This installment is a personal story about a longstanding friend of mine, a New York lawyer named Janet Scully who worked for 22 years as an attorney for Travelers Insurance. She was bought-out of that position in 2009 at the age of 55 — prime Boomer downsizing time for many executives and professionals. Her reinvention story didn’t make the news, it didn’t win any awards. The only life it changed was her own, but that’s the point: we don’t have to aim any higher than our own happiness, our own equanimity, to be successful in the reinvention process that many of us are called to at this stage in our lives. Janet’s story also reflects the idea that reinvention is a state-of-mind issue, not necessarily a job issue. It’s not necessary to pivot 180 degrees, open up your own business, earn another degree etc. etc. Sometimes, reinvention is a rediscovery of the reasons why you chose your career in a particular field in the first place.
Janet and I had been in and out of touch since our high school days in Westchester County, NY. She had gone to law school, gotten married, moved to Larchmont, and worked downtown in the financial district for years. Since the late ’80s, she had been at Travelers and, as Senior Counsel, litigated cases across the full spectrum of insurance work. When the end came, she actually realized that for the final two years, the job had bored her to tears, but she had been hanging on out of… habit? With the cash from the buy-out, she spent a couple of years in what she calls “faux retirement,” but never came up with any ideas for something else she wanted to do. For a while, she parked herself in a boutique law firm, what she describes as an “allegedly part-time, semi-retired job,” but her heart wasn’t in it.
When we reconnected in the summer of 2012, she had just seen my TEDx speech about reinvention, and was contemplating getting out of law altogether and maybe opening up her own small business. An opportunity came up to take over a gourmet food shop, but after spending time investigating the business, she realized that it held no interest for her. It occurred to me that she might consider shifting into mediation — a career that could draw from her legal experience, but from a fresh perspective. I set her up with an experienced mediator friend, Stephen Strick, who advised her that, despite all her doubts at the time, she “wasn’t through with lawyering.” She kept an open mind, polled her network, and received an offer to work in a pro-bono position as a “Special Master” for the NY State Unified Court System. Even though the position was unpaid, she felt drawn to it, following her gut feeling that there was something to learn. On her first day, walking into the fabled courthouse at 60 Centre St. in lower Manhattan, she felt a sense of exhilaration, and was greeted with welcoming smiles from many people who had known her in a different context (Travelers). She says that she got home that night and felt like she had been to a spa.
Much to her own surprise, she excelled at this work. As she wrote to me at the time: “I’m getting the hang of it and I’m happy to report that there is life after 59, particularly when you show up without a lot of preconceived notions. Having been around for so many years just doing my best at the work at hand, I have war stories that amaze everybody, including me. Who did all this?”
She quickly realized, however, that while she was doing great, developing additional credibility, and making a difference, this was likely a stepping stone to something further. “I still don’t know if it’s something I want to do permanently because I think I am an advocate at heart.” She just didn’t know what that “permanent” gig would be. After a little more than a year as Special Master, Janet sent me an email just the other day: “John, on the subject of reinvention, I decided “There’s no place like home.” On Monday I start at … a small, insurance defense firm with the kind of culture that first drew me to work for an insurance carrier back in the 80s. Reinvention? Yes, but it [has been] a journey in consciousness, the Buddha’s spiral. If you hadn’t suggested mediation, I would never have worked for the court which is where I realized I was envious of the trial lawyers and sad that I wasn’t trying cases anymore. I had to change a lot before I could see [that]. I am back to my roots, but seeing it all from a very different perch.”
Career reinvention can be a full circle. The key is to flush out all the accumulated experience that has distracted us from the enthusiasm that fired us up in the first place. As we get older, we need life to work better. We set a higher bar for what our quality of life (and career) should be. As Janet says: “Life’s going so fast now that it’s getting more and more difficult to justify bad choices.” Persistence, faith and an open mind can lead to small miracles of success.