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Starting over at 40 with nothing after always living for others

I’d spent my whole life living for others and I guess I’d never even realized.

It wasn’t until the rug was pulled out from under me that I decided I was ready to live life the way I wanted.

So there I was, trying to get my head around the prospect of starting over again from scratch at 40 years old.

Scared and excited in equal measure, I questioned whether I was “too old” to start again — a sentiment that seems crazy to me now.

But regardless of the challenges I was worried lay ahead, I also had a strong feeling that now was the time for a change.

Luckily along the way, I discovered how it’s never too late to follow your dreams, whether you’re in your 40s, 50s, 60s 70s…or in fact, at any age.

I was so used to my life being more about other people than it was about me

My tale is not a particularly remarkable one, maybe some people will relate to many parts of it.

In my first year of college — at the age of just 19 — I found myself pregnant.

Overwhelmed and unsure what to do, I dropped out, got married, and resigned myself to a different life than the one I’d originally planned for myself.

I’d always wanted to be a mother eventually — and even though it came earlier than I’d expected — I settled quite happily into my new reality.

And so my attention turned towards meeting my expanding family’s needs, supporting my husband in his career and my (eventually) three children, as they turned from kids into mini-adults themselves.

There were of course times when I had daydreamed — I think most moms will admit to that.

There had always been a part of me that wanted something just for myself.

But the truth is, I wasn’t even sure what exactly it was that I wanted — let alone how to make it happen.

So I just got on with things and tried to push those thoughts away. I carried on following the path that I thought was expected of me.

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I guess it’s not so surprising either — it turns out most of us do.

Have you ever read the book by Bronnie Ware, a former palliative care nurse, who talked about the five biggest regrets of the dying?

The number one biggest regret that people apparently have is “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me”.

It wasn’t until my relationship ended that these feelings I had kept locked inside came spilling out. And in the process, making me question everything I was doing with my life.

Despite being 40 years old, I wasn’t even so sure I knew who the real me even was.

Facing my 40s with a blank page

40 years old, and going through a divorce, change had already been thrust upon me whether I liked it or not.

Then one fateful conversation created a shift in my thinking that once it started, snowballed into a whole new lease of life.

I could either be at the mercy of the effects of change or take control of the direction my life was going to go from here.

I was having lunch with a good friend when the conversation quite naturally turned to: “Well, what’s next?”

I didn’t really know, was the best I could come up with.

“What would you do if there were no obstacles and you were guaranteed to succeed?” she asked me.

Before I even gave it any real thought, the answer: “start my own copywriting business” fell out of my mouth — I’d always loved to write and had started out taking a creative writing course at college before I’d had to drop out.

“Great, then why don’t you?” replied my friend — with the innocence and enthusiasm that always comes from the person who doesn’t actually have to do any of the hard work.

That’s when it started to rain with the myriad of excuses I had waiting on the tip of my tongue:

  • Well the kids (despite being teenagers now) still need me
  • I don’t have the capital to invest in a new business
  • I don’t have the skills or the qualifications
  • I’ve spent most of my life as a mom, what do I know about business?
  • Aren’t I a bit old to be starting over again?

I just felt like I didn’t really have anything of value to be starting over again with.

I don’t know why, but just hearing myself was enough to shame me into vowing to — at the very least — look into it more.

Could I start over at 40, with nothing, and build both wealth and success for myself?

Before I answered that question I thought about what was the alternative. Was I really suggesting that because I’m 40 now, life was somehow over for me?

I mean, how utterly ridiculous was that?

Not only was that most definitely not the example I wanted to set for my children, underneath it all I knew I didn’t believe a word of it — I was just scared and looking for reasons to let myself off the hook from having to try.

The wake-up call I needed: “You have so much time”

After a bit of googling “starting over at 40”, I stumbled upon a video by entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk.

Titled “A Note to My 50-Year-Old Self’”, in it I found the kick up the ass I needed.

I was reminded that life was long, so why the hell was I acting like mine was almost over.

Not only will most of us live longer than previous generations — but we’re all staying far healthier for longer too.

It made me realize that although it felt like so much of my life had been focused in one direction, I wasn’t even halfway through.

My glass wasn’t half-empty, it was actually half full.

