A nerdy lawyer yearns to be a stand-up comic. A woman opens a doggy daycare only to be overwhelmed by her canine clientele. A couple that pursues their dream of managing a bed and breakfast find themselves in B&B hell. It’s difficult enough to change careers at any age. But when you’re over 50 it can be especially challenging. You can meet the aforementioned people and others on Second Act, a series premiering this Thursday, 8 p.m. Eastern time on RLTV. The reality show takes boomers who are at a critical transition point and arms them with the tools they’ll need to succeed. (Click here to see a preview of the show.)
Paul DiMeo, the carpenter and designer best known for his work on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, is the host and assesses the participants' strengths and their challenges. Then he assembles a team of experts to provide encouragement, advice and assistance to help the participants get off on the right foot.
I spoke to DiMeo about the show, its lessons for all of us and where he sees his career going.
How did you get involved in Second Act?
I was contacted by RLTV after Home Edition got canceled. I thought it sounded pretty cool, not making over homes but instead telling stories of boomers who are risking it all to find their purpose in life as they get older — leaving jobs that might have been mundane.
What is the message of your show?
Like so many TV shows, it’s follow your dreams. Just go out and try. There’s no reason to sit back after, say, 25 years of working for the government. Maybe you’ve always wanted to be a comedian. Then give it a shot. Work toward it with all the experience you’ve learned over the years.
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Does one need a team of experts to make that leap?
Yes, you can’t do it blindly. We have groups of experts that help with marketing and money management. We have life coaches that say if you’re going to do this then here are some of the consequences, risks and rewards. For a lawyer who wants to be a stand-up comic we brought in Bette Midler’s comedy coach. He’s a comedy writer who can help make our guy's humor a little more current.
On the show I keep saying to the lawyer, "Don’t fight who you are." He’s an attorney for the federal government. It’s a big jump for him. I say to him, "Listen, there’s got to be humor in what you do in that world. Let’s talk about the things we know and find the humor in that." This also helps him look at himself. In the end, he does make people laugh. Is he going to be the next Jerry Seinfeld? I don’t know. But is he better for risking it and going out and trying? Yes, he is.
What's the wildest leap anyone has taken on the show so far?
I think the attorney’s pretty wild. Another story I love is Wanda Whiteside, who had a theater and lost it due to funding a few years ago. She’s 55 now and is risking it all to open a theater again in Silver Springs, Md. I think that’s a big leap — doing it, getting knocked down, then standing up and doing it again. That takes a great deal of courage.
Who do you bring in to help her?
Wanda is doing theater for the African-American culture in Silver Springs. There’s no African-American theater there now. So we brought in someone who knows about grants, the wording needed to write them and where the money is in the city to get it. She never knew that existed. What she knows is local playwrights who are writing stories that are current for the youths of Baltimore; she's picking kids and giving them something to do. She is giving them a place to rehearse, an opportunity to follow their dreams and professional actors too. As far as getting the funding for that, she hasn’t a clue.
Sounds like the show is saying, "If you want to take a leap, go ahead, but know there is help out there. Be pro-active and find the people that can help you make that happen." Is that right?
Exactly right. I know I’m so damn stubborn I don’t do it myself sometimes. In my field we have agents and managers. My wife is always saying to me, "Why aren’t you talking to your agent? Why aren’t you staying on top of it?" It’s just not who I am. If someone were telling my story they’d put me together with somebody who’d do that.
What are some dos and don’ts you’ve learned from the show?
The dos are get help. Find a marketing person or a grant writer. Find somebody who knows what a nonprofit is, if you’re starting one. Pay yourself a salary if you’re starting a business. Make sure you have all of that in your business plan. And if you don’t, then find someone who can put that in there for you. As for the don’ts, some of them I disagree with.
Don’t risk it all.
Why is that?
Well, because I think sometimes you have to. There are people out there who are already doing it and risking it all. And they may be 25 years younger than you. So if you’re going to go into it half-assed, I don’t see the point.
