In 1975, I left UC Berkeley with my new undergraduate degree and the mantra of the day, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Accepted into the psychology PhD program at the University of South Florida, I headed cross-country to Tampa where the average age seemed more than 70, not to mention very, very redneck. There I was, on a path to reinvention from college student to white-collar professional and I was so dismayed. I sure could have used a trusted mentor.
Now I am on the other side of that mantra—well over 30 and someone people do trust. I have had quite a few career shifts in my life that you can read about here, and when people ask me for advice on reinventing themselves, I am happy to tell them what I have learned the hard way.
A new question has come up lately. What does it mean to reinvent one’s self at a time when the word “reinvention” itself is under fire? Basically there’s a new mantra to not trust the term “reinvention.” I think this criticism is dangerous, and especially if you are under 30, you should care why this is.
Lots of reinventing boomers
Born in 1953, I fall right in the middle range of the Baby Boom. In 2011 my people started turning 65. Each day another 10,000 of us have a birthday that gains them a cheaper movie ticket.
Today there are probably still about 76.4 million baby boomers who in 2012 accounted for 25 percent of the U.S. population. That year, American Community Survey data pointed out that 68 percent of baby boomers were still in the labor force. When and if they choose to retire is having a big consequence on the availability of job openings for you younger readers.
Boomers work because we can and because we need to. We are in much better physical condition than our parents or grandparents at the same age, and we live longer. For the first time, people over 60 can expect an extra two, three, or four decades of health and physical activity. That makes the idea of retirement a rather crazy notion. Most of us have to keep working to afford to live that long!
And then you have the question of what you would do if you didn’t work. How much sitting around at the beach or going on cruises can a person stand? Personally, I am not up for that. Neither am I a fan of the 4-hour workweek concept. It’s an idea filed under Interesting Conceptual Idea but Not Very Practical.
Even if you have a lucrative business and people whom you can rely on to run it, you have to keep on top of managing your team and keeping the business fresh or you’ll find yourself laying on that beach with your business washed out to sea. Or you could find that someone on your trusted team absconded with your money (true dat and at least one of my clients had that happen last year).
Managing what you have built (for more than 98% of people) takes a lot more than four hours a week, and the 37-year-old author whose book promoted this fantasy, Tim Ferriss, certainly works more than 4 hours each week. He is one of the most high-energy wheeler-dealers out there. I don’t imagine, given all Tim has accomplished and continues to do (love his crazy podcasts, by the way), that he would even want to lay around on a tropical island, especially for more than a week, max.
This all goes back to living life full out and continuing to add life experiences along the way. This approach to life will help you find purpose no matter what age. If you’re under 30 and very fortunate, you have found a purpose that drives you. If not don’t give up looking for it. Continue to venture out and try new things that peek your interests and do them as hobbies, or create a jobby, as my husband calls a moneymaking hobby. All of this experience adds up and as you weave it together new opportunities can open up to you. You don’t have to be a lawyer just because you got that law degree.
If you live, learn and do all along, you will not be content in the second half of life to sit around and twiddle your thumbs letting your considerable life skills and experiences go to waste. In 1759, Voltaire, said, “Work saves us from three great evils: boredom, vice and need.” I know that is still true today.
“What’s next? Bring it on!” is what I hear from people I know in their late 40s and 50s. It happens to men and women but it seems women are particularly surprised to find themselves with a renewed mission and enthusiasm at this point in their lives. I work with many in this group who have discovered that they have a gift and a calling and feel compelled to act on it. My friend, the yoga teacher, calls it finding your Dharma. Isvari says, “When you are given a gift or talent, it is a “sin” to not act on it and deprive the people who need and are waiting for your particular expertise”.
So yes, people in the second halves of our lives, free of raising children, especially if they have been fortunate enough to gain a little financial cushion along the way, are taking advantage of all of their accumulated life experiences and find themselves starting new careers, or jumping in with enthusiasm and expertise to make a difference in some important causes.
In terms of my various career transitions , I have no problem calling them reinventions, no matter that people are debating the meaning of that term.
The reinvention debate
Last year, the Harvard Business Review published a piece by Marc Freedman, CEO of Encore.org, who criticized the term “reinvention” as a dangerous myth promoting some unrealistic quest for creating a new identity.
“The whole romance with radical transformation unmoored from the past is both unrealistic and misleading,” he writes, adding, “I think it is pernicious, the enemy of actual midlife renewal.”
That’s where Freedman gets it wrong. Reinvention doesn’t mean wiping the slate clean as if your next stop is the Witness Protection Program. Reinvention doesn’t make you unrecognizable to those who know you best.
Reinvention (and reintegration, as Freedman wants to call it) really are one and the same thing. To open up your next opportunity, you weave your whole collection of life experiences and expertise. Then you say yes and take on something new, exciting and often important to your soul.
If you’re under 30, this is an important issue to grasp as you go forward and boldly take on new challenges. All your transformations build the person you are becoming, especially if they are as different as mine. When I drove from California to Florida with my new college degree, I could not foresee that my bio would look like the Mother of Reinvention I am today:
Judi Knight is totally passionate about what she does, whatever it is. She holds a Ph.D. in psychology, worked as a psychotherapist, founded and served as CEO of a software company and excelled as an innovative real estate developer. For the past eight years, Judi has been helping companies build stellar WordPress websites and helping them market their businesses through her firm, New Tricks, which practices the same techniques taught to clients to grow their businesses. Somehow Judi found herself organizing the Atlanta WordPress Meetup Group, which today has more than 1,900 members. For the past four years, she has served as the lead organizer of WordCamp Atlanta. She loves to speak onWordPress and marketing, and on the inspirational topic of reinvention.
I have a big issue with Freedman’s hair splitting on the term reinvention versus reintegration. It is crazy that he believes that, for most people, “reinvention is not practical — or even desirable. On a very basic level, it’s too daunting. How many people have, Houdini-like, escaped the past, started from scratch, and forged a whole new identity and life? Sure, it happens—but not often, at least outside of Hollywood.”
That pronouncement is very strange and judgmental for a guy who promotes the idea that people in their 50s and 60s should find meaningful, socially responsible “encore” jobs that combine their passion and experience for social good. Freedman’s organization also sponsors the Purpose Prize for people fighting for change and making an impact.
Certainly people should work to eradicate hunger. But not everyone can. That mission and those of the people winning the Purpose Award are awesome but wow. Having to make that big a difference in the world represents a great deal of pressure, and to expect that level of work may be daunting enough to stop people from trying to compare their efforts with the local homeless shelter for someone that turned into the rockstar of champions for the homeless. And I believe there is benefit in whatever a person does that gives them happiness and makes another’s life a little better. What if a person would rather teach guitar lessons or train dogs? Is that so much less important than curing the climate crises?
I like what Jane Pauley writes about mid-life reinvention: “In the 21st century, 50 is the beginning of a new and aspirational time of life.” For her that means a mission of “helping people see themselves in positive and powerful new ways.”
I get that. When you open your mind to possibilities, previously impossible paths appear. But these new paths don’t just come upon you from nowhere. Instead they are crafted from ideas and experiences that you kept from all the places you have been and all the things you have done.
I agree with Freedman that reinvention isn’t magic. But unlike him, I know that no matter what you call it, it is magical. It can chart the rest of your life’s path for maximum meaning and joy.