Feeling Stuck at 40, 50, 60? How to Get Back in Your Growth Zone
Nine women who have overcome roadblocks to get unstuck
Nine women who have overcome every roadblock imaginable show you how to get unstuck – even when starting from zero
When we were kids, we were often asked the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And while at the time it was always a fun question to answer (A doctor! An astronaut! A rock star!), once we hit high school and college the question morphed into, “What do you want to do after graduation?” and our responses began to require a bit more thought. And while many women have a crystal clear direction that will guide them straight through retirement, many more have encountered roadblocks that have made them feel adrift, confused, or “stuck.”
Feeling stuck can be a signal for change. That change can come in the form of a grand epiphany or it can be a small voice inside telling you that you need to be more, do more, or make a greater difference. The nine women featured here all ran into some kind of life issue that made them rethink their direction in life in their 40s, 50s, 60s, or beyond. Read on for their stories.
How to Get Unstuck from a Big Paycheck
Beverly Smith found her success later in life. When she was 45 she got her first TV show deal on Fashion Queens, then a second at age 50 on Wendy’s Style Squad, then a book deal at 53. Smith grew up in Harlem, a “nerdy” girl trying to fit in with the “mean girls.” It was her style and forthright attitude that got her in with the right groups. After working as a receptionist at a fashion advertising agency, she moved to another agency where she learned a lot but ultimately became dissatisfied and quit. After exploring different ideas for her next move, Smith took a job on the sales side at Vibe magazine, though they didn’t have what she called “luxury advertising.” According to Smith, “Systemic racism assumed that black and brown people would not be interested in fabulous clothes. And if they were interested, they couldn’t afford them.” So she changed the game and found ins at Gucci, Dior, and Dolce & Gabbana. She then moved on to Rolling Stone, where there were very few women and even fewer Black women, and became the senior director of luxury fashion advertising. Despite having a bright future at Rolling Stone, Smith decided she didn’t want to stay in publishing, and she left to travel the world and take classes in things she was passionate about. All of this led to her current pursuit: acting. Of her career Smith says, “I went through so many twists and turns when reinventing my life….of course, money was always very important. But you cannot let your finances fuel your destiny in that way. Because you know, it’s much easier for all of us to stay at high-paying jobs that we just don’t like, so you [have] to find that balance.”
How to Get Unstuck by a Cancer Diagnosis
Dara Kurtz grew up in Richmond, Virginia, with the notion that independence is central to one’s existence, “I was always taught to go into something where I could support myself – it was really important that my parents instilled that in me…you always want to be able to stand on your own two feet, to always be independent.” So, in following her parents’ wishes, Kurtz majored in finance and became a financial advisor. She became widely successful in the finance space, but “[Finance] didn’t speak to my heart,” she says. Kurtz had always wanted to be a writer. Then, at 42, she was told “You have cancer,” which stopped her in her tracks. Kurtz knew things wouldn’t be the same: “In that moment my life completely changed. While I found [the cancer] early, and had a lot of great things going for me, it was very, very hard.”
After her cancer treatments, Kurtz knew she could not go back to finance, as she had changed. “I decided, you know what, I don’t want to go back. It wasn’t what really spoke to my heart. I wanted to help other people. I wanted to use my experience in a way that I felt like something good could come from it.” So she started Crazy Perfect Life, a blog chronicling her life and cancer journey. Then Kurtz wrote her first book, Crush Cancer. After much touring and speaking, Kurtz returned home and rediscovered mother-daughter journals she had created over the years with her daughters, in which they wrote entries to each other, back and forth. This emotional process gave her the courage to open a plastic bag full of letters from her mother and grandmothers. “I was blown away by how much wisdom they contained. [It was like] I had a conversation with my mom 20 years after her death.” The impact of those letters pushed Kurtz to write her second book, I Am My Mother’s Daughter: Wisdom on Life, Loss, and Love. Kurtz emphasizes the importance of networking and also doing whatever it takes to reach your goal, even if it doesn’t look exactly the way you imagined it would. For instance, when Kurtz couldn’t find a publisher willing to take a chance on Crush Cancer, she self-published. When that first book was successful, it was easy to secure a book deal for her second with a major publisher. As Kurtz says, “Sometimes the only limits we have are the limits that we…put in our own path. We can do anything we want to do.”
