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The 4 Steps That Can Lead You to a Much Brighter Future

This is the roadmap that every older adult needs.

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gif illustration of person walking on road towards different life goals
Jocelyn Tsaih
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When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? I was going to be a spy. Starting at age 7, I carried around a marbled composition notebook, just like the heroine of my favorite book, Harriet the Spy, jotting down overheard conversations at school and secretly listening in on my big sister’s phone conversations with her boyfriend.

After I read Little Women, I decided I would still be a spy, but I was also going to be a novelist like Louisa May Alcott. Then I read a delightfully gory book called The Bog People about the discovery of pickled Iron Age corpses in a Danish bog and added archaeologist to my multi-hyphenated future.

I ended up, of course, being none of those things. But like me, most kids easily envision all sorts of different paths for themselves. They have no trouble flitting from dreams of rock stardom to fantasies of curing cancer.

But somehow, along the road to adulthood, we lose the power to reimagine different futures. We’ve found our lane. We’ve settled into a career and become accustomed to a certain lifestyle. Even if we’re unsatisfied, or moving into a new stage of life, it’s hard to envision anything else.

For millions of us, that sense of complacency was shattered with the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis jolted us out of our daily routines and sparked a collective reckoning. We reprioritized our lives and reevaluated our relationships to our jobs. And while the immediate health crisis has now receded, that reckoning — the search for more meaning in our lives and work — seems more urgent than ever.

That’s why I wrote my new book NEXT! The Power of Reinvention in Life and Work. It’s a deeply reported guide to navigating change in how we live, work and lead, backed by hundreds of interviews with people who had made significant transitions. It includes insights from experts in the process of change, from management gurus who study career reinventions to neuroscientists who study life-changing aha moments.

Some of the people whose stories I tell switched careers, like Ina Garten, who was a nuclear budget analyst before becoming the Barefoot Contessa, and Jane Veron, who left the corporate world to raise her daughters, then reemerged as a nonprofit CEO and mayor of Scarsdale, New York. Others came back from trauma, like terror attack survivor Kay Wilson, or from failure, like Marla Ginsburg, who after being fired from her executive job in her 50s reinvented herself as a Home Shopping Network star and designer of the MarlaWynne clothing line.

I asked everyone who I interviewed to walk me through their transitions. What’s remarkable is almost all went through the same set of four stages, what I call a Reinvention Roadmap: Search-Struggle-Stop-Solution.

Typically, each pivot begins with a search to gather information, often unintentionally, without knowing where it will lead. Then comes an uncomfortable, often miserable, middle period of struggle when you’re disconnecting from your previous identity but haven’t figured out the new one. That often doesn’t end until you reach a stop — whether you choose a break (like quitting a job) or one is forced on you (like getting laid off). Only then do you have the perspective to synthesize all your previous experiences and ideas and to emerge with the solution.

Perhaps it’s human nature, but we tend to focus on just the first and last steps, ignoring the messy struggle in the middle. We’re held captive by the Cinderella myth, the idea that these transformations are abrupt and should happen overnight. As a result, when we do find ourselves in the midst of that ugly struggle, we think there must be something wrong with us.

Yet the struggle isn’t just necessary; it’s the key to finding a solution. It’s when the important work gets done of reflection, collecting new experiences and information, and beginning to synthesize these multiple strands that will lead you to a new, and often unexpected, destination.

Men and women both go through these four stages. But it turns out women — especially older women and people of color — pivot differently than men. Researchers have found that women are far more likely to reinvent their careers. Many become “necessity entrepreneurs,” forced to forge new pathways because they’ve been squeezed out of mainstream jobs, or hit a glass ceiling, or simply find that opportunities evaporate. Yet when these women do reinvent themselves, they gravitate toward mission-driven initiatives, focused on elevating others.

Consider Jane Veron, who spent a dozen years feeling “invisible,” she says, after leaving a career she loved to care for her kids. But when her oldest child went to college, she realized she had been preparing for a new life all along: She pulled together strands of everything she had learned from years of volunteer work in her community and rolled that into a nonprofit she cofounded called the Acceleration Project.

It brings together volunteers like herself — often moms who left the paid workforce yet have an abundance of business skills — who advise local business owners on finance and marketing. Jane became such a powerful force in the community that she went on to be elected mayor of Scarsdale.

Today, when she speaks to audiences about her journey from volunteer mom to CEO and mayor, it sounds “as if I had planned every step along the way and I can tie it up with a bow,” she says. “But what I try to share is that when you’re in the midst of it, you don’t know how it’s going to come out.”

And that’s the beauty of understanding the Reinvention Roadmap. It’s exhilarating, it’s exciting and, yes, it can be a bit frightening too. With extended lifespans and longer working lives, we now have an unprecedented opportunity to rethink how we embrace the future, to grab hold of it and make it our own. As for me, I no longer want to be a spy, though I did channel that impulse a bit more productively into becoming a journalist! And for my own “next” ... that Louisa May Alcott dream of writing a children’s classic still sounds pretty good to me.

Have you ever reinvented yourself? Let us know in the comments below.

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