Roughly two-thirds of adults are not happy in their current job, and yet they don’t do anything about it. After a successful 40-year career in the hospitality industry, most recently as the exhibition director of IBTM America, Philadelphia-based meetings industry veteran Mike Lyons shares his story of how he walked away from a secure job to pursue his passion to be a professional speaker and actor.
From the age of 10, all I ever wanted to be was an actor. Instinctively, as the years went by I knew that was my calling and I pointed myself in that direction by honing my craft in numerous stage plays and working at the now defunct Valley Forge Music Fair theater. But that goal was eventually sidetracked by the realities of life and my own personal choices: I chose to get married young, and I chose to go into the business world instead of pursuing my acting career. Why? Because I fell prey to fear and my own insecurities, and dwelled on the uncertainty and inherent risks that an acting career brings, instead of focusing on being successful. At the time I was too young and ignorant to realize that risk is worth taking if you believe in yourself (ah, youth…wasted on the young, as they say). And so I abandoned that path and attended to the needs of my growing family, plugging along in my chosen business career as a travel/meetings industry executive, even though it left a big part of me unfulfilled.
But as we all know, life has a way of taking unexpected turns that change our destiny. Twenty five years ago — when I realized that five years from then all three of my children would be in college at the same time and I had nothing saved — I came up with a solution: become an actor in TV commercials on the side while keeping my business “day job”. I knew that commercials paid handsome residuals (each time a commercial airs, the actor earns royalties) and if I could make just a few, the college fund would grow quickly. The plan sounded easy at the time. I mean, how hard could it be? I was working in New York City then and knew that many commercials were cast and shot there, so all I had to do was find an agent and start going on auditions. I was ridiculously naïve, of course. I quickly learned what so many thousands of other aspiring actors find out: it is a highly competitive business with tons of talented professionals vying for a small number of roles. In fact, many of those seasoned pros go years without landing a commercial.
After a year of getting doors closed in my face and hundreds of “no thank you” responses to my letters and phone calls and just before I was about to give up — a talent agent finally took a chance on me and started sending me on auditions. Within two months I landed a national TV commercial for Honey Bunches of Oats cereal. From there I joined the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and began to book commercials, television roles and other jobs on a regular basis including “All My Children” and an Advil commercial that ran on national television for four years. All told, the income derived from my acting jobs did indeed pay for all three of my kids’ college education expenses, with a few dollars to spare.
The plan worked! I was able to keep my day job, make substantial extra money through my sideline career as an actor, and most important, carve out a little happiness doing acting projects that satisfied my cravings for the career I had consciously, though regrettably, left behind at age 21.
As the years went by, I maintained this dual career scenario, and worked sporadically on movies, TV shows and commercials including “The Sixth Sense” and “Veep” on HBO, among others. All the while I was tempted to jump full-time into acting — but my responsibilities (and fear) kept me from taking the leap. Getting a paycheck every two weeks does create a sense of security and complacency, and the thought of going weeks or months without an acting job, quite frankly, scared me to death. But finally, at age 63, the tug of that calling became so strong that I took the plunge into the deep end of the pool: I quit my job with no guarantees other than a belief in myself and a confidence that I would succeed — regardless of the obstacles — and live out the rest of my days doing what I want to do with my life: act, write and be a professional speaker. Crazy? Maybe, but I know I won’t go to my grave wondering “what if.”
Feeling free and empowered, I now encourage people to pursue their daydreams, whatever they may be — by following my own career advice. As a motivational speaker, I spread the Nike gospel of “Just Do It!” and attempt to inspire unhappy individuals to take the first step towards true fulfillment. It took me a long time to realize it, but I am now thoroughly convinced that you can achieve what you set your mind to. It has been proven thousands, if not millions, of times throughout history. People overcome odds. They climb mountains. They break sports records. They do what is seemingly impossible. They start a business, fail, and start others until they find the right formula (Walt Disney is a classic example). We have been told over and over that if we can visualize where we want to be and follow the path to get there, success can be ours. It is so true. That’s not to say it’s easy, or there won’t be obstacles or setbacks (in fact, you can count on them), but you only get one life — so go for it!
I spread the Nike gospel of “Just Do It!” and attempt to inspire unhappy individuals to take the first step towards true fulfillment.
If you are not happy doing what you are doing, I challenge you to look inward and reflect on your life/career goals and do an honest assessment. There is no question that it’s a little scary and clearly there is risk involved. But once you conquer that little internal “No” voice that holds us back from accomplishing the things we hope to achieve, the feeling is indescribable.
Though I left my position with Reed Travel Exhibitions with very mixed emotions, I am not looking back and questioning my choice. I am excited about the future and the opportunity to shape my legacy in keeping with my desire to make a difference in other people’s lives. By transferring my experience and knowledge on to younger generations as a speaker, I am exercising the skill sets and gifts I have been given and hopefully that will make a small imprint along the way.