Have a Strong Third Act

Have you heard of Harlan Ellison? He is an extraordinary writer who has been producing fiction, essays, teleplays, movie scripts, etc. for over 50 years. He has over 70 books to his credit and has eight and a half Hugo awards (science fiction), three Nebula awards including the Grand Master award (science fiction), six Bram Stoker awards including the lifetime achievement award (horror), two Edgar Allan Poe awards (mystery), two George Melies awards (fantasy film), two Audie awards (audio recordings), the Silver Pen for Journalism, and four Writers Guild of America awards for Most Outstanding teleplay (solo work).   That is just a part of what he has accomplished. All this to say that, if you don’t know who Harlan Ellison is, then it might be best to describe him as one of the greatest authors you do not know.

“So, why is he telling us this?”
Well, I suppose I could be telling you this as a hint to go out and read some of Ellison’s work. But, more specific to our discussions here, Ellison was recently quoted as saying “Have a strong third act.” I doubt he is the first to say it, but he is definitely someone who, when he says it, brings a lot of meat to the table. Why? Because, in spite of all that he has accomplished, in spite of everything listed above, Harlan is still out there proving the first 70 times were not a fluke. Within the next year there are four new books planned for publication. This year, he was nominated for (but did not win) a Grammy in the spoken word category. He was recently nominated for another Nebula award. At 76, it would be very easy for him to rest on his…let’s call them laurels. But it appears he is looking to have a rather strong third act.
So let me speak directly to all you “White Hairs” out there. (“White Hairs?” Yes, “White Hairs” – those of us whose extensive experience is exhibited by hair that has gone beyond grey to white.)  I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this one, but I’m 56 years old and have worked for Farmers Insurance (in Internal Audit) for just over 28 years. No matter what measure you use, I think it would be safe to say that I’m working on that third act. I’ll just say that it would be very easy to succumb to the temptation to sit back, do enough to get by, and start planning that retirement. And I will not assume you fool enough to believe that I have never been struck by that bug. But I look at what Ellison has done, and I look at his challenge, and I ask myself, “What are you doing to ensure you have a strong third act?”
I’m not getting all maudlin here. This isn’t about “leaving a legacy” or “doing the right thing”.   It is about pride in yourself, pride in your job, pride in your profession, or pride in…well, pride in whatever it is that you value enough to realize the third act is the most important part of any performance – pride enough to want to live up to the promise that has been made by the first two acts. To those of you out there with lots of experience, what are you doing to make yours a strong third act? Is it being a thought leader for your internal audit department? Is it being a mentor for the next generation of talent? Is it going out and finding the next big risk or the next big audit or the next big finding? Even if your first and second acts weren’t that strong, how are you making sure that they will never forget the performance that was your career?
And to all you young i-phone toting Twitter junkies out there, don’t turn away like I’m not talking to you. I hear you saying, “Okay, old man. Nice story for those geezers looking at the park bench with affection. But what’s it got to do with those of us who have just moved from Sponge Bob pants to work clothes?” 
For everyone else, here’s the message.
Everything you do has a third act. Maybe it’s time to wrap up that audit you’ve been working on for the last three months and you’re sick to death of it and the results are not going to have any real impact and all you care about is getting that sucker out the door so you can start on the next audit which you are positive will be more important and is just a better assignment. And, with that in mind, you slam out anything just to say the report got issued. Your report is your third act.
Or maybe you’ve had your job for a year or two and the market is getting better so you look around and, lo and behold, there is a better offer waiting for you which you accept and then give your two weeks notice. That two weeks is your third act.
Or think about your day. Is your work at its best until that second or third or fourth cup of coffee wears off and, about one/two hours before the end of the day you say, “I’ve worked hard, I deserve a little break” so, while you don’t go off to play Angry Birds, you do manage to make that last hour a little less productive than normal. That last hour is your third act.
Life is full of third acts. And far too often we are running away to the next first act, forgetting that the third act is the one everyone remembers. Right now, you are in the third act of some kind of play. If you want the world to ask for further performances, you better have a strong third act.

Posted on Apr 1, 2011 by Mike Jacka

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  1. So what is your 3rd Act, Mike? Is it being a mentor and doing something new like a member of Board of advisors for a start-up?
  1. Actually,a valid question.  Within our audit group, I'm doing work around better alignment of our audit strategy with the company's strategies.  Not that we haven't been doing such aignent already, but building a better framework that can be carried into the future.  And, yes, there's some mentoring going on also. 

    And, on the broader professional side, I see this blog and the articles in the magazine as part of that third act, as is the book I co-authored on auditing socia media that the IIA just published.

    And of course, I'm really working hard on he most important step one can take towards a strong third act - buying lottery tickets on a consistent basis.

  1. Thanks for the comments, Mike

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