Some thoughts on changing direction

The letter below is a response I wrote to Alan Gage on his blog. After writing it, I realized a few of my own blog readers might find it interesting. Alan is a young man whose family owns an automobile repair shop like mine in Estherville, Iowa. I’ve known his father Roy for a number of years online, and I’ve recently met Alan, who has set out to travel the country in his van. He’s got a blog about the journey here

To Alan:

I’m not surprised to hear that you want a new career. Having read your father’s stories for many years on IATN, it’s clear there more than cars in his own life and probably yours, too. Both you and your father have shown a talent for writing, and you obviously like going out and having different life experiences, so perhaps you’d enjoy reporting and writing. Maybe books, maybe newspapers, maybe online. There’s real promise in the storytelling I see from both you and your dad.

I too am in the midst of changing careers, or perhaps more accurately, adding a new career to the ones I’ve already accumulated. I’ve run Robison Service (my automobile shop) for 20+ years, but I always looked for something more. For the past ten or so years, I’ve told friends and customers that I wanted to get out of commerce and do something that benefits society. And I wanted to do something creative.

I took up photography but I could not see a good path to turn it into a living. So many photographers just barely scrape by. I thought of other things, but I just never got moving. And my commitments to my family and company tied me to the local area.

Then my brother, my friends and family encouraged me to write a book, and I decided to give it a try. The result, Look Me in the Eye, has been amazingly well received. It goes on sale everywhere in just over a week. My publisher has sent out copies to reviewers and booksellers and responses from readers have already started coming in.

Those responses, things like, “Your book is a window into the mind of my non-verbal child” have come to mean more to me that anything customers at our car company may say. Because I now see that cars are just cars, and a book that touches people and gives them hope or inspiration will always be more important in many ways.

The cars I fix will, for the most part, be recycled into lawn chairs, tin cans, and dishwashers in ten years. But my books will live on, in libraries, homes, and bookstores. Even online. If my voice is an inspiration to a young person today, it will still be inspirational to young people when I am gone. Given a choice, who wouldn’t choose such a legacy?

It’s hard to read letters from readers telling me how my story inspired them, or helped their child, or helped them be a better teacher, and then try to find enthusiasm for talking about changing water pumps in the shop. There’s a whole different level of caring from readers to customers, at least in those instances.

And yet the shop has brought many wonderful people into my life, and I’ve loved machines all my life too. So I’m not really ready to walk away from it, but I am ready to step back a bit. I’m ready to be an inspiration and a figurehead, as it were, while I let our younger staff take over the daily tasks. I’m ready to focus on the wonderful custom projects that I love – the six hundred horsepower Bentleys or the mountain climbing Land Rovers – and leave the routine service and repair work to our crew.

And as an aside, it’s those project cars that will be a vehicular legacy for me – collector vehicles that leave our shop and live forever, or at least a long time, in the hands of enthusiasts who love them as they would a devoted pet.

With that realization, I find the whole trajectory of my life is changing. Everything I thought was constant – career, places, people – all is about to change. My destiny, at least for now, is to be a writer. The only uncertainty is, how will I make a living? Will I sell enough books to support myself? We’ll soon see . . .

For now, it’s a real struggle, because I have to help the car company grow up and find its way with less input from me. It’s almost like watching a child growing up and leaving home. I don’t know what direction it will take, but with all the publicity that will soon surround me and my book, it will have many options. As will I, personally.

The people at the company have the biggest opportunity of their lives, but a lot of uncertainty too. So it’s an anxious time all around. But I think both they company and I will make this transition successfully. I’ll continue to be a source of inspiration and ideas, and I’ll meet and talk to fellow car enthusiasts, but I’ll be a step back from doing the actual work.

Now, to get back to writing . . .

The fact that this book sprang forth from me, at age fifty, should be an inspiration to you, Alan, and anyone else who wonders if they can change direction in their own life. My book is proof one can reach inward and change direction in very fundamental ways. It sounds like you want more from life, too, and I hope you find it in your travels.

Sometimes people change, and all of a sudden what they have isn’t enough. And many times, the “enough” is a spiritual thing, not a material one. One can be quite affluent, and still have little connection to humanity at large. Many folks become lost when that happens. Some, like me, are able to choose a new path and follow it. I think being Aspergian helps me in that regard.

If the “more” in your own life is indeed a spiritual thing, there are many paths to fulfillment. Creative work, writing, photography, film making . . . those are obvious directions. Some take up missionary work, and there are many causes one can support with missionary zeal – it’s not just about religion. There’s the search for cures, teaching our children, fixing our cities. There’s even politics. Others join aid organizations and help the less fortunate in the third world. The Internet offers limitless opportunity for creative expression. There are many possibilities, and you just need to find the right one for this point in your own life. The four careers I’ve had in my thirty year working life should show that choices like these needn’t be the “only one” or the “forever one.” I wish you luck with your search, and I hope you do make it to New York for my appearance on the 25th as you wrote me yesterday.


