“I’m in a huge transition,” my 57-year old coaching client said from her New York office.
“I just don’t want to keep doing what I’ve been doing for 28 years.”
“It’s not that I don’t love the people I lead — I do. I like the identity I get from this work. I don’t even know how I’d define myself without being an Executive Vice President!”
“But … I think I just want to do something completely different!”
“And I have no idea what that is. “
I’ve heard this pattern of 1-2-3 from literally hundreds of women in my last five years interviewing 100 women for my book and coaching scores of others. It’s usually laced with worry, disorientation, and sometimes guilt.
Understandable. We think in our aloneness, “If I end the arc of this marvelous career …”
- I might not be worth anything if I let go of all I’ve achieved.
- I might disappear.
- I might find people have loved me only for what I DO, not who I am.
- I won’t know myself as who I’ve always been. Other people won’t know me anymore either.
- I might not be missed. I might discover what I did never really mattered.
- I might never find something else I love to do with the same purpose.
The new transition for high-achieving women over 50 (and especially over 55)
The onset of this transition comes hard for us. We might not have asked for it, or at least not right now. It might start to visit us when we don’t expect it at timing we didn’t actually choose. These things are supposed to be of our choosing, aren’t they?
It can come especially hard after spectacular careers we’ve worked so diligently to hone. And even harder because we don’t think it’s a transition, we fear it’s really an ending.
My coaching client is just over the 55 mark. Brilliant, accomplished, healthy, insightful. If you read her resume you’d be impressed. You’d also like who she is on the inside: her values, her emotional intelligence.
She knows she has SO much more to do, learn, contribute. Her story is my story, and my story is the story of millions of us.
Welcome to the new territory of women at this stage of life:
1) hard-earned success under our belts,
2) lots more we still want to do,
3) and no models of what it can look like up ahead.
And we as a human species have never been here before.
Reasons it’s new (hint: because we’re pioneering it)
Mary Catherine Bateson, daughter of famous Margaret Mead and herself a renowned cultural anthropologist and author, gives us a clue about why this particular transition over 50 is so huge. The main reason it’s so disorienting, she pronounces in her book Composing a Further Life, is that for the first time in human history we have a new whole new stage of development from 50-70+ called Adulthood II. And those of us who are in it are pioneering what it looks like.
Get that word?!? PIONEERING.
No wonder we feel anxiety about this particular transition that hits over 50!
And after all, who wants to give up what we broke through brick walls and glass ceilings to achieve? We’ve worked doubly or triply as hard as those in the dominant power circles to be seen, heard, mentored, promoted, supported, appreciated. And we did it!
But that unmistakable feeling in the pit of our stomachs.
That quiet voice that keeps asking us to hear it.
The wisdom that’s present deep within, calling for us to be more once again.
This time, though, “more” is in a totally different way.
Caroline Myss, Christian mystic, says we hear these things long before we’re ready to acknowledge and act upon them. Something in us recognizes their grand significance.
Plus, who wants to enter the wilderness of the unknown when it feels this scary, and with no clear picture of where we’re going to end up?
Whispers of new wants
And yet, we hear whispers of something new calling us. For most women, these whispers are exciting and simultaneously scary as hell. They carry creative energy. They feel inspiring. There’s freedom in them. A sense of liberation. They arrive with an impulse different from all the “shoulds” of the past: taking care of others, proving ourselves, living into the patriarchy, earning financial independence ‘just in case.’
The truth is, these whispers carry the secrets of what’s to come indeed! I know this from the 100 women I interviewed, and I’ve seen in for years in my coaching practice. I know it from my own life.
But oh those other voices.
How successful transitions start
For me, I didn’t have a clue that anything could be as rich and satisfying as the path I’d been on for 30 years. (fast forward: it IS.)
But boy, did I begin to recognize what I was Done With!
I first began to witness my own subtly growing dislike of short-range professional travel. I had felt it before, but its creeping nature started to overtake the love I still felt for delivering leadership development programs. It didn’t bother me so much for international travel … but those short-haul trips …!
And then came the plastic mini blinds.
I was standing in front of the senior leadership team of a healthcare company in Banff, Canada, facilitating a Conscious Business retreat. Everyone was busily engaged in small groups. As I heard the happy buzz in the room, I looked out the window, but instead of seeing the Canadian Rockies’ majestic peaks, all I saw for a moment was the plastic mini blinds on the windows of that conference room!
It would be OK, I heard myself think, if I never saw another pair of plastic conference room mini-blinds again.
As I write this, I remember the wave of guilt that arrived when I heard that thought! I hadn’t asked for it. I knew I had so much to be grateful for. It didn’t escape my awareness that working in Banff was a gift — and even moreso working with this brilliant team. But this wasn’t about lack of gratitude. It was the need for me to recognize something else — a wisdom within — that was also true.
Here’s the universal point:
The transition begins when we begin to feel what we’re Done With.
The “Done With That” dart board
My 57-year-old-client and I came up with this metaphor in our coaching session. It turns out to be perfect for ALL of us who are entering the classic 1-2-3 transition of high-achieving women.
First: if you’re starting to hear that inner voice saying, “I’m not sure I want to do this anymore” followed by “… but I have NO IDEA what I might do instead” —
- Know that you are in a CLASSIC TRANSITION for women over 50
- Know that this feeling of abject fear — if not terror — is exactly where you need to be!
- Know that there’s a wilderness period up ahead as the “old” calls upon you to let go, and the “new” is not yet know
- Know that your BIGGEST RE-BIRTH will happen as a result of STAYING IN, NOT RUNNING FROM the wilderness
And get yourself a dart board.
Start paying attention — with humor and joy — to the things you’re noticing you might be Done With.
For me it was plastic mini-blinds and schlepping professional materials on short client flights. For my client the other day, it was writing grants and checking budget spreadsheets.
Label the corkboard sections on your dart board with a black marker.
PLASTIC MINI BLINDS
AIR CONDITIONED OFFICES WITH NO WINDOWS
EMAILS THAT START WITH “AS PER …”
OFFICE CHAIRS WITH NO BACK SUPPORT
Then spend time every week lobbing darts at those words.
See which hits make you feel so good you feel guilty how liberating it is.
Remind yourself how promising the arc of this transition is, especially when terror tries to strike
Knowing what you’re Done With is a powerful first step toward clearing the way for the future.
We need not fear it, because we’re not going to become useless, disengaged, or irrelevant.
We’ve come too far for that. After all, we’re pioneers right now.
We don’t have to know what we want to do next.
So let’s have fun with it!
Allow yourself the pleasure of this step (however you go about doing it)
Start naming what you’re Done With.
Label the dartboard.
Sue Brightman transitioned in 2016 from being a successful international Conscious Business consultant and coach to some of the world’s largest corporations. Whispers during her own disorienting, scary, and exciting life-metamorphosis carried the message that her own story represented millions of other women. This intuition formed the basis of the 100 Women Interview Project focused on high-achieving women in their 50s, 60s, 70s. Her book Further Becoming: The New Declaration from Women Over 50, is set for publication later this year. Sue now devotes her time to coaching and offering Purpose Retreats to women over 50, as well as speaking and writing. And after 6pm, weather permitting, you’ll find her paddling her loved kayak on the Boulder Reservoir.