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Self-Discovery as We Age

Who are we now?

Key points

  • We can continue to discover more about ourselves at any age.
  • Finding yourself further in work and relationships is favored by good efforts in the world.
  • Self-discovery can lead to a sense that you have more to contribute.
Source: DiveIvanov/Shutterstock

Glynnis is 64, and we’ve known each other for two decades. When Glynnis came back to see me—maybe a year ago—she didn’t know whether anyone would hire her again and was worried about paying her bills.

As we age, we fall into a limit-case psychology. We acknowledge what we’ve never tried, probably couldn’t do, don’t have the time or energy to learn, and don’t want to do anyway. That was Glynnis. After banging around a series of PR gigs, she thought she had exhausted that vein. She couldn’t imagine what to do next. “I used to be resourceful, but now there’s nothing left.”

The insidious effect of aging is that we tend to blame ourselves for every missed step, every failure to land on our feet. We think we can hardly walk without stumbling. As a result it’s harder to imagine how we’ll pick ourselves up and stay upright very long. For the first time since I’d known her, Glynnis seemed depressed.

I wanted to help her pull out of her mooning. But it wouldn’t be easy. Glynnis had no family role models, let alone mentors. When she was younger, she envied kids whose parents took an interest, sent them to great schools, gave them moral support. She envied kids whose parents were go-getters. “My father had the same job for forty years, and my mother just thought I’d get married. That’s all she ever did.” Glynnis needed encouragement. So, I said “Not all of us are lucky. But you can make up for luck by putting yourself out there.”

I suggested she scan the job boards just to get ideas about what she could do. “You’d be amazed at what people need,” I said. “Just take a look.” I hoped she’d realize that among all those possibilities—make-up artists, ski instructors, grocery clerks, systems engineers—something would jump out at her. I knew she’d never fit 99 percent of those offerings, but maybe something somewhere . . . . It was worthwhile, at least, to pique her imagination.

As I’ve discovered in working with people, imagination is sometimes better than experience when we’re looking for a new opportunity. Experience makes us go around in circles, trying to be just what we’ve been. Imagination, on the other hand, opens outwards into widening realms of possibility. It lets us believe we may find something whose existence we never knew existed.

After all, isn’t pursuing happiness about pushing the boundaries of the quotidian?

So Glynnis looked. At first, she was discouraged. “I’m not a hairdresser,” she sighed, “using that honorable profession as a metaphor for all the vast impossibility that confronted her on the job boards. “Keep trying,” I suggested. Nothing gets easier as we age except, perhaps, giving up.

A couple of weeks later, she was onto something. An online seller of ornamental fish was looking for someone to write fish dialogue. That is, as the fish swam onto the viewer’s screen—rainbow fish, neon tetras, goldfish, labidochromis caeruleus—they’d have funny little conversations. The website visitor would be so transfixed that, ideally, they’d buy a few of these beauties for their tank. What a hoot. Glynnis submitted a vaudeville routine between a couple of molting fish, and got the job (after a few more tryouts just to confirm that it wasn’t, um, a fluke). The job, which she could do at home while she cared for her brother, paid $19/hr. It wasn’t what she’d been earning, but it was a start.

In fact, it was an amazing start. “I’ve discovered I can do voices,” she said. “I can be another being.” Who would have known? By literally impersonating fish (if that’s not a misuse of the term) she found she had a talent for penetrating others’ mental space and creating incidents to fill it. “These fish can be so funny,” she informed me. “It’s like I’m getting to know them. I’m their alter ego.” As I look back on that conversation, a year or so later, I should have seen where it was going.

For starters, Glynnis was exulting that even at her (more or less) advanced age, she had found new personal resources. She could do what she hadn’t known she could do. The very fact made her happy. It wasn’t as if she’d gone out and learned something; it was, rather, that she had been more than she’d imagined all along. This happens as we age, sometimes. When pushed to the wall, we encounter new aspects of ourselves and deploy them. It can be thrilling.

After making up dialogue for the endless variety of fish stocked by the seller, Glynnis had an idea. “I’m going to be a ghost writer,” she told me. She went on Craigslist, she went on Indeed and Media Bistro, and she found all kinds of ghost-writing gigs. Society doyennes had stories to tell about their years in Monte Carlo. Would-be novelists needed “help” organizing 1,200 pages of manuscript. A scientist knew how to save the world but hadn’t a clue how to write it all up.

Glynnis offered her services. It was hard convincing these people that she could jump from fish to people, but she got some small gigs. In each case, she made the point that getting into another being’s head (or brainstem, or whatever fish use for thinking) isn’t all that different from doing human voices. The idea was so brash and off-the-wall that some people fancied it. “One scientist, a biologist, told me I was absolutely correct in my assessment of mental functionalities,” she said. “He said it was worth some further research.”

In any case, Glynnis was developing a new professional identity, based on nothing more than what she had discovered in herself. S, while age sometimes forces us inwards, leaving us to contemplate the ills of our body, it also forces us to rely on faculties that may have lain dormant, beyond our knowing they were there. Our encounter with ourselves—that is, with this newly enhanced perception of ourselves—can lead to a sense that we have more to contribute.

As a consequence, Glynnis was energized. She said she had found a market that suited her. “A lot of people wish they could say what’s on their minds,” she said, “but they need someone else to say it for them. That’s me.” She had translated an initial burst of delight into self-confidence—into a plan. In effect, she was delighted at her prospects.

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