A Frustrated Bartender, He Found His Calling Right Down the Street

Adam Lough.

When Adam Lough was in his mid-30s, he found himself feeling annoyed with his life as a bartender. There was a lot to like about the work, but he faced a growing unease. "I was making friends left and right," he says. "But I was frustrated that I was still at a bar. The thing that was stymying me: 'Are you really going to be at a bar forever?'"

He daydreamed about working at a barber shop. But when he floated the idea of quitting the bar to cut hair, his live-in girlfriend had a flat answer. "No, I don't think so." He shelved the idea.

Months passed. He and the girl eventually broke up. He remained frustrated. Just a block from his bar, he kept seeing the sign for the Paul Mitchell school in the Central West End. It felt like it was beckoning him. He did some Googling and learned Paul Mitchell had a barber program in Oregon. "I'm going to move to Portland and get it done," he decided.

When he called Paul Mitchell, however, he learned he couldn't get financial aid in Portland, but he could, instead, in St. Louis' cosmetology program. The catch was that he'd have to learn everything: women's hair, men's hair, nails, eyebrows.

At that point, he realized something big. He didn't need to leave St. Louis. (He'd done that before — it hadn't cured his ennui.) He could go to the school in the Central West End. He could learn men's, women's, eyebrows. But he needed to do it now.

"I thought, if I wait and try to save up the money to go to Portland, it'll be eight months from now," he recalls. "And that means spring and summer. Things aren't as disgruntled then. I'm on the patio more than I'm saving up money."

He concludes, "I put a gun to my head. And I said, 'Do it now so you don't jump out.'"

In May 2016, Lough started Paul Mitchell the School St. Louis. It wasn't cheap and it wasn't easy. But one year later, he was trained and ready to go — and he landed a job immediately, thanks to a regular from his bartending days.

At Lemon, the stylish salon in the heart of the Central West End, he doesn't just cut men's hair but does a little bit of everything. He still bartends two nights a week, but now he's doing it to pay off his school loans, not a career.

And he's happy. Seriously happy.

"It doesn't feel like work at all," he says. "It's no stress, all challenge." To Lough, cutting hair combines all the things he liked about bartending (the chance to talk to people, the chance to make them feel better) with some new benefits (helping them look better). And he loves the challenge of each head that comes before him. To his amazement, he finds himself studying up on the job outside of work. He never did that while bartending. "I always just tried to master that on the time clock," he says. "Maybe I shouldn't have."

Now that he's been at Lemon nearly a year, he looks back on his former angst with appreciation. He remembers how he felt embarrassed to begin again at 36, but he knows now his life experience is what allowed him to take his classes seriously. "Other times I tried to go to school I thought I knew everything," he muses. "I needed that frustration, needed to be at that age to pay attention."

And sometimes, when he's clocking in at the salon, still amazed to be working during daytime hours like a real adult, he thinks back on the changes he made and the changes he didn't. He's glad he didn't flee St. Louis. "I didn't have to leave," he says. "I just had to change my attitude."

Adam Lough is profiled as part of our Change Issue. Check out all the great profiles online here.

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