You know those TV ads that feature rugged guys and pretty women exploring the wilderness in their shiny new Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota 4Runner, or Subaru Outback?
Back here in the real world, I suspect that the vast majority of people who buy those vehicles never take them off-road. It’s just that the idea of heading out on our own, beyond where the pavement stops, is so appealing to most of us that automakers have been milking those fantasies for years in hopes of driving more car sales. They believe people will watch those ads and think, If only I drove a ___________, then I’d have the freedom to live life on my own terms, not following society’s rules.
The off-road fantasy resonates because most of us often feel hemmed in by our responsibilities, by others’ expectations of us, by the rules and constraints of society. Buying a heavy-duty car and day-dreaming about driving it right off the edge of the highway provides us an illusion of freedom with a soupcón of ballsiness.
The ironic thing, though, is that even though most of us will never go off-road physically, more of us are having to go off-road psychologically and emotionally than ever before. Think of our internal “highway” as the assumptions we make about what our role in society “should” be — those assumptions are fraying and falling apart in a way they never have before. And, more and more, we’re having to find our own path through this 21st century cultural landscape.
For example, sixty years ago, if I were a married woman of 65 with grown children and grandchildren (as I am), my “highway” would be pretty clear. I would be expected to be retired from whatever job I might have had (most likely as a teacher, nurse, clerk, factory or office worker). Though I might have gone back to work after my kids were out of the house, in my 60s I would be expected to stop working and spend my time taking care of the house, my husband, and perhaps the grandkids; to do age-appropriate activities (crafts, gardening, church or charity work); and perhaps — if we had some savings — to travel.
Today that very defined “road” is still being followed by many women in their sixties — but a big percentage of us are truly going “off-road” and hacking very different lives out of the wilderness: continuing to work while re-thinking the idea of retirement; using the expertise gained throughout our careers to start new businesses, either for-profit or not-for-profit; beginning new relationships; doing bucket-list things our moms and grandmas would never have considered. And some of us are even doing traditional things in new ways. I just read about a company called Rent A Grandma — basically, a service that matches “grandmas” (mature women with a love of children and lots of experience raising kids and running a household) with families who need them, since their own grandmas might be off doing something else and not available to them.
And all these possibilities for mental and cultural off-roading don’t just exist for people my age. Another example: sixty years ago, a young man of 22 would probably already be doing the job that he’d have for the rest of his working life (only about 1 in 10 men had college degrees in the US in 1957), saving money to get married, and preparing to be the sole — or at least major — support of his wife and children. His path was laid out.
Now, that young man can take any of a variety of paths — or make up his own. He could go to college, get a job, join a commune, travel the world with a backpack tending bar. He could get married (though most 22-year-olds don’t, these days), or he could live alone, with roommates or a girlfriend (or boyfriend) — or at home with his parents. He might use his twenties to decide what career path to follow, and that path could be something that didn’t exist before he started doing it.
So what does this imply, this new ability to blaze our own trail through life? First, it means we’re all going to have to get much better at learning and doing new things. If you’re interested in that topic and new to this blog, I wrote a book last year, Be Bad First, that’s all about how to be great at being a novice. Which, if you’re mentally off-roading, inventing your life as you go, is a critical capability.
The other thing, I’m finding, is that mental off-roading requires tremendous independence and courage. I feel as though I’ve definitely driven off the regular highway and am now officially in uncharted territory; my life at 65 certainly doesn’t look like my mom’s life did at this age, or my dad’s. It’s different in many ways from the lives most of my friends have created, or those my sister and brothers are living. I’m still working, building the business I started almost thirty years ago — but my role is changing in the company, as is the kind of work I want to do. I find myself more politically active than I’ve ever been. My marriage is amazing — and doesn’t feel anything like what I expected would be happening at this point in my life. My relationships with my kids and grandkids are rich and fun for all of us — but not what I think of as grandmotherly. Every day I find myself thinking some version of, Is this OK? I don’t see others my age doing/feeling/thinking this. OR Wow, this is very different from how my life was just a few years ago…what’s happening? And then I just have to check in with whether “this”, whatever it is, seems to be supporting me in creating the kind of life, relationships and results I want. And if so, I just have to take a deep breath and…keep driving.
I’d love to hear about your adventures in mental off-roading, too.…