June 17, 2024
‘Get out of your own head’:  How to reinvent yourself in retirement

‘Get out of your own head’: How to reinvent yourself in retirement

As I see it, unretirement—when you work part time in retirement after leaving a full-time job, as I’m doing—is a period of reinvention. That can be a little uncomfortable, even scary.

In her new book, “Next! The Power of Reinvention in Life and Work,” Joanne Lipman has some useful ideas on how to do it.

Lipman, the former editor in chief at USA Today and Portfolio magazine and a contributor to CNBC, spent the past few years putting on her reporter’s cap for the book to offer insights and advice.

 “I wanted to figure out how other people have successfully gone through either traumatic moments or big transitions and what can that teach us,” Lipman told me.

She interviewed hundreds of people who’ve reinvented themselves at different ages as well as others who study this subject, such as University of Pennsylvania psychologist Adam Grant and “Life Is In the Transitions” author Bruce Feiler. Lipman also pored over academic research papers about reinvention and life transitions.

Read: Why a change of scenery can be life-changing in retirement

If you’re thinking about unretiring or are living it, I think you’ll find “Next!” worth reading. Meantime, here are highlights from my conversation with Lipman about the four steps to a successful reinvention:

Richard Eisenberg: Do you think unretirement is a period of reinvention for people, or should it be?

Joanne Lipman: Oh, absolutely, 100%.

For a lot of people, they feel freed from the strictures of trying to climb the ladder, particularly they have some financial security. It’s much harder if you do not have that financial security. But not impossible.

You have more skills to offer, and have, I would say, more of an ability to pivot into something new.

One of my favorite people in the book is Will Brown, who was an economist at JP Morgan for years. He’s now a cattle farmer. He said ‘I did not set out to be a farmer. That was not the plan.’

He was an economist for many years and found this old farm and renovated it. But the little by little, he started learning about farming and became interested in it with his economist brain saying, ‘Wow, this is a really interesting business. I can apply my skills to farming.’

And eventually he retired from being an economist, but now is using all of those skills in as a farmer.

‘One of the strategies I gleaned from the people I spoke with is to imagine your possible self, which is what children do naturally,’ says Lipman.


How did you find people like him who reinvented themselves, including James Patterson who’d been a successful ad man before becoming a bestselling fiction author?

A real breakthrough for me was remembering James Patterson. I had met and covered him way back when and hadn’t spoken to him in 30-plus years. But once I reached out, he was so gracious with his time and walked me through how he got from when I knew him to where he is today. The path he explained lined up so well with the experts I spoke to about all different kinds of transitions.

I also talked to friends of friends, put out a call on social media and something in class notes in my alumni magazine. So, I heard from people all over.

One of the lines that stuck out to me in the book is when you say that somehow along the road to adulthood, we lose the power to reimagine different futures. Why is that?

As kids, it’s so easy for us to think, ‘I’m going to be a ballerina, I’m going to be a fireman, I’m also going to be an astronaut.’ And we don’t beat ourselves up that we don’t become one of those.

As we grow, unfortunately what ends up happening is you’re just funneled into your specialty. And suddenly you’re sort of a prisoner to your job and to your mortgage and all your obligations.

Read: Traveling, volunteering, and—yes—working. Welcome to unretirement.

How can we get past that?

One of the strategies I gleaned from the people I spoke with is to imagine your possible self, which is what children do naturally. It’s thinking about who might I be? Who could I be? It is the first step in taking any action toward a transition.

It’s not sufficient to just imagine your possible self. You have to do something. You have to take action.

That action could be anything from taking a course or just reaching out to someone who’s in the field that interests you to just actually writing down your goals and maybe sharing that with someone.

What keeps people from reinventing themselves, especially later in life?

I think one of the reasons we are afraid to start a transition is you don’t know where to start. Part of how you start is to get out of your own head. Do something proactive.

You write about four steps to a successful reinvention. Can you talk about them?

I found there are four steps that pretty much everyone [trying to reinvent themselves] will go through: Search, Struggle, Stop and Solution.

