There was a fascinating article in the July 2019 issue of The Atlantic by Arthur C. Brooks. He was on a flight and recognized a person sitting nearby; in fact, as an aspiring musician earlier in life, Brooks had positively idolized the gentleman. He overheard a snippet of conversation between the famous man and his wife who exclaimed, “It's not true that nobody needs you anymore!” to which the husband replied, “I wish I was dead.” Brooks was flabbergasted! How could one so accomplished and famous think in those terms? From all outward appearances he had everything in life one could want: fame, fortune, and the adoration of fans the world over. This shocking husband and wife exchange started Brooks on a quest to understand aging and the arcs of successful careers.
How does all this relate to contractors? All of us inevitably reach a point in our lives and careers where we're not as vital, energetic, and focused as we once were, and we accept this universal truth on an intellectual level. However, most of us do a very poor job preparing ourselves, our families, and our companies for post-career success. In this article, we’ll give you five tips for how to make your professional and personal transitions a little smoother.
Studies of Nobel Prize winners, best-selling authors, founding entrepreneurs of companies, home plate umpires, nurses, policemen, air traffic controllers, and other professionals show that they tend to learn, grow, and prosper during the first 20 serious years of their careers. For example, if one really got serious about her career around age 30, she is at her professional peak by about age 50. Success and productivity tend to come early in our careers. After a peak, what must follow? Decline is inevitable.
Brooks segued into a brief discussion of “happiness studies.” These studies show that happiness, for the average person, rolls out over a lifetime as a U-shaped curve. Young people are generally happy but become slightly less so over their 20s and 30s. Happiness bottoms out during the 40s, and then about age 50 the curve starts back up again (thank goodness!). At around age 70, that's when people – especially super successful construction leaders - must make hard choices. I once heard a former chairman of a multi-national bank say that after he retired, he went from Who's Who to “who’s he?” Retirement was a shock; he had been courted and in demand throughout his career, but suddenly he was sitting home with little to fill his former 50-hour work weeks. He felt lonely and abandoned. He had stumbled into what Brooks called the biggest fear for successful people: the fear of becoming irrelevant. If a person believes that he has become irrelevant, his happiness declines dramatically.
While happiness increases in the 50s and 60s, by age 70 it reaches an inflection point. In fact, after age 75, depression and suicide rates climb dramatically - especially for men. The good news is that, absent a debilitating illness or injury, you get to choose! That’s right, happiness is actually both a choice and a path.
Here are five tips for helping contractors avoid the trap of irrelevance and keeping their happiness curves on the ascent:
- Accept. You must accept that your hearing isn't as acute as it once was, your eyesight is weaker, you're not as physically strong, and you don't have the stamina that you once did. You’re no longer necessarily the best project manager, estimator, or negotiator. While still a valuable contributor, you're not the alpha dog anymore. That is a terribly difficult notion for successful contractors to reckon with, but it's an inevitable fact of aging.
- Work on management succession. Put serious elbow grease into your management and ownership succession plans. Because you have good financial planners, CPAs, and attorneys, most have done a good job on ownership succession. Management succession and development of successor leaders, on the other hand, tend to be pretty weak. That's an area for serious emphasis as you begin to contemplate your late stage career.
- Reorient. Re-orient yourself from being a doer and a driver to more of a teacher, coach, and mentor. Learning new things and skills becomes more difficult as we age, but, interestingly, intelligence does NOT drop. Senior leaders have immense storehouses of information they can pass along to others in their organizations. If you can transfer the knowledge and collective wisdom that you and your other senior leaders have, that is a tremendous benefit for those who follow. Coaching, teaching, and developing your people is a natural transition.
- Develop a “bucket list” with your spouse. What are the things you've always wanted to do in life but for which you’ve never had time? Maybe you've never seen Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon. Maybe you've always wanted to fly or sail. Perhaps you’ve dreamed of seeing a World Series. While you're still young and fit enough to enjoy these things, do them. While some contractors will find this hard to believe, there is enjoyment in life in places other than work!
- Cut back your work schedule NOW. Cut back your work time NOW in order to give yourself time to adapt. You're going to spend more time at home, traveling, and with family, so cull your work schedule so you can ease these things into your lifestyle. Otherwise, you'll view family time and bucket-list items as intrusions into your work schedule, and that's neither the message you want to send nor a prescription for aging gracefully and happily.
As part of your planning, take a few minutes to ponder the values and virtues that you want people to talk about after you’re gone. Think less about your resume, career, and LinkedIn profile, and more about the stuff that people talk about in eulogies. Thinking about the values and legacy you’d like to leave and how you might be eulogized is a powerful exercise that will help inform your bucket list, how you direct your remaining energy, and how you elect to orient yourself in the sunset of your career.