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second careers

Today's so-called retirees aren't settling for the quiet life. Many are starting new businesses, trying out new vocations or taking on consulting roles in fields where they were once employed full-time.

Shifting gears at any age takes courage, planning and, in many cases, some trial and error. Investing in a new career can be costly – in terms of time, effort and emotional equity. So before changing lanes, here are some suggestions about how to kick the tires and possibly even test drive a potential career change.

Shadow someone

Find someone who is already doing the work you would like to do who would be willing to let you shadow them for a day – or ideally, longer. Observe, ask questions and see what a real "day in the life" of your potential new career might look like. If you can find more than one person to shadow, you will get a fuller picture. If you don't have the contacts yourself, ask others in your network whether they would introduce you to someone they know.

Take a course

If your new career would require some retraining but you are not yet sure whether this is a good choice for you, see whether you can sign up for just a class or two to start. If it feels right, then continue with the program. I did this with my coaching education many years ago. I started off with a few courses, then went the whole nine yards once I knew it was something I wanted to invest in more fully.

Talk to those in the know

Also on the retraining front, make sure you talk to admissions officers to see whether they can put you in touch with people already in the field, such as professors and graduates. It's important to connect with such people to hear different perspectives before you dive into something that may not be a good fit for you.

Start small

There can be great merit to trying out a miniature version of a new career. If feasible, try working at it part-time, freelancing or pursuing your interest as a side venture. This will give you a chance to get a feel for the work and learn the ropes without committing fully from the get-go. See more in my article: How to develop that dream job without losing focus on the day job.

Volunteer strategically

Try out your new career with a strategic volunteer assignment that will expose you to the field you are considering. This will provide an opportunity to try on the work, learn about your field of interest and potentially build up some experience, contacts and confidence in a new area.

Create your own internship

If you have the time and resources, you can offer to work either for free or a modest fee to a startup organization or charity for a set period of time. This might lead to something bigger. At a minimum, it will give you a feel for the work and some experience.

Attend a conference

If you have the resources to attend a professional conference in the field, do so. This will help orient you to the issues and, if you network strategically, you can make some valuable contacts.

Network, network, network

The more people you can talk to in the field, the more likely you are to learn whether this is the right fit for you. Make sure you are creating and seizing all meaningful opportunities to connect with people who can help you explore your potential career further.

Ask the tough questions

Think hard about the questions you would like to ask – including the tough ones – to determine whether this will indeed be a fruitful career choice for you.

For instance: What are the biggest challenges someone like myself might face? What is the biggest surprise – good or bad – about this field you wish you knew when you started? How feasible is it to get meaningful work in this field if you are new and at my stage of life?

If you put your mind to it, you should be able to come up with 20 more questions.

By investing some time and effort now, you're more likely to end up with a fulfilling second career than a nightmare retirement.

Eileen Chadnick (@Chadnick) is a work-life and leadership coach and principal of Big Cheese Coaching in Toronto. She is the author of Ease, a book offering strategies to cope in times of "crazy busy."

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