Don, one of my friends in high school, wanted to be a magician. Actually, “wanted” is too weak; he insisted on being a magician, and he stood out because he knew what he wanted. Magic was his life. He did tricks in study hall, in the gym, in the cafeteria. His locker was stuffed with props he used in the act that he was building. One of my most persistent high school memories is of Don threading his way down a crowded hallway while practicing coin tricks, plucking nickels and dimes from the ears of astonished cheerleaders.
I lost track of Don after high school, but 10 years later I saw him at the state fair, performing before a crowd of several hundred amused adults and fascinated children. His audience saw a talented, polished master of illusion; I saw a man who had held fast to his early dreams, following his private polestar until it led him to himself.
Don found his work early in life, but for every person like him, another – perhaps several others – must take a longer, more roundabout way to the work they need to do. College students laugh about majoring in “prelife,” marking time by taking courses until they decide on a career. On campus it’s a good joke, but the unfunny truth is that many of us remain prelife majors long after we’ve written our last term paper. For one good reason or another-or for no real reason at all-we drift into jobs that pay the bills and offer some security, if nothing else. Maybe it’s because our fathers did that kind of work or because we know they would never have done it. The job may yield little more than stress or boredom, but at least it’s familiar stress and boredom. The possibility of change is out there, but a job has a way of becoming its own rationale. Next year, we tell ourselves. If I don’t get that promotion, or whatever.
But some people get tired of putting off their lives. They decide to try something new. They may not know exactly where they’re going, but they know where they’ve been, and that’s enough. As John Updike put it: “We sleep eight hours and work eight hours. If we’re doing work we like, we’re two-thirds golden.” The problem, of course, lies in finding the work we like and finding the courage to do it, regardless of risks.
On these pages, meet some people who took that big step into a new career. For them, the gamble paid off in the best possible way: They like what they do.
TULLY WEISS has done it all. After dropping out of Highland Park High School at age 16 to play keyboards in rhythm and blues bands, he worked as a real estate broker and as a teller at Dallas Federal Savings and Loan. “I was searching-looking for a challenge,” Weiss says, “but banking wasn’t for me.”
Later, Weiss did an apprenticeship with Vidal Sassoon in New York before returning to Dallas to open his own styling salon, Tully’s, in NorthPark. But the challenge still was not there. Eventually, Weiss went to work with one of the largest landscape illuminators in the country. He had signed a noncompetitive agreement promising not to work in outdoor lighting for three years if he left the company. When he left seeking more money, his ex-employer gained a court injunction barring him from the field.
“I went into a deep depression,” Weiss says. After that, he picked himself up and went into indoor lighting, which, at the time, was a much less lucrative field. “People understand outdoor lighting for security reasons,” he says. “Indoors, people seem satisfied with just enough light to see.”
At 31, Weiss is an acknowledged leader in interior lighting for the home. His low-intensity lasers and fiber-optic lighting create dozens of different moods for contemplation, entertainment and anything else. He doesn’t call himself a pioneer but says he’s about to “break through” with his current project. He’s installing what may be the world’s largest residential laser-lighting system in a North Dallas house.
“With life as it is today,” Weiss says, “people need to be able to go into their homes and forget their pressures.”
In addition to a busy schedule of volunteer work for the Dallas Opera, Goals for Dallas and the Junior League, PAULA LAMBERT worked with her husband’s landscaping firm, Lambert Environmental, as secretary-treasurer until recently, when she and two partners opened the Mozzarella Company. The idea for the wholesale and retail business, which produces and sells fresh cheeses to restaurants and gourmet shops, came from a friend Lambert was visiting in Italy several years ago.
“I just love it,” Lambert says of her new career. “Making the cheese is not just a science, it’s an art. I also like the contact with the purchasers-the public relations aspect. And I get vicarious pleasure out of going to the different kitchens around town and getting to know the chefs.”
ZACK MILLER insists that he’s not a typical victim of teacher burnout. “My last year of teaching was my best and most enjoyable,” he says. “I quit simply because I couldn’t afford to do it any longer.”
After five years of teaching high school and college English, Miller left education for Research Institute, where he sells tax services to CPAs, lawyers and controllers. He had his fears about the change, but they subsided when he tripled his teacher’s salary during his first year in sales.
“I do miss some things about teaching,” Miller says, “like the emotional challenges, the intellectual discipline and the summer break. But I certainly don’t miss the subsistence wages.”
Miller admits to some frustrations with sales, particularly when he works with a client for weeks without closing a deal. He doesn’t regret his job change and hopes to serve as an example for other teachers.
“Most teachers have extremely low self-esteem about their chances of making good in another occupation,” he says. “But if you can get up every morning and face 35 kids at 8:30, you won’t have any trouble in the business sector.”
