I’m not big on change. Most of us aren’t. That becomes a bigger problem the more choices we have and the more restless we feel. Second adulthood is about choices and restlessness and trying something new. But that means change, and many of us get stuck at the edge of the diving board.
And some of us get a push, which at the time seems like the worst day of our lives. In my work that happened to me twice. The first time the magazine I loved was sold and the new owners wanted to bring in new blood; otherwise I would have stayed on forever – slug that I am – and missed out on the rest of my career. The second time, after several years of tension with the publisher, I was asked “to step down.”
Being fired is one of life’s most devastating experiences; how can you go out and sell yourself when you have just been pronounced a failure? In my case I also had to face the fact that I was at the end of the road in terms of magazine editing – there simply weren’t any left that I was right for.
My well-meaning friends peppered me with ideas, most of which had to do with writing. After all, writing and editing are both word jobs. What they didn’t understand was that the way I saw it, editing was about making someone else’s ideas better, and writing was about having your own ideas and putting them out there.
I had gotten all the way to my 50s without feeling I had anything to say. Because I felt I had no other choice – because I was pushed – I began to explore what I wanted to tell people. That was – as many people who are dislodged from one kind of work say – the “best thing that could have happened.”
What’s more it couldn’t have happened any earlier. By the time I was fired I was well into the delicious “I don’t care what other people think” stage of reinvention. The reward of that liberating defiance is that you begin to believe “I care more what I think.” A lifetime of listening for what other people thought, felt, needed – listening for other voices – had muted my own. But having to write – having to express my own ideas, with conviction – has, over a decade later, enabled me to speak up, speak out and say what I know. Change, however unwelcome at the time, turned out to be a gift.
Somewhere along the way someone called my attention to W.H. Auden’s poem “Leap Before You Look”; it has helped me understand the paralyzing power of risk-taking by suggesting that “fear” and “change” can be dealt with separately.
The first line is, “The sense of danger must not disappear”; that is where the joy of discovery comes from. The concluding line is, “Our dream of safety has to disappear.” We learn that lesson every day. As we experience aging, we understand two things: that there is danger ahead and that we need to let go of the notion that if we give our all, we can make safety happen. Which is why the best place to be is in the present. So leap!
Here are some resources for your own plunge (many geared toward women):
Suzanne Braun Levine serves on the board of Civic Ventures, now Encore.org. She is the author of Inventing the Rest of Our Lives and Fifty Is the New Fifty: Ten Life Lessons for Women in Second Adulthood. Read her blog at www.suzannebraunlevine.com.