In the last post, we examined where we are right now in life in order to identify where we might want to be in the future: the health of our bodies, our spirits, and our relationships as well as the dreams or passions we have not yet pursued (or maybe even identified).
With this in hand, let’s move on:
Step #2. Same drill. Quiet place; journal in hand. Read through your initial entry. Anything to add or edit? Does it still feel honest?
What leaps out at you from your work? Do you notice any patterns—boredom and overeating; stress and impatience; lack of self-assertion and a feeling of victimhood?
Did you identify something you always wanted to pursue or to learn? Are there disappointments you uncovered? Are some elements of your life story simply incomprehensible to you—how did you end up here, you ask?
Sit with these for a minute. What tugs at your heart? What calls to you? What sounds absolutely awful or completely thrilling? What needs a closer look?
Also read over your assessment of your primary relationships. Any action plan needed here? Fences that need mending or habits that need adjusting?
You aren’t writing anything, necessarily. You’re just noticing habits, patterns, ways of thinking, and how yesterday’s work makes you feel today.
Now. Begin creating your reinvention plan. This is the eulogy moment. What do you want people to say about you after you die? How do you want to feel about your one and only life? Begin to articulate the big, sine qua non items. The ones you cannot die without having accomplished. Make a list of them. Not an overwhelming list—the top three or four. The big ones.
Choose one. This is your project for this year. And maybe for next year. If it’s that important, you may work on it for the rest of your life. Break this goal down into manageable steps that you can start doing tomorrow. What’s the first step, then the second? Travel to Africa? You’ll start by researching your options with the goal of having a plan in place this year. Lose 35 pounds permanently? Research your options with a goal of having identified a realistic, lifelong approach this week that you can begin practicing next week. Learn how to play the flute? You’ll need to find an instrument and a teacher…
Next, review those primary relationships—kids, extended family, spouse. Have you identified tendencies to work on? Habits to develop or break? Relationships that need attention? Relationships that need special nourishment or a new approach?
Don’t overlook the one relationship that is most critical to your longevity and quality of life. “If you’re in a happy marriage, you will tend to live longer. That’s perhaps as important as not smoking, which is to say: huge,” says Lyle Ungar, one of the researchers of that data-driven longevity calculator I mentioned in the first post. Knowing that someone in the world knows you intimately, loves you, and has your back adds measurably to quality of life. It makes sense, then, to focus especially on this relationship in your life review—to test its soundness and ponder how it might be strengthened.
List one or two specific steps you can take immediately that will make any of these relationships stronger. Also write down one or two habits or personality traits that impede them—that you should work to change.
With a path identified (for the year, at least) and the initial steps delineated, you’re ready to begin. Let me just add the wisdom of a few professionals and life-reinventers who have walked this path before.
Practice gratitude. Every day. “…allow yourself to be grateful for the things you…have. Anger is never inspirational but gratitude is,” writes the best-selling albeit hyperactive author, James Altucher.
Goals, such as those you just articulated are important because “if you don't have long-term goals, you run the risk of doing lots of little things every day—cleaning the house, sending emails, catching up on TV—without ever making a contribution to your future,” says Art Markman, psychology professor and author in this article.
Stay flexible. Change is never static. Reinvention is an ongoing process. You’ll have to rinse and repeat again next year (or next month) to make sure the goals you set today are still relevant and important and that your progress is unfolding according to plan. “Too often, we give up just when we need to push harder, and persist when we actually should quit,” writes one author.
Change is never easy. Expect setbacks; anticipate resistance. Anything really challenging and worthwhile will take time to accomplish, so if it’s really important, don’t shortchange yourself. Persevere through the tough spots. “The most successful self-reinventors are those who understand that they have time and are willing to use it to invest in their own skills and education,” writes this author.
Declutter. Yes, you read that right. Downsizing, clearing out, cleaning up can feel both psychologically freeing and is also metaphorically linked to ridding your life of things that hold you back—mental clutter, too many commitments and obligations, relationships that are buzz-kills or worse, according to Margaret Manning, blogger and creator of sixtyandme.
There. You did it. I hope you feel empowered or at least optimistic. You should now have a roadmap for the months ahead. I’d love to hear how the project is working for you and if you have suggestions to refine it.
Need inspiration? Some of our “The Fullness of Midlife” podcasts are on topic: Lesley Jane Seymour on reinvention, Kate Convissor on overcoming fears, Deborah Robinson on appreciating our own bodies and treating them wellI, Joan Vernikos on how movement keeps us capable.
