Boomer Career Reinvention: It Ain’t for Sissies

by Lorie Eber of Aging Beats the Alternative


A major career change can shake you to your core. If your sense of self is your career, as mine was, expect a 9.5 magnitude earthquake like the one that struck Chile in 1960.

I speak from experience. My first career was “Lorie the Lawyer.” I practiced law for 23 years as a corporate litigator. I “made partner,” established and managed the firm’s only branch office for the several years, but then that “been there, done that” malaise seeped into my soul and I took early retirement at 49. My farewell email echoed Hillary Clinton: “I have no idea what I’ll do next, but I will not be at home baking cookies.”

Career-Reinvention Lesson: Don’t Take Up Golf, but Do Go See a Shrink

I was totally unprepared for the emotional impact of laying myself bare, after extricating myself from the “Lorie the Lawyer” mantle. Career reinvention is comparable to basic training; you need to be broken down before you can be built up again. Another apt analogy is Bette Davis’ witticism about aging: its “no place for sissies.” Benefit from my experience before you mimic Evel Knievel.

The first few months after my retirement I was a bubbling cauldron of angst, like a character in a Woody Allen movie. Self-doubts arrived at the speed of a bullet train barreling through the Japanese countryside. I experienced a disconnect much like Tom Hanks in Big. It was as if I had time-traveled back to my confused adolescence, yet I looked like a 50 year-old. Profound questions begged for answers. “Who am I?” “What’s my purpose in life?” “What if I’m not special (as the high school teacher recently told his graduating class)?” “What if I’m not good at anything other than being a lawyer?”

In the meantime, I distracted myself briefly by taking golf lessons, which only exacerbated my free floating anxiety. Within a few months, my clubs were on eBay, an implicit acknowledgment that my chances of becoming a decent golfer were comparable to winning the $656 Mega Millions jackpot.

My experience taught me a basic lesson: discarding a life-long identity is one of those major life stressors that warrant professional assistance. Don’t make the mistake of going it alone. Consult a shrink.

Here are my other tips to buffet the slings and arrows of embarking on a second career:

Tip #1: Check your ego at the door. You are now an inexperienced, relatively old nobody. You will not be offered Meg Whitman’s CEO position. More than likely, you’ll be begging for the honor of doing the least desirable job in your new field–on a volunteer basis. I went back to school with 18 year-olds, worked diligently in a volunteer position for a nonprofit and was later rewarded with paid positions.

Tip #2: Get used to feeling like a complete idiot. You’ll have no idea what you’re doing for some time and find yourself reaching out to colleagues the age of your grandchildren for lifelines. Be humble and grab on. I flew by the seat of my pants in learning how to effectively teach, create curriculum, recruit and manage volunteers, and become an effective speaker and a creative blogger/writer. I asked for advice from all quarters. Fake it till you make it. Know that your life experiences count for a lot.

Tip #3: Steel yourself for a roller coaster ride. Ever ride Space Mountain? It’s just like starting your own business. You need a strong stomach to persevere through the highs and lows. Remember Thomas Edison: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Plough ahead through mistake #10,001 and beyond, trusting that sooner or later you’ll be touted as an overnight success.

Tip #4: Keep looking for those open doors: Don’t beat your head against the wall. It hurts. Instead, focus on doors that open for you and long-buried talents will rise to the surface like properly cooked gnocchi. I had no idea I had an ability to make presentations in front of strangers or tell stories through creative writing.

To all you career changers, be forewarned: hold on tight, there are Class 6 rapids ahead!

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