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What Do You Prize Most in Mid-life?

By Craig Nathanson

The message I deliver most to mid-life professionals is that a key ingredient of happiness is finding vocational passion. It's finding the perfect alignment of interests and abilities that make going to work seem like it isn't work at all. People who find the magic balance tend to be healthier and more energetic. In turn, they find more satisfaction in other areas of their lives.

Too many people go through life without having their interests and abilities aligned. The inevitable result is a feeling of deep ennui as people drag themselves out of bed every day to endure the grind required to support the lifestyles of their families. You may do this well, even exceptionally. But the work itself is rarely what propels people. Instead, it's a sense of obligation or a feeling of being trapped.

But there is another way. You can develop a plan to escape the grind, then find work that means something and build a comfortable lifestyle around it. Too many people allow their lifestyles (or the lifestyles they are conditioned to expect) to dictate the kind of work they do. And that is where so many people get into trouble, both spiritually and financially.

I discovered all of this the hard way. Now, my mission is to take what I've learned and help others as they transition into their life's vocational passion. This requires courage, risk, and a willingness to make significant personal changes. But with determination and planning, anyone can do it. You will later ask yourself why you waited so long.

Waking up to the rest of your life
I had a good job, a million-dollar house, and a great family. I also had staggering personal debt from leading a materialistic lifestyle. To top it off, I found no satisfaction in my work. My way out came suddenly. Three years ago, I had an epiphany as I stood before my coworkers, giving yet another Power Point presentation. I suddenly shut down. I realized that I couldn't do it anymore.

I woke up the next morning and felt, more or less, back to my old self. Perhaps they were right, I thought. Maybe I just had a touch of the flu. So I drove to work. But I never left the parking lot. I didn't take the final plunge right away. I felt too tied to the life I was living. So I struggled through other jobs over the next few years. But the results and feelings were the same.

Finally, I had enough. This was despite the responsibility of being the sole provider for my wife and three children, having a mortgage, caring for a seriously ill child, dealing with growing medical bills, and shouldering $200,000 in credit card debt.

In 2002, in the middle of a tough economy, I walked away from a six-figure job as a vice president and managing director of a billion-dollar multinational firm. This time, there was no turning back. I had no intention of walking away from my responsibilities. But I had to find a way to earn an income in a more meaningful way.

Today, I have a private consulting practice, a busy speaking schedule, and a book all focused on helping others in mid-life discover and do what they love. Every day in my practice, I see people who are having the same emotional, professional, financial, and relationship challenges that I went through. It wasn't easy getting here. The first few years were extremely painful. Financial stress increased, relationships were strained, and emotional stress reached all-time highs. But now, three years later, I have finally emerged with a more congruent and authentic life. I say with confidence that it has all been worth it.

The first step: Know what matters to you
If you want to find your vocational passion, it has to begin with a question: What is most important to you? This may be the most important question you will ever ask yourself. You need to look deep inside yourself to turn your vague longings into tangible goals, with real paths toward achieving them. Once you answer the question and see the path that the answers light for you, then it's time to summon the courage to make the transition.

Matt Vande Voorde walked away from an executive position at a large bank to follow what he prized most in his life: magazine publishing. His dream was to one day publish a magazine targeted at helping people with disabilities use the Internet. Today, Matt is the proud publisher of Accessible Content Magazine.

Jim Goebelbecker was tired of long hours selling products that he didn't care about. He prized his family and nonprofit work. He also took a risk and never looked back. Today, Jim is an executive with a large nonprofit on the east coast. He works just 10 minutes away from his home.

Five steps to discover and follow your passion
Making this level of change in your life isn't an overnight process. Once you understand that a change is essential to making the rest of your life matter, you can follow this simple process to move your dreams and desires into concrete actions.

  • Evaluate what you want. Ask the big questions and answer them honestly. Why lie to yourself?
  • Envision your future. You need to visualize what you're dreaming about. Then, develop a concrete understanding of what it will take to get there.
  • Tune out negative feedback. Everyone will try to talk you out of doing this. Listen to yourself.
  • Assess your risks. Take an inventory of your assets, obligations, and health. Then, make the necessary adjustments that will minimize the impact and risk of making a major life change.
  • Take small steps. You don't have to quit tomorrow. You can start in small ways by doing research on your dream vocation, maybe taking a class. Or you can make small lifestyle changes to reduce your personal burn rate.

In the end, you must give yourself permission to follow your heart. That's what I did. So did Matt, Jim, and so many others. They now jump out of bed each morning looking forward to a day of vocational passion. You can have this feeling too. First, you must decide what's really most important.

Craig Nathanson is a coaching expert who works with people over forty. Craig's book, 'Don't Just Retire and Die,' is designed to help people break free and move toward the work they love. Visit Craig's website at Dr Craig Nathanson where you can take a class, get more ideas through Craig books and CDs, get some private coaching over the phone or read stories of mid-life change and renewal. Craig lives in San Anselmo, California.
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