Second Act: Are You Making a Living Or Making a Difference?

Have you ever heard of the Taiwanese Monkey Trap? It’s a device used to capture monkeys, to make what I imagine is pretty swell monkey stew (maybe also Louisiana-style monkey ribs? I don’t know. </digression>).

Hunters build a box with open wooden slats, and place a banana or a piece of similar sized fruit in it, and make sure it’s clearly visible. They also cut a hole in the box, just big enough for the monkey’s open hand to reach through and grip the bait.

Inevitably, a passing monkey smells or sees the banana and reaches in to pull it out – and the trap is sprung. You see, the opening is only big enough for the monkey to put it’s open hand through. Once he makes a fist or tries to grab something and pull it out, the opening is too small for his closed fist to pass through. So the monkey pulls, thrashes and struggles… to no avail. Sometimes for hours, sometimes for days, but he never lets go of the banana.

Eventually the hunters come back to check on their trap and collect the exhausted monkey. You see, there is nothing physically holding the monkey there. He is just not willing to let go of the banana and escape with his life. He’s been conditioned to not let go. [African version of the trap]

If you’ve heard this story before, thank you for sticking with me :) I only use it to bring up the next point.

Just like the monkey holds onto the banana, we also hold onto definitions, judgements, job titles and place far too much value on what others think of us. Often, it’s only in our twilight years that something finally snaps and we make a decision to do something meaningful, something that makes us happy and fulfilled. Maybe that’s painting, or opening a bed & breakfast, or building a cabin, learning to code or fixing motorcycles.

You may call it a mid-life crisis, but what we are talking about is much more than that.

A second act is a powerful moment in time, when we make a transition from doing a “job” to doing meaningful work. It’s a moment in time when we redefine who we are. At a deep, internal level.

Your job vs your work

When someone asks “What do you do” – how do you answer? Do you say that you’re an accountant, or an engineer, or a geologist? Maybe that you work for an oil and gas company, or an investment firm, or a startup?

I was once proud to say I was an interactive account manager for one of Canada’s largest media companies (who shall not be named). It sounded impressive and looked good on a business card.

Only now, that I’m entering the early waters of my own second act, do I finally understand what that line on my business card meant. It’s a job title – a construct someone created out of thin air when they thought they could make more money with one of those – it’s not Ernest, or Chris, or Katherine. It’s a cog. A part in the machine that can be replaced, forgotten, or discontinued. And what then? What am I, if not an account manager?

You see, for most of us that job title is a trap – much like the monkey’s banana. We’re afraid to let go, because we would be naked, lost and vulnerable without it. We would have to be something more than a job title.

Your work, on the other hand, is a very different place. It’s an expression of you, of what fires you up when you wake up, of what will remain when you’re gone. It comes from a different place. You feel it in your chest when you’re doing it, and it feels good. You can wholeheartedly say I do this “because it’s IMPORTANT to me”.

Maybe it sounds corny, but on some subconscious level you know when you’re not doing the work – when you’re just going through the motions. It feels like a bad relationship you’re still in because you’re afraid you’ll otherwise end up alone.

When I mingle at conferences, other attendees often ask what I do, or even worse “who are you with?”, like my value is associated with the name of the company that happens to employ me at this time.

I don’t even know how to answer that question anymore. There is so much more to me then “digital marketing consultant”. I paint, I fix and ride motorcycles, I work with leather, I host a podcast, I speak, I study Zen, I teach, I design courses… how do you say all that in a cohesive answer? It’s impossible. At least I haven’t figured out an answer. So I immediately turn the conversation around and ask about their life, what inspires them, what’s important to them, and why. And we connect on a much deeper level than “who we are with”.

There is so much more to you then your job title. Once you realize that, everything from that point forward changes. The way you look at the world is different. The conversations you have are more meaningful. You feel freer – even food tastes better :)

What triggers a second act?

So, what must happen to make someone start thinking this way? About their second act. About their contribution and their legacy.

Sadly, most often it’s a tragedy. Someone close to us dies in an accident, falls ill or experiences incredibly hard times. It’s in that moment we’re reminded how short life really is, and how today may be the last day we have left. So we start thinking… what have I done with my life? What have I achieved, and what do those achievements really mean?

Will finishing that report on the weekend, filing the taxes a day early or checking e-mails at 6AM be something my children, or my community will remember me for? Is this what will remain when I’m gone?

These are the types of questions that trigger second acts.

Some, on the other hand, wait until the “encore” part of their career. Once they’ve retired… THEN… they’ll have time to do something meaningful. They’ll finally spend more time with their family, go fishing and hiking, write, build or paint something.

The retirement age in Canada averages 65 and rising. In the US, it’s 61 and rising. Due to financial and economic circumstances most people find themselves in these days. Are you really willing to wait until you hit your 67th birthday to finally do something meaningful? To awaken and rekindle a passion that’s been laying dormant for over 60 years.

Considering the average life expectancy in North America is about 80, that is like buying a really nice Armani suit for “special occasions” when you were about 14, only to be buried in it.

Poverty to honey empire

Steve Jobs is often credited with the biggest second act in business history, with his triumphant return to Apple after being ousted from the company. (I’m about half way through his biography by Walter Isaacson, and it’s fascinating!).

It’s wonderful and inspiring to read about business leaders like this, but I’m not Steve Jobs. You are probably not either. So what about normal, everyday people like us?

In late 2013, I started recording interviews with regular people I found inspiring. From authors and entrepreneurs to artists and monks. One of the patterns that quickly emerged, even after recording the first 10 interviews, is the power of the second act. Let me tell you just one of the stories.

Stella Sehn was backed into a corner. Their family farm in Porcupine Plain, Saskatchewan just wasn’t producing enough to sustain her growing young family. They’ve struggled with repaying agriculture loans and making ends meet. Eventually, Sheldon (Stella’s husband), had to take up job up north, on the oil rigs to meet their responsibilities.

One day, while driving to the city to escape their reality of life in a small town an idea was born. They would take a leap of faith on a honey farming opportunity that came up. They had to do something.

Sheldon still went up north to bring in the funds they desperately needed, while Stella rolled up her sleeves and started building a brand. Even that early on, she had a hunch there was more to this honey business than just selling it to wholesalers, at wholesale prices. And so Sweet Pure Honey was born.

Stella would take their honey, hand pack it into jars and then drive 8 hours to farmers markets and sell it one jar at a time, winning one heart at a time.

That was the beginning of their second act. A brand that stands for family values, organic products and produces incredibly delicious honey (trust me, I have two jars in our cupboards, and often sneak a spoon or two while nobody’s watching). At the time of this writing, Stella negotiated a deal with a brewery in Washington to supply honey for their Vulcan Honey Ale (Star Trek Fans – rejoice!).

Her business and brand are gaining fans internationally. People from as far as Japan order honey jars from Sweet Pure Honey.

It’s never too late to start your second, third or even fourth act – to do something meaningful. This is just one story, from a regular person like you and me. If you’re looking for more inspiration, CNN Money has a whole section on second acts.

So, only one question remains… Is it your time to let go of the banana?

We’re all waiting for you :)

– ernest.

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