A Multi-Stage Life – A New Way of Looking at Your Career and Life

Are you feeling lost in your career, life, or even both? 

Feeling lost in your career may stem from believing or feeling that you are not where you are supposed to be.

That you are behind, both compared to other people, and compared to where you think you should be by now. Oftentimes, we are a more cruel judge of ourselves than other people.

A part of this is rooted in the belief that there is such a thing as the perfect life and the perfect career path. Emphasis on perfect. 

The belief that we need to have everything in our life, or at least in our career figured out by a certain age, let’s just say 30. 

There is a general expectation that by the time you are 30 (or replace this with whatever age applies in your culture), at the latest, you should be established in life and have zoomed in on a certain career.

And this is not at all a bad thing! 

On the contrary, some people have extreme clarity of what they want in life, at a very young age, and it worked well for them. 

By 25 they knew exactly what kind of life they wanted to live. What career they wanted to have for the rest of their lives. They had all their beliefs sorted out, identified their purpose, and knew who they wanted to marry.

They journeyed through their life without a single regret. 

Perhaps you know people like this. But I bet that you can count them on the fingers of one hand.

I wish there was a study on this – please do drop me a note if you know of such a study! – as I would really want to have proof that this group of people who have everything figured out in their early twenties only represents a small minority. 

Luckily at least, nowadays people, even prominent people are becoming more open about their failures in life, the challenges, and setbacks they faced before they became successful. 

I can say from my own life experiences, by observing and talking to my family and extended family members, friends, acquaintances, and colleagues, that at least 99% of people (young and old) don’t have this figured out yet.

We can certainly debate how accurate this percentage is. 

But try to take a look at the people around you. The people you deal with every day. Your boss, your professor, your co-workers. Do you think that they have everything figured out?

Very likely, the answer is no.

And that may provide a sense of relief.

Realizing that almost everyone has not figured it out yet can make you feel a bit more normal. 

But still, even though you see that your co-worker’s life is a mess, or that your friend is still waitressing at 42, you tell yourself “They might be losers, but not me. Why am I still here? I should be successful by now” – whatever your definition of success may be.

The second reason for relief might be this: 

It’s great that you’re feeling lost in your career and life now.

The sooner someone is aware that they feel lost, the faster they can do something about it. 

You can roughly divide people into two groups.

The first group consists of people who never ask themselves the question of ‘Am I on the right track or not?’. It might be that because asking that question is simply too painful or too scary for them.

Two things could happen as a consequence of this: 

– They live their lives in peace happily ever after, with no regrets or 

– At some point in their life they finally ‘wake up’ and are shocked to see where they ended up.

It’s better to have that realization and that sinking feeling now – at 25, 37, 46, 55 – rather than at 92.

It would be really unfortunate to only realize at your deathbed that you’ve been ‘lost’ your whole life, asking yourself ‘what the hell have I been doing my whole life’ and be filled with regret at a time when there’s nothing you can do about the situation anymore.

The second group consists of people who recognize that they feel (or are) lost, and want to do something about it. 

So the good news is that you, reading this blog post, at least care and want change. 

Yes, you might feel lost (at least at times), like 99% or so of the population.

But at least you are willing to acknowledge that to yourself.

And by doing that you open up yourself to self-introspection, experimentation, and asking lots of questions.

There is one mindset change that I want to introduce to you that may change your whole perspective on ‘feeling lost in life and career’.

As I said earlier, the reason why you’re feeling lost is that you have a feeling, a hunch that you are not where you’re supposed to be.

Some of you simply can’t exactly pinpoint it. It’s just a feeling.

Some of you firmly believe that you are not where you’re supposed to be. And you can even pinpoint it exactly on a chart or timeline.

A, B, C, D, are the milestones you’re supposed to hit in your career, but until now you’re not there.

To stop feeling lost, let’s start by taking a look at mindset A about career and life (a more traditional view), and then move to mindset B (a view that is more relevant nowadays).

Mindset A

3-Stage Life Model

According to this, life consists of 3 major stages in this chronological order: 

– Getting an education: until age 22-28

– Working on a career: age 23-65

– Retirement: age 60-70 and up

Of course, due to many developments in the economy, demographics, this age pattern has shifted over time. 

This is a typical life-stage model, that is not only subscribed to by baby boomers and generation x but also millennials and generation y.

Why? Because there hasn’t been an influential enough of a model to replace this life-stage model.

Until I discovered the book ‘The 100-Year Life’ by Lynda Gratton & Andrew Scott, I haven’t come across a convincing concept, a model of life and career that provided an alternative to the traditional concept. But more about that later.

Going back to the traditional life-stage model. Following this, it means that your career should be built and optimize within the ages of 23-65.

Perhaps in an even narrower time frame of 25-60, as it takes time to develop one’s first career, while at 60+ many people begin winding down, preparing for retirement.