Despite me looking at the world of entrepreneurship as a young person’s game — whatever that even means — it just isn’t true.

I had to stop acting like I was approaching my rocking chair years and understand that a whole other new life was actually waiting for me — I just needed to find the courage to go get it.

“How many of you have decided that you are finished? Dwelling on the fact that you didn’t do it in your 20’s or your 30’s actually means nothing. You start settling in to this is my life, this is how it played out. I could have…I should have…Nobody cares if you’re 40, 70, 90, alien, female, male, minority, the market not an individual person in your world, the market will accept your victories if you are good enough to have a victory.”

– Gary V

Overcoming the false stories I had told myself

We all tell ourselves stories every single day.

We have certain beliefs about ourselves, our lives, and the world around us.

These beliefs are often formed so early on in our life — most in childhood— that we don’t even recognize when they’re not only false but pretty damn destructive.

It’s not even that we mean to say negative things to ourselves, a lot of it is probably born from some naive attempt at protecting us.

We try so hard to protect ourselves from disappointment, protect ourselves from what we see as failure, protect ourselves from having to face all the fear that will undoubtedly emerge when we decide to make a start in life towards whatever it is that we really want.

Staying small to avoid attack is certainly an innate strategy plenty of creatures in the animal kingdom adopt — so why not us humans too.

I think learning to reframe the narrative I’d spun for so long was the biggest part of my journey. I had to begin to see my strengths rather than focusing on, what I perceived were, my weaknesses.

The benefits of starting over later in life

Rather than seeing it as an obstacle, I started to realize that starting again a little later in my life gave me plenty of advantages.

I was older — and hopefully wiser  — by now.

One of the things I’d always regretted was dropping out of college.

I felt ashamed that I never finished what I started, and thought it made my business ideas and opinions somehow less valuable than other people’s.

I was letting qualifications define me.

If I’d stayed at college and got my degree, sure I’d have a qualification — but I still wouldn’t have had any life experience.

The knowledge I’d picked up since then had to be just as significant as any piece of paper at making me feel “good enough” to go after what I wanted.

By now I’d faced plenty of challenges in life and had always figured things out and come out fighting again — that was valuable.

Despite my nerves and doubts about it all, I also knew that I was more confident than I’d perhaps ever been in my entire life. It’s true that I had plenty to learn, but I was hard working and conscientious enough to figure it out.

Being at this stage in my life was exactly what was going to give me the greatest chance of success.

When life hands you lemons, just say f**ck the lemons and bail

Have you seen the film “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”?

In it, Paul Rudd’s rather dopey surf instructor character, Chuck, gives this advice to a heartbroken Peter:

“When life hands you lemons, just say f**ck the lemons and bail”

I’ve always preferred this more edgy version of the quote compared to the original.

I guess the cheery optimism of:  “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” just never acknowledged how defeated you can feel by the trials that life sometimes throws at you.

Like we’re just meant to smile through gritted teeth, “turn that frown upside down”, and make the most out of the situation with a spring in our step.

What I’ve found is that rather than an optimistic sense of “can-do spirit”, what actually spurs a lot of people on to make changes in their life is often those rock bottom moments.

Whether it’s a relationship breaking down, a career we’ve outgrown or any number of disappointments — the bruising we experience from loss or hopelessness is exactly what can spur us on.

So in this way, plenty of new lives emerge from some kind of letting go first.

A healthy dose of “screw this, I can’t take it anymore” can actually be the perfect fuel to get your butt into gear and finally move forward — even after years of feeling stuck for so long.

Times are changing

For a lot of people, there is still this outdated image that living is exclusively for the youngest generations.

That once you have carved out any direction in life, you’ve made your bed and so you lie in it — no matter what that looks like.

I know that for my parents, this was kind of true.

Both of them chose their jobs from such an early age, I don’t know if it ever really occurred to them to change paths. But even if it did, both retired, having been with the same company for their entire working life.

For my mom — who was a bank teller for over 50 years —  that was from the age of just 16.

I can’t even conceive of it, and I know for a long time that she certainly wasn’t happy either.

I feel sorry for the restrictions she felt that kept her there — restrictions that I know many people still feel like they do face.

Having said that, times are changing.

Where once upon a time it was normal to have a job for life — with 40% of baby boomers staying with the same employer for over 20 years — that’s just not the society we live in today.

