Vicki Kunkel is a member of The Reporters Inc’s Board of Directors. To learn more about her, click here.

Too Old to Get Hired?

Create Your Own Job Security


November 2014

BY VICKI KUNKEL

(Editor’s Note: This article is one of several interviews the author conducted for an upcoming book about people who are successfully starting new careers and/or new businesses later in life.)

At age 52, Anthony Smith had achieved the brass ring: a top-level marketing executive position at one of the largest athletic wear companies in the world. He lived in Germany for ten years, Holland for two years, and Italy for nine, working at various corporate divisions of Nike. He rubbed elbows with some of the most famous athletes in the world. His bosses regularly promoted him and gave him the plum assignments. His co-workers liked to play basketball with him and go out for the occasional after-work drinks. He had what most would consider a “dream” life.

But something had changed in Anthony a few years earlier when he was asked by Nike to host a series of high-profile celebrity athlete interviews for TV shows, as part of a product promotion for the company. He started to have an identity crisis: I don’t think I want to work in corporate America anymore. I want to be a motivational speaker; I want to act and host TV shows and perform!  I want to express my personality and creativity. I don’t want to be a suit!

What started out as a little voice in his head grew into a full-blown obsession. A few years later, Anthony knew it was time to make the leap into speaking and acting.

Problem was, no one wanted to hire a 52-year-old corporate V.P. with no speaking or acting experience, to speak and act.  Oh, he applied to several places. He tried for a couple of years to break into the performance field and get full-time work. He applied everywhere from local theater companies to New York modeling and acting studios. Some gave him a polite, “Thank-you-for-you-interest” response. Others sent the obligatory form rejection letter.

Some laughed in his face.

That’s when Anthony had an epiphany:  If you can’t get hired in the industry, become a player in the industry.

“Look, at a certain age, you’re not going to get hired in certain industries—especially if you don’t have direct experience,” Anthony says. “That’s just the way it is. So, if you can’t get a job, the only thing you can do is to create your own job.”

“So you didn’t go the ‘struggling actor’ route and work as a waiter?” I ask.

“No!” he says. “Getting a full time job is the worst thing you can do if you want to become an actor.”

“But you have to support yourself,” I say. “I know you have a son to support, too. You can’t just go to auditions full time–unless you have a rich uncle that you haven’t told me about.”

“No. No rich uncle,” Anthony laughs. “I’m not saying that you shouldn’t get full time work. I’m saying you shouldn’t get a full time job.”

Anthony makes the distinction between full-time work and a job: One is liberating; the other constricting.

“I only work three days per week, and I make as much as many people do working 40, 50, 60 hours per week,” Anthony says. “And I wouldn’t want to work more. That’s all the money I need to live on, to support my son, to pay for ongoing acting classes, and to make regular trips back to New York for auditions.”

“So you really are only working part time, and you really don’t have full-time work,” I say, challenging him on his full-time-work vs. full-time-job theory.

“I do have full time work, meaning a full time income when compared to what a typical 40-hour corporate job pays. I just don’t work – put in the time — full time,” he explains. “The hours put in are irrelevant. It’s the income. If you can create an income to sustain your passion, it doesn’t matter if you work 60 hours per week or six.”

I ask if the more prudent route would have been to stay in his full-time corporate job and pursue his passion on the side.

“Not at all. Think about what happens when you get a full time job to support a passion. You’re working full time and you don’t have time to pursue the passion. You have no flexibility. You have to put in your face time at the office every day. Even if you have a telecommute job, you’re stuck at your desk for eight hours straight.”

He had a point. I had some friends who tried for years to become actors or voice-over artists. Every one of them held down full time jobs but not one of them could ever get off work to go to auditions.

“Okay. But even if you work for yourself, you have obligations to clients and client schedules,” I counter. “You can’t just take off when you want to go to an audition.”

He responds, “You can if you create the right job for yourself!” Anthony says the key is to create a job that will require little effort yet have a big payout so you can fund your passion and give you time flexibility.

