Brainstorm

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Second Acts

The most poignant second act of the year.

“There are no second acts in American lives,” wrote F. Scott Fizgerald. Could he have been more wrong? We here at Psychology Today are fond of stories of self-reinvention, and we recently did a cover story on how it’s never too late to refashion your personality, launch a second career, or otherwise start anew. Stories of successful second acts are everywhere. Take the geriatric rock bands like Rolling Stones and Led Zepplin who have drawn fresh strength from boomer nostalgia. Or consider entertainers whose careers have been pronounced dead, only to have new life breathed into them—John Travolta, Pam Grier, and Robert Forster were resurrected by Quentin Tarantino, Chuck Norris by Conan O'Brien. Not to mention the whole cottage industry of has-been performers who have revitalized their careers by making fun of their former personas: think Gary Coleman, Mr. T, and William Shatner.

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But even more inspiring are the stories of people who ascend from oblivion to do the things they’ve always dreamed of. The corridors of history are crowded with extraordinary people who started out doing ordinary things. Elvis Costello was a computer operator. Faulkner composed most of As I Lay Dying behind his desk at the post office. Even Einstein was a patent clerk.

But the most stirring second act I’ve seen lately is that of Paul Potts, a contestant on Britain’s Got Talent, the United Kingdom’s version of American Idol. A portly cell phone salesman from South Wales with snaggle teeth and an ill-fitting suit, Potts walks nervously onto the stage and shakily announces he's going to sing opera. “By day, I sell mobile phones,” he says. “My dream is to spend my life doing what I feel that I was born to do.” The judges roll their eyes and exchange skeptical glances, and the audience members braces themselves for a profound humiliation—and for the brutal and sarcastic critique that invariably follows, particularly from the notoriously vicious Simon Cowell. But then the music comes on, and Potts begins to sing. Jaws drop, the audience leaps to its feet, one of the judges bursts into tears—and the curtain rises on the year’s most poignant second act.

Jay Dixit is a science writer based in New York.

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