Books: July-August 2010

August 1, 2010

What's Next: Follow Your Passions and Find your Dream Job

by Kerry Hannon '82
Chronicle Books, 2010. 288 pages. $22.95.

Conventional wisdom says that when the economy is in recession and unemployment is high, people are more likely to hunker down than to change jobs. But an increasing number of older workers are bucking the trend, often giving up lucrative, but unfulfilling, careers to follow their passion.

The national business media, from Fortune to Bloomberg Businessweek, have become fascinated with these renegades from traditional careers and corporate America, devoting regular columns to telling their stories and referring to their new careers as "second acts." Kerry Hannon has followed this trend for more than three years, writing a regular feature in U.S. News & World Report about those who make dramatic career moves. In What's Next, she gathers and expands on these stories, adding tips and resources for those who want to get started on their own second act.

What's Next is a book that encourages career voyeurism. For many, the idea of throwing in the towel as a tenured professor, for example, and starting a chocolate company is the stuff of fantasy, yet it makes for fascinating reading. Hannon follows each short profile with a probing interview, asking questions about surprises, finances, and the kind of preparation that helped the person succeed. The answers are unlikely to persuade anyone to become a chocolatier, but that's not the point. Hannon's intent is to inspire her readers to visualize doing what they really love, while helping them figure out what it will take to get there.

The reasons for a second act are many and complicated. Some of those profiled, like Ken Rynne, a lawyer turned political satirist, are finally giving themselves permission to turn a lifelong interest like music into a career. Others felt compelled to take action because of a major event in their lives, with 9/11 and the collapse of the World Trade Center causing several to re-evaluate what was important in their lives. For Donald Covington '66, mandatory retirement from the Navy was the catalyst for pursuing his lifelong interest, the circus.

Hannon chooses as her subjects interesting people who have made dramatic changes, and she writes about them in a compelling way. Yet one wonders if her stories are truly representative of those who have second acts. The majority of experienced workers will likely gravitate toward choices that are closer to their current career, often choosing to consult in an area in which they are expert. Lowering risk and ensuring a financial safety net will almost always be key considerations.

What's Next would have benefited from additional stories of people who took their existing knowledge and skills and applied them in different ways—perhaps going from a for-profit company to a nonprofit. Organizations like the Peace Corps actively seek older employees who want to make a difference—particularly those with skills in business, health care, or teaching. The book has a tip section on the Peace Corps, but includes no story of an older volunteer.

Important notes of caution can be found in the section "Key Things to Contemplate Before Making a Major Career Change." Hannon advises would-be entrepreneurs to consider carefully whether they enjoy selling themselves and their services, highlights the need to be willing to change, and advocates learning how to handle mistakes gracefully.

The book offers a wide range of tips and resources to those interested in changing career directions, providing information on everything from fundraising to franchising. Internet resources are interspersed throughout the book; there is also an appendix of topic-based websites, where resources are listed on subjects such as social entrepreneurship and volunteering. Finding the information will not be easy, however, as What's Next has no topical index. Without reading each story, it is difficult to determine where you could easily discover, for example, how to find a "vocation vacation."

Hannon is recognized as one of the best and most experienced personal-finance writers in the country. Her website demonstrates that she also understands what it takes to change the direction of your career effectively. So it is curious that in What's Next she chooses to take verbatim the advice of a transitions expert and a career coach, rather than sharing her own perspective teased from multiple experts.

Still, What's Next is an engaging and well-written book. Through its stories, and the advice of those who have already taken the plunge, Baby Boomers will find multiple paths to their own second acts.

—Sheila Curran

Curran is president of Curran Career Consulting, former Fannie Mitchell Executive Director of the Duke Career Center, and program director of Catapult Advising.

Noah's Compass

by Anne Tyler '61
Random House, 2010. 288 pages. $25.95.

Those of us with literary aspirations at Duke heard early of Anne Tyler. Reynolds Price '55 sometimes discussed his former student, who at sixteen was not only astonishingly gifted but had enrolled in the first class Price ever taught, in 1958. "I thought the students were all going to be like that!" he said. Years later in a different class, Price read aloud for us a story Tyler had written as a sophomore, "The Saints in Caesar's Household." Although Tyler seldom publishes short fiction, it's an extraordinary story about a girl who returns home to see a childhood friend who has suffered a mental breakdown.

