This is a guest article written by Michael Harper:
Imagine yourself, lying on your deathbed, unable to do much more than eat and sleep. You suddenly come to the horrific realisation that you have wasted most of your 89 years living completely the wrong life!
With so many people so obviously miserable in their daily toil, millions of us must end up like this. Given that you are reading this article, I hope you are determined not to be one of them. It doesn’t really matter what brought you here – perhaps you have an economic need to find a new vocation after a job loss; maybe you have recently passed through mid-life, possibly through a bit of a crisis, and come to the stark realisation that the career you have spent the whole of your adult life working away at was never really “you”; or perhaps you are facing a suddenly different domestic situation – divorce or “empty nest” – leaving a gaping hole in your life.
Many people in such situations just carry on as usual, assuming that their nagging feelings of boredom and lack of fulfilment and frustration are just part of life.
trying to make sense of it all
You, on the other hand, are here, trying to make sense of it all and desperate to move into a life that’s more “you”.
Faced with this threshold, some people know precisely what they want to do, but for many of us, just deciding what to do next involves something of a journey of discovery. But how on earth do you even begin?
Well, if you’ve never done it, a good start is to get to know yourself better – you may be very surprised at some of the things you uncover. Work through the exercises in “Finding Your Own North Star” (Martha Beck); “What Color is your Parachute” (Richard Bolles) or “The Happiness Trap” (Dr. Russ Harris) and clarify your purpose in life, your true values, your skills and experience, your preferences.
You could then go on to assess your day-to-day monetary needs, the time and energy you can make available to your new project, the support you have around you. It’s also worth assessing your level of resilience and optimism skills; these things will come in handy and keep you going when things get tough. “Learned Optimism” (Martin Seligman) will help you.
Having taken this look at yourself, you will be armed with crucial information – as you explore an idea for your future, you can quickly evaluate it against your life purpose, values, preferences, skills and experience; and consider how well it fits in with your available money, time and energy.
it’s not enough to look inside your head
Remember that, in this rapidly-changing world, your ideal vocation may not be something you have even heard of, so it’s not enough to look inside your head for inspiration. Get on the internet; look and look and look; find people who are doing things that you would like to do; living as you would like to live. Light that spark!
Time to learn about yourself and time to explore is time well invested. Not only will you reduce the very real risk of spending time and resources diligently striving towards a total dead end, but you’ll also give yourself a much higher chance of making those golden choices that lead to true fulfilment and happiness.
burn your slippers and get your skates on
Now if, like me, you find yourself worrying about not having enough time left or whether it’s worth even trying, just go for it anyway. After all, “there are 4.5 million people working for themselves and around 40 per cent of that number are over the age of 50” (This is Money), so by jumping out of your comfort zone and learning a raft of new skills at that age, you’ll be in very good company. Just burn your slippers and get your skates on! As Mahatma Gandhi put it, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” Well, we don’t have “forever”, but we’re living longer on average, so if we’re lucky, we’ll have more time than our predecessors.
More than that, there is some evidence to suggest that a life project can actually give you more life in which to carry it out! It keeps the brain stimulated. As Henry Ford put it:
Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young
Did you know, in a 1970s experiment, residents at a nursing home were split into two groups: one group was given a pot plant and asked to care for it; the other group was told that the staff would water the plant for them. Incredibly, eighteen months later, the residents who had a “project” of looking after a plant had improved health, whereas more people in the other group, with no project, had DIED! Admittedly, this experiment was not the most rigorous, but we’ve all heard of people, in their grooves, happily “working” away at their thing well into their 90s. That’s not to say you have unlimited time available, and it’s important to make choices that make the best use of that time.
Deciding to make a change; discovering more of “who you are”; assessing your available resources – these are things that you have total control over. Unfortunately, however, the outside world is not under your control, and it won’t change just to suit you and your plans. Whether retraining for a new career or starting a business, you may discover (hopefully sooner rather than later) that the world has locked one or two of your treasured ideas behind a firmly-closed door, for good. For example, let’s say you decide that you want to become a surgeon. You are 55, keen to learn, but with no qualifications or experience in this field. It’s a fact of life that the world will soon step in and bolt that door against you. Firstly, if you have no “A” levels, you may need to spend a year or two getting them so that you have even a chance of being accepted into Medical School. Fast-forward ten years and you may indeed, aged 65, qualify as a surgeon, but by then you will be competing with so many younger candidates in what is a very competitive field.
