We’ve all heard of the midlife crisis. Some of us even mock the stereotypes that have come to define it – middle-aged men in zippy red sports cars, women overloading on plastic surgery. But let’s push all jokes aside for the moment. What about the positive changes that can come about from this so-called crisis?
It’s a topic that seems to pop up again and again. Everyday, people in their 40s and 50s are leaving their jobs to take a chance on something new, often embarking on an entirely different career, or going back to school. Some spend months working up to it in an effort to make the transition as seamless as possible, others just close their eyes and jump. Most are pleased with the results. So isn’t it time we replace the word “crisis” with “reinvention?”
“Women seem to be more comfortable with the reinvention principle,” says Susan Crandell, author of Thinking About Tomorrow: Reinventing Yourself at Midlife. “We tend to do it any way by reinventing our work lives when we have kids, either by taking time off or cutting back.” Still, it’s a difficult thing to swallow for everyone, especially if you’ve been in the same job, or at least on the same career track, for literally decades. So how do you make the switch without regrets? It helps to have a support system in place, and a clear, realistic idea of the changes in store for you.
- Take small steps. If you’re thinking about making a huge change, especially one that’s particularly risky, like going back to school, you may want to start off slowly. Enrolling in a degree program might not seem too hazardous, but if you think about the toll it takes on your wallet, it’s definitely not a decision you want to take lightly. Make sure that the change you’re making fits into your life. “Do little things that scare you, accomplish them, and then develop a belief in yourself that you can do bigger things,” said Crandell. “If you want to go white water rafting, maybe start out on flat water. If you want to go back to school, try a single course and see how that feels. There are a lot of introductory ways to get a taste of something that really could rock the bedrock of your life.”
- Do your research. You’ll inevitably have to fill in some of the blanks later, but you can at least start by talking to colleagues and friends about your plans, and cruising classified ads. Online discussion boards can be a great resource, as are enthusiast sites that cater to your career change. Then check out organizations that represent the field you’re joining, and even universities that have relevant degree programs – even if you’re not interested in taking classes, the program’s web site and collateral material can be a gold mine of information. And while it may make you feel as if you’re starting all over, finding a mentor who can guide you through the change can make all the difference. Let’s face it – you’re getting into territory you’re not all that familiar with, so now’s the time to put your pride aside and ask for help. If it makes you feel better, think of it as networking with a peer, says Crandell.
- Form a support group. In her book, Crandell suggests a “reinvention weekend.” Gather friends who are also thinking of making changes, career-related or otherwise, and spend the weekend in a relaxing setting. Take time to read books (perhaps biographies of others who have made life-altering moves) and brainstorm about the best ways to launch your reinvention. The ideas of others, especially those who understand and support your situation, will go a long way in boosting your confidence. The best part? You can retain your reinvention group long after the weekend passes, calling each other up when you hit a bump in the road, and taking any slackers to task.
- Embrace your fear. Making any transformation, big or small, is going to stir up some apprehension. That fear is completely natural – in fact, most of us are terrified by changes. At the same time, though, we need to make them in order to have a full, interesting life. “As long as you’re intending to move forward,” said Crandell, “there are probably no wrong moves.” Repeat that mantra to yourself, then turn your fear into motivation. Remember that without it, your focus might waver.
- Find your confidence. Think about why you started making changes in the first place – you wouldn’t have made that push without the confidence that you could follow through. “It’s important to trust yourself, and that ties into what I call the power of letting go. Let go of the old life to reach for the new life, and trust yourself that it will be there,” said Crandell. With that attitude comes the ability to silence any naysayers around you – if you know that you’re making the right choice for you and your family, then you can try to push your nosy neighbor’s comments out of your mind.