In his book Status Anxiety, the author Alain de Botton traces the American romance with self-starterdom back to a moment almost a hundred years ago: In 1907, just as the country was shifting from being an unruly scattering of independent laborers and pioneers to a mass hive of dutiful employees, a book called Three Acres and Liberty became a best seller. Written by Bolton Hall, Three Acres urged turn-of-the-century wage slaves to flee their green desk lamps and start anew by buying a farm and living off the land. “Precisely at the time when most people stopped working for themselves, there arose a terrific kind of nostalgia for being your own boss, and actually I think that’s the No. 1 fantasy of people,” de Botton says. “Maybe it’s running your own business, but it’s essentially being able to direct your life and not being prey to the whims of employers.”

But status panic cuts in all directions; by no means is it only about wanting to stop slaving away for The Man. Status panic can rise to the surface whenever you begin to detect a dip in your prestige, or a complete loss of integrity, or even catch a glimpse of the rotten state of your soul. It is status panic that inspires a starving artist to go back to school and get an M.B.A., just as it is a form of status panic that inspires an M.B.A. to quit his job at Smith Barney and catch a plane to Kathmandu for a year of silent meditation.

No wonder there’s a growing appetite for Web sites such as VocationVacations (“test-drive your dream job”) and books like Julie Jansen’s I Don’t Know What I Want, But I Know It’s Not This. Stephen M. Pollan, a Manhattan lawyer, author, and life coach, had a hit with a book he cowrote called Second Acts, and he frequently sits down with midlifing men and women. “A lot of them are looking for freedom,” he says.

“They’ll say, ‘Well, I want to become, I want to have . . . ’ In the end, what they’re all saying is, ‘I want to be free. I want to be free of taking orders, I want to be free of being controlled.’” Which is lovely, Pollan says, but there are smart and not-so-smart ways to go about it. Pollan’s approach is all about pragmatism, with an emphasis on preserving your cash flow (“The minute you are preoccupied about food on the table,” he says, “you fuck up your second act”) and planning far in advance. In fact, says Pollan, a guy eager to hit the reinvention button should be ready to work even harder than he’s working now and should be wary of any Jerry Maguire–in–free–fall moments of euphoria. “A second act,” Pollan counsels, “is the antithesis of an orgasm.”

According to Pollan’s standards, it would be tough to find a better example of savvy second-act transformation than Joe Sciortino’s. During his eight years at Williams-Sonoma in San Francisco, Sciortino, now 35, began to realize that he wanted to devote his time to environmental causes. After a close friend from college died on 9/11, his craving became more acute. “It was just, ‘Wow, am I really going to sell pots and pans for the rest of my life?’” he says. “‘Or is there something more meaningful that I could try to do?’”