It’s a common midlife dilemma: What do I want to do with the rest of my life? We’ve been so busy earning money, raising children, or taking care of others, that when we’re finally free to do what we want, we’re not sure what it is.
To help get us on the path to discovering our passion, here’s advice from Harvard sociology professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, whose new book The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50, features 40 people who changed their lives after age 50. A lawyer decides to attend divinity school, a public health doctor pursues opera music and a CEO turns to international relief work in the Sudan. Lawrence-Lightfoot, 64, shares what she learned about finding and pursuing a passion from speaking with individuals who were opening—and writing (some literally)—a new chapter in their lives.
Re-establish your sense of curiosity. By midlfe, we have our daily routines, established relationships and, in some sense, a set way of looking of looking at everything. “We have to discipline ourselves to develop a curiosity again about the world,” Lawrence-Lightfoot says. “Discipline your mind and heart.” Force yourself to ask questions. This will help you discover what you want to pursue.
Look to the past. Lawrence-Lightfoot refers to this task as “looking backward into the future.” Think about what you always loved to do as a child, or what you wanted to pursue before someone convinced you otherwise. “Many, many stories I heard were of people who returned to the passion, curiosities and interests of their childhood,” she says.
Get uncomfortable. To pursue a passion, you’ll probably be pushing yourself outside your comfort zone. Most of the stories Lawrence-Lightfoot heard included some sort of boundary crossing, whether those boundaries were of class, geography, race or generations. “This is an important part of the creative aspect of taking on a new adventure,” she says. The result of crossing, she says, always is learning.
Expect loss. “Discovering something new is difficult, complex and hard,” Lawrence-Lightfoot says. When you move to a new career or pursue something new, you often lose your status, title and institutional affiliation associated with your prior job, and that’s something many of Lawrence-Lightfoot’s subjects grappled with. Just focus on the feelings of liberation. You’re doing what you want!
Expect your relationships to change. Your family already has an idea of who you are, what you love to do and what your role is, Lawrence Lightfoot says, and when you change, these relationships do, too. Most of the women she interviewed talked about how their relationships with husbands and children morphed when they began their “third chapters.” “Some of these primary relationships have to be recast and redesigned in order to support this new invention and passion of self,” she says.
Think about your legacy. Chances are that until now, you have been focused on climbing up the ladder. When people find the passion that opens their third chapter, it’s more about doing something to benefit the community and generations to come. They want to leave an imprint. “It’s what I call giving forward to society as it’s becoming,” Lawrence-Lightfoot says.