Revitalizing Your Life at Fifty-Plus

The truth is, I’m depressed. I feel like I’ve not achieved my career potential and I don’t see anything in my future of much interest in work or at home.

Those were the sentiments expressed by Steven, a 58-year-old supervisor of a maintenance facility at a large military installation. During his career Steven served as an officer in the Air Force and then had a series of civilian jobs before transitioning to the federal government. Steven has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and is a bright, low-key, competent guy who accomplishes what is expected of him. He gets good performance evaluations and is well liked by his supervisors and subordinates. He has a good marriage of 35 years and is a proud father of two attractive and college-educated daughters. All of these things seem to point to a good life. Why then was he depressed?

During our coaching session he revealed three primary sources for his melancholy. First, he believed that he had never really achieved his career potential, feeling his talents had been undeveloped and underutilized. Second, his wife was about to retire, but she had no vision for this stage of her life other than waiting for him to retire. Third, his daughters, having graduated from college, were now living at home again as they tried to launch their careers in a tough economy. He was understandably distressed when, after financing his daughters’ education, they had no job prospects. Their situation, however, confronted him with a much deeper psychological issue. He couldn’t help but contemplate how much more he might have done with his career had he been more self-aware and farsighted at their age.

It’s not uncommon in the senior stage of life to feel unfulfilled in having failed to achieve specific goals. Less apparent but equally unsettling is the feeling that you have not lived up to your potential. For Steven, it was the latter that seemed to be at the source of his gloomy self-appraisal. While he had never developed clear career goals, he still had generalized expectations of success, and these vague expectations exceeded his sense of personal accomplishment. Now, approaching age sixty, he felt that life was quickly passing him by and he had little of real interest on his horizon. When you experience a generalized depression along the lines of Steven’s, it is imperative to take action to prevent the malaise from deepening and consuming your vitality. As a remedy Steven agreed to the following:

  • Re-framing: He would stop considering his work a failure and identify at least three things that he felt particularly good about in his career to date.
  • Legacy creation: he would, before retiring, identify and work to achieve a lasting legacy. It could be anything from mentoring younger staff, or leading a worthwhile change initiative, to starting a volunteer project in the community. This involved committing to specific and achievable goals so he could identify and appreciate a real sense of success.
  • Professional Assistance: to relieve his worries about the career future of his daughters, he elected to pay for the help of a professional career counselor.
  • Vision Generating: together with his wife, they would develop an enjoyable vision for their future. Creating an interesting new vision is an antidote to depression, as you can’t feel down when you’re focused on an interesting new future rather than obsessed with what you missed in your past.

As a resource for vision generating Steven purchased two copies of the book The Joy of Retirement: Finding Happiness, Freedom, and the Life You’ve Always Wanted (AMACOM, 2008), one book for him and another for his wife. He intended to use the book’s content and activities as a key reference for planning an enjoyable future together.

Unfulfilled in Work: Is it time to change jobs or your career?

If you’re feeling unfulfilled in your work, how do you determine whether a job change, a career change, an attitude change, or all three are in order?

Over the past decade Laurie has enjoyed a highly successful career in which she quickly moved up to a senior vice president’s position within her firm. When I first met Laurie, however, she sought career counseling because she was then feeling unfulfilled and discontent in her work.  At that time she was working as a social marketer with an international consulting firm.  As a social marketer, her job was to survey targeted market segments for client businesses to ascertain reactions to a particular product or a sales pitch.  That kind of research is essential to businesses for developing appealing products and in preventing major advertizing blunders such as GM’s disastrous experience in Latin America with the Chevy “Nova,” which in Spanish translates into “doesn’t go.”

Laurie assumed that the cause for her unhappiness was her career.  Why, she wondered, had she expended so much time and energy in this profession, only to become so dissatisfied?  Her counseling experience produced a surprising result, however: the cause of her discontent was not the fault of career choice.  Instead it was the nature of her job.  Her career was actually an excellent choice for her particular talents, interests, and personality.  While Laurie had been successful enough in her work, she just didn’t fit in well with her associates, “good-old-boys” who bonded together over talk of golf, babes, and other testosterone-energized topics of zero appeal to Laurie.  As a result she felt like an outsider, severely limited in her social interactions.  Additionally, she was an achievement-focused gal who, unlike her colleagues, put social contribution above personal ambition.  An attitude adjustment wouldn’t change the reality of her situation— there was little she could do to comfortably fit in.

