Skip to main content
Ed. Magazine

The Third Chapter

Three panel photo

third_chapter_page.jpgFor years it was referred to as the "golden years," the time in one's life just before and just after retirement when, it was assumed, you would slow down and quietly enjoy the spoils of your hard word. But for many, these golden years are anything but golden. As Professor points out in her new book, The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50, these years "do not shimmer with excitement and adventure: they grow rusty with routine. They mark the beginning of a slow decline toward death." It is a time, she says, for circling the wagons.

Thankfully, she writes, this is changing. A good chunk of the more than 75 million people -- about a quarter of the U.S. population -- between the ages of 50 and 75 are living longer and living healthier. And many are not ready just yet to fade away on the couch: They are learning new skills, going back to school, and, very often, finding ways to add value to society. They are in a new developmental stage, what Lawrence-Lightfoot calls the "third chapter." In this, her ninth book, she redefines how we think about aging, summed up in a poem told to her by a 70-year-old female poet during one of her interviews:

After a long seeking
I gave up on all mirrors

Then feeling a way forward in the fog
Without a lamp or even a candle
And absent any guide at all,
One starless night I stumbled
Upon this place of water where
Gleaming in its darkest deeps,
My own two astonished eyes.


From The Third Chapter:

For two years, I traveled around the country interviewing forty men and women between the ages of fifty and seventy-five who saw themselves as "new learners," who were eager to reflect on their experiences, question their motives, celebrate their achievements, and tell their stories. I spoke to twenty-four women and sixteen men, from a variety of professions and careers, from diverse racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, and from a range of geographic regions around the country. Although many had grown up in poor and working-class families, the women and men whom I interviewed were all well educated (with college and advanced degrees) and relatively affluent (living middle, upper-middle, and upper class lives). "I have known a generous abundance in my adult life," said a former entrepreneur who had grown up in poverty and was now, at sixty, trying to master a pair of courses in quantum physics, "and that has allowed me the freedom to take the risks of creating a new reality for myself." Most of the people I interviewed, then, did not to have to worry about paying the mortgage, keeping their health insurance, educating their children and grandchildren, or funding their retirements. They enjoyed a "privileged place" that allowed them the resources and emotional space to explore new adventures, imagine different scenarios, and make unlikely choices they might never have anticipated in their first two chapters of life.

Using what sociologists call a "snowball" sample (asking each interviewee to recommend others who might be interested in joining the project), I searched out people who were embarking on new learning adventures; who were eager to examine their motives and the goals and processes of their learning; and who wanted to be intentional in shaping their journeys. I was interested in exploring what these men and women meant by "learning" and why it felt "new" to them. I asked them to trace in detail the initial impulses and motivations that led them to the learning experience, the barriers and breakthroughs they experienced, the path, pace, texture, and rhythms of their learning. I also wanted to know whether their learning was solitary and self-sustained, maybe even secretive (the stealth learner), or whether it was being supported by mentors, teachers, or coaches. What scaffolding was needed to support their efforts; whom did they go to for criticism, assessment, and feedback? Along the way, how did they stay motivated; how did they withstand the inevitable failures, setbacks, and criticism; and what did they mark as signs of progress and measures of achievement? Did the new learning become their life's central preoccupation, and in what ways did it impact their normal rhythms, routines, and relationships? Did the mastery of learning make them feel different about themselves -- their capacities, strengths, and intelligence; their vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and challenges?

In addition to exploring the origins, processes, and trajectory of new learning, I also was interested in having people describe the context -- historical, physical, relational, and cultural -- in which the learning was embedded, and the ways in which the setting and timing shaped their engagement and mastery. How were they influenced by these external forces and events, those that were within and out of their control? Were there pivotal moments -- of public achievement, personal crisis, serious illness, family realignments -- that rocked their reality and inspired change in them?

I was also curious to see the imprint of the immediate context in the places where people were learning. I visited a sixty-three-year-old portrait painter in her studio, traced the history of her work chronicled in her large portfolio, and watched as she applied thin luminous layers of paint to a portrait in progress. I examined the Victorian cabinet of a seventy-year-old furniture maker and listened as his colleagues offered their tough critiques of his design. I toured the

gorgeous studio of a seventy-year-old quilter and watched her lure novices into working on a collaborative public exhibit, in the process turning the privacy and asylum of her studio into a space for public art. I sat for hours on the bench beside a sixty-two-year-old jazz pianist as he practiced his scales and played me some of his new compositions, and I observed Roma, the fifty-seven-year-old laboratory scientist in her first year of teaching adolescents in an after-school program.

