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History’s Most Famous Serial Career Changers


The average worker today will change jobs about seven times over the course of their career, but few will go so far as to change their line of work entirely. Historically, people have been even less inclined to take the risk of a complete career revamp, often working one job their entire lives. But some of history’s boldest and most dynamic figures shared a common willingness to abandon one career after another, either in the search for their true calling or a simple inability to focus their interests on one particular area. Such famous people are proof that there’s no shame in being a perpetual career changer.

  1. Leonardo da Vinci:

    The original Renaissance Man, da Vinci was one of the most inquisitive, brilliant humans to ever live and he had a resume to prove it. Engineer, painter, architect, geographer, paleontologist, biologist, zoologist, and writer were all hats he wore during his 67 years of life.

  2. Benjamin Franklin:

    Printer. Writer. Book store manager. General store owner. Journalist. Newspaper owner. Inventor. Scientist. Congressman. Ambassador. Ben Franklin never stood still and did more in a dozen different careers than most people could hope to do in one.

  3. Herman Melville:

    Both before and after achieving literary success, Melville carved out a number of different careers, trying to make ends meet. He starting working at 18 as a surveyor, served as a hand on a number of whaling vessels, taught school, tried his hand at banking, lectured, and became a customs inspector later in life after being overlooked for a diplomatic post by Abraham Lincoln.

  4. Thomas Jefferson:

    As a wealthy landowner, the line between the third president’s various interests and his career works was a thin one. Nevertheless, besides his career in politics, Jefferson was an accomplished architect (designing the University of Virginia campus), a lawyer, and a magistrate.

  5. Vincent van Gogh:

    His works are so influential and so recognizable it is hard to believe van Gogh really only had about 10 years of life that he devoted to painting before he died. He spent many (often unhappy) years working as an art dealer, a teacher at a boarding school, a minister’s assistant, a bookstore employee, and a missionary before another artist convinced him to go to art school.

  6. Wyatt Earp:

    The Old West’s most legendary lawman was not always a peace officer, nor even a man on the right side of the law. Throughout his life, Earp moved from one job to the next, always seeking his fortune. He worked as a farmer, a buffalo hunter, a bet-taker at boxing matches, a race-horse owner, a teamster, a miner, possibly a pimp, and a boxing ref.

  7. Mark Twain:

    The famous writer went through several different career shakeups and even a name change in his lifetime. He started out as a typesetter and printer before becoming a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi (where he gained the inspiration for the name Mark Twain). After that came an unsuccessful stint at gold mining, followed by a switch to journalism and ultimately to novelist, speaker, and investor.

  8. John Steinbeck:

    Failure to become a published writer spurred a young Steinbeck to try his hand as a sugar factory worker, a tour guide, a fish hatchery manager, a mill laborer, and a ranch hand. He would also work as a war correspondent in WWII before breaking out as an author.

  9. L. Ron Hubbard:

    Hubbard is notorious for founding the controversial religion of Scientology, but that was just one branch of his winding career path. He started out as a pulp fiction writer, then spent time as a gold prospector in Puerto Rico, a Hollywood screenwriter, an expeditioner in Alaska, a lieutenant in the Navy, an occultist (which probably didn’t pay very well), and a yacht-sitter.

  10. Abraham Lincoln:

    The man from the log cabin had his share of defeats while trying to break into politics. Before taking up residence on Pennsylvania Avenue, Lincoln was a general store owner, the captain of a state militia, a postmaster, a county surveyor, and a self-taught lawyer with his own practice.

  11. Frederick Douglas:

    The definition of a self-made man, Frederick Douglas worked his way up from slavery to careers as an abolitionist, an author, a bank president, an ambassador to the Dominican Republic, a U.S. Marshall, a recorder of deeds in Washington, D.C., consul-general to Haiti, and a house builder.

  12. Ray Kroc:

    Kroc’s working life began at the tender age of 15, when he lied about his age in order to gain admittance to the military during World War I. Careers as a piano player, a jazz musician, a paper cup salesman, and a radio DJ that followed didn’t take. It wasn’t until he worked in a restaurant and began a relationship with the McDonald brothers while selling milkshake machines that he found his calling in fast food.

  13. George W. Bush:

    Here’s one from the “recent history” file. The eldest son of our 41st president did not have a straight shot to his old man’s seat in the Oval Office. Dubya spent time in Big Oil before and after an unsuccessful run at Congress, then jumped back into politics to serve as a campaign advisor to his dad. After that came a stint as managing partner of the Texas Rangers, then campaign advisor again, and finally he broke through as governor of Texas. It was all politics from there on out, except for that one time he pretended to be a fighter pilot.

  14. Harland Sanders:

    We defy you to name a more famous person in fried chickendom. Before starting KFC, The Colonel bounced around from a railroad worker, to lawyer, to barber, back to railroad worker, to insurance salesman, to Chamber of Commerce secretary, to tire salesman. The first iteration of his fried chicken business came at a gas station he opened at age 40.

October 10th, 2012 written by Site Administrator

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