Generally, people start moving toward a transition before they realize they’re moving toward a transition.

So, it might be that you’re got a hobby, you’re collecting information or experiences, but you’re not doing it intentionally. By the time you start thinking of a transition, you’ve probably already made progress toward it. You just don’t realize you’ve made progress toward it.

Tell me about Struggle.

The Struggle, which a lot of people are in, is when you are disconnecting from your previous identity and haven’t quite figured out the new one.

We like to talk about the Struggle because it’s uncomfortable, it’s kind of miserable, but it’s really important. During the Struggle is where all the work gets done. It feels like you’re standing still and getting nowhere, but you actually are moving forward.

The hard part of reinvention is getting past the struggle part, because it seems like if you’re struggling, the first thing you want to do is say: ‘Well, I don’t want to do this anymore, I’m just going to give up. I’d love to reinvent myself, but it’s just too hard.’

So, how do people get past that block to the last two stages?

It helps to know that everybody goes through it and that you’re not alone. Because when you’re in it, generally you think ‘I’m a loser. I’m the only one who’s going through this. Everybody else seems to have a glide path to the future, and I’m stuck.’ But you’re not.

And next comes the Stop stage. What’s that?

The Struggle often doesn’t end until you reach the third stage, the Stop. The stop is what takes us out of our routine. And that is what allows you to have the perspective to think—to synthesize all these experiences and ideas and thoughts that you’ve had.

You talk about cataloging your failures in the Stop stage. What do you mean?

The idea behind the CV of failure is that we all have failures and we just don’t like to talk about them.

I interviewed a biologist who had this very impressive résumé and she told me about it. Then she said: ‘Let me walk you through that again. This guy told me I had no future; this professor told me I was in the wrong job; here are the 15 fellowships that turned me down and the 20 grad schools that turned me down.’ And she put all of that on a piece of paper and published it in Science magazine and got this massive response because everybody was like: ‘Exhale, sigh of relief.’ Right?

A CV of failure shows you all the things you’ve tried. It’s also a piece of data that is actually very useful. For this scientist, when she looked at her CV of failure, it was clear to her that almost all her failures related to work in a laboratory and it made her realize that her real strength was in computational biology, not about manipulating things where she had to use her hands.

She pivoted in her career, and that is how she found her success. The CV of failure gave her the data she needed to understand her strengths, not just her weaknesses.

You can look at your CV of failure and understand ‘This isn’t just about where I’m weak. It tells me where I’m strong.’ And I think that’s really important.

Why do you need Stop before the fourth stage, Solution?

You need that perspective to figure out this is where I’m transitioning to. Almost everyone I interviewed had some sort of Stop moment.

I’d like to go back to the Struggle stage. Some people in unretirement struggle with identity because they’ve had an identity their whole career and they’re now not quite sure who they are.

Yeah, self-identity is a huge issue when it comes to reinvention. It’s even more of an issue for men than for women because, the research shows, men’s identity is often tied directly to their job title.

Researchers have interviewed people who have lost their jobs and found men’s self-esteem tends to plummet, while women tend to immediately pivot to alternate identities. Women have that stronger social fabric.

But it’s so important to understand your identity doesn’t change. When you lose your job title, you still have skills that you can use.

What should people struggling with identity in unretirement do?

Don’t devalue yourself. There’s a woman I profile in ‘Next!,’ Jane Veron. She had left the corporate world and was just doing a lot of civic volunteer work but had this heavy-duty business background. So, she created this nonprofit for mostly women like herself, who have left the workforce but have a lot of business skills. They help small businesses with marketing and finance and balance sheets.

People who reinvent their careers in their later 50s and 60s very often gravitate toward mission-driven organizations. They end up in a more fulfilling place than they left.

They find meaning and purpose through their reinvention?

They’ve reached a point in life where it’s not just about ‘I want to move up the ladder.’ It’s more about ‘What is my purpose in life? What is my meaning? What am I giving back?’ I found that very empowering.

What else can people do to reinvent themselves in retirement?

