Some Professionals Find a Second Chance in a New Career

At age 35, Paul Gauguin was working in a bank.

A year later, he chucked that job, along with his wife, his children and his prosperous but predictable Parisian existence for a tumultuous life as an artist in southern France and then Tahiti. It was a life he later described as “ecstasy, peace and for art . . . far from the European struggle for money.”

Most people who start second careers stay closer to their first vocations. A few, though, let passion, more than practicality, guide their choice. A yearning to express an unexplored ambition strikes them midway through life, propelling them in a radically new direction. The stakes are high, requiring a willingness to risk failure and disappointment and to sacrifice financial stability. But the rewards can be great and lasting. Work becomes a calling which, when pursued, feels like falling in love.

“These are people who are willing to play the fool, to leap off the edge of a cliff and know that even if they break their pelvis, they’ll mend,” says Cathleen Rountree, an artist, teacher and author of “On Women Turning 50: Celebrating Mid-Life Discoveries.” “And if they really have a passion for what they’re pursuing — and the discipline to develop it — they find themselves so much more present in the world.”

What follows are profiles of three people who found passionate ways to start over in their 50s.

The Writer

Before she quit her job in college administration to try earning a living as a fiction writer, Claire Braz-Valentine says she felt like “a small fish in a tiny bowl, about to jump into the ocean. I kept praying that the tide would be in.”

She had spent 15 years raising three sons on her own, working as a secretary at the University of California, Santa Cruz, because it was close to home, and eventually advancing to the top administrative post in the literature department, with a staff of 12 and a big budget. At lunchtime, she often rushed home to start dinner in a crock pot.

What energy she had left went into writing, usually late at night. She recalls her oldest son “coming to tell me once that he couldn’t sleep because he couldn’t hear my typewriter. He asked if I’d type for just half an hour. That clattering sound was my kids’ lullabies.”

Although she published some short stories, poems and two plays that were produced off-Broadway in New York, the strain of blending motherhood, a full-time job and writing took its toll. She had spinal surgery three times in five years.

Five years ago, her youngest son graduated from college, and her employer lowered its early-retirement age to 50, her age at the time. Her “love of danger” surfaced.

“I knew if I stayed on as an administrator, I’d get used to the money I didn’t need for my sons anymore,” she says. “I’d buy the new car and nice clothes I never had, take the vacations, and I’d never live my dream of being a full-time writer.” She immediately typed letters of resignation and hand-delivered them to her supervisors.

At first, the free time terrified her: “I’d report to the computer and sit there and say to myself, ‘No wonder I worked, I have nothing to say.’ ” It took almost a year before she began relishing the freedom to spend an entire morning writing, an afternoon reading.

She also had to adjust to living on half of her prior income. She says each month is still a “patch job of creative financing” as she pays what bills she can. Having grown up poor, she feels anxious when she sees empty kitchen cupboard space, “but I haven’t starved yet,” she says.

Moreover, she has found a new passion that enriches her work — teaching writing to prison inmates. The first time she faced 12 male inmates at Soledad State Penitentiary in California, many of them lifers for such crimes as rape and murder, she felt frightened, she says, “not that they’d hurt me, but that they’d see my fear.” But she also conveyed her respect and high expectations: “We are writers here, nothing else matters.”

With women prisoners, she has written a script titled “Women Behind Bars” that portrays the stormy but close relationships between white and black inmates, their children and prison authorities. “It rewards me so deeply to bring art to prisons, to get people there to tell their truths, often for the first time in their lives,” she says.

As for the past five years of her own life, she thinks that “if it all falls apart tomorrow, it will have been worth it.”

The Dancer

Thomas Dwyer, a wiry 59-year-old weighing in at 128 pounds, needs all the strength he can muster in his work — as a modern dancer. Approaching center stage, he gracefully lifts onto his back a fellow dancer who is 30 years younger and 20 pounds heavier.

“I’m not an athlete and don’t have innate talent for this,” says Mr. Dwyer, who has had difficulty explaining to his wife and children his unlikely second career. “The applause after a performance means nothing to me. I do this because I found myself here.”

Modern dance isn’t something Mr. Dwyer grew up dreaming or even thinking about. After a stint in the Navy, he spent more than 20 years working for the Department of Defense. “I was never even a social dancer,” he says. Indeed, not until he was 53 and had left his government job did he discover his dancing passion, almost by accident.

His older brother danced with a Washington, D.C., senior-citizens group, Dancers of the Third Age, and invited him to a performance at an inner-city elementary school. He was entranced by the students, who seemed delighted to see grandmothers and grandfathers on stage, leaping and moving in ways older people aren’t expected to.

