How Did I Get Here? When Your Third Act Has an Unexpected Twist
You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack, or in a beautiful house. Here's how to deal with a future you didn't imagine
In the new critically acclaimed film,“Nomadland,” Frances McDormand plays an older woman who “has lost everything,” including her job, her husband, and her home. Now traveling the country in a van, she joins a real life crew of nomads.
“I maybe spent too much of my life just remembering,” she says, as she reorients herself to the adventures of present possibilities.
It isn’t that one day in your 50s or 60s you automatically wake up and all the furniture has been rearranged — or taken — and that you are thrust against your will into a different kind of life. You arrive at opportunities of open doors when doors you expected to enter, now close. Even if you couldn’t predict it, you can participate in the changes of your life that you can control actively, not as a passive bystander.
Once you acknowledge that illness, death, grief, economic downturns, and other unavoidable sudden detours are out of your control, life’s third act can lead to unimagined reinvention met with surprise and applause.
But not many women over the age of 50 are where they imagined they would be at this age, especially during this particularly precarious time in history.
“Life happens” is a dismissive cliché that is a shoulder-shrugging surrender to fate, a submission to whatever transpires in the course of an ordinary life, presumably well-lived. Often “life” is replaced with another four-letter word that starts with “s”– at least it is on the t-shirts and coffee mugs.
A Different Dream
“From a personal perspective, I cobbled together a happy life but still had this desire to be more,” says Jocelyn Kung, 62, founder and CEO of The Kung Group, a consultancy firm based in San Francisco. “I thought maybe I had reached my limit.”
Kung says the natural trajectory of success she pictured for herself had plateaued. While her client roster was impressive and profitable — she was very much in the black — working with clients including Apple, Oracle, Microsoft, Cisco, Juniper Networks, LexisNexis and others, “I never felt it would get to the next level,” Kung says.
So in 2020 she began a new business within her firm, partnering with her 30-year-old daughter, Kelsey Laubscher. They created software for nonprofit clients, intending for the effort to be a bigger move into the future, a larger vision. Then COVID hit and growth stalled.
“My learning is that going through this kind of crisis challenged my identity to the core and pressure-tested it to go down to the what matters,” says Kung. “My surprise is all of us need help and sometimes you don’t know what kind of help you need.”
She adds, “My lesson is that whatever it is that is hard, take the risk, pick up the phone. You just have to keep moving in the direction of the discomfort. The building burns down and something is left behind that is essential for the next stage of the journey.”
Remarried for the third time (she says she’s finally getting it right), Kung says she gives her life now a rating of 8 out of 10. “I aspire to a 10; there is a list of dreams still. But my dreams are different. They are about legacy and passing on lessons to aspiring young leaders.”
Like Kung, so many of us are surprised at how things turn out at this age — for better and possibly for worse.
“Even though I have at this age a lot of answers about my life, what works and what doesn’t, I couldn’t even have known what to ask for,” Kung says. “Magic is possible.”
In her 2019 book, No Stopping Us Now: The Adventures of Older Women in American History, New York Times columnist Gail Collins writes, “We’ve lived through an era of such extraordinary change and expanding possibility that it sometimes seems as if nothing, including age, can slow us down.”
Life in Context
“Continuing to find meaning and purpose in life is the real goal of Boomers 3.0 — a less coherent story than version 1.0 or 2.0, but certainly an intriguing one that will have major social, economic, and political consequences over the next few decades,” writes Lawrence R. Samuel, PhD, an American cultural historian, recently in Psychology Today.
Pamela Todd, 70, a mother of four and grandparent of two, contends meaning and purpose have found her. And it is hundreds of miles from where she thought she would be at this point in her life.
She and Donn, her husband of nearly five decades, sold the beloved Chicago suburban home they lived in for 46 years while raising their family. They moved to the Michigan farm that has been owned by Donn’s family for 140 years, hoping to restore the house and the land.
Paring down and packing up was difficult, she says. “We lived happy and fortunate lives here with a community of people we really loved and causes we were passionate about,” Todd says. “I had a sudden sense of loss, unloading all of our possessions, each of them with a memory attached.”
Plus, the move turned out to be not at all what they had expected. Rather than remodel the home, they had to gut it.
“We pulled out all the walls down to the studs. You can see the cross boards with saw marks made by hand, and layers and layers of wallpaper patched with newspapers from nearly a century ago,” explains Todd.
