Creative reading for creative moves

If you’re contemplating a midlife career change, it’s useful to see what others have thought, learned or researched. Here’s a personal selection of books and articles that I’ve found helpful and engaging. Let’s start at the more obvious end. (For my own writing - which includes management, faith and society and humour as well as careers - see

Why do it?

The Existential Necessity of Midlife Change by psychoanalyst/psychologist Carlo Strenger and entrepreneur/marketer Arie Ruttenberg. Less portentous and more useful than its title, this article is a clear and well-argued examination of the need for mid-life change.

It begins with the life of Elliott Jacques himself, a Canadian psychoanalyst to whom Strenger and Ruttenberg attribute the phrase ‘midlife crisis’.

Elliott Jacques, you might say, lived twice. By the end of his first life, in his mid-forties, he had earned two doctorates, one in medicine and another in psychology. He had gone through psychoanalytic training and had gained a lot of experience as both an organizational consultant and a psychoanalyst. In his second life, Jacques became a truly independent thinker. He greatly expanded the range of organizations with which he worked, and he created the concepts and theories for which he is most famous. He formulated some of his most original ideas in the late 1990s, when he was in his late seventies and eighties.

... Many people can anticipate and enjoy a second life, if not a second career. The task at hand is not as easy as the ‘just do it’ culture of self-help promises, however. True transformation at midlife does not reside in us, waiting to emerge like the butterfly from the cocoon. Self-actualization is a work of art. It must be achieved through effort and stamina and skill.

Article from Harvard Business Review, February 2008. To buy a copy, visit here and order reprint R0802E.

Is it just you?

Is career change some self-indulgent fad, or part of something bigger in society? Managing Oneself gives the view of one of the major thinkers about organisations in recent times: Peter Drucker.

Drucker puts second (or third) careers into a wider societal perspective – though he also talks from personal experience. Although he addresses what ‘managing oneself’ might mean in practical, individual terms, I find Drucker’s strength is the broader perspective.

I was doing very well as a young investment banker in London in the mid-1930s, and the work clearly fit my strengths. Yet I did not see myself making a contribution as an asset manager. People, I realized, were what I valued, and I saw no point in being the richest man in the cemetery. I had no money and no other job prospects. Despite the continuing Depression, I quit – and it was the right thing to do ...

Every existing society, even the most individualistic one, takes two things for granted, if only subconsciously: that organizations outlive workers, and that most people stay put. But today the opposite is true. Knowledge workers outlive organizations, and they are mobile. The need to manage oneself is therefore creating a revolution in human affairs.

Article from Harvard Business Review, January 2005. To buy a copy, visit here and order reprint R0501K.

Getting ready to jump

Sam Hill, a marketer and business consultant, is now a writer living in Chicago. He’s written a brilliantly crisp, honest and funny article about his own experience of career change.

Writers in a managerial vein tend to stress planning as part of the answer – if only because planning is what managers tend to do to get out of situations. Sam knows about planning. And in The Life of a Plan, he writes:

In the real world, I think you have to start on the next career before you finish the current one. No matter how connected you are or how much aptitude you have for your passion, building a career takes years, not months. To be ready at 57 means starting at 52. Or even at 47, just in the case the corporate music stops early and you’re the one without the corner chair.

My agent assures me the movie people will call someday. But it’s not going to happen quite as smoothly and as quickly as I’d first thought. If you want to talk about it, drop by. I’m the guy sitting alone at the signing table at your local Borders. And don’t forget to buy a book.

The piece was published in issue 40 of strategy+business, the magazine of Booz Allen. Download a copy here.

Is this the right time?

The need to consider career change can strike us at any age, and the promptings may be internal or external.

The book which exposed and destroyed my own suppositions that there isn’t much change going on in human life between adolescence and menopause was the best-seller Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life by Gail Sheehy (Bantam Doubleday).

Into the unknown

Corporate poets are rare. One of them, David Whyte, has written a beautifully reflective narrative about career change called Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity (Riverhead Books), which I recommend enthusiastically.

Is this the right me?

A different, and ancient, way of considering what it is to be human is through philosophy and history.

I gained a lot from Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (Cambridge University Press). It’s not a light read, in any sense of the word, but it is a very rich one. Taylor peels away layers that most of us take for granted as ‘obviously’ part of being human, but which mostly reflect the particular times and societies in which we’re born. Is there something positive and irreducible at the centre of the onion? He thinks there is.

Looking back on your future

Career counsellors sometimes suggest you write your own obituary. It’s a good idea. Randy Pausch lived a version of that experience.

Knowing he would soon die, the infectiously energetic professor of computer science, husband and father gave a lecture to tell us about it. It’s been read or watched by millions. You can watch it here on YouTube or read it as a book, The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch and Jeffrey Zaslow (Hodder & Stoughton). Professor Pausch died on 25 July 2008, aged 47.

What should we expect from our work?

Randy Pausch was an atheist; I’m not. During my 30s I did some thinking about the significance of what we do as work from a Christian perspective.

In 1995 this led to an opportunity to give an address at another church on the subject. Re-reading now what I wrote then, I’m struck how it anticipates my own choice of work many years later: helping people navigate career terrain which is shifting, difficult, uncharted and (I’m suggesting) of the greatest possible importance. Download the address here.