The Third Chapter

Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

Sarah Crichton Books

Introduction: Facing the Mirror

Perhaps it is my age. I am sixty-two, and for the last several years my conversations with friends, colleagues, and even casual acquaintances have often been punctuated by what I have now come to call "confessional moments." Certainly there is the expected chatter and grumbling about minor and major infirmities or unwelcome signs of deterioration—lower-back pain, varicose veins, bald heads, and gray hair—and there is the usual whining about offspring, now finished with college, maybe even married with young children, who return home to live and still need to be provided with health care and spending money. When I refer to confessional moments, however, I do not mean the habitual grumbling about our inevitable decline as we grow older. (One of my friends refers to these gripe sessions as "organ recitals.") Nor am I referring to the odd and troubling sensation of gazing into the mirror and seeing not yourself, but someone decades older than you imagine yourself to be—someone who looks very much like your mother.

I am, instead, talking about moments when we manage to resist the signs of burnout, make peace with the old/new mirror image, and refuse to be preoccupied with our chronic laments about aging or our sadness about our vanishing youth. These are moments when our faces light up, when there is a palpable surge of energy and we begin to reveal stories about learning something new. These are stories told most often by people who are—like me—in the "Third Chapter" of our adult lives, the years between fifty and seventy-five, the generative space that follows young adulthood and middle age. And these stories are recited with intrigue, passion, and self-discovery—stories that reveal themselves like mysterious secrets; tales often striking in their contradictions and paradoxes.

My friend Jacob, an ardent intellectual and a distinguished journalist with a Ph.D. in political science, has a quick mind and a subtle wit. Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, the only son of Jewish immigrant parents, he is a man of expansive warmth, whose greatest pleasures are relational and social and whose currency of discourse has always been language: a rapid-fire delivery blending a New York Bronx dialect with a sprinkling of Yiddish, for emotional effect. Now sixty-two, he tells me of his first experience attending a seven-day silent retreat where—after much resistance, fear, and panic; then resolve and determination— he began to let down his barriers and inhibitions and learn to live in the stillness. This still-raw understanding and practice of meditation has opened a whole new discipline and perspective that seem to "challenge old inhibitions and raise questions" about who he is "becoming," and about his capacity to be alone with himself. He says dramatically, "Meditation is the most counterintuitive thing I could have possibly tried to learn to do."

Roma, a fifty-seven-year-old physicist I met at a dinner party, who has spent all of her professional career in the laboratory enjoying the quiet and order of the space, the exacting, familiar rituals of the scientific process, and the pursuit of the objective, quantitative evidence, recently began to feel—after thirty years—the limits and constraints of her existence. The solitude and discipline of her work, which used to feel safe and generative, started to feel claustrophobic. The rituals began to seem routine. The questions that used to inspire curiosity began to strike her as dull and formulaic. But mostly she sensed the need to "make a difference on our planet" in a more direct and immediate way; she yearned to teach, to serve, to give back. Cutting back on her hours in the lab, Roma signed up for a mentoring program where she teaches middle-school black, brown, and poor students in an after-school program the subject that always fascinated her the most when she was a young adolescent: astronomy. In her first year of teaching, Roma admits that this is the hardest, most challenging work that she has ever done: learning the science now long forgotten and finding a palatable and relevant way to present it; learning to relate to and discipline the children and capture their imaginations; learning to recover from the awkwardness and public failures that come with being a total novice. "I’m so completely uncool," she says with a smile. Like Jacob, she has chosen "the most difficult path," strewn with minefields and misunderstandings, and rare, unexpected successes along the way.

And there is Robert, the seventy-two-year-old retired mechanical engineer whom I meet at an ice-cream joint on the side of the road in rural New Hampshire. He and his wife of fifty years are out on their ritual Sunday drive, and they are looking to pick up an interesting conversation with a stranger. They sit down next to me at the picnic table and begin in a place where we all meet: with family stories. I listen to their proud tales about their grandchildren scattered all over the country and admire the photographs of their smiling faces. But soon, with a bit of gentle prodding from his wife, Abbie, the conversation turns to Robert’s "new passion," and he goes to the car to fetch his drawings, postcard-size pen-and-ink sketches of birds. He has always loved birds: listening to their songs in the morning light, watching them visit the bird feeders outside his kitchen window, observing the "social interactions" among them. And he has always said, "I wish I had an artistic bone in my body, so I could draw the beauty I see in them." A week after his retirement party, as he faced the "surprising emptiness" in front of him, he took the leap of faith and signed up for three drawing courses— "a total immersion"—at the adult-education center. "This has become my life!" he says in confessional tones, as I remark on the steady improvement I see in his portfolio of work, and as he talks about the exhilaration and vulnerability of learning something new.

