The Third Act for Women: Finding Meaning, Joy and Fulfillment
We are the first generation of women who have had careers for most of our lives. We are living lives that most of our parents and grandparents didn’t have and, perhaps, couldn’t imagine. We are entering a period of life that is virtually uncharted, a time in which we are free from social expectations and reduced family obligations, with the freedom, resources and desire to engage in new activities with meaning and purpose. Science and medical advances have extended our years with generally better health than previous generations. This gives us the opportunity to turn our dreams into realities, to consider options previously considered impractical, and to prioritize how we want to spend our time. Now, it's up to us to decide and plan for our continued vitality.
In fact for many today, retirement is a “roleless” role. This is true in large part because the traditional notion of retirement fits with a worn out notion of aging that conceives of it primarily in terms of disengagement and decline. The news reports that “old” is being redefined as more of us are living to be over 100. The Department of Labor reports in 2006 over 6% of Americans over 75 work.[i] So, today how appropriate is retirement for a vital person with 30-40 years left to live?
We use the metaphor of the theater to ignite people’s imagination. Our growing up years constitute the first act, our second act includes our middle years focusing on career and family, and our third act (often for the first time) is ours to choose - we have an opportunity to create a better quality of life, leave a legacy or pursue our life-long dreams.
What is Waiting in the Wings?
The years ahead beyond 50 offer exciting opportunities and infinite possibilities. Yet, this less structured time of choice can also be frustrating and overwhelming if we have not adequately planned and prepared for it. It is best to take some time to prepare for the transition from your second act to your Third Act. Preparing for your Third Act begins first by reviewing your second act (and maybe your first act), and exploring the scripts (themes or patterns) from your work and career, your family, volunteer and social life. What scripts can you build upon? Which ones are liabilities for your Third Act that you need to adjust or learn to manage differently? What patterns or beliefs get in your way from doing your best, what relationships, job and other commitments are a drain and not life enhancing? Taking stock of our second act, and making adjustments where necessary, is a critical step in moving fully into our Third Act.
Science tells us that most of our aging is influenced by our lifestyle. The good news is that we can make changes that will enhance our lives. We have found it helpful to raise questions about our current lives-- the physical, emotional, professional, personal and spiritual dimensions—to clarify for ourselves what is waiting in the wings before we leave a full time job, change careers or move-- and launch our Third Act.
We know that many of us have two, three, four or more decades of life remaining and that each generation is more active with more health and vitality than ever before. According to Trends[ii] reported by Audio Tech Business Summaries (9-15-2005) average life spans are projected to reach 88 for women by 2065. By 2010 there will be 131,000 Americans over age 100 compared to 37,000 twenty years ago. Yet, in our second act, we also may have neglected our fitness, gained some weight and find our cholesterol or blood pressure too high for good health. How is your current health and fitness? Do you have a commitment to support your health and wellness? Do you need to take some action to lose weight, quit smoking, improve your diet or get more rest?
Popular stereotypes would lead us to believe that most of us go through a mid-life crisis between 40 and 60 leading to unhappiness and depression. Yet researchers who have been studying the development process of our lives report that, far from being a time of turmoil, dissatisfaction and dread of getting old, only a small percent of participants report having a midlife crises (23% in the MacArthur Foundation Research Network Study)[iii]and in many cases it had nothing to do with aging. Based on the results of this study most people are entering their sixth or seventh decades with increased feeling of well-being, equanimity, a sense of control over many parts of their lives and feeling younger than their years. The AARP study in 2006 also reports that 85% of those who have already retired are satisfied with their lives. These studies suggest that aging is not the dreaded time of our imaginations, but rather with intention and focus we can create a joyful and satisfying Third Act. What brings you joy, pleasure and deep satisfaction? How can you continue to find those emotional rewards in the coming years?
As we mentioned in the opening paragraph, we are a generation of women who have pursued careers for most of our lives. For many, those careers have brought achievements, and the personal and financial rewards of success in our chosen fields. Such success has also meant the stressful demands of long hours and hard work to meet unfair expectations or to challenge traditional stereotypes. Many women have had two full time jobs – raising a family and a career. Many of us are ready to “slow down”, have more time for relaxation and to enjoy other interests. Yet some of us do not want to quit or financially can’t afford to. The Fortune 2005 Retirement Guide reports that 42% of the over-50 population wants to rotate between work and leisure. Others of us, a startling 56%, want to leave one career behind and launch a new and perhaps more entrepreneurial venture that we have always dreamed about. Others of us want to use our professional skills in ways that contribute and make a different to our community or to the world. Do you want or need to continue to work? Are you interested in launching something new? How much do you want to work? How do you want to contribute your skills, experience and your time?
Full time work and raising a family leaves little time for women to pursue hobbies, leisure time activities or make contributions as a volunteer. As our family obligations are reduced and we think of working only part time or even leaving our work and careers, opportunities open up. We can pursue long delayed dreams, complete neglected projects, learn to play the piano, speak Spanish, study history, or make a meaningful contributions to causes about which we are passionate. The 60 year olds in the AARP study reported that they wanted to spend time with loved ones, engage in their interests and hobbies or make time to do what they had always wanted to do. Do you have a passion to make a difference, to contribute to your community? Do you have dreams or projects you have longed to plunge into with time to pursue and accomplish? Do you have subjects or skills you want to learn?
