It’s time to change your life. Yes, right now. And no self-deprecating excuses, because if the following over-40 locals who’ve left behind long careers to take 180-degree leaps into the unknown can do it, it’s possible you can, too. From a documentary filmmaker to an organic farmer to the proud owner of a reupholstering business, here are people who’ve turned supposedly unrealistic fantasies into everyday life.
Tara Smith: Tilling a whole new field
What should you eat? It’s a simple question Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma poses. The book assesses prevalent dietary choices and concludes that the health of the environment—and of us humans—is at risk unless we change our ways. It’s not uncommon for those who’ve read Pollan’s work to make a change like deciding to buy only organic chicken from their local butcher. Tara Smith read the book, bought 40 copies to give as gifts, and along with her husband, Craig, started a 234-acre farm in Petaluma.
It was Smith’s youngest son, who, after watching her extol the virtues of Pollan’s book to everyone she knew, finally just told her, “Do farming.” And so in her late-40s, Smith, who studied computer science in college, worked at Microsoft and then fell into a career in long-term care insurance she pursued for 20-plus years, quit her job. She started taking classes and visiting farms; the couple even made an offer to buy a piece of land when the economy was at its worst.
“There’s a type of person who struggles with fear,” she reflects. “People are afraid of looking bad or failing. So what happens when you fail—would you end up homeless? Probably not. Try whatever it is that frightens you. If you really gave something a shot and it didn’t work, then you’d rebuild and try something else.”
The Smiths’ farm, Tara Firma Farms, is different than most. It’s almost utopian as farms go, perhaps because, being new to the business, she wasn’t held back by preconceptions of what could or couldn’t be done. The farm is open to the public for tours; guests are welcome to picnic, ride horses or go fishing on the grounds; and Smith will work with individuals to section off a small plot where she’ll grow a favorite vegetable. She delivers to over 50 customers eggs, produce, chicken, pork, and beef along with turkeys for the holidays.
“The one question I get all the time is ‘How did you get the courage to do that?’” Smith says. “When the opportunity presented itself, in the (sense) that our food wasn’t what we thought it was, we were in a position where we could make a change.” Although many might see switching careers to become a farmer as wildly impractical, especially if you’re currently doing well financially, Smith wouldn’t have done it any other way. “I tried what I needed to try and I gave it my best. It’s a risk if you don’t, and you might have a really boring life watching other people doing things you wish you had the courage to do. Most (new challenges) aren’t like brain surgery: read the books, put your ego aside and talk to experts.”
Now her oldest son is taking a quarter off from college to see how he likes working on the family farm, and Smith remains firmly convinced that more voices are needed to determine how food is raised. She suggests finding a local farm you trust, or several, and buying your food from there.
“At the end of the day you get one shot, as far as we know, and I’d never want to regret anything. If you have a dream or a vision and it excites you and it supplies value and somehow is valuable to the world…then do it. What else are you going to do—sit in your cubicle all day long? My kids say that we’re living the dream.”
Don Mulkey: A business to build on
Don and Kris Mulkey always dreamed of owning their own business. Don was interested in design and furniture and hoped to one day do something in a related field, but he was too consumed with 80 hour work weeks in advertising to seriously ponder a career change. But after they moved to Mill Valley from the East Coast in 2005 and the company he worked for lost the account that he was hired to work on, there was no job. Fed up with the advertising business, he decided he was done.
The couple made a risky decision: they would take a big chunk of their nest egg and invest it in a business of their own. They wanted something they were passionate about. “I was successful but always working for someone else,” says Don. After hiring a business broker and looking at companies that might be for sale, the Mulkeys bought Pollin’s Interiors and Custom Upholstery in Napa, which had a faithful following and has been around since 1947. They had the artisans that had been working with the previous owner stay on, which eased the transition, but still, Don admits that the first six months was sheer terror. “There are all these things like licenses and taxes that you have to think about. I was just constantly digging myself out of a hole. But then it just started to click and I started to emerge.” Throughout the process the couple always had a vision. Their goal was not simply to buy an upholstery shop; they saw it as a business they could build on—with the hope of one day marketing a line of custom-made eco-friendly furniture.
Meanwhile, notes Don, when you have your own business, work is never out of your head. Be prepared to be overwhelmed at first, he advises, and to spend twice as much as you’d expected. “It’s like remodeling a house. There’s no safety net with owning your own business; it’s just us,” he adds. “In the beginning I was questioning what we had done and (wondering) are we going to be in the poorhouse, but at this point I’m really comfortable that it was the right decision.” Although he enjoyed advertising, he doesn’t want to go back. “Having your own business gives you freedom.”
Nancy Svendsen: Time to make a movie
“It was one of those nights when I was sitting with colleagues and we were in Nashville, having drinks, and we got to talking about, you know, what would you do if you could really reinvent your life today, and it was something that just sort of came out of me and I said, ‘Well, I would make this documentary movie.’ ”
It had been in the back of Nancy Svendsen’s mind for a long time, so she admits she’s not quite sure what finally made her decide to be a filmmaker. But she was 46 years old, had enjoyed a great career, had two small children and didn’t want to travel all the time anymore. She wanted to do something in what she calls the next period of her life. Something that was meaningful.
“I spent 25 years as a health care executive,” Svendsen says. “But I am an artist, I have this artistic streak, I had this idea for a long time and I decided to go ahead and take the plunge.”
That meant, in part, taking the skills and organizational gifts she honed in corporate America and applying them to the complicated task of making a film. “I knew how to run big projects, and obviously I didn’t know much about filmmaking,” she says, “but it seems like one of those journeys where doors have just opened.”
Svendsen’s documentary-in-progress, The Glass Ceiling, tells the story of Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, the first Nepali woman to summit Mount Everest. “The story just really resonated with me, as someone who set a goal for herself and (had) a dream that seemed impossible. She was a woman in a male-dominated society; I really kind of fell in love with her and her story.”
Soon Svendsen will be off to Nepal, far from the business-travel hotels of Nashville, to interview those who knew Pasang and gather more footage. She’s also applying for grants and holding events to raise money and recently completed the film’s trailer. “It’s a long process, but I have a good start.”
The mother of five-year-old twins says embarking on this filmmaking project has been a mountain-climb in itself, but it’s rewarding. People have been generous in sharing their knowledge and their contacts. “Every day I wake up and I think, you know, I don’t have to get on a plane, I can (stay here and) spend time with my kids, but I can also work on this story, this project that’s really motivational to me, and it’s really energizing.”
She acknowledges that when you get to a certain point in your career, a degree of ego rears its head, making you embarrassed to ask what seem like stupid questions. But “a friend of mine said I needed to ask questions, and it really struck me: that’s going to be the key to my success. Put any ego aside and ask questions.”
For others looking to make a career change, Svendsen’s advice is to search for those transferable skills and things you have learned over the course of your career and the expertise you have gained. Then look at how those might be applied to the new venture you’re choosing.
“We don’t know what we don’t know yet. You don’t know what problems are going to present themselves down the line, because it is all new territory.”