One of the most powerful things a coach can do for you is to ask a version of this simple question: “What do you want?” Go ahead, try it yourself. Ask yourself (in the second person, as if you were speaking to someone else), “What do you want? What do you really, really want?”
Chances are, your answers will be different at different stages of your life, and that’s obviously a good thing, because it means you’ve either achieved your earlier goals, or realised that it is time to replace them with aspirations that are more in tune with your values and your current reality.
Many of my friends and coaching clients have achieved considerable professional success and are now asking “what’s next?” They’re not interested in retiring in the conventional sense, but seeking an “encore career”, defined by The Cambridge Dictionary as “a new type of job that someone starts doing after already working for many years, especially when they have achieved success or made money and want to do something good for society.”
The term was popularised by Marc Freedman in his book Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life. Freedman is the founder and CEO of encore.org, an American non-profit that was originally set up to “change cultural expectations for the years beyond 50 and spark a movement around second acts for the greater good.” This mission has been expanded to fostering intergenerational connection in order to “help solve critical problems, bridge divides, bring joy to the second half of life, and help all ages thrive.”
High profile examples of encore career-switchers include Bill Gates, who has shifted his focus from running Microsoft to overseeing the philanthropic work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and, in the UK, Lucy Kellaway’s journey from Financial Times journalist to secondary school Mathematics teacher and founder of Now Teach.
For some people, the later-life career switch is motivated by a growing sense of dissatisfaction in their current role or field, or by the prospect of burnout. For others, like Kellaway, it’s about leaving a great career to take on a fresh challenge. Often, it involves a major shift in perspective, with a new focus on leaving a legacy. It may also coincide with a shift in emphasis from what David Brooks calls “résumé virtues” to “eulogy virtues”, the personal qualities we would like others to remember us by when we are no longer here.
There is a lot to think about when contemplating your encore. Here are two books that can help – one paints the big picture of a successful second half of life, the other outlines a design-based approach to career transitions.
Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development
Aging Well, by George Vaillant, Director Emeritus of the Harvard Grant Study of Adult Development, presents the findings of three long-running, longitudinal studies of men and women born in America in the early 20th century.[i] Subjects in these studies filled in extensive questionnaires every few years, had physical examinations every five years and participated in standardized interviews every 15 years. The researchers also sought additional data from participants’ spouses and children. Although the book is valuable for professionals because of its strong research base and methodological frameworks, it is written in an engaging and accessible style, with memorable case vignettes.
Vaillant applies two models of human development to his discussion of the studies and vignettes: a social model of development, based on the work of Erik Erikson and refined by Vaillant;[ii] and an emotional model, based on Sigmund Freud’s work. The emotional model differentiates between immature and mature defence mechanisms for dealing with strong emotions. The mature defence mechanisms, including altruism, anticipation, sublimation, suppression and humour, are a distinctive dimension of resilience, and Valliant’s research has shown that they are predictive of positive health and well-being.
Vaillant presents his developmental model as a series of “tasks” rather than sequential stages of adult development. The tasks are:
1. Identity: “achieving a sense of one’s own self, a sense that one’s values, politics, passions, and taste in music are one’s own and not one’s parents”
2. Intimacy: “the task of living with another person in an interdependent, reciprocal, committed, and contented fashion”; amongst the subjects of the study, this was usually in the context of a heterosexual relationship, but Vaillant points out that the task of intimacy can be achieved in different ways
3. Career consolidation: “expanding one’s personal identity to assume a social identity within the world of work”; the definition of work operative here can include homemaker or carer (of any gender), and Vaillant explores the key differences between a job and a career
4. Generativity: the capacity to be in relationships where one cares for younger people, and, at the same time “respects the autonomy of others”
5. Keeper of the Meaning: “the Keeper of the Meaning speaks for past cultural achievements and guides groups, organisations, and bodies of people towards the preservation of past traditions”
6. Integrity: “the task of achieving some sense of peace and unity with respect both to one’s own life and to the whole world”[iii]
For those beginning to consider an encore role, generativity is usually the most immediately relevant task. It refers to an expansion of purpose, in which one becomes a leader, passing on one’s wisdom and knowledge to the next generation. The longitudinal studies showed that successful generativity tripled the chances “that an individual would experience more joy than despair in their 70s.”[iv] Lucy Kellaway’s transition into teaching (and teacher training) is an example of an encore career focused on generativity. There is also empirical evidence that, despite the media portrayal of the profession, teachers are generally amongst the professionals who are happiest with their careers.
