After years of toying with interests in acting and storytelling, Arlene Malinowski made a successful mid-career leap from trainer and curriculum designer to solo performer and playwright. Here’s her story — with tips on how you can make big changes, too.

Years before she became an acclaimed solo performer and Chicago Dramatists’ Resident Playwright, Arlene Malinowski, 50, was engaged in a very different career: She was working in training and development, and earning her Ph.D. in Curriculum Design. “Well on my way to becoming a college vice president,” she says. But she started taking freshman acting classes at UCLA in the late 1980s while completing her doctorate. (“I was 33 and studying with 18-year-olds.”)

Over the next decade, the expressive Malinowski landed roles on stage and television (including ER, CSI, The Practice, The Division, and X Files), and even had a stint running a Los Angeles theater company — all while developing a respectable training practice that she viewed as her real job: “For my blue-collar family, acting is not a career!”

Then she saw Asian-American actress Amy Hill performing her one-woman show on stage, and Malinowski was drawn to the autobiographical performance. “My heart pointed to it. I was always telling stories. I said, ‘I can do that.’” At 43, She began studying solo writing and performance with guru Mark Travis, eventually writing four one-woman shows of her own, including her award-winning play, What Does the Sun Sound Like?, about growing up with deaf parents. Her work was honored with an LA Garland Award, and nominated for an LA Weekly Award and Los Angeles Theatre Ovation Award.

Achieving success as a playwright as well as an actor — and finding her true art in the solo show — allowed Malinowski, finally, to trade in her “respectable and prestigious title.” She describes her career transformation as an evolution, but also as a change that she ultimately needed to commit to. “At first I’d tell people, ‘I’m in training and development, and in my other life….’ I had to make a conscious shift to tell people, ‘I’m a playwright and an actor.’ If you don’t self-identify and take yourself seriously as an artist, then you’re telling people you just dabble in this.”

Making a dramatic career shift like Malinowski’s can be scary. Here’s how to ease the pain.

1. Design your future by wants, not by shoulds.

Like many of us, Malinowski struggled for years with her family’s values before committing to her dream. However, you will be fulfilled in your career only to the extent that it uses your natural talents, says author Marky Stein in Fearless Career Change (McGraw-Hill, 2005). Stein recommends discovering your “career fingerprint” or “authentic calling” as your most reliable road map to career happiness. Malinowski, for example, recalls always being the trainer who wanted to do group skits. “And I would tell stories to anyone at the bar who would listen.”

2. Understand what a specific job is actually like.

People often have unrealistic ideas about careers they believe they would enjoy, based more on glamorous images and media stereotypes than realities. Carefully research the nitty-gritty nature of the daily job you’re considering. Malinowski initially ran parallel careers, and developed a deep understanding (and resumé) in acting and writing — two quintessentially over-glamorized careers — before making her switch.

3. Realize that many talents are transferable.

You’re not starting from scratch. Any job or volunteer position you’ve had may be applicable to your new career. The trick is to learn to recognize and build on those skills. Malinowski used her training background to design her curriculum for teaching solo performance, and her American Sign Language skills (picked up from her parents) as a performance mode in her solo work.

4. Plan your transition income.

Often, by the time people are willing to make a career change, they are so burned out on their current career, that they want as far away from it as soon as possible. It helps to be flexible and far-sighted. According to Stein, “It may take ninety days to a year to make a career transition” — or more if you require advanced education (but see #5 below!). With creativity — and delayed-gratification — you can use your existing skills and/or income to subsidize your entry into your new field. Even now, Malinowski provides institutional training sessions several times a year to fund her life in the performing arts.

5. Get a “strategic education.”

It’s almost never necessary to make up all the steps you would have taken had you entered your dream field right out of high school. Unfortunately, this belief stops a lot of people from ever pursuing their dream. But as someone with life experience, your learning curve is much faster now than when you were eighteen. Learn to think in terms of the shortest path from A to B, not the most conventional one. While Malinowski initially studied with freshmen, she quickly moved into real roles without getting a second bachelor’s or master’s in acting first. In many fields, including the arts, demonstrated skill is more important than credentials.


Arlene’s artist website can be found here.