Read an Excerpt
Discovering Your New Life Possibilities
By Richard J. LEIDER, Alan M. WEBBER
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Richard J. Leider and Alan M. Webber
All rights reserved.
This Isn't What I Was Expecting!
"This isn't what I was expecting!"
You constantly hear that refrain as people describe their response to a set of experiences in a world that is rapidly changing, a world that doesn't match the way things used to be. At the start of any conversation about what it's like to move into this new phase of life, you'll hear a long and varied list of things that people didn't expect:
I didn't expect to be divorced at my age—or to be beginning a new relationship.
I didn't expect to be unemployed—or to have the opportunity to start my own business.
I didn't expect my grown-up son to come back and live with me—or for me to have to go and live with my grown-up son.
I didn't expect my 401k to be worthless—or to have enough money to take the trip I'd always dreamed of.
What people seem to have expected is that by the time they'd reached this point in their lives, they'd have everything under control. That at a certain age, they'd have enough money, enough status, enough experience, enough stuff, that they'd have things the way they wanted them.
By now I thought I'd have this whole thing figured out.
What we didn't expect was that we'd have to keep figuring it out, no matter what our age.
Or that we'd have to deal with the kinds of unexpected challenges that, today, seem to be coming faster, more frequently, more turbulently, and less predictably.
In a world that's changing, it's time for all of us to change our assumptions, our expectations, and our mindsets of what's possible.
It's time for a new story to replace the old one.
The Old Story
For the past fifty years at least, retirement has been the single destination of living. The old story was populated by such themes as "the golden years," "life of leisure," a life without the pressure of time clocks or the demands of work. Retirement was life's desired end point; leisure time was the definition of success, the reward that awaited you after you'd put in so many years of labor. Interestingly, it took roughly fifty years for a full-fledged retirement system to find its complete expression, described by its own language and supported by pensions, policies, Social Security, and retirement communities.
As a result of that fifty-year evolution, the way we think about the path of life has been dominated by an old and familiar story. It's an outdated mental image of the life cycle that we carry around in our heads, whether we know it or not. It looks like a simple parabola, an arch that starts at the bottom left of the chart, bends up and to the right until it reaches the top, and then gradually declines to the bottom right.
That image depicts the story most of us assume captures the reality of aging.
What it says is this: each of us starts off fresh and new, ready to learn and grow and discover our individual potential. We arc upward as we go through our early years, and we continue to grow until about the time we hit middle age. At that point we've reached the apex of our lives, the top of the parabola. After that, as we pass middle age, we begin the process of decline that takes us into retirement, then old age, and eventually, death. We've reached the end of the chart, the bottom right-hand exit point.
There are two problems with this old story.
The first problem is that the story this image tells is a disheartening, disturbing, disempowering tale. It says that the two sides of the curve of life are the same except in reverse. On the way up, we're vital, engaged, alive to learning, self-expression, and growth; on the way down, we're closed off to all those possibilities. On the way down, we're simply on the way down. We're in decline and the only question is how soon the landing will come and how hard it will be.
The second problem is that this old story is flat-out wrong. It doesn't match how we live. It doesn't describe the new reality of our lives and the lives of generations going forward. We need a new story that corresponds to the new reality.
The New Story
Imagine a new image with a different curve.
This one also begins at the lower left-hand corner and arcs upward until it reaches a point at the top. But instead of falling back down along a symmetrical curve like the old image, this one dips a little and then goes back up! It continues to rise gently for an extended period, then levels off, and finally falls at the end.
What this second image depicts is the new story about Life Reimagined.
This new story is the real story.
And it is fast becoming the new normal. Just as planning for retirement shaped the old story—and touched all of life leading up to it—this new phase will change every other phase. It is a story for the ages—all the ages. The whole of society has a stake in this story—in the new choices it offers, the new possibilities it opens up.
Just as the old story gradually assembled a system to support it, this new story will also rearrange and re-create all the components of how we live our lives. As a result of Life Reimagined, we will find ourselves, at one end of the spectrum, engaged in deep and wide-reaching policy debates touching health care, Social Security, employment and unemployment, housing, technology, and more. And at the other end of the spectrum, we will discover and pioneer new offerings and entrepreneurial solutions that touch the lives of millions of individuals with tools and techniques that transform the choices available to each of us and the pathways open to us to explore. This new story shapes a new reality, for all generations to come.