One strategy is this idea of an Expert Companion. That’s a phrase I’ve borrowed from trauma psychologists who work with people who have had terrible trauma. An Expert Companion helps them move through it. I think we all need one.

The Expert Companion is the person who has an objective view of you. And the reason that’s so helpful is that we all have innate talents and skills that come easily to us, and they come so easily to us that we tend to discount them or maybe don’t even recognize them.

The Expert Companion could be a professional, like a career coach, but it could also just be a family member, a friend or a colleague. someone who can reflect back to you objectively and tell you: ‘When I see you, these are the strengths and talents I see.’

That has helped a lot of people to help them focus on where they should go next. It gives you a lot of confidence to understand that you have all these talents and skills and gives you some better perspective on yourself.

A lot of people in their 50s and 60s are becoming entrepreneurs for the first time as their reinventions. Do you want to talk about that a little?

Yeah. One of my favorite people in the book is a guy named Paul Tanser. He was in the packaging business and an expert at that. He had a great career and at 64, a new CEO of his company calls him in the week before Christmas and fires him. He founded his own packaging company, but it’s a green packaging company. It’s all about making things that are eco-friendly.

Now, he’s well into his 70s and the CEO. He said it’s just a more fulfilling role than he’s ever had.

I feel like there’s a lot of people out there who are in a similar position, people in their 50s and 60s who have gone as far as they’re going to go in whatever career they’re in but have so much to offer and so much knowledge and experience. And there’s this feeling like,’ I don’t want to waste all this knowledge that I’ve gained. I want to help spread that around.’

Let’s say you were talking to somebody in their late 50s or early 60s who are a little unsure how to reinvent themselves. What would you tell them that might be different than what you’d tell somebody who’s 35?

I think the advice is going to be similar. I just think that for the people in their 50s or 60s, there’s just a little bit more urgency.

There’s a real opportunity for creativity at this stage. Just be open to the unexpected. Be open to new ideas.

I see a lot of creativity with people who are reinventing themselves at an older age. In the book I write about a guy who was a telephone repair man for decades and wanted to become a shoe designer.

His husband said, ‘You’ve got talent, you should do it.’ So, the man entered that Struggle phase where he said to himself, ‘I would love to do this, but that’s not a real career for me. I need a job.’

Then he got to the Stop stage, when he diagnosed with prostate cancer at 50. And he was like: ‘Life is too short.’ Luckily, he recovered, but it was a life-changing moment for him. He took early retirement and went to design school. He now has his own shoe line. He was named Best of Boston’s Best New Designer a couple of years ago when he was 61.

It’s never too late.

When have you reinvented yourself in your life?

I feel like after many years working in a newspaper, running a magazine, being a chief content officer at Gannett, writing books, doing stuff on CNBC, it’s all of a piece because, to me, it’s journalism and that’s who I am.

But I can see to others, it seems like those are different things. For the people who successfully pivot, particularly the people who are older, it’s very organic. To the outside world, it may look like they’re doing something completely different. But to them, it is basically a fuller expression of who they are.

They have realized that they have these skills, these talents, these innate strengths and this experience that they can call on that leads to an organic new identity.

You wrote the book in the pandemic. Has the pandemic changed the way you’re thinking about a personal reinvention yourself?

The pandemic was a mass Stop for all of us. It pulled all of us out of our routines. That’s one of the reasons we had the Great Resignation and quiet quitting. The pandemic made us rethink: ‘What are my priorities? How do I think about my job? What is my relationship to my job?’ It was the same for me. Before the pandemic, I was thinking about wanting to go back into a newsroom. That’s my natural habitat. And then during the pandemic, it really got me rethinking. I was in my home here in Manhattan and my husband, who’s a lawyer, was also working at home. I thought: ‘I really like my husband. I like having meals with my husband. This is something that I would like to preserve. I’d like to get more of that.’

You’re 61. Have you started thinking about what retirement means for you or when or how you’ll do it?

I don’t think I will ever retire. I think that I was born a journalist and will always be one. But I think I could see executing that in different ways.


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