Are you among the 75 million people in the U.S. who are approaching the traditional retirement age? Or are you a little younger and looking to change careers midlife to do something more meaningful? Are you healthy and interested in staying mentally and physically active? In any case, an encore career that is socially beneficial and provides you with purpose could be for you. An encore career can also provide you with direct mental and physical benefits.
Scientific studies have shown that people who unselfishly help others are happier and live longer. Also, neurologists tell us that to keep our brains young we must challenge them by learning new and different things. Volunteering abroad to help poor people in Africa definitely allows you to learn new things and experience cultural diversity that you could never have imagined, much more than just education or adventure travel!
Our Encore in Africa
When Rick and I left successful careers in Silicon Valley, we moved to Swaziland to volunteer for an organization called TechnoServe whose tagline is “Business Solutions to Poverty.” Since more than 75% of the world’s poor are smallholder farmers, helping the poor means you will probably work in agriculture. Rick did some work in the pork industry which has fascinating terminology. Did you know that when pigs are born they are called suckers? After 6 weeks they become weaners (not wieners yet!). Males grow into porkers and then baconers, depending on size, before getting shipped off to the butcher. Females become breeding sows who have 9.8 suckers every six months for three years. Then they become tired sows (no wonder) and have smaller litters, so they get shipped to the butcher and become wieners / hot dogs. With an education in engineering and business and a career in high technology, Rick could never have imagined knowing this stuff.
On the other hand, rather than learning totally new areas, I was able to apply my previous experience to new areas: both in youth entrepreneurship programs (VP at Junior Achievement (JA) of Silicon Valley) and marketing (my high tech career). Namely, I helped to establish JA of Swaziland and expand Young Women in Enterprise and “upscaling” small businesses in Kenya.
Our 6 months in Swaziland, then one year in Nairobi, Kenya were wonderful experiences. We felt that we were doing work with a purpose, and we had a great adventure. In fact, we were so inspired that we wrote our book From Silicon Valley to Swaziland, How One Couple Found Purpose and Adventure in an Encore Career to encourage our fellow baby boomers to consider doing something similar. Our message is pretty simple: We weren’t special people with unique backgrounds that allowed us to do this; we had a great time while doing socially beneficial work; and so can you.
If you’re inspired to consider an encore career, you don’t have to volunteer in Africa. You can work in a local hospital or a school in a poor neighborhood. Opportunities to help people who are less fortunate are everywhere. However, as you choose your encore career, we have some advice on career changes, especially identifying a career that helps people:
- First of all, do something that will excite you. It’s a new time in your life. Don’t be constrained by the old rules that limited you in the past. If you’ve always had a wild dream, now is the time to go for it. Have an adventure. Limit your risk, but be open and embrace to new and different experiences. And don’t feel bad if you’re enjoying yourself while you’re helping others. It’s okay to have fun and adventure while saving the world.
- Second, do something that makes you feel good about yourself. As we age, many people begin to think beyond the next raise or promotion to other dimensions of their lives. They ask, “Have I lived a good life? Am I proud of what I’ve done?” After thinking about these questions, those of us who have been fortunate in our lives want to give back something to society. As mentioned above, “giving back” also has personal benefits such as greater happiness. So if you want to be happy, help others. There are lots of ways to do it. Pick your own way because this isn’t about what others think about you; what’s important is what you think about yourself.
- Third and last is to use your skills, although in a different way or environment. Even though you’re trying something very new, you will be surprised as to how effective you can be with the basic skills that you take for granted. Most people in the world don’t know what you know, whether it’s basic business, technology, teaching or just how to solve problems and get things done. You’d be amazed at how valuable your skills can be to people who don’t have them.
To get started just google “volunteer (insert your profession or skill)” or “adults volunteer abroad” to look for local, regional or overseas opportunities. Everyone knows that there are volunteer jobs for doctors and teachers, but did you know that there is a Plumbers Without Borders organization? It doesn’t matter what your skills are; there is a place where you can use them to help people.
So in conclusion, just do it. Be adventurous, have fun, do something good for the world and feel good about yourself.