Ways to Reboot Your Career at Midlife

If you’ve been laid off, like Jan Levinson of The Office, start by rewriting your script.

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As an executive at Dunder Mifflin, Jan Levinson often seems to be teetering on the edge of self-destruction. Instead of firing hapless branch manager and subordinate Michael Scott, she dates him. She then makes the relationship public even though she admits it will cause her career to "collapse like a dying star." Ultimately, perhaps convinced that she is incompetent, her bosses decide to replace her with former intern Ryan, who possesses a freshly minted M.B.A. degree.

So what's a laid-off midlevel executive like Jan to do? Wallowing in grief for a week or so might be the first step, but the next is to quickly replace despair with hope and excitement. In fact, corporate recruiters describe such career interruptions as golden opportunities to explore new professions or a different kind of life altogether—the one you always dreamed about but never had the guts to pursue. "You have to say to yourself, 'Here's my chance to do something that I've always wanted to do and was either afraid to or didn't have the support,' " says Lois Frankel, author of Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office.

The next chapter. Part of the recovery process involves writing your own script about what happened with the old job. There's no need to tell the world that you were laid off because your boss didn't like you. Instead, advises Caitlin Friedman, coauthor of The Girl's Guide to Kicking Your Career Into Gear, tell people that after spending so many years with one company, you've decided it's time to explore other opportunities and that you're excited for the next chapter.

Making appointments—for lunch, drinks, or breakfast—not only gives you a chance to let your contacts know you're in the job market but also helps to break the tempting cycle of pajamas and bad television, says Friedman's coauthor, Kimberly Yorio. But before plastering the field with résumés, think about what you really want. Part of that, says Marcia Worthing, career coach and coauthor of Escape the Mid-Career Doldrums, is reflecting on what you liked and didn't like at your previous job. "That kind of thinking, in terms of what really turns you on, is what could lead you in another direction," she says. Rather than return to corporate America, you might decide to open a restaurant.

During this brainstorming phase, personality tests, such as the free one at keirsey.com, can come in handy. Frankel says that kind of introspection can help you make the switch from what she calls a "job" to a "calling," something that resonates with your values and enables you to feel that you're making a difference. Career expos and short-term trials, as offered through sites like vocationvacations.com, let people test out potential dream professions.

But here is the reality check: Not everyone has a supportive partner as Jan apparently does in Michael, who is willing to bankroll the other's time out of the workforce. Many people have children to support and other financial obligations. Such responsibility does not make career reinvention impossible; it just requires extra planning.

The meditation retreat or worldwide travels might have to wait, but taking courses or shadowing a professional in a new field doesn't have to. In fact, Worthing says one of the most common mistakes people make is quickly taking another job similar to the previous one.

Still not convinced? "I don't know anybody who has failed at rewriting their script," Frankel says. "Then you don't have to work for that moron at The Office."