For women and men in the Third Chapter, the process of learning something new feels both familiar and strange, exciting and terrifying, mature and childlike, both in character and out of body, like returning home and setting out on an adventure to an unknown destination. This is true whether we are talking about learning a new skill, craft, or art form—like learning to speak a foreign language, play jazz piano, or become a play-wright—or whether we are learning to feel and express a broader and deeper emotional repertoire—freeing us from the bondage of the rigid requirements of decorum forged in our childhood— or whether we are learning to grieve after the death of a loved one—learning to make ourselves vulnerable and not retreat from intimacy—or whether we are talking about shifting the focus of our energies and priorities, from solitary, individualistic, and competitive to community-based and collaborative; from making it up the ladder of success to making an imprint on the lives of others.

This book focuses on the creative and purposeful learning that goes on in the Third Chapter of life. I explore the ways in which men and women between the ages of fifty and seventyfive find ways of changing, adapting, exploring, mastering, and channeling their energies, skills, and passions into new domains of learning. I believe that successful aging requires that people continue—across their lifetime—to express a curiosity about their changing world, an ability to adapt to shifts in their developmental and physical capacities, and an eagerness to engage new perspectives, skills, and appetites. This requires the willingness to take risks, experience vulnerability and uncertainty, learn from experimentation and failure, seek guidance and counsel from younger generations, and develop new relationships of support and intimacy.

In writing this book, I wanted to understand what motivates people in this Third Chapter of life to want to learn something new. What are our sources of inspiration; what are our greatest fears and inhibitions; what are the major barriers to learning; and what allows us to pursue adventures? I also wanted to know how the processes of learning, adaptation, experimentation, and mastery are different during this period of life. Do maturity and life experiences support a greater sense of liberation and collaboration; a new level of patience, perspective, and confidence; and a sturdy sense of self that permits risk-taking? How do people break long-established patterns of behavior, old habits and inhibitions that no longer serve them well? How do people seek and make productive use of feedback and criticism when they are developing new skills and adapting to new realities? How do they hang on to their dignity, sense of authority, and self-respect when the awkwardness and imbalance of new learning make them feel infantilized? What needs to be unlearned if someone is to learn something new? How do people balance—and negotiate the tensions between—the losses and gains of new commitments? What are some of the things that people in their Third Chapters discover that they simply cannot learn; what are the physical, developmental, cognitive, and emotional limitations that prevent them from gaining mastery of new skills and taking the next developmental step? And, finally, what are the connections that can be drawn between individual learning, community building, and cultural creativity? What institutional innovations, shifts in cultural priorities, and educational reforms might support the translations from individual gain to public good?

I think that part of the reason we who are in our Third Chapters tend to speak of our new learning in "confessional tones"—in tentative, hushed voices that barely veil the excitement and the terror we feel inside—is that something in us feels we are being irresponsible, or inappropriate, maybe even unseemly, when we admit our lust for new learning. Somehow, we feel that people our age should be consolidating our experiences, integrating all that we’ve learned and accomplished, and resting on our laurels—not engaging in risk-taking projects, embarking on unmapped adventures, and enduring the awkwardness and vulnerabilities of new mastery. Maybe we even feel it is somehow undignified to be so childish in our enthusiasms and eagerness to explore new domains of knowledge, recover ancient passions, and try on new roles and costumes.

Our sense of inappropriateness is related, I believe, to deeply ambivalent, shifting societal expectations, institutional norms, and cultural presumptions about the "normal" developmental trajectories of aging. Some of these changing societal expectations are visible and quantifiable, reflecting demographic shifts, increases in educational attainment, and lifestyle changes for people in their Third Chapters. Each generation is living longer than the last one. Better health care, improved diet, more exercise, new medical innovations and interventions, and changes in the routines and rhythms of our work and play allow us to live much longer—stretching the time when we are fortunate enough to be energetic and productive.

U.S. Census statistics from 2000 tell the story of a recent and significant bulge in the population of older Americans who are healthier, better educated, and yearning for a productive and enjoyable alternative to retirement.1 The arc of life and learning is continually being expanded and redefined. As a matter of fact, demographers who study the shifting patterns tell us that not only are people living longer and thus facing interesting questions related to how to compose their lives, but also that what I am calling the Third Chapter represents a significant and new developmental period in our culture, one that comes along only once a century. It seems that every hundred years or so a new developmental phenomenon emerges on our cultural horizon. It becomes noticed and named, and entered into the lexicon of our views and rhetoric about human experience.

