Encore.org has taken to the masses the idea of contributing to the welfare of others after age 50. The organization uses social marketing to foster the important notion that a generation is headed toward retirement at the very time when society needs their efforts, thinking, and passion most. I have personally benefited from my association with them as a Purpose Prize Fellow in 2013 and 2014. However, fellowship or not, their simple message about older people considering their next act is powerful.
As I have thought about what I will do after I leave the agency I founded over a decade ago, I employed the process I first used in 2002 by naming a Board for Myself. This group of colleagues and friends met with me over a four month period to consider the question of my encore. I selected board members using a set of criteria I had for the board as a whole. I wanted a board that would be diverse in terms of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, economic background, career, and geography. Every member would need to be assertive and able to play well with others. I started with a list of 10 people, aiming to find six who would agree. Because no one I asked turned down the offer, I had seven board members before I knew it.
The process of a Board for Myself involved whole group and individual meetings that reviewed my career and personal development, finances, aspirations, commitments and health. Members asked questions and offered insights. They provided me with challenges and recommendations for action between meetings. I wrote a blog shared only with them that offered additional detail about items we discussed in group meetings and updates about my follow-up on their assignments.
During the second group meeting, a couple of board members encouraged me to take a beach vacation to contemplate my future. When it became clear that the thought of lying around for a week could bring on hives, the group’s creativity clicked in and an alternative was found. Since I love to walk, the assignment became for me to let my mind wander as I walked five miles a day, noticing over time what it was that my mind delivered.
Within two weeks a review of my apparently random thoughts showed this: I am reliably thrilled by instances when community comes together and works; similarly, I am reliably disappointed when it does not. I found example after example in my list of random thoughts of elegant solutions being found when small and large groups addressed situations. For example, I recalled my joy at going to a local retail business hours before they opened to cheer on their staff in a United Way campaign gathering. The assembled group was largely working class people who stocked shelves, cleaned, and provided customer services. They were interested in each other’s welfare, the well-being of people in greater need, the city in which we live, and the national company for which they work. In hindsight, I am pretty sure that each person there also harbored other more selfish interests; but their community interests readily showed.
Conversely I am also reliably disappointed when community does not come together. Disregard for those around us, litter, chronic disrepair, inhospitable behaviors — these all rattle me. Even now, I fight the urge to fill this post with numerous examples.
With that topic in mind, I would be able to more clearly identify what I would next do in my professional life. Just as I have previously landed on pedagogy, psychology, systems, LGBT people, population health, and health disparities, I would now address community both as a student and teacher. I will do this through reading, researching, writing, speaking, consulting, planning, and coaching.
Unlike my last 30 years of work, this encore will not involve supervising staff or daily office work. My Board for Myself was most clear about avoiding the constraints that come with both of these. While I greatly enjoy developing staff, teaching the heuristics of change, and instilling the hope that comes with careful planning, the time these things take removes me from fulfilling other aspects of my work interests.
During this process, many other issues of daily life called for my attention. The most pressing was the challenges with my husband’s health. He was hospitalized regularly during this planning time and then, as I was ready to announce my encore, he died somewhat unexpectedly. The grief has been relentless, but I have been able to notice that encores need also to consider the realities of aging and health. As we age, we experience deaths of different people in our lives, experience the deaths differently as well. We are more likely caregivers and supports to people who have impairments. We are more likely to be the ones whose job it is to increase their access to society. An encore that fails to address these realities can fall flat.