Creative Careers

How to pursue your creative career dreams at a new job when you’re over 40.

By Mary Lou Quinlan
Mary Lou Quinlan
Photograph: Photo courtesy of Mary Lou Quinlan

Pursuing Your Passion at 40+

If you work in advertising, you’re either a creative or a suit. The creatives are the writers, art directors, and producers. The suits manage the business. I loved that role but hated the suit label, because inside, I wasn’t one.

I had always seen myself as a creative, ideally a writer (and an actress and a dancer, if I spit it all out). But early on, my dad advised me that for practical reasons — like making money — the soft stuff should be my avocation. So I spent years selling other people’s ideas. Then at 45, I decided to change roles and start being creative myself. Now, with two books under my belt and a flourishing speaking and television career, this ex-suit has never been happier.

What is it about midlife that drives us to color outside the lines that defined us? I asked MORE readers to weigh in, and dozens of singers and sculptors, dancers and designers shared their stories. The best news: Finding our inner artiste at midlife doesn’t mean starving in a garret. The proof is in these tales of careful planning and the honing of creative talents. Yes, these women have made financial sacrifices, but they feel more than compensated by the joy of doing what they love.

Starting Over — at the Bottom

In elementary school, Shelley Irwin wanted to be in the Partridge family. In junior high, she envisioned Broadway stardom; in high school, a film career. But growing up in a family of doctors and nurses and lacking the confidence to declare herself an actress, Irwin got a master’s degree in physical therapy.

After working 15 years in the field, Irwin had "a nice house with spoiled dogs and no debt. A husband and children were my plan, but that didn’t happen. Turning 40, I realized something was missing," she says.

One Saturday afternoon, Irwin stumbled onto the Specs Howard School of Broadcast Arts in Southfield, Michigan, and, out of curiosity, asked about a class in radio. Eight months later, after graduating at the top of her class, she started at the bottom as an intern at a local ABC station — pouring coffee, carrying microphones, cutting tape. She would work the early-morning news show, head out to sessions with PT clients, and return for the night shift. The studio became her study hall, where she closely watched the anchors’ styles and read everything she could get her hands on to learn the job.

Soon Irwin started to pick up reporting assignments, scoring a coup interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger by daring to charge through his entourage in a Detroit parking lot. She was making $8 an hour (her physical therapy practice paid the bills), but the emotional rewards were high.

Two promotions and a relocation to Grand Rapids later, Irwin, 46, is host and producer of a two-hour NPR affiliate morning show and host of three community-focused television programs on PBS. She has just won her fourth Gracie Award for individual achievement from American Women in Radio and Television. "I am a completely different person than I was six years ago," Irwin says. "I’m confident, happy, and grateful every day. I wish I had started this career 10 years ago, but I’ve made it my goal to stay on the fast track with no fears." Irwin’s compensation still doesn’t match what she pulled down as a physical therapist, but, she says, "I can’t wait for Mondays."

Chasing a Hollywood Dream

Teresa Howard, 44, worked for years at AT&T Yellow Pages Advertising Services as a customer service representative in Troy, Michigan. She had a son, Michael, but a faltering marriage. Wanting to put more positive energy into her life, she enrolled in a marketing degree program. But soon after graduation, Howard realized that promoting someone else’s product wasn’t enough. She wanted to sell something with her name on it.

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