Finding contractors was a challenge, due to COVID considerations. They had to move into a rental while the house was under reconstruction. Six months later, they were finally ready to start replacing heating, plumbing, electricity, appliances, cabinets, and walls.
Soon they will be able to move in and turn their attention to the 80 acres surrounding the house. Restoring the land was the draw for Todd, who is on the national board of Wild Ones, an organization devoted to increasing biodiversity on private lands.
When they arrived at the farm last year, they walked the land with someone from a local land conservancy and an expert from the Department of Natural Resources to get a sense of their new home and its natural surroundings. The expert discovered a 10-acre button bush swamp in bloom, hidden behind a dense bank of 30-foot pine trees that Todd and her husband had planted when they were first engaged.
“The swamp was lime green,” Todd says, “and those bushes were covered in blossoms. It was achingly beautiful. When something connects to you on a deep level, it reaches your soul. It makes the hard parts easier to bear. You know you are supposed to take whatever difficulty you face and find a way through it.”
The upheaval she experienced was painful and certainly not anything she pictured for herself at her age, says Todd, who works part-time for an advocacy group for rare diseases and is also an author and poet. But she has found herself in this remarkable new place of possibility and renewal.
“None of us knows what the future holds, but I want to know that I did what I could. We did this. We saved something that we love,” Todd says.
“You live your life in a context of family, friends, community and institutions and then at another point you have to simplify,” Todd says. “I still carry the things and people I love in my heart. They’re still deeply important to me. But this is what I have to do now. Leaving provides space in your life to find the authentic you that is not dependent on where you are.”
No Book of Instructions
Where you are and your personal geography does not define a life mission, but can be strategically linked with your purpose and history, even if it does not come with a map.
“It seems like every stage of life comes with a book or set of instructions to help navigate,” says Deborah D. Douglas, 53, an author and award-winning journalist for more than three decades, working in newsrooms around the country at daily newspapers as well as digital sites.
“I remember when my mom gave me a book that described how babies are made, from plants and animals to people. I blushed as I quickly turned the pages looking but not looking,” says Douglas, who has taught journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and is the Eugene S. Pulliam Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism at DePauw University.
Douglas, who for nearly 10 years has been a facilitator with The OpEd Project, leading fellowships to amplify underrepresented expert voices around the country and the world, adds, “Relationship advice abounds for people seeking the supposed normalcy of marriage. A cottage industry attends to everything would-be moms want to know. Since entering middle age, I don’t know what to expect. Google doesn’t cater to my particular brand of insecurity or vulnerability. How do I show up for this moment?”
Her work is demanding and fast-moving, and she is in high-demand. A prolific writer and editor for global sites, her professional life now is one she could not even have pictured as a lead editor working in a busy major daily newspaper newsroom in Chicago two decades ago.
Where she is now, as an author with two books recently released, including her guide to the Civil Rights Movement through 13 cities, and a chapter in the New York Times No. 1 bestseller, Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America 1619-2019, is not where she pictured she would be. But where she is and where she is going are as rewarding as unexpected, with opportunities and possibilities opening up with each accomplishment and new venture offered to her.
There is no playbook for what to expect when you reach 50, Douglas says, and your immediate landscape looks different, as do the systems and frameworks that are changing and evolving. Media, in particular, is dramatically altered from even 10 years ago, let alone 30 years in the past when she was mapping out her journalism future.
Nimble and equipped to perform pivots whenever needed, Douglas has been expanding her platforms and responding to changes in her work capacity as well as expectations of her. But she is also asking herself the hard questions.
“After years of working and preparing, I often wonder if I am prepared enough? If so, prepared for what? Do I need to know specifics, or is the challenge to be experienced enough in new things that taking the leap is the key learning and opportunity I must face?”
Douglas asks, “Are great leaps what I should expect from here on out? That seems scary and, like, a lot. I just wrote a travel book, Moon U.S. Civil Rights Trail: A Traveler’s Guide to the People, Places and Events That Made The Movement, so I’ll take my counsel from a woman who was a beacon of that time, Fannie Lou Hamer. When she sought seating for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, Hamer told the credentials committee: ‘If I fall, I’ll fall five feet, four inches forward.’”
Douglas adds, “Here’s to falling forward into the future.”
Michele Weldon is an author, journalist, and senior leader with The OpEd Project. Her latest book is Act Like You’re Having A Good Time.