Making Your Mid-Career Transition: How to Accept What You Cannot Change


Reality checks are never fun but always necessary. A mid-career transition requires you to make concessions around how you see yourself, how the world sees you, and what you can or can’t do about it.

Taking a New Look at Ourselves in Mid-Career

Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, proposed that no matter what has been taken away from us, we still have the freedom to choose our attitude toward life. At a time of great change in our culture and economy, facing a mid-career transition means we don’t have to view ourselves as victims of an unfair world.

Making a mid-career transition can seem daunting, even ominous for many older professionals. 

However, once you decide to pursue this endeavor and overcome self-limiting beliefs, it will become less intimidating: you might even enjoy the new challenges that are open to you at this stage. Despite some transitory discomfort, you could engage with this new phase of your life and career with renewed energy and anticipation.  

Reframing Limiting Beliefs: The First Step to a Mid-Career Transition

Limiting beliefs are negative thoughts or assumptions we have about ourselves, others, or the world around us. Reframing them is a powerful tool to unlock our full potential, particularly in our careers, relationships, and personal growth.

Despite popular belief, reframing is not about putting a happy face on a bad situation. It’s about changing your underlying assumptions that lead to negative thoughts and beliefs. Only then can you benefit from a new perspective and identify opportunities that may have been previously overlooked. 

For example, a limiting belief would be: “I’m stuck in my job because no one is going to hire someone over 50.” 

Besides being self-sabotaging, this statement also puts you in a victim position where you’re letting external events control you. Instead, a reframed belief would sound like this: “I’m going to identify my knowledge, experience, skills, and connections that are valuable assets in my field and find an employer who needs the results I know how to deliver.

Reframing our limiting beliefs can be challenging. We may have built a certain comfort level around these beliefs. It may actually be easier to accept that we are victims than to question our beliefs and risk the consequences of taking action. However, we can build confidence, resilience, and a greater sense of self-awareness by reframing. Using the reframe(s), we can make plans to help us overcome our fears and feel empowered by our new, alternative point of view. 

Gravity Problem or Anchor Problem?

These two concepts come from Dave Evans and Bill Burnett’s book Designing Your Life, in which they argue that life is not a fixed path but rather a design challenge with multiple possible solutions.

An “anchor” problem is something that appears impossible to change, but you’re not looking for alternative solutions either, which usually holds you back.

On the other hand, a “gravity” problem cannot be controlled or changed; therefore, you have to accept it and let go or turn it to your advantage.

Either way, you must act, but don’t confuse the two. By labeling a gravity problem as an anchor problem, you may waste time and energy trying to change something beyond your control, and vice-versa — mistaking an anchor problem for a gravity problem leads to giving up prematurely instead of exploring alternative solutions. 

Taking Action Based On Your New Outlook

Define Your Career Change Obstacles

List everything you see standing in your way that is either an anchor or a gravity problem. For example, ageism itself may be a gravity problem — you cannot control other people’s bias (they either are oblivious or feel justified). As for anchor problems, you can work your way around them and anticipate them:

  • To address possible financial stress, financial experts recommend saving up to six months’ worth of expenses.
  • To learn more about what positions are available in the job marketplace, reach out to recruiters on LinkedIn. This will help you understand how employers are thinking (and which ones might be more open to professionals over 50).  
  • Reactivate your network by reaching out to former colleagues, friends, and family members for advice on navigating today’s job market or finding opportunities you would have otherwise missed.
  • Take informational meetings to meet new colleagues and clarify where your expertise and insights could fit in the current market. 

Don’t Lead With Your Need

Remember this important strategic trick: don’t act like you’re looking for a job. Act like you’re doing research. Take the attitude of a “servant leader.” Your conversations aim to figure out where you can best use your skills and experience to serve the right company’s or team’s mission.

There’s an appropriate saying: Ask for a job, and you’ll get advice, but ask for advice, and you’ll get a job.

Use the Power of Prototyping to Get on the Right Track

Knowing what you want at this point in your life and career is essential for a smooth career transition. However, just because you’ve got this great idea in your head for a career pivot or a new business doesn’t mean it’s the right one for you to pursue.

Just as designers and engineers build prototypes to test the process and the outcome of their ideas and plans, you can test your ideas before you invest time or money in a new direction.

