When Jim Stevens looks at something, he can take in only one detail at a time. If he looks closely, he can see a person's eye. To look at the eyebrow above it, he has to tilt his face up slightly.
The two degrees of vision he still has are the last vestige of sight he lost 20 years after he was shot in the head while serving as a young sargeant in Vietnam. At the time, doctors got most of the bullet fragments out and declared the two that were left behind probably benign. They were wrong. Mid-career as a professor at the University of Colorado, a bit of shrapnel caused a stroke in his visual cortex, leaving him with just a sliver of sight.
When the Wheat Ridge, Colo., man stopped being angry, he counted losses: His job, his marriage, his sense of who he was.
But when it comes to reinventing oneself, here's an odd fact, found repeatedly in the stories of those who have done it: Dreams trump limitations. That's how Stevens, with just that pinpoint of vision, became a noted scrimshaw artist with gallery showings and worldwide commissions, as well as three successful books on his craft. He is a master scrimshander, stippling thousands of tiny holes on fossil ivory to create intricate pictures and scenes.
Reinventing yourself is about more than just changing jobs. For many, career dissatisfaction is the yearning that gets the process going. But in a recession when it seems likely the need for change would be prompted by job loss, it's actually a yearning for something new that job coaches say they're finding more often.
"I've never seen anything like it before and my colleagues report the same thing. People seem to have less and less tolerance for doing what they don't love. I see an exodus from the traditional and expected into a quest for the dream life," says Jeannette Maw of Good Vibe Coaching in Salt Lake City. Where a previous generation went to work for a company and stayed there 30 years if they were lucky, a new generation is much more likely to put personal satistfaction ahead of security, she says.
And for some, unexpected career news kicks off the pursuit of a long-held wish. Maw recently worked with a client who had been laid off without warning, not long after he'd moved across country to take an IT job. "When they called him in and gave him the news, he said he had to suppress the urge to start laughing and run out before they changed their mind and asked him to stay. He always wanted to live in Hawaii; now he's making a serious plan to do that."
How many people change career directions in middle age is a numerical mystery. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has never attempted to estimate the number of times people change careers in the course of their working lives. The agency admits it can't decide "what constitutes a career change."
It's a process for which most people find they're largely on their own. Typical job-seeking tools, like resumes and past experience, are largely useless when you're trying to become something different. A recruiter is great for helping find a new job, but not for a radical career change. "They're looking to screen people out, not screen people in," Howard Seidel with the career management firm Essex Partners in Boston told Forbes.com.
Steven Silberberg, of Hull, Mass., MIT grad and software expert, changed courses after what had been 15 mostly happy years at one job. His company had changed and he gradually came to feel like "I wanted to stick an ice pick in my forehead" instead of going to work. He used his savings to launch a company he calls "Fatpacking" that offers outdoor adventure vacations that help people get in shape. Mostly he loves it, though sometimes in social settings with friends who have thrived the corporate way, he feels a small yearning for his old life.
A new skill set
Roberta Mittman always planned to reinvent herself at midlife. She just wanted to have a family first and stay home with the kids. When her youngest was in ninth grade and Mittman was 42, she headed back to school. She wanted to be an acupuncturist, but to get there she had to revisit some decisions she made the first time she went to college.
Back then, she'd congratulated herself on sidestepping what she considered boring math and science classes. It turns out she needed them to be accepted to study for a master's in acupuncture. So off she went to conquer biology, anatomy, physiology and lab work. It took her almost two years, but she is now board-certified and has a thriving practice in a New York City office she shares with an endocrinologist.
If you choose to try something really new, be prepared to be surprised, several who had done just that warned. Be open to what comes along — and it may be totally unexpected.
Stever Robbins of Cambridge, Mass., was a self-employed executive coach who loathed the marketing he spent 90 percent of his time on to help his business succeed. He decided to hire himself to do something different and lived on his retirement savings while he experimented for three years with finding joy. All the while, he paid himself his usual salary.
It's a scary thing, he says, to liquidate your retirement at age 46 to see what you want to be when you grow up. He had the money saved because he'd always been a careful, even uptight planner. The irony didn't escape him. But he wanted to see "if I could find my perfect 10 passion." He had no idea what it might be.