Don’t wear away your knuckles hammering on a locked door
It’s just reality; the world we live in. I say this not to put you off finding your true path later in life, but to illustrate that some options, however attractive, are to all intents and purposes, no longer open to you. Accept this from the start; don’t waste your valuable energy trying to change the world – leave it to the young revolutionaries. You have, statistically, less time available to you than a 20-year-old. Some doors are closed, others will take a lot of time and energy to open. Don’t wear away your knuckles hammering on a locked door – choose the open doorway! Make choices where age is a positive or neutral factor; increase your natural odds of success. There are many businesses and careers where your age will actually be an advantage, giving you kudos and gravitas. Teaching, coaching, consultancy, mentoring to name just a few – people who come to these vocations with solid, real life and business experience have a definite edge.
So don’t worry about a lack of time; just choose how to use it wisely. If you make a start right now, you’ll be surprised at what you’ve achieved when you look back in a year’s time. As long as you make a start, that is!
people will see the authenticity in your sparkling eyes
Something that increases your chances beyond belief is this: whilst your younger colleagues are blindly chasing promotion, power and money in some rat race of a career, painting on their fake smiles and talking the false-speak of corporate life, you will have a powerful advantage over all of them – authenticity. You will be living as you, doing it from the heart, genuinely believing in what you are doing. You will be there for the sheer joy of the activity itself, rather than simply to “move on up”. People will see the authenticity in your sparkling eyes and it will draw them to you like a magnet! If you’re running your own business from the heart, customers will catch your enthusiasm and remain faithful to you through thick and thin.
So let’s say you’ve decided to make a big change; you’ve identified your purpose, values, preferences, skills and experience. You have considered your options and finally chosen what to do next – your exciting new life project. The next important stage is to commit fully to your plan. Full commitment vastly increases your chances of success. As Maureen Gaffney puts it in her excellent book, “Flourishing”, making a commitment to a project “mobilises all your internal resources… Your brain goes into goal-mode.”
It’s important that you “go public” at this commitment stage – telling your family and friends of your plans. This is where a lot of people hit a wave of resistance. The people around you may be grudgingly putting up with their humdrum lives. Your close family may not understand your burning desire to live your true, authentic life. Some of your work colleagues may be envious that you are “going for it” whereas they are too afraid to. Your friends, who thought they knew you, may be very unsettled by the emerging, authentic “you”. They probably quite like you just the way you are, and they may be afraid of losing your friendship as you develop into someone “new”, as they see it.
So, be ready for a barrage of negative feedback. Listen out for a selection of the following:
- “Leave it to the pros – ordinary people like us just don’t DO things like this.”
- “You’re having a mid-life crisis – it will pass.”
- “You don’t want all this hassle at your time of life – why not just get an allotment or take up bowls?”
- “You’ve never done anything like this before – you have no experience – you’ll go bankrupt!”
- “In the current economic crisis! You must be mad!”
- “With the economy already booming, you’ve missed the boat.”
- “Stick to what you’ve always done love, it’s much more sensible.”
- “This is madness. Have you considered therapy?”
In the face of this wave of negative feedback, it’s important to get support from people who get you, people who understand what you are aiming at and why; people who will keep you on track when the going gets tough; people who can point you in the right direction when it comes to learning the new skills you will need in your new life. After all, you wouldn’t want to throw it all away just because of a few naysayers.
get support from people who get you
So now, armed with all this self-knowledge, choices made, plan fully committed to, all you need to do is forge ahead! Find your thing and give your best to the world, and the world will thank you for it. As Ingrid Bergman put it, “Be yourself. The world worships an original.”
Finally, here are a few final words of advice to keep you on track:
- Make some goals; SMART goals. This means you have deadlines by which you need to have done clearly-defined things that move you towards your goal.
- Use the support that’s available to you. Don’t be afraid of asking for help.
- Be accountable, to yourself and especially to others. Meet with people in your position. (The thought of having to explain your lack of progress to a group of like-minded people each week is a great motivator to keep on track!)
- Go for the little successes – they will build your confidence and resilience as you go along.
So shoulders back, chin up, paste a smile on that face, take your courage in both hands, and live YOUR life!