Prophet of Zoom: What Does it Take?

The art of reinvention and second acts

Recently I made a return pilgrimage to one of the largest television program markets in the world, MIP (Marché International de Production), held annually in Cannes, France. I hadn’t been there in a while, so it was nostalgic to catch up with people I knew from my many MIP’s past. People who had climbed to top leadership positions in the industry seemed especially eager to talk, to find out more about what I was doing now and how it was going. It slowly dawned on me that they were approaching that moment so many of us of a similar age have known, facing enforced retirement and having suddenly to reinvent themselves. They knew I’d preceded them down that road with ZoomerMedia, so they were eager for detail and wondered if I had any crucial tips.

I had one, a fundamental tip for anyone embarking on a second career (particularly people who have achieved mastery but not ultimate control in a particular field): autonomy is the most important thing. Be your own boss. Among other things, bosses live longer.

Here are three people who had Famously Successful Second Careers and who each have their own lessons to impart.

1. Colonel Sanders (1890-1980)

Jack of all trades who, at 65, became the Master of secret spices.
Second Career Lesson: It doesn’t matter how old you are when you make the change: if it’s the right one, you’ll live a long time.

As a younger man, Harland David Sanders worked variously as a streetcar conductor, ferry boat operator, and lawyer. He eventually became the proprietor of a restaurant cum gas station and motel near Corbin, Ky. When an interstate highway opened seven miles away, business waned, and in 1952 he started concocting his Secret Spice Mixture for frying chicken and selling franchises. He sold his American holdings in 1964 for a mere $2 million, then moved to Mississauga, Ont., to oversee his Canadian franchises which he had retained. After selling his Canadian stock, he continued to work as ambassador for KFC. He worked almost till he died, at the age of 90, at which point KFC had 18,875 outlets in 118 countries, with yearly revenue of US$23 billion, second only to McDonald’s. “There’s no reason to be the richest man in the cemetery,” the Colonel once said. “You can’t do any business from there.”

2. Anna Mary Robertson (Grandma) Moses (1860–1961)

Farm housewife who, at 78, became a world-famous folk painter.
Second Career Lesson: Have the last laugh.

Anna Maria Robertson Moses, who was born in rural New York a year before the Civil War, helped clean farmhouses and raised her family for the next seven decades. By her mid-70s, arthritis made doing embroidery, a hobby, too painful. Her sister suggested painting instead. Moses ultimately painted more than 1,500 canvasses, initially selling them for $3 to $5 but eventually for $10,000 a piece. (In 2006, The Sugaring Off sold for US$1.2 million.) Moses stubbornly left modern details out of her paintings, which were regularly described as primitive art. “A primitive artist,” she retorted, “is an amateur whose work sells.” She died at 101, in 1961, the same year the first human was launched into space.

3. Fidel Castro (1926-2016)

Baseball player who, at 33, became Supreme Cuban Ruler for Life.
Second Career Lesson: If you own the company – or the country – nobody can tell you when to stop!

In the mid-1940s, Fidel Castro was a University of Havana undergraduate who loved baseball even more than he did Marxism. Castro pitched for the university’s baseball team and was so good that in 1949 the New York Giants offered him a contract. At a then astounding $5,000 signing bonus. Castro turned the Giants down. Ten years later, he took over Cuba. Did he make the right choice, second career-wise? The longest uninterrupted major league baseball game, 25 innings, took seven hours and four minutes to play. The longest speech Fidel ever gave, in Havana in 1986, lasted seven hours and 10 minutes. And he could have gone on longer, much longer if he wanted.

Like I said, autonomy above all (if you possibly can).