5 min read

Rethinking work: How you can move from full-on career to full-on life

Creating the life you want, even after a high-flying career.

Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, proved recently that even the greatest achievers in the business world have to step aside one day. The world’s richest man quit as chief executive of the online retail giant he founded 27 years ago.

For Bezos, there is plenty to keep him busy. He’ll remain Amazon’s executive chairman and has already sought to channel his outsized energies into something new such as jetting into space.

But for most people transformation into what Jon Stokes and Jan Hall, in their book Changing Gear, call the Third Life, the period that follows childhood and career, is hard to do. And that’s often especially the case if your career has been a busy one, full of high achievement.

Our book seeks to overcome this difficulty. Myself, Jon Stokes, a clinical psychologist, leadership coach, and Jan Hall, a seasoned former headhunter who now advises FTSE boards, and a former member of Saïd Business School Global Leadership Council, have combined our lifelong experience to show it is possible to make the transition, and embrace the 'third stage' of your life, if the change required is not underestimated.

You can embrace the 'third stage' of your life, if the change required is not underestimated.
People are not machines. They have minds and brains but they have emotions too.

In our recently published book Changing gear: creating the life you want after a full on career published by Headline books, we seek to explore the issues involved and provide an 8 Step Plan to help people facing the end of full-on careers that have dominated their time for 20 years or more to refocus on the next stage of their lives. It embraces both the wider societal change which sees people living longer, and being active both physically and mentally, and now being a time when we are slowly moving into the post-pandemic world, our study is also relevant to those of any age who are feeling a sense of unease about their working lives.

Our findings are centred on the understanding that people need to transition rather than change. People are not machines. They have minds and brains but they also have emotions too. Taking time to navigate this period of life is crucial. We illustrate this with case studies drawn from our professional experience.

Our thinking has led us to develop an eight-step transition process to finding your new self. These are then grouped into pairs under our headings.

1. Gain awareness of your situation

The initial step involves noticing that things have changed and may involve a feeling of losing your balance. But after this loss of balance comes a time when you can no longer avoid taking stock.

Entering the Third Life can mean competences that were once effective can become less so. For example, there is Adrian, a talented director in a large advertising agency who did not adapt to digital media in good time, and stuck to the old ways. Inevitably, he began to be viewed as the older generation and out of touch – a new feeling and one he did not like and which led to his resignation.

2. Seek out and investigate alternatives for your future

Crucially, this involves being open to the new and trying out new things.

This can be a rude shock for many people who have excelled at their careers. It can often be triggered only by a sharp shock such as experiencing a loss of influence in your job or failing to deliver a deal. Lance, a former business leader, was 'furious and humiliated' when he found himself being edged out of the company where he worked. It took a long time for him to realise, though he still viewed himself as a 'champion', he had to find new ways and skills to demonstrate this.

3. Actions for your progress

This involves letting go and endings and becoming your new self. This can be the hardest part for many people. Making such a huge shift inevitably means it is a time of lots of ups and downs.

After quitting her career of 30 years, Mary struggled with feeling: 'the same me, but a new me'. When people asked Mary what she did, she did not know what to say. She felt disempowered when she said: 'I used to be ….'. She finally decided to say simply 'I do nothing' and unexpectedly felt freed. This gave way to her being able to try new things and experimenting with new ways of living.

4. Assessing your situation

Enjoying a new sense of poise and balance and reviewing your progress.

For Suzanna entering her 'Third Life' started with her going back to her childhood and remembering that she had always wanted to paint once she had retired from her career. Her openness to painting had then led her to try other things, including changing the way she dressed with the help of her daughter. All these new steps she had taken have introduced her to many new people giving her 'the blinding insight that there are many great people out there for the finding!'

To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly

Each person’s journey to the 'Third Life' is different. But the common stance underpinning their experiences is that to have work of some kind, whether paid or not, is crucial. Loving and being loved is one foundation of our mental health; working and the relationships work provides the other. Coming to the end of a full-time career can be as traumatic an experience as losing a loved partner. The challenge is to find a new sense of purpose, still pursuing what one values in life but in a new vehicle.

We owe it to ourselves and those who are close to us, who need to be drawn into the decision-making process, to navigate this period with the attention and effort we gave to finding and developing our second life careers. This often means returning your thoughts to the period of adolescence or early 20’s to when you were idealistic, when you took a fork in the road in your life to which you may want to return to pursue another path.

The journey warrants the effort. As French philosopher Henri Bergson said 'To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly'.

That is a state not only the world’s wealthiest, like Bezos, can have in their grasp but any of us, so long as we are willing to put in the work to get there.