The sky over the Sierras that night was crystal clear. My friend Jim and I sipped our drinks on the balcony of his mountain cabin and chatted aimlessly as we marveled at the stars. Slowly, Jim began to open up.
He and I were casual acquaintances, thrown together by the fact that our wives had gone to high school together. We had shared dinners, boat rides, and an occasional round of golf. We got along well, though I was closer to Jim's wife Mary, whom I have known longer.
But when I lost my job, Jim made an extra effort to be supportive and gracious. I didn't fully understand why until that night in the Sierras.
"You know, I once went through what you're experiencing," Jim confided. It was hard to believe things had ever gone wrong for Jim. In fact, I had always considered him impervious to life's troubles. How wrong I was.
Jim explained how things were good back when he was a successful insurance salesman in Los Angeles. Anywhere he had worked, he had been a star salesperson. This guy personified the word gregarious.
But after he was fired, the good life came crashing down. Blackballed by his ex-employer, Jim was unable to find work for months. He didn't have to say it. Anyone who has been there knows. Those were dark days.
Then one Sunday, Jim decided to visit his kids who lived with his estranged wife. He had just enough money to cover the bus fare. He stayed with them until late that evening, and by the time he walked several blocks to a bus stop in the San Fernando Valley, it was approaching midnight.
As he waited, a car pulled up in front of him. Through the open passenger window, a friendly voice said: "You know, the busses stop running on the weekends at 11pm."
"Oh, I didn't realize that," Jim answered. "Thanks for telling me."
The driver asked where he was going, and Jim explained that his apartment was almost an hour away.
"Hop in, I'll give you a ride."
It was a random act of kindness. Someone sensed that a worthwhile person was in need of help, and acted on that intuition. The stranger had given Jim much more than a ride that night - he had given him hope.
"You know, after that, I felt everything was going to be all right. I don't know why exactly, I just knew it." Jim smiled as he stared at the sky. "One month after that night, a friend offered me a job in Northern California. Not long after that, I met my wife to be."
Jim's story gave me hope as well that night. It made me realize how many other people have survived the trauma of starting over - often with the help of strangers who care.
Here are a few other stories that have helped to inspire me over the years.
Some vintners claim that exposing a grapevine to stress will improve the quality of the wine. Maybe the same is true for humans. Consider the story of Robert Mondavi.
What, you ask, could you possibly have in common with California's dean of winemaking? If you're in the process of experiencing a new beginning, Mondavi has done the same. Big time.
When I found myself jobless in my late 40s, I took inspiration from Mondavi's tale of courage. Imagine, showing up at your family's business one day and finding out you were dismissed. He not only lost his job, but his birthright (until a court restored it several decades later). Mondavi was not a young man when this happened. Yet he set aside whatever shame and public humiliation he felt, and convinced people who believed in him to help finance a new winery bearing his name.
Mondavi was a risk taker, eager to try new techniques to improve the quality of Napa Valley winemaking. He examined - and questioned - every element of the winemaking process. Change became his constant. What soils did the grapes come from? How was the wine crushed? How was it aged? Under his master hand, Sauvignon Blanc became Fume Blanc, after he aged the white wine in special oak barrels.
Winemakers from around the world visited to learn from him. Because he was generous in sharing his knowledge, they shared theirs. Soon, others began to believe the Napa Valley could produce world-class vintages.
Wines that will never bear his name have nevertheless benefited from his genius and generosity. I wonder where the state's wine industry would be today if Robert's family had not fired him.
While Mondavi will be remembered for his wine, I will remember him for his heart. With the humility and generosity of a person who knows what it is like to start over, he regularly hosts benefits at his winery. When I think of his story, I remember the importance of believing in yourself - and in knowing you are never too old to start over.
I know it sounds silly, but at times I wish my dog could talk. What a story he could tell. About how he almost graduated from Search and Rescue Training - until he refused to leave his owner's side to fetch help. About how that same owner of five years abandoned him at the pound. About the animal control worker who saved him from extermination at the last moment.
