What Leslie Jordan’s Legacy Can Teach Us About Pivoting to a Third Act

leslie jordan

Movies typically follow a three-act structure: the set-up of our hero, the confrontation they face, then the resolution. Novels have a beginning, middle and end. And in life, often your first act is devoted to childhood and education, your second to career and family and your third, following retirement, is how you choose to fill your golden years in service to the legacy you wish to leave.

Leslie Jordan was likely familiar with third acts. “There are no small roles, only small actors,” was a phrase tailor-made for the diminutive actor, who left many a scene in his 4’11 wake through memorable guest arcs in television shows including Will & Grace and The American Horror Story franchise. But at an age when many of his peers were in the midst of drawing Social Security, Jordan found the most fame of his entire career in a different medium—Instagram, where he amassed six million followers.

Jordan sadly passed away this month at age 67, but among the legacies he leaves is this: It’s never too late to pivot to your next act or career, and one need not wait until retirement to explore a new passion. Here’s how you can find success in changing it up now.

Leslie Jordan: Repurposing Your Gifts

Jordan had a social media presence prior to the pandemic, having joined Instagram in September 2018. He also had more than 130 film and television credits to his name. But with the world and entertainment industry shut down, and while sheltering in place with his family in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Jordan began sharing slices of his life, observations and jokes with his Instagram followers. The once self-described computer-illiterate actor posted twice a day for 80 days in 2020, and his follower count ballooned from 20,000. He had become a sensation. New opportunities soon followed, from a role on Call Me Kat to a country music album.

“A friend called from California and said, ‘You’ve gone viral,’” Jordan told Tulsa World in 2021. “And I said, ‘No, I’m fine.’ And he said, ‘No, you are viral.’”

Amid the isolation of the pandemic, people were hungry for connection and distraction, and found it in droves in Jordan’s account. It’s also a great example of how someone can take their gifts— in Jordan’s case, stage presence, comedic timing and storytelling—and repurpose them, like he did from on-screen to online. 

In your current role, what strengths do you have? Consider how transferrable those skills are, and what possible new industries or entrepreneurial ventures might benefit from them.

Consider How to Integrate Your Personal Passions Into Your Next Professional Move

Sometimes your career pivot might be toward something completely unrelated to your professional experience. In 2008, pregnant actress Jessica Alba was washing new baby clothes with a detergent her mother recommended and broke out in hives. Further spurred by her own history of severe childhood asthma and allergies, and after learning many baby products contain harmful chemicals, she decided to build a clean and natural products brand. Alba launched The Honest Company at age 29. Its 2021 IPO, days after Alba’s 40th birthday, raised $412.8 million.

Motherhood helped Alba identify a new purpose. Is there some need you’ve encountered in your personal life that is currently unaddressed in the marketplace, that you think you can impact? Or is it simpler than that? Perhaps you enjoy reading historical fiction at night, and think you’d like to try writing your own. 

A Side Hustle Can Pave Your Future Path

In 1979, married lawyers Tim and Nina Zagatwho who dined out as a hobby, decided to poll their friends on restaurant recommendations rather than rely on just a few opinions from critics. In 1980 they released their first survey: 200 amateur critics rated 100 New York City restaurants on food, decor, service, cleanliness and cost, and provided comments the couple turned into reviews. In 1983, the Zagats produced 10,000 copies of their self-published survey and distributed them to bookstores. By 1990, they were able to leave their law careers to focus on their side hustle full time. While its print guidebooks and the company itself have evolved, at its height in 2005 the Zagat Survey included 70 cities and reviews from 250,000 diners.

The lesson here? You don’t have to quit your day job at first. Try things out in a limited capacity, see how much success and enjoyment you find, and then make a more informed decision on how much of a career shift you’re wanting to make.

But don’t put these shifts off. As is the case with many sudden losses, Jordan’s death is yet another example that life is short. Why not get started on your third act today?

Photos by Vivien Killilea/Stringer/Getty Images

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Jill McDonnell is a Chicago-based content writer and communications professional. She has a bachelor's degree in magazine journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a master's degree in public relations and advertising from DePaul University. She is currently at work on a psychological thriller novel.

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