How to Get Unstuck After Full-time Motherhood
Born and raised in New Orleans, Jennifer McKay is no stranger to reinvention. After completing a degree in communications, McKay moved to Los Angeles and started her long career in marketing. Years later, with kids, McKay moved back to Louisiana to start a job as a full-time mom. She became restless, finding that even though she loved motherhood, no amount of tennis could occupy her free time. When her husband’s career took a downturn, McKay reentered the job market. But “the thought of going back to one of those soul-sucking office jobs, with two weeks vacation a year, was horrifying to me,” she says. So McKay turned to her sister, Kailyn, who worked at a skincare company. The brand was “created by doctors that had already created another billion dollar company,” McKay says. “I really jumped in because I’m thinking, I’ll pay some bills and continue looking. But the product was phenomenal. And the business model meant success could be bigger than anybody imagined.” McKay built her own organization (with a team of consultants) within the company, and ended up making “six times as much” money as in her previous job. “I truly believe,” McKay says, “ it was because…I knew the rewards I was going to get. It was visualizing things into success.” McKay had also been a painter, and while she loved art, “that was kind of left behind early in life because – college, career, marriage, kids. There was no extra time to really fit [it] in.” But several years ago, after returning from a vacation, McKay got inspired by her “beautiful pictures of the mountains of Colorado. And I started messing around, got some supplies, and I was so surprised because I [still] had it.” Soon after, she invested time and money into finding a mentor to help her improve her techniques, and began showing – and selling – her paintings. She now works about half the time on her skincare business and the other half on her art.
After her reinvention at age 50, McKay believes, “It’s about self-talk, throwing what you want and your vision for your future out there. You can have negative talk. [But] be sure you go right back at it with what you can do, not what you’re limited [to]. Everyone has so much unrealized potential. Just keep finding what you can be good at and what you love. Keep exploring. Never, never stop exploring what you can learn. It’s not about luck. It’s about knowing it’s going to happen.”
Using a Personal Health Issue to Unstick Your Career
The daughter of two renowned psychoanalyst professors, Catherine Balsam-Schwaber grew up figuring that she would become a doctor. While on the pre-med track in college, the New Haven local “fell in love” with student politics and business. After graduating, Balsam-Schwaber landed an internship at the White House during the Clinton administration. Afterwards she did everything else: jobs in news, movies, media, toys, and even crafting. It wasn’t until she turned 50 that Balsam-Schwaber felt suddenly less directed. “I had this moment where I knew I loved the media business. But I was going to turn 50; I was having my own perimenopausal challenges. And I wanted to go back to my roots – of access to healthcare and supporting women.”
After talking with some friends who were also experiencing menopausal challenges, Balsam-Schwaber started Kindra at the beginning of the pandemic. Kindra’s products are “really focused on…the most debilitating aspects of menopause, which are sleep disruption and brain fog,” she says. Other Kindra products combat hot flashes and vaginal dryness. Kindra aims to help women reclaim their bodies while educating them. ”We come to this from a position that education is the most critical thing that we can offer. And that by being empowered with the information, you can make better choices about how you can feel like your best self during this new phase of life.” Balsam-Schwaber adds, “So when I think about transforming the lives of women, it’s really about empowering women to feel like they have what they need to make choices to feel amazing. I think that…changing the conversation is important, which is our number one mission.”
