You Can Reinvent Yourself
Case 1: The Lawyer
Flashback to 1969, It’s early in my career as a media and entertainment analyst. The Times Mirror Company had recently gone public and I had decided to write a report about the company. since nobody on Wall Street was following it as yet. I spent three months and a few visits to California in writing the biggest institutional report on the company published to that date. In the process, I met Martin Levin who ran the $200 million Times Mirror book group including a collection of a dozen book publishers with names you may remember such as New American Library, New English Library, Harry Abrams Art books and Southwestern Publishing which sold bibles door to door. Adjusted for forty years of inflation, just add another zero and that would be equivalent to managing a $2 billion business today. In the process, Levin and I became fast friends.
He belonged to the executive dining room at the Bankers Trust building on Park Avenue and would invite me to lunch periodically. It was there in 1980 that Levin, then 61, gave me some astonishing news. We were in the middle of lunch when he told me that I needed to hold onto my chair. He proceeded to explain that as a young man he had always wanted to go to law school. However, by the time he got out of the service he was already married to his beloved wife Marsha and they already had some kids. There was neither time nor money for Martin to pursue his dream so he made his way in the book business instead. Clearly, he had a very successful career doing that. Even so, he had decided to plan for his life after retirement from Times Mirror four years later. He had spoken to Bob Erburu, then CEO of Times Mirror. He had explained that he planned to go to law school at night while continuing to mange this $200 million business. Erburu, who had himself been a lawyer and Corporate Counsel at Times Mirror as his path to the executive suite, acquiesced.
How do you undertake law school at night when you are 61 and a globe trotting publishing exec? What Martin did was to develop an incredible plan. First he enrolled at New York Law School which had a night school program that was the most accommodating to his needs. Martin went to class the first night, introduced himself to his professors and explained that he would often be absent but that he would do all the required work, submit any assigned papers and would show up for the finals. He hired other students to tape record the lectures for him.
He didn’t slack off at work. He continued his heavy travel schedule and was omnipresent at the Moscow book fairs and those in London and other international capitals. All those long international flights enabled him to listen to the tapes, do his reading and other assignments.
I was told, as had his family and other friends, that he was going underground for the next three years. We just had to understand that he had no time for us and that his focus was on achieving this dream of his lifetime. When he reached retirement age, Times Mirror threw a wonderful party for him at New York’s Pierre Hotel facing Central Park. It was a very grand event and I was proud to be invited. Shortly thereafter, Martin sat for the New York Bar exam and passed.
That was just the cornerstone to his second career. Because he had worked so long and so hard in the book business, his industry network was large. Levin decided to focus his law practice on intellectual property and buying and selling media companies to each other. He recently passed a milestone 90th birthday and also celebrated his 25th anniversary as an attorney. He teaches at New York Law as he has for years and also in the summer has offered a publishing industry seminar for senior executives at Stamford University that recently posted its 22nd year. His mind is still sharp. Over the 25 years, he and his partner who practice at Cowan, Liebowitz, and Latman in New York City have completed 104 deals. Spread over the 25 years, that amounts to a deal per quarter, on average. I can think of a lot of Wall Street M&A firms that would give anything to have a record to match that one.
In a recent conversation, Martin assured me that turning 65 and tuning out on the world is a big mistake. Of course, the gift of good health is key to starting a new career after you’ve finished your first one. But the crucial concept here is that Levin circled back as it was time to retire to something he had always wanted to do. Life had intervened but his dream was still very much alive. Yes, he had more financial resources than most do to attain his goal. But, he cut himself no slack in obtaining the credentials he needed to become a lawyer. This is a profound example of “when there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Case 2: The Stewardess
Last fall, I was on a flight to Rochester, NY to have lunch with Antonio Perez, the CEO of Eastman Kodak, this time wearing my hat as a portfolio manager at Gramercy Capital Management Corp. The one thing I have learned from my long years as an analyst is to observe carefully and to listen, too. As I boarded my small Delta jet at JFK airport, I noticed that the flight attendant was my age…over 60. Wow! I thought. This is a far cry from a long haul route that the older “stews” usually vie for with their seniority rankings. Those with long careers work the system when they bid for flights so they can fly enough longer flights to quickly accumulate their requisite monthly hours and spend more time at home with their families. An hour flight to Rochester just wasn’t in that category. The gal also read the announcements from some “cue cards” that were laminated and hanging on an old fashioned key chain. After the flight was airborne and she had served the beverages, we started chatting. What, I asked, was she doing on this small commuter jet? The answer surprised me.
