Over the course of my 2.5-career reinventions over the past 25 years, my three top lessons have been 1) don’t define yourself through your resume, 2) going back to school can jumpstart your reinvention when you run out of ideas and resources, and this week, I’ll talk about 3) reframe losing a job as a springboard to your next incarnation.
Let’s start with a classic nightmare: You’re at a busy cocktail party. You’ve just lost your job and you’re terrified to get into a conversation. What do you say to a new person who asks you “So, what do you do?” or to the friend who asks you, “So, how’s it going?”
You want to melt away into the floor as you stand there, panicked, speechless. And you wake up in a sweat.
That nightmare is a reality for most of us who have been between jobs. The added baggage and burden for Boomers is that there is likely an assumption that we are one step away from retirement, SHOULD be one step away from retirement, or are otherwise too old, too expensive, or too out-of-touch to be hired. If we’ve been let go at this stage in our careers, the conventional wisdom is that there are few opportunities available to us. We may likely experience people awkwardly shrinking away from us in cocktail party situations as if we’re somehow radioactive.
The truth is that we have nothing to be ashamed of, and actually have plenty to talk about. If Corporation X doesn’t want us around any more, we need to double down on ourselves and create new opportunities. Rather than be embarrassed and awkward, there are ways to create good vibes to uplift ourselves and our cocktail party companions.
In 2009, at age 57, I lost a great job with a great company. I had been there for almost seven years, and had enjoyed a good deal of success. But the company was moving in a different direction, and I could see that I was about to outlive my usefulness. Would I have preferred to stay in my job? Of course. But I also saw that I had accomplished as much as I could there, and that it was time to move on and do something risky that I knew I had to do: create an entirely new practice as a freelance consultant in a different field. Those first six months were tough. I was between two worlds, trying to define my new identity while the fearful part of me was clinging to the old one.
Tip #1: Be transparent. Acknowledge your feelings, your fears and the fact that you haven’t figured it all out. Transition at this age may feel like a humiliating defeat. But that’s because we were raised to believe that we should have it all figured out by now. When they were our age, our parents were in a very different place, but the world has changed. Consider that there is a new dimension to our careers, and that we now have the opportunity to create an entirely new “second act.” Ten years ago, no one was talking about “encore careers.” If you’ve been downsized out of a job you’ve held for decades, it makes perfect sense that you would feel disoriented and uncertain. Everyone can understand that. You’ll get points for being honest, for being human.
Tip #2: Engage with your future. If you’re in this situation, the truth is that you’re not going to shrivel up and disappear, no matter how it feels. Being engaged is more than blindly “being positive,” One way or another, you’re going to pull yourself out of this, so you might as well reframe your situation as an opportunity. Don’t waste time bemoaning the past, laying blame for your lost job, or taking a sour grapes attitude Who wants to hear that? People are much more interested in hearing how you’re going to move on. Share your thoughts, your fantasies, your possibilities, even your challenges. As you talk about them, and as you hear yourself talk about them, you’ll be able to gauge whether or not they resonate. This is not easy. In my case, it took me at least six months to feel comfortable introducing myself in my new role. I felt like a fraud claiming to be someone that I was in the process of becoming. But the more you “act as if,” the more you will start to manifest your new “you.”
Tip #3: Invite Feedback. Be open to everyone at the cocktail party. If you’re willing to be transparent and authentic about what’s going on in your life, if you’re willing to risk talking about your nascent plans or the challenges you’re working to overcome, then the next step is to listen to what others have to say. All feedback is information, and all information is valuable. Whether people know you or don’t know you, whether they’re positive or negative, perceptive or thoughtless, you’re getting a different set of perspectives. Be a good researcher and catalog these responses. After a certain amount of time (and cocktail parties), you may see patterns emerging. Maybe you’ll notice that others see you in a consistently different light than you see yourself. Maybe you’ll notice that your response to others is changing as time goes on. Maybe you’ll notice that your plan or strategy is evolving based on the feedback you’re receiving.
In making our transitions into new careers, it may be helpful to think back to the mixture of fear, enthusiasm and cluelessness that characterized us when we were starting our careers in our 20s. Now, 30-40 years later, we may no longer be clueless, but we may feel the fear re-emerge. Let’s take the attitude that fear stands for False Expectations Appearing Real, and push through that fear to rediscover the enthusiasm that carried us into our first careers. It’s there to help us uncover what may prove to be a more meaningful, more authentic and more fulfilling second act.