I recently found myself in conversation with a friend discussing the book I am updating for a second edition. I commented that updating the book had not been a part of my plan for my third act, but it was a professional legacy I could leave. That conversation started me thinking more about my legacy and how I might use my third act to create and define that legacy. I use the term “the third act” to refer to that time after we transition from building a career and/or growing a family (our second act) into an intentionally designed stage in our lives which brings us meaning and purpose, opportunity to engage in our passions, time to reflect and enjoy the everyday pleasures and a sense of appreciation and gratitude for the learning, growth and rewards of our lives. It may mean taking traditional retirement from a job, re-committing to continue a rewarding career but with more balance, starting a new business or becoming a volunteer. The third act is staged and directed by each of us with our own “story”. It begins for most of us sometime between ages 50 and 75.
Endings and Professional Legacy
It has always been important to me to make a contribution and to leave the world a better place…a legacy from the wisdom of my father. But I haven’t really thought about “a legacy” before. Perhaps because leaving something to those who follow me means an ending; and Bill Bridges helped me understand how difficult endings are. Yet, I have already experienced several endings. I took “early retirement” from my corporate internal consulting role which I had planned to do for several years. Yet, a few months before the appropriate birthday, the company did some re-organizing and I was offered an early package. I was of two minds about it: elated to get the package, leave and begin my own practice; and annoyed that I wasn’t in control of the timing and the process of my departure. It was a surprise, too, (I had survived several other re-organizations and downsizings). Then, I realized that my boss knew of my impending birthday, and the re-organization offered more positive opportunities for his function than if I just retired. I hurriedly completed projects, packed my boxes and said my “goodbyes” after almost 15 years in a job I loved. Conscious of Bridges work on endings, I understood my sadness and distress at leaving the familiar place and the people I considered friends and colleagues. But it was still painful. I took a month off to have fun, relax and do some introspection before I launched into setting up my consulting practice. Again harkening to Bill Bridges useful model, the neutral zone was hard as I struggled to find a structure and a discipline to my days not spent with clients. Gradually the new beginning emerged.
My long-time goals were to have more balance in my life between my work and my personal life. I wanted to write, to spend time with friends, travel, teach and give back to my community. Fortunately, I was lucky…as my consulting practice evolved, I was able to have the balance I so desired. I was able to spend personal time in my garden, lunch with friends, travel around the world, volunteer my time including serving on the ODN Board of Trustees. I also had an opportunity to teach at John F Kennedy University in the Masters program for Organizational Psychology. I wrote my book “Consulting on the Inside”. And I had great clients! What I have since defined as my third act was full, rewarding and purposeful.
After teaching several years, I decided it was time to “retire” again. I wanted more personal time with my partner, my family and my grandchildren. This time I gave 6 months notice of my desire to retire. As the time approached, I was aware of my sadness that I would no longer be guiding students toward a career in a field I loved but I was pulled by my own needs and goals too. A few months before my departure, again I was thwarted in my own planned “ending” by administrative decisions to close the department. The last few months were busy and crowded, helping students figure out how to get the classes they needed to graduate.
Creating The 3rd Act Workshop
In both of these experiences of endings, I had little opportunity to reflect on what legacy I might leave to clients, staff members, fellow employees, colleagues or students. I am sure I had some impact on others but I didn’t intentionally consider or plan how I might leave a legacy. I was, however, very conscious of intentionally designing how I wanted this stage of my life to be as I described above. This is the foundation of the third act. I created The 3rd Act Workshop with a professional colleague, Anna Ewins, as we sat over dinner five years ago discussing our intentions for our lives as we slowed our consulting practices and focused more on what we wanted to do replacing the “have to do’s” as Anna has described. We discussed “that the traditional concept of retirement, the one that our parents’ generation had typically followed, wouldn’t work for us, and furthermore, we sensed that we weren’t alone in this sentiment.”
We brought our expertise of change, transition, coaching, life and career planning and learning design to the development of the workshop. What we did is a classic third act…to take expertise and learning from the second act, re-package or re-focus and launch a new direction, a new business, a new passion. We also explored with others, researched the popular media and the academic literature and finding particular interest in the new science of positive psychology and the connection to positive aging. As we designed The 3rd Act Workshop, I realized I was already in my third act and had been for several years. Unfortunately, for personal reasons, Anna had to continue pursuing her second act; but I enjoy my third act with great enthusiasm. I retired from two organizations but I have not retired; I have slowed down my consulting practice, but I am actively involved in select professional activities including offering The 3rd Act Workshops and Coaching with another colleague and creating space every day for the joys that make me smile.
Leaving a Legacy?
In the past, I have often thought of legacy as the remembrance of a person who has died, the personal and, perhaps, professional memories of someone who is no longer with us. Under those circumstances, the legacy is whatever others remember. But more recently, I have come to understand that we can leave a more intentional legacy designed before the end of our lives. Thus, the idea that updating my book on internal consulting, published 10 years ago, is an intentional legacy. It is a concrete and practical way of providing guidance and influencing young professionals who are coming after me. It provides me a way of reflecting again on my own experience, capturing some of the learning from my successes and my failures, and offering some insight and perhaps even some wisdom. Given the challenges of internal consulting in today’s turbulent environment, my hope is that this legacy can contribute to the effectiveness and success of internal consultants as they strive to influence and improve their organizations.
Since I have been thinking about my professional legacy, I realize that, in addition to the book, another professional legacy I am leaving is The 3rd Act Workshops and Coaching. As the bulging demographic of the baby boomers now reaching 60 continues, they will be responding to the question that a colleague, Mary Radu, asks “What are you planning to do with the rest of your life?” She urges us to explore what will make our lives deeper and more meaningful. In researching the work on positive aging for the 3rd Act, we found that investing ourselves in activities outside ourselves, being present with others who need our attention or giving of ourselves to those in need is one of the most significant contributions to healthy aging. Thus I hope The 3rd Act, as one of my legacies, supports the quest of coming mature generations.
Many who are focused on a family legacy put together family trees, document family stories and create family videos to leave for future generations. One of my friends has created a photo book of pictures of her mother, her own life and that of her children as a wonderful legacy gift to her grandchildren. For me at the personal level, the joys that make me smile include spending time with my grandsons, sharing family stories and taking them on adventures. It is my hope that I will leave them memories of their time with Grandma for future guidance and reminiscing. I am thinking about creating what some have called an “ethical will”. I think of it as more of a written document that shares stories, wisdom learned from the experience of my success and failures and a little guidance for those next generations who follow me. In addition, my next third act writing project is to write a historical novel which will include some of the stories of my grandparents.
Another part of my personal legacy is my volunteer contribution to non-profit organizations in my community. In my third act there is more time and I can offer my professional skills to provide support and increase organizational effectiveness. And finally, I will mention my will, the document that many of us think of when we hear the term legacy. It includes my intentions and directions on how to distribute the material and financial resources that remain when I die. Somehow for me, this is the least significant component of my legacy. My material and financial resources bear little connection to the person I am, the contribution I have made to learning, making the world a better place or raising a daughter and influencing her children. For now, I hope my book on internal consulting, The 3rd Act and my personal time spent with family and community organizations are all memorable legacies. And there may be more to come.
What is your legacy? Have you given thought to intentionally creating your professional or personal legacy? Have you already written about your work? Are you teaching and passing on your learning and wisdom to the next generations of students? What will you leave for your family and the generations that follow? What is your third act action plan for your legacy?