What is characteristic of this 3-stage life model, as Lynda Gratton & Andrew Scott say in their book is that ‘…age is a straightforward indicator of stage…’

In the 3-stage life model each age or age range corresponds and is associated with a certain life-stage.

This following example makes it clearer: 

If you break up that typical 35-40 year time frame during which someone pursues their career, this is what typical milestones could look like:

Age 23-30: You should be working for a company in a junior or middle-management position. Your salary allows you a mortgage for a house and a car loan.

Age 30-40: By this time you should be in mid-management, or otherwise you’re screwed. You should be earning at least 60k by now, or else you’re a failure. 

Age: 41-50: Here you should be a senior manager, otherwise you can bury your head in the sand. You should be able to afford a mortgage on a 3-bedroom house in the wealthy suburbs by now.

Age 51-65: This is your last chance to prove yourself before retirement. You should be the CEO of some company by now or at least head of a big department. You should not earn less than 100k. 

There is certainly nothing wrong with this path. It is also not wrong to want to follow this standard path and aim for these milestones.

On the contrary, it can be the best thing to do for some people.

Especially if you like predictability, stability, and are more risk-averse, then this is the way to go.

But for some or many people, this just doesn’t work.

And the good news is, that it doesn’t have to be this way either.

If you want a bit more adventure and variety, then truly, nowadays the world is your oyster in terms of career development. 

You can do so many different things in so many different ways. 

In the traditional model, we see that each stage is associated with a certain age range, position, or level in a hierarchy, a specific income level, and status symbols such as number and brand of cars (or handbags) the neighborhood your house is situated in, the restaurants you can dine at, etc. 

A defining marker is especially the increase in salary, or overall compensation, which should steadily increase from one year to another.

The goal is to accumulate financial assets, sometimes at the cost of other important things in life, such as physical and mental health, and relationships. 

I can understand this perspective to some degree. Especially if we are risk-averse, we would want to put in all the work upfront, earn, save, and only then, relax, explore our other interests, take on some risk by starting a business, etc. 

Now be honest, do you see your life and career in terms of these stages?

Do you think that unconsciously everyone subscribes to this frame of thought when thinking about an ideal life, career, and success?

Do you feel a sense of doom because you have not reached the ‘typical’ milestones in each category?

It is a nice path to follow if it makes you happy. But many of variations from this work as well, that I’m going to talk about in a bit.

Mindset B

Multi-stage life model

The 3-stage life model was relevant to past generations. It made sense to our grandparents and maybe our parents. 

But several things have made this model not become as relevant anymore.  

One very important one is longevity.

Our great-grandparents lived until about 60, our grandparents to around 70 on average. In their context, these life stages made the most sense.

They had to concentrate, maximize their career effort within a certain timeframe.

But now, many people will live to become 90 or even 100+ years old. Not only is life getting longer, but the quality of life has also increased (although, this one is debatable if we count ‘loneliness’ during old age as a negative factor).

Many people will still be healthy and mentally alert in their 80s and 90s and want to continue having a fulfilled and productive life.

They may not work a 40-hour or even 30-hour week anymore, but many will still want to contribute to society, with their expertise and life experiences.

Instead of stopping to work at 65, we continue to work until we are 80.

And here work is not defined narrowly as in having a 5-days a week, 9 to 5 job in a corporation. Rather, work at the age of 70, for example, can be a combination of freelance work, charity work, etc. 

You’ll be able to work longer on your career.

But you might also need to work longer. 

Everyone has hopefully realized that millennials and gen z cannot rely on surviving off their pension payments. 

It will be necessary for everyone to get creative and find new ways of generating other income streams, saving up more, to finance their old age. 

In the new model and new mindset, that is relevant to today’s age, there are multiple life stages, from which different possibilities for a career path flow.

According to Linda Gratton & Andrew Scott, In addition to the stages of education – working – retirement, which largely correspond to an age range, there are stages such as independent producer, explorer, and portfolio, which are decoupled from age. 

This means, that while there might be more or less ideal times to adopt a stage, any stage can theoretically be implemented at any age if the person wants it and plans for it. 

In short, the 3 additional stages are:

  1. Explorer:

During this time, one journeys to discover something about the world and also about oneself. It is different from just being a tourist, sightseeing and enjoying the local cuisine.

It’s focusing on engaging rather than just observing.

During this time, one is not focused on earning money, but investing in experiences. E.g. living in Southeastasia for 2 years, learning about their way of living, gaining new insights that open up new paths.

2. Independent Producer: 

As an Independent Producer, a person starts up their entrepreneurial activities. This can include making a product, creating a service, or building an idea. This stage can provide a platform for failing, as Lynda Gratton & Andrew Scott say in their book. On the other hand, during this phase, a person curates a reputation. 


3. Portfolio: 

In this stage, usually, a person would build on a well-established platform of skills and networks.

