When I decided a few years ago to change my career, friends and colleagues fell into two different camps. They thought I was either brave or insane. To be honest, I thought I was both. It’s taken me a few years of this midlife reinvention to realise that what really fuelled my desire to do something different was that I simply wanted to learn.
For the first 40 years of our lives, we are in a perpetual state of learning. Progress is measured by how much and well we learn. And then for some bizarre reason many of us choose to stop. We think we’ve got it, figured it out, reached the pinnacle, haven’t got time to do something new, are confident in the abilities we’ve honed, nervous that maybe it’s too late to start again.
Maybe we find a new hobby that won’t challenge us too much. But we don’t really step outside of our career comfort zones and learn something new.
Why do we just keep to a certain path, knowing we can do something with our eyes shut and yet never ask ourselves that being able to do something with our eyes shut is the reason we feel so uninspired?
When we stop learning, we start giving up.
The last eight years of my life have been spent doing just that — learning something new and refusing to give up. Having spent 25 years as a journalist in some of the most competitive newsrooms in Britain, I decided to do something new. To start learning again.
I gravitated towards a business world where everyone was talking about ‘stories’ but no one seemed to quite understand what were the essential ingredients for those stories. They talked about ‘content’ but didn’t appreciate how difficult it was to make great content. They were trying to find the thread in the data without actually defining what a thread even was.
And so I started learning about this corporate world of storytelling. How it worked and why it didn’t, who needed the most help and how to best embed those skills, which kinds of stories resonated and which were unfairly ignored.
It’s been a little chaotic and full of uncertainty. But it has perhaps been my most rewarding work experience because in the middle of my life I’ve learned something entirely new.
How storytelling makes businesses better.
I knew all about how stories could make a newspaper better and so used those skills in an entirely new arena, fusing the worlds of research and journalism into a new kind of storytelling. Data storytelling that focuses on journalistic skills.
The work is endlessly fascinating but what really enthuses me is that I’m learning. From my friend and partner, whose experience in an entirely different arena makes me a better writer. From new clients whose different needs force me to rethink what I’ve learned and how I can refashion it for new audiences. From the intellectual challenge of turning what I know into strategies to make individuals, teams and businesses perform better.
But the reason I’m so enthused is not because I know what I’m doing (spoiler: I do). But because I know that I’m learning.
So, if you’re planning a midlife work crisis, here’s my advice to stay sane. Literally SANE, it’s what the following spells out:
SKILLS: Don’t focus on achievements, think about skills. What is that you have that people can benefit from. The positions you’ve held are largely meaningless. The reasons you excelled in those positions are far more meaningful.
AGILITY: Do not have a rigid plan and stay agile. If you set out on a certain path and it doesn’t quite work out, then great. Figure out why, plot a new course. Needs are changing at such a rapid pace that if you stick to a strategy you may close yourself off to other opportunities. It might take you a couple of years to find the right course but nimbleness will make you better.
NICHE: Find a niche. Then find the niche of that niche. And then, if possible, become even more niche. Midlife seniority seduces us into thinking that we need to be good at everything. Nonsense. Be great at something. Figure out what no one else is doing and then do that thing spectacularly well. Journalistic data storytelling. I’d never heard of it a few years ago. Now I like to think, along with my friend Gillem, that we’re helping to invent it.
EMBRACE: Fear should be embraced not avoided. All those days and weeks when no meaningful work comes your way is not a dismissive judgement by others of your purpose. It happens and just means you’ve got more time to feed your brain. Thinking is never wasted time. Don’t be afraid of the quiet times.
I’d love to know what about your own midlife reinvention. Maybe you can post here or find me at www.story-makers.co.uk or at https://www.linkedin.com/company/wearestorymakers/?viewAsMember=true