In 2001, after decades in the Los Angeles entertainment industry, John Tarnoff found himself adrift. He was 49.
His tech start-up had just gone belly-up when the dot-com bubble burst and he had no clue about what to do next. So began an 11-year journey that included getting his master’s degree in spiritual psychology and a stint at DreamWorks Animation. In 2012, he found his true calling as a career coach, helping boomers like himself to re-imagine their careers in a turbulent economy.
The author of the 2017 Amazon best-seller Boomer Reinvention: How to Create Your Dream Career Over 50, Tarnoff, 66, offers his advice about how to navigate this strange and terrifying—but also exhilarating—new landscape.
What was the most difficult moment as you tried to figure out your new career?
There were definitely some dark nights of the soul. As you get older, a sense of self-doubt creeps in. There’s a sense of dislocation and disorientation. Some people walk around in shock for months after being laid off or forced into early retirement.
I don’t think people fully appreciate how devastating that can be after you’ve been with a company for many years. It’s on the order of a death or a divorce. You have to give people a chance to mourn and grieve.
So what’s the first step to get moving again?
Career re-invention is often approached from an HR point of view— helping the individual fit into a company. But older workers don’t want to fit into somebody else’s agenda. Or maybe they’ve just burned out on their industry.
So the process begins from the inside out, figuring out who you are, where your passions are, and what limitations you have imposed upon yourself. The best way to do that is by keeping a journal. In long hand, every day, examine your beliefs and attitudes, then change or update them until you start seeing new and different opportunities.
That’s step one of my five-step process.
Two is getting feedback from trusted friends, advisors, colleagues, even an ex-boss, about where you’ve been and what might be next—the good stuff and the bad.
Three is accepting everything that has happened so far: If you burned a bridge, or treated someone unfairly, you need to own that and not let it stand in the way of future success.
Four is planning your reinvention, listing your options and the people you need to talk to.
Five is bringing it out into the world, making connections, building a network.
How can you balance what you really want to do, which may be impractical—write a novel, travel the world, learn Swahili —with what can support you financially?
Go a little deeper, find out what’s underneath those desires. Why do you want to write a novel? If it’s because you have something to say, maybe there’s a more commercial way to say those things.
Why do you want to travel? If you have some expertise about a foreign culture, there may be a practical way of getting paid for it. You’re finding ways to commercialize a passion or body of knowledge.
Once you’ve established a new direction, what are the biggest obstacles to achieving it?
The two biggest obstacles are usually messaging and connections.
If you don’t have a clear message of what you want to do, and define it down to a very specific niche—who you are serving, what solutions or products you are providing—you can quickly get bogged down. And making connections is difficult for people who hate networking.
My advice is ABG: Always Be Giving. Networking does not start with asking people to help you.
It’s always about offering something—your expertise and connections, or it might be posting information, blogging, commenting online, even asking a question at an event. Someone might say, “Great question—do you want to be on a panel?”
Do you recommend making dramatic changes—quitting an awful job, moving to a better location, going back to school full-time, etc.—or taking a gradual approach?
Don’t quit your day job to go start a B&B in Vermont. Think about it as a gradual, step-by-step change.
My friend Marc Freedman of Encore.org [a nonprofit that works to leverage the skills of older adults for the greater good] wrote about a woman who gave up her dream of being a lawyer to start a family, then went back to finish law school after getting divorced in her 50s.
But after five years, she realized she didn’t really want to do that anymore. So beware your long-held dream. Spend a week pretending to be in a new role. Ask your network of advisors what they think.
How should people handle the difficult emotional aspects of this journey? Especially for those who may have to give up careers they loved or felt defined them in important ways?
It’s easy to get stuck in the past, looking backward. But if you focus on the future, you can draw selectively—and with inspiration—from your past. I always urge people to volunteer, even outside your field, even if it’s a local community organization or church.
Just by showing up, you can help transform people’s lives. You realize, “I do have a lot to offer.”
But it’s okay to be emotional and be challenged by the process.
How do you bounce back from the inevitable setbacks—rejection, failure, age discrimination?
There are a lot of external factors we have no control over, a lot to feel victimized about. But if you’ve done that interior work, and mapped it all out so you know how you can be useful, you can proceed from a position of strength.
Rather than saying, “I’m getting old, nobody wants to hire me,” and falling into that ageist bullshit we see in our culture, you say, “I’m strong, wise, and experienced.”
If we can deliver value, someone will want to pay us for that value.
How long does the re-invention process take, and how can you stay motivated to keep going?
On average, it’s a six- to 12-month process. But whether you’re getting a W-2 or 1099, you still need to think of yourself as a consultant providing value to clients, and staying current on what other clients are out there for my business. Keep asking yourself, “What is my niche?”
For inspiration, can you provide some examples of people who have re-invented themselves and identify the key to their success?
John Pugliano was a salesman of industrial products with a hobby as a day trader. As he saw the end of his sales career coming, he decided to use his financial skills to apply for certification as a financial advisor.
Then the company fired him before it went belly up and, after going on some job interviews, he decided to switch gears and launch his own financial advisor practice. Five years later, he’s doing great. He turned a skill into a side gig, then his side gig became his main gig.
Valerie Ramsey was a stay-at-home mom who decided to go back to work after the last of her kids went off to school. She went to the local golf resort but she had no resume so the only job she could get was in the pro shop, like a college kid on a summer job.
She took it, scoped the place out, made friends, and found out that an assistant in the PR department was leaving. She got the job and two years later was running PR for the resort. The lesson is that “yes” is your friend.
Some people would say, “I’m 60, I can’t do that,” but don’t let that get in your way.
The secret is to be open and willing to entertain the possibility that the future is inside you.
Read next: How to reinvent your life after 50