I never agreed with the title of Sheryl Sandberg’s famous book, Lean In (which certainly didn’t affect its sales one iota!). I thought women were leaning in a’plenty – pushing their way up through education and opportunity and middle management everywhere on the planet. What I wished she had written was a book on how companies (including hers) could adapt and ‘lean in’ to the newly balanced talent on tap in the 21st century.
Didn’t happen. But the expression has returned with new relevance as I hit 60. If I have learned one major lesson from listening to hundreds of people over the past year (coaching clients, friends, book interviewees and participants in the Midlife ReThink program I run) navigate their arrival into their Third Quarters, it’s this:
If we want to fully enjoy our longer and later lives, in today’s ageist contexts, we have to lean in big time – physically, intellectually, spiritually and emotionally. We’ll want to consciously rewrite the script about what this phase is about. And the earlier you start rethinking it, the better. Because longer lives don’t just impact the end, they change the shape of the whole.
This involves wilfully disrupting existing norms and expectations. Sometimes of those closest to us. Have you discussed and planned Third Quarter plans and dreams with your partner? Many of us haven’t even thought about them for ourselves. We make assumptions. I certainly did. A few years ago, I was expecting to slow down a bit. Not stopping, but rather a sort of gentle easing off. I hadn’t thought much about it, it just seemed the thing people were doing.
I had internalised the metaphor of life as a mountain (see more about this in my FORBES blog, The Shape of Life). Having reached a pleasing peak, I was ready to meander gently down. But watching and learning from my elders, I realised that if you unthinkingly drink the kool-aid about the 60s as a time of slowing down, you may decelerate too soon. You can find yourself feeling frustrated, financially fearful and largely irrelevant in your 60s and 70s.
Conversely, I was struck by my friend Sally Helgesen’s blog describing her ephiphany when she understood, doing yoga with a role model friend of hers still active in her 90s, that at 65 she might only be at the midpoint of her career. And how that realisation completely shifted her and the way she engaged with the world. My mother is 96. If I’m going to live anywhere near 100, I want the last 40 years of my life to be more than a postscript. As author Richard Leider says, ‘mattering matters.’
It reminds me of the challenge women face in their 30s. If you step out of the workplace entirely or for too long to have children, it gets increasingly hard to get back in, to be taken seriously, to not have your self-confidence shaken. The same thing, I’m discovering, happens between midlife and retirement. Step back too long or too far, and you quickly find yourself in a similar quandary. With the additional kick that it’s harder to address the older you are.
The world and companies and our current pension systems are telling us it’s a time to lean back – or, better yet, step out. Advertisements are telling us to find a cruise, buy some botox or hide ourselves off in the sunset of a segregated retirement village. During the pandemic, companies let older staffs go in droves. We are also profoundly - and often unconsciously - influenced by what our parents did at this stage of their lives, what our friends may be doing or considering, what our children expect of us.
My friend Elco, a former CEO, just published his first-ever academic paper - on Chinese women’s exceptional leadership traits. Some of his friends think this is terrific, others find it threatening and react incredulously. What in the world is he up to exploring new areas, new ideas and new skills? That challenges them in the comfort of their status quo. Decisions about our own lives have powerful ripple effects. It’s emotional!
In the loud noise of the dominant narrative, it can be hard to hear what your own inner glimmer of a future self’s voice may be whispering. But pausing to listen and designing the Third Quarter you want will be a key task of midlife.
Fifty and, even more, 60 are crucial forks in the road. You begin (or is it just me?) to see people age or re-engage. They get fitter or fatter. Some more energetic, others increasingly exhausted. More adventurous and curious - or more retiring and cautious. Some proudly flaunt grey locks and wrinkles, wrapped in stylish garb. Others strive increasingly hard and ineffectually to look ‘young.’ Some find new passions, professions and partners while others accept society’s lousy treatment – and worse, judgement - of its elders and of themselves.
So I’m finally ready to accept Sheryl’s advice.
I’m going to lean in and proactively design my Third Quarter. That’s why I (and my super-supportive husband) are off to school for a year. Instead of leaning out, we’ll lean into some big questions: who do we want to become? what do we want to devote ourselves to? how can we best contribute our time and energies to a complex and turbulent world in need of wisdom?
Forty years ago, I did an MBA. Almost everyone on my very international INSEAD program was there to orchestrate a shift. I think this sort of focused time investment should be integrated every 20 years or so – probably at 20, 40 and 60 (to prepare for what Chip Conley has found are our happiness peaks and troughs). And normalised not as a ‘midlife crisis,’ but as a nourishing pause before our next growth spurt.
Let me end with a book title I adore: ‘Who Do You Want to Be When You’re Old?’ The authors, Richard Leider and David Shapiro, had to fight with their publishers to keep ‘old’ on the cover. I love that they are reclaiming the word - and will join them in this fray.
I want to own the word – and this time. As an old lady in her prime. Because old can be the new gold, if we let it shine.