When I got hired as a tenure-track community college journalism teacher 10,000 years ago, I replaced a woman who was retiring after 29 years in the position. I remember thinking when she and I talked that I couldn’t imagine doing something for that long a time. Without intentionally planning it, I seemed to have a sense of myself as someone who would do something for a while and then move gradually to something else. In a way, I did have several iterations within that college structure, but by the time I actually retired I had been there—you guessed it—29 years.
My father was a teacher, too, with a 20-year stint at one school and a couple of decades at two other schools. It was in my genes, I guess, whether I was willing to admit it or not. You get a job and that’s what you do for your life’s work. At least that was how I configured the pieces of the career puzzle set before me. For obvious reasons—like security, continuity, and stability—it’s what most people do. And then, when it ends and we’re faced with a clean slate, lots of us simply repeat the same unimaginative approach, where we select some activities and do those for the next 20 years. Again, I wouldn’t say that I’ve thought of this consciously, but in the two years since I’ve retired, I have felt myself leaning toward the idea of nailing down what my life will be like now.
I don’t have to do what I’m doing now for the next 20 years. I don’t have to set the rules and tone and activity list and stick to it as if it were the official rules.
Esteban Calvo, a sociology professor at Columbia University and at Universidad Diego Portales, Chile, says it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, he stresses the idea that although identifying new roles for ourselves is essential to our growth and happiness, these are not irreversible. “You can design your new life,” he says, "but you don’t have to do it forever. You can actually do it multiple times.” Hearing him say this resonates with me because I want to imagine that this new life of discovery and openness will continue to be so. But inside myself, I realize I don’t have a lot of confidence in my ability to choose and change and grow and discover. It’s a little like seeing a movie with a strong character you wish you were like but know you could never be.
But I listen to Calvo’s words and I can feel the wisdom in them. “We make a lot of mistakes throughout our lives,” he says, “but as we age, we get better. We learn more, we know what we like and what we don’t like, and we have more wisdom about what is rewarding to us.” The cynical and scared part of me thinks that because Calvo is young, he may be too optimistic in his view of human capacity. The brave, inquisitive part of me that has grown so much during these last two years of this new act thinks he might be on to something. I don’t have to do what I’m doing now for the next 20 years. I don’t have to set the rules and tone and activity list and stick to it as if these were the official rules. I really can do what I want to do and I can change my mind and my course.
As unfamiliar as this approach might be to a person like me, who has always prided herself on knowing what comes next, on another level it’s kind of thrilling. The fact that a year from now I could be recounting an adventure or a project or a journey I haven’t yet considered or discovered is pretty exciting. So I’m channeling Esteban Calvo now and his belief that I and people like me will have the creativity we need to dream of something great and the courage to follow through.