Face It: We Should Strive for the Capacity to Change

07/21/2010 12:56 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I have been thinking a lot about third acts lately. Okay, maybe because one of my plays just completed an off- Broadway run. (Two acts, by the way) But mostly because I am heartened that at a time of life when our predecessors were winding down or tuning out, more and more people I know are gearing up. Even more importantly, shifting gears.

The experts claim that those most resistant to change are very young children, and adults in their waning years. (Which is why advertisers are convinced the only demographic that counts begins around sixteen and ends about 39.) All the more reason I am taking particular notice of those at midlife and beyond who are going against the odds. And I do not mean that they are merely willing to switch deodorants.

Admittedly, the adaptation is often born out of temporary defeat or rejection. One close friend was fired, not without public humiliation, from a high powered magazine editorship. She fell hard and sank low and found herself going after jobs that were surely beneath her. Finally, she remembered she actually began as a strong writer and joined a book writing class. Now, just a few years later, at 61, she has her third novel coming out and has just signed a six figure deal for her first non-fiction.

My pal Wendy had written numerous scripts over the years, but was resigned to the belief that her voice and vision would never be welcomed in mainstream movies. As a result of a series of serendipitous events, she found herself writing an independent film last year. Indies have long been deemed a young person's milieu, but Wendy has nevertheless just watched that film being shot, and is as buoyant and hopeful as I've ever seen her. (The film, incidentally, is about a woman who thinks her life as a Valley girl is forever stagnant until she agrees to house-sit "downtown" and finds herself transformed) Another TV writer friend finally succumbed to his true passion, cooking, and now has a website for men who share that passion. At least two others I know work hard for their money in highly stressful jobs, and confess they'd be happiest if they could follow their true love, flowers, into a business. They aren't there yet, but they may yet wake up and smell the roses.

This ability -- or lack thereof -- to change is not strictly related to career. My friend Arthur, in his mid 50s, had been divorced and solo for so long, he seemed rather hopelessly set in his ways. Until he reconnected with Ivy, an old chum, on Facebook , and a wonderful correspondence took hold. Things only got better and earlier this year, Arthur sold his beloved, long-time home in Los Angeles and moved in with Ivy in Northern California. This is not just about meeting a mate later in life -- which many do -- but about being malleable and open to new things at a time when it is a hell of a lot easier to cling to what is safe.

Speaking of Facebook, I heard recently from an old acquaintance who wanted to know if I remembered her from grade school. She told me she was just retiring from an administrative job in education after twenty five years, and wanted to know if I was in a similar place. I had to confess: I have never had a busier year: a book was coming out, a non-profit I chaired was still a priority, my third play was soon to open, and I had just gone back to college. It was then I did something very out of the ordinary for a cockeyed pessimist: I patted myself on the back for trying new things, taking big risks and continuing to stretch.

The idea of midlife reinvention is hardly novel, but it has tended to be second act material. What I find rejuvenating are those who simultaneously go with the flow and go against the grain well past intermission. I think of my old neighbor Ruth Handler who as a fearless executive had run Mattel and singlehandedly invented Barbie. Later, well in her 60s, she was driven out of Mattel and (momentarily) disgraced and depressed. She contracted breast cancer which Ruth not only beat, but she went on to invent a better bra for those post-reconstruction! Now that's having the capacity to change.

The goal, I would hope, is not to get so stuck that we continue to do something, or stay somewhere, or with someone, simply because it is frightening not to. I don't know about you, but I have been attending one too many funerals, sitting one too many shivas, lately, and they inevitably bring up self examination.

Ask any creator of fiction and he or she will tell you the third act is always the hardest to write. Performing it may be even tougher but things are looking up.