Even if we wanted to, the changing jobs market means it’s often not an option anymore.

The good news is, it’s an opportunity. Never has there been an easier time to make radical changes.

In fact, almost half of Americans these days say they’ve made a dramatic career change to a completely different industry.

Not only is 40 really young, but we need to stop thinking of any age as some kind of barrier in life

There really aren’t any specific “rules” that come with a certain age.

Yet how many of us have found ourselves believing we are too old (or even too young) to do, achieve, become or have something in life?

Whilst we know age isn’t really the obstacle we think it is, it just feels strange because you become so used to living the way you once did.

But the truth is: It’s never too late.

As long as there is breath left in your body, you can embrace change and step into a new version of yourself.

There are plenty of real-life examples all around you of this fact.

Vera Wang was a figure skater, then journalist, before turning her hand to fashion design and making a name for herself at the age of 40 — talk about a diverse CV.

Julia Child firmly established her career in media and advertising before writing her first cookbook at 50.

Colonel Sanders — aka Mr. KFC himself — had always struggled to hold down a job. Fireman, stem engineer stoker, insurance salesman, and even law were just some of the things he turned his hand to over the years.

It wasn’t until the age of 62 that his first KFC franchise opened its doors. Clearly, it took quite a while to truly perfect that secret blend of herbs and spices.

Do just a little bit of digging and you’ll find that there are hoards of people who have not only started again later in life, but found success, wealth, and greater happiness from doing so.

Making friends with fear

Fear is like the old high school friend who you have known so long that you’re stuck with, whether you like it or not.

They may be a total downer or drag at times, but they’re almost part of the furniture and you have an attachment you can’t really sever.

We’ll never get rid of our fear, and we shouldn’t bother wasting time trying to before we decide to get on with living our lives.

Rather than trying to feel comfortable with the changes that you’re facing, I’ve found it’s much better to just say to yourself:

“Ok, I’m pretty terrified, I don’t know how this will all work out, but I’m going to do it regardless — knowing that whatever happens, I’ll deal with it.”

Basically, fear is coming along for the ride.

So you may as well make friends with this constant companion — just make sure she sits in the back seat, whilst you stay in the driving seat.

My best advice for anyone starting over at 40 from scratch

If I could give one bit of advice to help someone who is in their 40’s facing upheaval, and feels like they are starting again with nothing, it would probably be:

Embrace the chaos.

It’s maybe not the most motivational thing I could say but it’s one of the most useful attitudes to cultivate I have found.

We spend so much of our lives trying to create a safe and secure world around us.

It makes sense, the world can feel like a scary place, but any sense of security we create is always just an illusion anyway.

I’m not trying to freak you out, but it’s true.

You can do everything “right”, try and walk the seemingly safest path, making calculated decisions — only for it to all crumble around you at any time.

Tragedy can always strike and we’re all at the mercy of life.

Pension funds go under, stable marriages collapse, you get made redundant from the job you’d chosen for the very reason that it seemed such a sure thing.

But once we accept the unpredictability of life, it helps us to embrace the ride.

Once you realize that there are no guarantees, you may as well try and live how you really want — deep down in your heart — without compromise.

Then you get to be motivated by your boldest and bravest desires rather than your biggest fears.

If we only get one shot and there is no way to avoid the ups and downs of life, isn’t it better to truly go for it?

When the time comes and you are lying on your deathbed, isn’t it better to say you gave it everything you’ve got?

The most important lessons I learned from starting over again at 40 with nothing

It’s been one hell of a ride, and it ain’t over yet. But here’s what I’d say we’re the most significant lessons I learned from starting over again later in life:

  • Even when you start with nothing, there is absolutely nothing you can’t do if you put your mind to it.
  • It takes plenty of hard work, and some hustle along the way — but every failure is also what is taking you closer to success.
  • Most of the obstacles you will have to overcome will actually be fought in your mind, rather than battles that take place out in the real world.
  • It is scary as hell, but worth it.
  • There is no such thing as too old, too young, too this, that, or the other.
  • The journey itself rather than any particular destination is the real prize.

Written by Tina Fey

I've ridden the rails, gone off track and lost my train of thought. I'm writing for Ideapod to try and find it again. Hope you enjoy the journey with me.

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