When we ultimately adopted Buddy and brought him home, it wasn't long before he jumped our back fence and ran away. I figured he was trying to find his way back to his original owners in Danville - about 50 miles away.
Then we got a call from a family that had cornered him at a local school yard and taken him to their home. But before I could get there, Buddy jumped their fence and vanished again. This time, without his collar and ID.
By nightfall, I had lost hope. Then, at about 10:30, my wife heard the telltale slurping of water by the patio door. Miraculously, Buddy had found his way home - and jumped back into his yard.
My theory is that Buddy was checking our references. You know, getting the word on the street about us. How he ever found his way home - after being driven to a house three miles away - I will never know.
Buddy still likes to jump fences, but he stays close. His adventures remind me that it takes awhile to feel comfortable in a new assignment. During his first year with us, Buddy was so insecure he shadowed my every step around the house. It wasn't devotion, it was fear. He didn't want to be abandoned again. Since then, he's gotten comfortable with his new surroundings. Time, it seems, can heal the pain - even if you are a pooch.
Move Over, Shirley
When I think about starting over, I'm inspired by my Russian "son," Max. He's had more incarnations than Shirley MacLain.
Max was about 10 when the Soviet Union collapsed. And with it, the future he had envisioned. He admired the power his real father wielded as a Communist Party member who directed construction projects.
As the Iron Curtain fell, it became clear Max would have to fashion his own future. He set his sights on winning a trip to America, through a program sponsored by the US government.
Max beat out hundreds of competitors. It helped that his mother was an English teacher. It also helped that Max could adapt quickly. When the American woman interviewing the crowd of candidates asked Max if he had a sense of humor, Max not only said yes, he added "We had a competition at our school to find the funniest person and I won."
When the interviewer later asked the next person if what Max said was true, she was told yes - because Max had coached her.
Max eventually graduated from DePaul University in Chicago with a marketing degree. When he couldn't get a job because he was a foreigner, he transferred to Chico to get a master's degree in computer programming, a field that offers visas to foreign workers.
Max was hired just before the economy tanked.
He simply kept adapting until he found a career. Not bad advice for anyone in this economy. When I think about Max's story, I am reminded how important it is to be willing to learn new things. Max had next to no knowledge about computers - and in a year and a half he mastered areas I cannot even describe.
My last story involves me. In pondering how I wanted to start over, I had decided to return to my roots as a writer. Somewhere I had gotten lost on the management merry-go-round, and I had forgotten how much fun it was to just be a reporter.
But did I still have it? The knack? The nose for news? It didn't take long to find out.
My first assignment was to write about the educational opportunities available at vocational schools. Pretty dry stuff - until I decided to track down a recent grad who had successfully found a new path in life.
"I've got just the person," promised the school counselor. What an understatement. She put me in touch with a young woman who had been the manager of a pizza parlor - until an armed robber pistol-whipped her into the hospital. She tried to return, but the fear became overwhelming. Instead, she took enough classes to qualify for a job offered by a computer company at a CJJ job fair. I was scoring on every point.
Then she mentioned she was getting married as well. That's nice, I thought, but something in the back of my mind told me I didn't have the whole story, that I should ask one more question.
"Who's the lucky guy?" I asked.
"The doctor who treated me for my head injuries," she responded matter-of-factly.
Why do things happen? Who knows? But look around - you might find some interesting stories and gain some helpful insights that w ill help you survive your own situation. One thing is certain - you will quickly learn you are not the only one who has ever had to start over.
For more information on coping with change in your life:
- CareerChangeResumes.com - Follow step-by-step instructions to write a functional resume. Or ask them to do if for you. All for a fee.
- content.monster.co.nz - Have a question about your career change? The largest online jobsite might be able to help. Once here, click on career transition listed under experts. The next page invites you to write an email to Monster's career transitions experts.
- JobhuntersBible.com - A fun, useful website by Parachute author Bolles. Provides insightful articles, important Internet links, and some of the same commonsense advice offered in his book.
- LifePurposeCoaching.com - Larkspur-based site offers coaching, classes, career planning. (415) 339-8060