Soon after, he met choreographer Liz Lerman, who in addition to working with senior citizens leads a professional company that has blasted stereotypes about who should be on stage. Dancers in the company range in age from 24 to 71. “Liz helped me find a side of myself I never knew existed,” says Mr. Dwyer.

He has been a member of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange for the past six years, spending 11 months of the year performing around the country or in rehearsals. To maintain his strength, he sticks to a rigorous daily exercise regime. “It’s more complicated for me than younger dancers,” he says. “But I won’t ever let go of a dancer no matter what the struggle is for me to hold them.” And there’s pride in “showing it’s possible for men my age to do this.”

Most rewarding, he has discovered that through dance he can share his deepest emotions. Much of the company’s repertoire is based on its members’ life stories. “Liz reached inside of the Tom Dwyer that was so afraid of exposing himself,” he says.

He, in turn, has helped others find themselves through movement, especially at nursing homes where the company holds workshops. “Whether they’ve got Alzheimer’s disease or are in wheelchairs, I urge them to struggle, to feel useful and love themselves,” he says. “If they can only move one hand, I tell them they can’t let that hand wither.”

The Child-Care Specialist

John Surr feels a surge of pleasure when he walks through the door of Karasik Childcare Center in Silver Springs, Maryland, and is greeted with a big hug by two-year-old Julie. Within minutes, he’s sitting on the floor surrounded by preschoolers, building blocks and singing songs.

It’s a world apart from the sedate, oak-paneled offices of the International Monetary Fund in Washington, where Mr. Surr spent 24 years as an attorney. “I started out a very ambitious, industrious lawyer type with my nose to the grindstone,” he says.

But halfway through his career at the IMF, Mr. Surr began admitting to himself that being a lawyer, even in the dynamic realm of international finance, didn’t make him happy. “I was leading a workaholic life, in an institution where the exclusive preoccupation was money, ” he says. “And then I began growing in a very different way becoming much more people-centered.”

It took him more than a decade to do something about it. He felt constrained by the need to support his family. So at first he tried to change the way he handled his law career. Instead of working 12-hour days, he left the office at 5:30 to spend more time with his three daughters. He became a shareholder-rights activist in a few companies in which he owned stock. And he tried to “do consciousness raising” about his new values with co-workers — but no one was “terribly interested,” he says. “Increasingly, I felt marginal. I wasn’t at the center of projects anymore, and a lot of my colleagues didn’t understand why I wasn’t operating by the same assumptions they’d always operated by.”

After turning 50, he began taking courses in early-childhood development. “Everything pointed me there,” he says. “I enjoyed being with children, and child care was a place where I felt I could build something I liked about the world, instead of harming the human fabric or repairing the damage.” When an early-retirement package became available in 1991, Mr. Surr, then 53, grabbed it, certain he would quickly land a child-care job.

It wasn’t that easy, “being an older man with no experience” in a profession where men are somewhat suspect. And when he did find a job, there was “a sobering moment, realizing it wasn’t all fun,” he says. He didn’t enjoy developing curricula or disciplining children.

In the past year, he has found his niche, working three afternoons a week in a center for children with emotional or physical difficulties. A head teacher plans curricula, while he gets to “to play and listen and be with the kids.” He spends the rest of his work time as a child-care advocate, on the boards of groups like the Children’s Foundation and the Maryland Association for the Education of Young Children.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) is a large nonprofit association in the United States representing early childhood educationteachers, para-educators, center directors, trainers, college educators, families of young children, policy makers, and advocates. NAEYC is focused on improving the well-being of young children, with particular emphasis on the quality of educational and developmental services for children from birth through age 8.

NAEYC encourages its supporters to be informed of current issues and legislation that affect the lives of young children. At the NAEYC Children’s Champions Action Center, individuals can find information about the federal legislative process, learn how to contact members of Congress, and see the daily agenda for the House and the Senate

NAEYC believes that our nation is at a crossroads. An integrated system of early childhood care and education that includes comprehensive approaches that directly involve families and communities in program design, implementation, and evaluation must be developed. NAEYC believes Americans can invest now in our children and families and enjoy long-term savings, with a more vibrant nation of healthy, achieving children and more stable families. Or, they can fail to make the investment and pay the price: increased delinquency, greater educational failures, lowered productivity, less economic competitiveness, and fewer adults prepared to be effective, loving parents to the next generation of children.

Federal, state and local government, communities, parents, and the private sector must share in the responsibility of ensuring the well-being of children and families.

“I wanted to do something that was fun and also helpful,” he says. “I’ve been blessed to find this work.”


By Carol Hymowitz

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