The outcome of her counseling experience was that Laurie continued in her career as a social marketer but moved on to a new job with another firm.  Here, however, she was associating with a different type of colleague, individuals with whom she shared common interests and values.  Here, also, she was appreciated both for what she did and for who she was.  In this supportive environment she quickly progressed into an executive leadership position. Because of her assertive actions, she found a far more fulfilling situation in which to pursue her career.

It was in seeing the startling disparity between her Passion Revealer and Passion Distributor results that helped Laurie realized that a new job rather than a career change was the remedy for her discontent.*  Like Laurie, if you’re feeling unfulfilled in your current work, you may find the Passion Revealer a helpful resource in determining a suitable course of action. The results of this assessment process have been instrumental in helping hundreds of adults discover more suitable directions for pursuing their passion both in work and in life.

* The Passion Revealer profiles your deep-seated interests and the Passion Distributor shows how much of your time on the job corresponds to your Passion profile.

Retirement Identity: Who am I now?

I’m looking forward to retirement but I’m also terrified about the prospect of it.

Those were the sentiments Sharon shared in seeking my counseling help in deciding what to do in her retirement. At that time, Sharon was 62 and eligible for a full retirement from her professional position with the U.S. Department of Justice. She was clear that it was time to transition from the demanding work and fully engaging lifestyle of a prosecuting attorney, but was not ready to just “retire.” Sharon wanted to do something worthwhile but had no idea of what that might be.

A few weeks after our initial meeting I happened to be sharing a seat on the commuter train into Washington, D.C., when Sharon informed me that this was to be her last day of work. She was heading in to clear out her office and say a final goodbye to colleagues with whom she had been fully engaged over of the past quarter century. I asked her if she was excited about leaving her old life and launching her new life. With tears in her eyes she said, “This is the most difficult day of my life. After today I never again will be a prosecuting attorney with the U.S. Federal Government.” Sharon, who was proud of her prestigious title and position and her many significant accomplishments, was now facing the loss of a highly valued commodity, her career identity. Such a loss can represent a dramatic change, one that often catches new retirees by surprise. Besides the financial side of retirement, most people concentrate their attention on what they are going to do next. The issue now grabbing Sharon was who was she going to be next.

Most of us become settled in our routines and develop a sense of identity associated with our job titles and the nature of our responsibilities and professional accomplishments. When facing retirement, however, we leave behind the psychological comfort of a known routine and the ego-based esteem associated with an occupational identity. The emotional impact of that change is magnified if our position has provided us with prestige and self-esteem. It can be frightening prospect to face the combined loss of a salary-based lifestyle, life-structuring employment routine, and an achievement-oriented career identity. Of the three of these, identity is often the least obvious but psychologically the most important in terms of wellbeing.

If we don’t feel good about who we are, what’s the likelihood of experiencing a joy-filled life? It would be challenging to enjoy the good life without the benefit of sufficient financial resources but, in itself, money does not make one happy. In fact, an obsessive preoccupation with money can actually make one unhappy. It’s the quality of the life we are living, what we do with it, and how we feel about it that determines ultimate happiness. Because of the intimate connection between a positive identity and psychological health and happiness, it is as important to factor in the question of who you will be in senior-life as what you will do.

Sharon recognized that the kinds of activities she would commit herself to in retirement needed to replace the psychic hole created from leaving her career identity behind. To do that, she undertook three identity-renewing activities:

  • Drawing upon professional background and interests, she volunteered her legal expertise to help indigent individuals facing legal problems.
  • She ran for local office in her community to pursue a heartfelt political agenda.
  • She became even more of a benevolent presence, as a nurturing aunt, to her numerous nieces and nephews, (Sharon was single and had no children of her own)

What will you do and who will you be in retirement? For help with these significant issues in re-inventing your life in retirement, see the list of Retirement Planning References at: http://www.visiontrac.com/resources.html

Difficult Choices and Your Final Day

I have to make a hard decision— do I stay with the work I’m passionate about, or go for promotion by taking on assignments I don’t particularly enjoy?

