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How Grit Can Help You Launch an Encore Career

The 'Grit to Great' authors say we're hardwired for altruism


That woman in the shower having a little too much fun washing her hair with Clairol Herbal Essences. That adorable Aflac duck. Those Toys-R-Us Kids who didn’t want to grow up.

Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval made a splash in the advertising world with their breakthrough work like these familiar commercials and the formation of their agency, the Kaplan Thaler Group, which they started in their forties.

It took grit. Now, Thaler (currently chairman of Publicis Kaplan Thaler) and Koval (who left advertising in 2013 to become CEO of the Truth Initiative, formerly known as  Legacy, which created the “truth” anti-tobacco prevention campaign) are coming out with a book explaining how grit can help your career, too.

Grit to Great (publication date: Sept. 8) is a pithy, powerful read on what it takes to be successful at anything at any age. Thaler and Koval use grit as an acronym: GRIT, the authors say, is a combination of Guts, Resilience, Initiative and Tenacity. (Take the quiz on the Grit to Great site’s home page to see how gritty you are.)

As you get a little older, you have a wealth of experience to draw on. You also get good at picking yourself up.

— Robin Koval, co-author of 'Grit to Great'

I chatted with Thaler and Koval about how GRIT relates to launching an encore career, why GRIT has no expiration date and why we’re hardwired for altruism. Below is an edited version of our conversation:

Alboher: You built your firm from nothing, using the qualities you refer to as GRIT, along with a lot of caffeine and carb-fueled all-nighters. How is GRIT playing out for you in life’s later chapters?

Koval: I took a big risk when I decided to leave [her advertising firm] and lead a nonprofit. I’d never done anything in the nonprofit world. I wasn’t a policy person. It was about using those attributes of GRIT.

To be a beginner again. To put yourself in the vulnerable position of not being the smartest, most experienced person in the room.

It’s good to kick yourself off the ladder once in a while.

Kaplan Thaler: It’s a fallacy that brain cells start dying. They only die if you’re not using them.

And one of the best ways to energize brain cell activity is by doing everyday activities in novel ways. Brush your teeth with your opposing hand. Get dressed in the dark. Small things you can start to get that GRIT moving again.

And those will help you when you take on the larger things — as Robin did — like starting a brand new career.

Do you have any other tips for cultivating GRIT, especially as you age?

Koval: Have a ‘Hundred Year Plan.’ Imagine that you will live to be a hundred. Now write some goals for each five- or ten-year milestone. You’ll see how much you want to do over the next 25, 35, or 45 years!

A lot of the book is about the energy of youth. Is GRIT different when you’re seasoned?

Koval: As you get a little older, you have a wealth of experience to draw on. You also get good at picking yourself up.

What surprised you when you started to research how GRIT plays out in your later years?

Kaplan Thaler: There’s so much misinformation out there. The whole idea of retirement was created to make way for younger workers to get jobs.

Linda and Robin Author and Book Embed

Many people enter retirement looking forward to the years of relaxation ahead, but soon find that a life of leisure is not all that satisfying or rewarding. We are hard-wired to be collaborative. No wonder that when you do something nice, the same part of your brain lights up as when you have sex or are given money.

Koval: As we do get to be a society of centenarians, traditional notions of who’s old, when you’re old and what you should be doing when you get to be old, are going to be like bowling pins. Knocked down one by one.

Does your experience as pioneering women in advertising have parallels to how older people are now perceived at work?  

Koval: There were a few isolated cases — Mary Wells Lawrence and others — but we were not moving to a well-populated land [starting a women-run ad agency]. One of our philosophies is applicable as we think about the grey ceiling too — that barrier you hit at a ‘certain age.’ We didn’t focus on what the ad world thought of us; we thought about what would speak to the people we were trying to sell to.

We were probably never the coolest agency. They say you can’t be in advertising after 50 — well, there are a lot of people over 50 buying a lot of products. And in the ad world and in many other worlds, it’s very important to have that voice.

One of you has left advertising for the nonprofit sector. The other is still in the business. What’s your advice to people who want to have an encore career working on social causes? Where can they have the most impact?

Koval: There are a lot of stereotypes about moving from the for-profit to the nonprofit world. People think that do-gooders in the nonprofit world don’t work as hard. But people in the nonprofit world are incredibly motivated and smart.

Kaplan Thaler: To me, it’s not as clear-cut as for-profit and nonprofit. Our agency has always devoted a tremendous amount of time to nonprofit causes. It just makes you feel good. Obama did a private showing of our Imagine work for the Anti Defamation League.

Koval: And Look at the great work CVS is doing. They took tobacco out of their stores, sacrificed two billion dollars in sales. Since they did that, they’ve been reporting great numbers and their share price has gone up. It’s a great example of how the nonprofit and for-profit world need each other.

Advertising is often seen as a young person’s game and Robin, your current work is all about reaching young people. Any thoughts about how the generations can best work together?

Kaplan Thaler: I’m so proud of our Doctors of the World campaign fighting the Ebola crisis, which won two Lions Awards at Cannes. It was developed by a brilliant young team but the boomers on the committee had a huge amount of experience working with mainstream broadcast media and were able to convince them to place our ads, which included free full page coverage in The New York Times, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. It’s a wonderful example of two generations working together to make something happen.

Koval: Our work on the Truth campaign has now spanned two, nearly three generations. We began in 2000 talking to the rebellious Gen X, evolved to capture the more optimistic mindset of Millennials and now are evolving once more to be relevant to the Realist Gen Z’ers. And while we are always adapting, we’ve learned that its also true that some themes are universal — the quest for autonomy, authenticity, and control. I think the message for everyone is there is probably more that we have in common with other generations than separates us if we’re willing to be open and take down our guard.

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