Transforming your midlife career: Top tips for success

Reinvent yourself, one perfectly crafted career move at a time. Unlock a fulfilling midlife career transition with tips from Herminia Ibarra.

It may be that you’ve sat at the same desk for a decade, eaten lunch with the same colleagues and taken that same commute to the office for just a little too long. It’s true that we’re living and working for longer than ever before. And with that comes fresh expectations around our identities in the workplace. Retirement may still seem a long way off, and we want to fill those working hours with fun and fulfilment, by making a difference and finding paths to new ways of working.

Perhaps it’s that you can’t help dreaming of all those lives you once imagined for yourself – as a scuba instructor in the Bahamas, sheep-shearer in the Highlands, or running a chateaux B&B in the south of France. Luckily, the notion of a midlife career change is no longer an anomaly but a strategic pivot for many. Enter a growing demographic of mid-career individuals who are reimagining their professional trajectories, proving that it’s never too late to pursue passion, purpose, and growth.

Embrace an explorer mindset

We live in a time where there’s a lot of disruption in our careers. Few career paths are linear, and organisation shapeshift, too. On top of that, we’re living longer, which means we have time for multiple re-inventions during our lifetime. This question of ‘What do I do next? Am I in the right place, doing the right thing?’ is very salient for a lot of people, at all ages.

Adaptability is a cornerstone of successful midlife career transitions. You might lose your job and your sense of professional identity. Then there’s this huge void. That’s hard. Embrace a mindset, which allows freedom to explore diverse pathways and possibilities. Rather than adhering to a rigid plan, be open to surprising discoveries and unexpected opportunities that may arise along the way.

There are two approaches, as I see it: 1) ‘Plan and Implement’ – you start out with the answer then you follow the steps. This is the conventional approach and it works quite well when you do know what you want, or you’re earlier on in your career. 2) The less conventional approach that I’ve found tends to happen when people make midlife career changes, is called ‘Experiment and Learn’. This is for people who know what they don’t want, but don’t yet know what they do want instead. We tend to pigeonhole ourselves – I’m not creative or entrepreneurial. You can find out about things by accident.

The way that enfolds is you start to envision what I call “possible selves”. These are ideas about who you may become in the future. Don’t be afraid to make the list long and divergent, as it’s through exploration and experimentation that you’ll uncover your true passions and potentials. Start by brainstorming a wide range of possibilities, from conventional roles to entrepreneurial ventures to creative pursuits. Do you want to take the next step or do you not? Ask yourself two questions: Is this an attractive option? Is this feasible in terms of my need to make a living?

After that, take small, strategic steps towards your goals. Whether it’s taking courses or starting side projects, each action contributes to your discovery and career reinvention. Embrace the process of learning and growth, recognising that setbacks and challenges are integral parts of the journey.

Experiment with purpose

As you embark on your midlife career transition, experiment with purpose. Play around with the things that you’re interested in to see what direction to take next. Begin by delving into your interests and passions, whether they’re hobbies, side projects or areas of curiosity. Take the time to play around with different possibilities and avenues, allowing yourself the freedom to discover new opportunities that resonate with your values and aspirations.

On top of that, be open to serendipitous discoveries along the way. While it’s essential to have a general direction in mind, don’t limit yourself by preconceived notions or rigid plans. Embrace the unexpected and be receptive to opportunities that may arise unexpectedly. Whether it’s attending unusual networking events, volunteering to gain new knowledge, or exploring exciting hobbies that you’ve always wanted to try, each experience contributes to your journey of career reinvention.

People have all kinds of ideas in their heads of what they like and don’t like, and often, they don’t check out in reality. Try things as actively as you can before making any big leap, as we don’t really know whether we would enjoy these things or not. All we know really well is what we don’t like about our current job. Exploring and experimenting is really vital.

Remember, the key to doing this in the context of a career transition is to strike a balance between exploration and intentionality. While it’s crucial to explore a wide range of possibilities, it’s equally important to reflect on your experiences and discern patterns and themes that resonate with your authentic self. By aligning your explorations with your core values and aspirations, you can pave the way for a fulfilling and purpose-driven midlife career transition.

Cultivate diverse networks

Networking plays a crucial role in navigating midlife career changes. Reach out to your contacts and start right away – people hesitate, as they feel nervous or unsure, so they tell themselves, ‘I’ll sound confused so might blow a good contact or not make a good impression’. However, if you don’t start, you’re not going to figure it out. Most people don’t realise how many conversations it takes, how many coffees, how many times reaching out on LinkedIn.