Last century, we "discovered" and labeled "adolescence" as a distinct developmental period between childhood and adulthood. We began to see it as a time of enormous change, drama, and fluctuation, and as an explanation for new alignments in the strained relationships between parents and their teenagers. During adolescence, powerful peer relationships pull young people away from family expectations, rhythms, and rules and into a world in which parents have little control, access, or understanding. The "work" of adolescence—say developmentalists—is to differentiate, establish some measure of separation from family, and take the initial steps toward independence in the world. This is usually not a smooth or benign process; there is the predictable tumult, drama, awkwardness, and pain as the parent-child relationships are renegotiated and redefined. So, last century, the chronological period of adolescence emerged as a cultural construct that was stamped into our psyches and written into the social scripts of our families, schools, and communities.

In the twenty-first century, another phase of life seems to be emerging as significant and distinct, capturing our interest, engaging our curiosity, and expanding our understanding of human potential and development. Demographers talk about this new distinctive chapter in life as characterized by people—between fifty and seventy-five—who are considered "neither young nor old." In the Third Chapter we are beginning to redefine our views about the casualties and opportunities of aging; we are challenging cultural definitions of strength, maturity, power, and sexiness.

Signs of these shifts in our cultural regard and societal expectations have appeared in the media, in popular culture, and in everyday conversation. Helen Mirren stands on the stage, accepting the Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II—her white hair perfectly coiffed and gleaming, her shimmering, low-cut dress exposing a healthy cleavage, her sultry, seductive voice softening her British accent. As she walks up to receive her honor, she is called "hot" by her male presenter. She knows she’s sexy; telling a reporter after the show that if she were offered a role that required a nude scene, she would be more than happy—at sixty—to bare it all. But it is not just movie stars; whole marketing campaigns are designed to court the humanly flawed and give a different face to aging. Dove commercials of older nude women in frontal poses challenge earlier standards of modesty and decorum, openly reveal their sagging bodies, gray hair, and lined faces to audiences still struggling to see and accept the new definitions of sexy. Documentaries offer inspiring narratives of Baby Boomers carving out new altruistic careers, and life-insurance commercials depict handsome, bronzed seventy-year-olds fly-fishing, snowboarding, and romping with their grandchildren—capturing the physical prowess and gentleness of confident, mature men.

This is a chapter in life, then, when the traditional norms, rules, and rituals of our careers seem less encompassing and restrictive; when many women and men seem to be embracing new challenges and searching for greater meaning in life. The Boomer generation—once defined by their youthful boldness, achievement, and opportunism—bring to the Third Chapter their wealth and resources and their social capital and sense of authority, as well as their appetite for new adventures and their yearning for inspiration and reinvention.

Even with these marked shifts in societal views and expectations, and in our identities and self-images, however, there is a palpable cultural undertow that continues to regard aging beyond fifty as defined by inevitable decline; by the slow deterioration of mind, body, and spirit. Our culture continues to be youth-obsessed. Beauty and strength, lust and passion, energy and optimism, daring and courage are still seen as embodied by people in their twenties and thirties; and women and men over fifty continue to mourn the ways in which their bodies no longer conform to those youthful ideals, lifting and Botoxing their faces, dyeing and thickening their hair, flattening their butts, reforming their breasts, and working their muscles. All of us—old and young and in between—to some extent still harbor a jaded and static view of life beyond fifty—a depressing image of people slowing down, losing interest, and fading away. It is a picture of disappointment and loss: loss of vitality, curiosity, sexiness, and drive. It is seen as a time for leisure and retreat, not challenge and engagement; a time for resting on our laurels, not meeting new challenges; a time for circling the wagons, not journeying forth. The "golden years" are perceived as anything but golden and lustrous. They do not shimmer with excitement and adventure; they grow rusty with routine. They mark the beginning of a slow decline toward death. In the twenty-first-century culture, then, there continues to be a preoccupation with all things youthful, and a prejudice—however veiled—against the symbols and signs of aging.

These contrasting, contrary images of aging express a profound cultural ambivalence, one that leads to oppositional attitudes, mixed metaphors, confusing imagery, and ambiguous societal signals about what is developmentally appropriate for us, about what is possible and achievable, and about what our dreams should be made of. And I believe that the confessional tones we use—our hushed disclosures of new adventures in learning that we would prefer to scream from the mountain-tops—reflect our wary response to this cultural ambivalence.