That was the situation faced by Nelson, a 45-year-old manager with a large corporation, facing a career choice predicament.  For several years he had been engaged in project work he deeply enjoyed and was making positive contributions.  His boss desperately wanted him to continue with that work, as did many clients with whom he shared a high degree of trust and sense of mission.  At the same time, however, Nelson was also being pressured by upper-level management to broaden his experience as a necessary prelude to promotion to senior executive responsibilities.  He had been conflicted about his situation for some time, but his dilemma suddenly escalated when he served on a selection committee for the type of executive position to which he aspired. That experience brought home the reality that to get promoted, he had to diversify his work experience.  In a highly agitated state he came to counseling demanding to know what he should do.

What option would you choose if you found yourself in a similar situation?

What advice would you give Nelson if you were his career coach?

I simply asked Nelson how long he expected to live.

“What does that have to do with it,” he said.

“Just go along on this,” I said.”  It is germane to your dilemma.”

“How do I know how long I’ll live?” he asked.

“Make it up,” was my response.

When he said 87, I asked him to imagine himself at that age, on his last day on earth, and consider the following scenarios.

  • First, review your life and consider how fulfilling it would be if you remained with your current work.
  • Next, consider how fulfilling it would be if you were to pursue senior executive responsibilities.
  • Finally, consider other scenarios that you could explore

After reflecting upon these scenarios for several moments, Nelson concluded that being an executive would not ultimately be all that fulfilling.  He did have a rather startling insight, however, in realizing that he would have serious regrets if he did not create his own consulting business specializing in the kind of work he had been doing.  Besides his passion for this type of work, Nelson discovered that he also harbored entrepreneurial instincts and a need for the kind of autonomy that a consulting practice could offer.

When you find yourself faced with challenging choices in life or work, you too might find it helpful to consider your options from the perspective of your last day on earth.   Addressing a dilemma from this point of view can provide the detachment needed for a long-term perspective of what’s required for ultimate satisfaction. What is it, in your final moment, that is likely to give you a sense of a life well lived and relatively free of regrets?

Fast Tracking versus Life Balancing: The TAE of Success

“The reason I’ve come to see you is because of what happened last night,” Valerie said at the start of what I assumed was to be a career coaching session.  This was not about career, however, as she loved her work and was on the fast track of managerial leadership.  In fact, she loved her job so much that she took work home and spent significant portions of weekends engaged with it.

What brought her into my office was an incident the previous evening with a sick daughter.  When Valerie attempted to provide nurturing comfort her daughter began crying and asking for the babysitter.  “That was,” Valerie said, “a shocking awakening.  I want career success, but I also want to be the mother of my kids.” From that experience Valerie realized that she had been overdoing her attention to work and under attending to her kids and her home life.

Work-life-balance is recognized as essential for health and effectiveness in the work place but is usually more talked about than practiced. Corporate life in the fast lane is demanding and can become an all-consuming enterprise.  At work there are clear indicators for what success means, but in our home-life it may take a shock to realize what real success means at a personal level. Health scares, a serious accident, the loss of a loved have shocked many into reassessing what’s truly important.  For Valerie it took a confrontation with a sick child pleading for nurturing from someone other than mom as an eye-opening dose of reality.

Although this came as a blow to Valerie it turned out to a blessing in disguise. She realized that being a loving mom and wife took precedence over the “fast track” at work.  It’s not that work lost its bloom; she just was no longer going to let it consume 90% of her time, attention, and energy.  An equal balance of these three precious resources in career and home-life seemed a more fulfilling and workable compromise. From this insight Valerie stopped going into the office on weekends, no longer took none-essential work home, and turned down some appealing fast-track career opportunities in favor of spending quality time with her loved ones.  She viewed her career was a long-term venture to be managed over time while her daughters were only going to be young for a short while.  She also appreciated that time with her husband was usually more enjoyable and nurturing than weekends at the office computer.

