How do we really help ourselves feel vital and relevant?

Last week I ran a 10K in under an hour! It was the first time I’ve ever done it. In fact, I’ve been an avid runner since I was in my mid-thirties, and just now in my mid (to late-ish) 40s I’m finally improving—with lots of commitment and hard work, a good coach, and some new tunes on my iPod.

While I’ve been training to improve my running pace, I’ve also been working on an edit for a seventy-something year-old writer in my community whose memoir is of a very personal and sensitive nature. Yesterday he told me, “At my age, I’m pretty set in my ways, but I’m learning a lot from this process. You’re challenging me. I didn’t expect to be growing like this.” These two experiences—my improving my 10K pace at 46 and my senior citizen client learning new writing skills at my prodding—have made me think about what it means to defy the expectations of aging. With anti-aging products touted incessantly in magazine and television ads, one would think that the most important factor in feeling vital is how your face looks—or what droops and what doesn’t.

For me, though, this is the best, most fulfilling, most energetic time of my life, and I expect it to continue getting better. I believe it has to do with how aging has given me the chance to get to know myself and my priorities. Getting older for me has meant getting bolder, less bound up with cultural expectations, and more willing to take chances. It COULD be that way for all of us. Aging COULD mean being freed up from the pressure to look good and having the space to do what really matters to us without perfectionismand competition breathing down our necks.

Just like you, I fall prey to looking in the mirror and lamenting the deepening lines around my eyes. I, too, spend extra effort shopping for bras that lift and shape, and I frequently wonder if my outfits are out of date or if they’re trying too hard. We all do some of this kind of thing, but what if we were also to set our minds to improving and growing in just one area of interest? Wouldn’t this increase our sense of vitality and release us from the nagging feeling that maybe we don’t matter anymore?

To know that you’re growing, improving, and learning is to become more vital and relevant—and we all need to know that we’re relevant, no matter our age.

My challenge to all of us at mid-life (or even to those of us on either side of mid-life who might be feeling stuck or tired) is to choose one area to commit to. Pick just one thing to improve on. I’m not talking about perfectionism here—just growth. Are you a gardener who has never tried bonsai? Or a journal writer who has never tried memoir? Maybe you’re a skier who has never trained for competition. Commit to pushing yourself just a little outside of your comfort zone in one area of interest and see what happens. Maybe you’ll cancel your plans to get Botox.

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