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“There are no second acts in American lives.”
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Last Tycoon, 1941
“I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York’s boom days.”
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, My Lost City, 1932
Like many everyday admirers of American literature, I grew up only hearing the first use of Fitzgerald’s famous quote, which in fact was published posthumously. And like many people who misinterpreted that quote due to a lack of context, I grew up confused, conflicted, and even angry every time I read it. Fitzgerald the social observer worried about the American Dream, but he also celebrated idealism and courage. Would he want to be remembered for an inaccurate observation that is not only untrue but damaging? I doubt it.
Without diving into a diatribe on American literature, let’s just lift from the earlier interpretation of Fitzgerald’s quote and bury the latter forever. To the complete contrary, I assert with full confidence that it is entirely the DNA of American lives to reignite with second acts—in many cases, multiple second acts. In fact you can have as many acts as you want. Your life’s work can be singular, dual, multifaceted, multithreaded, a sine curve of milestones, or a pastiche of overlapping landmarks. If anyone tells you otherwise, run away as far as you can as quickly as you can and clear your mind of the naysayer’s rub.
Our economy is a place that celebrates reinvention. Our democracy is a place where resilience triumphs over cynicism. I believe these things not because I am a Pollyanna motivator (quite the opposite if you know me), but because I see these traits in winners who repeatedly defy the odds. Entrepreneurs, respected leaders, creative professionals who challenge the status quo—they all have to be good at what they do, but they all get knocked down for believing that change has to happen. They seldom bring change to the world on their first try, and when they win, they seldom win once. Why is that? Because before Act One is over, Act Two is in the works, and probably Act Three.
There is only one thing that can prevent an Act Two curtain from rising: Your own decision that a failure is too much to bear. The Information Age has turned that notion wholeheartedly on its head. As long as there is learning extracted from failure, failure is a pit stop, not an endpoint. As long as risk is sufficiently mitigated to bypass a cataclysmic wipeout of resources, you are not failing if you are learning. You are on a path to where you need to go. You are on your way to Act Two.
Read Walter Issacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. We all know Jobs founded Apple. Then he got kicked out of his own company for being an uncontrollable rebel, the very thing that put Apple on the map. Jobs gets fired around p.206 in Chapter 17. He is personally devastated, emotionally crushed. That’s when his Act Two begins. The book ends on p.571 in Chapter 42. Through it all, Jobs’s Act Two is fueled by a spirit of resilience and a commitment to personal reinvention. He lives an arc that resonates.
Read Neil Gabler’s biography of Walt Disney. Disney Bros. loses control of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit around p.109 in Chapter 3. Mickey Mouse is born in Chapter 4. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves—which simultaneously almost crushed Disney’s financial interests and then put the Disney name into American lore forever—arrives in Chapter 6. Disneyland doesn’t even make an appearance until Chapter 10. The book continues until Chapter 11 is finally exhausted on p.633. If you’re looking to count second acts, start early.
Reinvention does not only apply to the famous. When I personally decided to return to writing after a twenty-five year hiatus, a lot of people made snide remarks, both to my face and behind my back. I had enjoyed a respected career in management at the intersection of entertainment and technology, but I never wanted to consider that my whole story. Starting over and writing a novel with a half-century under my belt seemed absurd to almost everyone around me. I would be competing with established authors who had amassed a lifetime of credits. I would be doing it for a fraction of the income I earned previously. There was absolutely no way to predict critical or commercial success of any kind. Critics can be harsh, public evaluation even more ominous. It was a challenge filled with possibility, a path to sharing ideas with authenticity and voice that was mine. That sounded like a decent Act Two to me. I wonder what Act Three will be.
In my new book, Endless Encores, a seasoned CEO spends an entire evening stranded in an airport executive club talking with a rising young manager who is about to hit the wall on his first failure. The less experienced leader is terrified that all he has ever wanted to achieve is about to be lost in a single product cycle. It’s a business parable, with only a few simple plot points, yet it encompasses a Socratic dialogue around what it means to learn from failure. Daphne, the veteran, has survived a seemingly infinite number of product launches, enough of them successful to keep her in the game. Paul, the rookie, comes to learn what it means to embrace resilience and reinvent himself to form a career of linking “acts” that over time reveal the arc of his personal development.
Neither Daphne nor Paul would ever buy into the idea of a terminal Act Two, let alone Act One. That’s a driving factor in the purpose that underlies their lives. Products have to sell, but more importantly, teams have to work well together and values have to emerge as shared conduits to satisfaction. Few of us get this right the first time. No one gets it right every time. You don’t have to get it right every time. You just have to know that potential for improvement always exists, recognize the aspiration for excellence as a mandate, and approach the ideal with unbridled enthusiasm. The curtain goes up on Act Two when you commit the passion to ensuring that it happens.
Don’t misquote or misunderstand Fitzgerald. Don’t tell me there are no second acts in our lives. As long as you are learning and readying yourself for what comes next, you can start anew any time you want. The courage to pursue that can only come from you.
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