By Sandy Burgham
The conversation goes like this.
Young person: “I don’t really know what I want to do with my life.”
Parent: “Do what you love.”
This is both helpful and unhelpful, but what usually kills any potential in this conversation is the chaser, thinly veiled as good “practical advice”, which is a lecture on financial earning forecasts. This invariably points the young person to some options the parents have prepared for them earlier, conjured from the limits of the parental world view and imagination. At this point, I’m less interested in the kids’ futures (they have years ahead to explore) and wouldn’t dream of giving parenting advice. What I’m more interested in is the parents themselves and the fears that underline their conversation.
Firstly, the fear that they have raised a no-hoper who will sponge off them at an embarrassingly inappropriate age. Secondly, the fear that because of the above, that they will not be able to use the capital gain on their property to travel because their annoying kid has failed to launch. Thirdly — and perhaps most importantly — because they themselves don’t really know what they want to do with their lives either.
While some mid-lifers are fortunate that their careers have meant they can slide into retirement without having to pose as relevant in a multi- generational, digitally-inclined, rapidly-changing work environment; most are faced with the prospect of continuing to work longer than they expected to. This means that like it or not, they have to reinvent themselves to stay both relevant and employed, let alone fulfilled. Its not just companies that are changing, whole sectors are disappearing.
It’s much easier lecturing the kids about having the courage to do what they love, than doing it yourself. Mid-lifers love the concept of reinventing oneself until it bumps up against their fears, assumptions and choices around money and status. What if their new thing doesn’t pay as much and they have to sell their house and live in a grottier neighbourhood? What if they fail? Which really means, what if others think they are a failure?
My interest and personal experience in reinvention is why I was asked to write this column. Having worked in four completely different sectors, and after helping many adults in the process of personal and professional change, here’s a bit of what I know. Reinvention is not about a new job, it’s about reframing how you look at your life. So it’s not about what you want to do, its about who you want to be.
When I work with mid-life reinventors, they often secretly want me to simply tell them what to do; to deliver their new career or decision about their marriage sealed in a golden envelope in session four. Because they are feeling uncomfortable they are in a hurry to get into their comfort zone again. But the idea is to get used to feeling uncomfortable, not having the answers, and facing a blank sheet of paper called the rest of your life. Give the same importance to being interesting as you do to being financially secure. You’ll soon ask yourself – how much money do I really need to live anyway?
All of this might seem counter-intuitive, a little irresponsible, and a bit hippy-dippy. But the more I immerse myself in helping others reinvent, the more I agree with Joseph Campbell, who said, “We’re so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it is all about.” So when I work with people who “don’t know what they want to do”, I always encourage them to play differently in another area of their life altogether. Do other things that interest you. Take up that idea you have been toying with, some extra-curricular activity that will take your mind off obsessing about your career. Commit to that thing. Completing it will open up some learnings for you, about you.
Yes, you might pick up some new skills — a new language, art form or otherwise —but that is not the point of the exercise. The point is to disconnect you from over-thinking about your job. Get over yourself and do something to earn what looks like pocket money — don’t obsess about how much you earn over this phase. I’m not just talking the talk here. I have stuck to this principle myself, and supported others through this, including my husband, who had a four-year career hiatus forced on him by a radically changing industry. He/we had fun with this, despite the discomfort of now knowing how it would all eventuate. Our household coffers reduced radically as he threw himself into one project after another and did the things he had always meant to do, including living in a retro campervan in LA for a while.
The reinvention bit kind of snuck up on him when he wasn’t looking. He has reframed how he looks at his career. Aside from being creatively recharged, he has plenty of options and is currently doing what I think is possibly his best work ever. Moreover, it changed how we both looked at our lives. We sold the impressive family home. Reinvested into places both grittier and grottier. We live differently, and far more happily. Reinvention is not a destination revealed over a two-day course. The reinvention I am talking about comes from a far deeper place, one of awakening.
It’s not the reinvention on the outside that is important but the one on the inside. And to get that inner shift in consciousness that will lead to an outer reinvention takes courage, curiosity, and above all else, commitment to something else other than the bank balance.
— Sandy Burgham
This article first appeared in The Hobson Magazine September 2018