10 Things to Know Before You Change Your Life

After reinventing herself at 52, Susan Crandell interviewed dozens of others who took the plunge. Here’s what they taught her about life changes.

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.

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