By Wendy Braitman, Next Avenue Contributor
When I entered my 50s, my career took an unexpected and brutal nosedive. For 20 years, I’d worked successfully in the film industry and I thought I’d landed a safe spot as senior executive on a project with Discovery Channel and The American Film Institute. But after losing the position when it was relocated across the country, I couldn’t get hired.
From an array of prospective employers, I heard dueling refrains: “You’re overqualified. “You’re underqualified.” I’m sure age was a factor. It was a daily effort to maintain a sense of dignity amid the rejection. This searing experience, however, led to one great thing: It inspired me to become a career coach, so others could benefit from what I learned the hard way.
I’d like to pass along my five-step strategy for a career change after 50:
Step 1: Explore Your Passion as a Pragmatic Act
It takes focus and grit to be successful changing careers. But passion will be the fuel. If you don’t know what you want to do next, take the time to go through the following three exercises and write down your answers to see where they lead.
- Describe an experience in your professional life when you were the most motivated to do the best work you could.
- Name three activities on or off the job when you’ve felt most aligned. (Don’t hesitate to go deep into your history.) What was specific to the activity that made you feel this way?
- Figure out your superpower, the one gift or talent that comes most naturally. Describe an experience when you were able to use it.
Reflect on what you’ve written and draw clues from your responses. What stood out or surprised you? What picture emerges show you when you’re most engaged? Make a note of this; you’ll use it for Step No. 3.
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Step 2: Bolster and Frame Your Story
If there are parts of your professional background with weaknesses, bolster them with your strengths. Here’s how I did it:
As my efforts to find a job fizzled, the gap in my resumé widened — as did the gaps in my schedule. So I volunteered to be part of a grassroots organizing team advocating in support of immigrant rights. The work matched my skill set and I quickly gained traction. Soon, I was chairing town halls and lobbying members of Congress. Eventually, I joined a task force assembled by the Mayor of Los Angeles to impact local policy. Nine years later, I’m still actively involved.
The volunteering boosted my flagging confidence at a critical juncture (and I became a better citizen). Equally important, my volunteer stint became a featured part of my story.
Community service, taking care of family members and running a marathon are all worthy enterprises. Turn them to your advantage when switching careers by demonstrating how these undertakings are another reflection of your talent. By doing so, you build the case that your talent is transferable.
Practice your narrative, see what works, edit out the slow parts. Get good at telling your story in three minutes.
Step 3. Grow Your Network One Person at a Time
After losing my job, I felt enormous shame. The last thing I wanted to talk about was failing at employment. And for awhile, I kept quiet. But to succeed at career change, retreat is not an option.
Sharing your story is the best way to unearth ideas about what you want to do next and learn of opportunities. When I peeled myself off the couch to start making the rounds, I was relieved at how many others had experienced job loss and were eager to lend a hand.
If you’re still in search of a direction for your next act, sharing your passion and talents with others could spark an idea. When I was floundering, a random lunch with a friend set me in motion to become a career coach.
So, dive into your circle of confidantes, colleagues, former classmates, neighbors and folks with whom you volunteer, worship or exercise. Pinpoint people who are doing something you admire. Revitalize connections even if you’ve lost touch decades ago.
Make a list of people to contact. Then, draft an email that you can personalize, explaining why you’re exploring new opportunities. Next, commit to a metric of how many people you’re willing to contact each week — and then add two more. Start networking with those you feel the safest; it’s a good way to practice telling your story.
Step 4: Add a Bankable Skill to Boost Your Advantage
If I could go back in time to give myself one piece of advice while struggling to find work after 50, it would be to add a bankable skill. I’d been in one field for so long, it didn’t occur to me that I would have to supplement my experience to be attractive to the modern marketplace. Had I figured this out sooner, it would have spared me years of anguish.
In my case, transitioning from media executive to career coach required training. I needed to return to school for an intensive program of in-person classes, online seminars, peer work and mentor coaching, alongside others who were at least a generation younger.
Your career change might entail a smaller tweak, like getting fluent in social media marketing or learning how 21st century teams communicate using Slack and Google Docs.
Be honest with yourself about what needs refurbishing to make you more bankable. Then, consider the ways in which you learn the best, refuse to be intimidated and start exploring.
Step 5: Do a Test Run
As I was mulling whether to become a career coach, I needed data. I called the International Coaching Federation for recommendations of the top training programs in L.A. and then asked administrators to put me in touch with some of their graduates. After that, I spoke to a dozen of them to learn how their businesses were faring. With that knowledge, I summoned a group of trusted friends for feedback on my career-switch plan. When the positives outweighed the negatives, I did a test run.
As you’re investigating potential new avenues, don’t wait too long to try them out. Take a test run to get a sense of the field and then collect data wherever you can.
The Career Change That Makes Perfect Sense
Reviewing my journey to become a career coach, it now all makes perfect sense. Developing and facilitating leaders on their paths to success, it turns out, has always been a part of my portfolio. That’s why when this direction finally clicked, the pieces fell quickly into place.
Today, I have a thriving coaching business with clients from all over the country in different phases of professional life. I see how much it helps them to be guided by someone who has successfully made it through the career-change process.
Every day, I’m grateful to have found work with meaning and impact. If I can do it at 60, so can you.