If you’re working more and enjoying life less, it’s time to re-evaluate your priorities in life and work.  Here are six steps for clarifying your life priorities for where and how you chose to invest your time, attention, and energy (TAE):

  1. What are your core values (what gives you real joy and fulfillment)?
  2. List your top seven core values in order of priority.
  3. Estimate the percentage of TAE you now invest in your core priorities.
  4. Determine what percentage of TAE you chose to invest in your core priorities and create your goals accordingly.
  5. Display your core values and TAE goals as a reminder of your intentions.
  6. Review your TAE progress and restate your intentions on a monthly basis.

The Passion Revealer can be a useful resource in assessing your core priorities.

Are You Leading in the Right Place?

I’ve always gotten great performance evaluations until taking on the management of this group, but now I’m seriously questioning my leadership abilities.

Those were Clyde’s sentiments in our coaching session to discuss his less-than-stellar 360-degree feedback report, raising concerns about his civilian leadership abilities.  His report brought to a head the fact that Clyde was in the midst of a career crisis.  Prior to assuming his current managerial role in a large government agency he had served for 25 years in the military, rising through the enlisted ranks to officer status.  He attributed his military success to an authoritarian leadership style well suited to his temperament and to his Technical – Organizer profile from his Passion Revealer assessment. In the military he was a commanding presence, adept in making decisions, enforcing regulations and demanding unquestioned compliance.

Upon retiring from the military Clyde was able to parlay his experience and technical knowledge into a civilian job managing a staff of highly educated professionals responsible for developing and delivering the training program of a huge agency. The leadership style that served Clyde so successfully in the military, however, did not translate well to the new setting. With his imposingly muscular physical presence and no-nonsense mission-oriented focus, he came across as inflexible, severely demanding, and highly intimidating. These traits resulted in conflict, reactionary behavior, and morale problems with his team.  Although he’d struggled to soften his presence and develop a more collaborative style, he was bucking against a natural authoritarian disposition hardened over years of experience.   Clyde was determined to succeed but conceded that his style had been unsuccessful in bringing out the best in this staff.

In evaluating his career dilemma Clyde faced difficult choices.  Should he continue working to transform his leadership style, move on to another setting better suited to his strengths, or just transition out of supervision altogether?  Staying with his current position was his preference, but he wasn’t sure that he could change his mode of leadership.  Furthermore, he felt that he might have so alienated his staff that gaining credibility with them could be impossible even if he changed his style.  In retrospect, Clyde realized that he should have taken better stock of his leadership assets before accepting a position that drew too heavily on his limitations and too little on his strengths.

Things to consider when you find yourself in a situation like Clyde:

  1. Know your leadership strengths and shortcomings in order to find a fit where you can capitalize upon your assets and manage your deficits.
  2. Find a better fit if your leadership assets aren’t being fully applied.
  3. If you’re performing successfully in a current situation, think carefully about jumping into a new role that moves you away from a good fit for your style.
  4. The Passion Revealer assessment in combination with the Passion Styles and Career Directions Guide can be useful in defining your leadership assets and deficits and in clarifying a best-fit situation for your style of leadership.

Breaking Free from a Job Trap

I feel totally boxed-in, trapped and discouraged in my job.  I desperately want to move on to something better but I just can’t see a way out.

That’s how Mildred described her situation in our coaching session.  “In working for this boss,” she said, “I’m going nowhere. He has made it perfectly clear that he will not support either my efforts for promotion or a lateral move out of his department.” Mildred earnestly wanted to feel good about her work and to benefit from doing good work, but since neither seemed possible, she felt trapped, abused, and depressed.

What would you do if you found yourself trapped by circumstances in your life or work?  One thing you could do would be to ask yourself if you are trapped by circumstances or your point of view. In most cases people are not actually trapped but unaware of their options or they are unwilling to take action on those that are available.  When you’re feeling trapped, as opposed to actually being trapped, you may need to change your mental outlook before you can move on.

Mildred had been unwilling to choose her available options and hadn’t considered future possibilities.   She felt hopeless because she had been reluctant to quit her job or to take assertive action against an abusive boss.  Retirement seemed her only avenue of hope and that was still a few years away.  Mildred, with assistance from of her coach, saw an exciting new possibility.  She decided to become a social worker to help youth overcome and move out of poverty.

