“Do not wait; the time will never be 'just right.' Start where you stand, and work with whatever tools you may have at your command, and better tools will be found as you go along.” – George Herbert
Third acts come at all ages and stages of life. In our careers, relationships and in our own ongoing self-development. We all know people who are close to retiring, in their third act of their career as well as those on the other end of the spectrum just starting their careers, in the third act of their formal education, transitioning to the “real” world. Advice to those on the front end of the spectrum – keep your wide-eyed optimism, put in the work and effort, make new mistakes and enjoy the ride. It goes fast.
I’m closer to the end of my professional career than the start even though I have more energy and enthusiasm now than ever before. I anticipate at least another 10 years in the “formal” work arena before transitioning to “3rd act” work. While I certainly don’t anticipate retiring to nothing, I do look forward to less meetings, busy work at the expense of deep work and email overload to be sure.
For decades we wrap our identity in our work so when it’s over, we lose that identity. But we are so much more than our careers and what we do. In all transitions, there’s both fear and mystery in the not knowing what’s next. And that’s ok if we don’t allow fear to stop us from stepping over the threshold into the mystery and gift of becoming.
If you are on the verge of your third act in your career, what was meaningful 30 years ago has very little meaning or depth today. In Stages of Life, Jung reminds us, “we cannot live in the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning – for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening become a lie.”
Despite what our society espouses, the evening is no less valuable than the morning. To a certain degree, it’s even more important as the fullness of time invites us to drop the façade, to worry less about what people think and to become more of who we are meant to be. “There is a self within each one of us aching to be born,” Alan Jones states. If only we could birth that sooner to live more fully, longer.
“In our youth we set up inner myths and stories to live by, but around the mid-life juncture these patterns begin to crumble. It feels like to us like a collapsing of all that is, but it’s a holy quaking,” states Sue Monk Kidd, When the Heart Waits. She sums it up with a quote by John Shea – “When order crumbles, mystery arises.”
As the first and second act naturally roll into the third act, the pieces come together into the whole and the full story takes shape and form. We realize that the miles before got us here but they won’t get us to where we are going. A new road is required to get to the destination.
“Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience
In Jane Fonda’s Ted’s Talk on Life’s Third Act, she talks about the research she’s done on the topic, “I have come to find that a more appropriate metaphor for aging is a staircase -- the upward ascension of the human spirit, bringing us into wisdom, wholeness, and authenticity. Age not at all as pathology. Age as potential. And guess what? This potential is not for the lucky few. It turns out, most people over 50 feel better, are less stressed, less hostile, less anxious. We tend to see commonalities more than differences. Some of the studies even say we're happier.”
Our jobs provide structure that keeps us showing up and getting the work done. If we applied some of that rigor and structure to our free time, we can create flow, joy and timelessness in our third act. “Jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built in goals, feedback, rules and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed,” Csikszentmihalyi continues.
In Steven Pressfield’s “The War of Art,” he makes a key distinction between being an amateur and professional. The professional commits by putting in the time and effort. Denoting that we are all professionals when it comes to our job by showing up every day, no matter what, we stay all day and commit over the long haul and the stakes are real.
It we take those cues and clues from our careers and look at new beginnings like retirement or starting a hobby as a job to structure with goals, feedback, rules and challenges, we can enter big life changes and new challenges with enthusiasm and confidence.
“When a path opens before us that leads we know not where, don’t be afraid to follow it. Our lives are meant to be mysterious journeys, unfolding one step at a time. Often we follow a path worn smooth by the many and in doing so we lose our authenticity, our individuality, our own unique expression. Do not be afraid to lose your way. Out of chaos, clarity will eventually arise. Out of not knowing, something new and unknown will ultimately come. Do not order things too swiftly. Wait and the miracle will appear,” Ann Mortifee, Mysterious Journey
So if you are on the cusp of your third act in your career, start planning some structure in that free time and some challenge as well. Wander a bit too so mystery can do its work as well. Be open to the gifts of your third acts and the journey through mystery to the newness available on the other side.