As a child, Lucille Ball – whose 100th birthday was last Saturday, August 6th – couldn’t say she wanted to be a television star when she grew up, because there was no television. I always found that intriguing – the idea that there’s an occupation that hasn’t been
invented yet, one that we have little time to prepare for.
Ball was remembered this past weekend for her inspiring comedy, but her life also carries a contemporary lesson for those of us facing midlife career issues. When you involuntarily face a changing world, you have to adapt. You may even have to do it multiple times over the course of a career. It’s harder when you’re older, admittedly – and especially hard when you’re a Boomer who witnessed their parents have long, uneventful careers working for a single company in a single industry.
But that’s exactly what happened with Lucy. She faced a changing world and adapted. The invention of television led to the reinvention of Lucille Ball, more than once. Those well-versed in film and television history – I spent nine years as a movie reviewer – remember that by 1951, Lucille Ball’s film career was petering out. She’d done a lot of supporting
roles in A movies and lead roles in B movies, but the advent of television led to fewer of the latter. She turned to radio, whose prime-time days were also on the wane, for a program that was a forerunner to I Love Lucy, called My Favorite Husband.
When CBS decided to turn it into a television series, I Love Lucy came to be. But in reinventing her career in this new medium, Lucy was also trying to reinvent her marriage. Desi Arnaz was a well-known womanizer, and Lucy thought if they were working together, she could improve their relationship and keep closer tabs on him. The rest, as they say, is
Except there’s more. Even while she continued to star on television in subsequent series, Lucy reinvented herself yet again when she bought out Arnaz’s interest in their production company, Desilu, and ran it for six years. Before selling it to Gulf+Western, she was instrumental in giving the green light to another historic television series: Star Trek. No other person has had that much influence on the genres of both comedy and science fiction.
In retrospect – especially when a reinvented life is as successful as Lucy’s – it’s easy to think that such transitions are easy and obvious. They’re not. They’re not done out a giddy what-shall-I-try next? lightheartedness. They’re done out of desperation and sometimes even fear.
I know because I’ve been through a few myself. In addition to being a movie reviewer, I was also a travel editor earlier in my career. I had worked my way up to the editorship of a third-tier travel publication that paid more in glamour than it did in money, and left it imagining that I was now primed for a freelance career contributing to the inflight publications. Unfortunately, my decision coincided with one of numerous contractions in the airline industry, and it became clear that that wasn’t going to pay the rent.
That’s how I got into technology in the late 80s – not because I thought it would be cool to learn about technology, but because it seemed the only path to financial security at that point. (Strange as it seems now, I thought I would never understand computers.) And then again as the 21st century opened with a bust, I had to shift from trade journalism to corporate publishing – not because I necessarily wanted to, but because it was fiscally prudent. It was something I never thought I’d do, just as movie star Lucy probably never
thought she’d do television (once it had been invented), but I turned out to be pretty good at it. The common thread is that of adapting your skills – performing or writing or selling or programming or carpentry – to another need. It’s something Boomers are going to have to figure out how to do to survive.
As I noted a few weeks ago in Three Classes of Boomers, a whole bunch of us are facing a whole bunch of uncertainty. The world is changing, and will continue to change (hence, this is good advice for everyone, not just Boomers). Just as Lucy discovered, the skills that supported us in our 30s are not the ones that will support us in our 50s. On the occasion of the centennial of her birthday, it’s time for her to inspire us once again – not with the genius she brought to her comedy, but the genius she brought to her career.