Getting Unstuck When You Realize That “Having it All” is Unfulfilling
Tammi Leader Fuller, former investigative news producer and Miami-based Today Show executive, gets a charge out of being in the midst of chaos. She was there, she says, “during the riots, and during the Mariel boatlift and all of the political unrest and the drug dealing and Miami’s Cocaine Cowboys.” She loved connecting with and learning from the experts she interviewed for her news stories. On the flip side, Fuller gets equally charged up by her favorite time in life: when as a young girl, she went to sleepaway camp. She says she loved the feeling of “being who you want to be without your parents telling you who you should be.” So, at 53, Fuller left the Today Show to go back to her “childhood happy place” by creating Campowerment. Campowerment takes over empty shells of camps 24 hours ahead of time with a special team that “jeuges” the places up, making them suitable for adult women to live in cabins. Yes, cabins. “ [We like to] let them be a bit uncomfortable,” says Fuller, in order for the women “ to grow.” At Campowerment there are traditional color wars and campfire songs, as well as experts in facilitating different aspects of personal growth. “I wanted to bring women back to the time of their life when they were carefree,” she says. “I am now devoting my life to helping women get happy.”
Through her previous job as an executive, Fuller learned that “having it all isn’t having it all at all” and that sometimes you have to pivot. Fuller wrote a book – with five other women – encapsulating all of her life-lessons, called Dish and Tell: Life, Love, and Secrets. Fuller knows the ins and outs of reinventing. She says: “I walked out of the control room and into the woods in 2013 to bring women back to the idea of summer camp inspired by impactful experts who could help us live life bigger and better…and start over through their purpose.”
Getting Unstuck from a Job that was Your Identity
By junior high, Kate Isler had changed schools 11 times due to her father’s work as a hotel innkeeper. She found stability in her own career, however, landing a job at Microsoft early on without a college degree but through sheer determination and a passion for technology. Microsoft had her travel the globe with her “house husband” and child in tow, winding up in the ‘90s in the Middle East. “Microsoft was part of my identity,” she says of her 21-year stint at the company. “I had business cards and I had a persona. And when I left there [at age 50], I had nothing.” Isler felt she had “to create a new narrative….[but] there were so many emotions when I left Microsoft after so many years [that] I was terrified.” Isler says the last few years at Microsoft had depleted her self-esteem. “I had no idea how to start a life without the cover identity of Microsoft. I would have to redefine myself as a person without a well-known title or a company infrastructure to wrap around me.”
Isler began by reaching out to contacts through LinkedIn. “I really started to spread my wings and learn and question…asked them to tell me about their job. What do you do? How do you do it? What are your aspirations personally? And I built that type of relationship, which allowed me to have a much broader view than my career had been to date.” Through these conversations, Isler saw a need-gap in the market which led her to start her own company, an eCommerce platform called TheWMarketplace that helps women-owned businesses thrive not only by giving them a place to sell their products but also by connecting them with a network of other women professionals who provide crucial business-related services. “[We] provide women with the opportunity to tell their story individually. We have a mini website so that you have a homepage, and you have the ability to put videos or your story on your own site, as well as listing your products. And then we take those stories, and we feature them on our homepage, often.”
Getting Unstuck After A Couple of Wrong Turns
When looking for work after completing only one year toward her Associates degree in teacher education, married and then divorced New Jersey native Mary Lou Heater was told by an employment agent, “Don’t ever tell me you don’t have any skills, you have a brain.” The agent placed her in several jobs, and in one accounting job she met her second husband. They transferred to Houston where she moved into selling steel for 15 years.
When Heater turned 40, her husband’s health started to decline. She left her job to become a full-time caretaker, reading up on every treatment out there and on gerontology, and decided to pursue a certificate in aerobics. With her new knowledge, Heater started an enterprise called “Fitness First” for seniors, and continued her schooling to get an RN degree. When her husband passed away, Heater tried to get her doctorate but dropped out, turning eventually toward working with the homeless and older patients. “[My] heart is working with patients directly as a direct care provider,” she says. Through many months of indecisiveness, Heater learned “there’s a lot of opportunity out there for people who want to reinvent themselves. …We all have to find our fit. It’s not always something that’s going to be right there in your face. I went through all that schooling and thought, ‘Okay, this is what I am, this is what I’m going to do, this is what I’m going to be’ and then that didn’t work out. But I was always able to support the household; I always found work. I always found some way to keep things going but at the same time, trying to stay true to who I am.”
