A few years ago we visited with a family friend who had just retired. At the height of his career, he had held a C-Suite position at a bank and been a major mover and shaker in his community. He and his wife had relocated with their two rescue dogs to a planned community on the low-country coast of South Carolina. We sat sipping cocktails in his beautiful home – watching the sun set between the cattails on the marsh.
“I call this ‘the Island of Previously Important People’,” he said.
The “island” catered to wealthy retirees, who wanted to live in comfort and beauty, but not on a golf course. On a given day, he might find himself working in the community garden with a former hedge fund manager. Or he might find himself eating at the local dining hall with a former executive from a Fortune 100 company.
The island had two unspoken cultural norms: shed pretense and respect anonymity. Maybe you’d commanded tremendous respect. Maybe you’d held great power. Maybe you had access to the finest things in life. But the dream life involved letting all of that go in favor of the simple things. Locally grown food, kind neighbors, a nice view, the companionship of your dogs.
“At first you might sneak in a google search or two. But you would never let on that you know who someone was in their former life,” he said with a bit of mirth. “After living here for a while – you stop. You realize people are just people. Grandparents. Gardeners. Neighbors.”
When we left – I kept playing with the idea of that island. It was of course attractive – and also a little familiar, but for very different reasons than what my retired friend described.
I related to it – not because I was vacationing on the Island but because I felt marooned on it. My own mid-career transition was causing an identity crisis. I wasn’t Jimmy Buffett in Margaritaville…I was Tom Hanks in Cast Away.
You see, after dedicating years to building my career, I had become accustomed to the ‘Island of Increasingly Important People.’ It might sound arrogant, but it was part of my identity.
For twenty years, I had worked in a beloved field on an issue that I cared about. Starting in low-level service jobs, I had gained a front-row view of the inequity of abortion access in the US and passion for de-stigmatizing abortion. I busted my butt to get into UC Berkeley’s Masters in Public Health Program and graduated with honors. I had the luck of finding my way into an amazing research role at UCSF that afforded me mentorship, independence and helped me make a name for myself in the field of reproductive health. I attended the same conferences year after year – first as an attendee, then as a presenter and finally as a keynote speaker. I’d raised the funds to spin-off my research program into a nonprofit organization. Our work gained a nationally recognized profile in newspapers and magazines like Cosmo and Elle.
But slowly, like the boiled frog, I had become burnt-out, confused and unhappy. And eventually I stopped growing.
When I finally decided to set sail into a new coaching and consulting career – I was excited about the freedom, independence and flexibility. I embarked with a sense of joy. Embracing the future.
But I was unprepared for the total loss of place, position and identity that came with leaving my former career behind. I had forgotten that big decisions always create tradeoffs. Adventure displaces routine and certainty. Independence displaces a sense of belonging. Trying new things…well, you’re no longer an expert.
Same island. Different perspective.
Many of my clients have likewise landed on “the Island of Previously Important People.” Sometimes by choice and sometimes not. Through layoffs, career change, moving cities, divorce, separation, empty-nesting or some combination of these – they find themselves without power, position or title – standing like a castaway scanning the horizon for a better future.
I try to remind them what I gradually came to appreciate from my retired friend’s story. The island is an opportunity that is not to be wasted. It’s a place where your previous experiences do not have to define your future possibilities. It is a place for shedding comparison and feeling the freedom of anonymity. It’s a place to heal, reflect and enjoy the simple pleasures of being present at sunset – without thinking about tomorrow’s deadlines.
If we can embrace it, landing on “the Island of Previously Important People” can actually provide us with the rest, reflection and recovery needed to launch another great adventure.