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Turning a Love of the Arts into a New Career

Career Change Profile: Brian Johnson

When Brian Johnson tired of his job at a small financial advisory firm in Madison, Wisconsin, he wanted to make the transition into a career closer to his passions.

“I knew I wanted something different, something more,” Johnson says. “After four years doing something I was good at but wasn’t crazy about, I knew it was time to find something I could really put my heart into.”

Johnson always loved the arts. At the University of Oklahoma, he received a bachelor of music, focusing on percussion performance. And while living in Madison, Johnson spent his free time as a freelance musician as well as music arranger and instructor for the Madison Scouts Drum & Bugle Corps.

Starting the Search

After taking some time off to go to Thailand, Johnson returned to Wisconsin and scaled back to working part-time while he thought his career through. He worked on construction projects at his late father-in-law’s house, apprenticing under his wife’s grandfather -- it was a perfect forum for self-reflection. As Johnson trimmed and nail-gunned Sheetrock, he asked himself over and over again: What do I want to do next?

A friend referred him to an occupational psychologist, who gave Johnson tests to find out what jobs appealed to him most. The psychologist helped Johnson understand he was searching for a career that could fuel and coexist with his happiness.

“I was going about it the wrong way,” Johnson says. “All along, I was focused on finding a position where I could maximize my talents and have a big impact, but after talking with him, I realized that what was more important was to find an organization whose vision I agreed with; something in the arts.”

Networking Turns into a Job Opportunity

As Johnson set out researching potential professions by thumbing through headings in the Yellow Pages, a friend on the board of the nonprofit Madison Ballet mentioned the group needed a new business manager. Johnson was intrigued and applied. He got an interview.

“As I started talking to these people, I realized that while the ballet wasn’t music, it was still very much the arts, which meant it was a way to facilitate creativity in young people while teaching them about life,” Johnson says. “The arts are laden with educational opportunities in a way that not much else is.”

After a series of interviews, the ballet board offered Johnson the job. He quickly was promoted to executive director, a position from which he orchestrated tremendous growth. Under his leadership, the group amassed hundreds of new members, dozens of new dancers and launched a number of new programs. During Johnson's tenure, the ballet was also the recipient of a $210 million gift for a new performing arts center: The Overture Center for the Arts.

Johnson left the ballet for a job with a high tech startup in January 2008 but says his time at the Madison Ballet was one of the most fulfilling professional experiences of his life. “Every day, we were helping these young artists learn about ballet and about life,” he remembers. “To me, there’s no greater calling than that.”

Four Ways to Follow Your Own Passion

Here are Johnson’s top four tactical suggestions for changing careers and following your own passion:

  • View Job Hunting as a Job: “You should take finding a job as seriously as a job itself,” Johnson says. “Commit to the process of working on the resume, networking and finding job postings. Spend at least five to 10 hours a week. If you’re really trying to hit a home run with your next job, it’s not enough to wait for a new career to fall in your lap. You have to get out there and find it.” 

  • Get Impartial Advice: “Your family will always encourage you, but talk with people who are not vested in your career outcome,” Johnson advises. “Personally, I recommend an occupational psychologist or mentors. You want to find someone who is objective to help you dissect the issues and help you figure out what it is you’re truly passionate about.” 

  • Focus on Your Resume: “The resume is a standardized tool for the employment process, and it behooves you to spend the time to get it right,” Johnson says. “Read sample resumes, and pay close attention to the phrasing, words and verbiage. Ultimately, your job comes down to how well you can market yourself, and you may need to extend your vocabulary beyond where it is now.” 

  • Build Your Network: Since a friend’s recommendation landed him his job at the ballet, Johnson is up on networking. “Joining service clubs such as Rotary International, the Lions Club and Kiwanis is a good way to network and find new opportunities,” he says. “In these groups, you will create relationships that are deeper than they would be in a traditional employee-employer situation. In the end, the relationships can only help you follow your passion.”

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