The multi-tasking, over-scheduled life cruising on auto-pilot leaves little time to explore the questions of deeper meaning in our lives. We may be disenchanted with the “rewards” of climbing the corporate ladder or when time does emerge, we are often at a loss, drifting and feeling somehow empty of purpose and direction. Many women feel that some how during the second act, they set aside something important they want to retrieve. The experts suggest that the changes that matter during this time are more often spiritual and psychological. Are you asking what you are called to do and what will provide meaning and purpose in this next phase of your life? Is your life fulfilled and guided by your spiritual beliefs? Are you wondering if you will be satisfied if you quit work and leave your career?
Creating a Star Performance
Yet, now is the time to plan your transition, to draft your script for your Third Act. This requires being proactive, taking personal responsibility and being open to learning about your self. Writing your own script may be new to you and it may require mastering your tendency to be reactive, overcoming habitual thought and belief patterns that have governed your behavior or following the wishes and expectations of others. You may need to establish boundaries, find routines that support your needs and exercise more independence. Now is the time to do that before you find yourself center stage in your Third Act without a script.
Researchers studying the lives of seniors have found that those seniors whose lives are happier and healthier include attitudes and activities which bring them more satisfaction and a more positive outlook on life. They are deeply engaged with contributing to the lives of others or what Bob Buford calls socially productive aging. [iv] Four specific areas seem to have the most impact as you draft your script:
Positive Appreciation: Experiencing the present moment and being mindful of what is new without judgment, looking back with contentment and gratitude or looking ahead with optimism and seeing its potential. To some extent, positive feelings may fluctuate around an inborn “set point.” However, psychologists say that anyone can learn to increase positive feelings, although some of us with lower “set points” may need to work harder. Mindfulness is one key to increasing positive feelings and enjoying the present. Mindfulness is actively noticing things without evaluating or categorizing them. Gratitude exercises not only lift your mood but also improve physical health and raise energy levels.
Seeking Meaning: Transcending the self and using your signature strengths to belong or serve something that is larger than yourself. Creating meaning through involvement in a cause for which you have passion and creates meaning in your life is one of the most important components of happiness. It may involve nature, art, community, spirituality or something else. Giving makes you feel good, frequent acts of kindness boosts well-being and volunteering gives you a sense of purpose because you matter to someone else.
Active Engagement: Being in “flow” occurs when our skills are balanced with sufficient challenge to keep us engaged but not overly frustrated. We are more likely to be fully engaged when we are active rather than passive and when that activity requires using skills and focus. This may be a challenge at any time for some of us, but particularly so in our third act, when the structure and goals of our second acts are no longer provided for us through our work. Rowe and Kahn in ground breaking research on aging, found one of the key components in successful aging - to be engaged with life. By deploying your highest strength and talents, you can have more intense absorption—flow—in more areas of your life.
Quality of Everyday Experience. While traditional approaches to life planning often emphasize the importance of vision and goals, it is clear that the quality of our everyday experience is an important determinant of satisfaction. The simple pleasures of leisurely reading the paper, calling a friend, having a cup of tea or taking a nap can bring daily contentment. Having strong ties to friends and family gives a big boost to happiness and savoring the sensory experiences increases the pleasure of our daily lives.
This suggests that creating the vibrant rewarding script for our Third Act, may require some intentional focus on how to bring these qualities into our lives. It is not as simple as leaving a job or enjoying a retirement party. It is a big psychological shift and it is important to be prepared for change and growth. Creating the script for a socially productive Third Act means clarifying your values, finding out who you really are at your core and repositioning yourself with this self-awareness for fulfillment. We have found that one way to find this self-reflective focus is to create a space and opportunity to explore questions both personally and in dialogue with others and to take time to think through the hopes, dreams and realities that will help shape a vital, vibrant and engaging script for the Third Act.
What does the curtain call you to do in your Third Act?
Bev Scott and Kimberly Weichel offer workshops, training, retreats and coaching in Third Act development for groups and individuals. Bev Scott is an organization and management consultant who has supported leaders, teams and individuals in developing their full potential and finding meaning in their work. Kimberly Weichel is a social pioneer, educator, and specialist in global communications and conflict resolution, assisting individuals and organizations to realize their potential.
Bev and Kim have spent their careers addressing development and change, consulting with organizations to create more meaningful workplaces. They have coached individuals to support the development of their potential. The richness of life-long learning and the significance of meaning and purpose have been foundations for them personally and in their work with others. They want to use their expertise and life experience to support others in creating their own Third Acts, as well as encourage women’s voices to be heard. They offer Third Act workshops, retreats and coaching for groups and individuals.
[i] Christoffersen, John, “Need, Lifestyle Keep Seniors on the Job”, SFGate.com, August 14, 2007.
[ii] “Trends”, Audio Tech Business Summaries, 9-15-2005.
[iii] Goode, Erica, “New Study Finds Middle Age is Prime of Life”, New York Times, undated.
[iv] Buford, Bob, “Finishing Well: How Pathfinders Transform Success to Significance” LEADER TO LEADER, Winter 2007.