Creating a side gig is one of the more obvious examples of a prototype. Today, it is easier than ever to research, test, and start a new business. Most everything necessary to get started can be easily outsourced for very little expense. Online learning resources are plentiful, starting with free YouTube videos, research data, and, of course, the infinite library of searchable books and articles.

Various forms of internship, externship, volunteering, boot camping, and other experiential learning can give you a taste of what it would be like to work in your new business or for companies like the ones you are targeting for a prospective job. Professional associations (both locally IRL and on LinkedIn) can get you into practical conversations with colleagues who have already taken the steps you’re planning to take, are already working in your desired industry, or have your dream job. 

Immersing yourself in the prototyping process will give you a much better sense of whether this new direction is right for you. And don’t be afraid to “wipe out!” The biggest gift you can give yourself is realizing that your long-held dream of returning to law school or opening up a franchise donut shop is the wrong move. Now, with your illusions out of the way, you can get down to figuring out what is really best for you.

Shameless plug: one way to ease into  your career change is to join the over 70,000 learners who have taken my LinkedIn course: “Preparing for Career Transition Over 50.” It covers much of the necessary knowledge, tools, resources, and other career advice to help you prepare to change careers. 

Embracing the Gift of Change

We habitually think about aging as a period of decline. However, research shows that most people actually get happier as they age. Wisdom seems to build perspective. Perspective seems to create acceptance. And acceptance leads to happiness.

So, how are you going to align your career with your life instead of keeping them separate?

Understand How You’ve Changed

A successful mid-career transition involves more self-reflection than if you were, say, 30. You’ve successfully weathered many of life’s big challenges and are now facing the second half of your life. You’re likely more concerned about creating more meaning and purpose in your life and thinking about the legacy you’re going to leave. Ask yourself how you want to live over the next 10, 20, or 30 years. What are your priorities? Your must-haves? Your deal-breakers?

If you draw up these lists, you may be surprised by how your preferences and priorities have shifted. In making your career change decisions, dare to want more.

Now is the opportunity to live according to your values, focus on the essential skills and experiences that can be both satisfying and rewarding for you, and contribute to your industry.

Embrace who you are now versus who you were back in the day. Claim what you desire for your future and make informed decisions about your career path. Invest the time and money necessary to really understand what will bring more fulfillment and meaning into your life.

Accept What’s Changed About the World

The pace of change is accelerating. New technologies and industries are emerging and the job market evolves around them. Those are gravity problems. So you have the opportunity to accept and adapt. As an older worker, you are uniquely positioned to identify the anchor problems (i.e. the apparent obstacles that you can work around). You likely know more than you realize and will be surprisingly resourceful in dealing with them. 

In the spirit of “everything old is new again,” consider how new kinds of companies or emerging technologies can benefit from what you know and do. Don’t be intimidated by what’s changed, or by technology, or by people assuming you’re not up to the challenge of what’s new. Take advantage of your core skills: resilience, empathy, work ethic, and leadership. 

Next Step: Choose an Anchor Problem

What is a daunting challenge or obstacle that you’ve been wrestling with that you believe is standing in the way of making a change in your career?

Take some time to analyze, evaluate, and consider how you could “move” that anchor. Engage with friends, colleagues, and family and enlist their support to help you arrive at a viable plan to get that anchor out of your way and continue on your career journey.

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John Tarnoff is an executive and career transition coach, speaker, and author who supports mid and late-career professionals in defining, planning, and achieving more meaningful and sustainable careers.

Fired 39% during his 35 years as a film producer, studio executive and tech entrepreneur, he learned how to turn setbacks into successes in a volatile business. He reinvented his own career at 50, earning a master’s degree in counseling psychology to share his career lessons with others going through similar challenges.

Since leaving entertainment in 2010, John has coached individuals, groups, and led career workshops for university alumni, including for UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. Corporate coaching clients have included Bank of America, Bridgewater Assoc., Levi-Strauss, Softbank, TD Ameritrade, and Thrive Global.

He is the author of the best-selling Boomer Reinvention: How to Create your Dream Career Over 50 and has been named a Top Influencer in Aging by PBS/NextAvenue.


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