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4 Tips to Play The Long Game in Work and Life

Stress less by taking these steps to plan for a great future

By Marci Alboher | February 12, 2014
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Marci Alboher is a vice president of Encore.org and author of the The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life, published by Workman Publishing. You can follow her on Twitter at @heymarci.

Sharon Keld
Sharon Keld followed her instincts and paved a new path
Courtesy of Sharon Keld
Recently, I was at a clothing swap party at my mom’s apartment. (I’m 47; she’s 72.) Among the things I brought was a hat that needed a piece of suede to repair it. As soon as I modeled it to the group, one of my mother’s friends offered to get the necessary suede and return the hat to me, all fixed up. She has a little more time on her hands than I have these days. And that got me thinking.
 
Compared to my mom’s friends, my peers and I are stretched. We’re still leaning in at work, charging ahead with family, climbing the ladder.

But after years of studying and writing about what people are accomplishing in their 50s, 60s and 70s, I’m now convinced that most of us will reach a period when we, too, have more time to give — through small favors like my mom’s friend or through work on something bigger than ourselves.
 
(MORE: Pivot to a Second Act with a Purpose)
 
4 Ways to Prepare for the Long Game

What kinds of things can you do now to set yourself up for the long game, especially for the kind of work that will tap your prior experience and let you change the world for the better?
 
Here are four ideas:
 
1. Use your 40s and 50s to plan for your 70s. (Or your 60s to plan for your 80s). When Sharon Keld left a Chicago marketing job with a spirits manufacturer in 2003 at 44, she began searching for something more meaningful. Cruising Monster.com one night, she noticed an ad for the Peace Corps, which tapped both her wanderlust and her itch to apply her marketing savvy to better ends.
 
With no kids and with a rental apartment she could give up, Keld decided to apply. At the time, she was just following her instincts, not knowing where they would lead.
 
(MORE: A Lifelong Peace Corps Dream Comes True)
 
Ultimately, Keld served for the Peace Corps in Morocco, the Philippines and Armenia between 2006 and 2011. These experiences led her to land a job in the nonprofit sector and to launch a niche business.
 
By day, Keld is now the development officer for the Princeton AlumniCorps. By night, she focuses on CorpsSocial, a dating service for altruistic singles.
 
Now 55, Keld is just at the beginning of new work adventures that may last as long as her 20-year corporate career.
 
2. Keep learning. Staying in the game pretty much requires constant new learning. But embarking on an encore career isn’t necessarily about getting a degree.
 
While I’ve met plenty of folks who’ve gotten their bachelor’s or master’s in their 60s, more often, people move into their encore work by getting a certificate at a community college or attending a series of conferences or seminars.
 
If you’re looking for classes, check out Encore.org’s Encore College Initiative — pioneering schools around the country.
 
Whatever your available bandwidth, from a quickie webinar to a full-on degree or certificate program, dedicate some of your midlife education to enhancing your skills and reminding yourself what learning feels like. (Look at the stir this middle-aged guy caused by sitting in on one course in positive psychology.)
 
(MORE: You Don’t Need to Reinvent Yourself for a Second Act)
 
3. Don’t leave, or stray too far, from the game. One of the ways to prepare for the long game is to stay in the one you know best, or at least to keep up with it.
 
Bill de Blasio, New York City’s new mayor, made a splash last month when it turned out that his first batch of appointees had an average age of 61. As The New York Times reported, he chose “wisdom over youth.” Many of these veterans were still using their expertise and one — schools chancellor Carmen Farina, 70 — was persuaded to come out of retirement to accept her appointment.
 
See “keep learning” above if you’re feeling a little stale on this front.
 
4. When you do have time, give some up. Case in point: Ellen Sweet, of New York City.
 
While she was working (as a teacher, then doing communications for feminist and reproductive rights organizations), raising a daughter and caring for her aging mother, there wasn’t time for much else. When she retired in 2011, at 69, Sweet adopted a new rhythm: exercise in the morning, friends and museums in the afternoon. That was the routine for a few months, until… A friend asked her to join a committee for Girls Write Now, a New York City mentoring organization for female high school students who needed the kinds of marketing skills Sweet had.
 
In short order, Sweet upped her commitment, joining Girls Write Now’s board. (Full disclosure: I’m on that board too. It’s part of the reason I’m too busy to fix hats.) Sweet says she hesitated at first because she knew she’d give her all, just like she always had. And though that’s turned out to be true, she’s not backing off.
 
While some of her friends worry about losing their value in retirement, Sweet says she’s sometimes embarrassed by the level of appreciation she receives.
 
What Will You Do When...

All of this makes me think about a brilliant series of commercials currently airing for the New York State Lottery. They begin with an amusing, provocative thought like this one:
 
Isn’t it weird that pizzas are round, but the box is square, and the slices are triangles?
 
And then, the refrain:
 
What would you think about when you don’t have to think about money?
 
The ads make me chuckle. And they make me think about a related question — What will I do when I have more time?
 
For starters, I’ll fix my own hats. But I’m also going to make sure to never fully hang it up.
 
What will you do when you finally have more time? If you already have that time, how are you using it?