This book offers a strong counterpoint to the murky ambivalence that shrouds our clear view of people in their Third Chapters. It challenges the still-prevailing and anachronistic images of aging by documenting and revealing the ways in which the years between fifty and seventy-five may, in fact, be the most transformative and generative time in our lives; it traces the ways in which wisdom, experience, and new learning inspire individual growth and cultural transformation. The women and men whose voices fill these pages tell passionate and poignant stories of risk and vulnerability, failure and resilience, challenge and mastery, experimentation and improvisation, and insight and new learning. Finally, this book explores the public benefits, the ways in which new learning in the Third Chapter—both individual and collective—might begin to reshape our culture’s understanding of education, wisdom, productivity, and even work.

For two years, I traveled around the country interviewing forty men and women between the ages of fifty and seventy-five who saw themselves as "new learners," who were eager to reflect on their experiences, question their motives, celebrate their achievements, and tell their stories. I spoke to twenty-four women and sixteen men, from a variety of professions and careers, from diverse racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, and from a range of geographic regions around the country. Although many had grown up in poor and working-class families, the women and men whom I interviewed were all well educated (with college and advanced degrees), and relatively affluent (living middle, upper-middle, and upper class lives). "I have known a generous abundance in my adult life," said a former entrepreneur who had grown up in poverty and was now, at sixty, trying to master a pair of courses in quantum physics, "and that has allowed me the freedom to take the risks of creating a new reality for myself." Most of the people I interviewed, then, did not to have to worry about paying the mortgage, keeping their health insurance, educating their children and grandchildren, or funding their retirements. They enjoyed a "privileged place" that allowed them the resources and emotional space to explore new adventures, imagine different scenarios, and make unlikely choices they might never have anticipated in their first two chapters of life.

Using what sociologists call a "snowball" sample (asking each interviewee to recommend others who might be interested in joining the project), I searched out people who were embarking on new learning adventures; who were eager to examine their motives and the goals and processes of their learning; and who wanted to be intentional in shaping their journeys. I was interested in exploring what these men and women meant by "learning" and why it felt "new" to them. I asked them to trace in detail the initial impulses and motivations that led them to the learning experience, the barriers and breakthroughs they experienced, the path, pace, texture, and rhythms of their learning. I also wanted to know whether their learning was solitary and self-sustained, maybe even secretive (the stealth learner), or whether it was being supported by mentors, teachers, or coaches. What scaffolding was needed to support their efforts; whom did they go to for criticism, assessment, and feedback? Along the way, how did they stay motivated; how did they withstand the inevitable failures, setbacks, and criticism; and what did they mark as signs of progress and measures of achievement? Did the new learning become their life’s central preoccupation, and in what ways did it impact their normal rhythms, routines, and relationships? Did the mastery of learning make them feel different about themselves—their capacities, strengths, and intelligence; their vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and challenges?

In addition to exploring the origins, processes, and trajectory of new learning, I also was interested in having people describe the context—historical, physical, relational, and cultural—in which the learning was embedded, and the ways in which the setting and timing shaped their engagement and mastery. How were they influenced by these external forces and events, those that were within and out of their control? Were there pivotal moments—of public achievement, personal crisis, serious illness, family realignments—that rocked their reality and inspired change in them?

I was also curious to see the imprint of the immediate context in the places where people were learning. I visited a sixty-three-year-old portrait painter in her studio, traced the history of her work chronicled in her large portfolio, and watched as she applied thin luminous layers of paint to a portrait in progress. I examined the Victorian cabinet of a seventy-year-old furniture maker and listened as his colleagues offered their tough critiques of his design. I toured the gorgeous studio of a seventy-year-old quilter, and watched her lure novices into working on a collaborative public exhibit, in the process turning the privacy and asylum of her studio into a space for public art. I sat for hours on the bench beside a sixty-two-year-old jazz pianist as he practiced his scales and played me some of his new compositions, and I observed Roma, the fifty-seven-year-old laboratory scientist in her first year of teaching adolescents in an after-school program.

I sat in the audience of a fifty-two-year-old woman who had worked with a voice coach for two years to become a more fluent and compelling public speaker, watched the dress rehearsal of a play written by a sixty-three-year-old new playwright, and enjoyed the debut performance of a fifty-eight-year-old former schoolteacher at the conclusion of his first year of studying acting. I stood on the beach and watched a fifty-five-year-old woman biologist take surfing lessons, bravely battling—rather than riding—the big waves, and stood at the finish line when a seventy-year-old man completed his first half-marathon, to raise money for cancer research. I followed in the footsteps of a seventy-year-old architect going on her first archaeological dig at the site of an African American meetinghouse that had been a stop on the route of the Underground Railroad, and watched a sixty-year-old former CEO working with activists and advocates from a nonprofit, to apply his business knowledge to their mission.