The first thing he did once he finally garnered the courage to quit his “real” job was to create a set of non-negotiable criteria that every entrepreneurial idea he had would have to meet. He wanted to create a business for himself that would: (a) brand him as an acting talent; (b) allow him to do the performance work he loved; (c) get paid well to do it; (d) give him complete scheduling flexibility; and (e) allow geographic flexibility. That last one was especially important because he wanted to be close to his son (who was living in Italy with Anthony’s ex-wife) yet be able to make frequent trips to New York City for acting auditions.

That seemed like a pretty tall order. Most would have given up, thinking it would be impossible to create any kind of business that could meet all of those stringent standards.  But you’ll remember that one of the things Anthony wanted to do was to become a motivational speaker as well as an actor.

“Not making it work was never an option,” Anthony tells me. “How could I be a motivational speaker where I encourage others to follow their dreams and shoot for the stars if I didn’t do it myself?”

After puttering around with a few ideas, he started Jolten—an “educational event and entertainment company”– in Italy. He set up shop out of his home with the basics:  phone, fax, Internet connection, and copy machine. His marketing plan was simple, but not easy:  He pounded the pavement, knocked on doors, made phone calls, and networked constantly. Soon, he had regular entertainment gigs at large corporations where he performed skits about leadership, sales, success, and team work that he learned during his years at Nike and, earlier, Levi Strauss.

He also found a way to create a constant need for his acting talent:  produce mini-dramas and mini-comedies around the training needs of companies. He would go into a company and identify their main training needs, then go home and write a half-hour sitcom or drama (depending on the training topic) around the learning points. He and other actors would act out the story, record it on video and then produce and edit the videos. In essence, Anthony created a job for himself as a writer, producer and actor and got paid well to do it!

Anthony has created the perfect lifestyle for himself. His educational/entertainment company pays the bills so he can pursue his passion. But what about that passion?  Just how much acting is he doing?  And what about the TV hosting gigs?  How many of those does he get?

So far, he’s been hired as a paid extra in more than 30 U.S. movies, had a starring role in one Italian movie, has done countless commercials, and hosts his own motivational web TV show– in addition to his edu-tainment comedies and dramas.

The idea for hosting the web TV show happened when he was working on Life Support, starring Queen Latifah and Cedric the Entertainer. I know exactly when I came up with the idea to start my own little motivational TV segments. It was 7 a.m. in Brooklyn, New York on the set of that movie.”

As he was sitting there with the other actors waiting for his scene, Karen–a 24-year-old model who was trying to break into acting–struck up a conversation with Anthony. She asked him, “How did you get into acting?  How do you support yourself while still trying to go to auditions?  I want to move to New York with a female friend and pursue acting, but I have no idea how to do it. Do you know how I could make it work?  What books do you recommend?  Do you know any websites?”

Karen continued with the rapid-fire questions to Anthony all day during breaks in filming. After Anthony patiently responded to them one by one, Karen gave him a great big hug and told him he’d been a lifesaver for her.

“You just made it possible for me to realize my dream,” she told him. “And now I know a way to do it without ending up in the poor house!”

“That got me thinking,” Anthony recalls. “What if I start a web site, do regular TV segments, and have articles, links to resources, and all kinds of other information that will help actors who are just starting out?  I know I sure wish I would have had that when I first started in this business! It allowed me to help fellow aspiring actors while also getting great exposure for my TV interview skills.”

Thus was born ActingCareerStartup.com, a site that dishes out free acting and business advice on everything from how to create a well-paying, flexible businesses to the more tactical elements of acting such as how to audition, get headshots, make a tape, and so on.

Anthony’s TV interviews on his website got him a few TV hosting jobs on Italian television. In just a few short years after leaving Corporate America behind, Anthony has achieved his goals:  regular acting gigs, a livable income, TV hosting jobs, and motivational coaching and speaking through ActingCareerStartup.com.

“Do you ever miss the security of a corporate job?” I ask.

“Not ever. That guy wasn’t real to me. This guy is,” he says.

Besides, these days a corporate job often doesn’t translate into job security. As so many of the 50-somethings I’ve interviewed for this series tell me: You can fail (get fired, laid off, downsized, etc.) doing a job you hate, so why not create a career that allows you to live the way you want and do interesting work?

If you’d like to read about other 50-plus people who reinvented their careers in midlife, send an email to: vicki@digitalwits.com to be the first to hear about the book when it’s released.

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