Brand building through storytelling

What I learned from the man who never retired

William Safire, the formidably prolific author, columnist and self-described language maven who died on Sunday in his eightieth year, was in the end a man of his word. Nearly five years ago he called his final Op-Ed column for the New York Times “Never retire.” He was moving on to a new adventure as chair of the DanaFoundation for brain research, where he remained until his death from pancreatic cancer. He had no particular scientific gifts but he did have a proven talent for building communities around an idea. And besides, he was hungry for a fresh challenge. As he told his readers, “When you’re through changing, learning, working to stay involved—only then are you through.”

When I first read those words one weekday morning in January, I had just left the Editor’s office at Chatelaine. The job had captivated me for close to a decade but my learning there was over, my contribution complete. I sat in my bathrobe, sipping coffee and pondering the strangeness of no meetings to attend, no check list of urgent problems awaiting my solution. The problem at hand concerned no one but myself—what to make of this next phase of my life. In the eyes of the world I had retired, but I scorned that word. It means “to withdraw”—not at all what I had in mind. I had come to relish the buzz that only satisfying work can provide. At 55, I was 20 years younger than William Safire. But if he could launch a new career on a wave of committed curiosity, then surely I could, too.

Good thing I didn’t want another job: I’d have found the going tough. A recruiter friend told me, shaking her head, that people over 50 were deemed to be “running out of runway,” no matter what their talents or track record. Safire got around that obstacle by planning ahead. Brain research had intrigued him for years. In fact it was Safire—along with high-profile friends like Nobel Laureate James Watson ofDouble Helix fame—who got the Dana Foundation off the ground. Now, that’s grand-scale networking! But there was something else at play as well—an openness to risk. To fall in love with a new line of work, paid or not, you must be willing to love the frustrations that come with the territory, and to face the limits of your existing skill set. You must become a zestful beginner—never easy for those of us who’ve come to like being experts, but it didn’t faze William Safire. Chairing the Dana Foundation, he wrote, would involve “fewer lone-wolf assertions; more collegial dealing. I hear that’s tough.”

In the unsettling silence of my post-corporate life, I too became a zestful beginner. I started the book that became My Mother’s Daughter. Sometimes it seemed I was hacking my way through a jungle with nothing but a pair of nail clippers, but I knew I was where I belonged, at my computer, rewriting a sentence for the three-hundred-and-ninety-seventh time. When there was nothing left to improve about this project of mine, I missed the frustration of creating it. And so I returned to the great question: “What do I want to do now? What will stretch me, enthral me and keep me learning?”

These days I have something in common with people starting out in their careers. At a breakfast recently, I sat with a young woman who was looking for work after a sojourn at home with three children. What kind of work? She looked both excited and perplexed. “Not another job like the one I left to start my family. Something that uses the best skills I’ve got and pushes me to acquire some new ones. I’m going to get out and talk to people until I find the right fit.” Then she added, “You’re lucky. You’ve got this stuff all figured out.”

Not so, I told her. You never get it figured out once and for all. An employer can give you a job—or take it away. But work is something you make yourself, a way to leave your imprint on a corner of the world. Your heart tells you when a project has reached its natural conclusion, and then you start all over again somewhere else.

I can’t relate to the buzzwords for people like me. We’re “in transition,” it’s said, or “reinventing ourselves,” as if one day there’ll be an end to this awkward, fitful business of growing. The only end I know of is the grave. Until then, there’s always another chance to be a zestful beginner. And I, for one, will never retire.

For more on this theme, see my earlier post “Every second woman I know is in transition” and my article “Writing the next chapter” from More magazine.


Posted by Rona

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