I sat in the audience of a fifty-two-year-old woman who had worked with a voice coach for two years to become a more fluent and compelling public speaker, watched the dress rehearsal of a play written by a sixty-three-year-old new playwright, and enjoyed the debut performance of a fifty-eight-year-old former schoolteacher at the conclusion of his first year of studying acting. I stood on the beach and watched a fifty-five-year-old woman biologist take surfing lessons, bravely battling -- rather than riding -- the big waves, and stood at the finish line when a seventy-year-old man completed his first half-marathon, to raise money for cancer research. I followed in the footsteps of a seventy-year-old architect going on her first archaeological dig at the site of an African American meetinghouse that had been a stop on the route of the Underground Railroad, and watched a sixty-year-old former CEO working with activists and advocates from a nonprofit, to
apply his business knowledge to their mission.

Each of these visits not only helped me visualize and document the settings in which learning was taking place, but also allowed me to observe those processes of mastery that people were not yet able to identify and articulate -- the inchoate, often chaotic experience of newly emerging perspectives; the rawness of embryonic skills. My site visits allowed people to "show" me rather than "tell" me about what they were learning -- for example, to witness the knowledge expressed through their bodies, rather than through thinking and language. And it helped me notice the almost imperceptible changes and tiny improvements in mastery of which people were often not aware. In the days and weeks following the interviews, people would often want to continue our conversation, fix a misstatement, embellish a point, or explain something further; they sent me e-mails and letters, published pieces and diary excerpts that they had written, photographs they had taken of new work, or drawings that mapped the progress of their learning since we last spoke.

As I observed and witnessed the learning of these men and women, I listened carefully for the ways in which the storytellers composed their central narrative. I was attentive to the talk and the silence; to those moments of expressivity and restraint; to those places where they feared to tread; to those revelations that surprised them; to those memories long buried. These were emotional encounters, filled with tears and laughter, breakthroughs and breakdowns, curiosity and discovery. Even narratives that might have begun as intellectual excavations often found their gravity and expression in the affairs of the heart, blending emotion and cognition, feelings and intellect. Talking about the present and the future almost always required journeys into the past. More than one person exclaimed, "This is like looking backward into the future." As I listened, I always pressed for details, for nuance, for complexity; for the subtext, the hidden underside of things palpable and tangible.

In her wonderful autobiographical account One Writer's Beginnings, my favorite storyteller, Eudora Welty, says about her craft, "What discoveries I've made in the course of writing stories all begin with the particular, never the general." In the particular resides the general. Stories -- well told, with detail and context -- allow for texture, subtlety, and multiple interpretations, and they help us to discover the universals among us. As I traced the narratives and delved for the particulars of person and place, I listened for the patterns, the themes, the collective voice. I worked to discover the idiosyncratic even as I probed for the similarities and commonalities -- the places where people's stories converged and overlapped, even when those people at first appeared to be so unalike.


Another important insight from Welty's exposition on craft focuses on the subtle but critical distinction between "listening to a story" and "listening for a story." The former, she says, is a more passive, receptive stance in which the interviewer waits to absorb the information and does little to give it shape or form. The latter is a much more engaged, discerning position in which the interviewer searches for the story, seeks it out, and is central in its creation. She does not compose or direct the unfolding drama; she does not impose her own story, drowning out the narrator's voice. But she is willing to enter into a dialogue that reveals part of her own journey, and she is aware of the part she plays as witness in shaping the story's coherence and aesthetic. In this work, I employed Welty's more activist, artistic approach of "listening for the story": for its shape, intensity, rhythm, and texture; for its substance and content; for its metaphors and symbolism; for the light and shadows.

As I listened to the voices of Third Chapter learners, I played many roles. I was the empathic and attentive witness, putting myself in their shoes, trying to decode the environment as they saw it, resonating with their anxieties and fears, reckoning with their inhibitions, challenges, and successes. I was the eager cheerleader, offering applause, appreciation, and acclaim for their creativity, their grit, and their courage. I was the discerning connoisseur, developing a taste for the shape of their sentences, the cadence of their language, the arc of their stories. I was the artist, painting the landscape, drawing their portraits, sketching in the light and the shadows. I was the spider woman, weaving together their life remnants, unsnarling the tangled threads of their stories, casting a net to catch them if they should fall. I was the probing researcher, patiently gathering data, asking the impertinent questions, examining their interpretations with skepticism and deliberation. And I was the fellow traveler, walking beside them, watching their backs, admiring the vistas, avoiding the minefields, and bringing my own story to our dialogue. As a matter of fact, as I heard the narratives of these women and men, I felt myself deeply engaged in new learning as well -- echoing and reflecting the curiosity, vulnerability, risk-taking, and passion of their journeys in my own. I looked into their eyes and saw my reflection, the refracted images of my face in the mirror: a sixty-two-year-old woman with "confessional moments" of my own.

-- This excerpt is reprinted with permission from the author. Excerpted from The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50 by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. Copyright © 2009 by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. Published by arrangement with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Related Articles