Finance & Money
When Life Doesn’t Turn Out The Way You Expected
Change happens. To everyone. At every age. The difference is how you respond
I’ve had a lot of conversations lately with women in their 50s and 60s who are disappointed with how their lives have turned out. They are going through trauma — through job disruptions or a divorce — and they say things like, “I should have done this 20 years ago, but I wanted the children to have an intact family…” or “I knew this wasn’t working out, but my career and the exhaustion of just trying to raise my children got in the way of doing something earlier…” or “I’m in a destructive job situation where I’m being dictated to by someone with less experience.”
What I hear next is often regret (“I can’t believe I let it go on this long”) and fear that the best part of their life is already behind them. They feel like their age is standing in the way of designing a new life, creating new connections or new financial means of support. Some women have not worked full time or prepared themselves financially for this fork in the road.
What’s interesting to me is that despite the impediments mentioned above, most of these women are the instigators of these dramatic changes in their lives. They are the ones taking action to rectify suboptimal marriages or jobs — albeit belatedly. Yes, they are scared. Some to death. And yet, they have (bravely) decided to move on.
Let me tell you that I’m in awe of these women. It takes nerve to admit at 55 that you must change direction. In some ways, it is indeed more uncomfortable to make a big change later in life than, say, in your 20s. (Note: I didn’t say it was impossible.) In the past, society did not welcome midlife reinvention — especially for women. That is why generations of women who came before us (and certainly my own mother) simply suffered in silence. They were either forced out of bad marriages by unexpected divorce, or stayed in dead relationships or dead jobs (“quiet quitting”) till the bitter end. Some were too financially or emotionally dependent to take the reins of their lives, even if it was at just the halfway mark.
The great thing about living in 2023 is that more and more women realize that we are not our mothers. There is no stigma to getting divorced at 55. There is no taboo about starting over in your 40s, 50s, 60s. I talk with hundreds of women each year about how they reinvented themselves for my podcast, Reinvent Yourself with Lesley Jane Seymour. They have overcome unbelievable midlife disruptions: dramatic health issues, life-threatening accidents, widowhood, unexpected divorce, job loss, empty nest, suffocating elder care. A few have lost absolutely everything in one year — a husband, their health, a best friend, possibly even a child. And they have bounced (or clawed their way) back to a life they love.
They figure out how to bend and swivel in unexpected ways. As we used to say at More magazine over and over: “You never know when you may be given the opportunity to reinvent yourself.” I certainly didn’t. Who knew that my chosen profession of editing magazines would go the way of the buggy whip? When I entered Vogue magazine as a copywriter back in the 1980s, my bosses had been there for 30+ years. I expected I would retire in magazines as well. And when I’d finally made it to the top of the publishing pyramid, to Editor-in-Chief of YM, Redbook, Marie Claire, and then More (and was finally hauling in a decent salary), boom — publishing imploded. So much so that I look at the few flimsy magazines on the newsstand today and barely recognize them, compared to the hefty doorstops we used to publish.
I have moved on as well and created CoveyClub, where we help women work through these major life changes. I didn’t expect to become an entrepreneur in my 60s, yet here I am!
Here are four steps you can take today to deal with that sense of loss that comes from feeling your life has not turned out how you’d imagined:
- Consider any marriage/relationship that lasts more than seven years a success, and take credit for it. Realize that if you had a marriage of 7 to 20 years — or longer, that it was not a “mistake.” It was an important, productive part of your life for those years. It gave you stability, and perhaps children. But people change. And often not together.
- Substitute the words “turning out” for “turned out.” Midlife is a halfway point. You are still learning, growing, changing, evolving. If you think of your life as static and over, you will say, “I can’t believe how my life turned out.” But your life is not over. It is still moving. Can you hear how different it is to say, “I can’t believe how my life is turning out”? It’s not just more optimistic, it’s the truth: your life is still in the “ing” phase.
- Cultivate a growth mindset. When people ask me what the 200+ successful reinventors I’ve interviewed have in common, I can definitively say a “growth” mindset. A growth mindset looks to learn, evolve, create, and engage. On the other hand, a “fixed” mindset sees things as set in cement and unchangeable: “just the way it is”… “it will never change.” The good news is, according to the research done by Carol Dweck, PhD, who coined these terms, you can actively change your mindset from fixed to growth. Here is a modern discussion by the Stanford Report on how to do it.
- Force yourself out of isolation. COVID-19 and social media increased our sense of isolation. We have 3,000 followers, but no friends that we see on a daily basis. With hybrid work, we no longer commute an hour to work but are isolated in our homes with little human interaction for days at a time. And the higher we go up the corporate ladder, the fewer new people we meet or get to know outside of our profession. Find social groups or networks (like CoveyClub) that force you into activities (live or virtual) with people outside your comfort zone or conventional social circles. Watching and dissecting how others have dealt with change can inspire you to creatively approach your own situation in a new manner.
- Ask for help. Get a coach. See a therapist. Find a grief group. Time is short. Get to work. Understanding your underlying motivations and vulnerabilities (we all have them) will help you move forward. I’ve seen it happen at CoveyClub, over and over again.
Remember, no one has a fairy-tale life. Everyone struggles. Everyone is forced to cope with unexpected change. The true test of your character is not spending your life avoiding getting knocked down. It’s what you do next after getting up.