Hearing it read in Price's rich baritone added gravitas, not that any was needed. Yet our reaction was conflicted. On the one hand, Tyler was a Duke student, like us, and had composed a magnificent story here. Perhaps we could do the same. Yet equally strong was the feeling: I'll never write like that—it's time to give up writing and turn to accounting or banking. For several decades now, Tyler has figured as both a major American novelist and one of Duke's presiding literary spirits, hovering over and inspiring a generation of student writers.

Whereas the young Tyler, fresh from Raleigh's Broughton High, is woven into the literary mythos of Duke, it is the mature Tyler, with eighteen novels to her name, who gives us Noah's Compass, a tale of late adulthood. Liam Pennywell is a self-effacing, unreflective, and somewhat defeated sixty-one-year-old who is entering "the final stage, the summing-up stage" of his life. Recently dismissed as a "fifth-grade teacher in a second-rate private boys' school," Liam moves to a smaller, cheaper apartment on the outskirts of Baltimore, which he views as "the final dwelling place of his life." On his first night there, Liam is attacked by an intruder, leaving him with a bandaged head, bite marks, and no memory of the event.

While losing his teaching job failed to rouse the stoic, emotionally detached Liam, the loss of a few hours of memory becomes a point of fixation: "I'm missing a piece of my life." Ironically, the attack is about the only part of Liam's life he wishes to remember. Over the last several decades, Liam, we gradually learn, has retreated from and forgotten most of his past, including his two failed marriages and the growth of his three disaffected daughters. Like the biblical Noah, evoked in the novel's title as well as in his grandson's Christian coloring book, Liam, possessing neither compass nor rudder, is "just trying to stay afloat."

Fortunately for Liam, he is surrounded by and somehow appeals to various women who have not completely given up on him: his daughters (Xanthe, Louise, and Kitty), ex-wife Barbara, and sister Julia. Because so much of Noah's Compass takes place in Liam's living room, with one woman exiting through a door as another enters, the novel feel at times like an English drawing-room comedy, yet without the farce and with characters whose speech is plain rather than clever. Behind these many women, we eventually discover, is Liam's first wife, Millie, a waifish, fragile musician who was the love of his life. Having overdosed on pills early in their marriage, Millie left Liam a widower, alone and broken with a toddler. Subsequently he abandoned his dissertation and academic career and never seems to have recovered.

Yet all these years later, along comes Eunice, and Liam's world begins to change. Twenty years younger than Liam, Eunice works as an assistant for Ishmael Cope, a wealthy developer. Her job is to guide the aging Cope through transitions and help him remember names. Liam is attracted less by Eunice's features—she is frumpy, bespectacled, and as socially inept as he—and more by the role she fills for her boss. In Liam's eyes, Eunice serves as "a rememberer," which is precisely what he desires at this point in his life.

A muted courtship ensues, and Liam casts off inertia and starts to wake up. "It's as if I've never been entirely present in my own life," he realizes. Human interaction increases, and his youngest daughter Kitty even moves in with him. Yet Eunice, who brings intimacy and spontaneity, possesses a large secret, which threatens everything and tips the novel in a different direction than one anticipates. Although not among Tyler's finest novels—which include Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Celestial Navigation and Saint Maybe—Noah's Compass quietly reveals and explores familiar truths, particularly how we retreat when times turn difficult, then fool ourselves by forgetting what happened.

Tyler's genius is in her ability to reveal the unexpected depths and complexities that reside within and guide ordinary lives. As I've grown older, I am, perhaps, less in awe of the teenage girl who, as a Duke undergraduate, wrote so masterfully. Yet I feel increasing admiration for the mature novelist from Baltimore, who for half a century has spun deeply affecting tales of familial struggle while serving, for those of us at Duke, as a genial, wise, and clear-eyed literary spirit.

—James Schiff

Schiff '81 teaches English at the University of Cincinnati and is the author of several books on contemporary American fiction.