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.

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?

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