My Biggest Mistake Switching Careers at 57
A career coach's 5 tips for creating a 'real' career after midlife
You can launch a deeply rewarding career whatever your age. This is true even if you work fewer hours than you once did, saving plenty of time for the rest of your life. Today, in my 70s, I’m deeply engaged in my varied career as a leadership coach, which I began in my 50s. I don’t let my work control me. But it took me a while to achieve this nice balance. In fact, my inability to view my new career as a 'real' one was my biggest mistake switching careers.
From law school until I switched gears in my mid-50s, I enjoyed being a busy Washington, D.C. attorney, and then a corporate executive. I liked grappling with policy issues, I was exhilarated by testifying before legislatures, and I was fascinated by the workings of government. But in my final years on that path I worked constantly. My last major task was to win a complex combination of regulatory approvals for the merger of two large utility companies. This meant more than a year of intense, stressful activity, with few breaks.
When the merger closed, my exit package allowed me to think carefully before making my next move. I didn’t know where I was headed, but I was ready to leave the law and its culture of grinding out long, anxious hours. My priorities were to spend time with my husband, enjoy a social life and find ways to give back.
Switching Careers From Lawyer to Leadership Coach
Soon I decided to build on my interest in mentoring, and I returned to Georgetown University for a certificate in leadership coaching. I launched my own business, and from the first hour, I loved coaching a client. And yet I was slow to embrace this new career with the passion and commitment that had defined the earlier phases of my work life.
When I began this new gig, executive coaching was not well known, and friends didn’t seem to respect it as a serious profession. Some spoke of it as a retirement hobby, like I was filling my time, now that I no longer had a “big job.”
The Voice in My Head
While that dismissive attitude did get to me, more significant was that I sometimes talked to myself in the same way. When I spotted a challenging opportunity, a voice in my head might say, “If this were your real career you’d go after it, but, now, do you really want the stress?”
Eventually I saw that my career felt not quite “real” because of choices I was making. The problem was that, in guarding my personal life, I tended to deny myself the fun and satisfaction that come when you seriously devote yourself to a task or reach for goals that feel daunting.
I needed to give myself permission to jump into the deep end.
My career became real again when I realized that I can limit the number of my work hours and still squeeze a lot of juice from every minute on the job.
Here are five of my strategies for continuing to build a fulfilling career, even when switching after midlife:
- Visualize success. Washington, D.C. is a town where everyone wants to know what you do for a living. So when I left a job that carried some prestige and struck out on my own, I worried that people might consider me less than interesting. Those kinds of concerns melted away, however, once I developed a clear vision of myself as a respected and energetic coach and consultant. Journaling about my mission and standards of client service helped me see myself as a thriving professional.
- Keep learning. Some researchers say that people who work hard to improve a skill may struggle for a while but then will feel happier. Coaching certification requires continuing education, though that is just the start. The science around happiness and job satisfaction is evolving quickly. And being engaged in the professional debate requires study and increasingly sophisticated communication skills.
- Pursue a broadly defined “career.” I get paid for consulting and coaching, but my work life includes so much more than that. My “career” encompasses extensive networking, staying informed and taking classes, volunteering for nonprofit boards and keeping in good enough shape to get it all done. And whatever the category of activity, my process is usually to set a series of small goals, all aimed at pushing toward a high standard. If I find myself doing something half-heartedly, I question whether I should be doing it at all.
- Look for new challenges. One benefit of getting older is outgrowing that nagging fear of failure. Today, it is so much easier to step out of my comfort zone because I appreciate that, even if I miss my target, I will have the fun of trying something new. During 2014, I co-founded Foothills Forum, a nonprofit that supports journalism in a rural community. In 2015, Career Press published my first book, “Think Like an Entrepreneur, Act Like a CEO.” And, in 2017, I launched an NPR podcast, “Jazzed About Work,” featuring conversations with people who love their careers.
- Ask for help. Since turning 60, I have a different sense of urgency. don’t have years to spend digging out information or meeting the right people. Now I am quick to ask for advice or assistance if that is the fastest way to move forward. And I find it gets easier to beg for help if I keep up the practice of frequently offering help to other people.
It can be rewarding to recalibrate the role of work in your life and make a career shift in your 50s. But job satisfaction requires serious effort, and even some stress. For me, enjoying a real career means I set challenging objectives, I move toward them in little steps and I try to fully engage during every minute that I choose to be on the job.