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When Reinvention Fails: Next Steps

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My new patient entered his first therapy session with a forlorn expression on his face. "I'm a failure," he told me, "I've run my course."

This was a dramatic statement for a 65-year-old man who saw himself as quite old but was actually quite young for my practice (in which the average age is 90).

I asked why he felt like a failure. He explained that he was a retired advertising executive who had once been at the top of his trade, celebrated as a wunderkind at a major agency in Manhattan during the 70's and then running his own enormously successful firm in the 80's. He described several of his ad campaigns that were brilliant for their time and brought him great fortune.

But the pace and style of advertising changed in the 90's with new artistic and musical styles, digital technologies, and a wave of fresh-faced advertising neophytes eager for success. Try as he might, he could not adapt to these changes with the same success, and his failing agency sapped most of his fortune.

"I tried my best to re-invent myself," he explained, "but I simply couldn't do it." He found it impossible to compete with the new and typically younger ad executives at other firms. Experience, he discovered, was trumped by style. During our session the emotional impact of this perceived failure was still present, and the solution he imagined was impossible: "I would have needed a new brain!"

A new brain? That would be a steep if not impossible price of reinvention, even imagining it not as a literal transplant but as a radical shift in perspective. Yet many aging individuals try to achieve this goal, contorting their interests, bodies and relationships to fit a model that simply doesn't work for them anymore, and that fails to bring the anticipated pleasures or successes achieved in younger years. It would be like Robert Plant trying to croon hip-hop with the same success of "Stairway to Heaven," or Sean Connery trying to reprise the acrobatics of James Bond but 2011 style. It won't happen. And many view these imagined (or real) limitations as failures.

By analogy, my patient's premature perception of mental decrepitude lays down a gauntlet for lots of aging boomers. Success in the manner defined by one's youth is not always possible. The times are actually a-changin', and trying to compete with younger brains and bodies in certain areas may seem futile. The price of trying to reinvent oneself along the lines of previous successes may thus involve feelings of insecurity, failure, depression and inauthenticity. For certain tasks, we must admit that sometimes youth is needed for true success.

So is there a form of "re-invention" that can work as we grow older, that does make sense when the temper of the times shifts away from our previously recognized skills and successes? Some of the lessons learned by Steve Jobs after being forced out by Apple at the age of 30 are informative here (and telling in an era where one can appear washed up even at such a young age!). Speaking to the 2005 Stanford graduating class, Jobs imparted the following wisdom. "I had been rejected," Jobs said, "but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over."

Jobs' advice is to follow the inner voices and passions which underlie previous successes. For example, my patient had an enduring love for photography, since it brought him meaning that transcended monetary or commercial success. Maybe that could be the path away from his state of dejection. Jobs also spoke about both the finitude and clarion call of eventual death - a threat that loomed close to him after his initial diagnosis of cancer.

Too many people anticipate or become fixated on age-related decline and the ever closer horizon of death and allow this to limit their dreams. It's a form of mental kryptonite that lulls people into believing that they have a diminishing capacity to change or find new meaning or purpose in later life. But Jobs took the opposite tack: the prospect of death was all the more reason to pursue one's passion with confidence and energy because, after all, if not now (to paraphrase Hillel), then when?

It is not a new brain that my patient needed, but a new mission built upon his true passions, a renewal of purpose using the ever-increasing knowledge, experience, wisdom and creativity that grows not in spite of age, but because of it.

Don't look at the likes of the great painter Grandma Moses (who achieved extraordinary creative success with a passion pursued initially in her 70s) as an anomaly, but as the future. Not everyone can become a great artist, athlete or sage in late life, but everyone retains the potential for ongoing growth and development. The path, of course, may look and feel quite different from younger years. But the true price of attempting to re-invent (or renew) oneself with age does not have to be a sense of failure or dejection, but the ability to let go of prior goals, expectations and other well-honed limitations. Once achieved, an open road lies ahead.

Marc E. Agronin, M.D. is a geriatric psychiatrist and the author of How We Age: A Doctor's Journey into the Heart of Growing Old. He serves as the Medical Director for Mental Health at the Miami Jewish Health Systems in Miami, Florida.