Many of us came of age inspired by mythologist Joseph Campbell and the line that is often attributed to him: “Follow your bliss and the money will follow.” What Campbell actually said was a bit different, and not quite so definitive:
“Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.”
Still, as products of post-WWII cultural transformation, and motivated by progressive ideas and “new politics,” we embraced this idea that we could have our cake and eat it too. We could indeed pursue an occupation that filled us with meaning, and believe that somehow the “making a living” part of it would take care of itself.
For some of us, this call-to-action became the emblem of our careers. For others, it became an empty promise as we resigned ourselves to getting what our parents called “a real job.”
As we complete that first act of our careers, we face a new decision about whether to pursue a second-act career that now awaits us over 50. With longer, more engaged, and more active lives, retirement, even for those who can afford it, seems unsatisfying.
Many of you are wondering if now is (perhaps finally) the time to follow your bliss. Armed with experience and wisdom, are we better-positioned to explore and exploit this notion?
Purpose and the Ticking Clock
It is tempting to believe that success may finally lie where our bliss and our passion reside. After many years of deferring it, or channeling it into non-professional, personal pursuits, we may feel that it is finally time to return to what captured our imagination early in life.
It’s also natural to want to pursue an occupation that fills us with meaning and purpose as we get older. This is a documented psychological shift for most of us. We are rounding the bend into our final lap on the planet and we want to make the most of it.
Many of us feel burned out and ready to throw in the towel in our careers. It is tempting to pivot to something totally new that may seem more aligned with our purpose. Many people over 50 suddenly find themselves questioning the work that they have done unquestioningly for decades. Others are forced to confront the meaning and the value of their work when they get unexpectedly let go or bought out.
Because of the time factor, we feel a greater sense of urgency and impatience. But there is also a mounting sense of anxiety around this decision if we’re feeling a loss of direction, commitment, or certainty about what we’re going to do.
The Myth of Bliss
But simply pursuing our passion and following our bliss may not be the solution.
A few years ago, I chanced upon a commencement address delivered in 2015 at Columbia University by an alumnus named Ben Horowitz. Horowitz is a Silicon Valley venture capitalist whose firm, Andreesen-Horowitz, has backed companies like Facebook, Lyft, AirBnB, and many others.
While most commencement speakers try to inspire graduates by encouraging them to follow their dreams, Horowitz’ sobering message was this: if “follow your bliss” were a prescription for success, then every contestant on American Idol would be a multi-millionaire. Success is a much more complex intertwining of skill, talent, hard work, and timing. So don’t simply follow your bliss. It’s an illusion.
Instead, follow your usefulness.
Figure out what you’re good at, and make sure that it has some practical value and utility. Make sure someone wants and can use what you’re offering. The more useful your pursuit, the more successful you will be. Focusing solely on your bliss is one-sided. It ignores the truth of business success, which is that it depends on relationships and tangible value. You have to channel whatever inspiration you have and connect to someone else and deliver something useful to them.
And your success will make you happy – and maybe even blissful.
The Problem with Passions
If “follow your bliss” and “follow your passion” were bad ideas when we were young and just starting out, they’re still bad advice when contemplating a second-act career.
Don’t beat yourself up believing that if you don’t have a passion for something, you are doomed to a life of mediocrity, dissatisfaction, and frustration. Don’t compare yourself with others who appear to be driven by some sort of ceaseless fascination with their chosen field.
The more you contemplate their success, the more disconnected you feel from your own potential. You increasingly doubt yourself: how could it ever be possible to be a part of their club?
Here are some reasons why passion is not the best barometer of success:
- Passion is hard to quantify. Feelings are important, but they are not necessarily tied to or compatible with purpose. Purpose has a goal, and a methodology to achieve that goal. Like a love affair, passion may be more sustainable by what’s standing in the way and the illusion that once those obstacles are gone, happiness will ensue. Often, removing the obstacles also removes the passion. Strange as this may sound, your passion may be based more on an old (youthful) need to fill a void, or to make up for a perceived lack.
