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Work & Purpose

My Favorite Career Reinvention Advice From a Legend

4 pivot lessons learned from the late Barbara Sher


With entire industries pummeled by the pandemic, millions of older American workers are being forced to find new career paths. If you’re one of them, you’re likely struggling to find your way forward.

There’s no surefire formula for navigating a successful career pivot, especially now. But as a coach specializing in second acts, I think some of the best advice comes from Barbara Sher, an out-of-the-box thinker and pioneer in the career development industry, who died in May, at 84.

Sher wrote several bestselling self-help books and hosted several popular PBS specials. Her book, Wishcraft: How to Get What You Really Want (more than one million sales), co-authored with Annie Gottlieb, is considered by many, including me, to be a life-changing read.

4 Timely Career-Pivot Teachings From Barbara Sher

Although Wishcraft was published over 40 years ago, Sher’s advice about forging new directions during challenging times is as relevant today as ever. Here are four of her timeless teachings that could be especially timely for you now:

1. Find the core of your dreams. Admittedly, this sounds a bit precious, especially when so many people are struggling to stay afloat. But Sher, who was once penniless and on welfare, believed that you must do what you’re gifted at.

“That’s why talents are called ‘gifts,’” she wrote. “They’re presents you were given by nature.”

Sher recommends asking yourself two questions: “What do you love to do?” and “Why do you love to do it?”

Sher refers to the emotional core of your dreams — what you want and love best about them — as touchstones. To find your touchstones, Sher recommends asking yourself two questions: “What do you love to do?” and “Why do you love to do it?”

While the responses to the first question will be interesting, the answer to the “why” question is what will provide insights into the elements of work you’ll find most satisfying.

Once you understand your unique touchstones — you love creative fulfillment or nurturing others or a closeness to nature, whatever — you can begin to make incremental shifts towards more meaningful work, even if your perfect job is out of reach for now.

2. Don’t go it alone. It’s ironic that a writer best known for the catchphrase, “Isolation is the dream killer, not your lousy attitude,” also the title of her popular TEDx talk, died while quarantined during the pandemic.

Sher held an unshakeable belief that we don’t fail because we are lazy, moody or have a bad attitude. We fail because as social beings, we need other people to help us brainstorm ideas, connect to resources and hold us accountable.

So, for your career pivot, figure out a way to get support.

Find an accountability buddy; a friend you meet with on a regular basis, either online or in-person, to brainstorm and hold each other accountable. Or ask a few people to gather for what Sher calls an “idea party.” That’s a virtual or in-person meeting to discuss your goals, identify resources and think about options you might never consider on your own.

If you’re in job search mode, a job-search support group might be in order.

Just remember that while most people will be happy to assist, it’s on you to make it easy for them.

Be as specific as possible when making your ask. Don’t say, “I need a job” or “Here’s my resumé. Do you have any ideas?” Instead, frame your request by saying something like, “Here’s my wish and here’s my obstacle.” Then, ask for the most specific information you can get.

For example, “I’d like to use my marketing background with a consumer products company, but I don’t have a track record in that industry. Do you have any contacts in that industry who might be open to an informational interview?”

3. Practice what Sher called “Task Therapy.” When you’re going through a difficult transition, it’s natural to focus on your flaws and shortcomings. Traditional therapy can help you feel better, but it can be expensive and take time. That’s why Sher believed in “task therapy” — an action-oriented approach that helps build self-esteem with cumulative accomplishment.

Barbara Sher

“The funny thing is that the minute you switch your attention from the unsolvable problem inside you to the solvable problem in front of you, you feel a surge of energy and relief,” wrote Sher. “And afterwards, looking at what you accomplished in one hour will do more to heal your self-doubt than ten hours of self- analysis.”

One of the simplest ways to adopt task therapy to come-up with a weekly goal list for your career reinvention, break the goal into doable tasks and then schedule the tasks on your calendar.

Each phone call you make, each new connection on LinkedIn and every informational interview you hold can help boost your mood and propel you forward.

4. Start a Hard Times Notebook. During this rough period, you could share your fears with a therapist or trusted friend, but Sher also recommended an alternative known as a Hard Times Notebook. In it, she wrote, you can “record curses, confess fears, revel in all your own worst qualities and plot fantasy escapes.”

This notebook is an easy, no-cost, safe place to vent your 100% unadulterated negativity. It can help clear the mind the way a thunderstorm clears the air. And as Sher noted, “It will make entertaining reading when the fit is past and you’re feeling good again — or the next time you’re feeling rotten and need inspiration.”

Nancy Collamer
By Nancy Collamer
Nancy Collamer, M.S., is a semi-retirement coach, speaker and author of Second-Act Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit From Your Passions During Semi-Retirement. You can now download her free workbook called 25 Ways to Help You Identify Your Ideal Second Act on her website at MyLifestyleCareer.com (and you'll also receive her free bi-monthly newsletter).

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