Transitions can be tough, especially for high-achieving leaders and entrepreneurs. One of the most challenging transitions is moving from working full-time to working less, working differently, or not working at all. For business owners, this often means selling the business, changing roles, or handing the reins to a family member or manager. Even if you are not navigating this specific change, I hope you will read on, as all transitions follow similar patterns associated with letting go of the old and leaning into the new.

Welcome to the Third Quarter of Life

In my work with business leaders who are in what I call the Third Quarter of Life*, I’ve found they often can’t accurately predict what life will be like post-work. They must take the leap and from this new perspective, discover what a satisfying mix of activities looks like. Most find that the initial relief and joy post-business sale and retirement don’t last and that in the midst of bounty, still, something is missing. To find lasting happiness in the Third Quarter requires two common qualities: 1) nonattachment – knowing your identity transcends your work, net worth, roles, and physical capabilities, and 2) equanimity – accepting everything that comes with change.

Micro Existential Breakdowns

You might think, “Letting go and accepting everything? That’s easy for you to say; you’re not going through this yourself.” Well, actually, I am. I’m in my 60s, fully in my Third Quarter, and although I have no immediate plans to change my work rhythm, life has shifted. I’m four years into empty nesting, feeling the aging process physically and mentally, and possibly five years away from significantly reducing my work schedule.

I get waves of anxiety about what I’ll do if I’m not working. I create spreadsheets to help me plan how I will donate my time and talent. How will I curate a meaningful life in my 70s and beyond? More spreadsheets determine if I have enough money to retire (a topic for a future blog post). Then the fear: what if my mind deteriorates in my 70s? These are existential thoughts and questions with no right answers, yet there are ways to find peace amidst the angst and confusion. 

Preparation Helps

While it is hard to accurately imagine life on the other side of a transition, it’s not a bad idea to try to prepare for what’s coming. Here are three things you can do to prepare for your Third Quarter transition:

  1. Develop Multiple Plans: Know thyself and plan accordingly. Inventory what you like, don’t like, value, and need, and create options for how you will fill in the gaps left by working less. Create a succession plan if necessary. Bounce these plans off your YPO forum, mentors, or coaches.
  2. Tend to Relationships: Busy work lives can result in neglected friendships and primary relationships. Assess the health of these relationships, especially post-empty nest if you expect to be home more and doing less, invest now in those relationships that are important to you.
  3. Find Meaning: For some, meaning comes from being a grandparent; for others, it is mentoring, teaching, serving through non-profits, writing, learning new things, or having a creative hobby. Finding meaning is paradoxical in that we don’t need to do anything to feel our lives have meaning. Our very existence says our life has meaning, and we can feel that meaning in very simple ways, such as a 30-second interaction with a stranger or by watching a sunset.

Write Your Own Story

There is a lot of research that tells us that our 60s and 70s can be the happiest years of our lives. During these years, those who are privileged have less responsibility, more financial security, and have stopped trying to impress others. Making the most of the unique transitions that occur in this period takes courage. To manage through uncertainty, we put pressure on ourselves to get the ideal plan in place so we retire “right.” Our culture places so much significance on work and money that we become conditioned to believe that we are what we do, and letting go of our roles feels vulnerable.

The gift of the Third Quarter is that we begin to realize that we get to write our own story. We can choose to stop running in what one of my teachers, Cathy Folkers, calls a “comparathon” and define for ourselves the meaning of success. In the end, our lives are what Sam Harris refers to as a series of lotteries; some we won, some we lost. Our lives are what they are, and we had a lot less control over them than we think. This determinist perspective is the best way I have learned to cultivate equanimity. My Third Quarter mantra is “You can’t mess this up.”

From Doing to Being

Achievers often over-identify with their accomplishments, roles, and material accumulations. This is a recipe for unhappiness. Update your beliefs so you can shift, as author Anne Lamott says, from being ‘a captain’ to ‘a lighthouse.’ Captains are about doing; lighthouses are about being, yet both roles are valuable in their own way.

Detaching from doing to simply being is the gateway to understanding who you really are—your essential nature, the foundation from which you can live in peace. During transitions, find that foundation to stay grounded. When you hit those micro existential breakdowns, slow down, close your eyes, take a breath, connect to your essence and the present moment, and simply be.

Navigating transitions, especially moving into the Third Quarter of Life, can be daunting. Yet with  preparation, resilience, and a deep connection to your true self, you can find meaning and satisfaction in this new phase. Embrace the journey with confidence and trust in your ability to create a fulfilling life beyond your professional career.

*Taken from the Hindu teaching of the four ashramas. The first is the student stage, lasting from birth to age 30, a time of learning and formal education; the second is the householder stage, which goes from age 30 to 60 and can consist of building a family, building a career, and acquiring material possessions; the third stage is when we are 60 to 80 years old and dedicate ourselves to developing our spiritual life in preparation for aging, letting go of our identity related to work, family roles, and status, becoming an empty-nester, teacher, and elder; the fourth stage, starting at 80, is the stage of becoming totally devoted to your spiritual life and letting go of all attachments, being fully prepared for death.