Your words bing a measure of hope. Not that I can change careers, but that I can start over, with little more than my belief that I can be more than I am, and the ability to string two words together.

In some ways, it might be easier for me, as I have fewer opportunities. We thought about selling everything, and going to work in the developing world, but our debt level would still be overwhelming. We've thought about moving to Oregon wine country, but simply don't have the cash.

And so we write, in a small fishing village in Nova Scotia, hoping that better days lie ahead, especially when you're doing something you love.

Great post. Thanks!
Move over Dr. Phil. The real deal has come to town. This is a beautiful letter, John. From the heart. Just like all of your writing.
The Muse said…

Isn't it wonderful to have the encouragement and support of SO many people? Everyone has such high hopes for you and this book. As a friend, it has been a remarkable thing to watch you evolve and grow throughout this whole process of giving birth to this book. Although ask any mother, the last two weeks of waiting in pregnancy are the longest and most excruciatingly difficult. But people always advised me towards the end to cherish this quiet time. Your last few days of solace before your baby is born and the book hits the streets. Life will never, ever be the same again for you, John. Although this book sprang forth from you, the book will take on a life of its own. It will expand and enrich your life. Your fans will grow exponentially and your story will be embraced by quite possibly millions of people. It will take you on adventures and cultivate your life's experiences in ways that you never imagined possible. And like a beloved child that has been nurtured, it will mirror back to you all of the devotion and love that you put into it.

This journey started after September 11th when you decided that you wanted “to get out of commerce”. I believe that single traumatizing event created a whole group of people in society that are searching for “more” meaning and purpose in our lives. The “more” seed was planted on that dreadful day. Over the last 6 years you have gone through the process of incubation and fostering the development of this book. You have come to terms with your Asperger’s and your painful childhood. And as Kanani so eloquently put it in her review, “There were at least fifty reasons why Robison should have failed.” Your book will be an inspiration to untold numbers of people, not just those in the autism community. After reading LMITE people will say, “My word, if this guy can overcome the obstacles that he had, then what’s my excuse?”

John, you are right where you are supposed to be right now. Everything that has happened in your life, all the pain, the alienation, and the struggles has brought you to this pinnacle. At 50 you have found your purpose and your passion; and I even believe after reading this heartfelt post, that you have found your faith again…

PS. So remember on September 25th to take DEEP BREATHS, RELAX, and PUSH your way through it. The pain of childbirth is a fleeting blur -compared to the rewards. You will have lots of coaches to cheer you on, especially all of your blog friends.
The Anti-Wife said…
John, this is very well put. As one who has completely changed directions a couple of times I know it can be a little scary at first, but the rewards are well worth it in the end.

Looking forward to your book!
Holly Kennedy said…
Nice post, John.

Changing directions can be one of the most difficult things a person ever does, especially when it means taking an emotional risk (ie., facing potential failure) AND a financial one as well.

But the older I get the more I believe we should be happy while we're here, and if that means taking a few risks, then so be it.

I left my career behind in 2000 and here I am, seven years later, getting my third novel published. It's been an exhilarating ride, and I feel very fortunate (and thankful) to be where I am today.

I cannot wait for LMITE's release date! Double Woof from Canada :)
ORION said…
As another who changed directions after 50 I concur. It's much sweeter pursuing the dream.
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michelle O'Neil said…
"Will I sell enough books to support myself?"

Surely, you jest!

: )

We're all waiting.......
Tena Russ said…
What a beautiful and inspiring post, John.

You have addressed some important concerns: What will my legacy be? Am I merely taking up space on the planet? How can I be of service to others?

Speaking a fellow "post-youth" person, I believe that reinventing one's self when the old model seems outdated or lacking in some way is essential and appropriate.

You are becoming a "village elder" (no pun intended); one who sets the good example and brings hope to the tribe. You're passing the torch of enlightenment to the next guy behind you on the mountain.

Know that you will be successful in your writing because you are doing what you were born to do.
Anonymous said…
That's a lovely letter.

As someone who is transitioning out of a career that was my safety for over twenty years (whoever would have thought I'd consider the transitional life in the theatre "safe"?) into full-time writing -- I relate to much of what you say.

I've run dual careers for the last ten years and it's too exhausting. I have to make a choice, and I'm choosing writing.

You're an inspiration.

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