I Used to Be Somebody: (Un)Retirement Lessons Learned
Super-Fan (Un)Retirement Success Stories: Robert Francis James
Diana Landau | January 04, 2021
Based in our nation’s capital, Bob James enjoyed a 40-year career in marketing and PR. His clients included tech companies, manufacturers, financial services firms, publishers, trade associations, and government agencies. Besides steering clients’ campaigns, Bob spent much of the 40 years’ time writing copy, contributing articles and op-eds to trade magazines and to big-city newspapers like Newsday and The Washington Post. He even ghost-wrote speeches for a U.S. President (hint: the one who starred opposite a chimp in the 1951 film “Bedtime for Bonzo”).
Bob climbed off the marketing merry-go-round the day he turned 65, devoting the next 18 months to the hunt for a second career. “I’d been working 40 hours a week since I was 19, and was happy to step out of the rat race,” Bob told us.
“That said, I felt unmoored after I dropped out. While I told myself that was okay—I was taking a ‘gap year’—still I’d spend my mornings obsessively watching podcasts and reading books and blogs about retirement lifestyles and ‘encore careers,’ making lists of possible second-act careers.
“But none of the business pursuits I landed on felt quite right—or, indeed, sustainable. I tried a part-time job, but hated it and quit after three days (the red uniform required didn’t help my morale). At one point, I even started to draft business plans—one for a trade publishing company, one for a tour operator, and the third for a recycling firm. But all those ventures seemed formidable, exhausting, and way too risky. The research I did only persuaded me that the businesses were personal dead ends.
“Meanwhile, I filled my afternoons drawing and painting and studying with great teachers at two of the local arts centers. Those pursuits soon became the highlights of my week, second only to joining my wife on Fridays for Happy Hour at the pub down the block.
“Then, suddenly, one day in class I dashed off a painting the teacher (not kiddingly) called a ‘masterpiece,’ and I realized that—with enough effort—I could move beyond ‘hobby painter’ to ‘professional painter’ status.
"Strange as it sounds, Covid-19 pushed me to act on that thought. Locked down and unable to venture outside much, I instead hired an artist’s consultant. With her guidance, I built a website, launched a blog, commissioned a logo, printed business cards, joined local arts organizations, and applied for exhibitions and fairs. The new business was up and running in less than four months, at a cost of less than $5,000.
“The best way to prepare for your second-act career is to pursue a passion project—or two or three—without any thought of monetizing them. Then, one day, things will click, and you’ll be off to the races!"
Bob now paints small expressionist still lifes in oil. He spends his days on the lookout for objects that evoke tranquility and domesticity, and paints them in a realistic fashion. By applauding the plain and prosaic, Bob’s paintings ask viewers to slow down, step back, stop doing and start looking—if only for a moment.