Cover Story » Vol. 54

Aging is the time for re-invention

Some years ago, I fell in love with a series of books about a young woman who raised and trained bloodhounds, solving crimes in the Okefenokee Swamp region of the U.S. with the help of her trusty bloodhounds. The main character was tough, independent and smart, and the series was fast-paced and well-written. I couldn’t wait for the next book.

Then, a few years later, I read that Virginia Lanier, the author of the bloodhound series, had died. As I read her obituary, I learned she was 72 years old – but was stunned that she had started writing the series when she was in her 60s. Even more fascinating was that writing her first book evolved from a challenge. She had been a voracious reader and one day had put down a book she had been reading and told her husband she could write a better story. He challenged her to do so. She wrote the book, called a small Florida publishing company (whose ad she had seen in a local newspaper’s classified section) and signed a publishing contract.

Her first book went on to win the Anthony Award for Best Mystery Novel in 1995, and HarperCollins purchased the rights to the book, as well as to the entire series. Before her death, she had written six novels.

Motivated by her belief that she could write a better book, Lanier set forth into uncharted territory and re-invented herself, becoming a successful writer without any professional writing experience. She did not set a goal to write the Great American Novel, an award-winning book, or even a best-selling series. She simply decided to try something new.

So, too, can you forge a new path in life – no matter what your age. This isn’t always easy; you may be more willing to settle for the status quo and less willing to change. But as essayist Michel de Montaigne has written, “Old age puts more wrinkles in our minds than on our faces.”

To make a change, you need passion and the willingness to try something new. Remember back to your youth and how you strived to be the master of your life? You felt anything and everything was possible. Your energy, drive and enthusiasm were directed to the future and to achieving big things and big dreams. Being willing to embrace change so you can re-invent your life can revitalize, refresh and renew you – putting a new spring in your step and giving you a youthful attitude that can help you live life to the fullest. Here are three ways to help you become the master of your life’s re-invention.

Learn and learn some more

It has been said that what in youth you learned, in age you can better understand. Indeed, maturity adds a richness and value to your knowledge. But the reality is that you are only as old as the information that swirls through you; new knowledge, new skills and new ways of looking at the world can keep your mind, as well as your body, fresh, vibrant and full of life.

Stephen King, who is 68 and has written enough books to fill a library, wrote a surprising confession in the introduction to The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. This most talented and successful writer wrote: “When it comes to writing fiction, long or short, the learning curve never ends. I may be a Professional Writer to the IRS when I file my tax return, but in creative terms, I’m still an amateur, still learning my craft. We all are. Every day spent writing is a learning experience, and a battle to do something new.”

What this means is that while maturity may come with age, knowledge doesn’t. Out of all the information that exists in the world on a wide range of subjects, human beings know only a fraction. One scientist surmised than the amount of information available to human beings is 315 times the number of grains of sand in the world – and continues to expand even as you read this article.

The knowledge you have today does not have to be the knowledge you have for the rest of your life. Re-invent yourself by learning something new, trying a new hobby or simply reading up on a subject you know nothing about. Even taking a refresher course or more advanced levels of learning in an area in which you think you know most everything can help you to look at familiar information in a new way.

Create new memories

Remembering the “good old days” or reflecting on past memories may pass the time, but it does little to help you live an enriched life. A Zen story illustrates this well. A woman had traveled a great distance to consult with a wise Zen master about her difficulty in feeling good about herself and her life as she grew old. When the master greeted her, she immediately began to talk about her life. The master silently poured tea for them as she went on and on. The woman prattled on as the master poured, then suddenly stopped in mid-sentence. The master had filled her cup and was continuing to pour the tea, which had now overflowed her cup and was spilling out onto the floor.

“Why do you continue to pour after my cup is full?” she asked.

“To show you,” the master replied, “that you are like this cup: so full of your memories of the past that nothing can go into the cup in the present. You cannot experience happiness in the present until you have emptied your cup.”

A wise saying conveys the importance of living in and cherishing the present: “The past should be a springboard, not a hammock.” While the hammock may be comfortable, it merely provides a resting place in which nothing new can happen. Once you stop living in the past, you can begin to truly live in the present and look forward to the future.

Build a legacy

Imagine today that you will write your obituary. In it you can include all that you have achieved in your life. But now ask yourself, “What have I done that has lasting value? What have I to offer that can be used by the next generation and for generations to come?” Creating a legacy that can be used and appreciated by others long after you’re gone is something that can help you live your life with greater focus as you discover activities that have a higher purpose.

There’s a Chinese parable in which a wise man journeys to a small village in the mountains, gathers all the villagers and tells them that if they care to join him, they can move a mountain together. He explains that moving the mountain will be a task accomplished over generations. “The truth that you must realize,” he tells them, “is that for all the hard work you will do to move this mountain and the many, many hours of labor, in the end, it will be as if you only moved a teaspoon of dirt and one small pebble. You will not live to see the finished product – the mountain moved – nor will you even be able to see, on a daily basis, the reward of your work – a mountain taking shape, a peak, a valley.”

Rather than refuse to work or try to devise ways to speed up the process of moving the mountain so the task could be finished and everyone could enjoy the fruits of their labors, the villagers who chose to participate did so with great enthusiasm and joy. They knew the fruit of their labors would be appreciated by generations for years to come.

Your legacy doesn’t have to be as enormous or elaborate as moving a mountain. It simply has to be something that has lasting value and meaning. Can you create a handcrafted item that can be passed on for generations in your family? Could you contribute to a scholarship fund that will help a deserving young adult get a college education? Or could you donate time to a nonprofit organization for the benefit of those in need?

Doing something in your life that has lasting value or makes a difference – even if you cannot see the outcome – can bring great satisfaction. As tennis great Arthur Ashe said, “From what we get, we can make a living; what we give, however, makes a life.”

You have much to contribute, not only to yourself, but to your family, to younger people, to social and political causes, to charities and more. When you can see yourself as a valuable resource, you’ll be surprised at the amount of enthusiasm, energy and youthful spark you still have in you. You just need to tap into it by re-inventing yourself.

Amy Dean is the author of several books, including Growing Older, Growing Better: Daily Meditations for Celebrating Aging. Read more about her books at

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