The Third Third

A Quest for Purpose and Meaning

My grandmother, even after she turned 90, could often be found at the ironing board early in the morning, ironing the tablecloth we’d used at dinner the night before. “Grandma,” I would ask, “why are you up and ironing so early in the morning?” “Oh, you know, dear,” she’d say. “everyone needs to feel useful and productive, and this is what I can do.” Useful and productive. Ironing is never going to do it for me. But that’s not the point. The answer will be different for each of us. It's the question that is age-old and universal: How do we stay useful and productive? What gives our lives meaning and purpose, particularly in this new developmental stage I’m calling the third third – the vast period of time that comes after we’ve reared our children and succeeded (or not) in our careers? For my mother, meaning must have come from care-taking. Or, possibly, from not exploring any other options or feeling free to. Her children left, and she still put three meals a day on the table for my father and for his mother whose Type II diabetes demanded, at the end of her life, full-time care. Her husband retired, and they moved, with *her* mother, to a new home in a new place and she cooked, and cleaned, and coddled them both – and even when she could no longer care for her mother in their home, she drove back and forth, 30 minutes each way, twice a day, to visit with her, to bring her books to read, and treats to eat. My mother died soon after her mother, as if her usefulness had expired. While many in our generation will assume care-taking responsibilities for our parents and/or our husbands, too, or find our meaning in “helping” our grown children with their children, others are seeking ways to change course. Whether or not they have been satisfied by family life and/or careers and especially if they have not, baby boomers (why is this not a surprise?) want Something More – and thanks to better health, greater energy, improved longevity, and enhanced financial security (compared to previous generations) we have the time and opportunity to try to find it. Some women, however, have no idea where to look. What is it that ignites our passion? What does a meaningful life look like when you’re 60? Or 70? How can we achieve a sense of reasonable scale – something between Saving the World and Making a Difference in someone’s life? What, in other words, is grandiose, and what is realistic? Can we start over now? A new career? A new calling? Do we dare? Absolutely, says Helen Harness, Ph.D., founder and president of the career change counseling service Career Design Associates, Inc., ( who has been living out the promise of fulfilling your potential since 1978. Chronologically old enough to be the parent of a baby-boomer, the spry, energetic Dr. Harness considers her “functional age” closer to 50 and defies limitations of any kind. It’s her job to help others find \"a purpose they can pursue with passion for the rest of their lives.\" It is a challenging process, one that requires exhaustive self-knowledge and self-awareness, one that allows Career Design clients in transition to supplant their vague feelings of discontent and uncertainty with a true sense of what really matters to them, and a realistic appraisal both of their strengths and weaknesses and of the marketplace. Dr. Harness conducts an extensive battery of tests, spends several hours in one-on-one consultations and even more time in group sessions, and educates her clients with presentations by more than 550 outside experts on philanthropy or entrepreneurship or technology or book publishing or . . . gardening -- whatever matters to them. A comprehensive career change program including assistance with resumes, interviews, job hunting, and salary negotiations, can cost $6,900. A somewhat shorter career transition program runs $4,900. For the full set of Career Design personal and career assessments, the cost is $595. And, in addition, Dr. Harness teaches informal, six-hour career design courses occasionally, including one at Southern Methodist University in Dallas ($195) this spring . Initially, most of Dr. Harness’s clients were new divorcées in crisis. Successful men who hated their jobs (think lawyers) came next. People who had realized enormous financial gains and wanted to give back to society joined in. Retirees who have “failed” retirement signed up. And now women ready to enjoy what Dr. Harness calls “the second midlife” are seeking ways to make the most of it by reacquainting themselves with their core values, reawakening sometimes long-dormant dreams, and fueling their passions. According to Dr. Harkness, their job is to answer a series of four key questions: *1. Who am I? What can I do? 2. Where can I do it? What’s out there? 3. How do I see myself in 5 years, or 10? What do I really want? 4. How do I get there? What are my options?* And once they do, you probably won’t find them ironing in the morning. But you will find them living with purpose.
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