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“Encore Careerists” Are Good at Finding “ALivelihood”

By Karma Kitaj, PhD

I just launched a cable access TV show, called “ALivelihood: New Careers As We Age.” (see Finding people to interview has again brought me to the recognition of how important it is for us to work at something meaningful, whether paid or volunteer. The people who’ve been nominated for the show often are engaged in what Marc Freedman calls “encore careers,” based on his acclaimed book Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life. Freedman’s view of encore careers suggests a coming together of personal fulfillment and social good.

Some of the people scheduled to appear on “Alivelihood” are:

  • A real estate developer who began to do community service in poverty-stricken parts of the US, such as neighborhoods devastated by Hurricane Katrina,
  • A former computer analyst who traveled to E. Africa and fell in love with a middle school, which she now raises funds for,
  • A former professor who does fund-raising for an NGO that provides safe havens and advocacy for young women sold into sexual slavery in the US,
  • A former library administrator who runs a volunteer sister-city project with a poor community in Central America.

As I interviewed my first guest last week, I was struck with the heartfelt joy she exuded when she described her experiences with the victims of Katrina, of getting to know “Red,” a 77-year old man with a heart condition, who was trying to single-handedly rebuild his broken house in the 9th Ward of New Orleans. Of the process of helping him frame and sheetrock the house that he and his family had lived in for decades, still in shambles now years after the hurricane. Of her having the opportunity to participate in Red’s “return home” for a short time, before his heart condition made it impossible to live alone.

But, I would venture to guess that not all of us are so aware of our “calling” and so ready to give of ourselves in this generous way. Finding one’s calling … some call it our “life purpose,” can be hidden, elusive. It can get lost in our habits, in our need for security, for familiarity. It can take back seat to our anxieties about earning enough income to cover our expenses. We can easily persuade ourselves that our calling is unrealistic, won’t give us the satisfaction we think it might. We don’t want to upset the balance of our routine. Or we convince ourselves that we can live vicariously through experiencing others’ encore careers (That sounds like a likely rationale for my doing this TV show!).

Finding one’s calling seems to me to be like finding “peak experiences.” In Gregg Levoy’s book, Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, he writes “we bring on ourselves a sense of rapt attention … of departure from ego, from time and place.” We lose ourselves; we lose track of time, as psychologist Csikszentmihalyi describes in his research about “Flow.”

When experimenting with a possible calling, Levoy asks us to consider these questions:

  • Did I feel more awake?
  • Did I have a flood of energy?
  • Was there a sense of rightness to my actions?
  • Did I have a surprising acceptance of performing mundane activities?
  • Did my enthusiasm falter?
  • Did I feel gratitude … for being alive and useful?
  • Did my friends say they haven’t seen me so cheerful in a long time?

When I face the doom and gloom stories of our falling-off-the-cliff economy (as Warren Buffett recently described it), I am inspired by the work that many encore careerists do. Of their willingness to sacrifice their time, money, and energy to help others. I bet what they get out of it much exceeds what they give away. And I bet it gives them a sense of “aliveness,” of a livelihood that makes them feel vibrant and alive!