- Passions change. What you were passionate about in your 20s may no longer work for you in your 50s. Be careful trying to recapture or rekindle something from your past. My colleague Marc Freedman in his book The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlfe tells the story of a woman who had put her law degree on hold to raise her family. In her 50s, after her divorce, she jumped at the chance to complete her degree and begin practicing law. The experience was disillusioning. She hadn’t thought through what the process would be like. She hadn’t done the research or made an appropriate career plan as a 50-year-old JD graduate. Working with clients, colleagues, contracts, and judges was not how she had imagined it. In the end, she abandoned the law and went into an entirely different line of work after what turned into a 5-year dead-end.
- Just because you’re drawn to something and feel like you want to live it and breathe it every day, doesn’t mean you’re actually good at it. Again, if you plan and research your passion, you may find that you actually don’t have the skill or the talent, or even the patience for it.
Self-Centered vs. Self-Actuated
Formulating a second-act career is a nuanced set of decisions. It is an opportunity to reflect on all of who you are now, after three or four decades at work, and put together a road map that incorporates your interests and your passions into your experience, skills, and talents.
Your second act has to be forward-focused. Don’t search for your meaning in the past. Don’t make this an opportunity to correct mistakes or right previous wrongs. If you do, you will be unfurling a self-centered path that is all about you and not very much about being useful to others. It will be difficult to be useful to others if your primary concern is making up for lost time or focusing on whether you’re living up to your expectations.
If you are not being very useful to others, you are not going to be very useful to yourself at the end of the day.
On the other hand, if you are motivated by your usefulness, you will be looking for ways to address a current opportunity or problem and to solve it or alleviate it for the future. You will use all of who you are to effect the transformation you see in front of you. By focusing on your usefulness, you will draw others to you and you will deliver results.
Being useful to others will align with the meaning and purpose that you are seeking and bring you the rewards that could come very close to achieving a state of bliss.
Start With a SWOT
Many people I meet with and work with start by bemoaning their lack of (or loss of) passion for their work. If that’s you, I encourage you to put that sense of void to one side for a moment.
What are your Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats? A classic SWOT analysis is a great way to get started on a new project like this one. Traditionally, a SWOT analysis is a business tool to plan strategy, but it also works well as a personal planning and discovery exercise. It’s a way to be both objective about yourself and to begin to lock down those areas or pursuits where you could be useful to others.
Your SWOT analysis will be something to refer back to and use as a filter when considering new ideas and evaluating feedback from others.
Your goal with this exercise is to begin to quantify your most significant assets – the interests, experiences, successes, abilities, and skills that will flow naturally into your usefulness.
This is the first of a number of steps I suggest you follow to get more clarity on what you offer. The more clarity and dimension you can build around how useful you can be, the more grounded, determined, confident, and, yes, passionate you will start to feel.
Identity: Are You a Specialist or a Generalist?
Moving on, another point of confusion for many people, particularly in our tech-obsessed age is the question of generalized or specialized skill sets. Figure out your place on this spectrum to help you understand how to best package and communicate the usefulness that you offer.
To be successful today, you have to look at yourself as a Generalized Specialist or a Specialized Generalist. You may have a particular role or skill that defines you (or brands you), but you also want to highlight the additional skills or talents or accomplishments that go beyond this role.
If your career has been more generally-focused, and you have a resume that lists positions and responsibilities across sectors or departments, find the single specialized skill, niche, or talent that binds all of your accomplishments and positions together. What is your “one ring to rule them all?”
Whether you’ve been a specialist or a generalist, learn some of the contiguous roles in your field. Consider doing some professional development or training to learn roles and responsibilities adjacent to your own. Your ability to take them on shows adaptability and strategic thinking.
Diversify – but don’t dissipate or distract. Don’t dilute the role or identity you’re known for by spreading yourself too thin across new knowledge domains. Don’t think that it would be cool to learn to program in Python if you have no practical use for that skill in your work.
Reflecting on your history and/or predilection as a specialist or a generalist will help you discern areas where you can be useful in your work. It may involve continuing or tweaking the work you have done up until now. But it could also spark some new ideas and help you to notice new opportunities.
Always Be Learning.