When exploring generativity with his interviewees, Vaillant liked to ask them the additional question: “what have you learned from the younger generation?”, or, according to the circumstances, “what have you learned from your children?” Interestingly, those who were judged to be aging well often had a lot to say in response to this question, whereas some study participants were unable even to process it correctly, answering instead with reference to what they themselves had tried to pass on to the younger generation. This aspect of generativity reminds me of a famous passage in rabbinic literature:[v]
Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, co-authors of this bestselling book, run one of the most popular courses at Stanford University. When they explain what the course is about, they usually say something along the lines of “we teach how to use design to figure out what you want to be when you grow up.” Over the years, people of all ages have responded by asking “can I take the course?” At first, the answer was no: life design was a course for undergraduates at Stanford.[vi] Subsequently, Burnett, Evans and their team created a range of in-person and virtual workshops and resources, making the methodology widely available.
The core of their method is to apply design thinking to career choices and other life decisions. Both authors have engineering backgrounds, but design problems are not like engineering problems. An engineering approach is suitable, they say, when you have abundant data and when you are confident that there is one best solution to your problem. Burnett, for example, worked on the goal of engineering long-lasting hinges for Apple’s first laptops. This was a different kind of problem from the design challenge that the company faced when they wanted to create a “built-in mouse”, given that there was no precedent and no fixed outcome. Burnett’s long-lasting hinges were a vast improvement on pre-existing hinges, but they were still hinges; Apple’s miniaturized trackball, by contrast, was an innovative solution to the design challenge of seamlessly incorporating a mouse into Apple’s laptops.
The authors argue that building a joyful, satisfying career is a design problem, not an engineering problem. This applies to the majority of the population who don’t have a single passion that they want to pursue as their life’s vocation; and, they argue, it applies equally well to people who have chosen a profession at a young age. “Ticking the box” for doctor, lawyer or engineer is not the same as really knowing what you want to be:
These are just vague directions on a life path. There are so many questions that persist at every step of the way. What people need is a process – a design process – for figuring out what they want, whom they want to grow into, and how to create a life they love.[vii]
To start learning this design process, you can get hold of a copy of the book or enrol on their free course.
I wish you every success in your encore career!
Note on Affiliates: Wherever possible I link book titles to my shop on the UK bookshop.org website. If you purchase a book through my link I earn a small commission. Bookshop is a wonderful alternative to Amazon, as it supports local independent bookshops. On their website they explain that “By design, we give away over 75% of our profit margin to stores, publications, authors and others who make up the thriving, inspirational culture around books!” Where books are not currently available on the UK website I have l inked to the US site.
[i] There is a strong male bias to the studies, with female subjects making up less than 10% of the overall numbers. The Grant Study follows the development of 268 Harvard graduates, all male, from the classes of 1939-1944. The Glueck Study follows 456 men who grew up in the inner-city neighbourhoods of Boston. The Terman Study includes 90 gifted women from middle-class backgrounds. [ii] Carol Gilligan's feminist critique argues that the models are male-centred and omit the developmental importance of interdependent relationships and caring. (Interdependence is the key to the task of “intimacy”, but she is looking for a broader role for it.) Although Gilligan and others have studied the developmental importance of interdependence in younger women, there is currently no data available that is comparable to the longitudinal studies Vaillant discusses.
[iii] The summaries above are from Aging Well, pp. 45-49 [iv] Aging Well, p. 45 [v] It also reminds me of a personal story. When my son was a young teenager, he offered me some unsolicited career advice: “Mum, you should write another book. But this time don’t use the word ‘hermeneutics’ in the title. You’ll sell more books that way.” [vi] Designing Your Life: Build the Perfect Career, Step-By-Step, p. xviii. [vii] Designing Your Life: Build the Perfect Career, Step-By-Step, p. xx