So it’s time for a midlife career change. You’re at the midpoint of life; your first career leaves you bored, empty or worn out. But how do you assess the options, get advice and determine a new path?
You want to do something different but haven’t got a clue. Run an alpaca farm? Join the Peace Corps? Take up sculpture? Launch an Internet venture? Midlife is also a time to realign work—paid or unpaid—with personal values, a chance to leave your mark on the world.
Midlife career change is a scary business, fraught with obstacles—a resistant spouse, financial concerns, fear of failure. Where do you start? What should you consider? Such fears have prevented many a high-achiever from reaching beyond their comfort zone, but the biggest rewards come from taking the biggest risks, says life coach Caroline Adams Miller, author of “Creating Your Best Life” (Sterling, 2009). “Otherwise, you may be filled with regret at the end of your life—and that prospect helps put steel in your spine,” she says.
Studies show that up to 80 percent of baby boomers plan to do some sort of paid work until age 70 to stay mentally sharp, keep engaged socially and achieve financial security in retirement. With three or more decades after age 50 to work, play and give back, “this isn’t just a new stage of life, it’s a new stage of work, and one for which there is a lot of confusion and few models of what constitutes success,” says Marc Freedman, CEO of the California-based think tank Civic Ventures.
That could mean wearing multiple hats—for example, writing, doing public speaking, teaching and consulting. Or it could mean creating a portfolio of work, leisure, volunteering, learning and travel. In any case, it means finding a customized solution that puts you in control of your life and provides a sense of satisfaction.
Experts in the life-planning field say it’s important to resist the urge to find a quick fix, and to devote sufficient time and energy to doing your homework. Ask the hard questions, get help from friends and colleagues and consult with career counselors, coaches and financial planners for insight, guidance and inspiration.
5 Tips for Midlife Career Change
Here are five tips for getting started, drawn from the What’s Next special report, Career Change & Life Balance.
1. Understand your priorities and needs.
Who are you and what do you want? Simple questions, but the answers aren’t always easy to find. For those accustomed to achievement, carving out time to do nothing is a challenge. But you need that time to assess what gives you joy, what excites you and fills you with passion.
New Directions, a Boston-based consulting firm, provides advice and guidance to C-level executives and professionals on how to make career transitions. That process, which the firm calls Me 101, takes months and costs thousands of dollars. New Directions clients are hard-driven Type A’s, and not prone to navel-gazing, says Jeff Redmond, a company partner. “But you’ve got to slow down and decompress in order to do the R&D on yourself,” he adds.
2. Use a tool or take a test.
Besides taking time out to contemplate your options, there are other ways to jump-start a midlife career change. In an initial consultation, career coaches and counselors often use tests or comprehensive questionnaires to assess a client’s skills, interests, values and personality traits. You can play career counselor yourself with dozens of self-assessment tests, many of which are available online. Some are free, while others require a fee and sometimes require evaluation by a trained evaluator. Just don’t expect them to provide all the answers.
3. Tell your story.
Mining the past for clues is another time-tested way for midlife career changers to find a road map to their future. Writing an autobiography highlighting critical events, influential relationships and significant achievements often leads to surprising revelations.
- What were the high points in your career that gave you a jolt of energy and pride?
- What makes you happy?
- What do you want more or less of in your life?
It’s just human nature to miss things about ourselves that are apparent to others. You can’t see your own eyes light up or hear your voice change when you talk about the volunteer job at the local elementary school, or that environmental vacation spent cleaning up Mexican beaches. For that reason, career coaches and counselors often advise assembling a team of advisers to help one recall childhood aspirations and career high points. The team might include former bosses, professors, coaches and high school friends. “Just like a corporate board, you want diversity,” says corporate career counselor Richard Leider.
4. Call in the pros.
A major career transition may require expert help. Career coaches and counselors can help clients identify skills, set goals and draw up action plans, as well as provide support during the process. Certified financial planners can help crunch the numbers to make sure the plan is affordable and that retirement is secure. And increasing numbers of planners are adding life-planning skills to their portfolios, so they can help clients with the non-financial aspects of life. With the right help, you can travel down the road to reinvention faster, with fewer bumps along the way.
5. Test the waters.
Research indicates that midlife adults are more likely to make successful transitions experientially rather than analytically. The big revelations come from jumping in and trying new things to see what works.
Luckily, midlife career-changers have plenty of options. Prospective teachers can substitute in elementary, middle and high-school classrooms to sample work with different age groups and teaching environments. Volunteer at a hospital before applying to nursing school. Take a low-paid job at a plant nursery before signing up for a horticulture degree. Internships, sabbaticals, college courses or even brief apprenticeships allow a career-switcher to step out of the daily routine, gain hands-on experience and test-drive that new pathway before quitting a day job.
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