Stevens family photo, Irwin Family Photo
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
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