George Eliot, the author of Middlemarch and one of the English language’s most gifted writers, once said, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” Here are five Marin residents who have embraced that mantra, taking the risk needed to reinvent themselves and turn their passions into their day jobs.
Set Yourself Free
PAUL SHLEFFAR was going through a tough time more than a decade ago. He’d just lost his devoutly Jewish grandparents when a counselor from their hospice called and said, “There’s something you might want to try.”
The counselor’s suggestion was Jewish meditation. Though Shleffar, who’d worked as a firefighter in San Mateo and Modesto for 20 years, was not a particularly observant Jew, he decided to give it a try. The teachings resonated with him so much that he signed up for a three-year course to become an instructor, a decision that changed his life.
During the course, a mentor asked if he’d consider being a rabbi. “It was like this huge aha moment,” says Shleffar. “I just remember not being able to sleep. I thought, ‘finally, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.’ ”
Though still working as a firefighter full time, Shleffar enrolled in rabbinical school in Los Angeles, scheduling his classes so he could take them all on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. He used vacation time and traded shifts with other firefighters to make it work. When he finally graduated in 2006, he became a rabbi-for-hire, conducting weddings and funerals and doing counseling.
It was only when a friend asked Shleffar to substitute for him at the Redwood City jail that he really found his place. That gig led to a full-time job at the California Department of Corrections and finally, to the position of rabbi/Jewish chaplain at San Quentin, where the Lagunitas resident now teaches, leads religious services and counsels inmates, many of them on death row.
In working with these prisoners, Shleffar says, “I’m continually amazed by the depth and breadth of their humanity.” He also sees transformations not unlike his own. “Before, I felt like I was kind of sleepwalking through life,” he says. “But through this process, I’ve had deep realizations about the nature of God and life. I feel like I’ve woken up.”
Passion for Design
BLYE FAUST didn’t so much reinvent herself as add another line to an already packed resume. The energetic mother of two has worked as an actress, entertainment lawyer and television/film producer. Now she’s taking a turn as an interior designer.
Unlike many producers, Faust hadn’t grown weary of Hollywood. Her biggest success in 11 years in the business actually came this past November, when her production company Rocklin/Faust released its critically acclaimed film Spotlight, starring Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo.
But after the birth of her first child, Faust couldn’t keep getting on a plane to Los Angeles. “My husband and I traveled like crazy before we had kids, for our jobs, for fun,” says Faust. “Once you have a child, that changes.”
So she turned to one of her childhood passions, interior design, to create a business closer to home. “As a teenager, I’d run around rearranging my bedroom and my parents’ house,” says Faust. “I’m sure I drove my parents nuts.”
Faust opened her design business, ByBlye, in July 2014, using her Belvedere home as her portfolio and finding initial clients through mothers’ groups. “I got in at the right time because everyone was doing work on their home,” says Faust, who’s completed projects in Marin, San Francisco and the East Bay since. “I literally have not stopped working since the day I put out my shingle.”
What she loves most is the overlap between her two careers. “There’s storytelling for film and storytelling in a home,” says Faust, who still stays involved with her production company on a more limited basis. “Whenever I design a project, I want the home to say who these people are, where they’ve been, what their history is. What’s the story line here?”
For Faust’s life, the story line is pretty simple: a full plate, a lot of passion and now, maybe, a bit of balance.
On the Water
DAVID WELLS remembers exactly what his dad told him on learning he was leaving his high-paying IT executive job at the Bank of America to start a paddleboarding shop, 101 Surf Sports, in San Rafael. “That,” his dad said, “sounds like a great way to ruin a good hobby.”
It was 2008 and the economy was in meltdown, so Bank of America was cutting jobs. Wells, who oversaw 6,000 employees, was offered a choice. He could keep his job and move to Charlotte, South Carolina, or he could stay and be unemployed. “Charlotte or Marin?” says Wells. “What would you choose?”