He started a "stuffy" business podcast, then figured out how to liven it up and got picked up by the "Grammar Girl" online channel. For a while, he was tops in the business category on iTunes. He also landed a book contract. Turns out, he laughs, it's harder to write a book than you might think.
Next up, he followed opportunity to help an old friend who'd just been named a college president, serving as a paid consultant in a job that taught him about starting businesses. With new colleagues, he created an online social media game to help unemployed people stay motivated. Then his real passion appeared: He discovered he loved musical theater more than anything. Playing a "singing, dancing zombie" in a local production turned out to be a 20 on a scale of 1 to 10. So he and a friend wrote a musical based on his business book, his goal to make it "so interesting people would want to take notes and so dramatic people would want to cry." He'd never have predicted pursuing theater.
These days, experiment over, he is half in, half out of his pursuit of joy, going back to the parts of coaching he loved, while reinventing the rest of it, he says. That midlife reinvention has forever changed how he lives.
Thinking of others
Nancy Irwin's path was more direct. The Los Angeles woman, now 56, was a professional comedian who had too much free time, so she started volunteering in the community. When your product is you, she says, you get narcissistic. Her perspective changed dramatically when she started working with kids whose own lives were so stark they'd surrendered to drugs or tried to kill themselves.
At 44, she went back to California Southern University to become a psychologist and certified hypnotherapist. Her advice is to "bless where you are because you have no idea how it can serve you in the future."
All skills are transferrable, she notes, like her use of humor with clients or when she's speaking in public.
When Sam Russell worked full-time as a celebrity stylist, he made a lot of money. These days, he sometimes get "paid" in smiles. He donates wardrobes to women in crisis, prompted by the years when, as a stylist, he was given lots of clothing and other items. He now solicits the gifts and gives them away, finding recipients through nonprofits and friends. He recently helped a single mother of five who hopes to go to law school witha makeover that includes not only clothes, but a boost in her self-confidence. He hopes to turn his passion for giving into a reality show so he can help more women.
A terrible loss
Jarring circumstances sometimes change a person's path. Jan deChambrier's reinvention was prompted by searing loss. The Houston woman had been trained "almost from the cradle" as a concert pianist and did national tours before she joined the faculty at Rice University as a teacher of opera studies.
She had years before survived endometrial cancer and loss of twins with whom she was pregnant. Where tragedy drives some from God, she and her pilot husband, Philippe, ran toward faith, leaning on God, she says. They adopted a son, Paul.
Years later, she nearly died from gangrene in the old cancer scars. And she told God that she would like to live, if He didn't mind. She tried to tackle her survival with a sense of purpose that took a radical turn in 2005 when she was asked by her pastor to accompany a well-known Christian counselor and speaker who was undergoing cancer treatment to a nearby hospital. She and Carrie Oliver became good friends, and talked about co-authoring a book about walking through cancer as Christians.
When Carrie died, instead of parking the dream, de Chambrier pursued it with the blessing of Carrie's husband, who gave her the right to use his wife's extensive online journal. She finished the book, "Glimpses: Two Stories of Hope and Healing."
Now she and her husband go on international missions and mentor young people worldwide. She's trained as a hospital chaplain and writes and speaks about faith. At 59, she says, she's not doing anything she set out to do.
And it's everything she ever wanted.
As for Jim Stevens, the scrimshaw artist, the reinvention came in stages, at the hands of one of his daughters, who suggested he should try karate. His daughters lived with him after the divorce and he'd enrolled one in karate to help bridge some tough adjustments. Since it was helping her sister and her dad was pretty hard to live with after he became blind, "maybe it will be good for you, too," Megghan, then 11, said.
The sensei told him one day, "Your daughters said you used to be a pretty good artist. Art teaches art. You're learning an art here. Why don't you take it home and see what it can do?"
When he went blind, enraged, he'd taken a ball bat to his studio, where scrimshaw was just a hobby, so first he'd have to clean it up. Next, he spent two years figuring out how he was going to be able to do scrimshaw again. His sliver of sight, it turned out, was enough, if he was willing to do things very differently. He relied heavily on "the Shephard's Prayer" — astronaut Alan Shephard, that is. "Dear Lord, please don't let us screw this up."
And then he got busy making his do-over his own.