Man dropping documents

What happened?" My accountant asked last April. He'd been doing my taxes for more than a decade and had seen my annual income rise well into the six figures.

"It looks like you took a . . . "—he worked over his calculator—"98 percent pay cut."

"Yep, that sounds about right."

"How did this happen?"

It was quite simple, actually. I went into my boss's office one day and quit. No severance. No other job. No interest in a counteroffer. I simply walked away.
(Learn 6 essential tips to exit your job the right way.)

At age 38, I'd decided to become an actor.

I must admit, my life had been pretty comfortable. I was a vice president—one of hundreds, but still—at one of the largest corporations in the world. There was a lot of room for advancement. I had a nice office, an enormous expense account, and plenty of perks. I played more free golf on the country's top courses than my 19 handicap deserved.

And I don't need to tell you how tough it is to become an actor. There are just shy of a gazillion actors in America trying out for seven roles. I know because they all cram into small, windowless waiting rooms every time I go out for an audition. And screen-writing, my backup dream, is even harder to break into. Walk into any Starbucks in New York or L.A. and ask for a script, and you'll have baristas coming at you as if you're an unclaimed acre in Sooner territory. (Discover 3 timeless tips to land your dream job.)

So why would I, by all accounts a reasonably intelligent person, take such a huge risk?

I wasn't happy. Never had been, really. After I graduated college, I dreamed of writing for a magazine. I found a job at a small publishing company, but as a financial analyst. I didn't really have a numbers background, but at a time when computers were just starting to take over the workplace, my ability to drive around an Excel document served me well. My path was chosen. I bought a couple of suits and settled into a comfy chair. Maybe I'd never be happy, but I'd be wealthy. I was okay with that.

The next 16 years were a blur. Raises, promotions, new titles, bigger cubicles, a real office, and more ass-kissing than I care to admit. In my late 20s and early 30s, I had plenty of distractions from my workaday horror. I married, bought a house, redid the basement—stuff grown-ups are supposed to do. Besides, didn't everybody hate his job?
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I figured I'd carry on until retirement. But as I reached my mid-30s, it was becoming harder to ignore the fact that I was becoming a real a**hole. My wife, sadly, bore the brunt.

Let me tell you about my wife. She truly loves me unconditionally, or pretends really well, and all that dorky stuff about soul mates seems to actually apply to our situation.

It was my wife who encouraged me to pursue my dreams, mostly because she was sick of listening to me complain. About a year before I made The Decision, and at her prodding, I signed up for a class at one of New York City's many wannabe-actor farms, wherein people who didn't make it as actors teach other people how not to make it as actors.

For me, acting was like crack. By the third class, I was hooked. Acting classes led to improv classes, which led to an open-mike night at a comedy club, which led to paying gigs as a stand-up comedian. An agent saw me and started sending me on auditions.

About once a week, I'd grab my clipboard and calculator at the office and pretend I was off to an important meeting. At my destination, I'd leave my corporate trappings with the security guard in the lobby, take the head shot out of my back pocket, and head upstairs to the casting office. I went on more than 50 auditions that year, but booked only one role. I was cast in a Noggin commercial as a business executive (damn typecasting!).

So I kept plugging away. Then, one day at work, something interesting happened. The higher powers decided to create a television show and pitch it to PBS and the BBC. I finagled myself onto the creative team and persuaded them to let me cohost the pilot. Finally, I thought, my 16-year enslavement was going to pay off.

It wasn't to be. Both networks turned us down. But a BBC producer issued a report that eventually landed on my desk. The only thing she found positive about the show was the male cohost: I was apparently "very engaging" and "at ease on camera," and she could see me "moving on to bigger things."