Even if you decide not to take formal courses or training, enhance your brand and your reputation by expanding your mind and taking this period as an opportunity to know more and apply more skill and understanding to your work.
Understanding where you can apply what you already know to new areas or to different problems is one way to rekindle your passion.
Fill the gaps. Look around your team and your company. Take the initiative to figure out or learn to address needs and openings that are not being covered. Go above and beyond to act when others are avoiding a problem or hoping that it will go away. This activity may actually rekindle your commitment to your existing job or position, and may cause others to see you in a new light.
Find the “cherry on top.” What is the one thing you could do, learn, propose, or create that would propel you to the next level in your job or career? It’s like the maraschino cherry on the top of the whipped cream on the sundae when you were a kid (or was it just last week…). What is the one thing that, if you added it, would make people really sit up and take notice?
One of the reasons you’re feeling stuck on the “follow your bliss” question may be around your identity. You may feel that you’re tired of introducing yourself the same way as doing the same job or being in the same business.
Decouple from that self-definition. You are more than your resume. You are not your job title, job role, department, company, or industry.
If you stop identifying yourself as your job or your title, you open your imagination to dream up something new. It could be more in line with your usefulness and your passion.
Engage With Your Resistance or Obstacles
Build momentum around the quantifiable strengths and solutions that you can offer to others. If you’re still longing for that sense of passion to fire you up in the morning, consider taking a more personal and deeper dive into what may be unresolved from your past.
Using your daily intention journal is a great way to delve into what is holding you back. Explore the history and the hurt around these areas. Even if you stubbornly feel that you deserve to follow your bliss, it doesn’t hurt to spend some honest time reflecting on where these feelings come from. Consider reframing past hurts as lessons and opportunities to learn and to move on.
- What are the big disappointments or failures? Are you still holding onto the memory of a bad boss or a public failure? Are you still beating yourself up for a missed opportunity or a bridge you burned?
- Who have you let down (including yourself)? Did you not stick up for a colleague when you had the chance? Did you see something happen at work and were too intimidated to speak out? Do you still kick yourself inside for not standing up for yourself over that promotion you should have gotten?
- What are the consequences you’re afraid of? Are you feeling like it’s too hard to risk (one more) failure? Do you imagine that this is your last chance and you just don’t want to blow it?
Recognize that these are all limiting beliefs. Each one of them has a positive reframe where you are the hero. You will be far better-off for having tried than for having avoided. Joseph Campbell made no guarantees, but he did say to not be afraid…
What’s Your Excuse?
Don’t use “follow your bliss” or “follow your passion” as an excuse to stay stuck. Don’t condemn yourself to inaction because you are either afraid or disillusioned about finding and living a career where you’re on purpose.
You have plenty of time. If you’re reading this, you have decades ahead of you of productive and rewarding work. What is the cost of six months of reflection, planning, and getting help, support, and feedback from those around you? It’s an investment that will pay off for years.
You have enough money. You may have lost your job recently or a few months ago. It’s natural to feel pressured by money if you’re not currently making any. I’ve been there. Over the last decade that I’ve been doing this work and working with people, I’ve worked with people in some pretty dire financial straits. They all made it through. Even the ones who had to sacrifice a lot were able to come back and to come back stronger.
In my book, Boomer Reinvention, I write about David Beadle, a chemical engineer who lost his business and his marriage during the 2008 Recession and had to file personal and business bankruptcy. But he came back. He was brave, resourceful, and kept moving forward. And he got through it. He started a new business, met a new life partner, and is pursuing a successful second act. You have many more resources than you imagine. Your age and your experience and your wisdom are working for you. Engaging with the deeper work to turn your career around doesn’t take a lot of cash. All it takes is your commitment to yourself.
You can get the training and coaching you need. It may be free videos on YouTube. It could be coaching or taking a course with me. You could find a mentor or start a personal Board of Directors to give you the tips and tricks you need. Surveys of people over 50 who have pivoted to new careers show that 70-80% of them consider the move successful. If you are on that path, you are in good company. Make your usefulness the guiding principle in your second act transition. The satisfaction, sense of engagement, and personal connections that you make will far outweigh the ephemeral illusion of bliss.