That haunting question hits most of us at some point in our careers. Perhaps it's after a great success – or a flop. Perhaps it's at midlife, when we have a long list of achievements but remain unfulfilled. Perhaps it strikes after selling our business. Perhaps as retirement looms ahead – or the day after the retirement party.
It's an important moment, signalling what Bob Buford, a 76-year-old former Dallas businessman, calls halftime in our life. We can seize it, and change our life, adding significance (even if we retain our current job) or we can let it pass by and lose a grand opportunity.
"We all long for significance. We pursue success, achievement and power in the first half of our lives but most people come to a point in midlife where the thrill is gone, the energy from the chase fades, etc. We crave a balance in our lives that is not leaning too far to one side or the other. We find with busyness, we need rest. We find with success, we also need failure. We find with money, we also need meaning. We find with selfishness, we need selflessness," he said in an e-mail interview.
He experienced the feeling when his 24-year-old son died in a tragic swimming accident. Then in his late 40s, he began to think a lot about the brevity of life and how he could contribute more with his talents and gifts in the time he had left. He started to map out what he could do and wrote a book, Halftime, which offered a new concept to life balance.
Halftime is not about retirement. It's not about renouncing your job at an early age to follow your passion or about waiting until you're 65 to pursue purpose. Halftime is a pause in midlife – typically between ages 45 and 60, but he has seen some experience it earlier and some later. It can be triggered by tragedy, a major event such as the sale of a business or a promotion, a relationship breakdown, or, he said, "just simply this longing in your soul that there has got to be more to this life."
Retirement is a prized moment but he warns it's filled with potential shortcomings. "As humans, we are not fulfilled by sitting on the front porch sipping lemonade or playing golf every day. We are made to work, dream, think, innovate, commune, emote, challenge, etc. When we stop doing these things, we begin to die inside. Many people's best contribution to the world came after age 50 – Mother Teresa, Ray Kroc, Billy Graham, Gandhi, Ronald Reagan, etc. I believe a person's 'second half' of life can be the most productive, fulfilling, joyful time of their entire lives," he said.
Halftime makes it sound like all-or-nothing, but it need not be. It just requires recognizing the moment – the need for a new outlet – and shifting your attention and energies, at least to some extent. The Halftime Institute he founded – has mentored some folks who did make a seismic break with their existing career pattern. But others just used their existing platforms – be it work, or community role, or family relationships – to fill needs that had surfaced.
You don't have to make a humongous financial sacrifice. "I still have a penthouse in the city, a country home at the East Texas farm, and a new Lexus. I do not believe it is in keeping with my 'calling' to assume a diametrically different lifestyle from the one I have enjoyed throughout my life. Many people avoid taking the risk for a better second half because they mistakenly think it necessitates a drastic change. Don't make that mistake," he wrote in a manifesto for ChangeThis.
Don't let fear stop you – fear of stepping outside your comfort zone, or fear of what others may think. We are living longer and healthier lives on the whole, so age doesn't have to be a deterrent either.
There is no specific five-step model to follow. He simply said in the interview: "Get clear, get free, get going." Get clear means determining who you are and what you can specifically contribute to this world. Get free means carving out the time to figure this out, securing a coach to help, and putting your finances in order so you can take on the new challenge. Get going: Do something about it.
He believes that when you study your finances, you will find it easier than you imagined to make this commitment. At middle age, financial needs can decline, as mortgages are paid off and the children finish their education. If you have been putting aside some money for savings, you will have a nest egg to call upon.
As with anything, you want to tailor your mission to what you can afford. "No one should irresponsibly jump over his head in pursuit of his halftime dream. Ideally, whatever you choose to do should be sustainable, since you won't have a lasting impact if your endeavour bankrupts you. Again, halftime isn't about money – it's about mission, and once you discover yours, you will find a way to carry it out responsibly. Money follows a good idea," he writes in his manifesto.
You might want to renegotiate your work situation, so you work fewer hours, or downsize yourself, leaving your current employer to start a business more in line with your dreams. His concept of halftime can seem vague but that makes it more flexible, giving us a new way of envisaging careers and responding to doubts about life fulfilment. Get clear, get free, and get going.