It is reshaping the architecture of society and forming one of the most significant social movements of our time.
The Life Reimagined Spiral
The best way to understand the new story is to reimagine your life in the form of a spiral, a tornado-shaped figure that starts out at the bottom and winds its way upward through a series of expanding loops toward the top. Imagine this drawing as if it were a close-up of the journey of your life, a series of twists and turns, choices and challenges from birth to death.
When you're on a flatter part of the spiral, your life is on a plateau. At those moments, things seem like they're under control. You have good work, good health, enough money, a solid base at home, a network of friends and colleagues with whom to share your life. At times like these, you may actually feel like you do have this whole thing figured out! Or at least you're satisfied with the way things are.
But then, inevitably, a trigger knocks you off the plateau; you leave the flat area and take a turn into a new zone, limbo.
What Is a Trigger?
Another word for a trigger is a wake-up call—a conscious choice or an external event that disrupts the comfortable status quo of our lives. It's a moment when the game changes, and we have to adapt to the new game.
Triggers can be positive:
Are you in a new relationship? It's exciting, and the emotion is enough to knock you off your plateau!
Are you launching your new startup? The challenge is enough to fill you with energy—and also to keep you up at night with exciting questions and tough challenges!
Are you going back to school? Your calendar is now jam-packed, filled with classes to attend and homework to complete!
When you think about these positive triggers, they manifest the Life Reimagined mindset: you're exercising choice, demonstrating curiosity, and acting with courage.
Or triggers can be negative:
Do you know someone you care about who has just heard from a doctor with an uncertain medical diagnosis? You're suddenly frozen with fear, your emotional life clouded with concern.
Do you know people who have lost their jobs after decades of stability? They don't know which way to turn or where to start, and you share that anxiety with them, wanting to help but not knowing how.
Do you know someone who has been caught by surprise by an unexpected divorce? All of a sudden the stability of a long-term relationship has been replaced by the unfamiliar, unwelcome experience of learning how to live alone for the first time in a long time.
These are the moments when we feel like our lives are out of control. These are the moments when we say, or hear someone else say, "This isn't what I was expecting." At times like these we wonder, "What's next?"—and the question feels like an unwelcome test, more a threat than a promise. Uncertainty and powerlessness dominate the situation. It feels like our lives are happening to us.
There are also triggers that are small and subtle, signals that add up to suggest that our lives are undergoing gradual, cumulative, and perhaps inevitable change. There are triggers that live in the gray areas of life. In some of these cases, we get to choose whether we want to accept living in the gray area or to respond to the discomfort of ambiguity and act decisively.
For example, there's a whole category of people today who are "the working worried." They're not happy in their jobs, but they're not prepared to quit. What worries them is that someone else will make the decision for them. They're working—and they're worried.
The same ambiguity applies to relationships. Not all relationships exist in the sharp dichotomy of good or bad, happy or unhappy. Many are simply in a rut. These relationship ruts aren't so bad that a breakup is inevitable, but they're not so good that they feel completely satisfying. Relationship ruts prompt the question, "Is good enough really as good as it gets?"
The truth is, we are changing all the time. Our values and priorities shift; we experience both bursts of confidence and spells of doubt; our relationships form, evolve, break apart, reform; our work both loses energy and takes on new vitality. All of this forms an ongoing, complex life spiral.
Life in Limbo
What happens is that triggers—positive or negative, subtle or unmistakable—kick our lives into limbo, a period of uncertainty, of wondering what comes next, and of anxiously anticipating how soon whatever does come next will actually arrive.
Being in limbo is all about learning to cope with the "in-between times." As a result of a trigger, we've ended one period of stability or even one phase of life, and looking forward we don't yet see another one beginning. We're forced to live in the question "What's next?" The door behind us has closed, and we haven't seen the new doors that lie ahead. Or sometimes, although we see the new doors, we're not yet ready to make the choice to open them.
Being in limbo can be scary in the way that uncertainty often is.
And it can be even more debilitating. Limbo can become a form of resignation, a kind of prison sentence to accept the way things are as the way things have to be.
