07/13/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Does The White Queen Rule?

"The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday - but never jam to-day."

"It MUST come sometimes to 'jam to-day,'" Alice objected.

"No, it can't," said the Queen. "It's jam every OTHER day: to-day isn't any OTHER day, you know."

If the wonderfully wacky world of Lewis Carroll's White Queen held sway, we would never have to make up our minds about what we want to do with the rest of our lives. It would never actually be "to-day."

Does that sound tempting? For New Radicals-in-the-making, it can be. (New Radicals are people who've discovered how to put skills acquired in their careers to work on some of the world's greatest challenges; for more, see archived posts.) We've spent time imagining a new and deeply meaningful career for ourselves. One that will make a real difference. It's been thrilling to wander around with our heads full of possibilities, delicious when all the doors are still wide open.

At the same time, this stage can be distressing. With so many choices before us and so much uncertainty, some people report feeling anxious and lost. "What will I do? What will I do?" Many of my clients talk about how the stakes are much higher at midlife -- they feel that this is their last chance, or they're reluctant to let go of what's familiar (no matter how unhappy they've been). And pretty much everyone talks about a fear of failure.

Happily, "to-day" does eventually arrive. People do make decisions. They put one foot in front of the other and move forward. But how?

For the lucky few, a New Radical role suddenly appears. Someone reaches out and offers them something that fits like a glove. Ayisi Makitiani is a case in point. Born in Kenya, he was educated at the best U.S. schools, and returned to Africa to help launch the continent's first Internet service provider. While raising funds to start a private equity firm, he caught the eye of one of his potential investors -- the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank's private-sector arm. They persuaded him to help run the African Management Services Company, charged with helping African firms become competitive in the global marketplace. It was an unexpected but welcome shift. "Suddenly I'm a man with a mission. All my friends thought I'd gone mad!"

Others find clarity one of three ways:

1. A natural next step
2. A flash of inspiration
3. A breakthrough

As they move through the research process I outlined in earlier columns, some New Radicals discover that their new role comes quickly into view. The most organic evolution is to become an Activist -- that is, to do similar work in a new sector. For instance, thousands of men and women have migrated between the corporate and nonprofit worlds. And our timing couldn't be better, given a growing labour shortage in the charitable sector. Did you know that more than half a million nonprofit leaders are poised to retire in the next 10 years? That's the finding of the Bridgestar organization -- and you can read all about it a report that's available on their site, "The Nonprofit Sector's Leadership Deficit." []

Sometimes, New Radicals get a bolt out of the blue that makes the next step crystal clear. Nicole Pageau, for instance, heard one of the survivors of the Rwandan genocide speak and knew immediately that she wanted to help. At 62, she started a one-woman NGO, quit her job, sold everything she owned, and moved to Africa. She now helps women in a village outside the capital city run small businesses. []

Liz and Stephen Alderman got two jolts. The first made them realize that life would never again be the same: they lost their youngest son, Peter, on 9/11. Very soon after, they knew that they wanted to do something to honor Peter's life. They considered and rejected a number of options, because nothing really captured their hearts. And then, sitting quietly one night, they turned on the television to watch Nightline and saw a story that would change the direction of their lives for the second time. It was about the estimated one billion people worldwide who survive mass violence, but who are no longer able to function because of their trauma. The Aldermans knew they could do nothing for their son, but they could help survivors get on with their lives. And they've started an organization that provides indigenous caregivers with the tools to treat mental anguish -- using Western medical therapies combined with local healing traditions. I think of them as a kind of Doctors Without Borders for the psyche. []

Perhaps the most gratifying moment comes when New Radicals realize that everything they've done so far in their lives has prepared them to step into a new role. Scott Johnson, who founded the Myelin Repair Foundation (and helped create a revolutionary model for disease research) described it this way, "My first career had four pillars that would help in my second. My initial training as an engineer, which is about problem solving and being very logical. My background in strategic consulting, which is concerned with how big companies should face the future and what they need to do differently. My experience inside a large corporation, which would be useful because the Myelin Repair Foundation would interface with biotech companies and understanding their culture and how they work would be important. And, finally, my start-up experience, which meant I was comfortable starting something new." []

Sometimes, emerging New Radicals need more time to choose their new role. It can take a considerable amount of research and thought -- a thorough exploration of the marketplace and a weighing of options -- before they're ready to take this all-important step.

Plus, they may not be ready in another sense. They may need to prepare for their new role -- it can be very different, after all. They may need to get volunteer experience. They may need to go back to school. Or they may simply need to learn about a new culture -- as happens when a construction company CFO becomes vice president of finance for a hospital.

Over the next few weeks, I'll write about the kinds of things that New Radical pioneers grappled with as they reinvented their work. In particular, given the comments on last week's column -- and because it's a question I always get asked when giving a speech or being interviewed -- I'll address the money issue.

But know this now: you do not have to be a White Queen -- or a billionaire or celebrity -- to become a New Radical. This is a movement for all.