“Everybody is doin’ a brand new dance, now,
I know you’ll get to like it if you give it a chance now”
– Carole King/Gerry Goffin: “The Locomotion”
For those of us over 50, that new dance is Entrepreneurship; and it’s a dicey new dance for us if we’ve spent most of our careers in the predictable, stable and familiar corporate environment. Even if we have attained senior management ranks, the prospect of taking a chance on our own venture, depending entirely on ourselves, and forging into unknown territory is uncomfortable at best.
Unfortunately, for those of us who have been downsized by corporate America, or find ourselves with too little retirement savings in the wake of the Great Recession, starting a new business or acting more like an entrepreneur may not be a choice. The new economy is an increasingly free-lance economy, with companies pushing employees out the door and replacing them with contractors whose short term deals help reduce overhead and benefits, and increase corporate flexibility.
We can’t afford to bemoan the fact that the 21st century is a far different business environment from the 20th century that we grew up in. The digital revolution has accelerated the pace of change, and has commoditized and disrupted countless businesses (and is continuing to do so on a daily basis). If we’re having a hard time finding work, it’s because employers are scared. They, too, are dealing with the uncomfortable truth that their businesses may be “downsized” by the marketplace in a very short span of time.
We may not realize it, particularly if our steady paycheck has suddenly evaporated, but we are actually well prepared to take our careers into our own hands, and to stop relying on corporate employers to define our value. Our decades of work and life experience give us a depth and even a “gravitas” that younger workers just don’t have.
“But,” you say, “not everyone is an entrepreneur! I’m not cut out for that sort of life!” Look around you. If you’re suffering and frustrated by the job market; if you’ve been out of work for too long; if you’re being told you’re overqualified for the jobs you’re applying to (if you’re getting called back at all!), I have one question for you: how long are you willing to send out your resume and sit through humiliating interviews? How long are you willing to do the same routine over and over, expecting a different result? Many psychologists would say that sort of thinking is the definition of insanity.
Short of a miracle where hiring managers wake up tomorrow morning and realize what smart, experienced and wise workers we are, our best prescription is to demonstrate that we are resourceful self-starters. We are not dependent on, or waiting for someone else to make us a job offer. We are taking matters into our own hands. Being entrepreneurial in today’s environment is a necessity. It is no longer an option.
I’m not discounting the challenges of starting your own business, nor am I saying that starting your own business is the only way to go. Entrepreneurship comes in many forms, from acting more pro-actively on the job (and creating more value for your employer), to adding a side business, to actually setting up a totally new venture. At every step of the way there are helpful resources available we can use to learn the skills and reap the rewards of entrepreneurship.
In my experience launching my own startup, and also working entrepreneurially within larger organizations, here are 5 steps you can take to get the ball rolling:
1. Stop saying you can’t do it. Take a good look at yourself and your career and your accomplishments. Why, after all these decades in business, are you laboring under a limiting belief that is holding you back from the possibility that you could do things differently? If you are willing to put that belief on hold, and replace it with a belief that you’re willing to at least explore the possibilities, then you are on your way to expanding your awareness of your true potential, and of the opportunities that might be available to you.
2. Listen to everybody. Now that you’re open to something new, ask everybody for feedback about what you should do – and, of course, listen carefully to their answers. Ask family, close friends, trusted co-workers. Questions can be completely direct, or hypothetical. You don’t even have to ask about yourself. You can spark a conversation about entrepreneurship or new businesses, or the challenges of this “new economy” – anything to get the conversation going. Then, pay attention to what people are saying. You will likely learn some valuable insights about how you are perceived, from your strengths to your weaknesses. You may also be surprised to learn what people think you’re best suited for. For example, that hobby or volunteer activity you’ve done for years might be a great jumping off point for an actual business, or a new non-profit.
There are also community and online resources you can tap into to find out more about what you can do, from small business advisories, coaches, and incubators, to trade shows and conferences (many franchise operators start this way), to government programs to successful entrepreneurs who are often happy to share their experiences, tips and tricks.
3. Make peace with your past. Often, the voice inside that tells us we can’t do it is the part of us still smarting from past disappointments or perceived failures. If we’re going to move successfully into the future, we have to reconcile our past mistakes, and actually embrace them so that we can move forward. Our best and strongest intentions will be for naught if we have a conflicting intention that is giving us an opposite message. Take the time to make sure that you are completely aligned with your next steps. This starts with accepting the idea that you did the best you could at the time, and even if you experienced significant setbacks in your career – setbacks from which you may still feel you haven’t recovered – today is a new day. All of your experiences, including these setbacks, have contributed to who you are, and you’ve learned invaluable lessons as a result. So forgive yourself for judging yourself for past mistakes, and wipe the slate clean.
4. Set your criteria. Each of us will have different considerations for starting a new venture, or creating a more effective and meaningful phase in our current work. One of the Boomers I profiled earlier this year, David Levine, was quite clear about how he wanted to start his career reinvention with a franchise business. Among other considerations, he wanted to be in service,not retail, and wanted to take over an existing business that needed help, not start one from scratch. If you’re looking to enhance your in-house position in your current job, look for ways to provide additional value: projects that need help, new initiatives you could propose in your division, colleagues you could mentor. Bottom line: you need to figure out the parameters for your plan, including what suits your personality, what turns you on, who you want to work with, where you see yourself in a year, among others.
5. Start with the easiest thing. One of the most intimidating aspects of starting a new venture or taking a more entrepreneurial attitude at work can be taking that first step. We think that this step has to be something monumental – a big gesture to prove that we are making a change. Wrong! As the old Chinese proverb says, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. If we try to take too big a step, we will likely not take it at all. Make a list of all of the possible things you could do right now to set yourself on this path. Once you’ve worked with steps 1 through 4 above, and come up with a constellation of options, tasks, leads or opportunities, pick the easiest and least intimidating (perhaps even the most fun) one that comes to mind. Start there, and keep going from easy step to easy step. The more steps you choose, the easier the next ones will get. Don’t worry about doing them in order. The important thing is that you’re doing them. Little by little, you will build up a critical mass of accomplishment. Success in this context is not about imposing an artificial sequence to the process.
Change doesn’t happen over night. It’s a gradual process. Start acclimating yourself to change, and it will become easier and easier.
If coach Vince Lombardi were alive today, he might say that entrepreneurship isn’t everything – it’s the only thing. And why not aspire to the dynamism of entrepreneurship? Don’t we want to be self-reliant, independent, generative, confident in our own abilities and pro-active about our future? We’re going to be living longer, and we’re also going to be seeking purpose and meaning as we age. The sooner we get over the false beliefs that we are totally dependent on “the system” for our well-being, the better off we’ll be. We may not have been born as entrepreneurs, but we are infinitely capable of learning new tricks. Our experience and our untapped wisdom are all we need to explore these new possibilities.