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Nobodies to Somebodies: How 100 Great Careers Got Their Start

Passion, drive, and can-do spirit: One hundred achievers tell how they launched their careers.

In 2002, after riding the e-commerce wave and selling his high tech start-up to a larger software firm, Peter Han, then twenty-seven, wondered what to do next. The idea for Nobodies to Somebodies resulted from a lunch conversation he had with a friend and co-worker about how their dreams and aspirations could translate into a career path. These thoughts lingered with Han and led him to ask how satisfying and successful careers begin.

In this book Han examines the careers of one hundred achievers from business, government, science, the literary world, the nonprofit sector, and the arts. The thirty-two CEOs include Daniel Burnham (Raytheon), Gerald Grinstein (Delta Airlines), Lowry Kline (Coca-Cola Enterprises), Bill Mitchell (Arrow Electronics), and Ron Sargent (Staples). Han conducted personal interviews with everyone and supplemented the interviews with research from published sources such as news articles, Nobel acceptance speeches in the case of the scientists, and annual reports for the CEOs. By focusing on early career development, Han hopes the book will inspire and enlighten readers in their twenties and thirties who are grappling with the same questions he and his friend discussed that day at lunch.

Nobodies to Somebodies is written as a narrative and is organized into fourteen lessons within three sections. The first section, "Basics: Finding One's Calling," provides some useful insight from these high achievers on self-assessment and describes the various approaches they used to decide which way to go. For instance, Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, a leading nonprofit, illustrates a career method of self-discovery called "trailblazing." When Kopp was nearing graduation from college, she was frustrated by her campus's Career Services office and its limited options for liberal arts majors—such as training programs in management consulting, investment banking, and brand management. In Han's book Kopp describes how her idea for creating "a national teacher corps that recruits outstanding recent college graduates" developed from her passionate interest in education reform.

The second section, "Keys: Chasing the Dream," describes tactical career moves and how the achievers dealt with unexpected surprises that might have diverted their paths. In one case Lloyd Schwartz, who later won a Pulitzer Prize for his music criticism in the Boston Phoenix, turned down a tenure track offer at a university outside New York in order to stay in Boston. Schwartz accepted a job at a small literary magazine and became enamored of the local arts scene. This choice ultimately led to a more successful career on his own terms.

The third section, "End Game: Using A Little Magic," discusses mentoring, work-life balance, and the importance of drive and passion. Whether the achievers felt passion for ideals, intense experiences, or a field of study or profession, Han found passion to be a significant element in their success. He also concludes that an overwhelming trait for all one hundred high achievers was a positive, can-do spirit.—Mallory Stark