Some people let themselves fall into the trap of living the old story as if it were the new reality. You hear them say, "What do you expect from someone my age?"—a passive acceptance of life in limbo.
The truth is, when a number—your age—becomes your identity, you've given away your power to choose your future. The point isn't that sixty is the new forty. The point is that sixty is the new sixty, and there's a new way to be sixty.
Dying Without Knowing It
The worst-case scenario for those who succumb to limbo is "inner kill"—the condition of dying without knowing it. People with inner kill often feel that they either don't have enough or aren't good enough. They get stuck living in comparison with others or with some idealized, unattainable version of themselves.
You have inner kill when you've stopped growing, when you've given up on yourself, or when you find yourself always taking the easy, safe way.
Like most conditions, inner kill has a set of recognizable symptoms that let you diagnose it in yourself or someone you know: a tendency to avoid decisions; a tendency to daydream about early retirement; constant talk about intentions—without actually doing anything; not sleeping at night; sleepwalking during the day; having irritability as the emotional default setting; constantly repeating the same conversation topics week after week; making increasingly frequent visits to the liquor store, looking for a stronger alcohol prescription.
Ultimately, inner kill is the death of self-respect.
On the other hand, for those who use limbo as a moment to embrace Life Reimagined, this in-between time can be an exciting opportunity. Limbo invites a deeper, game-changing conversation with your self. You may not embrace limbo—but you can accept it, work with it, get fully engaged with the challenge that limbo presents.
Limbo is an energy crisis: if you run from it or passively surrender to it, you'll find your energy sapped. When you decide that limbo is an opportunity for self-exploration, you discover new energy and new possibilities.
Trigger in the Park
The question isn't whether we'll be hit by triggers or get kicked into limbo. We will—all of us, at every phase of life, in all kinds of ways.
The question is how we'll react when triggers come and we find ourselves in limbo. Do we retreat? Or step into the uncertainty? Respond out of fear? Or move forward with courage?
Rich Luker's story is all about overcoming fear and stepping into a Life Reimagined moment with courage. His story shows how a positive trigger can lead to realizing a new, vital, but long-deferred dream.
As a boy growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Rich yearned to be able to play baseball. But he was no athlete. Small and unsure of himself, he heeded his father's expectations and stayed inside studying instead of going outside to play the game he loved.
"I was afraid on every level," Rich remembers. "I was afraid of getting hurt. I was afraid of making a fool of myself."
Still, something about baseball called to him, so much so that in college he found time to be a batboy for the University of Michigan baseball team.
"I had sports," he says, "but I didn't play. The baseball bug struck me early and stayed with me. But the thought of finding delight and playing the game never occurred to me."
Rich grew up, moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, and made his living as a researcher and consultant.
And then one day, when he was in his fifties, he found himself talking on his mobile phone on a conference call, not in his office but outside as he walked by a park. A group of men his age and older were playing softball on a diamond. The game caught his eye.
A simple game of softball served as a life-changing trigger.
"I'm holding the phone, and I'm thinking, 'What's this?' " Rich recalls. "I don't even remember saying, 'I can't talk now.' I just hung up. I'm looking through the fence and I'm seeing something I can really love. I said, 'I have to do this. I have to do this.'"
That was a Life Reimagined moment for Rich.
In that moment, he not only saw a way to do something he'd always wanted to do. He saw a way of being someone he'd always wanted to be, a way of living that he'd always wanted to experience. It changed more than the recreational side of his life; it touched every part of his life, inside and out.
In a life shaped by expectations, Rich had never expected to play softball. To be a softball player. "It was a life of watching and not doing," Rich says. "There wasn't even a realization. It's just the most amazing thing."
Today Rich still has his old job. And even after he felt that initial trigger at the park, he still had to try out for the league; he had to make a team and show he could play. But that trigger was about more than just softball. It was about exercising choice to overcome age-old expectations. It was about finding a new way to see life possibilities. And it was about shifting what mattered in life to match a new phase of life. Today, during the sixty-game softball season, Rich never schedules work between nine and eleven a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. That time is reserved for playing the game he has always loved with the new teammates he has found.
Excerpted from Life Reimagined by Richard J. LEIDER, Alan M. WEBBER. Copyright © 2013 Richard J. Leider and Alan M. Webber. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
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