Wells decided to turn his lifelong passion for water sports into a career. He’d grown up sailing at the San Francisco Yacht Club in Belvedere and became an avid windsurfer as a teenager, averaging 150–160 water days until his daughter was born 10 years ago. After finding a like-minded business partner, Cort Larned, who had been a world champion windsurfer, ran windsurfing schools and worked in the action sports industry, he figured the stars had aligned.
Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) was all the rage when they decided to open the business, so they chose that sport as the focus of 101 Surf Sports when it opened in 2011. Unfortunately, his father’s prediction came true. In order to build his business, Wells skipped vacations, went unpaid for three years and worst of all, got out on the water only six days a year for the first two years. In 2015, he finally started topping 30 days on the water.
The dry time, however, has paid off. The business is successful enough that Wells and Larned are considering expanding, and he gets something at his shop he never got at BofA: “the stoke.”
“I’ve literally seen people take up paddleboarding and stop smoking and drop 40 or 70 pounds,” says Wells. “It’s amazing watching people get addicted to a healthy new activity.” He loves the changes in himself, too. “In my old job, I spoke in expletive-laced tirades when things went wrong,” he says. “Now, ‘all good brah’ is more my style.”
The Clean Life
RICHARD LIPFIELD was living the high life — literally — in the 10 years he managed Sausalito’s counterculture haven the Trident. He oversaw private parties for the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead and rubbed elbows with prominent politicians and movie stars. “It was very exciting,” says Lipfield, “kind of a perpetual party.” But the party had a dark side, ample drugs and alcohol.
When the Trident was sold in the early ’80s, Lipfield realized it was time to make a change. First up: get sober. When he did that in 1984, he says, “I became completely disoriented.” For the next three years, he lived off savings and did deep emotional work, dedicating his days to his recovery. “Then my therapist finally said, ‘you know, you’re not doing very much. What do you want to do?’ ” says Lipfield. “I was frightened, but a little voice inside of me said therapist. It just came to me. I didn’t know that before.”
So Lipfield — who had previous experience running psychodrama sessions in a Palo Alto commune — decided to go back to school. He spent two years at Antioch University getting his degree as a marriage and family therapist (MFT) and then three years at the now-defunct Ross General Hospital, doing an internship. By the time he opened his own office in Mill Valley in 1991, he says, “I had used up all my money and owed about three grand on a credit card for the furniture.”
The investment was worth it, in more ways than one. Lipfield, who specializes in psychodrama, addiction issues and inner child work, has a thriving business, conducting eight to 10 sessions per day. “I’m spent by the end of the day, but I’m happy,” he says. “I’m clean and sober, I have a marriage, I’m a healer and I run a business. I’ve become the man I never thought I could be.”
Making the Sale
SUE PENCE would be the first to tell you she doesn’t like change. But when her youngest child graduated from St. Rita’s School in Fairfax, where Pence taught third and fifth grade for 23 years, she knew it was time to move on. “I really loved teaching,” says Pence, “but I wanted to try something new.”
Then came the minor shock. “I had no idea how difficult the job was,” says Pence. “A lot of people think it’s easy and you make lots of money, but I discovered that I needed to put hours and hours into preparing my listings, meeting with clients and dealing with all kinds of issues that come up.”
Pence first worked with one of her brothers in their own business and then joined Coldwell Banker in 2010 because she missed workplace camaraderie, something she cherished as a teacher. The long hours yielded fruit. One referral led to another, and now Pence is usually working with at least 10 buyers or sellers at any given time.
Five years ago, her career came full circle when she helped a woman and her husband buy a home in Sleepy Hollow. Twenty-five years earlier, the woman had been one of Pence’s fifth-graders in the first class she ever taught. Since they’ve reconnected as adults, the two have become fast friends and her former student has even sent referrals her way. “I think clients know I really want everyone to love where they end up living,” says Pence, “and people have a lot of trust in a teacher.”