Change, as they say, is difficult. Unexpected life changes can certainly throw us for a loop and momentarily throw us off balance, leading us to inadvertently commit missteps and errors in judgment. But if we can remember a few things, we can use these curveballs as an opportunity for a fresh start and turn it into a unique opportunity to design a new life — or at least, a new chapter.
(Below is the edited version of the podcast episode. It follows the episode closely, but not word for word.)
Change, as we all know, is the one thing that’s constant in our lives. Fellow midlifers will agree that change doesn’t stop when we reach midlife. If anything, it feels as if we’re dealing with change all the time.
Some of these changes we instigate ourselves, such as when we intentionally change our lifestyle or eating habits, for example. Many of the changes are externally driven and often known ahead of time so that we can plan and ease into the changes gradually.
But sometimes, the changes are sudden. Or they happen sooner than we thought, and we are caught unprepared.
What do we do then? That’s what I talk about in this episode.
Obviously, the more we can plan for an eventual change ahead of time, the better off we will be when it finally happens.
The process of planning helps us get ready for the impending change. It helps us prepare — mentally, emotionally, sometimes physically, and financially too — so that when the thing actually happens, we feel some level of confidence that we can handle things.
Nothing new there. Plan as much as possible, as early as possible, if we can.
What happens when the change is sudden? What do we do when we don’t have enough time to plan and get ready?
On this podcast, I often share some of the challenges or the stumbling blocks I’ve experienced since my retirement. But there’s no context to these bits and pieces because I’ve never actually shared the full story.
In this episode, I’m rectifying that and sharing the whole story because it’s related to handling change when you’re unprepared. Because you see, my retirement from my corporate life wasn’t planned for.
I was, for all intents and purposes, unprepared for it. I met a lot of challenges and made a lot of mistakes. And from all that, of course, the lessons learned.
So in this episode, I’ll briefly set the scene and explain why the retirement was unplanned. Then I’ll talk about the challenges I faced, followed by the “mistakes” I committed. And I’ll end it with the lessons learned that I think we can all remember when we’re facing unplanned changes in our lives.
• • • • •
Why the retirement was unplanned and unexpected
I was just turning 49 when it happened. At the time, I held a senior leadership position in the IT division of a global healthcare company. Retirement was the farthest thing from my mind. In fact, I had my eyes set on the next rung on the corporate ladder.
Unfortunately, I hit a massive brick wall and landed myself in a hospital. I was then the poster child for workaholics. Basically, all work, no life. 😟 My body had been warning me about the stress, but I was ignoring all the signs. The doctor at the hospital told me bluntly that they could give me medication, but if I didn’t do something about my lifestyle (or lack of life!), I would be back in the hospital sooner or later.
I took their words seriously and decided to take a sabbatical from my career, with the full intention of picking up where I left off in 3-4 months. But the short-term ‘health break’ turned into 6 months. When a headhunter called me about a real opening, a job that fit my goals, I felt the internal resistance rise up with such power.
That’s when I realized I no longer wanted to return to my corporate life.
But there were challenges
What was intended to be a short-term health break ended up being my retirement from corporate life. And I was wholly unprepared.
The prospect of a job and position I could realistically go after was the wake-up call. It was also the point when I was suddenly confronted with several major challenges.
First, I had no idea what I wanted or should do next. During the sabbatical, I was busy with personal projects — writing in particular. I enrolled in a creative writing class and started working on a novel. But these were hobbies, not necessarily what I would like to do for the rest of my life. At the time that I told the headhunter, “No, thank you”, I didn’t have any serious ideas about what I would like to do next.
Second, I wasn’t set up to be fully retired financially. I had some savings in the bank, and I had been slowly using the funds during my break. Whatever I decide to do next would need to be able to support my living. I had been reading up on people who went into business for themselves, especially after the 2008 recession. These stories were very inspiring, but I had zero experience in business. Plus, I didn’t really have a strong idea about what kind of business I might want to start.
Third, people were beginning to ask me about my plans, and I had no good answer to give them! The story I gave them — taking a short sabbatical for my health — worked for the first few months. It was probably self-imposed, but I felt increasing pressure to give a better, proper answer, especially after I admitted that I no longer wanted to go back to my corporate life.
I was not thinking of walking away from the career I worked hard to build.
I made some mistakes
The following are the three main mistakes that I made in the early days following the realization that I had unexpectedly retired from my corporate career.
These decisions led me to take certain actions resulting in frustrating situations that I have had to fix or reverse. They are here as reminders and to serve as guard rails.
I did not seek help.
I had been seeing a therapist at that time. But in hindsight, I could have used the help of a life coach to help me figure out my next steps. A business coach would have been massively helpful as well once I decided to go into business for myself. The recent episode with Diane Tarshis really drove that home for me. Had I consulted with her or someone like her at the start of my entrepreneurial journey, I would have been saved from many headaches and heartaches.
I jumped immediately into action mode.
In an effort to address the pressure of coming up with a plan, I immediately focused on taking action. Instead of spending time thinking about my future goals (see the next mistake!), I got busy doing “things” to show that “See, I’m doing something!”
This is somewhat of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you want to be taking action and not stuck in analysis paralysis. But at the same time, you want to have thought of your goals or at very least, the direction you want to head toward.
I didn’t take the opportunity to examine what I wanted for my new life.