She explained that she had always wanted to be a stewardess. However, when she was a young woman, the airlines required parental approval for anyone under the age of 21. She went on to say she was from a large Italian family and her Dad was very strict. He absolutely said no to her airline idea and that was the end of that. She continued on with college and became a school teacher. I surmise that she retired at 55 having had enough of the classroom. Her next job was at a call center which is amazing enough. I thought they had all been moved to some other country where the people speak some form of English that none of us can understand when we need help and want to speak with a human for technical assistance.
Detesting going to work at the call center, this gal had written a letter to Delta some months before. She told them that she had always wanted to be a stewardess and wondered if they would consider a “mature” woman who still wanted to live her dream. In the return mail she got an invitation to their next new class. When I met her, she had been flying about 3 months from the New York hub. She was about to be transferred to Cincinnati. I’m a Buckeye and think one of the best things you can say about Ohio is that you were born there. Or, to put it another way, “it’s a nice place to visit” but my sinuses and I would prefer to live elsewhere. I asked how she felt about that and she told me that she was from southern Ohio and thought it was great. She said the flight crews were terrific to her and she was having the time of her life living her dream. Now when she wasn’t flying, she would be at home near her family.
Case 3: The Gal who Loved to Sew
Here’s another case. I became a grandmother in 2007. I wanted to give my daughter something fun at her baby shower. We knew she was having a boy but both parents refused to reveal any clues about possible names. When my daughter was born, I received a lot of beautiful clothes for her as baby gifts. I quickly learned that bibs were the secret to keeping these lovely little garments from getting stained. I decided that bibs were the perfect gift. I went online from a Las Vegas hotel room where I was attending a cable convention and searched the web for baby bibs. I found a wonderful site with a wide choice of bibs you could personalize. I’m a sailor so I picked a pattern with a sailboat and sun on it and added the text “Grandma’s Little Mate.”
My daughter had planned to put the baby to bed early. (She soon got over that when she realized she wouldn’t see him much that way since she, too, works long days.) As an always working Mom, I had the baby sitter put my daughter in for a nap at 4 so when I got home from work at 6, she was just waking up, fresh as a daisy. Then we got to enjoy her until 10, or whenever she chose to sign off for the night. I ordered another bib that said: “I’m staying up late at Grandma Joan’s!” As I was emailing back and forth to this entrepreneur in Oklahoma, we decided it would be easier to just speak. When I called her, Mary John explained that she had always made bibs for friends or others as baby gifts. Once she stopped working, this pastime burgeoned into a full time job. When I spoke with her, she was employing several other people. She proudly told me she had made her way to a high ranking in her category in searches through clever use of the internet. She told me she had a ton of customers in NYC. Almost everybody was so happy with what she made for them that they ordered more bibs, again and again. What she sold me was of such good quality that the bibs are still usable; long after my grandson will wear them, just as she promised they would. I’ve bought more this year for other babies and urged her to raise her prices which are way too low for the quality of what she sells.
These are just three examples of people who had led vastly different lives with first career success. The jobs paid the bills so they kept doing them, but it never stopped being just a job. It wasn’t what they really wanted to do. The first two never gave up their dreams. The gal in Oklahoma turned a hobby into a new business that has grown far beyond her own ability to fill the orders herself. Years later they each circled back to what circumstances or events prevented them from doing earlier on and found success.
What have you always wanted to do? Do you have a secret dream you would like to pursue? JoanLappin.com wants to hear from you. Each week we will publish 3 similar success stories of people just like you who have reinvented themselves for their later years. It may be a second career or a third career. You may have initiated the change yourself or lost your job and been forced to figure out a new way to support yourself or your family. It might be starting a business of your own or just having the gumption to ask an airline to give you a job they used to give only to 20 somethings. If you or someone you know has a similarly inspiring story to share with us and our readers, please go to http://www.joanlappin.com/tell-us-your-story.
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