When I was 47 I decided to use the services of a career placement agency to look at new opportunities and a new career direction. I lived in Phoenix, Arizona at the time and the agency was in the core of the downtown. I arrived at the agency and was immediately impressed with the office décor. I felt hopeful sitting there in the boardroom completing the initial paperwork, thinking that I had arrived in the right place at the right time in my life. I wanted to take my experience, knowledge and excitement into a redesigned vision for my future.
Paperwork completed I entered the office of the woman who was to be my career-change advisor. Her office had a stunning view of Phoenix. She was well-dressed, well-coifed and sitting behind a beautiful, gleaming desk. She was pleasant as she invited me to wait at the table where we would have our discussion. I sat taking in the view while she reviewed my forms and resume. My mind was racing with possibilities and the idea that I could command an office such as the one I was in. Surely, that was part of my future.
When the advisor joined me at the table she began by asking me what I wanted. I told her that I was ready for something new, something different. I wanted to translate my experience and skills into a new career and I was eager for her suggestions and recommendations. She watched me carefully as I spoke and then asked me how old I was. I responded 47, somewhat perplexed. She paused, grimaced a smile and then proceeded to tell me that I only had three years left before it was all over.
All over? What?
She explained that once I hit 50 there would be little to no chance of creating a new career. It would be too late. Whatever I was doing up until would essentially have to be it, basically. And the three years I had left were probably not enough time to do anything substantially different. She said these things with authority and resolve.
I stared at this woman in her perfect suit with her perfect hair and her perfectly matched glasses as though seeing her for the first time. The office grew small around us. I had come here willing to spend significant money to redefine and build a new career direction. I had been willing to trust her and pay her to assist me because she’d told me on the phone that such was her expertise. Their website glowed with examples of success. What she said was not expected.
I drew myself up in my chair. I looked her squarely in the eye and told her that I could not accept that advice. I explained that I could not let her or anyone else tell me it was too late to change anything, but especially my career. I told her that I intended to reinvent myself as many times as I felt the need for the rest of my life and in that view 50 was still pretty damn early. I ended with the exclamation point that I would never let anyone define me. That was mine alone to decide.
She seemed to hold her breath during my rant and appeared taken aback. I did not care. I reached and took my forms and resume from the table and slid them in my carry case. She took off her glasses and said that she did not intend to insult me.
Why do people say that? That they did not “intend” – as if that could erase the insult and the damage done. And I was certain that she absolutely did intend to hit home the fact that she considered me too old and too late for change.
I thanked her for her time and rose to leave. She mumbled something about if I ever changed my mind or wanted to reconsider their services that I was welcome to call. I told her thank you but no that would not happen.
That day was a definitive day. Not in the way I thought it would go but it a way that has served me ever since. No one can tell me who I am, what I am capable of and what comes next. Those things are mine alone to choose and if a person is not on my “change team” then they cannot be a part of what I want to do and how I will get there.
I am 55 now and I continue to create and reinvent my life. I did not slam into some proverbial wall when 50 arrived. Instead I threw myself a party, a kind of 50 new year’s eve party where friends toasted the future with me at midnight as my birthday arrived. We drank champagne and ate pink champagne birthday cake. It was a joyous, positive beginning to the second half of my life. And I can honestly say that my life has grown continuously better every day since I turned 50.
I have learned since that day in the Phoenix high rise office to be less impressed with office space and titles. Being an expert does not necessarily make you good at what you do or effective. Ironically though, the advisor gave me a great gift. She lit a fire in me to continue to determine my own destiny. I did not need to hire her to figure out that I can do and be and accomplish whatever I want. Conviction is the unstoppable source of motivation and action.
I tell my mentees to take advice where they need it but to never lose sight of what they want and what they know to be true about themselves. People will offer their opinion. Let that in if it serves, but be strong enough to resist the naysayers and n’erer do-well types and those who attempt to keep you low. Surround yourself instead with people who believe in you, lift you up and see the possibilities in you. Most of all, know yourself and be true to you.