The portfolio is balanced in three ways:

1) Earning enough money to match expenses and add to savings

2) A part-time role that links to the past and maintains reputation, skills, and mental stimulation, and

3) Developing additional and new roles that broaden learning and provide a sense of purpose.

Instead of just following the 3-stage life, you can add these stages to your life.

Look at where you are now.

Plan strategically, review frequently, and adjust your course to achieve what is important to you.

Don’t just let it go and let it flow.

There is so much that you can do with just a minor course correction. Altering your course be 2 degrees can make a big difference over 5, 10 years.

Perhaps you are not lost after all.

Maybe you are just in one of these unconventional life stages right now, which are a necessary part of your bigger plan?

Maybe you’re 30 and you’ve just spent a year in France, learning the language and are asking yourself ‘What in the world have I done in the past year?’

The easy answer is: You’re lost and have wasted your time. You’re nowhere where you should be.

The more useful approach is:

Spending that one year in France, getting to a good conversational level in French was an exploration phase and investment in a productive asset – language.

It is a specific building block in your life, which in future you’ll be able to leverage in your career.

There may have been activities that seemed to have happened rather randomly, e.g. a spontaneous decision of taking a 1-year sabbatical because you couldn’t stand your corporate job any longer.

But realize that you can plan such activities strategically, is empowering.

E.g. taking a 1-year sabbatical after working for 3 years in digital marketing. You spend 1-2 years living in Japan and Korea to learn more about the Asian market and the culture. After your exploration phase, you have experiences and knowledge that you will use to build your own small business, consulting on how to market products to East Asians. 

The point is, that you might feel lost now because you feel that some choices you made in your career in the past were random. 

But use this realization to your advantage. Realize that if you can ‘feel lost’, it is likely because you belong to the group of people who have the luxury of having options.

In the future, you can consciously choose to embark on a different path, to be an explorer, independent producer, or have a portfolio career for a certain time. 

It is an art to be able to put these building blocks together in a way that makes sense.

You need to be able to balance out times of earning (ideally high earnings) and being focused on financial asset accumulation and those times during which you invest in other assets.

For every person, a different combination and order may work best. 

Many people are already doing this.

If you know people who started a business in their 40s, or went on a sabbatical in their 30s or reinvented their career in their 60s – these are the kind of people who are no longer following the 3-stage life model. 

The problem is, that while some people believe in this path and follow it wholeheartedly, others are still stuck in the old world.

They second-guess themselves, doubt themselves, look down on their achievement, measure their accomplishments and position by the old yardstick, thereby holding them back from focusing on what they are doing.

Instead of adopting a new paradigm and embracing the new model, every other second they’re asking themselves ‘what the hell am I doing?’ ‘I’m 30 years old and taking a language course in Japan?’ ‘I’m 40 years old and trying to make movies’, or I’m 25 years old and making a drastic career change.

There is this feeling of guilt and dread. Thinking about whether this is a big mistake and even worse, what others will think.

This is where the mindset of the multi-stage life will give you a useful frame of mind.

A 30-year-old exploring the world for a year, going off to Africa is not a nut job or wasting their time.

Unless, perhaps, just perhaps, he or she was just traveling for years in a way that depletes their entire financial resources without adding to their skills and knowledge in any way. 

On the other hand, it may be immensely valuable, if this is a specific, intentional stage or period within their life, where they are exploring, learning something new and important about themselves. Acquiring life skills, experiences, that will set them off to a new path.

Here is an important note in regards to finances in this multi-stage model. 

From a financial perspective, continually growing your financial assets is a worthy goal. Ideally, it should continually increase and never decrease.

But note the rate at which it increases may not have to be constant. This means that your financial assets might grow by 6% in the years 2017-2020 (or fill in any number that applies to you), but then grows slower at 4.5% per year in the years 2021-2022, because you are investing in other areas of your life. 

Financial assets are not the only assets to grow.

As Lynda Gratton & Andrew Scott explain in their book, there is something called productive assets, which include knowledge. This is also important to invest in, as these, in turn, can general financial assets. But this is a topic for another time. 

This means that there are times when you could work hard on earning income directly and growing your financial assets, while there are times where you focus more on growing your productive assets.

And of course, one thing does not necessarily exclude the other, as you can grow your financial assets through other means than working and earning an income.  

For example, there could be times where you consciously accept a lower income (e.g. $30,000 a year instead of $70,000 a year, to invest in a second education, skills. You earn less now, but invest in yourself and may enable a higher future earning potential.

In no way do I mean that we should forget our financial goals – not save and just spend. 

This is not about earning less and spending more, it’s about balancing carefully between the times when you earn income directly from your work and times when you reinvest in your productive assets. 

The faster you start subscribing to the multi-stage life model, the sooner you can get out of your rut, stop feeling lost, and start living.  

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