My mother’s death at one hundred years old rocked my world. I had spent years as her caregiver, while also caring for my son with health issues, while also working as an emotional health reporter and minister. Grief, on top of a series of other losses—loved ones dying, day job lost, son moving out, and everything that came along with the pandemic—took me on a path of sadness and compassion burnout. One day, I just fell to my knees and cried. It lasted for about 18 months. My husband held me together. At 62, I was rudderless and had no idea who I was anymore. I had no clear purpose.
Then I had a magical wake-up call.
I came across a quotation from the T.H. White book The Once and Future King, from a scene in which King Arthur goes into the woods to consult his mentor, Merlin, about how to deal with sadness. “The best thing for being sad,” replies Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails.”
It hit like a bolt of lightning: I had not hit a dead end. I had entered my wisdom years.
Instead of focusing on the challenges that accompanied my entrance into my 60s, I decided to allow my curiosity and interests to lead me on a journey. I gave myself one full year. I decided to take Merlin’s word for it, and I somehow understood that when the brain is learning, the heart and soul are nourished. I sat down and gave some thought to what I wanted to learn and why, and divided the learning journey into three paths.
SPIRITUAL GROWTH. The exhaustion of caregiving had robbed my enthusiasm for a long time, so I knew I wanted to replant myself firmly on the path of spiritual development. I set myself on a journey in Glastonbury, England, where I took courses with wonderful teachers who helped midwife my spiritual rebirth.
INTELLECTUAL ENGAGEMENT. I had left graduate school to care for my mom and longed to go back. I took dozens of free courses at Harvard X and Coursera and signed up for anything that offered wisdom on topics that sung to me, like Hindu scriptures. Then I scoured online graduate programs and ultimately decided to enroll. Rather than return to psychology, I stepped onto a new path of study that fit my newest interests. I wrote my entrance essay at the same time I was applying for Medicare.
SHARING WISDOM. I felt called to take on a legacy project of putting my life’s work into a book. It quickly turned into a passion project that was creative, fun, and gave me a new purpose in life. I decided to gather up the rights to all the books I had published over time and start my own publishing company. I took courses in business and entrepreneurship.
I then published 16 books on topics I love—goddess history, weddings, spirituality—in a year and a half. I studied different online methods of delivering spiritual information and felt truly blessed to start teaching others.
Having come through the tunnel of grief and compassion burnout to step onto a new path in life, I believe we can all cultivate our curiosity, learn new things, and bring new meaning to our lives. I spoke to others who have also seen this come true.
Curiosity Equals Happiness
“A curious brain is a happy brain,” says Jay Kumar, PhD, author of Science of a Happy Brain. “Curiosity and the innate drive to explore are viewed as a psychological strategy that early humans developed to help us survive and thrive in an unpredictable world. Brain science affirms how learning builds neuroplasticity—the ability to rewire and fortify the structural connections and health of your brain at any age.”
“Having an inquisitive mindset also provides you with a deeper sense of hope, purpose, and meaning in life,” explains Dr. Kumar, the director of wellbeing at Fish Interfaith Center at Chapman University. Humans are essentially meaning-making creatures, he says. “We are evolutionarily wired to seek the deeper meaning behind life’s situations as a way to frame our worldview, which in turn provides a deeper sense of intellectual fulfillment and spiritual wellbeing.”
Just as Merlin suggested to King Arthur, learning new things can adjust our attitudes.
“Whether it is wanting to play the piano, visit a new culture, or explore a new trail in the woods,” says Dr. Kumar, “curiosity leads to lasting happiness in your brain, body, and being.”
A Wiser Artist
A dramatic change in Becky Robbins’ life led her to discover her soul mission as an artist. “After a divorce and going from every minute surrounded and also frantically busy, I was suddenly free and solo,” she recalls. “A dear friend told me that after her retirement, she was taking piano, Spanish lessons, and art lessons and encouraged me to take a beginner’s class with her. At a local La Jolla atelier, I started taking very modest lessons in drawing, and for a few years took several kinds of classes with all different mediums.”
She recalls being taken by the idea that something can be created from nothing. “It didn’t give me purpose in the beginning,” she says. “It was a fun hobby and still is but since I’ve been painting for a little over 10 years now, I feel more accomplished.” Ideas flow more naturally, research ensues, and she has her own unique approach to creating. It began as a call to create and it has evolved into an important form of self-expression.
One of the benefits of growing wiser is that we do not have to pressure ourselves about being perfect. Robbins says it is important to recognize that “in the beginning of any pursuit, you’re not great at it.” By investing time and energy, and honoring progress however big or small, one thing follows another, and more mastery can develop. As Robbins puts it, “My biggest lesson was to actually feel I can call myself an artist.”
Becoming a Modern Elder
Our earlier lives and careers are often about being an expert in our profession; the next part of life can entail being both learners and wisdom keepers. “Modern elders” is a fitting moniker.
Chip Conley, founder and CEO of the Modern Elder Academy, explains it this way: “The first half of life is pursuing happiness, often with the operating system being one’s ego. The second half of life is seeking contentment, with our heart and soul being our guiding influences.”
Conley, who is the author of Wisdom at Work: The Making of a Modern Elder, came to these insights after years as a successful hotelier. He decided to sell his company at 52 and hang up his CEO hat, but then was asked by the young owners of Airbnb to help grow their start-up. As head of global hospitality and strategy, he discovered that he had a lot of wisdom to share but also a lot to learn. He realized he was not the only one in his age group who had gone from the role of fulfilling what the world expected of him to asking the question: “How can I serve the world while also seeking contentment?”
“The idea for the world’s first ‘midlife wisdom school’ sprouted in my brain while I was running on the beach in the southern part of Baja California,” says Conley. “We quickly kicked into gear with a beta program stretching over 14 weeks with 13 cohorts and more than 150 students. As we finish our first year of being open to the public, we’re now up to hundreds of graduates from five continents.”
The Age of No Retirement
Julia Randell-Khan spent over 30 years as an attorney. At age 55, she started working out what was next. She went back to school at Stanford University to a program that focuses on midlife transitions, purpose, wellness, and community. This led her to work with, and become a fellow of, the Encore Organization, which matches people of the wisdom years with younger folks for intergenerational projects and community service.
Recently, Randell-Khan launched The Purpose Xchange, along with American gerontologist Deb Gale and South African doctor and social entrepreneur Jonathan Collie. The legal name of the company is The Age of No Retirement, and the mission statement supports a world that eschews conventional retirement, that values lived experience and wisdom, and in which purpose is at the heart of everything.
“It provides people with the opportunity to unlock their curiosity and the potential to look at their future in a different way,” she says. Offerings include purpose-planning workshops and exercises designed to help people assess where they are on the wisdom path and awaken them to what a good life can look like. “It helps people think about how they can draw on their skills and wisdom and talents that they’ve developed over many years of life and of work, and how that can be channeled into what we are calling a purposeful non-retirement.” Part of the fun is bringing people together to define and pursue purposeful missions and to unite in supportive groups.
“There is a lot of life change that is coming at people at this stage, financial issues, relationship issues, psychological and professional issues,” says Randell-Khan. She points out that people take on new responsibilities and have changing roles. “There is change on every level and everyone’s situation and needs are different.” It is her hope to help people navigate through these transformational times and envision a new, purpose-led future by offering accessible, affordable programs that guide people into this new realm of life. Members can join free from anywhere in the world as the offerings are online and accessible globally.