In Daniel H Pink’s best-selling book The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need, Johnny an accountant laments the fact that his career plan is rapidly going off the rails as he slogs through figures and company reports late into the night. When a magical career genie appears informing him ‘There is no plan’ – Johnny’s colleague retorts – what kind of Deepak Chopra, Zen Bullcrap is that? And there’s no denying that advice and counselling about life and career transitions can occasionally slide dangerously close to Zen Bullcrap Territory. Yet the point of there not being a plan is a wonderfully liberating discovery. Those who face big transitions in their lives, whether early or late, often find this out, sometimes after several decades of quietly working to a life plan at the public sector coalface, or years of dizzying success running their own business, or a lifetime of cosy marriage to a person they hoped to grow old with, or decades in power at the helm of a country, or years as a world class sportsmen. All of a sudden the plan they thought was the plan – goes up in a puff of smoke.
Part of our endless fascination with someone like Coco Chanel is that she had an apparently endless capacity to reinvent herself through difficult circumstances throughout life. Chanel was a world class adapter, a controversial figure who managed many personal and business transitions with courage, flair and steadfastness. For most of us though, life is a bit more complicated. We build careers for all sorts of reasons –coincidence, luck, family business, material needs, talent, encouragement, what the parents wanted, rebellion (what the parents didn’t want at all) or lack of imagination. In our twenties and thirties, we fling ourselves at the career grindstone with fervent relish, until later in life when we may feel inclined or obliged to rethink our working lives as we face major transitions.
Facing a life transition is scary, like sitting alone in a rudderless boat, in choppy waters, staring down a dark tunnel with little more than a dodgy torch to illuminate the way. It’s a time when we can feel directionless, frightened, unsure of our safety or where the drift might carry us. We can paralyse ourselves with fear of the unknown, cripple ourselves with lack of confidence and weigh ourselves down with all sorts of prejudices, labels, justifications, misconceptions, ‘other people’s stuff’ and horror stories of things that went dreadfully wrong.
Age is one such label. We fear we may be too old for certain careers or changes in our lives. So it’s always inspiring to hear stories of older people taking on a worthwhile challenge successfully. One such example is Cuban artist Carmen Herrera, who in recent years was dubbed the hot new thing in New York art. This was at the age of 95 when most of us have made that final great transition into the life everlasting (or wherever is your chosen post-life destination) Having painted privately all her life, Herrera sold her first art work at the age of 89. Now 98 she continues to work productively. The choreographer Twyla Tharp said in her best-selling book – The Creative Habit – that she was fifty eight years old before she finally felt like a master choreographer. The later work of Cezanne, Matisse and Yeats is deeply profound and full of the dazzling and true resonances of life.
We set other limits on ourselves and how we can manage career transitions – fret about lack of skill or expertise, about failure or looking foolish, being hurt or rejected, of hurting others, being broke, or thought selfish. And the biggest fear of all – fear of success. What if it all goes right? Who and what will I be then if this new venture is a success? But skills, experience and knowledge can all be acquired through learning and practise. And they don’t all have to cost the earth. This is true whether we are eighteen or eighty. A few years back I met a Science professor whose career in Academics ended abruptly when departments were amalgamated. At the age of 50, and after the initial shock and hurt, and the letting go of an old and deeply ingrained career and life, she dusted off a long discarded ambition to become a cheese-maker and set off down a whole new path. She now runs a successful Dairy in France with her new French partner. Dare I say it – Blessed are the Cheesmakers.
