A POLICE OFFICER turned music agent. A Navy captain who became a circus manager. A botanist who traded plants for making chocolate. Those are a few stories of major career changes from the baby boomers and retirees Kerry Hannon interviewed for her new book, “What’s Next: Follow Your Passion and Find Your Dream Job” ($23, Chronicle Books). Their tales from the trenches are a rich source of advice and tips for anyone contemplating a serious job switch. We spoke with Hannon, a personal finance contributing editor and retirement correspondent for U.S. News and World Report, about how to prepare for and what to expect from an extreme career makeover.

» EXPRESS: Why don’t we all pursue our dream jobs from the get-go?
» HANNON: I think what happens is people come out of school and they’re really on this money track in many ways. Often your first job is very practical. And I think, at that point, you get stuck. You’re kind of moving along, and it’s hard to put the pause button on and think about, “Is this really what I want to be doing?” When you get out of school and have tuition bills, it’s really hard to say that, “I’m just going to do this because it’s my passion,” when management consulting is paying bigger money.

» EXPRESS: What can younger workers learn from the baby boomers and retirees profiled in your book?
» HANNON: As you go through your working life, you’re gathering up skills. You’re gathering up things that you will take along with you in your little kit to your next career or next job. There is no job that is not beneficial to you. Maybe you have to do something initially when you get out of school to pay back your tuition bills; maybe you have to compromise. There’s nothing wrong with that. But keep an eye on what skills you’re developing, so, when you’re ready to move forward with something you’re passionate about, you have great technical skills, good people skills, good marketing skills. No job is wasted.

» EXPRESS: What are some key things to do before contemplating a career switch?
» HANNON: The most important thing you can do for yourself and give yourself the most opportunity to be a success, is to get your personal finances in order. Pare down your debt or get out of debt, downsize if possible or whatever it is you need to do to try to trim back your living expenses. If you’re going to make a career change, regardless of the stage of life you’re in, you’re probably going to take a cut in pay, at least initially. If you have an idea of what you want to do, this is a great time to reach out to people, to volunteer, to moonlight to get a sense of what these jobs absolutely entail.

» EXPRESS: How can test-driving your dream job through something like an internship or volunteering be helpful?
» HANNON: I think there’s always this romance that the grass is greener on the other side. You might say, “I’ve always wanted to open a bed-and-breakfast; wouldn’t that be fantastic?” Then you get there and start doing the job and it’s hard work. Often, the people that I interviewed who are successful are working longer hours than they ever did in their other jobs, but they love it. It’s not that this is a panacea for the work world. You’re still working, so it’s important to understand what the job is going to entail.

» EXPRESS: Why are mentors so vital?
» HANNON: If you can find someone you trust to have your back, so to speak, they can give you the sort of feedback and advice that your friends can’t necessarily give you. They know the field, and they, hopefully, learn to know you and your skills, and can give you their unbiased opinion and advice. They can tell you what the job entails or what lies ahead in a way that no one else can do. Those relationships are critical, but they’re not that easy to build. You have to work at them a little bit. Start by asking them for some simple help; start small. And always say thank you.

» EXPRESS: What are some of the benefits of having a career you’re truly passionate about? Are there any drawbacks people tend to be unaware of?
» HANNON: The sense that when you get up in the morning you really look forward to your day — that’s the primary benefit of doing something you love. The drawbacks are that you may not be as financially secure as you were before, you may end up working longer hours, and you’re taking a risk. I think it can be a little scary for people; it really takes a lot of determination and confidence to move forward.

» EXPRESS: What surprised you about the career changers you interviewed?
» HANNON: No one second-guessed themselves; they had complete confidence. You have to believe in what you’re going to do. There are going to be setbacks. You just have to be prepared and know that it’s going to take some effort.

Written by Express contributor Beth Luberecki
Photo courtesy Kerry Hannon