Inspired by her new vision Mildred became optimistic about her future and developed a plan that she could begin immediately.  She started by working on a master’s degree in social work by taking evening courses at a nearby adult-friendly university.  Her goal was to complete the course work by the time she retired and then devote full-time to completing a supervised internship for the credentialing necessary to launch her new career.  Energized by her new vision, she no longer comes to work feeling depressed but full of vitality.  She found work to be more fulfilling by offering encouragement to others feeling trapped.  Her vision-based energy became contagious.

Creating an energizing vision can be difficult anytime especially when you’re feeling trapped and hopeless. For that reason you may need to seek support from a wise mentor, one who is a good listener and able to help you clarify your aspirations and envision new possibilities.  If such an individual is not to be found you might consider working with an experienced life/executive coach or a licensed career counselor who can help you transcend feelings of entrapment and create an exciting vision for your future. The energizing power in vision can replace feelings of hopelessness with excitement for a new view of where you are going.

Do you use a “To-Do List” to effectively manage your time and to enjoy life?

Having a “To Do” list can be an effective time management tool for clarifying, prioritizing, and goal achievement. To–Do lists can be used as a godsend or allowed to become demons. The latter was the case with Mike, a 30-something I.T. specialist, who is married and father of two young boys.

“What’s on your mind,” I asked Mike as we meet for a coaching session.

Mike: I’m totally task-driven, I’ve got a To-Do list for everything.

Me: How’s that a problem for you?

Mike: On the one hand, it’s gotten me where I’m at in my career. It keeps me focused on what I need to accomplish. The problem is with my home life, where I’ve also got a to-do list for everything. It’s gotten to the point where my to-do list runs my life. Last week, for example, my wife suggested we go for a ride, as the boys were off at something or other and we hadn’t spent any time together for ages. I turned her down, however, because I wouldn’t take the time away from accomplishing the tasks on my to-do list.

Later that day, Mike said, he was heading for the hardware store for something he needed for a project he was working on but his wife stopped him to ask where he was going. When Mike informed her of his intentions she insisted he take along one of the boys who’d returned home. Mike objected because he was in a hurry, but reluctantly gave in and took the son.

Recalling that day, Mike said he couldn’t remember what he’d been working on but he fondly recalled the time with his son. The two of them had fun together and Mike was thankful he’d given in to wife demands. He was remorseful, however, that his to-do list addiction had prevented him earlier in the day to spend a little quality time with his wife. Mike was seriously bothered by the fact that he was ruled by his To-Do list. His question to me was:

How do I free myself from this addiction so that I can enjoy myself and my family but still accomplish what I want and need to do?

I have great empathy for Mike on this matter, since I share some of his compulsiveness, which frequently inhibits enjoying life in the moment. My following two suggestions to Mike come, therefore, more from professional knowledge than from abundant personal success on this score:

  • Along with your important priorities, identify things you enjoy and include them on your “To-Do” list. Also include time to do nothing as a priority item. That way you get to rate enjoyable activities as task accomplished.
  • When faced with competing pulls between task or a relationship, ask yourself: What ultimately is going to be the most important outcome? At the end of the day—you life, which is going to result in feeling good about yourself? If it’s the task, then go about it guilt free. But if it’s a relationship building opportunity you can be fully justified in the time off task and on a higher priority. Good advice for Mike and for me. How about you?

Are you experiencing a call for new meaning and purpose in your life?

Recently I was coaching a 47-year-old Clara who burst into tears as we were reviewing her assessment results.  Sobbingly she reported:

My life is almost over and I’ve never done what I really wanted! I feel like my life has been a lie and now I’m trapped in my job and I don’t even know who I am.

As a 60-plusser, I was dismayed to learn that someone would think her life was almost over at such a fruitful age. I was also surprised to learn that Clara, in a job with the federal government that many would love to have, was so unhappy and confused. Clearly, she was in the midst of what I call a self-realization crisis.

