BY DELISE DICKARD
Recently my former boss retired from his position at Harvard University as a lecturer in psychology. I think he was almost 80 years old.
I worked for him for about five years and probably wouldn’t be writing this column if it weren’t for him. He saw through my improper Louisiana grammar—despite my bachelor’s and master’s degrees—to my creativity as a person and writer.
The favorite part of my job—as assistant director of the master’s program in Harvard’s continuing education division—was the career counseling I was privileged to provide.
I delivered this counseling as best I could to many older folks with minds as eager as a child’s to unearth and follow their passions. It was beautiful to watch a 60-year-old former engineer finally studying literature, or a 50-something housewife finally getting to study history.
What these wonderful folks did with their graduate degrees, once achieved, was not as important as the glow on their faces when they found and pursued their passion—after spending most of their lives doing what they had to do just to get by.
Sometimes late in life, people may feel a sense of crisis, wondering: Am I doing what I wanted to do with my life? Erik and Joan Erikson, who developed the eight (later nine) stages of psychosocial development, deemed the pertinent question for the age group: “Did I make my life count?”
My grandfather worked his entire career as a projectionist in a movie theatre, working into the night running the movie projectors and troubleshooting problems that might arise. He did this so that those in the theater below could escape into whatever fantasy Hollywood had concocted for them.
After he retired, he piddled around with gardening and his passion for planting fruit trees. But nearing 70, he turned his full focus to becoming a painter and worked tirelessly, delighting friends and family alike with his artwork.
My experience in counseling those pursuing continuing education later in life, and the lessons from my grandfather, remind me that it is never too late to pursue your passion. Here are some thoughts for your journey.
Think outside the box. When I ask people to consider their own passion, sometimes they haven’t discovered it yet. I typically ask them to fill out a lined legal size paper with each line naming some potential passion. I encourage them to consider large dreams (like visiting Paris) and smaller ones (like growing orchids). If you try this, think about sports, nature, arts, music and more. Fill out each and every line so you can get beyond the things you say when you introduce yourself—and consider things haven’t thought about in years.
Let your intuition, not your judgment, guide you. The judging mind is the one that wants to make sure the passion is practical. This mindset has its purpose, and you can use it when it comes down to making a plan to pursue a passion. But during the exploration phase of this process, this judging mind needs to take a nap. Write out what makes you giggle, what thrills you, and the unimaginable.
Be open to all possibilities. Try not to focus on what won’t work, but the way in which you, with this one lifetime of opportunity, might make anything work. Think, “I can do it and will do it.” At the end of day, you might decide the price is too great. That’s OK. Maybe the trip to Paris would mean selling your car, and you’d rather keep your car. Staying open leaves you in the driver’s seat, without an overactive critical mind making all the decisions.
The time to believe in yourself is now! I remember my mother saying (around 40) that she felt too old to do this or that—and now she’s over 70 and in great health. I always said to her “The time is now; you’ll never be any younger!”
Years ago, I took a class called “the Nature of Drama” at Harvard. There was a lovely older woman there, and I never would have guessed she was about 90 years old. Nor would I have guessed—if someone hadn’t told me—that it was Joan Erikson. She and husband Erik were doing something far from their expert field of psychology: They were writing a play. I never saw the play, but the idea that someone so famous in psychology circles could still find a new adventure was impressive.
The Eriksons’ stages of psychosocial development included eight stages through which a healthily developing human passes from infancy to late adulthood. Later, after Erik’s death, Joan admitted that they got the eighth stage a bit wrong because, when they were writing about the stages, they had not yet reached this very old age.
She took the initiative, just before she died, to add the ninth stage. The ninth stage deals more with the loss of functionality and independence. Still, she impressed me as a woman who retained her independence well into her 90s, and never stopped exploring new opportunities.
With her good sense of humor, she said the final stage is preoccupied with “what body part is going to work today?” Still, she became for me, an older-age role model.
Dr. Delise Dickard is a life coach, psychotherapist and director of Riverside Counseling. She welcomes reader feedback. For contact information, visit riversidecounseling.org.