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How Jane Pauley Reimagined Her Career – and Her Life

In an excerpt from her new book, Pauley recounts the steps she took to get herself off the sofa and back into the creative fast lane


by Jane Pauley

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Jane Pauley’s ascension to one of the highest-profile spots in media was nothing less then meteoric. By 25 she had made the move from the local news in Chicago to the anchor seat at The Today Show, a gig she held for 13 years. But after later stints at Dateline and as host of her own daytime show, she found herself in a whole new position: unemployed, middle aged and at a loss what to do next. In this excerpt from her new book Your Life Calling, she describes how she literally picked herself up off the couch and reinvented herself and her career —leading to her Life Reimagined video series, an award-winning collaboration between AARP and Today.

During the final week of my short-lived program The Jane Pauley Show, I had a dream that turned a narrative of failure into something more positive, even empowering. I was a passenger in a small plane, with two other women, including my sister. Suddenly they jumped out! I don’t recall any of us having parachutes, but in a leap of faith, out I went. When I woke up, I remembered that after I touched down softly and safely, I had said to myself, “And she landed on her feet.” I was pretty proud of that dream and enjoyed telling the story about landing on my feet, until time passed and I had to face the fact that I hadn’t gotten very far after my show was cancelled. I didn’t have a good answer to the question “What are you doing these days, Jane?” And after a while the question evolved into “How are you enjoying retirement?” I was not retired! I was looking.

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Moving to a new home across town did not change the fact that several years had passed since I had “landed on my feet.” I was struggling to pull the trigger on the next phase of my life. Evidently, stopping is easier for me then starting. One morning I found an email in my inbox. It was from my son, Tom: Dear Mom, I think the most important thing you can do is FOLLOW THROUGH! You have lots of ideas but it’s time you really took the reigns and tried to make one of them happen. I think you’ve surveyed the field long enough… it’s time to make your move! It was the kind of meddling email I might have sent to one of my kids.

I’m rather well-known is some circles for being generous with free and unsolicited advice. But this was a big wakeup call for me. I’d been reading some of the work of Professor Herminia Ibarra, a leader in career transitions and author of Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career. She observed, “What people get wrong about reinvention is that they think they have to be ready.” It’s a bit counterintuitive, but she argues that seeing change happen prepares the brain for change. She advocates a process of doing first, knowing second. This was a reversal of some basic assumptions I’d had about reinvention. I’m ready to concede now that I’ve been too much “think” and not enough “do.”

I took my sweet time getting my ducks in the water. Reinvention is a process. But I’ve realized that doing first and knowing second turns out to be a good description of the process that finally inspired me, as my son Tom had put it, to make my move. Even after a career notable for the regularity with which opportunity arrived unbidden, in my mid-fifties I didn’t really expect opportunity to come knocking again. I expected I would have to look for it. As one of the people I’ve interviewed recently puts it so well, “Reinvention happens when you realize nothing is going to happen this time unless you make it happen."

Something resonated powerfully when I skimmed a Vogue profile on Jennifer Aniston around that time and came across this quote: “Everything you want most in the world is just beyond the range of your comfort zone.” I realized I was sinking into my own comfort zone, and not just metaphorically. I knew exactly where my comfort zone was: the sofa in my living room. I spent hours there every day. I wasn’t napping. It was my creative command post, my personal R&D department.

I am frankly surprised looking back to see how busy I was in my “fallow” period – generating ideas and testing prospective partnerships. I collected data, quotations, and anecdotes gleaned from articles and books, including multiple citations from the work of Ibarra. She said her research showed that the typical midcareer transition takes about three years. My own midlife reinvention took about four. In my personal experience and observation, reinvention usually doesn’t arrive as an epiphany or single life-changing event. One of the projects I had been working on from my couch was a prospective collaboration with PBS with the working title How We Live. Another was called Practical Inspiration, a live event with experts and exercises and audience participation, all with a particular focus: preparing for our futures. That one was my reality check. My ideas about reinvention were getting some traction. There were a few meetings in borrowed conference rooms, and I realized that everyone around the conference table was looking at me as if I was the boss.

I’ve been blessed with some really great bosses, but one thing I knew for sure was that I didn’t want another. I discovered my inner entrepreneur. I decided to strip my idea down and take my show on the road—alone. I booked some speeches about practical inspiration. I recognized that this was not “it.” But it was a stepping-stone toward something.

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I was in a hotel room with my daughter when I finally saw my own life reimagined. We turned on the TV and by coincidence that morning my old friends Gene Shalit and Willard Scott were both on the Today show. I think that’s why I saw myself in the TV picture again. My Practical Inspiration live-event ideas morphed into segments for television. Within weeks I was pitching a series of pieces about people fifty-plus reinventing their lives, to Today’s executive producer, Jim Bell. He liked the idea. He liked it even better when I found a partner. I’d worked with AARP on an award winning TV special in 2008, and I also knew they were eager to reach out to 80 million baby boomers and no organization knows more about reinvention. The Today show, AARP and me, three trusted American brands, came together to present the series. But I made it happen.

I love newspapers; they’re filled with ideas. I clip articles from them all the time, like one with this headline: “Inspiration is Everywhere but You Have to Be Looking.” If there’s a core message to be found in my own reinvention, that’s probably it. Your Life Calling: Reimagining the rest of your life, by Jane Pauley is available from Simon & Schuster Excerpt from YOUR LIFE CALLING by Jane Pauley Copyright 2014 by Jane Pauley. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY. Photos: The TODAY Show NBC News' Jane Pauley in 1985 Credit: Al Levine/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images Jane Pauley, Central Park, NYC. October 2013.

Credit: Winnie Au