I had a shock the other day.
In an unguarded moment, I ran across one of those life expectancy calculators. You know, the kind that will tell you how many years you have left on earth after 10 minutes of softball questions.
Basically, I believe that predicting how long you’ll live is a fool’s errand—any of us could get hit by alien laser rays or a schoolbus tomorrow. But my data-driven heart was sucked in by this calculator, which was developed by professors at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School and based on 400,000 data samples collected by the National Institutes of Health and the AARP.
Now, I know that I fall in a healthy category for weight, activity level, and absence of chronic disease. But, still, the results shocked me.
Ninety-six. My estimated life expectancy is 96.
This is enough time to live a second adult life. This is enough time to start another career or follow a dream or pursue a passion. This is not enough time to waste.
So, that’s the challenge I put before you (and myself) this January: the macro view; the life-reinvention perspective. Because no matter how much time we have (or think we have), why squander it in self-defeating, fearful ways? Or simply by drifting through a handful of years without direction?
Reinvention isn’t a quick-fix project; it isn’t a lose-five-pounds resolution. It’s a project we could (and should) work on for the rest of our lives, periodically reviewing and adjusting our goals to see if they still fit.
Now—today—is a good time to start. So I put before you the proprietary MiddlesexMD Reinvention Project. Ready?
Step #1. Take stock. No shortcuts here. Sit yourself down somewhere quiet. Open to the first page of the Reinvention journal that you bought for this occasion. (You did get one, didn’t you?) Today’s task is to examine the important aspects of your life. As realistically and objectively as possible. You can’t envision a new you without a solid understanding of who you are now, right?
How’s your health? (Obviously my first question.) Are you content with how you feel? How do you feel about your eating/exercising habits? Your weight? Your overall mobility? Your blood pressure and cholesterol levels? Your mental acuity? Do not indulge in guilt or leap to quick, feel-good resolutions, just assess your physical self realistically.
How’s your spirit? Do you feel lonely? Optimistic? Afraid? Content? Discontent? Restless? Do a full-spirit wellness scan. Are the physical and spiritual linked in some way—being overweight and depressed, for example? Are you handicapped by free-floating fears or anxieties? Does stress nibble at the corners of your life—or maybe devour the whole enchilada? Do you feel unsettled and discontent or grateful and happy?
What is the source of your greatest joy or satisfaction? What are you good at? What are you happiest doing? Where does your passion—or your pleasure or your interest—lie? What have you always wanted to attempt? Do you have dreams that you decided had passed you by or that you are too afraid to try? Is there anything you would regret not having done before you die?
Examine the health of your most important relationships. Our closest relationships are the sources of our greatest joy and satisfaction as well as our greatest heartbreak and frustration. We expend a lot of energy repressing, denying, or making excuses for broken relationships, whether with family, lovers, or friends. Does this sound true for you?
Are you keeping up with friends and loved ones, or have you let important relationship wither on the vine? We also sometimes endure relationships that kill our spirits, that are toxic to our psyche and sometimes our bodies. Resolve now to examine them with a clear eye. You don’t have to do anything today except be honest with yourself.
Write it all down in the journal. This is the first day of your new you.
Okay. Take a deep breath. You’re done for today.
While reflecting on our anniversary, we were reminded of how many women have come before us, paving the way for straightforward conversations about women’s sexuality. This is the fourth in a series (read the first, second, and third) launching our sixth year with gratitude!
Helen Gurley grew up in the Ozarks, “ordinary, hillbilly, and poor,” but determined not to stay that way. When she was 10, her father died in an elevator accident. Her mother struggled for years to provide for her two daughters, then moved the family to Los Angeles in hopes of getting help from a relative. Helen Gurley, the valedictorian of her high school class, learned to type. She said she went through 17 secretarial jobs before a boss finally promoted her: to advertising copywriter. She never looked back.
She was a highly successful career woman but chafed at remaining unmarried well into her 30s, so she plotted to snare the movie producer David Brown (later known for The Sting, Jaws, and Driving Miss Daisy). Among her wiles: she put her phone in the fridge so she wouldn’t hear it ring, making her suitor think she was out with some other man. They stayed married for more than 50 years, until he died at the age of 93. She had told the New York Times, “I look after him like a geisha girl.”
