The 5 Craziest Career Shift Success Stories

By Brittany Lyte on 10 November 2014 1 comment

The average American changes jobs — if not careers — multiple times in his or her lifetime.

Many of these career shifts, however, occur at the start of a person's working years, when they're zig-zagging from childcare to catering gigs in order to pay off car payments and college loans. But what about mid- and late-career changes — the kind where a person who's already established and well-respected in one field decides to swap that well-earned sense of security for a completely different path? (See also: 5 Ways to Find Your Dream Career)

Giving up a spot at the top of the ladder in one industry for one at the bottom rung in another can be unsettling and hard-fought, but the rewards — landing an energizing, successful gig that makes you excited to get out of bed in the morning — are well worth the risk of falling flat on your face.

Read on for our roundup of the most inspiring career shift stories from people who risked it all in the name of pursuing their true calling. If you've been looking for the inspiration to change your career path, this is it.

1. Trading Finance for Rum

After establishing a successful career at a hedge fund, Bridged Firtle decided to leave it all behind and start her own craft rum distillery, The Noble Experiment. The career swap required a lot of sacrifices — including giving up her posh TriBeCa loft to move back in with her parents — but Firtle tells The Muse it was well worth it to create something she's passionate about.

"I always wanted to own my own business, but I thought it would be in finance because that's what I jumped into in school," Firtle says. "I was evaluating my next move in finance to get myself to the place where I could open my own financial institution, and I was really hoping to get into venture capital just because new business excited me. And then I realized that I didn't want to be on the outside looking in anymore — I really wanted to get my hands dirty and own my own business."

Firtle says the most difficult part of her transition to small business owner from her cushy hedge fund job was taking on the pressure of being responsible not only for her own finances, but also for those of her business and investors. But she says she has no regrets.

"Doing it all yourself is the most empowering feeling," she says. "I was completely inspired to do this. That feeling was like nothing's going to stop me. If you have that feeling — if you have that passion for something — you will succeed."

2. From Corporate Finance to Cupcakes

Pam Nelson had a forward-moving career in finance for two decades. Then she was laid off during the Great Recession. Jobless and uncertain of her next move, Nelson decided to go all in when her friend suggested they open a cupcake shop together. She figured she'd try it out for six months or a year, then hop back into finance when the market recovered. But that was six years ago. Today she's still helping run Butter Lane Cupcakes, which has two storefronts in New York City.

"We decided from the very beginning that we only wanted to make chocolate, vanilla, and banana cupcakes," Nelson tells The Muse. "All of the variation comes from our icing, which is much easier to work with. Keeping it simple really helped us as newbies."

Nelson says running the business end of her own sweets shop is the most satisfying job she's ever had. But it's also the most intense. Even when she's not working, Nelson says there's rarely a moment she's not thinking about her work. After all, there's no one to pass the buck to if things go sour.

"It's great to have a paycheck coming in — and I've worked in the corporate world and I loved my job — but at some point there's some sort of powerlessness in not knowing who your next boss is going to be, or not having control over what your next project is going to be," Nelson says. "In small business, the good news is that it's all yours. You control your destiny and get to make the decisions. Of course, the hard part is that it's all yours. It's on you to make the rent and to make payroll, and if sales aren't where they should be, it's your job to scramble."

3. A Lawyer With a Green Thumb

Angela Newman felt unfulfilled as a property and planning lawyer. The long hours cut into her family time and the work itself wasn't satisfying. She felt drained. Stuck. And she wanted better for her professional life. So she left the Bar for her dream job as a self-employed garden designer.

"I wanted to find a career with more personal satisfaction, creativity, and which involved working with nature, and one that would be flexible, enjoyable and manageable with a family," she tells Career Shifters.

Newman says the hardest part of giving up her law career was realizing that she had worked so hard for so many years to achieve a certain level of success in a field that was never going to make her happy. The easy part was identifying and pursuing her passion. Her advice for others contemplating a similar career switch is to ignore the naysayers — and don't ever lose faith in yourself and your ability to succeed wearing brand new shoes.

"Do not be put off by what you perceive to be the stigma of 'giving up' what you are doing," she says. "I think this can be a common problem where people are in professional jobs that they don't like. My experience is that people very much respect and admire my decision to take a leap into the unknown."

4. From Engineer to Stand-Up Comedian

Dan Nainan was a senior engineer for Intel Corporation, a job that led him to take a comedy class as a means of overcoming his fear of public speaking. Turns out he had an undiscovered knack for being the funny guy. His slapstick impressions of American presidents during his "final exam" performance at a San Francisco comedy club wowed his co-workers so much that they decided to invite him to perform at a team dinner for 200 Intel employees at a tradeshow in Las Vegas. Nainan scored more corporate comedy gigs from there, eventually performing for 2,500 salespeople from around the world at Intel's annual sales conference. After two years of stand-up for in-house events, Nainan quit the company for a new career in comedy. He has since performed for President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Steve Wozniak, and Yoko Ono.

5. The Ex-Corporate Communications Exec Who Travels the World by Caravan

"I wanted a life in which I felt alive every day, contributing something meaningful to the world," says Diana Vermeij, a former corporate branding officer who left her cubicle behind to travel the world in a VW van that is her home and headquarters for her new career as a lifestyle design coach. Fittingly, it's a self-styled job that allows her to help others build a life that draws on their passions and provides them with a greater sense of purpose.

"Life really is too short to do work that doesn't matter to you," Vermeij tells Career Shifters. "I felt unfulfilled, unable to use many of my talents in my job. I wasn't doing what I loved most. I'd started to value (in my opinion) the wrong things (money, status, 'stuff') and I was feeling empty because of it."

It was a big shift. Vermeij was making good money working 70 hours a week in the chemical industry. But she says it was worth giving up that financial freedom and security in the pursuit of what shes says really matters — fulfillment and happiness.

"I had very much identified my 'self' with the work I did," Vermeij says. "When someone asked me 'Who are you?', I would say my name and start telling them about my work. I had to rediscover what I liked to do, what I got excited about, what my talents were and how I wanted to contribute to the world. I had to learn to quiet the negative, down-talking thoughts in my head."

Have you made an incredible career change? Please tell us about it in comments!

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After 20 years and 11 months, after serving in various supervisory and management positions, I found myself out of graces and a job at a national medical laboratory. There weren't many, if any, jobs in a medical lab in Buffalo and who wants to hire a 50 year old? There was a native casino opening soon in the area with lots of new jobs coming. I got myself a job doing the hiring for the new venture. It was great and exciting. When the hiring was drying up at the beginning I started doing the internal mail. Now 12 years later I'm still the mailman for the resort and casino. No more all that stress and pressure of supervising and management. Resposible for myself and I get t work with some great people.