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BookWatch: Looking for a ‘third act’ when you retire? The more dramatic, the better.

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Near-retirees may want to take a note from the playbook – a Broadway playbook, perhaps – and contemplate what their third act will be on this stage called life.

The third act, often associated with the theatrical industry, is “what people do after they do what they do,” said Josh Sapan, author of “The Third Act: Reinventing Your Next Chapter” (published by Princeton Architectural Press). In other words, “what happens later.” And just like the theater business, it’s even better when there’s a little drama associated with it, he said. 

Sapan’s book profiles more than 60 people and the third acts they pursued. Some of the examples are well-known celebrities, such as Alan Alda, the MASH actor who now helps scientists and researchers communicate their work in layman’s terms, as well as your everyday Americans, such as the oldest graduate – at 80 years old – of Alabama A&M University and the telecommunications executive turned museum founder. 

See: To age and retire well, try to have a plastic mind and a rubber soul 

Sapan spoke with MarketWatch about what it means to pursue a completely different field, what he’s seen from others and how he’s started his own third act. 

MarketWatch: You mention more than 60 stories of third acts in your books – what is one or two things they all have in common? 

Josh Sapan: That they – and I hope this doesn’t sound trite – but that they’re really looking forward, not backward. And they’re looking forward without limitation, and with as much – or more – zeal as people have when they begin something that they’re excited about, such as beginning one’s careers. 

MarketWatch: Could you share one of your favorite examples of someone pursuing their third act? 

Sapan: I can share a few. There was one woman, Hope Harley, she had a career as a telecommunications executive and she founded the Bronx Children’s Museum, which has not too much to do with being a telecommunications executive. There was another guy named Steve Jaffey, known as a hotheaded referee in the NBA who became a church deacon. There’s another man, Art Shill, who was a chemist and became a stand-up comedian at age 83. There’s another woman, Andrea Peterson, who was in a fire as a kid, and she always wanted to be a firefighter. She became a firefighter much later in life. Then there’s another guy named Jamal Joseph who in his youth was a Black Panther and founded a theater group called Impact Theater. There are then many well-known people – Norman Lear, who just turned 100. He is a noted television writer-producer and a phenomenal social activist at age 100. 

MarketWatch: Retirement was traditionally the end of work – you left your job, moved by the beach. How would you define retirement now? 

Sapan: You know, it is not unilateral. People are moving to the beach and golfing, and that’s pretty good too. Life expectancy has been historically on the rise so people are becoming “older.” It doesn’t mean one can’t go to the beach. It just means it creates a completely new opportunity. Of course, economics play into that. It is a pretty exciting phenomenon to observe – to watch someone at an age when they’re normally retreating and instead finding completely new and stimulating opportunities. 

Also see: How to figure out what to do in retirement, and make the transition

MarketWatch: How can people transition from what they once did, potentially for decades, to something entirely different? 

Sapan: I should really say, I am not a subject matter expert. There are subject matter experts on this, such as the person who wrote the forward in the book. I would hesitate to say I know the answer – I am closer to being a patient than a doctor. I can certainly refer to the 60 people in the book who seemed to have an answer, and what they had in common is that they seemed to relish the opportunity to look at the world, like Alan Alda, and determine how to participate with as much vigor and interest and often creativity as they might have at age 20-something. 

MarketWatch: You’re embarking on your own third act. How are you preparing for it, and what are you hoping to achieve? 

Sapan: I am probably just irritating my wife by doing every odd thing that has been in my mind for some time, but there are a number of things that are of great interest to me and they range from making independent films, which is something that I was more closely associated with earlier in my career, to just beginning to volunteer driving an ambulance. 

This interview was edited for clarity and length

Do you have questions about retirement, Social Security, where to live or how to afford it at all? Write to HelpMeRetire@marketwatch.com and we may use your question in a future story.

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