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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.


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.

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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