RWDevCon Inspiration Talk – Starting Over by Ellen Shapiro

Ellen discusses what she’s learned from starting over in a new field and why you shouldn’t be afraid to make a change if that’s what’s needed in your life. By Ellen Shapiro.

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Note from Ray: At our recent RWDevCon tutorial conference, in addition to hands-on tutorials, we also had a number of “inspiration talks” – non-technical talks with the goal of giving you a new idea, some battle-won advice, and leaving you excited and energized.

We recorded these talks so that you can enjoy them, even if you didn’t get to attend the conference. Here’s our next talk – Starting Over, by Ellen Shapiro – I hope you enjoy!


We’ve all had times in our lives where we wonder in frustration, “How did I wind up here?”

Maybe you’re:

  • Working a job that drives you bananas.
  • Living in a city or with a person that just isn’t the right fit.
  • Still in the industry that you started out in, but it’s turning into a burnt out husk of its former self.

What I’m talking about isn’t something where you get transferred or your significant other gets transferred or some other force from outside comes along and makes this decision to start over for you.

I’m talking about something where you drive the decision making process. You decide to start over.

Just the mere mention of starting over make some people cringe and I don’t blame them because starting over voluntarily is terrifying.



If you’re starting over professionally, you go over from being someone with lots of experience in your field to someone with zero experience in your field. If you’re starting over personally you can wind up in a city or a state or even a country where you don’t know anyone.

I’m here today to tell you that some of the things that make you fear starting over are myths. If you let yourself be paralyzed by these myths, you can miss out on a fantastic new chapter in your life.

Yes, starting over is scary, but it is not as scary as you think.

A Tale of Three Careers

I want to start by telling you my story because I have gone through three major phases in my life, all of them fairly different from the previous one.

  1. First I was a songwriter.
  2. Then I worked in television production.
  3. Now I’m an iOS engineer.

Every time I made one of these changes I learned a lot of things along the way and I want to share some of my story with you. I call it a tale of three careers.

My First Career: Songwriter

Let us go back in time to a magical place known as the 1990s.

My first career was as a songwriter. I started playing the guitar when I was 10 years old and by the time I was 18 I had a couple of regular gigs here in my hometown of DC. All I wanted was to be the next Sheryl Crow or the next Melissa Etheridge.

I poured so much energy into songwriting. I took all the money that I’d gotten at my bat mitzvah and I combined with a couple of years worth of allowance and I put out an album on my 18th birthday.

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You can still listen to it on Rdio or Spotify. It is called Bridge Over Bottled Water because my humor has not changed. I will warn you that my lyrics contain a heaping helping of teenage angst because I was, well, a teenager, but I’m still very, very proud of that album.

Even after I went to college in Chicago, I spent an enormous amount of my free time playing and writing. I started to pull together a little bit of success. I got my first showcase in a big music conference and I started to book some bigger gigs in Chicago.

As I started to really pour myself into the work that it took to become a successful working musician, I realized, “This is going to make me absolutely hate music.”

It wasn’t the musicians that I played with, they were great, but so many people that I dealt with in the music business were, to put it very mildly, colossal jerks. They treated everyone around like dirt at best.

The toxic attitude that they projected seemed to get exponentially worse as you got even incrementally more successful.

I can’t take it anymore!

I can't take it anymore!

You had to really, really love music to keep loving it after coming into contact with these people. Not loving music anymore was not a possibility that I was willing to accept.

I finally realized making music professionally was not for me and this was a terrifying realization. I had built my entire social identity around being a songwriter and I had poured years of effort and thousands of dollars in trying to make it as a professional.

How was I going to move forward from that?

My Second Career: Television Production

My second career in television production actually started as a result of my interest in music being so strong. My parents, including my mom who’s here today, were generous enough to say, “We will pay for your education, as long as you study something that is not music.”

I had realized that film school could actually be a great way to learn about audio engineering and pick up some practical, creative skills that easily transferred back to music.

Once I decided that a career at music wasn’t going to be for me, I found that I was really enjoying working with audio in a more filmic fashion.

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I was the sound recordist during shooting or post-production sound editor on several films that my friends directed and I had a lot of fun. I learned a lot about how to make things sound really great.

In September of 2003, I moved out to Los Angeles to try and break into the business. When the timing for purely audio based internships didn’t work out, I started applying for internships at pretty much anything that looked remotely interesting.

I got a bite from this brand new talk show that had only been on the air for about six weeks.

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I wound up working at the Ellen DeGeneres Show for almost two years and I absolutely loved it. I worked at House for a couple of years. I also worked on a show called Trust Me for six months.

Then I worked at a whole bunch of failed pilots. Pilots are the first episode of the TV show and here’s how they work:

  • If the network likes the pilot, then they order a full series and it becomes a TV show.
  • If the network doesn’t like the pilot or any of a million other things go wrong, the pilot fails and then it’s essentially locked away in a vault never to be seen again.

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The failed pilots for me were the hardest because as a crew we would all work ourselves into the ground to try and to help make something good and then it was all suddenly gone.

It was like all of that work had disappeared into thin air. No one would ever see what we made. If you’ve ever had a client pull the plug midway into a project, you know exactly how frustrating this is.

I finally got so frustrated with this happening over and over and over again that I realized I had completely lost my passion for what I was doing. If you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, the entertainment industry will completely crush your soul.

I knew I was going to have to start over again but this time it was a lot scarier. I had absolutely no idea what I was going to be able to transfer the very industry specific skills that I had picked up over to something completely different.

I also now had rent to pay and my lovely cat who I had to feed. I had to feed him and me and here he is sitting in a box of his expensive prescription food:

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For a while, I couldn’t even decide what it was that I wanted to do with my life.

I finally noticed during my downtime when my friends were off writing screenplays or shooting YouTube videos, I was trying to figure out how my phone worked. I realized, “Maybe this is what I should actually be doing.”