Reinvention Lessons from the Trenches

If we're really living, we're always trying something new. Here, 7 tips to help you launch your next act

by Mary T. Wagner

The past twenty-five years have seen some pretty seismic shifts in my life. I’ve gone from freelance writing to a career in criminal prosecution, and then managed to combine both fields. I’ve evolved from a stay-home soccer mom intimidated by the thought of leading a group of first-grade Brownie Girl Scouts to representing the State in criminal court proceedings. I’ve beaten back a life-long fear of public speaking enough to address law school classes, writers’ conferences and the state Supreme Court. My latest book—When the Shoe Fits: Essays of Love, Life and Second Chances, which debuts August 1 on Amazon—chronicles some of these adventures.

The turning point in my career occurred nineteen years ago while I was taking jumping lessons in a horseback riding arena. After clearing a particular fence, I felt that something was fundamentally “off” in the way I was balancing in the saddle. I had nearly lost a stirrup on the landing. Nevertheless, my instructor announced that I was doing just fine. She insisted that I trust her judgment and take the fence again rather than practice on a lower one until I found the root of the problem. The result of that second jump was a broken back (though I didn’t know it at the time) and three months in a body cast. Once the breath-stealing pain finally started to fade a little, I vowed that I would never again ignore my gut feelings regarding a course of action. That “little voice” inside me would never be stilled again.

After the accident, I left a thirteen-year career as a newspaper journalist and magazine writer, and went to law school, balancing four children and a marriage on life-support. I wrote about it for MORE.com. For a while it seemed as though I had made the leap to a whole new life. But I’ve learned that, if we’re really living, we’re always learning and doing something new. There’s rarely a “before” and “after” that are completely unrelated. “Reinvention, or, as I like to think of it, “evolving,” is life. Here’s what else I’ve learned:

1. We can do more than one thing well at a time. When I started law school, I was convinced that the creative side of my life would be gone forever, left behind in the wake of this new and demanding passion. But I still loved to write, so I became a blogger, and then an author. And then I took up digital photography. I can’t imagine giving up any of these passions—and I don’t have to.

2. Our personal history can be a source of strength. At forty, I wasn’t a traditional law student. My youngest was starting kindergarten. I was absolutely terrified at the outset, but when the time came for me to take those all-or-nothing semester exams, I knew that I had more toughness and resilience than any three twenty-somethings put together.

3. The right shoes can boost our confidence, catch an opponent off guard, or empower us to try something new. I know this sounds strange, but I’m convinced it’s true!  I bought my first pair of spike heels at the age of 48. The first day I wore them to the office, the sheepishly admiring compliment that burst from a male colleague was an enlightening “eureka” moment for me! Women who are older than me often tell me they danced the night away in spike heels when they were young and gave them up by the time they’re fifty. I just got it backwards. But spike heels aren’t the only kind of shoes that can spark transformation. A pair of black leather motorcycle boots took me into an entirely new realm of possibilities. I’ve come to see many parallels between shoes and life. For example, when I find shoes that work for me, I take care of them so they’ll last. The same lesson holds true for other things or people I value.  Also, even though something may still technically “fit,” if I’ve outgrown it emotionally, I give myself permission to move on.

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