Encore Entrepreneur: Renewal and Redesign
What does it take to launch a business as an aging adult? I can only answer that question for myself: optimism, obstinacy, and a desire to give back. I started my company, Five Pillars of Aging, in April 2019. In January 2020, COVID made its debut. It is now September 2022, and I am slogging through one of the most challenging economic downturns in recent history.
This has been a journey of renewal and redesign. I have found it to be exhilarating, frustrating, eye opening, bank depleting, terrifying, validating, and deeply satisfying. I have continued my education, albeit without the structure and rigor of an organized curriculum, and I am hopeful that I will successfully matriculate.
Now My Fourth Career
A brief review of my career path is like a “Where’s Waldo” challenge. I had no idea what I wanted to “do” when I graduated from college in 1975, but I knew I loved acting and performing. I supported my acting habit by using my typing skills to get me into jobs in advertising, sales, program development, and computer programming. The acting career didn’t pan out, although I continue to use skills I learned as a speaker and voice-over artist.
Lifeguarding, Teaching, and Falling in Love
Since I couldn’t make rent, I moved back in with my mother, and after a few months of moping around, she informed me that I would need to get a job. She suggested I become a lifeguard.
I needed to be certified in CPR, and in taking that class, I fell in love with the instructor (and eventually married him) who worked for the American Red Cross. I acquired skills as a water safety, boating, first aid, and CPR instructor, as well as a disaster responder, and became a skilled teacher and trainer.
All that exposed me to life circumstances where I saw people’s lives changed in an instant, and how strangers came to aid and support those in need selflessly and without question.
Crossing the Bar
My next career put me on an entirely different road of intellectual growth and professional development. Some unseen hand pushed or led me to a chance interview with the State Bar of California, where I fell in love with the law. I spent five years working with some of the finest legal minds in California, supporting and assisting them in the review and recommendation of proposed legislation and providing continuing education for members of the Bar. I spent another five years working as an estate planning paralegal for a major San Francisco law firm.
Then came a personal growth weekend workshop that cracked open a fissure in my psyche. I had been a student of Buddhism and a meditation practitioner since my twenties, and I thought of myself as pretty balanced. Turned out, I had been “talking the talk” but not “walking the walk.”
Out of this experience, I realized I would need to make some changes if I were to embrace my authentic self. I returned to an early childhood affinity for seeking to understand what makes people tick, enrolled in the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, and after a master’s degree and doctorate, I settled into practice as a psychologist working with elders.
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (too hard)
Nowhere along the line did I ever think I would become a “businesswoman.” Honestly, I have no inclination for business operations, and I am absolutely resistant to keeping necessary records, much less doing the marketing research required to establish my brand, develop CRM, or entice folks to BUY, BUY, BUY!
I have sat through I-don’t-know-how-many webinars, downloaded endless PDFs, and attempted to wrap my head around these aspects of commerce. I am not sure I am any better for it all, but I did learn an enormous amount about just where my resistance lies and how stubborn I am. I suspect I need to ask forgiveness from friends, since they have exhibited unbelievable patience with my many false starts and fizzled ideas.
I have come to realize that what is crystal clear to me (in my head) doesn’t always fall out of my mouth in a way that others can follow. This has taught me to try things out. Even though that is a risky process, I now understand that if my idea doesn’t fly or isn’t clear, it doesn’t mean I am a failure.
I have come to realize that I really, really like developing content and playing with software. This has taught me new skills and new ways of doing things. It has kept my brain active during COVID. Now I need it to start generating income and that requires my handing over the content to others and focusing on building the business. That scares me.
I have discovered that I like thinking that I am on the cutting edge of things. I have learned, however, that this is not a constant thing, and more and more what I have been saying for years (decades, actually) is now becoming commonplace. This is good, in that the things I was thinking are pretty important, but I learned that I am very jealous and just a skosh resentful that I didn’t receive all the acknowledgment, applause, standing ovations, and gratitude I think I deserve.
I have learned that I love giving advice to others, but am just a tiny bit reluctant to take it myself. I have given myself permission to get over myself and start listening and, more importantly, asking others for their input. This has resulted in new friendships and alliances. It also has opened old wounds and feelings of inadequacy. Still, I have so much more compassion for myself now, and while the wounds are still tender, they no longer are life threatening.
Moving Forward in Spite Of…
After all is said and done, ultimately I am the one who needs to make the decision on which way to go. Trial-and-error methodology turned out to be useful (costly!), and apparently necessary to renew and redesign my brain.
One of my mentors started a school back in the 1970s. It really was little more than a dream with a few folks who were willing to explore the transpersonal. It went from a small group-consciousness-raising experience to an accredited graduate program, graduating hundreds of amazingly talented researchers, therapists, and social change agents.
I call this to mind when I am feeling unsure about the future, recognizing that sometimes just putting one foot in front of the other is all that is needed, and other times, doing nothing is required.
There must have been times (or so I imagine) when doubt crept into my mentor’s mind as to whether this vision would ever manifest. I am sure there were plenty of naysayers and critics, as well as folks with lots of helpful advice. Based on results, persistence paid off. I am hoping for a similar outcome.
Gestation and Birth
My vision has been gestating now for three years. It is time for birthing. I am so grateful for all the midwives who have stood by me in this process, and I am eagerly anticipating the addition of many others who will help me raise this business successfully.
I want Five Pillars of Aging to inform and empower aging adults in navigating the challenges of aging in the 21st century. To accomplish this, I have developed courses on using values to make better decisions; identifying quality-of-life priorities for aging in place; staying engaged physically, emotionally, cognitively, and socially; and creating purpose and meaning over the life span.
According to the Marketers…
Based on marketing advice, I should be sending you daily emails, posting on Instagram, and connecting on Facebook. That just doesn’t feel right to me. I will do some of that, but I am trusting that word of mouth will spread my message that we can all age better and age well.
This is a journey of falling in love with myself. My return on investment is huge, because I am investing in myself. I thought there might not be enough in my metaphoric tank to get this last business up and running, but what I have come to appreciate is that I am filled with renewable energy. I just need to get myself moving in the right direction.
All of my experience has brought me, in a spiral-like fashion, back to the starting point. This is not a sign of success or failure; rather, it is a reassuring benchmark that I have accomplished something, learned from it, and now have a track record to call upon.
This process continues to offer lessons to me. New ways of thinking about things I thought I understood continue to shift my perspective. It truly is about renewal and redesign. And staying true to myself.
Mary L. Flett, PhD, is an author, clinical psychologist (retired), and nationally recognized speaker on aging. She is the author of Aging with Finesse, a three-book series of short essays exploring valuing ourselves as elders, connecting with others, and acquiring essential skills for aging well and aging better. In 2019 she founded Five Pillars of Aging, her online education and coaching company.