If you’re experiencing some vocational unrest and are worried you’re unqualified for anything other than what your university degree directly prepare you for, don’t discredit the possibility of a career shift. Switching jobs and even industries is becoming more common due to new economic conditions and the increase in adult and continuing education programs. You don’t need to have been a part of the field for 30 years to become successful or a high-profile leader, either. Just look at some surprising first careers of influential figures, including presidents, entertainers and entrepreneurs.
Walt Disney, newspaper ad designer: Walt Disney experienced a lot of failure on his way to becoming one of the most successful entertainment entrepreneurs in the world: He was rejected by the army and struggled to find work after WWI. He finally got a job working as a designer for newspaper, movie theater and magazine ads at an art studio. Disney only worked as a temp, and after struggling to start his own business, he began studying animation at a new job for another ad company.
Dan Brown, singer-songwriter: Dan Brown started a huge sensation and a lot of debate within the Catholic community and among pop culture fans when he published his novel The Da Vinci Code. But besides the controversy, Brown’s work of fiction can at least be credited with getting a lot of adults interested in reading again. The creator of Langdon was a puzzle and anagram freak as a kid and studied writing at Amherst College. But as the son of an organist mother, Brown also had an interest and talent for music: after graduation, he moved to Hollywood as a singer-songwriter and pianist and even joined the National Academy of Songwriters. He released two CDs in the early 90s, including one entitled Angels & Demons, moved back home to teach middle school Spanish, and soon began writing thrillers.
Martha Stewart, stock broker: Martha Stewart got into some trouble recently over some insider trading, obstruction of justice and then lying about it all, and many long-time fans of Martha’s place settings and holiday decorating wondered how she got involved in such a mess in the first place. But before Martha Stewart was the goddess of domesticity, she was, in fact, a stockbroker. She graduated from Barnard with degrees in history and architectural history after first dropping out to model, and soon became a stockbroker. After moving to Connecticut with her husband and young son, Stewart left her job — she claims to have wanted to spend more time with her family, but others believe she was escaping a scandal.
Sheryl Crow, music teacher: Upbeat but soulful singer, songwriter and guitarist Sheryl Crow has enjoyed a long-lasting career that incorporates all types of music genres and often rewards her with high-profile collaborations and honors. And while the Missouri native was always interested in music — she wrote her first song when she was only 13 — Crow chose to teach music to autistic children after graduating from college before moving to LA to join the industry.
Ina Garten, White House nuclear policy analyst: The charmingly high brow Barefoot Contessa — whose real name is Ina Garten — has a loyal fan base all over the country who follow her TV show and have tried out recipes from her seven cookbooks. Before the TV show and cookbook fame, Garten owned a specialty foods store in East Hampton, NY, which she and her husband Jeffrey bought on a whim while living in Washington, D.C. At that time, Garten worked in the White House Office of Management and Budget as a policy analyst, but after buying the foods store, quit her job and moved to Long Island.
Mike Rowe, opera singer: Mike Rowe is best known in the U.S. for hosting the Discovery Channel’s show Dirty Jobs, but if you listen carefully, he’s also the narrator behind lots of commercials, TV specials and documentaries. But that strong, gravely voice isn’t just great for speaking. Before TV, Rowe sang with the Baltimore Opera.
Stephen King, teacher: Just imagine if your teacher was going home at night and writing horror novels and screenplays? It might make you turn in your homework on time, or stop passing notes, at least. Stephen King — the legendary writer behind Carrie and The Shining— taught high school English in Hampden, Maine, writing during the weekends and in the evenings.
Ken Jeong, doctor: Actor and comedian Ken Jeong quickly became one of the most in-demand supporting actors after cameos and memorable roles in the TV show Community and of course, The Hangover, but Jeong wasn’t a struggling actor before landing some of the biggest comedies in recent years. Knocked Up was actually Jeong’s first film, and before getting into the movie business, Jeong was an internal medicine doctor. He graduated from University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s medical school, completed his residency in New Orleans, but then won a stand-up comedy competition and moved to LA, where he began appearing in top shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Office.
Elisabeth Hasselback, shoe designer: Talk show host Elisabeth Hasselback has just been announced as a new Good Morning America contributor, but before her TV career, she worked as a shoe designer for Puma. Hasselback — then Elisabeth Filarski — graduated with an MFA from Boston College in 1999 and also appeared on Survivor: The Australian Outback during a break from Puma.
Ronald Reagan, movie star: Considered one of the most influential and widely revered presidents in U.S. history, Ronald Reagan won over the American public long before he got into politics. First working as a radio sports announcer after college, Reagan joined the movie business in the late 30s after appearing as an announcer in a film. In all, he acted in over 50 films, the last of which was released in 1964.
Grover Cleveland, sheriff and executioner: Twenty-second President of the United States Grover Cleveland was the first Democrat elected after the Civil War, but his early days in politics were less demonstrative. After losing the race for New York’s Erie County DA, he was elected sheriff for the area, and even carried out hangings personally, to save himself the $10 executioner fee.
Graham Chapman, doctor: Before Monty Python success, Chapman wrote for the BBC and worked on radio and TV series, with John Cleese and other future collaborators. But even before the entertainment business, the British actor and writer studied at the Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry. He met Cleese at this time, and together, the two wrote sketches together. While some sources say that Chapman did not practice medicine professionally, others say that he was a doctor for a few years before turning to show business full time.
Harry Truman, haberdasher: The president who dropped the A-bomb had much more humble beginnings. He was a bank clerk and bookkeeper, served in the National Guard and in WWI, and after the war, opened his own men’s haberdashery store in Kansas City, MO, with a friend.
John Harvey Kellogg, doctor: The man who started Kellogg’s brand cereal — and all their eventual offshoot products — was a doctor before he became an entrepreneur. Inspired by his commitment to health and nutrition, Kellogg was the chief physician at the Western Health Reform Institute of Battle Creek, which promoted healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle. He had nontraditional health beliefs, though: he was convinced most illnesses were caused by bowel irregularity and/or stomach disorders, or by sex (he often claimed that he and his wife of 40 years had never consummated their marriage). A health book author and lecturer, Kellogg and his brother started the Kellogg cereal company and invented wheat and corn flakes, virtually on accident, due to budget constraints and a batch of overcooked dough.