Heater talks about the importance of having an “inner voice” and says, “You have to listen to that. And I think there’s a lot of opportunity out there for people who want to reinvent themselves. Don’t be afraid to set up from your home and do different things. Because of COVID-19 and the effect it’s had on the world…there’s a lot of opportunity. And I think a lot of change that’s going to come about…If you want to keep yourself interested,” she says,” you want to keep moving forward, [if] you meet an obstacle…you need to go around it.”
Getting Unstuck by Starting Over at 67
After attending her son’s master’s program graduation at Smith College, Ann Dowsett Johnston felt stuck. She had gone to college (and then spent 40 years as a journalist, writer, and vice principal) but still didn’t feel her education was “complete.” Seeing her son graduate made her realize, “I will die and never have done this.” At 60, Johnston applied to Smith College for a master’s degree and moved into the dorms with 25-year-olds.“I was older than many people’s parents,” she says, “and as old as some of the grandparents – and it was a phenomenal experience. I graduated last August. So this is a brand new chapter for a 67-year-old.” Thus, at 67, Johnston began her career as a psychotherapist. As a former addict, she wanted to help women in “post-retirement, wrestling with substance abuse or career disappointment.” She says: “I’m very interested in how women metabolize change, how they find the courage to make change, and how they navigate that change. And so my practice is made up of about 30 women, of all ages, all of whom are making some kind of transition.” Inspired by her work and life experience growing up in a family with alcohol abuse, Johnston wrote the best-selling book, Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol. Now, 13 years sober, Johnston also runs memoir-writing workshops, helping women write through their grief, pain, and burnout. Johnston says “We live in chapters. When friends are retiring, mine is fresh and inspirational. It’s very new. I plan to work until I’m eighty to pay off my student debt!”
Getting Unstuck After a Life-changing Accident
Nine months before the end of Linda Olson’s radiology residency, she visited her husband’s parents in Germany. The van that she was traveling in stalled on a railroad track and was hit by a train. “I ended up with above-knee amputations on both sides and an amputation of my right arm right below the shoulder,” she says. “So within just a few minutes, I became a triple amputee at age 29; and started living a different kind of life, but a wonderful one.”
Although she feared her new husband wouldn’t want to stay married to a now-disabled woman, Olson recalls: “He said, ‘I didn’t marry your arms and your legs. If you can do it, I can do it.’ I thought if he really says he’s going to do this, he’s going to follow through on it. So we were in Austria for three weeks before we were medevaced back home to San Diego. And I spent those three weeks with bandages all over me. I had one good hand, that was my left hand. So my very first thing to start doing was learning how to become a left-handed person.”
Olson had to relearn how to do every life task with one hand and prosthetic legs. Olson reflects, “I had a choice to make, and my choice was do I want to be happy or not.” Family struggled to be around her because the reminder of the accident was overwhelming. So, Olson decided to make it her mission to make them happy. “I realized very quickly that I was in charge, and it was my job to make them happy. And this is something I’m good at, this is kind of the way I’ve always lived. I want to be happy, I want to hear you laugh, I want to laugh with you. So I focused on them as much as me.” Soon, Olson was in a wheelchair, playing outdoor games again, eventually relearning to walk. Once she could write with her left hand, she made lists of all the goals she wanted to accomplish. Nine months after the accident, Olson got pregnant.
Starting a family as a triple amputee forced Olson to realize that anything is possible. “After 41 years there are new things I have to figure out,” she says, “like filing my nails with one hand.” Her husband used to file her nails for her, but Olson devised a way to do it herself. “It’s about accepting, adapting, innovating,” she says. “Make a game of it.” At 71, Olson published her memoir, GONE after being newly diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Olson says that once you’ve accepted your situation, “that’s when you start remaking yourself. ”
Note: These stories are taken from interviews done on the CoveyClub Reinvent Yourself with Lesley Jane Seymour podcast. Listen to them all – plus 170 more inspirational stories. Find specific tips and tricks you can use to start or propel your own reinvention.