Ready for a Reinvention?
I’ve often thought it presumptuous at least, a huge mistake at worst, to ask an 18 year old to lock herself into a college major and therefore a career path that will dictate the next five decades of her life. How can a teenager, or even a 20-something, truly know what she would enjoy spending up to a third of the rest of her life focused on, consumed by and striving toward? Especially when she has no idea how that career choice will fit in with the myriad other decisions she will have to make related to marriage, children and caring for her parents?
I recently turned 40 and have been mulling over this idea a lot. I’ve had many days when I felt stuck on a hamster wheel — running myself ragged but not really getting anywhere. Maybe it’s time to jump off the wheel? Find a new wheel? Figure out a new way to tread this old one?
I don’t have an answer to that yet. But I take a lot of inspiration from the fact that many women have rebooted their careers, igniting a second act that is either a perfect complement to the first or a complete diversion. After all, if Ina Garten can go from studying nuclear energy to creating a recipe that made me love brussel sprouts, I’m inspired to believe I can do anything.
Here’s more on Ina and seven other stunningly successful second acts.
In 1978, Ina Garten was a 30-year-old nuclear budget analyst at the White House. She was likely on a solid career path, but the glacial pace of Washington bureaucracy left her disenchanted with politics. She had an MBA and a love of cooking, but no professional chef or retail experience. Yet that did not stop her from making an offer to purchase a small food store in Westhampton Beach, N.Y. “I was sure it would be a one-summer thing,” Garten told The New York Times in 2007 of her ownership of The Barefoot Contessa. “I didn’t know how to hire people. I didn’t know how to slice smoked salmon; I didn’t know how to choose brie.”
She learned quickly, however, and her shop quickly became a favorite among locals, including Martha Stewart. In 1996 Garten sold the store to reinvent herself yet again — this time as a cookbook author. Since her first book, “The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook,” was published in 1999, she has gone on to publish seven more. She’s also become a small-street star, hosting the popular Barefoot Contessa on The Food Network.
After college, JK Rowling’s story is that of a listless 20-something. Starting in 1986, she spent a few years working as a researcher for Amnesty International in London. A year after her mother’s death in 1990, she left England for a job teaching English as a Second Language in Portugal, according to a New Yorker magazine profile. While there, she married and gave birth to her first child. The relationship did not last, however, and Rowling was left alone, poor and reliant on the help of family, friends and government welfare to make a life for her and her daughter.
She returned to England depressed and overwhelmed by her life as a single mother, but also with something else — the first chapters of a children’s book series to be called “Harry Potter.” While waiting to start a teacher-training course, which she believed would lead her to her next career, she finished “The Philosopher’s Stone” and submitted it to an agent. The book was published in 1997 and its success ensured that Rowling could leave the teaching life behind to focus on the literary one. She went on to publish the first four books in four years and to date the series has sold 450 million copies.
Sarah Palin started out her career as a sportscaster armed with a journalism degree from the University of Idaho. In 1988, Palin could be found giving play-by-plays on KTUU, Anchorage’s NBC affiliate.
Four years later, married and now a mother, Palin ran for and won a seat on her hometown city council in Wasilla, Alaska. In 1996, at age 32, she was elected mayor of Wasilla. She went on to become governor of Alaska and later the first female Republican vice-presidential pick.
Today she has redefined herself yet again, no longer holding public office but achieving prominence in her party as a best-selling author and a political commentator who has flirted with the idea of her own presidential run.
Comedienne Joy Behar was 40 years old before she mustered up the courage to walk into the career she says was her destiny. She was newly divorced, with an 11-year-old daughter to raise, when she quit her job as an English teacher and hit the New York City nightclub circuit.
"I tried to do stand-up at that point, 'cause I knew I was meant to do it. I just didn't have the guts to do it before that,” Behar told CBS News.
Behar went on to play prominent nightclubs and appear in TV and movies. In 1997 her big break came when she was asked to co-host “The View,” ABC’s daytime talk show. She left the host chair in spring 2013 and says, at 71, she plans to keep working in TV and on stage.
For Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), the path to politics was charted by tragedy. In 1993, her husband Dennis was shot and killed while commuting home from work. The couple’s son, Kevin, was also critically injured when a lone gunman opened fire on a crowded Long Island Railroad train.
Rep. McCarthy, who spent 30 years of her professional career as a nurse, now had a new mission. Her work as an anti-gun activist led to her being recruited to run for an open Congressional seat in her hometown of Mineola, N.Y. She was elected to office in 1996 and is currently serving her eighth term. She is credited with passage of the National Instant Criminal Background Check Database Improvement Amendments Act, which funds firearm background checks and helps keep guns out of the hands of those who are legally restricted from owning them.
Fresh out of college, Eileen Fisher headed to New York City with the plan to put her home economics degree to use as an interior designer. Her dream was quickly extinguished when she realized she lacked the communication skills needed to attract clients. She started waiting tables and later got a job doing graphic design. The job led to a business trip to Japan, which sparked an idea in Fisher.
“I saw the kimono,” Fisher told The New Yorker. “I saw it worn different ways. I saw all those little cotton kimonos and those kimono things they wear in the rice paddies and tie back and little flood pants. I was intrigued by the aesthetic of Japan.”
Fisher had never designed clothing before. She didn’t sew. She couldn’t even draw out her designs and instead described to a pattern maker what she wanted. She created four garments and brought them to a booth she rented at a boutique show. That first year she wrote $3,000 in orders. The next year, $40,000.
Today Eileen Fisher Inc. employs 900 people at 58 stores throughout the U.S, U.K. and Canada.
Long before she inspired a generation of toddlers to “Moo Baa La La La,” author Sandra Boynton revolutionized the greeting card industry. The characters made so famous by her books got their start as whimsical characters riffing on popular idioms and chocolate addiction while saying, “Happy Birthday.”
Boynton started designing greeting cards at age 21 and estimates she designed more than 6,000 greeting cards between 1975 and 1996. She wrote her first children’s book in 1977 as a project while she was a student at the Yale School of Drama, then her first children’s books hit the market in the early 1980s.
From there, Boynton moved from the literary world to the musical one. In 1995 she started writing and producing songs that have been recorded by Meryl Streep and Alison Krauss. Her album “Philadelphia Chickens” was nominated for a Grammy.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was 24 years old, teaching elementary school and the mother of a toddler when she decided it was time to switch gears and head to law school. After graduation (and a second baby) she decided to start practicing law from her living room.
Warren was eventually able to combine her two talents — teaching and the law — into a position at Harvard Law School. She has authored nine books including the mass market “All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan” and decidedly more wonky “Bankruptcy and Article 9 Statutory Supplement.”
Her work as a consumer advocate was noticed when she was asked in 2008 to chair the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Her work led to the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In 2012 she was elected to the Senate from her home state of Massachusetts.