When You Get To The End of Your Rope: Go Back To School


Last week, I outlined the first of three takeaways from my 2.5 career reinventions: You Are Not Your Resume. Don’t let yourself be defined by your past accomplishments (or failures). The resume is an activity log, not a jail sentence. So when my career hit a wall at age 50, and I had no good options and no idea what to do next, I put the resume on hold and I took the next logical career reinvention step into the unknown: I went back to school.

In 2001, the technology startup that my business partner and I had founded in 1995 came crashing down — along with the entire 1990s tech “bubble.” Our first million-dollar corporate client bailed, as did our investors. Everyone in tech was heading for the exits. We limped into 2002, shedding staff, desperately trying to drum up new business, but by the fall, it was clear that we were treading water at best, and more likely already dead.

Here was my dilemma: I had turned my back on my film production career to go into technology (an evolutionary career reinvention in its own right) and invested everything into my startup. There was no way that I would be able to fit into, or even be considered eligible for the kinds of jobs that I had held previously. Plus, I didn’t really want to go back to those jobs. But what could I do? What did I want to do? I had no idea.

So I went back to school — a classic move — and paved the way for a career reinvention into a dream job with a dream company. If we need to shift our point of view, entertain new ideas and meet new people with a different perspective, going back to school is a great way to do it. Earning or completing a B.A., or going on to an advanced degree, is a time-worn method to kick-start a new life phase. Choosing a program is crucial, here, particularly at this later stage of life. We don’t have time to use education as a totally open-ended vehicle to find ourselves. We have to think strategically, and openly, about how we are going to use this time, and what exactly we need to learn to make our next move. Going to school at 50 is very different from going to school at 18. Here are five top challenges I had to confront and work through as I contemplated getting another degree:

Challenge #1: Embrace your “baggage”. Let me reframe the cliché that we are the victims of our (bad) decisions. Yes, lugging around our past is a drag. But we have a choice. Needing to reinvent oneself is actually a great opportunity to stop and open up those bags to find out what’s inside. The reinvention can be a great inventory process to examine the valuable experiences we want to keep, as well as the bad experiences we want to just chalk-up and let go of. The most important thing to remember about our baggage is that it got us to this point. And this is the point where we step off into a new direction. So we should be grateful for our baggage!

Challenge #2: Don’t react to advice. Everyone we know is going to give us advice and tell us what they think we should do, and what will be right for us. As tempting as it is to take the advice, it will likely completely screw us up. Dare to look the gift horses in the mouth: their well-intentioned sympathy may also mask their own fears that they are themselves only one step away from our scary situation. As vulnerable as we are at this moment, we still know who we are better than anyone else. So listen to the advice, but chart your own course. Focus on a degree, a program, a school and a strategy that feels really authentic, and makes you feel energized.

Challenge #3: Read between the lines. Colleges and universities are just like any business: they’re trying to woo customers, and they excel at marketing and sales to get us to sign up. They fill our heads with success stories and promises. That’s the context: the great faculty, the excellent job placement rate, and the state of the art facilities. We need to pay attention to the subtext, which is more subtle and is harder to detect. Are they going to help you to know yourself better? Are they going to help you become a more independent thinker, a better critical thinker? Traditional programs are largely cookie-cutter operations, used to dealing with young people with unformed minds and personalities. Will you be able to get the more personalized and more in-depth interactions you’ll need to turn your life around?

Challenge #4: Go for experience, not just knowledge. Will the school merely feed us information, or actually give us an experience where we get to apply the knowledge we’re being taught? Experiential education is the key here for us at this stage of our lives. We’re going to need to be able to apply what we learn, and do so quickly. We’re quick studies at this point in our lives: our life experience lets us leap-frog over younger people who are still learning life’s ropes. We need to put ourselves in learning environments where we can jump into internships, workshops and other real-world learning opportunities.

Challenge #5: Be 100% committed to yourself and to your process. To the extent that we have any reservations about the program we’ve chosen, (the students, the faculty, the location – anything!) we should, in my view, beware. We need to listen to our intuition. This is “make or break” time. You don’t need to know exactly what the outcome is going to be. Trust in the fact that by committing to yourself and to a program that resonates with you, you’re going to come out the other side a changed person. A reinvented person is an attractive person, a refreshed (and refreshing) person, and one to whom others will gravitate. People are going to want to hear your story, so be open, enthusiastic and energetic.

There’s plenty of skepticism in our society about Boomers reinventing themselves in a jobless recovery, a stagnant economy and a disrupted world that is shedding old jobs and old industries at an alarming pace. This, then, is the perfect reason to go back to school, to expand our minds and our networks, to consider new possibilities, and to put the negativity on “hold” for a few semesters while we refashion and reformulate ourselves into something new. The goal is to re-emerge with more confidence, more self-knowledge, more awareness, and an open attitude that combines new skills with seasoned wisdom to create a successful encore career.

In my final installment on my 2.5 reinventions, I’ll talk about what happened when my dream job came to an end, and I had to confront the key mind shift Boomers must make to succeed post-50.

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John Tarnoff is a career transition coach, speaker and best-selling author who helps late-career professionals transition to meaningful second-act careers beyond traditional retirement.

Following a successful career as a Hollywood film executive and tech entrepreneur, he reinvented his own career at 50, earning a master’s degree in Spiritual Psychology to focus on professional development and training.

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