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The Secret to Relevance


Like many women I know, in the wake of the hard stop silence of an empty nest, I found myself more isolated after my twins left for college.

Without the relentless forward thrust of daily kid activities, schedules and events that had connected me to the community, it took more effort and organization to see friends. Suddenly, I was spending more time in the echo chamber of my own head, so opposite from the wonderfully chaotic days of work, kids and family, when I retreated to the bathtub to finish a thought.

Professionally, my creative drive to write novels began to flag after three attempts at different books that didn’t quite work. Lacking the desire required to rip them apart and diagnose the maladies, I became my own harshest critic, a washed-up novelist. I hated the nagging voice that constantly tapped my shoulder when I wasn’t writing. My family called me grumpy. Self-flagellation blunted my enjoyment at being in the moment. If I wasn’t writing, I was a failure.

It wasn’t until I read an article in The Atlantic that I realized my actions were a form of survival and resilience, a choice between two ways of living in the empty nest, exhibited by scientist Charles Darwin and composer Johann Sebastian Bach.

Both were famous, accomplished men in their respective eras. Their early decades were periods of profound “fluid intelligence,” when the brain is wired for peak creativity, discovery and invention.

Darwin’s voyage on “The Beagle” led to his theory of natural selection and Bach published more than 1,000 compositions before he died at age 65. But it’s what each man did after their 50’s, when their profound period of output began to wane, that interested me. As Darwin kept striving (and failing) to uncover his next big break-through, scientist Gregor Mendel eclipsed him with his theory of genetic inheritance. Darwin died despondent, believing he was irrelevant.

Bach chose a different path. After age 50, his popularity and creative juices diminished, but he tapped into his “crystalized intelligence,” the vast library of knowledge and experience we accumulate over a lifetime. Pivoting from innovator to instructor, he fostered the next generation of musicians and lived a quiet, contented life as a teacher and family man.

I thought back to my own life and career, which had started in marketing agencies and moved to freelance consulting and writing with motherhood. My 40’s and early 50’s were a productive and creative period. I wrote essays and articles, published three books, travelled on book tours and crisscrossed the country as a speaker. I reported for CBS and ABC’s morning shows. There were four children in school and college, schedules and sporting events, physical moves and aging parents in Boston. We started a foundation that helped wounded veterans and their families. Life in those years held no time for repose. I summoned creativity when I needed it, writing books in the margins of my life, rising at 4 a.m. Closing in on 60 this year, I look back at that period and marvel. Who was that energized, octopus-self, I wonder? Where did she go?

Finally, in desperation, I gave myself permission to not write for an entire year. It was one of the best decisions I made.

Instead of working on a novel, I began to pivot toward a new career as a media trainer and communications coach that would ease me through the feelings of insecurity, irrelevance, and anxiety that can often accompany a new life chapter.

Reinvigorating an aspect of my consulting business, I began to help clients with branding and messaging, preparing them for public speaking and media interview situations. Eventually, I was booked months in advance, working around the globe and relishing the communications challenges presented by interesting people and newsworthy issues.

Without recognizing it, I’d been behaving like Bach, drawing on a lifetime of knowledge and experience to help others strengthen their skills.

When I look around me, I’m comforted to see so many friends choosing Bach’s approach, reinventing themselves, re-visiting passions or interests, pursuing degrees or certificates while writing the next chapters of their lives.

My girlfriend Tracy is on her way to becoming a “death doula” in the wake of ministering to a parent’s passing. Val has always loved music and she’s built an entire house concert enterprise in Chicago to showcase up and coming musicians. Amy has worked in TV talent all her life and is now producing powerful documentaries that highlight female icons and changemakers. Claire was a corporate lawyer who went back to school to become a kick-ass executive coach and Karen is a fabulous cook who has created a home business with her talents, and the list goes on.

And not every reinvention is attached to a paycheck. Many people double down on volunteering, giving back to those less fortunate, working to register voters, tutoring, reading to the elderly, teaching English as a second language and finding ways to feel fulfilled inside. Hard-wired to crave relevance and purpose, we feel most useful and alive when we find a way to contribute and “do.”

The key to long-term contentment is to shift our endeavors, careers, interests or methods of finding joy toward the strengths that sustain us. To find fulfillment in serving others, to play to our talents as we age, to teach, elevate, mentor, share, learn or pass knowledge on to the next generation sustains us.

While I’m having a blast right now as a communications consultant, I know there will come a natural time to pivot again. I fully expect to write more books, can already feel that desire slowly waking from the hibernation of my imposed exile. So how will you choose to spend this next chapter? Will you be a Darwin or a Bach? The joystick to happiness is in your hands.

This essay was featured in the February 16th edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.


Lee Woodruff is an author and speaker who runs her own Media/Speaker Training business.  She is the co-founder of the Bob Woodruff Foundation, a non-profit which raises money to help injured veterans and their families as they transition back to the homefront. To date, they have given away more than $70 million. Learn more and visit her website here.

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