Work & Purpose

5 Career Lessons From the Wisest Americans

Men and women over 70 share their insights on the best ways to stay fulfilled at work

Who better to get career advice from than people over 70 with a lifetime of experience in the workforce?
That’s why Next Avenue asked Cornell University gerontologist Karl Pillemer, who has surveyed more than 1,200 Americans mostly 70 and up for the career advice he heard most often from this group.  (You can find their insights on aging, marriage, parenting and happiness in Pillemer’s book, 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans.)

Here are the wisest Americans’ five lessons for having a fulfilling career and advice from experts on how to implement them effectively:

1. Say "yes": This was the biggest message Pillemer heard over and over again. “People who passed up promotions, or opportunities to do things like work abroad, or who didn’t apply for a job because they thought they were underqualified said that not saying "yes" was their No. 1 career regret,” notes Pillemer.

For Boomers with grown children, it may be easier than ever to say "yes." Lower expenses may make it easier to finally take a chance on a less lucrative career or to move to another city for work, if necessary.
“Often there are a lot more opportunities to say ‘yes’ once the kids are out of the house,” says Lisa Adams, founder of the career-transition firm Fresh Air Careers. “You can finally take a chance on a less lucrative career or something you’ve really wanted to try.”

How to make it happen:  One obstacle people face in getting to "yes" is that they view a new job or opportunity as permanent, which makes them more risk averse, says Michael Jeans, president of New Directions, a career transition consulting firm. Instead, look at the offer as an adventure for the next two years or so.  

You may be tempted to say "no" because of a fear that you won’t like the new job – or that you won’t have the necessary skill set to be good at it. To combat this response, “do a 360-degree assessment of the opportunity,” says Lavie Margolin, a career coach whose firm is called Lion Cub Job Search. Ask the employer for details on what the job entails, then make a list of the positives and negatives, noting how well-aligned your interests and skills are to each job task, Margolin says. Once you’ve made this assessment, you can make a more informed decision and you might want to quickly bolster any skills you're lacking.

2. Figure out what kind of job would make you happy – even if it means taking a pay cut: “This group overwhelmingly said that intrinsic rewards were much more important than financial ones,” Pillemer says.  

How to make it happen: Take a career personality test to figure out what kind of job might make you happy, Margolin says. This type of test, offered by many colleges and career-counseling centers, lets you assess your interests and skills then match them to potential careers.
It’s also important to make a list of the things that have made you happy (these could be hobbies, social interactions or work tasks) and create a list of jobs that could let you do them. Then “talk to people who do the job you think you want,” Jeans says. “Ask them what they do all day and what the challenges are in their jobs.” If possible, give the field you're interested in a test drive, Margolin says. “Take an adult internship or volunteer with an organization where you can try to do what you want and see how you like it.”

3. Make the most of a bad job: Even if you’re toiling in a job you hate and feel you can’t leave it, do whatever you can to turn it into a learning experience. In his book, Pillemer says you should modify the Stephen Stills song lyric “And if you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with” to “And if you can’t have the job you love, honey, find something worthwhile about the one you’re in.”

How to make it happen: Identify the factors about the job that are making you the most unhappy, says career expert Julie Redfield, of PA Consulting Group. It might just be a single factor – like a long commute or disagreeable coworker – that could be easily remedied. Talk to your boss or the person contributing to your unhappiness to see if something could be done. Maybe you could work remotely a few days a week to avoid the commute. Or you could move desks to be farther away from the disagreeable co-worker.

If your boss is making you nuts, try to have a candid conversation with him or her. Don't become accusatory or try to change the boss' management style, but do see if the two of you can come up with ways to improve your working relationship.

If you can’t change what’s making you hate the job, try to gain new skills that will help you transition to a different job with the same employer, Jeans says. This could mean anything from helping out another department in your spare time to taking advantage of your employer’s college tuition reimbursement programs, he says.

4. Improve your people skills: You may be the most talented engineer or the most exacting architect, but you won’t get as far as you want without the ability to work well with people, Pillemer says. “Older Americans overwhelmingly said that emotional intelligence trumps every other type." Getting along better with others at work will also make your job less stressful and more enjoyable.

How to make it happen: “Don’t just be an interesting person, be interested in other people,” Jeans says. To do this, ask people questions about how their day is going or offer to help them with projects. “You can start small,” Margolin says. “Tell yourself to ask one person one question about himself or herself per day.”
It’s also important to stay even-keeled and temper your criticism. “Before you speak, take 10 seconds to think about how what you’re going to say might impact the person, he says. “If you feel yourself ready to blow up, excuse yourself to take a bathroom break.” Similarly, before sending an email, reread it to make sure the tone isn’t accusatory or mean. You might even have a trusted coworker look over it.

5. Look for work with autonomy: “Career satisfaction has a lot more to do with how much autonomy and freedom you have than how much money you make,” Pillemer says. “You need the freedom to make your own decisions.”

How to make it happen: Find ways to get better at what you do at work. “If you excel at your job, your boss is most likely going to get off your back,” Jeans says. Try to get regular feedback from your boss, so you can then do what's necessary to improve. You might also try to talk with a superior about establish approaches to work that might allow for less intervention – or at least reduce the need for it.

Certain careers – typically ones that are specialized and require more education – tend to be more autonomous, Margolin says. If you have a job like psychologist, social worker, counselor, financial adviser or graphic designer, you’re the expert, so people don’t meddle as much.
Your years of experience can help you sculpt an autonomous job by leveraging your experience into a consulting gig. Tap your professional network via LinkedIn or flip through those business cards to get started) or check out the Small Business Administration's start-up guide online.

By Catey Hill
Catey Hill is MarketWatch's senior content strategist. She writes about how to upgrade your life, and helps readers find great deals on products and services. Follow her on Twitter @CateyHill

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