When Helen Gurley Brown published Sex and the Single Girl in 1962, she was 40 years old and married; her husband had suggested the subject. She later recalled, “Before I wrote my book, the thought was that sex was for men and women only caved in to please men. But I wrote what I knew to be true—that sex is pleasurable for both women and men.”
The book’s notoriety led to her becoming the editor of Cosmopolitan. Her first cover, in the summer of 1965, featured ample cleavage, pouting pink lips, and heavily made-up eyes. She was aiming for the “grown-up girl, interested in whatever can give you a richer, more exciting, fun-filled, friend-filled, man-loved kind of life!” Her underlings were told, “no glums, no dour feminist anger and no motherhood.” She remained the editor of Cosmopolitan for 32 years. She claimed that her husband wrote the cover lines.
Helen Gurley Brown insisted that she was a feminist but others disagreed. One year after Sex and the Single Girl, Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique heralded a new wave of feminism. In 1970 Kate Millett led a sit-in in the Cosmopolitan office. Jennifer Pozner called Cosmopolitan “one of the most body-shaming, insecurity-provoking, long-lasting sexist media products of the last 100 years.”
Helen Gurley Brown died in 2012 at the age of 90. She had suggested that her epitaph say, “She worked very hard.” She claimed never to have taken a day off except for plastic surgery. As Margalit Fox’s obituary slyly put it, “She was 90, though parts of her were considerably younger.”
But Dr. Ruth had a gracious tribute. “What Helen Gurley Brown taught women was how to use their bodies not to give someone else pleasure but to give themselves pleasure, and that is a tremendous contribution for which I thank her on behalf of all the women who are now orgasmic and might never have been without her pioneering efforts.”
We all remember Maslow… don’t we? That noted psychologist who, in 1954, published his famous hierarchy of human needs that we all learned about in high school psychology?
Maslow determined that we all have basic physical and psychological needs that fall into an orderly hierarchy and are necessary to achieve happiness. But, he propositioned, basic survival needs for food and shelter had to be met before we’d benefit from higher levels of need fulfillment, such as the love and belonging or self-esteem.
To test whether Maslow’s theory would hold up under modern scrutiny, two researchers designed a massive Gallup poll of well-being. Almost 61,000 people in 123 countries were quizzed about fulfillment of specific needs and daily feelings of joy and unhappiness as well as on overall life satisfaction. Maslow was correct that people everywhere share the same basic needs, beginning with physical needs and ending with self-actualization (a “fuzzy” term that scientists don’t much like).
However, this survey found that, although Maslow was on target about his list of universal human needs, he was wrong about their orderly nature. People seem to need everything all at once. People can (and do) enjoy the higher-level needs for love and friendship, for example, even if they may be lacking some basic needs. “They’re like vitamins,” said one of the researchers in a recent article in the Atlantic. “We need them all.”
So where do we fit in—midlife women who probably have our basic physical needs met, but who still are actively engaged in life’s endeavors?
While the Gallup researchers were revisiting Maslow, Jaki Scarcello, author of Fifty and Fabulous, was conducting a little survey of her own, interviewing older women between the ages of 45 and 102 around the globe. She wanted to find out what happens when women grow old. How do we evolve?
What she discovered was that many of us do indeed reach Maslow’s highest levels of human development. We become wise, accepting, purposeful—you know, self-actualized—and this at times despite living under difficult challenging circumstances at times.
“I think the Maslow link is that perhaps self-actualization and improved self-esteem are more available to us as we age, which, ironically, may be a time in our lives when our basic needs are once again threatened,” said Jaki.
Jaki calls these the Women of the Harvest.
“Many older women told me they were experiencing a confidence they had never felt before in their lives,” says Jaki, “that they had found their voice, they were daring to do things they had not dared to do before.”
Younger women, on the other hand, tend to look to external sources for validation, to be more invested in appearances, and to be more distressed when basic needs weren’t met.
This serenity and self-acceptance applies to our sexual selves as well. “And so our sexuality is still important to us, but it does not suffer as much interference from self-deprecating mind chatter and from external reactions,” she said.
So, despite the physical and emotional changes of aging, we may be more confident in our own sexuality and look to others less for approval and validation.
“If it seems that the sparkle in a Woman of the Harvest deepens with age, perhaps it’s because her fire is fed in part by the internalization of sexual energy. This beauty is truly no longer skin deep. Instead, it radiates from some knowing place inside a woman who has ceased to need the outer world to know herself,” writes Jaki in Fifty and Fabulous.