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Overcoming Your Comfort Zone for Post-Career Success

How a university encore program can set you on the right track

By University of Texas TOWER Fellows Program
a middle-aged woman in a library, working on a laptop
Credit: Adobe Stock

Editor’s Note: During the coronavirus pandemic, universities have made adjustments to how they offer the education experience for all students, including encore programs. Though programs may be modified through virtual, hybrid and extended terms, encore programs are not only active but growing as post-career adults engage in purposeful and pivoting journeys. (This content is sponsored by University of Texas TOWER Fellows Program.)

Transitions come in all shapes and sizes, and post-career is one of the largest life transitions. For those making such a transition, many aspects of life can suddenly feel different, and once-familiar sources of comfort may no longer provide the same calm. Unsettling at best, some find their long-awaited definition of retirement isn’t exactly what they envisioned.

So, what should you do when your days start to flow into one another? When instead of enjoying the time, you feel like you’re sub-optimizing your life and skills? How do you remain relevant when the previous markers of your life - your career and family – are no longer your focal point?

“I was just going through the motions (day in and day out) and felt like I was sub- optimizing life and my skills. You know there’s more, but you just don’t know how to tap into it.” [- Marjorie Dorr, University of Texas at Austin TOWER Fellow 2019]

If you feel this way, it’s clear it’s time for a pivot into something new and productive. Yet, figuring out what that something is can be challenging. One way many post-career adults push past their comfort zones and find their “next” is through a university encore program, which can be thought of as a gap year for adults. These programs can help turn boredom into energy, stretch the mind with structure, and keep you accountable along the way.

Kickstarting Your Second Act With an Encore Program

When entering the post-career phase, many of us try to “DIY,” or figure out what comes next on our own. There’s a bit of a disconnect; we use a financial adviser for planning our financial future, yet when it comes to the most important thing - our next act –  we feel compelled to figure it out ourselves. DIY can lead to a routine that feels like the movie Groundhog Day where we repeat the same behaviors day after day and breaking the pattern can be a challenge. When reframing the opportunity, it’s essential to let go of the expectations that lock us into those unproductive patterns. Resetting the expectation that you should inherently know what’s next opens up the door for you to find it. By resetting expectations, you can reduce inhibitions and open the mind to possibilities rather than feeling bad about an inability to meet them. Below we look at three ways an encore program can facilitate this process.

1. Give Yourself a Gift

When you’re in a transition, you can spend your time, however you please. Relish this “window” or special opportunity to do whatever you like. Take advantage of a space in time, maybe after a retirement buyout or a paid-off home or an empty nest, even if it feels uncomfortable. Approaching change as a positive allows you to optimize the moment in time and how you spend it. Although it might feel indulgent to take a gap year after a successful career, think of it as a gift to yourself. Learning and discovering yourself at a world-class university isn’t so decadent; it’s a smart investment. It allows you to immerse yourself in a new environment with new people, breaking old patterns to make way for change.

2. Explore Meaningful Passions


Attending an encore program lets you explore your passions in a meaningful, structured setting that remains flexible. You have the time - and space –  to discover firsthand what your next might be. Pursuing something you love is re-energizing and being surrounded by others exploring their passions in your same life space proves contagious. Interacting with young students on campus and talking through their stimulating ideas, can reignite your creative brain and illuminate the viewpoint that anything is possible in the future.

 “There is this curiosity and freedom of a student’s mind that comes when you put that backpack on (and step onto campus). It takes you back to when the world was your oyster – a moment I (so) longed to capture again.”  [- Marjorie Dorr, University of Texas at Austin TOWER Fellow 2019]

Rather than reading a script, an encore program will give you a framework. You’ll have both the space to explore and the structure and discipline to achieve your goal.

3. Find A Peer Group

Exploration has many layers, and who you do it with can be as important as what you do. Being on campus again can feel like being in a foreign country – the buildings, people, and places become intimidating when you don’t speak the language or have a guide. An encore program allows you to jump into this environment but on a welcome path alongside a cohort, perhaps virtually. You’re all in it together and heading towards the same destination –  your next. During an encore program, not all experiences occur within the classroom; some of the richest parts are often the social events. Your peer group brings diverse backgrounds and experiences; however, your like-mindedness for personal growth and exploring “next” puts you on a shared journey and brings you together. Shared passion and ambition to enrich your lives is a commonality, allowing you to get lost –  then found –  together. Peers often become close friends, and most encore program participants report making deep connections that continue well beyond the program.

Find Your Next With an Encore Program

There are many ways to explore what to do after a successful career, and encore programs provide a complete package to support you on the journey. Universities are foundationally set up to guide people and have created encore programs that do just that. The journey is different the second time around, when you aren’t looking for your first job or to jump-start a career. While your exploration is unique and personal, it’s not a “do-it-yourself” program but a structured, focused way to start your next chapter. If you feel like it’s time for a transition, or you're in transition but are treading water and getting nowhere, it’s time to make a move. For many, an encore program is not just a year, but a year that lasts a lifetime.

University of Texas TOWER Fellows Program
By University of Texas TOWER Fellows Program

The TOWER Fellows Program at The University of Texas at Austin provides accomplished individuals an opportunity to renew their passions at one of the nation's leading research universities. The TOWER Fellows Program is a full-time immersion opportunity that spans an academic year. The program includes inspiring discussions with world-class thinkers and doers, access to exceptional courses and professors on campus and a backstage pass to the best events the University has to offer. As a bonus, Fellows have the opportunity to live in and explore the beautifully unique surroundings of Austin, Texas, ranked the "Best Place to Live" in the United States according to U.S. News & World Report.

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