The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure In The 25 Years After 50
It turns out that Madonna is not the queen of reinvention. That title belongs to Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, who truly is reinvention royalty. Lawrence-Lightfoot’s The Third Chapter offers a wise and uplifting guide to creating a new life or to drastically improving the one you’ve got. Although the bulk of advice is directed at folks actually in their “third chapter”, anyone in need of a transformation can benefit from Lawrence-Lightfoot’s advice and from the experience of the forty post-fifties she interviews.
As Lawrence-Lightfoot points out, our society expects seniors to retreat. But the book’s subjects—all in their fifties, sixties, or seventies—refused to see their “third chapter” as retrenchment or, worse, stagnation. Rather, they viewed their third chapter as an opportunity to resurrect old dreams and to create new ones.
The characters include a doctor who decides to study opera singing, a policy wonk who leaves a prestigious position to attend divinity school, and a successful businesswoman who becomes a relief worker in Kosovo. Many others revisit artistic passions. In one poignant story, a former professor begins painting a portrait of her best friend. Over time, as she tweaks and shades, her own face emerges from the canvas. As this new artist and so many of Lawrence-Lightfoot’s subjects discover, the post-fifty years are prime time for discovering one’s true voice and for new learning.
New learning is the crux of The Third Chapter and it is a theory from which readers of any age can benefit. Paradoxically, the first step to new learning is unlearning. Successful unlearning means dropping the unhealthy habits that most of us have picked up by high school: people-pleasing, guilt, aggressive competition, valuing external rewards over self-fulfillment, measuring ourselves by others’ high and low expectations, and allowing the harsh critical inner voice to suffer from terminal logorrhea. These are traits, practically reflexes, that many women will recognize. Appropriately, the theories of Mary Catherine Bateson and Carol Gilligan figure prominently.
Unlearning is only the first step, but once taken, self-consciousness, fear, and other limitations drop away. Only then can new learning kick in. Lawrence-Lightfoot, one of new learning’s pioneers, provides an excellent description of the extraordinary ways it pays off. A willingness to embrace collaboration, to take risks, and to practice strategic restraint (i.e. talking and acting less, listening and observing more) all turn out to be great methods for identifying and following one’s true passions and for hearing one’s own unadulterated voice. New learning also includes embracing struggles and setbacks as additional sources of knowledge, not as confirmation that one’s self-doubt was well placed (that’s so old learning).
While new learning requires maturity and experience, its principles can be applied at any age and with potentially unlimited benefits. By the end of the book, I was wondering why I hadn’t figured all this out already (I know, the self-chastising is ripe for unlearning) and equally pondered the unexpected and shocking revelation that, according to Lawrence-Lightfoot, at age forty-eight I am almost into the third chapter myself.
The meaningful takeaway is well summed up by someone else who accomplished much in the third chapter: “It’s not the years in your life, but the life in your years [that matter]." Abraham Lincoln said that; he became president at age fifty-two.