Reinventing Your Life: Trust Yourself
Two years ago, as the 5:46 commuter train whisked me north along the Hudson River toward the future, I didn’t know where my adventure would lead me, but I was sure of one thing: I was in very good company.
By quitting my job and reimagining my career at 52, I was joining a mass movement of people who were refusing to go quietly into middle age. We were, after all, the generation that shook up the old order and dared to dream big. Now, instead of sinking into what used to be called a midlife crisis, we channel the yearnings, the dissatisfactions, the deep questions into a powerful call to action.
As a founding editor of this magazine, I had assigned innumerable articles about transformation. But when I decided to reinvent my own life, I discovered there was much more to the transition than I’d suspected. I yo-yoed through unprecedented emotional highs and lows as I rewrote my own job description and learned to see myself in a new way. Once I’d gotten through it, I had even more admiration for the reinventers who had paved the way and wanted to celebrate and understand their motivations and strengths, so I wrote a book (Thinking About Tomorrow) on the subject, profiling 45 women and men over 40 who had swapped careers, launched businesses, bicycled around the world, or competed in the Hawaii Ironman triathlon. They amazed me with their ingenuity and courage, and helped me truly understand this wave of reinventers — our friends, our colleagues, ourselves — who are reshaping not just their own lives but the very concept of midlife. Here are 10 things I wish I’d known that day I cleared out my office.
1. Size doesn’t matter.
I call this the rearview-mirror effect. You know that little sign that reads: "Objects may be closer than they appear"? Well, reinvention is bigger — by magnitudes — than it may appear. That’s because what matters is not how momentous the change seems to the outside world, but how it feels to you. My career makeover — from editor to writer — barely nudged the needle on the reinvention Richter scale, but it was an earthquake in my life. It wasn’t until I started talking to people who were making massive life changes — a baby at 50, ditching a lucrative career as a cooking celebrity to become a personal trainer, losing 90 pounds and running a marathon — that I realized my fears and worries were the same as theirs, and every bit as legitimate, because they were just as real to me.
This look-small, feel-big phenomenon means you may not get the affirmation you crave from other people. Adopt a baby at 52, and friends will be awestruck. Make a subtle career change like mine, and they’ll congratulate you, but that’s about it. When you reinvent yourself, whatever the dimensions of the change, consider that by acting on a dream, you are becoming a role model to yourself and you don’t need the world’s applause. Focus on that; then when apprehension strikes, you can let it just wash through you.
2. Learn the power of letting go.
During a trip to British Columbia last year, my 27-year-old daughter, Brook, and I were ascending a climbing wall. A spot about two-thirds of the way up required a dynamic move, a fancy way of saying you have to push off from — and surrender — a foothold in order to reach the next handhold. You’ve lost your security before you know whether you’ll be able to grasp the next little orange knob. Brook finally conquered the move. After that, she had no hesitation. She trusted herself.
Watching her on the wall, a bell went off in my head — ding! ding! ding! Metaphor! The dynamic move is precisely what makes so many of us shy away from changing our lives. We focus on the foothold we’ve got rather than the handhold up there waiting for us. We concentrate on the things we’re going to have to give up, rather than imagining the satisfactions and pleasures that could lie ahead. Amazing things happen when we open ourselves up to an unknown future.
Yes, you may say, but here’s the problem with that metaphor: In life there is no belay rope, the safety line that protects climbers from falling too far off the wall. Actually, the safety line is usually there; we simply have to recognize it. Like a bungee cord, it derives its strength from the braiding together of many filaments. We have concrete assets, such as the savings we’ve accrued, the degrees and credentials we’ve earned, and the network of influential colleagues and friends we’ve amassed over the years, as well as intellectual and emotional assets, such as the seasoning and judgment we’ve developed and the emotional equanimity and maturity we’ve achieved.
When times get tough, picture how effortlessly chimps move through the trees. As they swing one arm forward, they let go with the other; they know they’ll be able to grab the next branch. In your heart of hearts, so do you.
Admit Fear, Invest in Yourself & Prepare
3. Drop the game face.
When we’re 2, we throw tantrums in the supermarket. At 13, we stalk to our room and slam the door. By the time we’re 40, most of us have learned to suffer silently. We’re so accustomed to cushioning blows for everybody around us that we become grand masters of denial when it comes to our own uncertainties. Our culture calls this maturity; I call it dumb. Once you let that game face slip and admit the fears and frustrations that are endemic to a life do-over, you will discover a miraculous thing: You are not alone. Other reinventers will confide the difficulties they too have faced. It’s then you’ll share both agonies and remedies.
So go ahead: Admit to the secret fears that bloom in the wee hours. It will assure a brighter day.
4. Put your money where it counts.
We’ve all read the statistics about the unprecedented pot of family money that our generation will inherit. A number of people I interviewed took their inheritance and invested in themselves, using it as seed money to start a business or as tuition for a college degree. One woman used it to learn to dive and now maps underwater caves and runs a nonprofit cave-diving museum. Don’t be shy about investing in your happiness. It’s a legacy to make an ancestor proud.
