Hello, and happy last day of September! Today I am feeling grateful for the encouragement I’ve received from friends and colleagues since launching my blog. I’ve loved reconnecting with folks who I’d somehow lost track of over the years – thank you for reaching out and let’s keep it going! These have been rich conversations, and there’s an idea that keeps surfacing which I wanted to share:
When you’ve worked hard for years in your career, and you finally get to the stage of your life where you’re reaping the perks of that hard work – respected expertise, seniority, financial stability, a strong network – there’s a point when it’s just too late (or too scary, or too crazy) to choose another path.
And, if we’re honest, it’s not just about it being scary to make a change at this stage of life, but also at this age – 48, to be exact.
I think that idea is complete crap. Your passions are yours to explore at any stage. The world is yours to explore. But – if the idea above has come into your head and you feel like it’s too late for you to change your career, your life, whatever – please keep reading so I might convince you, even just a little, that it’s never too late.
Becoming…at any age
Of course, it feels strange at 48 to tell people, when asked, that in March I will finish my coursework towards a Diplome in Wine, Gastronomy in Management, AND that I will then start a 3-month internship. I mean, the last time I did an internship was in 1994. And, no, I don’t know what path I’ll take when I graduate because I still have much to learn about the new world I’m entering. I don’t know much about what the future of my life or career may hold.
But, that stuff – the ‘what if’s’ and ‘what’s next’ – no longer worries me. Why? Because I’m learning to embrace the magic of an unscripted life. I’m showing up everyday curious about what’s next and grateful for where I am today. And, drawing inspiration from Michelle Obama, I think that’s what becoming is all about.
Turning 48 this past weekend has been remarkable.
Now, I could say it’s remarkable because it’s the first one that my mom didn’t sing happy birthday to me, a tradition I dreaded annually but now miss since she passed. Or, because it’s the first time I turned a year older without being employed (gasp!). And, maybe even because – due to a pandemic silver lining – two of my children are back living at home taking ZoomUniversity, and we celebrated together. But, none of those is the reason.
This birthday is remarkable because between 47 and 48 I started to pay more attention to the signs the universe sends, and open myself to receive new wisdom which others kindly shared; it’s remarkable because of becoming.
And, I’m not the only one who is becoming. I’m just sharing my story so that it might help someone else’s learning along.
I remember last year’s birthday clearly. It was an unusually warm September evening in London, and 25-30 of us gathered at my house for a fabulous party to celebrate my birthday and that of a close friend. I felt footloose and fancy-free that night, dressed in my daughter’s cute black off-the-shoulder jumpsuit and my favourite high heeled sandals. Music playing, I was surrounded by close friends and good work colleagues. I was so pleased to have found friendship in a city I’d only called my own for two years. Everyone brought a dish or bottle to share, and we gathered in the garden and the house, drinking in the merriment.
I also remember that night clearly because it was a bright spot during an otherwise very stressful time at work. I didn’t realise it back then, but I was already experiencing signs of burnout.
A workaholic by nature, I would finish one big project – the kind that takes months to complete – and, without a pause to celebrate the win, I’d be ready to jump to the next. But, leadership was new, budgets were tight, and another round of layoffs loomed – all of which blurred my vision. Yet, there I was still trying to force the next project into being.
Although I felt like I was starting to crack, I tried to contain those feelings. I was careful, and I polished my veneer regularly, which, of course, only made it harder not to break. I’m grateful to the friends, mentors and colleagues who tolerated me at that moment, and those that kindly offered advice and shared their experience.
It was through them that I started to see that the universe was sending me signs that something in my life was about to change. I didn’t know what it was, but, like all good overachievers, I was a ready student.
In October, I retreated to the Alps for an education conference with a talented, warm group of changemakers. Gratefully, several people shared with me their stories of personal and professional growth, challenges and success. I must’ve seemed like a child hanging onto every word – learning, listening, growing. Between sessions and over meals, some shared with me their “a-ha moments” where they clarified their purpose. It seemed like such moments often followed a physical illness or a mental health challenge. Their stories helped me to process and confront my own. It was there that I realised that my values were no longer always aligned with my work and that my purpose was adrift.