“I wanted to be a teacher,” says KURT HOUSE, 36. “I thought that increasing the knowledge of young people about the world was a worthy goal.” So House spent seven years in SMU’s master’s and doctoral programs in anthropology. But while he was in his late 20s, he grew disillusioned with what he saw as the “unrealistic” and abstract nature of the academic world.
“I felt a need to create something, to physically accomplish things with my hands,” House says. “Graduate school is all mental. And even after finishing my degrees, I could see myself sitting in an armchair tossing around four-dollar words all my life.”
During a period of re-examining his values, House went into the antique business – a field he doesn’t consider a complete break from anthropology. “After all,” he says, “antiques are cultural remains that have not yet become artifacts.” When House opened his store, called The Fan Man, antique fans were only part of his business; now, repairing and selling old fans is his specialty.
House enjoys his work but admits he’s not the world’s best businessman. “Guys come in with these weird projects that turn me on,” he says. “If I’m interested, I just don’t look at the bottom line. But I know I’m in the right business because of the feeling I get when I resurrect an old, discarded fan. I make it look absolutely beautiful – and it works.”
When CHARLES TUTTLE went to college during the late Fifties, engineering was in a growth cycle. Tuttle says he had “no great desire” to be an engineer, but he got married while he was still in school and saw petroleum engineering as a quick route to a dependable profession.
After graduation, Tuttle accepted an offer from Sun Oil and stayed with the company for seven years. “It was fairly interesting work,” he says, “but I never really felt natural as an engineer. Some people are just meant to do certain things, and some aren’t.”
While still with Sun Oil, Tuttle “got tired of watching television at night” and toyed with the idea of changing professions. He took the law school entrance exams, did well and enrolled as a night student in the SMU Law School. After working 40-plus hours a week at Sun Oil and studying law at night for five years, Tuttle paid the price for his ambition.
“It was like having a second wife,” says Tuttle, now 43. “I was scared I wasn’t going to make it, so I probably worked harder than I had to.” His efforts paid off when he was named to the law review and graduated in the top 10 percent of his class.
Today, Tuttle – of Tuttle, Sheehan and Young – is happy he took the risk of changing jobs. “It’s a real trauma,” he says, “but I’m much less security-conscious now than I was when I was younger. I’m really enjoying my practice – but that’s not to say I might not enjoy something else more.”
When DAN BOYLES sold computer time-sharing and software with McDonnell-Douglas Automation and Management Science of America, his salary started in the $40s and went up – often way up – from there. But the job demanded long hours and caused considerable stress. Boyles had heavy competition from rivals eager to criticize him and his products. “There was lots of mudslinging, lots of divorce and ulcers,” Boyles says. “Most salespeople are like yo-yos. Either you have a really good week or it’s the pits.”
With the stress building, Boyles began self-hypnosis to help him cope with tension and help increase his efficiency on the job. The results were quick and startling.
Boyles coupled his new interest in hypnosis with a longstanding desire to start his own business. After attending the Hypnosis Training Institute of Los Angeles for a year, he was certified as a hypnotherapist.
“My day is spent trying to help others relax,” Boyles says. “It’s like osmosis. You can’t do this kind of work without relaxing yourself.” And, though his salary doesn’t match the money he made from sales, his new work has other rewards. “I like helping people see that they can change themselves,” he says. “In business, it’s so black and white. You’re dealing with a product and you tend to lose the personal side.
“Anyone who decides to go it on their own has some anxiety,” Boyles says. “But I did a lot of soul-searching before I made the switch. I’d rather get out there and try – make the effort – than wonder about what might have happened.”
During the mid-Seventies, JERRY NELSON was an administrator at Texas Lutheran College in Seguin. His development office was responsibile for garnering almost $2 million in donations each year for the college. He was good at his work, but something was missing. “I’d always wanted to act professionally,” Nelson says. “I wanted to get paid for what I’d been dishing out to my family and friends for free.”
Nelson says that “male menopause” set in on him somewhat prematurely at age 30, when he quit his job to return to Dallas. He signed with an agent and “proceeded to go broke.”
But when his first audition came, Nelson was ready. He got his Actors Equity union card and spent the next six weeks in Houston, playing opposite June Wilkinson in what he calls “the worst piece of theatrical garbage ever mounted on stage in an English-speaking country.” But it was a start.
“I haven’t worked in almost four years,” Nelson says. “I don’t consider what I’m doing as work. To me, it’s fun – even the early calls to be on a set to hawk a product I’ve never heard of for 10 or 20 hours straight.”
Nelson can be seen on local TV and in print media selling everything from pizzas to computers, but the stage is his first love. He recently completed a six-week run at Granny’s Dinner Theatre, co-starring with Joe Namath in The Rainmaker.