The more people you talk to, the more confident you’ll feel about the possibility for change. You’ll get encouragement and more ideas. Start, reach out, be honest. You may say, I’m exploring the possibility of change and looking at different options. I’m trying to brainstorm some possibilities. Later, you may say, I’m really interested in this sector, and trying to figure out which way to position myself. After that, it may be, I’m trying to get a foot in this door. The magic is, I’d like your help, I’d like your input, I’d like to hear your story.

Be proactive in reaching out and building relationships with potential mentors, peers, and collaborators. But don’t limit yourself to your immediate circle; instead, embrace the power of “weaker ties” – casual acquaintances who may offer fresh insights and opportunities. You’ll gain access to valuable resources, support and perspectives that can enrich your career transition journey.

Don’t listen to the naysayers

Some people will think it’s courageous to make a career move in later life. Some people will think you’re crazy, especially those closest to you, if you’re voluntarily leaving a role that’s well-paid and stable. Almost everyone you speak to will download their own hopes and wishes and fears onto you.

Talking it out a lot really helps. Ask yourself – ‘What am I feeling, thinking, experiencing right now and how do I want to feel in the future?’ It’s really important to talk to your partner – “How do we foresee our future together? What does this mean for where we live? Might we have to move house or change our lifestyle? Are we still in sync about our fundamental values and vision for the future?” If you can have those difficult and challenging conversations, that will make things easier.

But don’t put all your fears and anxieties on your partner! It’s great if they’re supportive, but don’t pile it on or the relationship can suffer. Understand that it’s tough for them. You’re going to be confused, and ‘ping-ponging’ between old and new ideas – and it makes it hard on them as they have ‘skin in the game’, so it’s really important to reach out to other people in some way, shape or form.

Make wise decisions

What helps people make the wisest decisions? It’s the head and the heart working together. Some of the worst decisions are when we go for the job that looks perfect on paper but all your internal radars are going ‘ding ding ding’. Slow down, and don’t take the early opportunities, which may be when you feel most pressured or desperate. Give yourself permission to wait a little longer until you find the job that really captures your imagination. Buy yourself time if necessary. Do advisory work, or act as a consultant or freelancer. It’s important to take the opportunity to find out what you really want.

The hardest may be when you have more than one option to choose between. Ask yourself, will it take me one stepping stone further towards where I’m trying to go? The decision to leave an existing role can be tough. Most people don’t make that decision without having something in place that they’ve been developing over time. It’s still hard, but there comes a time where you say, ‘This nascent thing is never going to have a chance unless I give it my all now’. But it’s also important to have enough indicators that it’s viable. You mustn’t burn your bridges.

Any change is going to be tough – you have to be prepared for that. It’s hard to find a new self whilst working flat-out at an existing job. Some people manage it by taking sabbaticals, whether paid or unpaid. Some people take an executive course that gets them out of the office and gives them time to regain that ‘oomph’. In that transition period, you’re holding onto something and you’re also trying to let go of your old self and develop your new self. It can be deeply uncomfortable.

Develop your own story

As you embark on your journey of midlife career transition, it’s crucial to craft and articulate your own narrative. In times of change, knowing how to frame your story becomes essential. One practical tip is to rehearse what you want to convey about yourself and practice consistently.

We often underestimate the challenge of telling our own story. Despite thinking we know ourselves well, articulating our experiences and aspirations can prove challenging. Transition periods further complicate this process as we navigate uncertainty about the future. However, with practice, we can refine our storytelling skills and present a compelling narrative to others.

The key lies in developing a succinct headline – a clear and sharp statement of a desired, possible future. Avoid rambling or providing unnecessary historical details; instead, focus on delivering a concise message that captures attention and leaves a lasting impression. By honing your storytelling abilities, you’ll be better equipped to navigate networking situations and engage others effectively.

Moreover, the process of crafting your story offers valuable insights into your career aspirations and goals. Through reflection and practice, you’ll gain clarity about the environments and opportunities that energise you. This newfound clarity enables you to refine your search criteria and pursue opportunities that align with your interests and values.

Remember, developing your story isn’t about endless experimentation without direction. Instead, it’s about refining your narrative and gaining clarity about your professional objectives. By investing time and effort into this process, you’ll emerge with a compelling story that resonates with others and guides your career transition journey with purpose and clarity.

Don’t retire, reinvent!

In conclusion, embarking on a midlife career change requires courage, curiosity, and a willingness to embrace reinvention. By following these tips and drawing inspiration from Herminia Ibarra’s insights, you can navigate this transformative journey with confidence and clarity. It’s never too late to pursue your passions, redefine your professional identity, and embark on a path of learning and growth.

Herminia Ibarra is Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Charles Handy Chair in Organisational Behaviour at London Business School

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