Each of these visits not only helped me visualize and document the settings in which learning was taking place, but also allowed me to observe those processes of mastery that people were not yet able to identify and articulate—the inchoate, often chaotic experience of newly emerging perspectives; the rawness of embryonic skills. My site visits allowed people to "show" me rather than "tell" me about what they were learning—for example, to witness the knowledge expressed through their bodies, rather than through thinking and language. And it helped me notice the almost imperceptible changes and tiny improvements in mastery of which people were often not aware. In the days and weeks following the interviews, people would often want to continue our conversation, fix a misstatement, embellish a point, or explain something further; they sent me e-mails and letters, published pieces and diary excerpts that they had written, photographs they had taken of new work, or drawings that mapped the progress of their learning since we last spoke.

As I observed and witnessed the learning of these men and women, I listened carefully for the ways in which the storytellers composed their central narrative. I was attentive to the talk and the silence; to those moments of expressivity and restraint; to those places where they feared to tread; to those revelations that surprised them; to those memories long buried. These were emotional encounters, filled with tears and laughter, breakthroughs and breakdowns, curiosity and discovery. Even narratives that might have begun as intellectual excavations often found their gravity and expression in the affairs of the heart, blending emotion and cognition, feelings and intellect. Talking about the present and the future almost always required journeys into the past. More than one person exclaimed, "This is like looking backward into the future." As I listened, I always pressed for details, for nuance, for complexity; for the subtext, the hidden underside of things palpable and tangible.

In her wonderful autobiographical account One Writer’s Beginnings, my favorite storyteller, Eudora Welty, says about her craft, "What discoveries I’ve made in the course of writing stories all begin with the particular, never the general." 2 In the particular resides the general. Stories—well told, with detail and context—allow for texture, subtlety, and multiple interpretations, and they help us to discover the universals among us. As I traced the narratives and delved for the particulars of person and place, I listened for the patterns, the themes, the collective voice. I worked to discover the idiosyncratic even as I probed for the similarities and commonalities—the places where people’s stories converged and overlapped, even when those people at first appeared to be so unalike.

Another important insight from Welty’s exposition on craft focuses on the subtle but critical distinction between "listening to a story"3 and "listening for a story."4 The former, she says, is a more passive, receptive stance in which the interviewer waits to absorb the information and does little to give it shape or form. The latter is a much more engaged, discerning position in which the interviewer searches for the story, seeks it out, and is central in its creation. She does not compose or direct the unfolding drama; she does not impose her own story, drowning out the narrator’s voice. But she is willing to enter into a dialogue that reveals part of her own journey, and she is aware of the part she plays as witness in shaping the story’s coherence and aesthetic. In this work, I employed Welty’s more activist, artistic approach of "listening for the story": for its shape, intensity, rhythm, and texture; for its substance and content; for its metaphors and symbolism; for the light and shadows.

As I listened to the voices of Third Chapter learners, I played many roles. I was the empathic and attentive witness, putting myself in their shoes, trying to decode the environment as they saw it, resonating with their anxieties and fears, reckoning with their inhibitions, challenges, and successes. I was the eager cheerleader, offering applause, appreciation, and acclaim for their creativity, their grit, and their courage. I was the discerning connoisseur, developing a taste for the shape of their sentences, the cadence of their language, the arc of their stories. I was the artist, painting the landscape, drawing their portraits, sketching in the light and the shadows. I was the spider woman, weaving together their life remnants, unsnarling the tangled threads of their stories, casting a net to catch them if they should fall. I was the probing researcher, patiently gathering data, asking the impertinent questions, examining their interpretations with skepticism and deliberation. And I was the fellow traveler, walking beside them, watching their backs, admiring the vistas, avoiding the minefields, and bringing my own story to our dialogue. As a matter of fact, as I heard the narratives of these women and men, I felt myself deeply engaged in new learning as well—echoing and reflecting the curiosity, vulnerability, risk-taking, and passion of their journeys in my own. I looked into their eyes and saw my reflection, the refracted images of my face in the mirror: a sixty-two-year-old woman with "confessional moments" of my own.

Excerpted from The Third Chapter by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

Copyright © 2009 by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

Published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.