Part memoir, part celebration of baby boomers’ next chapters in life, Jane Pauley’s new book, Your Life Calling, is also a big nudge for a generation that is once again, reaching a social and cultural milestone. “By the end of 2014, every baby boomer will have turned 50,” the Today show co-host told Connie Schultz in this weekend’s issue of Parade. “It’s the beginning of a new and aspiration time of life. The question for most of us is: ‘What am I going to do for the next 40 years?’” In the excerpt below, Pauley profiles a woman whose career leap at age 57 helped her return to her “essential self.”
Betsy McCarthy was the subject of my first “Your Life Calling” segment to air on Today in early 2010. Frankly, I thought it pretty bold to lead off the series with a story about a woman whose reinvention was knitting. One pictures a gray-haired lady in a rocking chair. But Betsy McCarthy knits like it was an Olympic sport; throughout our interview her fingers were working three tiny needles. Betsy had found the Holy Grail of reinvention. She turned a passionate pastime into a full-time occupation.
Betsy had a career in the health-care industry, with a six-figure salary, but as she approached 50, she felt that “something was bypassing me.” She carried a briefcase to work every day. There was always knitting in it. She said it kept her sane. She would even knit in the car while waiting for a traffic light to change.
Betsy draws satisfaction from being good at difficult things, and she found the challenge of her job and the respect of her colleagues very rewarding. But work was work, and Betsy had been working all her life. So when she was 57, Betsy finally ditched the briefcase.
On her final day of work, her husband asked, “How does it feel to be getting the last paycheck you’re ever going to have?”
“This isn’t the last paycheck I’m ever going to have,” she replied. Though she hadn’t figured out how, she was confident she could make knitting work.
At first, she said, the freedom was very exciting. “I can do whatever I want and there’s this whole day ahead of me.” But after a while she thought, “Well, this seems like a vacation, but I can’t do this for the next 40 years.”
Her husband would come home from his busy life and ask, “Well, what’d you accomplish today?” She didn’t really have an answer, except to say, “That’s not the right question.” There was a period she described as a lot of floundering around. “Some people are uncomfortable going into that gray zone,” she said, “of not knowing exactly what they’re moving toward. But at that point in my life, I had learned that if you’re open to something, you can find it.”
She started teaching on cruise ships, and because she has a gift for design, she was hired to write a chapter in a book about knitting Christmas stockings. One day she offhandedly asked the editor, “Are you going to have a book on socks?” The editor said, “Well, why don’t you write it?”
So Betsy had a book contract, and Knit Socks! is in its sixth printing. While it’s made Betsy something like a rock star at knitting conferences, it hasn’t made her rich. She earns a salary in the low four figures now. But Betsy had already reevaluated
the connection between money and self-worth. Once before when she’d had to look for a new job, she wouldn’t consider anything that didn’t pay what she thought she was worth, because taking anything less was “devaluing” herself. “But,” she said, “I got over thinking that money was how I needed to measure whether life was good to me.”
She and her husband prepared for the financial adjustment. Paying off a mortgage and selling a big house filled with antiques, they moved to a small condo.
“Life is wonderful,” she said. “And yarn doesn’t cost very much.”
Betsy regards her decision to leave the high-powered work world and do something with knitting not as an extreme makeover but as a return to her “essential self,” remembering the little girl who was happy making doll dresses and doing creative things with fabric and color, and making things with her hands.
Except for the lucky few, most of us spend the first phase of our working lives doing work we have to do. But our generation is the first to realize there could be a second phase of our working lives, and that it might be different.
As Betsy discovered, following her passion opened the way for a deeper discovery. Betsy had never been a joiner. Her knitting had always been a solitary pursuit. She didn’t really know any knitters. But with teaching, she’d become connected to knitting in a way that felt organic and historical. She thought about how women through time had gotten together in knitting circles, and while they worked with their hands they talked and developed a wonderful sense of trust. The knitting circle became like an extension of family. Betsy began to create such communities, as several knitting circles grew out of classes she taught.
One of these communities was a group of women in their seventies and eighties. “We’ve gone through life events with each other,” Betsy told me. “Two members have had strokes. One member lost her husband. A couple are caring for husbands with Alzheimer’s, and the circle is their one time away from the responsibility. They know each other. People have become best friends.” When you’re retired, and you’re in your seventies, she noted, where do you meet a best girlfriend?
But then the knitting shop where they met closed. Suddenly the group didn’t have a home, and there was real fear that the circle would disband. “What’s going to happen to us?” the women asked Betsy, seriously worried. That’s when Betsy had her epiphany.
She found a coffeehouse that had a beautiful atrium, and Betsy told the group, “I’ll be here every Tuesday I can make it, from eleven to one.” They’ve met there for several years, and Betsy teaches that group for free. Knitting is still her passion, but she has discovered something that gave her more satisfaction, and her life more meaning and purpose than knitting—as she expressed it, “bringing people together” through teaching knitting. When people say, “Just follow your passion,” think of Betsy who followed hers and found something more.
From Your Life Calling by Jane Pauley. Copyright © 2014 by Jane P. Trudeau. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.