George is like many of the Baby Boomers I work with in my executive coaching practice. They’ve had high-powered careers that they’ve found fulfilling and are core to their identities. As they approach so-called retirement age, they are ready (or forced) to transition out of their longtime professions and are somewhat anxious about what’s next. Their concerns are less financial than identity- and change-related: How can I successfully reinvent myself as I leave behind my career? What does the next phase look like for me? How can I make sure I don’t get bored?
I once joked with my friend Aaron: “If you want to provoke a Baby Boomer, ask them about retirement.” Many Boomers are allergic to the R-word. The reasons are understandable. Retirement, for many, implies a binary off-switch towards mortality, golf, and bingo. It suggests a fixed destination when the 21st century reality is much more fluid and personalized.
So rather than framing this work as “planning for retirement,” I encourage people like George to think of it as “designing your next phase.” This isn’t just a cute turn of phrase. Positioning it this way, I find, creates a more empowered process. It shifts the tone by broadening the range of possibilities, by making it feel evolutionary rather than final, and by reinforcing that they are in the driver’s seat. It’s also more fun. This is a reinvention you get to design, not a retirement you have to plan.
Here are some tips that can help make “designing your next phase” a smoother and more fulfilling experience.
Name it. One of the first things I ask people in this situation is what they want to call it. What word should we use when we talk about it? Some stick with retirement. Others come up with thematic names like “encore career,” “play time,” or “giving back.”
My friend Craig left his post as CIO of a Fortune 100 company two years ago after a successful, international corporate career. At 63, he no longer works in the traditional sense, but he doesn’t consider himself retired either. He spends his time advising early-stage start-ups and helping out political campaigns, in addition to travel, golf, and family. When I ask him what he calls this chapter of his life, he says, “It’s my repurposing phase.” For Craig, “repurposing phase” is better than “retirement” because staying engaged and making a difference are important to him in this chapter. “I like having people call me on the phone,” he said. “I want to feel like I’m still relevant.”
Naming the next chapter is the first step in taking control over it, of making it yours. It might feel like a cheap obfuscation, but in fact it’s the opposite. By naming it using your language, you bring clarity to what this next phase means to you. The name doesn’t have to make sense to everybody. It just has to make sense to you.
Give yourself time to shed old skin. Two weeks ago, an executive vice president called to tell me that she had just been let go after a merger. “They told me yesterday,” she said. “I don’t what I’m going to do next. Maybe it’s time to retire, I don’t know.”
“I wonder if it might help to take some time to process this before figuring out what’s next,” I replied. “Why don’t you go hiking or something, and let’s talk in a couple weeks.” Yesterday I got an email from her from the mountains of Oregon. She took my advice literally! “I didn’t realize how much I needed this,” she wrote.
When people step away from a high-octane career, many want to power through the change. It’s as if they believe a swirl of activity, or some dramatic new commitment, will alleviate the sense of loss and disorientation that comes with stepping off the treadmill.
Instead, allow time and space to land from the experience, to shed the old skin. Recognize that there will be a grieving process for your old identity. It’s not like flipping a switch and suddenly being in a sunny new chapter; you will go through different stages.
Craig, mentioned above, gave himself six months “with no pressure to be productive” when he left his CIO role. “It was one of the best things I did,” he said. He knew there would be process of shedding his old identity and allowed himself space to recover.
Envision your new world. One tool I find helpful in transitions is “the wheel of life.” This wheel looks like a pie with eight slices representing different elements of life: Fun, Health, Money, Friends, Career, Spouse, Physical Environment (home), and Personal Growth. A useful exercise is to go through each category and write out your vision for each. Where are you now in this area, and where might you like to take these in your transition? If you have a spouse or partner, involve them in the process. Reinventions are a team sport, after all.
Another simple but surprisingly powerful exercise is to take a sheet of paper and draw your life in three years. If you don’t like to draw, create vision boards within Pinterest instead. Spending some time “visioning” will create new neural pathways, allow you to “try on” different visions of your life, and can help tease out the things that are important to you (and your spouse).
Embrace experiments. As with any design process, prototyping is a useful way to see what works and what doesn’t. If you’re thinking of moving to a beach in Florida, rent a place there for two weeks and try it out. If you want to do volunteer work with refugees, go network with people in that world and consider taking a two-week trip to a refugee camp. If you want to write the great American novel, take a first step by joining a local writer’s group.
Some people are uneasy with the uncertainty and in-between-ness of not having a firm plan. For those who crave structure, I recommend picking two or three specific things to explore, setting a specific time period for this phase, and then creating a calendar of activity. Think of it this way: your new job is to prototype these two or three specific interests or possibilities.
If you’re worried about what to say when people ask what you do, just mention the work you did in the past and the two or three new areas you’re investigating. Don’t want to give up business cards? That’s fine. Order personal cards printed with your name and contact info – they don’t have to have a job title.
Stake out a new purpose and routine.
Routines are healthy – one of my favorite sayings is that “structure sets you free.” But it’s tough to stick to a routine when you don’t have a purpose. (And conversely, routine without purpose is dull.)
And yet as people go through these transitions, there’s often a period when they haven’t settled into either a new purpose or a new routine. This can feel hollow, and drive those around you a little crazy. This is normal. In fact, there’s something healthy about a nagging ennui during a major reinvention. But eventually, you will want to create new routines and a sense of purpose for yourself, even if it initially feels contrived.
If you have planning time before a transition, I strongly recommend preparing at least one new “identity” or interest area in advance. A law partner I know, for example, is getting credentialed as a mediator in anticipation of his retirement in two years. Another person I know is developing a relationship with a local university in anticipation of teaching a course. These may or may not work out, but they can create some initial structure.
A longtime mentor of mine, Charles, is a retired PR executive who splits his time between Alaska and Washington, DC. Charles once told me that the arc of life is: Learn-Earn-Serve. At 66, Charles has found purpose in this stage of life through what he calls “archive activism.” He founded the “Kameny Papers Projects,” a collection of historical documents associated with Frank Kameny, whom he describes as the Rosa Parks of the LGBT movement. For Charles, this focus was an evolution of interests over time. Eventually, he embraced it.
To thrive in this next phase, you will need a reason to jump out of bed in the morning. It doesn’t matter what it is, it just has to resonate with you and your values.
Take small steps towards designing this next phase, and not just financially but as a whole person and family. You have the power to make it the most fulfilling and joyful period of your life.