Aspen current thinking column


Spring 2013

January Current Thinking Column

Monday, January 30, 2017

Life Transitions and Planning

by Leslie Dashew

Nowadays, we live longer and are typically healthier than our parents were at the same point in their lives. With that perspective, we have more active years in our lives than our “role models.” This creates a different, larger book in which we can write the story of our life—one for which we have very little preparation. Thus, it is useful to think of our lives in terms of “chapters” that have their own individual timeframes associated with them, rather than the fixed, prescribed stages of adolescence, career and retirement.

I once gave a talk in Bermuda entitled “Health, Wealth and Happiness: Can We have it all?” The answer to the question is yes—we can have it all, but maybe not at the same time. Some of our goals may be sequential. With our lives being longer, marriage and children sometimes happening later, care for our elders or boomerang kids continuously transpiring, and leadership transition occurring earlier than we may like, the chapters of our lives might have all the activities we envisioned, but just at different times.

I believe that the earlier we begin this process of documenting our dreams and clarifying our purpose, the easier we will find these transitions. Women who want a career and children need to think about their biological clocks. Men and women who want to travel and be creative, as well as have a secure lifestyle, need to think about how they picture the type of travel and what employment provides that security as they take their steps into careers. Family business leaders who want to see their business legacy continue must thoughtfully plan the preparation of successors and their own exit strategy to coordinate developmental stages and multiple generations’ dreams. 

I know of two such men who had passions that they put aside for a while in order to develop lucrative careers. One studied painting in college, but chose a business route, running many and ultimately becoming a business advisor. In his 60s, he returned to painting as a focus of his life and blossomed in his creativity. The other man had a strong passion for helping children, and in his “spare time,” developed philanthropic initiatives for them. As he turned over the reigns of his business, he jumped in with both feet and hands to help kids. 

Entrepreneurs, in particular, have a hard time transitioning out of an active business life. Their identities are so intertwined with their businesses that they typically lack significant engagement outside of work. Many desire to turn over the reigns of the business to a successor, but find it difficult to feel significant and fulfilled without their business leadership roles.

Clarity of Purpose, Vision and Values

As we go through the chapters of life, our purpose, vision and values may adjust with our experience, accomplishments and growth. For example, an individual who grows up without financial security may value financial security and work to create that in his/her career. In fact, we have often heard men say that their purpose in life is to “provide for their family.” But what happens when you accomplish that financial security and your kids are doing well on their own? Then, what is your purpose? Is your greatest value still financial security or is it now free time to explore the world and/or to help others? 

Those of you who have read my work in the past may recall that I have written about the importance of purpose and vision. These define why we are here (purpose) and where we are headed (vision). How we go about that journey is described by our values (saving, because we value security, spending on art, if we value aesthetics, skydiving if we value adventure and thrills, etc.). 

As I reflect on my mission (My mission in life is to help people utilize, develop and appreciate their capabilities and those of the people whose lives they touch), it has been pretty stable from youth through now. My vision of life has adjusted with time as have some of my values. Not too long ago I created a new vision statement for this stage of my life and it is pulling me into a future as an “elder.” This vision statement helps remind me of the chapter of life I am moving into rather than the one I am leaving behind. My vision statement is:

To be a financially secure, physically fit, respected elder advisor who is centered at home with my healthy husband, working when I want, taking pictures, writing and publishing books with photos, poems and wisdom, hanging out in my garden, traveling for fun, visiting my family and friends, supporting causes on an ad hoc basis both financially and with advice, and having gatherings of friends, colleagues and clients. 

There are aspects of this which are coming along nicely and others, like being centered at home and not traveling as much for business, which I have not attained! But it is still a work in progress. Vision statements should be aspirational, not something already attained. 

We now know from neuroscience, that the clearer our images are of what we wish to attain, the greater the probability it is that we will do so. As such, at whatever stage in life you find yourself, consider the following questions in helping to clarify your personal purpose (mission), values and vision: 

1. Purpose/Mission: Why do you believe you were born and what are you supposed to accomplish in this lifetime? What would really disappoint you if you didn’t personally accomplish it? (Hint: think of a verb—e.g. to create, to help, to foster, to make). Consider what others would say at your funeral if they said you died contently with what you had accomplished. 

2. Values: What is important to you about how you live your life? (Hint: think adverbs and adjectives, as well). A value is that which is important to you (e.g. not being wasteful, being helpful, having fun).

3. Vision: What are your aspirations for the next chapter of your life (to be…, to do…, to create…, to have…) that would be truly fulfilling to you? This is a great time to brainstorm and not censor yourself. Write down whatever comes to you. Then think: “If I completed this chapter of my life and I haven’t done x, y or z, I would be really disappointed.” What are those thoughts? If you have many, prioritize them. For some people, it might be to have children. For others, it would be to change occupations; for still others, it may be to see the South Pacific. If it isn’t in your vision statement, it may be off of your radar screen and thus, not as likely to be accomplished. 

Whose life is it, anyway?

Many people find themselves initially saying “this is not what is expected of me.” Some people feel it is difficult to dream. I recall one woman who came to my “Women in Family Business” program. When we would do visioning exercises, she would say “I can’t dream.” Finally, one day, she realized that a dream of hers was to hike in the Pyrenees Mountains. She wrote it down and described what she envisioned the experience to be like if it were ideal. Several years later, she sent me photos of herself on that hike! She said “I can dream!!” For most of her life, she reacted to what others expected of her in her roles as daughter, wife, mother, sister or employee. Because those roles were so consuming, she didn’t allow herself the luxury to dream. Many of us have obstacles to dreaming as well.

But whose life is it? When do you get the chance to move proactively into the next chapter? Each of our transitions in life is easier and more fulfilling if we have given ourselves the opportunity to put ourselves on the pages of the chapter. It may not all happen on the timetable we would desire, but we enhance the probability of actualizing the dream when we give ourselves permission and opportunities to define it. 

Dream on! 


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