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The job-shifters: people who reinvent themselves mid-career

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Even job losers who found new full-time employment experienced on average an 11 percent decline in earnings (including earnings increases they would have enjoyed had they kept their original job). Some studies have detected a drop in earnings 20 years after layoffs. There are exceptions, of course, sometimes dramatic ones.

Mr. Blair remembers the lice. Before being put in a juvenile detention facility or joining a gang, he was living in a shed behind his sister's house. He had left home because his father, a former corporate vice president who Blair says became a drug addict, had accused him (erroneously) of stealing his gun collection and had threatened him. The shed was a haven; it was also infested with lice.

"It didn't matter how much I showered or what I tried to do to my hair to get rid of them – the next day they would be back," he writes in his new book, "Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain." "Finally, in an act of desperation to be rid of the lice, I decided to shave my head."

When school officials learned of his living arrangements, they confronted his mother and persuaded her to leave her husband. She got a tiny house in a gang-ridden neighborhood, which drew Blair into a life of shoplifting and fighting. But it also led to his mother finding a job, working her way up from deli clerk to department manager, and dating a customer who turned out to be a successful real estate entrepreneur. The entrepreneur's business and lifestyle began to show Blair that there were other, legitimate ways to get ahead. Eventually, the man would become his stepfather.

"Having a mentor is unequivocally the one thing that all the successful people I know have in common," Blair says. His stepdad gave him his first job. Blair left that to work in a call center for Logix Development Corp., a Camarillo, Calif., software developer; got transferred to its data center; and began to develop his fascination with computers. With a lot of hustle and by absorbing all he could by reading computer science books, he became supervisor, manager, then vice president, earning $100,000 a year. His career seemed set, except that Blair had bigger dreams.

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