Carl Jung once wrote, “The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” Sounds just great, but on a nitty-gritty level, how do we do that?
The short answer: It’s different for everyone. There’s no singular path to living authentically.
Transformation can spark when folks reconnect with a long-forgotten dream or a beloved passion. Or when they find themselves in the midst of turmoil — a crisis of faith or circumstance, or both — and feel pushed to make a leap for the better despite the risk.
We asked 13 people between the ages of 29 and 61 to share their most compelling stories of identity transformation and how they live now.
Share your own stories in the comments. Reinvention comes for us all, eventually!
New Job, New Life
Acacia Berry, 39
Archaeologist and Digital Strategist, Archaeological Analytics
For years, I had worked as a museum educator in archaeology and anthropology, as well as in the field. When the field started moving in a digital direction, I started creating digital collections and noticed that most institutions were missing the mark.
As an employee, I sometimes felt that there was little I could do to change things for the better [because of institutional culture]. So I decided to open a digital strategy company to promote cultural heritage, making high science digestible to general audiences.
Learning how to be a businessperson has been a whole lifestyle shift. For example, I used to think in terms of immediate gratification — you get a paycheck, you go out and spend it. Now, I think more in terms of sustainability. The process of creating revenue takes a long time to perfect but the impact, and my satisfaction, is greater.
Andrew S., 53
I was 41, working in finance, and burned out, when a friend asked me to invest in his 100-seat restaurant overseas. I agreed. The months went on, and I was writing huge checks to cover losses. The place was in turmoil. Eventually, I let everyone go, moved, and became a restaurateur overnight.
The first thing I realized was that It was great not having a boss. And after years of dealing with mostly bankers and lawyers, I met a whole different group of people from disparate industries, backgrounds, races, sexual preferences, and nationalities. I gave away too many free drinks, but that was part of the joy around the many challenges.
If coronavirus hadn’t happened, the restaurant would still be going. I’m back home with my wife and trading again and thinking about starting my own company. What I do to earn a living has never been a huge part of my identity. However, my restaurant experience has changed me. I know that whatever I do next has to be socially useful.
Sunita Kramer, 50
Associate Vice President, Rutgers University
As a fruit fly biologist, I studied how an embryo builds a heart. I ran a laboratory, applied for grant funding and published papers. But whenever I’d gather with other scientists, I never felt fully engaged. It wasn’t until I went to a prestigious conference in Greece and thought, This isn’t where I want to be, that I began looking for other ways to apply my scientific training and mentoring skills.
Because I’d never really explored what I wanted to do, that process took time and a lot of introspection. Eventually, I learned that Rutgers University was starting a new academic program from scratch. The entrepreneurial aspect appealed to me, so I applied. Now, I lead on experiential learning and training for undergraduates, designing a brand-new experience for students. I help them figure out what they care about, instead of feeling pressured to choose a major.
A colleague recently pointed out, “You used to work on fruit fly hearts and now you work on student’s hearts.” That made me cry. I really feel like I’ve found my true calling.
Robert Schwartz, 55
College Admissions Consultant
At 45, my once thriving TV/film writing career was in the dumpster, and I had just met my now-wife. When I asked her to move in with me, she said — to her credit — “Get a job first.” I had just interviewed with a company looking for a writer with a background in TV/film/journalism to work with graduate school applicants on their admissions essays. When they didn’t hire me, I blindly started my own company. That first year, I had four applicants. Ten years later, I average 100 per year. I am proudly a nationally-known and frequently quoted, admissions consultant.
The kids are all awesome. There’s just nothing better than teaching high school seniors how to express themselves and empower them to write about what matters to them, like their sexual identity or body image issues, or world affairs and the changes they want to see. I have the best job. I’ve never been happier.
Jeanne Rosier Smith, 54
Artist at Jeanne Smith Fine Art
In my twenties and early thirties, I was an English professor, teaching and publishing scholarly articles and a book, and caring for my young children. The closer I got to a tenure-track teaching job, though, the more I wondered if that’s what I really wanted.
I had been an artist since childhood but never thought of it as a possible career path — who does? Yet as more people offered to pay for my paintings, I began to think a career switch might be possible. My mother’s death from cancer at a young age gave me the freedom to finally decide at age 35, despite having invested ten years in going down one career path, that it was time to do what I love.
I have been a full-time artist for 18 years and I love this life. I’ve gained confidence as a business owner, and now work with eight galleries. My job is literally to seek out the beautiful and inspiring, and then to celebrate and communicate it. What could be more satisfying than that?
Maggie Moore, 47
When I married my first husband in 2003, I said yes to an unhealthy dynamic — affirming an old self-concept, me as the troubled one, the black sheep. The more I took blame in conflict, the more despondent I became. Ten years later, he was dying and as I watched his body disintegrate, every bad feeling I’d ever had about myself suddenly seemed useless. This my time to claim my passion.
Slowly after his death, I started having fun again, playing music, dancing, and creating. It wasn’t until I met the love of my life and became a bonus mom that I started to think more seriously about integrating the epiphanies I’d had in 2013. I knew I wanted to help people.
Now, as a Reiki practitioner, I created an energy program around the concept of remembering that we are here as spiritual beings. Sharing my journey from black sheep to light worker helps to create safe spaces [for people]. I used to think I was too much. I don’t think that anymore. I think I’m fabulous.
Susan Coss, 54
Co-founder and Director of Mezcalitas
When I turned 40, I left the tech world to follow my real passion, which was food and agriculture. I quit my high-paying job to figure out what “working in food” meant. After co-founding Eat Real, a popular food festival, in 2011, I opened Mezcalitas, a media and events company. Just as everything started coming together for Mezcalistas, my sister passed away unexpectedly, and I took on the guardianship of my 8-year-old nephew.