5. Don’t worry what people think — really!
It’s a common claim at midlife that we’re confident enough in our judgment and comfortable enough in our skin that we no longer worry about what people think. Well, yes, except we still diet toward a standard set by crazy-skinny Hollywood stars. We don’t feel at ease at a big boardroom presentation unless we’re wearing the right suit and shoes.
That worry can affect not just outward appearance but psychological outlook. I found myself pondering the ways in which I exhibit what psychologists call "other directed" behavior — what parents simply call peer pressure — as I interviewed Dana Beyer. As she approached 50, she finally began the sexual reassignment process she had yearned for. She had always known that she was a woman in the body of a man. What held her back was waiting for her sons to finish high school and worrying about people’s reactions. She feared losing her friends. Now, four years later, after becoming what she says is truly herself, her friendships are richer and deeper. And her confidence is unbounded. Last fall, she ran for the state legislature in Maryland.
If Dana could find the courage to undertake the most primal and controversial of changes, surely I could locate the inner strength to shake off criticism. If you find yourself visited by similar demons, remind yourself of an essential question: Whose life is it, anyway?
6. Practice, practice, practice.
I never believed that little steps could prepare you for the big one. I figured that reinvention is like bungee jumping: You stand out on the edge of the platform, and you either do it or you don’t. Now I understand that you can ease into change. Do something a little hard, somewhat scary, and when you succeed you’ll be better equipped to attempt the next intimidating thing. After all, you don’t start kayaking in white water. There are ways to break a reinvention down into digestible bites. If you’re dying to go back to school, enroll in a course. If you want to start a business, ask for a leave of absence rather than quitting your job. If you dream of climbing the Matterhorn, try the Rockies on for size.
Trust Uncertainty & Find Passion
7. God isn’t in the details.
Most great ventures arise in uncertainty. Did Lewis and Clark know they would make it to the Pacific? Did Watson and Crick (not to mention Rosalind Franklin) feel sure they could decode the structure of DNA? The hallmark of an adventure is not knowing the outcome, trusting in the flow of events. I’m an obsessive planner, but the wisdom of not micromanaging a life change crystallized for me when Helen Hand, who became president of Colorado Free University after the death of her brother, founder of the school, characterized him this way: "He’d cast his line way out there, and then pull himself toward it." I love that metaphor: Reaching for a goal without knowing your exact path, being open to the possibilities and buoyed by the belief that you have what it takes to get there.
As I heard story after story about ventures set in motion on sheer hope — from a charity to feed the homeless to a racecar-rebuilding business — I realized that the least successful reinventers were the ones who had figured everything down to the last decimal point and therefore were closed to new methods, new ideas.
Don’t get me wrong. Planning is important. You need the right scaffolding to paint the picture of your new life. If the scaffolding is 8 feet high, you’re never going to paint a 12-foot mural. But you needn’t worry that you don’t know what every square inch of the painting will look like before you pick up the brush. You’re smart; you can make some of it up as you go along.
8. Reinvention has a fast track.
It’s called a hobby. Find a passion and chase it. Whether you breed Percherons or bake bread, refinish furniture or hike every trail in a forest near home, you’ll redefine yourself in your own eyes. You’re no longer just the woman with the so-so marriage or the boring job; you’re on a mission. And it doesn’t have to upend your marriage or your career. I talked to a woman who took up tennis in her early 40s; three years later she was winning tournaments. Another finally quenched a lifelong aspiration by buying a motorcycle at 42. A third put her passion to work; at 45, she began supporting herself for the first time by painting murals and decorative furniture.
If a major renovation of your life isn’t in the cards, know that you can still brighten and enliven it. A well-chosen pursuit has a potentially huge emotional return.
9. Singles aren’t the only heroes.
Whenever I read a story about an unmarried woman who made a big change — moving to a new city, launching a business, having a baby alone — I awarded her special "You go, girl!" applause. I’ve been married as long as I can remember, so to me, flying solo is for the bravest, a high-wire act without the safety net of a spouse: the emotional support, the extra income.
Barbara Wild updated my view. Sure, it’s hard when you’re alone, but it isn’t easy in a marriage either when you’re going against the grain. After a long career as a drama and music teacher, Barbara decided, at 50, with her daughters grown, to get a doctorate of musical arts, a long-deferred dream. When Barbara was accepted at Boston University, it meant moving from New York. Her husband, Michael Nelson, was supportive — he told me simply, "There are two people in a marriage" — but his client base was back home and he spent all of his time traveling on business. So, he returned to their old town. Barbara is now teaching in Connecticut, and they spend weekends together. It hasn’t been easy for them, but they’ve taught me that committed couples can forge a new kind of life together — and apart.
10. Reinvention isn’t a trend, it’s a revolution.
When I began reporting for my book, I knew there were a lot of women out there reimagining their lives, but I worried about finding enough good stories for the book. The reality was just the opposite: There were thousands of them. It seemed that just about everyone I knew was either reshaping her life or knew somebody who was. It’s a generational movement that echoes the great social revolutions of the 20th century. I believe we’re showing the way for future generations, by refusing to surrender to a gentler, quieter midlife. The ultimate lesson I learned is that there is no gene for reinvention. I used to think there was, and that I just didn’t have it. Now I understand that reinvention is an equal-opportunity occupation: Anybody can do it. Just see lessons one through 10!
Originally published in MORE magazine, December 2006/January 2007.