself and his classmates: He was thirty-seven when he started law school and forty when he graduated. “No one ever directly commented on my age,” Stern says, “and I never heard anything about it when I applied for jobs, but the age difference was there.”

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He didn’t find a job in entertainment law and says that he probably would have had a better chance if he’d gone to Los Angeles for school as he originally thought. He landed in Silicon Valley practicing intellectual property law and is now in mergers and acquisitions. “I’ve found the practice of law fascinating for 20 years,” says Stern, now 65. “It’s kept my attention for a long time.”

He acknowledges that his choices might startle some. “People were surprised when I left business and then when I left theater criticism for law. But my parents never hesitated to support me.” He doesn’t regret the years it took to find “his bliss.”

After all, he says, “Anything you learn is never in vain.”

Trading a Cubicle for a Chicken Coop

DBJ PhotoFive days a week when she was a banker Michelle Livingston put on the working woman’s uniform: a conservative suit with heels. In those years, she checked her messages first thing in the morning, got coffee, said hello to the staff and spent her time at a desk working on commercial real estate loans at a Denver bank. “I loved that job,” says the 38-year-old Denver native. “And it paid well.”

Now she puts on jeans and a t-shirt, goes out her back door to the barn and slides open the doors. Five hundred chickens stampede out to the fenced pasture and do what chickens do – wander around and eat.

“Yeah,” says Livingston, “people are still surprised at where we are, even after two years being up here.”

“Up here” is the western slope of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, on the twenty acres where she and her husband grow sunflowers and hay for chicken feed. They live in a mish-mash of a ’60s-style house once owned by a guy who farmed and sold marijuana before it was legal. “Apparently there are pictures of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead partying here,” says Livingston with a laugh.

So how did a city girl end up ankle deep in chicken sh..t? Second acts run in the family. Forty years ago, her divorced mom, Lynn Anderson left her own small Colorado hometown and moved to Denver with Michelle’s older sister, then a toddler. A single mother she worked as a letter carrier, met and married Michelle’s dad, Steve, also a postal worker. She recreated herself career-wise, starting at the lowest rung of a local bank. Anderson retired a few years ago as Senior Vice President at Wells Fargo bank. “She really is my role model,” says Livingston.

In one sense it was her mother who instigated Livingston’s pivot. In 2014, Anderson had gotten deathly ill with a mysterious autoimmune disease. The family was anticipating her death when she was admitted to an experimental treatment and against all odds survived.

“When you go through something like that,” says Livingston. “You start to reassess everything. My sister, mother, father and David and I were all soul-searching. Thinking about what we wanted in life.”

Once Livingston’s mom realized she had been given a second chance at life she and Michelle’s dad, remarried and moved not far from Michelle and David. Her sister, despite being on the fast track to becoming a general in the Air Force, retired and moved closer to the rest of the family, too. Time with loved ones had become more important than money.

However, despite starting a fulfilling job in 2008 at a nonprofit, Livingston was spent. “It was intense and intensive,” she recalls. “But it wasn’t leaving room in my life for the things that are most important to me,” says Livingston who left the nonprofit in 2015.

With her mother’s health crisis averted, Michelle and her husband had begun to consider careers and lives beyond the confines of a cubicle and desk. “I learned about careers from my mom, but it was my dad who gave me my love of the outdoors. David and I both wanted to find someplace closer to nature.” Driving around Colorado they came upon a farm. Michelle knew from growing up with a grandfather who farmed that 20-acres was doable. She wanted something where they could sustain themselves, but her ambition went beyond feeding her own family.

michelleThough she had never been much interested in food as a cause, she had begun to be interested in chickens even before the couple moved from Denver. They built a coop in their Denver backyard and Livingston, ever the researcher, learned about the horrors of factory farming. “I began to ask, could we make a living at this, fix the terrible system and teach others that this can be successful?”

This city girl had found her passion in chickens. “This world feels very hopeless, she says. “This is my way to fight that. There are methods to raise chickens humanely and still be viable financially. I can’t fix the world, but I’m doing something.” She not only became a farmer and, as she says, “a crazy chicken lady,” but an advocate for the humane treatment of animals and the environment.

Michelle and David Livingston are more involved than they ever had been with local politics and issues. She is intensely aware of the dangers of the proposed fracking not far from them. They plan to put their business plan up online, so anyone can see it, as well lessons they’ve learned along the way. “We want others to do this too,” says Livingston on founding Sunshine Mesa Farms in Hotchkiss, Colorado. “That is what really brings change.”

She makes sure that though she can sell her eggs for more money in Aspen, she also supplies the nearest town with her organic, farm-raised eggs and chicken meat.

Her eggs are unmistakable. Livingston works with an expert in chicken breeding who’s developed types of chickens who lay colored eggs and who remain healthier longer. The eggs come in watercolors of soft greens and blues. They go for $9 a dozen in Aspen and are always sold out. In the nearby towns, they’re sold out at about $5 a dozen. “I don’t make much locally, but it’s important that all of the food grown here doesn’t leave here for a pricier market.”

Having gone from banker and executive into her second act as chicken farmer, Livingston says, “I’ve never been happier. I’m really, really happy.”

Feature Photo by Barry Wetcher – © 2017 STX Financing, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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