Watch: Joshua Livingston shares why it's never too late to turn your passion into a pursuit. Film by REVIVETHECOOL
If one thing that the global pandemic, spawned by COVID-19, has taught many of us around the world is that necessity is the mother of reinvention. We saw the possibility of universal health care when the US government was forced to work quickly to provide free vaccines and testing around COVID for citizens across the nation. We learned daily that loneliness hurts and therefore saw to leverage evolved technologies to remain close to those we love, who could not be physically present.
We were even afforded the unique opportunity to redesign our professional lives, thanks to the work-from-home mandate during lockdown, giving many 9-to-5ers and entrepreneurs alike a chance to reckon with wanting to live fuller, more meaningful lives.
After earning a master's and PhD in social work, Joshua Livingston’s institutionalized career and love-of-youth development came to a crossroads, where the 37-year-old was incited to figure out a way to marry years of academic pedagogy and his desire to more directly serve Black and brown communities. During an unprecedented time of quarantine, no less.
Breathing at the intersection of social work and community enterprise, Livingston took advantage of the pause the pandemic had on the world to rethink one of the oldest and most beloved institutions in the Black community: the barbershop. At the very onset of the COVID-19 lockdown, Livingston completed his PhD program and began to plan with his 2 business partners how to establish a place of enterprise that could double as a pillar of innovation.
What culminated was a studio space called Friend of a Barber, which touts itself as “a shop designed by friends, co-workers, and like-minded New Yorkers who want to bring their dreams and hard work to clients old and new.”
Livingston’s unique idea of supporting community manifested into a cooperative that specializes in cutting hair, encourages social discourse, and actively supports clients’ artistic impulses and entrepreneurial endeavors in one fell swoop. What was supposed to be an enduring time of economic and social uncertainty proved to be the ultimate testament to the power of village work. Where Livingston and his partners had no reliable stream of income, much less anything extra to open a new business, their home-based clientele offered donations, loans, and investments, while remaining in solidarity through the entire launching process.
Today, Friend of a Barber is where anyone irrespective of color, creed, or sexual orientation can get a stylized haircut, discourse about the ills of the world, gain professional advice, and even promote their work or product. To date, Friend of a Barber has propped itself up as an art gallery, attracting collectors and positioning BIPOC artists to make a living off their work. They promote hair product lines and other small and independent businesses, and even offer libations to the merriment of their customers.
For greater insight on what it takes to juggle jobs and turn a side passion into a full-time career, we asked Livingston how he was able to switch professional gears—and how you can, too.
Joshua Livingston got to a point in his social work career where the daily duties of his job were no longer aligning with his values. So he decided that it was time to make a change.
“I was a social worker prior to doing anything with the barbershop. But it's social work that most people wouldn’t really recognize as social work, which is the management side of things. You start writing grants and you start putting suits on and going into rooms with people who don't look like you. You feel like you're begging for money to give these disadvantaged kids an opportunity. That did not sit well with me.”
As you begin thinking about transitioning into a new chapter, take the time to get clear about your own values and purpose. You may be working in a field that, on the surface, aligns with your goals and objectives; but if the actual work of the job doesn’t correspond with your calling, it may be time to move on.
Once Livingston realized that his role in social work no longer served him, he began plotting his exit strategy. But it wouldn’t be an overnight departure. He embarked on a PhD program that would allow him to continue gaining knowledge and experience with communities of color while also pursuing a passion—cutting hair as a barber.
“I told myself that I'm going to tap into something that I know about my community that I enjoy, and that's cutting hair. I wasn’t going to do the full-time job anymore. I'm going to cut hair. I'm going to go get a PhD in social work, yes, because I want to be able to see things from a bird’s-eye view.”
Once you’re clear on your values and goals, it’ll be easier to know whether or not to stay or leave. Like Livingston, your exit strategy may take years. However, what’s most important is that you are intentional about your next steps.
After Livingston completed his PhD, he took a faculty position at a local university—a role that would give him the flexibility to open up his own barbershop. On the surface, a social worker, professor, and barber are totally different careers. But as Livingston explains, there were some consistent throughlines and skill sets that he has carried in each stage of his career.
"It’s not like I was working in finance and then I quit and decided to do something else instead. I'm doing social work and cutting hair because they interlock. My research is geared toward what happens in the barbershop. I focus specifically on place-making for communities of color, in particular Black communities. [I study] places that sustain folks within their community that allow them to have a platform to express who they are, supplying meaning in their own lives and also to uplift the community around them. I do that inherently in the shop with my business partners. I do that with young people. I do that in the classes that I teach, in the research that I write."
Pay attention to the patterns in your career. Do you notice any consistent trends across your professional life? As you begin to plot your next career moves, think about the core talents and skill sets that could be repurposed in a different field.
Livingston soon found that his main gig was helping to power his side gig both financially and conceptually.
“What’s interesting is that I picked up a side hustle and then kept up with the first hustle. I ended up teaching full-time and going to barber school. I learned that there are interesting ways of being able to find synergies between 2 things that you care about; I think that there are ways to create synergy between the things that you do in life.”
While it’s romantic to up and quit your job to follow your passion or side hustle, it’s not always practical. Not only can your full-time job provide you with financial stability while you pursue your side hustle, but it can also provide valuable insights.
As mentioned above, your full-time hustle can inform—and help fund—your side hustle. It’s important to have a means of income while pursuing your dream, but don’t get so comfortable getting a regular check that you get complacent.
“Get your paycheck and survive. But if you're not into what pays you, you almost have to promise yourself, ‘I'm not going to wake up in the morning and hate what I do,’ because we want to change the notion that what you do for a living is your end-all, be-all and encompasses your full life. But that’s not something you can flip a switch on overnight. You've got to live a life where you say, ‘I'm going to start peeling back layers and getting back to who I know I want to be, and getting back to the roots of my own dreams.’”
An important part of getting your money right is figuring out how much money you need to fund your next chapter. Here’s a financial calculator that can help with that.
Livingston knew that he needed to get the right training and credentials to pursue both his social work and barber careers. For the former, it was theoretical; for the latter, it was practical.
“I grinded out and went to barber school in the evenings. Literally, I would have a suit on at work and then run to barber school. So I was going to the barber school with the people who generally go to barber school, which are high school students who know that college is not for them and they want to do a trade; folks who've been incarcerated; folks who are trying to change careers—they come from a plethora of backgrounds.”
Get clear on the credentials, skill sets, training, etc., you need for your next act and then take the steps to secure them. One way to do this is to find people on LinkedIn with similar careers and see what skills, certifications, or accreditations they list.
From clients to family members to coworkers, Livingston’s tribe supported him along his journey.
“My clients would hit me up like, ‘Yo, when we come back, we got you.’ Or, ‘Here's some money while you're broke. We got you.’ They were holding us down. A lot of barbers, I think, and folks in general could resonate with that.”
The same can be true for you. Don’t be scared to ask for or accept help from your loved ones as you plot your next moves.
It’s never too late to pursue your next move, but there are certain times in life that facilitate radical change more than others. Regardless of your current circumstances, be strategic in your approach to plotting your third act.
“It’s never, never too late. I've seen people do it. I've done it myself. I was in my 20s, granted. Some folks might feel like, ‘Oh, that's not really a start-over.’ But you have to keep in mind that I went to undergrad for social work. I was done with grad school for social work. I worked in the field post-grad for 5 years, including while I was in college. So I could never ‘start over’ because, yo, I just did all this schoolwork and I got these student loans. You can't just stop and do something different. I don't think you can actually say that. I think you can stop and start over at any point in time because you need to make sure that you're being strategic above all else.”