Marc Freedman has a provocative post up on the HBR lob. He starts with a quintessential story of “reinvention.”
Gary Maxworthy spent three decades in business until a personal tragedy prompted him to reexamine his priorities. He left the corporate world behind, set off to find his true calling, and in the process discovered both a new identity and the path to accomplishing his most important work fighting hunger.
In this telling, Maxworthy is an archetypal example of the reinvention mythology that seems omnipresent today, especially when it comes to those in the second half of life. Self-help columns are packed with reinvention tips. Financial services ads depict beaming boomers opening B&Bs and vineyards. More magazine, that bastion of midlife uplift for women over 40, even sponsored a series of reinvention conventions.
The trouble is that a counter-myth of dramatic and life altering transformation can also become radically disempowering and lead people to miss the value of much more subtle changes in one’s life and work.
Freedman knows a little something about this as founder and CEO of Encore.org, which annually gives out The Purpose Prize for social innovators in the second half of life. He concludes…
That perspective has not only influenced our view of youth, but of later life. The Golden Years retirement mythology was built around the dream of a second childhood, graying as playing. Retirement communities were age segregated not only to avoid school taxes, but somewhat paradoxically, to evade the idea of old age itself. If everyone was old, then no one was old.
To me that’s the most damaging part of the reinvention mythology: the preoccupation not only with rebirth, but with youth itself, even as it is slipping away. Today 70 is upheld as the new 50, 60 the new 40 or even 30, and 50 practically adolescence.
The most perfect proof that youth has slipped from our grasp is the day when we begin to pine for what now lies beyond our grasp– the thoughtless squander of time and energy on things we know do not and will not matter.
The most genuine embrace of age lies in Freedman’s formulation of a reintegration of all that came before. This is life at its most elemental, this is the sweet alchemy that can convert what is into what ought to be.