In our Encore years – the new term used for those in later life, which is anyone after fifty and now includes me – we are faced with new challenges. For the corporate professional it could be looming forced-retirement or even unexpected retrenchment. For the entrepreneur, it could be the sale of your business to unlock value. For others, it’s health issues. For many women, it’s walking away from a long, unhappy marriage. We must re-invent ourselves or resolve to tackle the challenges with even more vigor, despite failing health and energy. Many silence or numb the small, inner voice urging us to change course.

It’s when we are faced with these challenges that we must face the question of ‘Who am I?’ for the first time. Even for those emotionally intelligent and in touch with their inner world, this question pops up. It can feel like everything we know about ourselves is up in the air, and up for questioning.

It is this question that leads us to identity. Identity is not only who I believe I am or what I believe about myself, but also how I relate socially; where I belong; or whom I associate with. Our identity is linked to our jobs and careers, work environment and society.

The trouble is that we often tie our identity to three beliefs:

I am what I do

I heard a story of a man who on his first day of retirement – got dressed in his work suit to have breakfast with his wife in their kitchen. He didn’t know how not to be outside of what he did for 40 years.

Research points out that men especially, suffer from this complex. If I am no longer the CEO of my company or the Financial Director of the listed group, who am I? Can I live for the rest of my life being just a husband, a dad, a friend or me? Women who take time out to be the primary caregiver for their kids, become invisible to society. Ann Crittenden, writer and Pulitzer Prize nominee tells this story in her book, The Price of Motherhood. She says that someone asked her at a party after she left her job at the Times, ‘Didn’t you use to be Ann Crittenden?’

Our obsession with doing, and being recognised for that doing, can stand in the way of our personal growth and self-acceptance. If we find our esteem in doing, we are in danger of missing real acceptance and love.

In obituaries, little is mentioned of what people did; more is mentioned of the stories they told, the happiness they brought to their relationships and the charity they extended.

The problem with finding identity in work is that at some stage in our Encore years, our circumstances, most probably our health, will fail us. Who are we when we can no longer ‘do’ anything?

I am what I have

Clients have gotten stuck in conversations about a sabbatical or retirement. And when I prod, reluctantly they often admit that the issue is that they haven’t reached their goal. The number. Their life’s work. And hence identity is tied to that number. It is sometimes the sum of a person’s entire life’s success in that one number. It is a comparison with peers and a way to measure success very concretely.

Or it may be that holiday house, the boat or that overseas education goal for the kids.

And then the number or a specific possession stands between them and a different identity. It keeps them captive. It lures them back repeatedly to continue with a second-grade life.

Sometimes it’s not the number, but the control over ‘what I have’. Or the power. When you retire, or take a sabbatical or a career break, you give up the power and control. You must take the leap of faith. Those who believe that they have a high degree of control by either exercising power or obsessing over detailed planning, find the leap challenging. They often obsess over the details of their retirement funding. They are reluctant to take advice when they have always been self-directed.

Retirement, like other major life changes, needs faith in ‘I am enough.’ There is no guarantee that you will have enough or hold onto all your possessions.


I am what other people say about me

Most of us want recognition but some are driven, unbeknown to them, by the need to please others. Women are particularly susceptible to this desire or drive.

When we face Encore, we face the reality of disappointing others because of our choices. For example: we may face upsetting our kids because we decide to sell the family home. Or maybe it’s facing the disappointment of our friends because we pursue our travelling goals. Some must face the judgment of their industry because they decide to close the door firmly by selling out of the company. Whatever, the choices, we are likely to face criticism.

If we are driven by our need for approval, we risk not pursuing what really matters. It needs us to be ok with being alone. It needs us to be fine with doing something for ourselves.

Encore challenges you to pursue solitude. When I am on my own, what do I want?

Encore gives us an opportunity to review our identity. It gives us a chance to review what we have tied our identity to. You can either embrace the opportunity well in advance or you will be forced by the humbling and involuntary stripping of identity through ageing. The choice is yours.

Credit: I developed the idea of the three questions while reading about Henri Nouwens – Dutch Catholic priest, professor and writer.