Grey hair. Bad Eyes. Weak Knees. And Inspired By Work!

August 20, 2013


Last week, LinkedIn posted initial results from the LinkedIn Inspiration Index and one finding caught my eye -- the older we get the more inspired we are by our work.

These surveys usually leave me with more questions than answers. So in this case I’m wondering if older folks are wearing glasses more rose-tinted than younger people or if are they really feeling more inspired at work. After all, the idealism of youth seems like it would be tied to inspiration.

We know from research conducted by my organization,, that significant numbers of people over 45 work in settings where the focus of their work is on the greater good. About 9% of them have actually switched to such work after they turned 40. And this kind of work can be particularly inspiring. I wonder if this is also the case for younger LinkedIn members.

I’ve spent the past six months touring the country to talk about encore careers – later in life work fueled by a passion to make a difference in our communities. Along the way I met scads of people in their 50s, 60s and beyond who were digging in to new kinds of work that creates a social impact. Some lived their entire lives that way – as social workers, teachers, activists and committed volunteers, but were ready to hand over the reins to newcomers and tackle new challenges.  Like Hubie Jones, who sees later life as a time to guide and mentor young people. As he says, “If you don’t use your talents, your brains, and your body, you will go into atrophy.”

Others were like me, corporate refugees who decided to chase a life with more meaning. Like Beth Kempner who ditched a big job in advertising because she thought there had to be a better way to use her talents than marketing sugary cereal to kids. After completing an Encore Fellowship designed to help private sector professionals move into the nonprofit world, she’s now head of communications for the Center for Employment Opportunities which helps ex-offenders find new jobs.

When I talk to either type, there’s one common thread – the idea that time is running out. I’m not at all convinced that older people have a lock on inspiration, but they do hear the sound of the ticking clock in a way that raises the stakes. Which can make it feel pretty urgent to seek inspiration in new ways. That’s probably why another 30% of adults over age 45 are hoping to shift to an encore career in the near-term future.

If you’re looking to be more inspired by work, here’s a few things I’ve learned from talking to folks who’ve found inspiration in an encore career.

  1. Do a values check-in. If your work doesn’t align well with your personal values, you’re not going to feel inspired even if the work is a good match for your skill-set. Start spiffing up your LinkedIn profile because it’s time to start looking for a better fit.
  2. Take the long view. If you’re craving work with more meaning, recognize that these transitions take a long time. In the meantime, see #4 below. If you are lucky enough to be doing work that matters to you and to the world, recognize that even the most significant work doesn’t feel inspiring every minute.
  3. Mentor someone. Passing along knowledge is usually thought of as helpful to the person on the receiving end, but the benefits run both ways.
  4. Look outside of your job. In the current economy, you may want to hold onto your job for security and find your inspiration in what you do on the side. Make sure to volunteer or do some skills-based consulting. Those activities will help with a short dose of inspiration; but they will likely also lead you to ideas and contacts for more meaningful work.
  5. Stretch yourself in new ways.  Even the most inspiring work can get old after you’re in it too long. If you feel like you’re solving the same problem again and again, find new ways to challenge yourself. Brush up on your skills, take a course in something that intrigues you, and consider pivoting either to a new role in the same field or a new area to ply your existing skills.

How have you been able to inject inspiration into your work?