It Really Does Get Better

We all know about the challenges of getting older – feeling that it’s a whole new world and no one gave you the playbook.

But according to Boundless Potential, a new book that spawned a PBS special by Mark Walton, an award-winning former CNN reporter, aging has benefits. Which explains why late bloomers show up in every field. (By the way, Encore.org founder and CEO Marc Freedmanappears in the PBS program, which is definitely worth watching. See the trailer here.)

In his book, Walton digs into the stories of what he calls “reinventive” people who craft “self-created endeavors that unlock our unique lifetime potential, provide the highest levels of happiness and have a meaningful impact in the world.” He tours through the latest research in brain science and psychology and explores the lessons of civilizations throughout history to find the recipe for what’s commonly known as wisdom.

Below is an edited conversation I had with Walton recently about his findings and how they relate to the encore stage of life:

Q: You tell the stories of some incredible achievers, like Gil Garcetti, who was fired from his job as Los Angeles district attorney after the O.J. Simpson murder case, but reinvented himself, in his 60s, as a leading photographer. These folks did remarkable things in their encore years – often after hitting rock bottom. What do you say to someone who’s daunted by these superstars and bounce-back stories?

A: Crisscrossing America, I met reinventive men and women who achieved some pretty amazing, and unexpected, things in midlife and beyond. But behind the curtain, the reality is: They started out just like the rest of us – confused about which way to turn, and unsure of themselves. What they discovered, and what I learned from them, is a methodology, or blueprint, for successful reinvention.

Q: The latest brain science findings you report are reassuring. You write that “the human brain was never designed for decline or retirement but for continual reinvention and success.” How important is it to “use it or lose it” – and what should we all be doing to make sure we can tap into the strength of our aging brains?

A: Well, for one thing, I’d recommend deleting the words “aging” and “decline” from your vocabulary when thinking about, and discussing, life’s second half – because I think they generate inaccurate, misleading and anachronistic assumptions. State-of-the-art neuroscience has revealed that we are hard-wired for reinvention through the emergence of extraordinary new creative and intellectual powers in midlife and beyond. What’s more, a growing number of men and women are learning how to leverage this inborn potential. Rather than lowering their aspirations in midlife, they are raising the bar – inventingprofitable new careers, businesses and avenues for social impact that extend well into their 70s, 80s, even 90s.

Q: Throughout the book you make the case that the ultimate reward for years of hard work is… more hard work, and that it’s that extra hard work that will make us happy. That reminds me of the old joke about the pie eating contest where the prize was more pie. Why do you believe that work is the answer to later-in-life fulfillment?

A: By nature, I’m not a “believer.” I’m a serious journalist, and it takes a significant amount of hard evidence to impact my thinking. The fact is that top psychologists and longevity experts are today increasingly convinced that doing work that we love, and that challenges us to stretch ourselves, is the key to the highest level of happiness. And further, creating work that allows us to “pay it forward” to future generations, to be generative in other words, pays us back in personal long-term health and happiness.

Q: You build a strong case for entrepreneurship, yet what you describe isn’t necessarily traditional business building. What do you mean by entrepreneurship and how would you encourage others to tap into their own entrepreneurial spirit?

A: You know, many of the new business and social entrepreneurships I’m seeing actually are traditional, and in a very American way. I say this, because they start out, and often remain, small; they are, in a sense, personal declarations of independence. What I’ve seen is that more and more women and men today are – and quite wisely, I think – abandoning the idea that working for somebody else is the way to move forward in life’s new, longer second half. Instead, reinventive people are creating their own futures by starting solo, by launching what are often called personal entrepreneurships – structures that allow them to turn their personal fascinations into real-world work from which they can profit – financially, emotionally and physically – well into their 70s, 80s, even beyond.