As a young woman Clara dreamed of playing the cello and becoming a veterinarian.  These desires ran counter to what her mother wanted of her, however, which was to get a good paying job to help support the family.  Out of guilt, Clara squelched her personal ambitions and acquiesced to her mother’s wishes.  Later, in married life, she again deferred her aspirations to support her husband’s career and provide for family needs. Her discontent was compounded by an abusive boss who showed little respect to her, and a husband so focused on his retirement plans that he was unwilling to listen to her needs and desires. It’s no wonder she felt trapped and depressed.

Clara had been aware for some time that she was going against the grain of her natural inclinations. It took a leadership assessment program, an encounter with the Passion Revealer assessment, and a career coach, however, to fully reveal the gap between who she had become and who she wanted to be.  As Clara regained her composure we discussed her passion-based aspirations and strengths, and developed a goal suited to this stage of her life. Her childhood dreams of working with animals and playing the violin remained a passion.  To pursue these persisting interests she decided to make a career transition to work at an animal preserve where she could care for injured critters.  As a leisure pursuit, she intended to take up the cello and to play solely for her own enjoyment. While it’s taken Clara half a lifetime to realize her passion, the good news is that she’s now on the path and has found the courage to become her “real self.”

In my work with thousands of adults over the past thirty years, I’ve observed that a call to “self-realization” often is heard during one’s mid-life years.  Our early years tend to be so focused on outward concerns that few have time to attend to the needs of their unique and personal inner selves.  That changes, however, as heightened concerns with meaning, identity, and purpose enter the center stage of our mid-life concerns.  It’s at this time when we need to make time to reflect upon what we want in life, who we want to become, and to re-conceptualize what will make us happy in our future years.

If you’re experiencing an inner calling for new meaning and purpose in your life, it’s a good time to consult with a wise mentor or a career/life coach for help in clarifying your self-realization needs, broadening your perceptions, and creating a possible new, or renewed agenda for your life, work, and your learning.

Listening versus Hearing in Leadership and Life

“I just don’t understand it,” said Leo in response to getting severely dinged by his subordinates on his 360 Degree feedback report. “ I hear every damn word they say.  Over the last weekend, for example, I thought about what my staff had said in Friday’s meeting, and on Monday I put many of those things into action.  How can they possibly say I don’t listen?”

Leo was upset, angry, and insulted from this feedback.  In our executive coaching session it became clear that Leo was confusing hearing with active listening.  There is a world of difference between these two modalities. It only takes ears to hear but active listening requires hearing, thinking, reacting, and communicating responsively.  Merely hearing what another is saying provides no indication of whether you got the communications, understood the intent, agreed or disagreed, valued it, or disregarded it completely.

Leo was a hearer, not a listener.  His staff, therefore, had no idea of what he was doing with their input, if anything.  As far as they were concerned, they might as well be talking to a blank wall.  Leo carefully digested their input, but without any visible response.  The result was that Leo’s staff felt unappreciated and disinclined to bother with a seemingly futile effort to share their best thinking, good ideas, or problem solving input.

In her book Listening: The Forgotten Skill, (New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, 1995) Madelyn Burely-Allen identifies the following three levels of listening:

  1. Listening non-judgmentally with understanding to the intent and feelings, paying attention to the speaker’s total communication, actively processing and responding.
  2. Hearing words but making minimal effort to understand the speaker’s intent, appearing to listen intently when in fact you’re only slightly concentrating.
  3. Listening in spurts, hearing more than listening; being passive and judgmental.

At which level do you think Leo was operating?  Which level do you function in most frequently?  Are you inclined to listen at one level with certain individuals and another with others?  What do you see as the result of your current listening competency in your work and life?

Active listening at Level 1 can produce huge benefits personally and professionally.  It’s well known, for example, that top leaders are great listeners.  Leading-edge organizations realize they must become “learning organizations” through active listening to remain viable in today’s global economy.  Poor listening lies at the heart of most conflicts and relationship problems.

Level 1 listening is one of life’s greatest gifts.  When you know you’re truly being listened to you think more deeply, become more aware of what you’re saying and feel valued as an intelligent and worthwhile person.  In listening to others, you encourage them to become more deeply aware of what they are saying and thinking and provide a golden opportunity for mutual learning.  To be more effective in your life, work, and learning, become a powerful listener — it’s a win-win investment for you and others, and it’s free!


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