I consider this a big miss on my part. It was a fresh start for me, but I didn’t take the opportunity to look at the big picture. Instead, I myopically looked at only one component — my work. All the questions centered around the kind of work I wanted to do and how I would support myself going forward. I didn’t take the time to ask crucial questions, such as “What do I want more of in my life?” It’s no surprise that I ended up moving toward an unsatisfactory direction that I have since reversed.
Lessons Learned from Unexpected Life Changes
Nelson Mandela once said, “I don’t lose. Even when I don’t win, I learn.”
Through all the challenges I faced and mistakes made, I walked away with a better understanding of myself and a set of hard-earned lessons I can apply in other situations. Most importantly, I have another set of real-life experiences that boost my self-confidence. Yes! I can handle things and find my way through!
Here are four of the major lessons I’ve learned through this unexpected change experience.
1. We don’t get an award for going it alone, so why should we?
Many of us grew up placing a high value on self-reliance and self-discipline. We were taught that to have strong willpower is to have dominion over ourselves. All of which is true. But taken to the extreme, this could lead to a tendency to go it alone and not seek help. As if to seek help is to admit that we can’t do it or we don’t have the ability or the competency.
One major life lesson I’ve learned is that we can take this rugged individualism ethos too far. There’s a way to balance a sense of self-reliance AND being open to other people’s help.
When life hands us an unexpected plot twist and we find ourselves in unchartered waters, it’s not only okay to ask for help. I posit that it’s the smart way forward.
It’s smart because it shortens the distance between “not having a clue what to do” to “having a preliminary plan.”
Help can come in different forms: Someone can help provide the answers or help us find the path to find the answers ourselves. Help can also sometimes take the form of more questions. Although this may sound frustrating at first, it’s actually quite helpful. The right set of questions can guide us to the right set of actions.
We can seek help from family, friends, or from our network. Alternatively, we can seek the help of professionals, such as a therapist or a life coach, or a business coach if necessary.
2. Find your anchor, the stabilizing piece that will not change.
In the late summer of 2021, I temporarily moved to Asia to spend time with my mom. This wasn’t a short vacation. This was uprooting my life in the US and moving to the Philippines — a place I had not even visited for 20 yrs — and living there for an indefinite period of time. To be clear, this was not an unexpected change. This was something planned, discussed, and mulled over for a long time.
One thing I did differently this time helped me tremendously. I identified an anchor — one area in my life that will remain the same, that I will not change, no matter where I land in the Philippines.
For me, that was my work, specifically my writing of Midlife Cues and the publication of this podcast. My work served as my stabilizing piece. It would have been understandable and easier to put all of these on hold and to relieve myself of the routines required to produce the weekly newsletter.
In hindsight, it proved that those very routines were what helped me get grounded. I felt that through all the changes that I was experiencing — although everything felt new and strange and awkward — I am still “me”. That I didn’t lose myself in the process.
3. Treat the change as a fresh start and take the time to design your new life.
In her book, How to Change, Katy Milkman talks about the power of fresh starts as a catalyst for profound change in our lives.
“We should be looking for opportunities to capitalize on life changes to reevaluate what matters most to us. Whether it’s an illness, a promotion, or a move to another town, it could offer just the disruption needed to turn your life around.”
An unexpected life change is just that: a disruption of our normal way of living and being.
It can be scary and nerve-wracking at first. It’s understandable that what you’d want at that point is a return to normal before all things change!
So, after you’ve calmed down a bit and asked all the normal questions along the lines of “Why is this happening to me?” I suggest you start looking at this as a unique opportunity. Because, in essence, you’re being handed a tabula rasa.
You have a unique chance to design what to put on that clean canvas. To say to yourself, “Okay, this is a new reality now; how do I want to be in this new reality?”
This is exactly what the pandemic (a massive unexpected life change!) gave us the chance to do. To ask ourselves the questions, “What do I want more of in my life? How do I want to be on the other side of this thing? What are the essentials?”
Because the alternative — when we don’t actively design what this new life is going to be about — is that we let ourselves be solely driven by the events, which may lead us down a path that we’re ultimately not going to be happy with.
4. The point of asking yourself questions is not to demonstrate that you know the answers right away.
Part of why change is hard, especially the unexpected kind, is the uncertainty that comes with the change. It’s unnerving when things change so much that we don’t know the answers anymore. And it’s worse when we don’t even know where to look for the answers.
I have a tendency to want to find the answers, stat. I have a natural bias for action, and that means I’m usually looking for right answers as fast as I can so I can move.
Here’s one thing I’m learning now: we don’t need the FINAL perfect answer to take a step forward.
We can approach it as an experiment, not as a definitive plan. Better yet, we can embed the experimentation as part of the plan (if you’re someone like me who must have a plan).
We ask critical questions not to show ourselves that we know the answers but in order to give ourselves the space to discover the answers.
This does not mean we are, in the meantime, paralyzed, stuck in analysis and planning. This means we are taking steps to discover and learn what we don’t yet know.
“I don’t lose. Even when I don’t win, I learn.” —Nelson Mandela
To wrap up, I want to ask you a few questions:
- What change in your work or life are you experiencing right now?
- What’s been the most challenging part of that change?
- Can you apply some or any of the lessons learned discussed in this episode to alleviate the difficulties you’re facing?
Unexpected life changes can be unsettling, no doubt. It can leave us feeling unmoored and uncertain about our future. We may even feel that we have little confidence to move forward.
By looking at this uncomfortable period as a new beginning, we can turn this into a rare opportunity to intentionally redesign our life.