Bookmark and Share

Book Review -- The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50, by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

By Karma Kitaj, PhD

Republished with permission from the Life Planning Network Newsletter.

Distinguished Harvard School of Education sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot's new book, The Third Chapter, takes us on a journey to meet 40 people spread across the U.S., all between the age of 50-75, embarking on adventures of exploration, risk taking and new learning. They have all entered, what Lawrence-Lightfoot describes as, the Third Chapter.

Each personal adventure involved crossing boundaries, much as one would in an "anthropological expedition," challenging themselves to leave the comfortable niche of their mid-years' careers to enter a world where they felt like "awkward strangers, inept travelers and vulnerable observers."

Lawrence-Lightfoot finds that in crossing boundaries and learning to welcome ambiguity, these Third Chapter folks require several talents:

  • Deep curiosity to know something new
  • Ability to relinquish fear of the unknown and fear of failure - being able to name the fear and take a leap of faith
  • Willingness to be vulnerable, exposed to public floundering
  • Readiness to embrace contradictions and integrate the new with the familiar

This journey sometimes took people back to an earlier time when they felt vulnerable, challenged, unwelcome. Some of these were painful trips, back to times when a parent or teacher gave the message "You'll never amount to anything" or "Girls don't do that." Those people had to find a way to heal the wounds - by naming them, confronting the emotion, the inner gremlins, and then moving forward to take the risk.

In moving ahead, they defied long-standing stereotypes and institutional structures that still expect Third Agers to retire, withdraw and leave the stage to the younger generation. In contrast, they are embracing new learning, new projects and careers with passion and a sense of adventure.

At her 60th birthday party, neurobiologist Anna Nielson (one of the women interviewed) remarked that she felt with sudden urgency the finiteness of life. "I had this big, newborn sense that I must do things I had left undone for too long." Instead of remaining in the research lab, she decided to bridge the gap between research and public policy. She went on to work on HIV/AIDS in East Africa.

Others that Lawrence-Lightfoot writes about shifted to entirely new mental regions - Charles Watkins, a corporate lawyer, embarked on working on public gardens in Boston's Chinese community, where he discovered the "gladness" of opening his heart to "the world's great hunger." Lawrence-Lightfoot finds that as people engage in new passions, they develop patience, wisdom, and the desire to leave a legacy. These are more important to them than succeeding in a conventional sense.

To adapt and master new engagements, they stretch themselves in body, voice and soul. They learn to trust their bodies, even those who relied on the life of the mind in the past. "Thinking with the body" is the way one man who became a jazz musician described it. They discovered their voices, both literally (learning to sing as a previously labeled tone-deaf person) and figuratively (by standing up and delivering a message). They discovered changes in their "core being," becoming more soulful, wanting to do something meaningful, to give back.

The author closes with a chapter that recognizes the need to "crack" or remedy the fissures in our infrastructure to make it possible for not only the affluent and educated Third Chapter people to have the resources to explore and reinvent themselves, but for more people to have opportunities to go on these "anthropological expeditions" in their sixth, seventh and eighth decades. This is a book that echoes much of what LPNers believe in and try to promote.