Fiona MacLeod on top of Ben Nevis in Scotland, Britain's tallest mountain. On this climb, MacLeod and her team raised $25,000 for breast cancer care. (HANDOUT / January 25, 2011)

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 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.