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Get a Jump Start on Your Second Act

Taking a new path will not take as long as you think, say experts. Midlife gives you special strengths.

WHO AMONG US doesn’t harbor fantasies of an alternative life? Maybe we envision embarking on a novel. Or perhaps we harbor hopes of operating a bed and breakfast, or going back to school to study history. As tantalizing as the dream existence might be, for many of us these goals remain in the realm of make-believe. In the experience of life coach Stephen Pollan, coauthor of Second Acts: Creating the Life You Really Want, Building the Career You Truly Desire, the reason people are most likely to shy away from embarking on a dream project is that they feel they are too old.

Yet midlife and beyond can be an ideal moment to make a transformation. “You have so much more at the starting gate than you did during your first act,” Pollan says. “You have better judgment. You have experience working with people.” Even when an aspiration seems very distant from one’s current occupation—the doctor who’s about to retire may feel she’s utterly unequipped to write short stories, for instance—the experience of making your way in the world can be harnessed to realize your dreams. “You’re not starting from square one,” Pollan, 79, says. “Your second act will not take as long as you think.

Pollan speaks from experience: At the age of 48, he was misdiagnosed with cancer, then correctly diagnosed with tuberculosis, and was forced to give up his job as a corporate attorney. He launched a career as a life coach after his convalescence, eager to share with other people the sense of gratitude and proactive mindset his brush with mortality had brought out in him.

What We Can Learn from Grandma Moses and Colonel Sanders. To be sure, change rarely comes without effort: It takes introspection to identify what path we could pursue that would make us more fulfilled, and often we encounter some barriers to achieving goals. Some obstacles are self-created; we may be so paralyzed by the possibility of public failure, or nervous that our spouse or colleagues will lift a skeptical eyebrow at our secret aspiration, that we never attempt to make it a reality.

Other times we may lack academic credentials or expertise to effect a career change. But hurdles both external and internal can be overcome. Just look at some of the more famous second acts in American life: the artist Grandma Moses took up painting at the age of 76 and Harlan Sanders didn’t start franchising his Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant until he was 65.

Ways to Discover a New Calling. The first step to constructing a more meaningful life is to identify a career or vocation you could feel passionate about. Some can describe their ‘alternative existence’ easily; they’ve burnished the image so carefully over months and years. Others may feel a vague discontent, but are unsure which new endeavor might be more fulfilling. In those instances, Pollan recommends spending a few hours at the biggest bookstore or library near your home, freely browsing the stacks and jotting down titles and topics that look appealing. Perhaps you’ll find yourself drawn to books on vegetable gardening, or Asian travel, or military history. By letting yourself roam, your natural curiosity may uncover possibilities and give you clues to how you might enjoy filling the next years of your life.

Barbara Sher, author of Live the Life You Love, offers this exercise: She asks readers to write three press releases about themselves. The first one can be utterly fanciful. A corporate accountant, for example, might dash off a paragraph about how his latest rock song has climbed to the top of iTunes charts. The idea is to start limbering our sense of possibility for the next two dispatches, one of which is to be dated two months from now, the other two years hence. In those exercises, Sher asks you to be a little more realistic. Perhaps a high school teacher, a mother of three, writes about how she has embarked on painting wildlife scenes, and several of her pieces were just exhibited in a local gallery. It is a lofty goal, for sure, but by giving herself a timeline, and stating her aspiration in a couple of paragraphs, the educator has given herself a steeple to chase.

Simple First Steps. While it can be exhilarating to contemplate ambitious goals, it can trigger fears as well. Linda Sapadin, author of It’s About Time: The Six Styles of Procrastination and How to Overcome Them, describes how many clients over the years have spoken about potential career changes, only to immediately follow with protestations that their goal is unattainable. One of the formulations she hears most often: I’d like to be [fill in the blank], but I don’t know the first thing about how to go about it.” Sapadin advises readers to turn that phrase on its head. So we might say: “I may not know how people manage to make a living painting, but one thing I do know is that I can reach out to the local community college and speak with the artist on staff there.” As Sapadin points out, by changing how we speak to ourselves, we can expand our sense of possibility.

Of course, reaching out to just one person may provide a toehold on a new path, but what to do when our potential contacts in a new field or endeavor are scarce? Pollan recommends writing an in-depth article about the position you want to pursue, cold-calling people to interview for it. One of his clients, who sought to become a general counsel for a U.S. corporation, titled his piece “Making the General Counsel’s Office a Profit Center.” As you might imagine, he fattened his job-hunting Rolodex as he sat down with his interviewees. Pollan says his clients have frequently gone on to publish their stories after doing the research, even though the purpose of the enterprise is accruing knowledge and contacts, rather than landing a magazine clip.

Skills You Can Reuse? While gaining access to people who have succeeded in your dream second act can be an invaluable resource, it probably won’t be sufficient to actually catapult you into a similar position. Once you have pinpointed your goal, commit it to paper and list the barriers that exist to achieving it. The information you collect from interviews, in bookstores, and online are critical background for this action plan. But don’t always take people at their word when they tell you that the only way to make headway is acquiring an advanced degree or committing to years of formal schooling. In some cases, heading back to university is unavoidable: Surgeons must attend medical school. But most fields don’t have such strict qualifications, and the skills you acquired in your first act can be carried over into your next incarnation. “Communicating is communicating, and salesmanship is salesmanship,” says Pollan. “It’s the jargon that can be different when you transfer into a different field. Educate yourself, become an expert in what you want to do. But realize that the skills you have are valuable.”

Lateral moves might not always be possible in second acts. You may have to volunteer your time with a master in the field you’d like to enter, or give up evenings and weekends to attend class. Still, committing yourself to making your aspirations a reality can be tremendously empowering. Oftentimes, Pollan says, we are the ones who are most apt to stand in the way of improving our lives. Once we face down our qualms and devise concrete pathways to change our day-to-day experience, opportunities can open up that we never envisioned. “We so often create the fog that we sometimes feel hangs over us,” says Pollan. “Allow yourself to do things, and you’ll find that the world really is your oyster.”

Alexandra Starr writes on culture and social issues for such publications as the New York Times, Slate and The American Scholar. She is a regular contributor to Live & Learn.

Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community: Celebrating learning as a creative lifestyle.

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