My life was about as child-unfriendly as imaginable. I was a proud career woman and never had any interest in having children or getting married. Turns out, learning to become a parent was my greatest pivot of all. It’s now been nine years and despite every challenge thrown our way, we have somehow survived — and even thrived.
Evelyn Thompson, 45
Business Information Security Officer
In 2019, I was depressed and looking for any answer except the truth, which is that I am transgender. My marriage was on the rocks, and I moved out.
Sitting alone in a new apartment, I had to ask myself, What are you willing to lose in order to live that reality? I had to be willing to lose my relationship, my job, and any friends who might react negatively. But I knew I could find people who were accepting and had friends I could lean on for support. That got me to the point of coming out as a woman and living more authentically.
My employer has been wonderful. My wife has been very supportive, but we’re separated now, due to the internal changes this transition has exposed. There’s a comfortable lie about gender transition, that you’re the same person you’ve always been. For me, that hasn’t been the case at all. I always left friendships and socializing up to my wife, but now I’m developing new friendships. I also realized that I’m polyamorous and most fulfilled having multiple romantic relationships.
Transgender people are either vilified or fetishized in popular culture. That is the reality of what we deal with. But living authentically and being who I am is worth it. I’m comfortable in my skin in a way I never have been and have found a richness and depth of relationships that wasn’t there before.
Ed Romanoff, 61
CEO and Founder, Musician
In my late 40s, I attended a weeklong seminar to address my panic attacks and left with surprising clarity: to pursue songwriting, a long-lost childhood dream. For years I’d put it off, believing I was tone deaf, like my father. I had to let go of that self-limiting belief, along with my business-guy identity — which is ironic because doing that led me to unearth a shocking truth about my true identity, that my father wasn’t my father.
Shortly after the seminar, I went to a songwriting workshop and set an intention to write a song that other people might hear. The teacher invited me to work with her on a song that, sure enough, got played on the radio, alongside Bruce Springsteen. My co-writer, who was adopted, asked me to take a DNA test with her. I did, out of friendship. That’s how I learned that I am half-Irish, not 100% Russian.
The search for my biological father was a long and winding road. Two years ago, I finally found my dad, who is a singer. This made me look at my pursuit of music somewhat differently — it was more than a dream — it was in my DNA.
Mackenzie Evans, 38
Mack of All Trades
After struggling with drugs, alcohol, depression, and rage for basically my entire life, everything changed on September 5, 2017. Some people say getting sober allowed them to return to the person they once were. My quest in sobriety has led me to become a person I never even dreamed I could be. From self-loathing to self-loving, selfish to putting others first, sad to content, rageful to peaceful. I never even knew what I was capable of.
Once I was able to live one day at a time without substances, that’s when the real work began. I now address problems objectively, find solutions through prayer and meditation, and have turned my need for “instant gratification” into “instant gratitude.” All ever I wanted was not to want to die every day. Now I am living a life I never thought possible. My happiness is not determined by outside sources, but from within, and I am forever changed because I got sober.
Yahia Lababidi, 47
Fifteen years ago, I left Egypt and my job as a speechwriter at UNESCO to return to the US, where I’d gone to college. I’d been writing in Egypt, but hadn’t published any books. In pursuit of my art, I left the safety net of my job, home, family, everything.
There’s a Rumi quote, What you seek is seeking you. When I came here, I didn’t know what I was seeking. In time, I realized that my pursuit wasn’t really about getting a book or two published. More and more, I find writing to be a spiritual calling. I’m mining my roots more deeply, whether it’s Persian Poetry or Sufi mysticism and finding that writing is a way to hear myself in a way I hadn’t been able to before. My ninth book, Learning to Pray, will be out at the end of this year.
With reinvention, we may take a first conscious step and then we discover that once things are set in motion, the transformation is not ours to control.
Reinvention as a Way of Life
Breeshia Wade, 29
Author, Buddhist End-of-life Caregiver, and Grief Expert
I’ve reinvented myself many times in my career: software developer to birth doula to lay ordained Buddhist end-of-life caregiver (hospice and hospitals), back to tech and finally, to grief consultant. However, the reinvention I’m most grateful for is learning to lean into my relationship to impermanence by using the lessons I’ve learned in end-of-life care so that I can be intentional about how I live my life, up until the end — whenever it comes.
I began practicing Buddhism sincerely when I was around 22, and that combined with my end-of-life profession opened me up to my own fear of loss and grief, especially the way I clung to health, youth, wealth, and power. Now I experience myself as less clinging and more embracing, grateful for what the gift of impermanence has given me. I’ve transformed into a person who doesn’t need to feel in control all the time to feel powerful; I do not view vulnerability as weakness. Above all, I’m not always reacting to, or running from, potential loss.
Kambri Crews, 49
Storyteller/Comedian, Bestselling Author, and Club Owner
I grew up poor in the deep woods of Texas and became a banker. Then, I moved to New York and worked at a law firm. Then, I launched my own PR company. A storyteller and comedian, in 2012, I published Burn Down the Ground, a memoir about my turbulent childhood filled with domestic violence, poverty, and homelessness. The book centers on my relationship with my father, who was deaf and serving 20 years in a Texas prison for attempted murder. Now I own a comedy club, QED.
When I reach the top of one mountain, I want another one to climb. Since COVID, I’ve become politically engaged, helping write a bill that just got introduced in the New York State Senate, protecting business owners from personal liability on commercial leases. I’ve always liked being a champion for people like my dad, in terms of prison reform and advocacy for the Deaf community. So maybe politics is where I can effect change. I don’t know how to run for office, but I didn’t know how to open a comedy club, either, and here we are. (Photo by Phil Provencio)