Re-thinking your mid-life

Each phase of life demands that we grow and change, and with careers moving from sprints to marathons, most of us aren’t fully considering and planning for the long haul. Noon Advisory Board member Avivah Wittenberg-Cox has developed a transformative toolbox to help you transition with clarity and purpose.  

Alice lost her job to pandemic layoffs at her company and is looking for a new job in an unrecognisably changed market. She’s struggling with her pitch and her confidence is shaken. Ruth spent the past decade raising three kids and running a variety of projects from real estate to angel investing. After a brilliant, fast-track early career, she refers to this period as a ‘gap,’ and wants to get ‘back in the game’. I’ve been writing professionally for decades but have never called (or considered) myself a writer.

Like all of us at Noon, we’ve had decades of precious life and work experience – but not always a good understanding of how they translate into our future. It would help to have a better understanding of a new arc of life – one that is much longer than we think – and how our past and present are the building blocks of our future.

What’s Your Story? 

At any age and stage, transitioning to a next step requires being ready to share your next story – with employers and partners but first, and most crucially, with yourself. How do you make sense of the decades you’ve been on earth? Do you know what you want, let alone how to get it? Or even ask for it? Have you fallen into a fog of fatigued frustration – with life, with friends, with yourself? Or are you tempted by a multiplicity of opportunities and rushing around filling your agenda to over-brimming?

When big moments of transition hit – whether you shook the cookie jar, or the world shook you – people are usually in a hurry to move on. In our busy, busy world, the pressure to be productive is pretty overwhelming – and a common measure of utility and worth. Yet in the UK, the number of people over 50 who decided to take early retirement during the covid crisis more than doubled to 1 in 10. What will they do next? Will the desire to leave one thing be matched with an appetite to start something new?

Here are three simple questions to give you some context for your own thinking:

  1. The Past – Where have I been? 

The older you are, and the more years you have behind you, the more you may want to pause and think before you jump or leap. The riches of the second half of life are rooted in the ability to become fully yourself. But that requires knowing who you are, what you value and what you want.

For some, the first half of life is a process of self-discovery by elimination. We learn what we don’t like, and don’t want to be. Often after having tried those things on for size. We’ve constructed identities and families, egos and skills. Unconscious patterns of thought and behaviour will be deeply embedded, well-worn paths that get us through the day. Some of us will love the result, others will hate it, or simply yearn for change and growth. The gift of the first half is self-awareness – if you take the time to listen. Moving forward requires digesting where we’ve come from. Harvesting the past.

2.  The Present – Who Am I Now? 

We can often feel a little (or a lot) lost as we enter a new transition phase. We’re no longer content with the status quo but can’t see the road ahead. The reaction is often to repress these calls from within. At some point, the noise gets too loud or there is an explosion of sorts: an illness, a relational rupture, or an external force that becomes a wake-up call to the future. We can feel desperately alone in this frustrating fogginess. We blame ourselves for not being able to shake it off and may hide the turbulence from others. Which makes it worse. We all walk the human arc of life, even if it is experienced in dramatically diverse ways. It’s reassuring to understand that change, and what Bruce Feller calls ‘lifequakes,’ – the three of four life-changing events that he found hit almost every life, are entirely normal. Change can come out of nowhere. The only sure thing is that it will come. Regularly. Are you ready?

We’re used to thinking of adulthood in simplistic phases – the sort-of healthy, working adults and then the not-so-healthy or not-working ‘old people.’ Yet new decades of life are adding phases and each one requires a transition – both in and out. We’re all going to want to become more skilled ‘transitionists.’

Before moving into the future, harvesting the past and assessing the present helps to develop a narrative of your whole life. It requires building insight, self-awareness and a realistic understanding of how you are seen by others. Where you have come from and who you are now are two of the three pillars on which you will build tomorrow. The third is the dream of the ‘you’ you want to become.

3.  The Future – What’s Next? 

It can be hard to believe in ageist societies that people get happier and more confident with age. (Although over the age of 60, whilst women continue their confidence-enhancing ride, men fall off it.) Part of our challenge with ageing and later adulthood is that it gets such a bad rap. Ageism is one of the last widely accepted and internalised ‘isms.’ In the popular imagination – from film and books, to advertising and google images, it’s a scary, unattractive land, peopled with all our deepest fears of decrepitude, irrelevance and death. Or it’s a joke, something to be disparaged and laughed at. Shining a light on what the new arc of life looks like would normalise the astonishing number of chapters there are to our contemporary tales. And make it easier for us to plan and pace our way through them.

It helps when moving into the future and emerging from the dark forest of the in-between transition phase, to embrace three things: • openness to change, whether modest or radical, • a commitment to exploring beyond the known and the comfortable, • connections to new ideas and people, including asking for help.

Balancing your emerging new self with the world around you requires adding out-sight to insight. Where are the needs, opportunities or people you want to engage with? Who energises you? Identify role models, old friends and colleagues or organisations to (re)connect with. Learn from them, be curious, open up new worlds you may not have had the time or inclination to visit until now. It can be hard, and surprisingly shape-shifting to let go of one identity, power dynamic and reputation to position oneself entirely differently in the world. But it can also be exciting, liberating and an unexpected revelation of new parts of yourself.

If you want to proactively prepare yourself to fully feast on your past, your present and your many possible futures, I have developed the MidLife ReThink programme – a three part, on-line workshop that has been carefully designed for women who feel that some of their very best decades lie ahead, and want to make the most of them. If that includes you, sign up HERE 

I very much look forward to seeing you Queenagers reign.

By Avivah Wittenberg-Cox

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