SPECIAL FROM Next Avenue
I recently met up with Marlo Thomas to chat about her latest book, "It Ain’t Over….Till It’s Over," a compilation of 60 stories about women — most over age 40 — who reinvented their lives by pursuing an old or new dream. In the process, they found a fresh way to earn a living and reinvigorated their sense of purpose.
All the women in the book demonstrate a bold can-do spirit and remarkable creativity. Through dogged effort, they learn what they need to do to make their ideas a reality, rally essential supporters and launch and refine their businesses.
It Ain't Over makes you feel that it’s never too late to start over. And, the same can be said of Thomas herself — she’s brimming with ideas and enthusiasm, and forever tackling new challenges.
Here are highlights from my chat with her:
Next Avenue: What led you to write this book?
Thomas: I travel around the country raising money for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital and after I give my speech I talk with women in the audience. They often speak about the fact that they’re stuck. They’ve been laid off and the job market isn’t opening its arms. Or a dream has run out on them.
One woman said ‘I’m 43 years old, my daughter just got her driver’s license and my son’s gone off to college. Now what do I do? I could live 50 years more. What’s my new dream?’
There’s another type of woman who left a long-held dream behind. She worked at a job that wasn’t her dream one and now she’s saying, ‘You know, I’m going to be 54. When am I going do what I want to do?’
And then there’s the woman who never really had a dream. She just went along, day-to-day, paying the bills and figuring out how to survive but not thrive. And now she’s saying, ‘I never really figured out what I want to do. What do I want to do with the rest of my life?’
Women get laid off and get divorced, husbands die, kids grow up. One woman in the book ran away from home because she was battered. Another found out that her husband was cheating on her. So, in all of those cases, people were starting over.
I call these women the reinvention generation. It’s a generation that looks forward rather than back.
My mother’s generation was always saying ‘40 years ago, I….’ Now women are saying ‘I’ve got 40 more years to go.’ They’re seeing themselves at 80 and 90 and saying, ‘Well, what am I going to do between now and then? How do I start?’
About two years ago, my conversations with these women inspired me to launch a motivational series of reinvention stories on my Huffington Post site. Every Wednesday, we put up a story that people submit through my Facebook page; these stories get millions of hits. Finally we thought, well, this concept can be a book with new stories. My intention was for it to be a roadmap. Women could read it and say, ‘Oh if I take a little bit from this woman and a little bit from that woman, I can start to knit together a new dream for myself.’
How did the women in the book land on their business ideas?
Some found that something they love to do could be a livelihood, like the stay-at-home mom with three little kids whose husband died when she was in her 30s. She talked to her girlfriends and they said ‘Why don’t you sell the jewelry you make?’ So she stayed up every night and made jewelry and sold them to a shop in town, on eBay and Etsy and then, in her own store.
There’s another kind of woman who’s motivated by a need she has and turns that into a business — for example, Jamie James who came up with Cellfolio. She said, ‘I really need something small and stylish that can hold my phone, keys, money, a couple credit cards and an ID card.’ Then, she invented what she needed and it became a huge business. In the book there are many examples of how women got started.
What traits did these women have in common? Is courage one of them?
It is. They all eventually believed that they were their own best resource.
Everyone needs support. You may need to borrow money. You need to find mentors and advisers. You need to do a lot of things, but you also have to know inside that you have to help yourself and figure this out. These women felt they had to get somewhere else and knew the only one way to do that was to take a risk.
What they achieved was often monumental. How can someone else pull off what they did?
One of the things I say that I’ve learned from these women is that it’s okay to dream big but you gotta work small — one step at a time.
If you do something every single day toward your dream, in six months you will be much further along than you are today. Maybe one day it’s realizing that you need to take a class in something because there’s a skill set you don’t have that could help you.
Or you might need to intern somewhere. A lot of women think that interning is something that you do when you get out of college. But you can intern at 50 and while you’re doing that, you’re learning a business and you’re making friends in that business.
So those are two things you could do in the first six months. You could also contact somebody you know in that field and say ‘Could I just sit down and ask you a few questions?’ Or if you don’t know anybody in that field, maybe you get to know somebody through another friend.
There are all kinds of steps to take. You need the kick in the pants, you need the logic — a plan — and you need to be willing to put yourself out there and fail.
On the way to doing something right, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes, but there’s no mistake I’ve ever made in my life that I didn’t learn from.
My favorite saying that I pass on to everyone is from Ruth Gordon, the wonderful writer and actress. She said ‘Never face the facts, you won’t get out of bed in the morning.' I think you must put that in your brain. It’s my mantra because really the facts are against us. Why should you get it and not somebody else? It’s only because you insist. You have to be able to say, ‘I need it. I must have it. I insist on doing it and that’s it!’
What would you say to people who know they’re stuck but don’t know what to do and have no spark of inspiration? That’s perhaps the deepest kind of rut.
Yes, it is. A lot of women have said that to me. The way out of that hole, I think, is to look at your own life and ask ‘What do I like to do?’
Do I like to paint? Do I like to make jewelry? Do I like to cook? One of those things could very well be your next career.
Several women in the book did exactly that. One made caramels and turned that into a big business.
Maybe you could do it with your mother, or your sister, or your best girlfriend, or your daughter, son, husband or boyfriend. If my mother were alive, I’d make her go into the spaghetti sauce business. She made the greatest sauce.
What would you say to those who use age as an excuse not to start something new?
We know that many of us are going to live a long time and so the future’s wide open, which is both scary and exciting. This also means that you have some time to do something else. If you’re 60 years old, you still have 30 years. I once acted in a play that Arthur Laurents had just written — at 92.
What to do about age is a decision, like happiness.
You can say, ‘Well, okay, I’m 60 years old. Haven’t I lived enough? Haven’t I accomplished enough? Why don’t I just stay home now and tend my garden?’ Or, you can decide to spend the time another way.
I don’t want to spend my days in the garden. I want to spend my days pounding the pavement and figuring out the next thing I want to do. That’s what excites me.
The women in your book reinvent themselves in the process of inventing new enterprises. Do you view yourself as a reinventor?
I do. I didn’t think of myself that way until I started working on this book. Then I thought, well, actually this is what I am because I like finding new things to do.
When I quit "That Girl" they wanted us to go another three years and I said, ‘You know, I’ve done this already.’ People asked me to do a sequel to Free to Be…You and Me and I said ‘But I did it.’ I don’t really want to do what I did before.
I’m starting a new play in July — that’s got me all excited. It’s called "Clever Little Lies" and we’re doing it at Guild Hall in East Hampton, New York, and hopefully it’ll go on to Manhattan. We tried it out in the George Street Playhouse in November and it went really well. That play will be exactly the switch I need now.
I’m a person who has a lot of ideas. I want to see them through and find people who’ll help me.
I love collaborating with a community. That’s the great thing about working on Marlothomas.com and the informational Mondays With Marlo series there, and doing a television series or a play. These are all about a community of people who want the same thing.
Many of the women in my book also shaped a community to get their businesses off the ground and keep them going. They pulled together and worked hard to make it happen. That's exciting and fun!