In 1900 the average lifespan in this part of the world was 47. Today it is almost 80. This is probably the single most significant development in Human Life Span for at least the past 5 thousand years. Yet we are still catching up with the implications. Much as we might like to dismiss the shallowness of such phrases as Sixty is the New Forty, the fact remains that we are approaching this stage of our lives in strikingly different ways from our parents. How many sixty five olds do you know who hang out in the rocking chair looking back on the old days and timing their runs to the potting shed? The years from forty five to sixty five bring huge transitions for us. Our sweet little children become teenagers. (Hey – that’s a fun transition!) They get over that, grow up, move away and become parents themselves. Often at the same time our own parents decline or leave us and our careers sometimes end or wither on the vine. It can all feel like that wobbly boat in a dark tunnel. But where there is change and uncertainty there is also opportunity and growth. Midlife transitions are also a second chance for us to reincarnate ourselves for better or worse. But often we fail to see the opportunities around us because of conventional ways of thinking. After all, retirement itself is a form of convention and like all conventions, it needs to be taken down from its lofty shelf, shaken and stirred and reinvented to meets the needs of the modern world.
For mothers returning to work after a long absence, the challenges of transition back into the workplace are quite specific. Where once you opened up markets and closed deals – for the past fifteen years it’s been opening yoghurt pots and closing car doors with extreme care, as you devote your life to the caring and rearing of your children. You’ve lived the role of mother intensely several times over, as one after another you rear each unique child and set them off into the world. There may have been traumas and heartbreak along the way. One thing’s certain, life will never be the same again. Now with time to draw breath at last, you look around and see contemporaries who have settled into career middle age. Younger people with new and scary sounding qualifications and beautiful screensaver faces, speak a corporate language you do not understand and zoom effortlessly upwards to positions of power and influence. A girl ten years younger than you, two doors up has four children, a figure to die for and is the managing director of a large Social Media corporation called Facegloog. In the face of all that, you wonder what you could possibly have of value to bring back to the workplace? People paint horrific pictures of a place called – ‘out there’ – it’s a tough old world out there. There are no jobs for someone like you out there. Are you sure you want to go back out there? But older, wiser and now with a wealth of life experience under your belt, this can be a great time in life to build a new career. Don’t underestimate the person you have become in between learning to change nappies and navigating the challenges of discreetly monitoring a teenage summer of love. Employers are waking up to the advantages of having older people with a bit of life experience on the work force, because they are reliable, punctual, tactful, humble and kind, emotionally intelligent, with resilience and a genuine sense of perspective about the world.
As for change – people don’t often change unless there’s no other decent option, whether it’s to lose weight, salvage a relationship or take our lives in a new direction. We don’t like change by and large – unless it’s something manageable like a new handbag or a wide screen telly. But once we’ve taken the first step – humans are surprisingly resilient and good at transition. History is full of people that have undergone the most fundamental and unexpected changes in their lives and flourished as a result. In the aftermath of World War 2 survivors who had lost everything – homes, businesses, families, homeland – rebuilt their lives out of the rubble. They became fashion designers, film directors, built huge corporations and drove the economic and social development of the fifties and sixties. Evolution has fashioned us to be resilient.
The final lesson in Johnny Bunko – The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need – is to Leave An Imprint. People seeking career advice occasionally say they want to make the world a better place but they are embarrassed with what feels like a vague and bland beauty contest blather of an ambition. But we are social creatures by nature and working towards something greater than ourselves, whether it’s families, communities, corporations or nations is a part of our DNA. So if you are facing a career or life transition, taking those first tentative steps back into the workplace or changing career direction – maybe seeking out something that leaves an imprint is a good starting point. Oh and treat yourself to a nice handbag too (or whatever else puts zing in your step).
Five tips for managing a Career Transition
- Take time to identify the constants in your life, things that fire you up. See how they tie in with your strengths, career interests and values.
- While you are deciding what to do next – upskill yourself on IT and Social Media.
- See a Good Career Coach – they will do wonders for your confidence by helping you identify what you’ve got and how to make it work harder for you – and lots more besides.
- Assemble your killer CV – even if you have a job for life and a pension plan that lasts until you are two hundred years old – the mind-set required to draft a CV that reflects the depth and breadth of your experience is a really valuable self-assessment tool. Try it.
- Know who your champions are – and share your journey with them. Cheer leaders – not fear leaders.