You’ve had some pretty big career switches: actor, stage manager, a restorer of celebrity homes. Did you risk it all each time?
Yes, but I never had children. That was a choice that my wife and I made throughout our 25 years of togetherness. We can take risks because it only affects us. However, I would think if you are 55 years old and still have children at home you would have to be a little gentler in how you approach a risk like starting a new career.
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How do you think our generation is different from our parents?
Funny, but I was just thinking about my dad when he was my age. I never perceived him as being old, but I know that his friends did. For his 50th birthday they gave him a cane and a walking stick. At 50 years old I think I got myself a surfboard.
You’re from an Italian-American family in Pennsylvania. Can you tell me about your parents who raised five kids?
My father died three years ago. He started painting water colors at age 60 and spent the last 30 years of his life reinventing himself, even though he didn’t sell many of his works. But it kept him busy for four to five hours of the day down in the basement. My mother is still living at home. We just got her a new hearing aid. She’s still driving in the neighborhood at 89 years of age. She plays bridge, goes to Bible study and is out and about. I’m very lucky to have had the parents I have. At the end of the day, if I’ve done something that I feel would make my parents proud, it was a good day.
Did you get your ability to reinvent yourself from your father?
I think so. I just don’t know any other way to live. You can call it reinvention, but it's just making sure that today is better than yesterday. I think the journey toward something is really, really important, even if we don’t get to the mountaintop.
My wife and I dream of moving to the Bay Area north of San Francisco. I’m reinventing myself to becoming a farmer. I want to start making goat cheese. Maybe in time I’ll start making burrata cheese from buffalo milk. Nobody makes it here. I think that would be a fun thing. I’m doing all of the research, studying the chemistry. It’s a blast reading about making cheese.
You’re always described in oxymoronic terms: a man’s man who easily cries, a grumpy but sensitive perfectionist. Who are you?
I guess I don’t know. I’m still trying to find that out. I do know I am someone who is willing to drop everything to go to Northern California and become a goat cheese farmer. I don’t know how smart that is. I’ve never been with goats before.
I like listening to people and having them tell me their stories, especially when they’re impassioned about it. And I like throwing myself into their world and seeing what that’s like. I always thought opening a bed and breakfast would be one of the coolest things. We’re telling a story on the show of a couple who have a beautiful B&B in Roanoke, Va. But after seeing how hard they’re working I took that one off the plate. We have another story of a wonderful couple who battled a lot of stuff to open a restaurant, which is now doing really, really well in Baltimore. Opening a restaurant sounds fun and romantic, but when I see how hard that is I say no to it, too. But these people are risking everything to do it. It’s fun for them. They love doing it.
(MORE: A Midlife Career Shift Against All Odds)
You’re involved in building houses for Habitat for Humanity. What does volunteering mean to you?
I think volunteering keeps you humble. At the end of the day you feel like you’ve done something to help somebody else. It’s pretty cool. Volunteering doesn’t just mean Habitat for Humanity, though. You can do it on your own. It can be shoveling Mrs. Smith’s driveway next door. Go to a children’s hospital and play Santa Claus. If you see a piece of garbage on the street, bend down, pick it up and throw it in a garbage can.
How do you feel about reality shows like House Hunters? I’m referring to all of those home buyers who can’t imagine living in less than 5,000 square feet.
I don’t get it. My wife and I lived in a 130-square foot apartment in Manhattan. That’s 10 by 13 feet. My wife managed to cook some wonderful meals in that apartment. I was once working with somebody who was building a house. When he said he wanted just about 1,200 square feet I said to him that’s wonderful. He said, ‘Yeah, I don’t want to have to chase my wife around 4,000 square feet when I get older, I want to be able to catch her quickly.”
If you become a goat cheese farmer, will you still do carpentry?
I’ll continue to keep my tools very close by. The wonderful thing about being a carpenter is that if the end of the world should come about, you always have your tools to rebuild. It’s humbling work to have built a ramp or a deck or fix a hot water heater. At the end of the day it’s good to have broken a sweat.
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