[Edited: An earlier version of this post may have offended some readers. I’ve revised a few statements to, I hope, clarify.]
I gave my first workshop a couple of weeks ago. I was nervous about it, but now that it’s done, I can safely say I enjoyed it. And what I enjoyed most was how confident I felt speaking to a room full of people as if I knew what I was talking about—because I did.
It was a great experience for me, and I plan to do it again. Perhaps more importantly, it got me thinking about how many other women must be Late Bloomers like me—middle-aged baby boomers, starting over with something new or returning to something they thought they’d never get back to.
There could be any number of reasons for women to start over in mid-life: surviving a divorce or loss of a spouse, recovering from an illness or injury, or getting back to the workforce after raising children. The reason is probably less important than finding and nurturing the confidence to do it.
Over my adult life, my confidence has come and gone. In my twenties, I set my sights on being a magazine writer. I thought I could take a few continuing-ed courses and become an award-winning freelance journalist while my babies were napping. I had a fake-‘til-I-make-it attitude. I didn’t really have confidence, but I acted as if I did.
In fairness to myself, I learned a lot over my decade of freelancing; I published dozens of articles, was shortlisted for a few literary awards, and still occasionally hear from readers who remember the essays I published in the Saturday Review.
But while I enjoyed the bylines, by the time baby #3 came along, I still wasn’t “making it” financially, so I switched career tracks and created a one-person communications business. I tried not to think of it as “giving up,” but I didn’t go into it with as much confidence as I’d had a decade earlier. In the meantime, I realized I needed more formal training, but by then I couldn’t afford it.
So I took a deep breath and started flying by the seat of my pants. I made cold calls, using a script to keep myself from going brain dead mid-sentence. I was honest with my target market of small nonprofits regarding my strategy of low rates in exchange for on-job training, and they accepted the tradeoff. I also took a few more courses and, as my business grew, so did my confidence.
Then I was injured, and my time for the next several years was focused on healing, pursuing a lawsuit, and sustaining a basic income. I had no time or money for courses as long as the legal action was ongoing; by the time it was over, the world had gone social and digital, and I’d fallen far behind.
I took another deep breath. I’d been very slowly working toward certificates in writing, editing, and publishing, and now I focused on finishing them all at once. With those under my belt, I said goodbye to my business and graduated into the world of formal work as a director of communications for a mid-sized nonprofit. I thought I was on my way to the last third of my working life.
That plan crashed when the job didn’t work out and the recession hit. Jobs I would have qualified for a year earlier were now going to people with far more formal education and experience than I had. I had to rebuild my business, but nobody was hiring contractors. It didn’t make any difference because I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do next anyway.
It took a while to sort things out, but one thing that finally helped was working with a wonderful business adviser, Carolyn Burke of Integrity Incorporated. Carolyn helped me realize I’m just not comfortable with a fake-‘til-I-make-it, fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, dance-as-fast-as-I-can attitude—and that’s okay. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with that can-do approach; it’s just that while it’s often gotten me through the moment, it’s never really built my confidence over the long term.
There are two things that build my confidence: training that yields formal recognition, like a certificate, diploma, or degree; and preparation, like a script.
This is not news to me, but it’s taken me this long to feel okay about standing up and saying to others, “This is what I need. It may not be what you need, but it is what I need.”
In a world of 7 billion people, I can’t imagine my experience of starting over in middle age is unique. We’re living longer, and we often need and want to do something different as we get older, but figuring out what it is and finding the confidence to do it is just not the same as when we were younger.
For one thing, we feel a time pressure we didn’t feel when our lives were in front of us. We don’t have time to waste trying things until we get our lives right. If we’re going to find fulfillment, we need to figure it out now.
For another thing, we have less energy than we did 20 or 30 years ago. I have to wonder (and I haven’t looked for research on this) if diminishing energy for the fake / fly / dance approach is linked with introversion and extroversion. I’m an introvert. I’ve always found the fake-it approach draining, but I had more energy for it 20 years ago than I do now. Would an extrovert of my age have a different experience?
I suspect those points apply to men and women equally , but in addition, women in middle age are often battling the cumulative effects of a lifetime of damaging messages. A couple of recent blog posts set alarm bells ringing in my head with countless memories of men interrupting and talking over me, not taking me seriously, taking credit for work I’ve done, and explaining things to me as if I were a simpleton.
I watched a video a while back (it was on Upworthy, but I can’t find it now) that compared the impact of constant street harassment to drops of water on a rock—they may have no visible effect in the moment, but over the course of years, those drops of water can carve riverbeds out of granite and deep crevices in women’s confidence to start something new, start over, start now.
It’s a recipe for women struggling with even the idea of starting over in mid-life. But given the choice now between the hard work of starting my writing career over for a fourth time and simply accepting the way my life was turning out before I started over, I wouldn’t go back.
Whether you’re excited about starting over in mid-life or daunted by it, here’s a small piece of advice: start by finding whatever you think will build your confidence. It doesn’t matter what it is—counselling , yoga, art, education—and you don’t need to listen to anyone else about what it should be. Your gut is your only real guide.
From there, it’s up to you.
My workshop went well, by the way. Not only did I feel good about it, but a few participants contacted me afterward for more information. The evaluations were largely positive, except for those who were expecting something completely different. I realized later they probably hadn’t read the description, which spelled out what to expect quite clearly, and if they’d only read the title, I could see how they might have misinterpreted it. That tells me two things: there are several points for me to improve on for next time—and there’s a niche for me to develop another workshop.
I’m up for the challenge.