12/09/2014 12:32 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2015

Time to Uninvent Reinvention


We Boomers are suckers for reinvention. When society decides it has no use for us in our old careers, jobs and roles, we are quick to dust off our dreams, listen to our hearts and find something worthy of us that we can feel passionate about. This "can-do" attitude offsets whatever twinges of conscience could otherwise be plucked by our own lack of preparation for retirement, multiplied by institutionalized ageism.

Of course, it does help if what your heart is telling you to do matches what society actually wants from us -- especially if you hope or need to get paid. All you need to do is take your strengths, talents and dreams, shuffle them into new variations of what used to work for you but doesn't any more, and re-offer your renewed self on the re-invented marketplace.

For example, how about all those folks downsized from their jobs in advertising and public relations who have been encouraged by the career experts to hang up their shingles as experts helping companies market to Boomers? Do you see many companies lining up to help us sell us their hip new cars, cruises, cosmetics or fashion? Didn't think so...

And God forbid your dream is telling you the time has finally arrived to reinvent yourself into the writer determined to find a publisher for your (pick one) memoir, book of poetry or great American novel. In other words, if you want to reinvent yourself, and need to be paid, it would be tons better if when you looked into your heart, you were to find not an artist huddling inside, but rather, a computer programmer or home health aid.

So, is the situation hopeless? For some, the old pieces will indeed be shuffled miraculously into a new satisfying order, and for the very fortunate, will actually produce both emotional fulfillment and necessary income. But for the rest of us -- including those of us who fortunate enough not to need additional sources of income to survive -- reinvention is not the answer. At its worst, in fact, it is the problem, seducing us to extend the productive years of our midlife as long as possible, stealing valuable time and energy from the real promise, power and potential of the genuine life task awaiting us on the far side of midlife.

Just what is this genuine life task? To get a better handle on this, let's take a brief survey of adult development theory. In a nutshell, we are born without roles or identities. We just are. But it doesn't take long before our parents, authority figures, church, education system, media and other cultural influences begin programming us with beliefs about ourselves and the world. By the time we can walk and talk, we've already gone a long way towards formulating a persona: what it takes to succeed, or at least, survive, in this world. At some point, also early on, but reaching a fever pitch around adolescence, we embark on our first of a long series of serious reinventions, accepting and rejecting aspects of our original programming and going through the arduous, challenging process of assembling what will be our adult identity.

If we're lucky, there are numerous overlaps between what we truly want for ourselves and what it takes to survive. But for many of us, there are also compromises made, passions discarded, authenticity de-valued.

Hopefully, the good outweighs the bad and so it is that we make our ways through midlife and beyond, finding ourselves, at last, at the outer edges of the lifelong identity-building project. Now what? It is both exhilarating and terrifying to find yourself no longer compelled to act out of either your original programming or your lifetime of persona creation. It is innate, normal and healthy as we age to organically begin caring less about what others think of us, to pay heed to our authentic urges regardless of whether or not they fit into some pre-conceived notion of success, to be weird or wild or eccentric or whatever it is we discarded along the way and would dearly, deeply love to reclaim. It's called freedom, and hard-won freedom, at that.

And now here's the kicker. For the Boomer generation, just as we arrive at this moment, rather than revel in our new life stage, the cauldron of true freedom, we are asked to climb the identity creation mountain all over again.

What is really called for, I would argue, is not reinvention but uninvention. Post-midlife, we finally have the opportunity to recognize, witness, outgrow and ultimately discard the roles, identities and positions we have assumed over the course of our lives and -- get this -- have the courage not to rush to refuge in a simple reordering of all the old pieces: a creation dedicated to keeping the old ego intact. Rather, God willing, one gets to a point, where one does not want to "re" anything anymore and would rather, bravely, drop all the old outlived skins away to find something authentic, original, inside. Indeed, for those of us brave enough to look aging in the face, we may be blessed with the understanding that on the other side of reinvention, itself, one finally has the potential to find the key to meaning and fulfillment we've been yearning for.

It's true, discovering your long-buried capacity to experience life in the present moment -- sitting by the bank of a river, spending time with a good friend, writing for the sheer pleasure of self-expression -- may not find their measure in financial reward. But neither do many of the reinvention fantasies that sap our life blood and have the unfortunate ability to turn even the best of us someday into 80-year-olds seeking career counseling and feeling guilty because we're not fulfilling our true potential.

Time to reinvent reinvention, to discover who are we when we finally find it in our hearts to let the outgrown constructions drop away and allow ourselves to linger with curiosity rather than rev ourselves right back up into the higher gear reinvention demands of us.