There is not much time left.
You may be 50, or 64 or 32 when it hits you in the gut that life is finite and if you're going to make a contribution to this world, you'd better start making it.
In midlife, we reassess. We ask ourselves how we want to spend our time. What is significant? What matters?
Sometimes we have change thrust upon us. Other times, we choose to steer toward change.
Whatever the catalyst, the three people in this story stopped to examine their lives, then took a step in a different, scary, exciting — and rewarding — direction.
Making a difference
Fiona MacLeod chose to walk away from a career most people only dream about. As a senior leader with global oil company BP, MacLeod transformed businesses around the world.
Why do an about-face when you're within shouting distance of the top?
"I got to 40-plus and realized I wanted to consciously choose and design my next phase," she said. "I wanted my next 20 years to be about contributing as widely as possible to the not-for-profit sector."
Today MacLeod, now living in Scotland, is on the board of Women's World Banking, which helps the world's poorest people through microfinance lending (read stories at swwb.org). She leads workshops for CEOs of nonprofits, and volunteers for charities in the United States and Britain. "It might sound like a lot, but it's actually very freeing, as everything I do, I choose to do.
"The biggest thing my life change has given me is choice, and time to act on those choices. My path was paved with good intentions. I wanted to turn those into action! We only get one life, and I wanted to give time to causes I care about."
CEOs in other companies tell MacLeod she's wasting her skills. She thinks she's making a bigger difference, and leveraging those skills to best advantage as a global volunteer leader. When she calculated sponsorships, investments and personal donations she has been responsible for in 2010, MacLeod realized that it added up to more than $1 million raised for her chosen charities.
The positives of her life change include the chance to make a broad impact around the world.
The negative? "Much less money!" she said. "I have very high earning power, and some days I think I've left money on the table. … Then I see the difference I can make in the lives of the world's poorest women. That counts for a lot of dollars.
"I think of it as the joy of making midlife choices, not a midlife crisis!"
Fiona MacLeod's advice:
Take your time. People mistakenly feel they need to justify change by taking immediate action.
Recognize that you can press into reverse gear any time you choose.
Do, then learn, then do. Once you undertake action, reflect. Ask yourself, "Am I making a positive difference? Am I having fun?" You don't change your life to have drudgery.
Choose three people you trust. Don't ask them, "What would you do?" Ask them, "I want to get A, B and C from life. What options should I consider?" and "What evidence makes you think I'd be suited to this?"
Read "Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment" (McGraw-Hill, $21.95) by Harvard professor Tal Ben-Shahar.
Meet with a life or career coach.
Headhunters can help, but be clear and specific about what you want. Then let the dogs loose! You want the right thing, not just anything.
Finding the silver lining
"Life was sailing along smoothly until five years ago, when my marriage abruptly ended and put me in a tailspin," says Lisa Fairchild of Pleasanton, Calif.
Fairchild was 48 and had been married 18 years. Life had guided her to be daughter, girlfriend, wife, mother. "That was how I identified myself, as a partner. I was in the business of being my husband's wife and my child's mother."
But her son, then 15, didn't need her as much, and she wasn't working. The forces that had guided her — work, spouse, child — were gone.
"I had to be in the business of finding out who I was," Fairchild said. "I needed to provide for myself, I needed to heal myself. I knew I didn't want to go back to an office."
She hired a life coach, then became one herself. Today she and her former coach, Carol Satterlee, own Family on the Edge (familyontheedge.com), a practice certified by the International Coach Federation. She coaches families, couples, singles seeking relationships, and adults seeking midlife purpose.
"Only because of my divorce have I learned who I am," Fairchild says. "The hard knocks can be when life dramatically changes for the better. I'd always been a strong, capable woman. Now I use that strength to have the life I want."
Fairchild's advice: "Be willing to look at (difficulty) as an opportunity for incredible things to happen."
Baby steps, then a leap
Lawrence McCarthy was in his 30s when he realized his career, instead of engaging him, was a wrong-way street. A civil engineer in Washington, D.C., he researched safety for the highway administration.
He liked that his work was designed to help reduce traffic accidents. But the statistical minutiae of the daily tasks drained his passion.
So he started his midlife change with the baby step of exploring college classes — and went on to eventually earn a degree in early childhood development.
In 1988, he was able to leave the highways and become a teacher in the preschool at The American University, working with children of students and faculty.
He knows his major midlife shift of gears was right.
The difference between researching highway statistics and teaching 4-year-olds is admittedly huge.
"Working face to face, hours at a time, with 4-year-olds, you see the effect you have," McCarthy said. "It's rewarding and humbling, and ultimately it matters to everybody involved."
The scary part was potential low pay. With most child care jobs, he said, "I could not make that choice because of the pay scale. I was fortunate to land in a university setting, where pay scales are top of the line."
Two decades into his "new" career, he sees no negatives.
McCarthy's advice: To others contemplating midlife change, he says, "Do what you want. The career you chose years ago doesn't lock you in."