I recently read a tweet that called for a new kind of list to be made. You know those lists: the '30 Under 30', the '20 Under 20', even the '40 Under 40'. And then silence. Crickets are heard. It's as if the rest of us have dropped off a cliff into the vast unknown never to be heard from again. Here is that tweet by writer/producer Melissa Hunter:
At the end of 2020, instead of 30 Under 30 and NextGen lists, please profile middle-aged people who just got their big breaks. I want to read about a mother of 2 who published her first novel, a director who released their first studio feature at 47, THAT'S THE LIST WE WANT.
— Melissa Hunter (@melissaFTW) January 7, 2020
I did a mental standing ovation. I was Meryl Streep at the 2015 Oscars applauding Patricia Arquette's speech on equal pay. I felt seen and heard at a time when I was starting to wonder if I was only as good as my last gig and if my voice or opinion even mattered now that I was in my mid 40s. See, for women it's a double whammy, the two F words that elicit an uncomfortable silence, if not an unsubtle avoidance of the subject altogether: Female and over Forty.
There is something that many companies and brands don't recognise: life experience. Women who are lucky enough to get to this point in our lives have this valuable insight into the human experience. Some of us have had successful careers and are embarking on a complete change whether it is a turn towards motherhood or a completely different career. Others have raised a family and are now starting a new chapter in the professional arena. It isn't easy to change tracks and forge ahead feeling like you're playing catch up or competing with those 20 years younger. Yet I see it as an ability to face fear, tackle challenges head on, and simply put one foot in front of the other.
It sounds simplistic yet it is anything but. One of the most difficult things any one can do is become self-aware. To learn about ourselves, the things that have held us back or propelled us forward is humbling and frightening. We come to this point from a feeling of loss and confusion. The feeling that is the space between who we used to be and the inability to see the path ahead. Having to delve into our past in order to figure out who we are, what motivated us to make certain decisions, and who want to be is a lesson in sifting through a lot of emotional murkiness in order to come out the other side with a sense of clarity and purpose.
Whether it is finding our voice and identity after raising a family (an identity where we aren't someone's wife and/or mother) or searching for meaning after spending decades at a career that no longer brings us a sense of fulfilment, all of it is a journey. Here is the key thing that I always keep reminding myself: it is that journey of questioning and searching that is valuable. It is the conversations that we have with ourself and others, along with the desire to find answers is in of itself an act of resourcefulness, determination, and courage.
It is valuable because once we find a path through, once we find some answers that insight, and the skills we acquired in the process of finding those answers, can be translated into whatever work or path we choose. Clinical Psychologist Dr. Garima Srivastava says, "The more you know about yourself, the better you are at adapting to life's changes...Self-awareness is often the first step to setting goals. Research shows that self-awareness is directly related to both emotional intelligence and success. It helps you create achievable goals because you can consider your strengths, weaknesses, and what drives you when you are setting goals. It allows you to guide yourself down the right path by choosing to pursue the opportunities that best fit your skillset, preferences and tendencies. It makes it easier to identify situations and people that hit our triggers and enables us to anticipate our own reactions. It allows us to make positive behavioral changes that can lead to greater personal and interpersonal success."
Life throws a lot of lessons our way. Lessons that keep coming to us until we learn and master them. And someone who is a brilliant example of that is Lauren Hutton, who at 76 signed a new contract with the skincare brand StriVectin. She keeps pushing through the naysayers who she has been fighting for decades. At 41 she was dropped by Revlon because they considered her too old. The lesson she learned there was to never let anyone dictate when she was done with her career. She has become the poster woman (literally) for ageing gracefully and powerfully saying, "I don’t feel any resentment from when they fired me at 41; it hurt them much more than it hurt me. When they called me in to say it was good-bye, they told me they had done “focus groups” and discovered that “women over 40 didn’t use makeup!” Well, I was over 40, and all the women I knew all used makeup. Corporations are usually at least ten years behind the times, stuck in their past successes like quicksand."
Those barriers of thought, conventions that just don't work anymore, just aren't sustainable anymore if we are to protect the creative and mental spirit. Challenging convention takes us out of our comfort zone. It is, in essence, uncomfortable. Yet there is so much value in that discomfort. That discomfort is there to guide us.And it isn't just women who are dealing with this. In a wonderfully honest interview with WWD, the designer Phillip Lim opens up about his need to change the way he did business saying, "I feel nervous, I feel scared, I feel vulnerable, but at the same time I feel liberated. I feel liberated in the sense of, let’s just talk about real things." For him, it was about having those conversations, with himself and others, exploring what was important to him and his team because the treadmill of constant production just wasn't sustainable anymore. For him, it was about broadening his scope of thinking, recognising that at the age of 46 and 15 years in the business, what he was feeling came down to one thing--he just wasn't happy anymore.
A valuable insight we get as we grow older and mature is knowing how to respect what that inner voice is telling us. And listening to it. It is being brave enough to act on it and go against conventional wisdom to do what is right for us. It's as the wonderfully talented lighting designer Michael Anastassiades says in his interview with Dezeen: "I think that arriving at this stage of your career at a mature stage in your life is much more rewarding. You know when to say no, when to take something on or not take something on. I think that is absolutely fundamental. I don't feel the need to say yes, if I don't think something is right I will often say. Had it happened to me 20 years ago, I wouldn't be the same."
This weekend marks the beginning of the Year of the Rat according to the Chinese astrological calendar. For the Chinese, the rat symbolises abundance, intelligence, creativity, and prosperity. I believe understanding the true meaning of all those things come with age. And it is with true intelligence that we recognise that abundance and prosperity are not necessarily about material wealth but more abut a gratitude of the real things that make us rich--family, friends, shelter, nourishment, as well as being able to give and receive kindness. That's the only list one really needs anyway. Kung Hei Fat Choi!