I was slowly awakening.
Fresh insight in hand, a few weeks later, I attended a book talk by Morten Albaek, the Danish author of One Life: How We Forgot to Live Meaningful Lives. Albaek is a mesmerising speaker, part philosopher, part poet. Timing is everything, and his talk was for me.
He spoke about how we often educate people to understand what they can become, rather than to know who they are. He critiqued the modern notion of work-life balance, which implies that that people can split their lives, which they can’t; for most of us, work is an intimate part of our lives. I felt pushed to think about how I spent my time and what in my life generated happiness, satisfaction, and meaning.
That weekend I read the book closely, folding the corners of its pages, underlining sentences, fervently making notes in my journal. As fast as I moved through life, his wisdom offered a welcome pause. I started to think about how I might live a more meaningful life, one in which there would be no lines between work and life, but I also had no idea how to start. And, I mean NO idea. How could I change paths when I was already so far along? What about my responsibilities? And what else was I good at anyway?
In hindsight, it’s a damn good thing that I read that book because, on November 12th, my life took its most significant turn yet.
It was a Tuesday evening, and I’d finished working late at home. I poured myself a glass of wine and sat on the couch to unwind. I’d barely sat down when I received the news that my mother had died in a car crash. My head swirled, and my hands shook. I started to breathe in a panicked way with my heart pounding in my chest and waves of dread washing over me. In disbelief, I rushed to dial my mom’s mobile. With no answer, I tried her home phone. No answer. I texted her. No answer. The ground went out from under my legs. I crumpled to the floor, my hands shaking, even more, I dialled the number of the police officer in Florida who’d left me a message.
I’ve already shared my story about the months that followed, and where I am today, so I won’t rehash that part of my story here. But, what’s not yet written is what I’ve learned. It’s the learning that makes this birthday memorable; it’s what has helped me to become.
And the reason I continue to share my story is that I wish it hadn’t taken death to bring about this kind of learning in me.
Becoming at 48
Over the past nine months, with my professional armour temporarily cast aside, I’ve stripped back the layers of my adult self to reveal the person I was as a child. It was fascinating to meet her. She had fabulous hobbies – cooking, gardening, photography, dancing, reading, writing – which I’ve since rekindled. She was resilient and, despite a challenging upbringing, learned to find joy in the most simple of places.
But, it turns out that she also had some ridiculously limiting ideas about life and work, and about me, which required a reset. In the end, I hugged her and explained that I no longer needed her to be that annoying little voice in my head. It was kind of like what Arianna Huffington refers to as the “evicting the obnoxious roommate in your head;” you know, that voice that limits you, or fills you with doubt.
Today I walk a new path. One in which I climb, as Albaek says, my ladder of self-respect, rather than a career ladder. I understand better than ever that I have “one life to live in one time as one person” (Albaek, page 59). And, although we may each need to prepare for the 100-year life, life is still short.
Mindfulness is playing an increasingly important part of my life, coaching me in how to work the mental muscle of paying attention on purpose in the present moment. This practice continually helps me to focus on the present and find joy in the now. It also helps me quiet the “what-ifs” and “what’s next.”
Through this year, I have learned that it is never too late to stop, reflect and change the course of your life if the one you’re living is falling short of your expectations. To do so takes courage, curiosity, faith in the unknown and yourself. But, fear not – you don’t necessarily need to have these tools at the beginning of your journey (although you probably have them deep inside) because you will cultivate them along the way. I am still developing them today.
As one becomes, you lose fear, you gain hope, you learn to take a longer view, and somewhere in that process you decide, as I have, that life is best lived as who you are, and on your terms – even if it doesn’t make any sense to anyone else. It is, after all, your one life – you own it!
So, be brave, or crazy, or whatever, and design a life where your passions are front and centre. Live in such a way that your work self and your real self are one (because you’re only one person, after all). And, most importantly, live a life that is meaningful to you.
Lean into becoming, because it’s so much better than not becoming.
48 is not a notable birthday, but 48 is
…particular, but not perfectionist
…and, so far, my best year.