I will never forget that Wednesday afternoon in my writing class where a group of us writers were editing each other's work. Samantha, a gorgeous woman with an effervescent personality, was sharing a chapter in her memoir. Heads turned when we stumbled upon a paragraph describing her family life and kids. No, she was not a molester, she was not in an abusive relationship: she had a thirty-two year-old daughter!
We are all guilty of this. The minute a mother says how old her child is, we immediately do the math to find out her age. Well, it didn't take us long. We all looked up in disbelief, and Scott, a fellow writer blurted out, "What? You must be fifty something? I mean, you look fabulous -- I mean, you look like you could be 40 or something!"
Samantha looked up and smiled. But, you could tell from the look in her eyes she was dead serious. "Well, I am 53 years old to be exact. And no, I don't look younger. This is what a fifty-three year-old looks like," she told Scott.
While I put my head down to smile, I heard the woman sitting next to me say, "Yeeeessss," under her breath. This was the first time I saw a woman not be flattered by "you-look-younger-than your-age" compliment. Samantha was making a point that nowadays fifty-year-old look fabulous too. Gone are those stereotypical images of 50 or 60 year olds as dowdy women, settled into a habitual and boring life.
So what made Samantha so attractive? For sure, Samantha was endowed with good looks and probably great genes, but what made her particularly attractive was her magnetic presence. To put it simply, she radiated a vitality and love for life that was ageless.
I have been intrigued by this ever since. After having done more than two years of research on an international group of women for my upcoming book: Pioneers of the Possible: Celebrating Visionary Women of the World, one characteristic seems to shine through their remarkable lives. It was passion.
Passion is that fire inside that fuels us, adds depth to our lives, and brings the glow of vitality on our face. And this phenomenon holds true for all people -- and not just women. When Henry Moore, the famous sculptor, was asked why he was still continuing his work so richly into old age, he replied that he had a passion so great that he could never chip it all away.
Indeed those who have a strong life force streaming through their veins seem to go about doing what they love and continue doing it into their old age -- quite happily. For example, Martha Graham went on her dance company tours well into her 80's and 90's. Critics believe that the most joyful work was the one she created at the ripe old age of 96!
Estee Lauder, who built a multi-billion dollar cosmetic empire, worked well into her 70's and was noted to say, "It wasn't youth that made me so energetic -- it was enthusiasm. That's why I know a woman of any age has it within her to begin a business or life's work of any sort. It's a fresh outlook that makes youth so attractive anyway, that quality of anything is possible. That spirit is not owned only by those under thirty."
These people were what I call "joy-hunters" -- guided not only by the goodness of their heart by the fullness of their courage to take a step after another, to reach beyond the confines of age, background, and cultural conditioning, to become the larger, happier person that they were meant to be.
This does not mean that we should have started a successful career in our youth. As a matter of fact, most successful women tell you that they made sense of their career trajectory in hindsight. While making decisions, they did not have every bit of information to move forward, but they moved forward nonetheless.
Two lessons learned from happy, successful women is that they trust their instincts and they have no qualms about fine tuning or readjusting their direction when it doesn't resonate with them. Remember: it is much easier to change direction when a bicycle is moving than at a standstill.
Jack Canfield's book The Success Principles offers another piece of good news. He notes that venture capitalists rarely invest in business start-ups, because so many of them fail. But there is one exception. In the case of entrepreneurs 55 years or older, the business odds of success skyrocket. Those who are 55 years or older are "Simply a better risk because through a lifetime of learning from their failures, they have developed a knowledge base, a kill set, and a self confidence that better enables them to move through the obstacles to success, " Canfield notes.
Anais Nin was very perceptive to note this subtle way we all age: "We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in."
We carry bits and pieces of younger selves into our present life. Perhaps joy-hunters instinctively know how to harness their greatest reservoir of untapped energy later in life.
They dare to dream, listen to themselves, and most importantly give themselves permission to discover those overlooked or underdeveloped parts of themselves that they had no time to nurture, in the hopes of recapturing the lost feeling of being in love with life itself.
Our culture is picking up on the reality that there is no expiration date on passion. One can have it in their nineties, while some lose it in their youth. Finally we are accepting a greater truth: age no longer defines us. It's time to let our passions do the talking.