German physiologist Friedrich Goltz once surgically removed the brains of a frog and lowered him in a slowly-heating pan of water. Although there was an easy escape route for the poor animal, which could have jumped out from the pan, it did not, and got charred to death.
Do you know why?
Not because its brains removed, but because it didn't have the courage to climb out. Later experiments by other scientists substantiated that even when they didn't bother to remove the frog brains, the animal did not attempt to escape from slowly-heating water (Note, not boiling water, which sets reflex action into force) because the animal, like us human beings, starts getting habituated and becomes accustomed to the discomfort, and can't imagine any other life!
Isn't it a bit tragic?
All his life, an executive craves for change, meticulously climbing up a corporate ladder, step-by-step, run-by-rung, only to discover at the point of deliverance, that the ladder he was climbing was resting against the wrong wall!
Or that even if he tries, he can't jump off the ladder, but he's almost certain he'll fall and break his bones. At this fragile age, he simply can't take that risk.
Whether rightly or wrongly, at this junction in his life, he feels he doesn't have the physical or mental stamina to try something new or different. Old dogs can't be taught new tricks. The challenge appears too big, something akin to jumping into an abyss, so he decides to abandon his dream and not risk it because the stakes are very high, indeed, higher than they were, during his youth!
Alas! Mother Nature has caught up with Father Time. It's an age, when whoever he meets, reminds him of someone he knew in his younger days; when new tech poses new challenges; when names begin to jumble and confusingly mingle; when facts begin to fade; facts begin to blur; and while shaving, he begins to discover new frown lines, which were not there before.
Sounds familiar? There is more.
In 'Managing Middlescence,' (Harvard Business Review, March 2006) authors Robert Morison, Tamara J Erickson and Ken Dychtwald observe that "Like adolescence, middlescence can be a time of frustration, confusion, and alienation." It's the time when midcareer men and women start, "looking for ways to balance job responsibilities, family, and leisure while hoping to find new meaning in their work."
Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson identifies eight stages of development from infancy to adulthood. While the preceding stage (sixth) is of heightened creativity (35-55), the stage that immediately follows, the seventh stage (40-64), he calls 'Generativity', a period when executives feel spurred to stop, take stock and measure up their lives.
At this stage, they feel suddenly awakened to and driven by the desire to generate more value, not just for themselves, but for others, and are bothered with the existential dilemma: What can I do to make my life really count?
For most of us, this question is by no means easy to answer. This is a life transition stage, when most executive begin to revisit the decisions they made, and re-evaluates all the choices made between 35 and 55 years of age.
Daniel Levinsion, the celebrated author of The Seasons of a Man's Life (1986), says transition from stage 6 to stage 7 is the time during which an adult makes his last ditch assertion for independence. He calls it the BOOM (Becoming One's Own Boss) phase, when given the right opportunity one can be inspired to make second, more gratifying career choices to match with their 'Ego Ideal.' Influenced by the Freudian concept of 'Ichideal' (German), Levinsion argues that the Ego Ideal is a glorified, idealised image of oneself for the future.
Life-transition values are often an outcome of recent life experience that direct an executive to identify new, more pragmatic goals for himself. There is always a struggle between ego ideal and life transition values.
A burning desire to realise this Ego Ideal presents both an opportunity and a threat to a midcareer executive. The threat arises from the frog syndrome - low appetite for risk, fear of failure, an acute fear of the unknown, bogged down by financial and familial over-commitments; unwilling to jettison the comfort and security of a known life, even though he feels trapped in highly dissatisfying life situation. So like the frog in the boiling water, he, grudgingly allows himself to perish.
I recall, I conducted a study of a small bunch of 65-70 participants. All 40-48 years of age, the sample was drawn from mid-management leads of a telecom company. Part of the highly competitive industry, there was a lot of uncertainty about the fate of this company, and the employees were unsure of their future. Among other things, we wanted to check their desire to have either a job change (similar skills applied to the same or different industry) or a career change (change of industry, change of role, working for an NGO or setting up one's own business).
When quizzed, we found that all wanted a change of job and about 90 per cent wanted a change of career. But, on further probe, we discovered that none of those who wanted a 'job change' were not actively working for next move, mainly because of:
a. Comfort in being a part of a long-surviving organisation
b. Unsure whether their skills would still be relevant in the changed job market
c. Fear that the outside world was ridden with even more uncertainties
It was figured that only 20 per cent of those who wanted 'career change' were actively trying for it, whereas the rest 80 per cent were not making any efforts for change of career because their life transition values dominated over their ego ideal, consequently they had low self-esteem and confidence. In the former 20 per cent respondents, it was inferred that the ego ideal process was stronger than their life transitions values and this factor was motivating them to look for a 'career change.'
Approaching the problem from another perspective, we then tried to figure out why they wanted a change in career? The results were equally mystifying.
Nearly 30 per cent craved new challenges. Nearly 40 per cent were bored of their monotonous life; 10 per cent felt they were 'whiling away valuable in the waiting game' and 10 per cent felt trapped by circumstances, while the balance 10 per cent had other reasons to cite.
Through this survey, we also figured out that an individual personality plays a critical role in an executive's ability to create new experiences for himself, with the help of life transitional values, in order to be able to eventually live up to his Ego Ideal.
Support for this came from another study of 25 participants drawn from a consumer durable private sector company. The age of this sample was 30 to 47 years. The participants were drawn from the mid rung of the management.
Our results indicated that only 30 per cent wanted a 'job change' against an overwhelming 85 per cent, who wanted a 'career change' and thankfully, understood the difference! This latter group was highly engaged with their company but they were still looking for a career change because their current role did not match with their ego ideal, and since their high esteem was high, they were looking for life transition.
In this group, 45 per cent wanted a career change because they were bored with their monotonous life; 20 per cent felt trapped in their current roles; 18 per cent felt they were losing valuable time and 13 per cent felt their talents were not being fully utilised and the rest 4 per cent were unsure of the reason for wanting a career change.
We also figured out that the life transitional values was a very strong force, characterised by age, upbringing and risk-taking ability, and was not a function of being part of a public or private sector enterprise. We found that when the desire to match one's Ego Ideal is strong in an individual, he is likely to be more successful in his second inning. This study reminded me of a chief operating officer, who in his mid-life decided to quit his cushy, well-paying job to start a retail venture and is now thriving!
It's a myth that only private sector employees do well in their second innings. I know of a very dynamic IPS officer, who on his retirement is running a successful NGO; or of a bureaucrat, who entered politics and is now a minister in the Union government.
Second innings are always evolutionary, because, as Harry Levinson suggests in Your Next Move--How to Make a Successful Career Change (HBR, May 2015) "Second choices stem from (deep-buried) wishes and interests that has been subdued or lie dormant and abandoned."
The trick is to identify, acknowledge, mine and unearth these latent wishes, interests, abilities and passions and see if there is some amber in the coals with which you can start a new fire.
Let the life transitionary forces manifest their intensity. Think big and let go. Network with a slew of new people with newer skills and different attitudes, who can help you knock down walls of inhibition, break silos and create a new outlook. Then plan and attack. Most likely you will be rewarded with a second career, which will be closure to your heart, esteem and self.
I would say, it's worth a try.